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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 ¨
won the Hugo Award for Best Novel of 2003; and¨
his novels The Terminal Experiment,
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.
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¨
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,
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¨
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¨
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¨
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¨
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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