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Robert J. Sawyer
Copyright © 1997 by
Robert J. Sawyer
All Rights Reserved
First published in the Fall 1997 issue of Tangent.
Tangent is a Hugo-nominated fanzine devoted to reviews
of short fiction. In 1997, Tangent editor Dave Truesdale
asked me to write a profile of myself for his magazine, in honor of
my Hugo nomination for Starplex. This profile concentrates
on my career as a short-story writer.
Although I've had 200,000 words published in Analog, most
short-fiction readers don't know me. The reason? My
contributions to that magazine have been novel serializations:
Hobson's Choice in the Mid-December 1994 through March
1995 issues, and Starplex in the July through October 1996
I've done well by those serializations. Hobson's Choice,
which was published in book form by HarperPrism in May 1995 under
The Terminal Experiment,
Nebula Award for Best Novel of the Year, and
which was released in book form by Ace in October 1996, is a current
finalist for the Hugo.
I have had six other novels published, starting in 1990:
End of an Era,
and the just-released genetics thriller
plus my Quintaglio trilogy
and I have two more books finished and in the pipeline:
Illegal Alien (Ace, December 1997) and
Factoring Humanity (Tor, June 1998).
Still, as I say, I'm not known as a short-fiction writer. But,
since this is Tangent, I thought I'd talk a bit about my
Like most writers, my first sale was a short story but to
a most unusual venue. In 1979, when I was 19, the Strasenburgh
Planetarium in Rochester, New York, sponsored an SF-writing
contest judged by
Isaac Asimov. They were looking for a single
short story to convert into a dramatic planetarium starshow. I
submitted one called "Motive." It didn't win . . . but the story
that did win turned out to only have enough meat for a
fifteen minute starshow, and Strasenburgh's shows ran 40 or 50
minutes. The producers bought rights to two more stories and
made their starshow into a self-contained trilogy. "Motive"
became one-third of Futurescapes, which had 192
performances in the summer of 1980.
Although it was never published anywhere (not for lack of
trying!), "Motive" helped shape the rest of my career: it
introduced the dinosaur-like Quintaglios who featured in my
trilogy that began with
Far-Seer; it dealt with a conniving
artificial intelligence (reminiscent of JASON in my novel
Golden Fleece); and it was set aboard a
massive exploration ship called
Starplex, which returned seventeen
years later in my novel of the same name.
My second short-fiction publication also involved a contest. In
1980-81, The Village Voice: The Weekly Newspaper of New
York sponsored a ten-week competition for short-short SF
stories of precisely 250 words in length. My
"If I'm Here, Imagine Where they Sent My Luggage"
(title words didn't count in the tally!) appeared in the
January 14-20, 1981, edition. I still get a kick out of that story and have
its full text reprinted on the back of my business card.
I sold a few other SF stories during the 1980s, including three
to Patrick Price at Amazing Stories ("Uphill Climb" the
first print appearance of my Quintaglios March 1987; "Golden
Fleece," September 1988; and
"The Good Doctor," January 1989).
"Golden Fleece" got selected to be the
cover story. The version
in Amazing was a novelette, 13,000 words long but I'd
never expected it to end there. Rather, I was emulating what two
of my friends here in Toronto had done to crack the U.S. novel
Terence M. Green and
Andrew Weiner had both expanded
previously published short stories into novels. I intended to do
the same thing with Golden Fleece. The strategy worked:
not only was I able to
land a top agent based on the novelette's
appearance in Amazing, but that agent, Richard Curtis, was
able to sell the novel version in just six weeks. Orson Scott
Card, who was reviewing for The Magazine of Fantasy & Science
Fiction, named Golden Fleece the best SF novel of 1990
in his year-end summation, and it also won me my first Canadian
Science Fiction and Fantasy Award ("the Aurora").
It was clear when I finished my first novel that a
book-length canvas was my preferred medium. And with magazine
response times getting ridiculously long, I decided that short
fiction was really more bother than it was worth. (I was also
discouraged by having been unable to sell a story I wrote in 1987
called "Lost in the Mail" that I thought highly of indeed, my
other publications aside, that failure had left me wondering if I
really did have any talent as a short-story writer.) I figured
I'd devote the nineties and beyond exclusively to books.
And then came Mike Resnick.
In July 1992, Mike asked me if I'd write a story for the
Dinosaur Fantastic, which he and Martin
Greenberg were doing for DAW. This was just weeks after my
Far-Seer, came out; Far-Seer was
about intelligent dinosaurs, so presumably this lucky bit of
timing is why Mike sought me out.
Note what Mike was doing: he was commissioning a story.
I wouldn't have to go through the slush pile, I wouldn't have to
wait the better part of a year for a response. Throughout the
1980s, I had made my living as a freelance non-fiction writer.
I'd done over 200 articles for Canadian and American magazines:
everything from dollar-a-word features for Report on Business
Magazine (Canada's top financial publication) to a piece for
Sky & Telescope. Of course, freelancers are used to
working on commission; it's much preferable to the endless
farting around I'd gone through trying to sell my beloved "Lost
in the Mail." I accepted Mike's offer, but with trepidation. I
hadn't written a new short story in five years what if I'd
forgotten how? Or, even worse, what if, as the failure of "Lost
in the Mail" had apparently demonstrated, I never really knew how
in the first place?
Well, my finished story,
"Just Like Old Times," turned out
to be quite a success: Mike used it as the lead story in
Dinosaur Fantastic, and I also sold it to On Spec: The
Canadian Magazine of Speculative Writing. The On Spec
people reprinted it in their "best-of" anthology,
On Spec: The First Five Years;
Marty Greenberg scooped it up for his
hardcover anthology Dinosaurs (Donald I. Fine); Jack Dann
and Gardner Dozois reprinted it in their
Dinosaurs II (Ace);
and David G. Hartwell and Glenn Grant bought it for their
anthology Northern Stars (Tor).
The story went on to win both Canada's top SF award (the Aurora) and its top
mystery-fiction award (the Arthur Ellis)
for Best Short Story of 1993.
What had happened, I assumed, was that in writing novels,
I'd learned, sort of ASCII-backwards, to also write short
stories. Mike Resnick soon commissioned another from me, this
Sherlock Holmes in Orbit.
That story, "You See But You Do Not Observe" is,
I think, the best one I've done to
date. It won
Le Grand Prix de l'Imaginaire, France's top
honor in SF, for best foreign short story of the year; it also
garnered a HOMer Award voted on by the 30,000 members of the SF&F
Literature Forum on CompuServe, and was the seventh most
nominated story for the Hugo Award, missing the final ballot by
only four nominations.
Editor Edward E. Kramer noticed my short stories in Mike's
anthologies, and he commissioned a piece from me. Whereas Mike
was asking me to contribute to books that played to my strengths
(Mike had known my first novel, Golden Fleece, was an
SF/mystery crossover, making me a natural for Sherlock Holmes
in Orbit), Ed was suggesting things that seemed, at first
blush, totally wrong for me, and yet, in retrospect, turned out
to be some of the most satisfying and rewarding writing I've done
at any length.
The first book Ed invited me into was
which he was co-editing for White Wolf with Peter Crowther; it
was an anthology about encounters with the devil. Ed, baby, I
said, I'm a hard-SF writer I don't know nothin' 'bout no
devil. But Ed said, well, you could set it on a spaceship and
from that my story "Above It All" was born.
It's about a cosmonaut who commits suicide aboard Mir, and the American
astronaut who has to retrieve the body; it turned out to be
rather a controversial story, since many have read it to be
damning the space program (although I got a wonderful fan letter
from someone at NASA, and the story won this year's HOMer award).
Ed was delighted with the story and promptly ordered up
another a piece in honor of the hundredth anniversary of Bram
Stoker's Dracula, for the anthology
Dark Destiny III.
I thought, Dracula? Dracula?! But once again, Ed knew
what he was doing. My story "Peking Man"
explains what really happened to the fossils of Sinanthropus
pekinensis, which went missing in World War II. Ed made it
the lead story in the book, and it won the
Aurora Award (and, bringing things full circle,
I'm toying with expanding it into a novel).
Then Ed came a-callin' again: this time with what seemed a
nearly impossible task. He wanted a story from me for a
libertarian SF anthology called Free Space: Tales of the
Galactic Federation (just out in hardcover from Tor) that he
was co-editing with Brad Linaweaver. I said, Ed, I'm a Canadian
I don't think it's technically possible to be both a Canadian
and a libertarian. But, as he always does, Ed said a few magic
words: "Well, you know, you could write a story that shows the
problems with libertarianism we're looking for a balanced
book." And, lo and behold,
"The Hand You're Dealt" was created.
And what about poor old
"Lost in the Mail"? Well, in 1995,
I finally sent it to Dale Sproule and Sally McBride for their new
magazine TransVersions, and they snapped it up. To my
relief, it got wonderful reviews: "Among the full-length stories
in TransVersions #3, the standout is `Lost in the Mail'"
Tangent; "This great and gimmicky story almost makes the
whole package worth it all by itself"
Scavenger's Newsletter; "If there is any justice in the world, Sawyer
should win the Aurora Award for the emotive `Lost in the Mail'
Sempervivum; "Excellent, imaginative and well-written
further evidence of Sawyer's talents." NorthWords. The
story was indeed an Aurora finalist (it came in second), and I
immediately sold reprint rights to an anthology. So I guess
maybe I could write short fiction all along . . . and, now
that I'm back into doing it, I don't plan to ever give up again.
It's just too much fun.
More Good Reading
Rob's short-fiction bibliography
Full-text short stories by Rob
Other interviews with Rob
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