[Robert J. Sawyer] Science Fiction Writer
Hugo and Nebula Winner

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SF Crowsnest Interview with Robert J. Sawyer

Conducted by Geoff Willmetts

From SF Crowsnest:
Europe's most-popular science-fiction website


You'd think Robert J. Sawyer's books would be easy to find in the UK. Sure, he lives in Toronto, but his The Terminal Experiment won the Nebula Award for Best Novel in 1996; his Hominids won the Hugo Award for Best Novel of 2003; and his novels The Terminal Experiment, Starplex, Frameshift, Factoring Humanity, Calculating God, and Humans were all also Hugo finalists. He's also won Japan's top SF award, the Seiun, three times, and Spain's top SF award, the 6,000-euro Premio UPC de Ciencia Ficción three times, as well. His novels are top-ten national mainstream bestsellers in Canada, and have hit number one on the bestsellers list in Locus, the US trade journal of the SF field. But on British bookshelves they're rare, which is unfortunate, cos, based on the ones I've read, he really is an author that needs more recognition over here. This interview focuses on his latest book, Mindscan, which was reviewed last month, and deals with the ramifications of having your personality transferred into an android body.

SFC: I always find it odd that it's rare to come across your books in the UK. Do you think its because so many of your books deal with US/Canadian law?

Robert J. Sawyer: I'm really surprised myself, I must say. I mean, usually there's an affinity between Canadians and Brits, so I've never quite understood why my books haven't yet found a decent-sized audience in the UK. I actually almost never talk about Canadian law, by the way; my courtroom stuff is either in the US, as it is in Illegal Alien and Mindscan, or in another world, as it is in Hominids. I avoid Canadian law, although I'm flagrantly Canadian in most other things, because even Americans, our next-door neighbours, don't know about it. But I don't think that that's the reason I haven't caught on in the UK; I do extremely well in Japan and China, which are much more culturally removed from Canada than the UK is, and am popular in many European countries, including France and Spain. With my most recent book, Mindscan, for the first time I've given my US publisher, Tor, world English rights, instead of just North American rights. Hopefully, that will improve the situation — but I'd love to find a separate UK publisher for my future books.

SFC: You like examining law courtroom situations in your stories. Do you have a degree in law or are you a good researcher?

Sawyer: Although when I was fourteen, I briefly thought I wanted to become a lawyer, no, I don't have a law degree; I have a degree in broadcasting from Ryerson University in Toronto. But I love doing research, and have read an enormous amount about legal procedures, books with titles like The Art of Cross-Examination, and so on. Plus, I've got a number of lawyers, both in Canada and the U.S., who read my stuff in draft when it has legal elements — just as I have a group of physicists, geneticists, and so on that I rely on to vet other aspects of my books.

[Mindscan] SFC: Who do you base your lawyers on or are you as your character Karen Bessarian says in Mindscan writing solely from imagination? I'm making this distinction with lawyers cos of how such characters have to deal with people in court that they have to act the same way to win?

Sawyer: I really was making a point with the words I put into Karen's mouth: characters are made up by authors, they're normally not based on anyone. And I certainly wouldn't base my lawyers on anyone — after all, no one's more likely to start litigation than a lawyer! I'm often told my characters are realistic and ring true, which is flattering, but they are, as the disclaimer on the copyright page says, fictitious. Oh, I might take a trait from one person, and a verbal tic from another, but the combination is something I've devised. I mean, speaking of Karen Bessarian in Mindscan, she's an author — so, obviously, some of her is based on me, the author I personally know best. But Karen is in her eighties, a woman, and stinking rich; I'm in my forties, a man, and, at best, just slightly redolent.

SFC: Do you think the legal aspects of change in a SF reality isn't something that isn't readily explored in Science Fiction?

Sawyer: Absolutely! Why don't we have flying cars? Not because they're technically impossible, but because of the liability issues. Imagine the lawsuit if one of those malfunctioned and dropped into a school playground. I grew up reading hard SF, which was filled with engineers and technicians — but lawyers are a huge factor in how science impacts society, and I think realistic science fiction, which is what I strive to write, has to acknowledge and explore the legal element, as well.

SFC: What authors influenced you when you were young?

Sawyer: Isaac Asimov was a huge influence, and so was Arthur C. Clarke. I love writing about extraterrestrials and their psychology, and there's no doubt that James White, Hal Clement, and Larry Niven were big influences on me. It was a great joy to me to become friends with Hal in the last decade of his life; he and I often ended up at the same conventions. And Larry and I are friends now, and I always enjoy seeing him. To me, that's the coolest thing about this profession: your childhood heroes end up being your friends. There's no doubt that Frederik Pohl was a big influence on me, especially his stuff from the late 1970s, including Gateway and Man Plus. And I find myself constantly including SETI in my novels, and my first real introduction to that was James Gunn's wonderful novel The Listeners.

SFC: Would I be right to think that there's a touch of Heinlein in how you handle some characters' attitudes? I started looking around wondering if you were hiding yourself amongst some of the secondary characters.

Sawyer: Well, Heinlein's politics and my own are a world apart. And there's certainly no Robert J. Sawyer avatar lurking in the background of each of my books. I suppose the character who is closest to me in all my books is Tom Jericho in Calculating God; on the other hand, I don't think there's anyone who is much like me in either Illegal Alien or FlashForward. That said, I have no compunctions about putting little bits of my personal philosophy, or my personal hobby horses, into my books.

Creating characters is like method acting: you have to get inside the character, discover his or her — or its! — inner feelings. A character doesn't just serve a function in a story — hero, villain, wise old man — but rather is a person, with an interior monologue full of private thoughts. The power of writing characters, as opposed to shuffling around archetypes, is you get to really see issues and situations from another person's point of view, often one very different from the author's own. I've learned an awful lot about being different kinds of people, and I think I've gained a lot of empathy, by trying to get inside of characters who aren't me.

SFC: Would you want to have your personality transferred into an android body as in Mindscan?

Sawyer: Well, the scenario in Mindscan is that this is normally done at the end of one's natural life, and, at that point, sure, why not? I'm not a mystic; I don't believe there's anything supernatural or ineffable about human consciousness. I suspect it will ultimately be copyable with absolute fidelity. But I do think there are lots of interesting legal, moral, and philosophical issues to be resolved about uploading, and that's one of the reasons I wrote the book — to get that dialog going.

SFC: I noticed with Mindscan a lot of TV SF references. I know from how I originally came in contact with you there's a certain amount of love for such shows, so do you have any favourites and how do you see them in comparison to today's TV SF series?

Sawyer: I've had almost no time to watch TV in the last twenty years, so the SF that influenced me was stuff that's older than that, particularly the original Star Trek. I also quite liked the first three seasons of The Six Million Dollar Man, Kolchak: The Night Stalker, and I was a huge — huge — Gerry Anderson fan. I'm an SF writer today because of Fireball XL5. I've got a four-foot XL5 model in my office, along with big Stingray and Supercar and Thunderbird 2 models, and my wife and I recently rewatched all of UFO on DVD. SF movies were also a big influence on me, particularly 2001: A Space Odyssey and the original Planet of the Apes.

SFC: How did you enjoy the latest Doctor Who season?

Sawyer: I thought it was absolutely terrific. I've got a total crush on Billie Piper — who I gather is a pop star in the UK; I'd never encountered her before the new series started airing. And I'm really sorry that Christopher Eccleston has left; I thought he was great. Episodes like "Dalek" and "Father's Day" absolutely blew me away. I'm looking forward to the next season. As you know if you read the ending credits, the new Doctor Who is a co-production with the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, and I got to do a lot of commentary for the CBC's documentary The Planet of The Doctor, which was tremendous fun. By the way, since people are always curious, my favourite classic Doctor was Jon Pertwee.

SFC: What advice have you got for neo-writers?

Sawyer: Perseverance. That's rule number one: if you give up, you'll fail. And rule number two is revise; the soul of good writing is revision. I'd never show anything earlier than a third draft to my editor. I edit my own line of SF books for a Canadian publisher, and I'm constantly amazed at the poor quality of the submissions I see; way too many people are trying to market first drafts. Finally, have something to say. Books about something — that is, books with a theme and a philosophical position — are way more interesting, and far more likely to do well — than mindless action-adventure.

SFC: Many thanks.

More Good Reading

Other interviews with Robert J. Sawyer
The first chapters of Mindscan
Further reading on Mindscan
Rob's essay on winning the UPC contest
Rob's Writing Advice

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