Robert J. Sawyer

Hugo and Nebula Award-Winning Science Fiction Writer

Oppenheimer as Greek tragedy

by Rob - June 18th, 2021

In 1977, I took a course in Greek drama, and my favorite of the plays we studied then was Oedipus Rex, which ends with the chorus observing that we should count no one’s life as happy until it has reached its end. In the same course I learned about the concept of hamartia (the main character’s fatal flaw), peripeteia (the reversal of fortune caused by that flaw), and deus ex machina, which is the cop-out ending in many Greek plays where a god descends on a machine — a winch or some other mechanical device in the theatre — to pluck he unlucky hero from defeat.

I’ve done 24 novels now, but I was always on the lookout for a story I could tell in that classic Greek tragedy mode, except, of course, as modern writers and audiences demand, having the technological rabbit-out-of-the-hat be not a copout but an organic growth from the story. And in the person of J. Robert Oppenheimer, I at last stumbled on the perfect real entity I could map onto that template. It’s no coincidence that the title of the Pulitzer Prize-winning biography of Oppie, American Prometheus, harks back to Greek mythology.

Oppie’s fatal flaw was his arrogance: he thought he could get away with anything unharmed, whether it was trying to poison Patrick Blackett, his tutor at the Cavendish Laboratory, or publicly humiliating Lewis Strauss, a member of the Atomic Energy Commission.

His reversal of fortune is obvious by the titles and subtitles of the nonfiction works about Oppenheimer. The Pulitizer Prize-winner I just mentioned is subtitled The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer (and I was thrilled when Marty Sherwin, its coauthor, gave me a cover blurb for my novel); another excellent one is The Ruin of J. Robert Oppenheimer by Priscilla J. McMillan; a third, also good, is Oppenheimer: The Tragic Intellect by Charles Thorpe; and Oppie’s former best friend, Haakon Chevalier, wrote a roman à clef about Oppenheimer the title of which refers to that arrogance: The Man Who Would Be God.

And the technological solution? Well, I’ll leave that for readers to discover in the pages of The Oppenheimer Alternative.

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Edward M. Lerner interview

by Rob - May 20th, 2021

What if First Contact becomes … Last Contact?

I had the recent pleasure, however virtually and metaphorically (distance, not the pandemic, being the immediate constraint), to sit down with Edward M. Lerner and discuss his latest novel. Déjà Doomed is standalone, near-future, hard SF. Here’s a little of what Ed and I discussed.


RJS: So this is how you spent the pandemic?

EML: A big chunk of it, yeah. It beats doomscrolling. See what I did there?

RJS: Sadly, yes. (Laughs.) Without spoilers, how do you describe the new book?

EML: It’s First Contact, but on the Moon and of the archeological persuasion. In the hard vacuum of the Moon — especially well underground, sheltered from solar radiation, and where temperatures are a steady minus 20 or so degrees Celsius — things can last for a long time. Including things best left undisturbed …

RJS: The artifact on the book’s cover being Exhibit One?

EML: (Laughs.) Indeed. Though it’s best I not disclose anything about that or any other alien artifact.

RJS: I think it’s safe to say events don’t unfold happily from the initial discovery.

EML: Of course not! Characters have to pay rent for taking up residence in my head. Which isn’t to preclude a satisfactory — no clue here whether or not it’s happy — resolution.

RJS: The new book strikes me as a departure from your previous few novels. Do you agree?

EML: Yes and no. (Laughs.) How’s that for definitive? Anyway, I agree there are big differences among my recent novels. An astronomical cataclysm drove Dark Secret. A seemingly conventional act of terrorism, albeit with noir aspects, kicked off The Company Man. As I’ve already mentioned, an archeological find starts everything off in Déjà Doomed. Absolutely, these are significant differences, with significant consequences. On the other hand, in all these recent novels — if in quite separate ways — the stakes for humanity turn out to be existential.

RJS: Right in your book’s back-cover teaser, so I’m not giving anything away, there’s mention of a desiccated corpse found on the Moon. I very fondly remember a James P. Hogan novel from years ago whose front cover featured a spacesuited corpse on the Moon: Inherit the Stars. Any connection?

EML: I remember enjoying Inherit the Stars, way back when. Quite possibly memories of it were in the back of my mind as I began work on Déjà Doomed. That said, from the inexplicable discovery of an unexpected corpse in each novel’s opening pages, our stories immediately diverge. Not the least difference is that the ancient corpse in Hogan’s book is human and in mine … isn’t.

RJS: Is there a trace of a Frankenstein theme to the book? As in, “There are things with which Man is not meant to meddle.”

EML: Admittedly, by turning over rocks — or in this case, alien corpses — a person can encounter unpleasant surprises. For all the challenges I throw at my characters, I prefer to think the overarching message isn’t “Don’t look.” The universe will throw us curveballs from time to time, the COVID pandemic being a recent example. You never know when curiosity indulged along the way might deliver critical, even mega-life-saving, knowledge. As, in real life, has been the case with genetic engineering and newer and faster ways to develop a vaccine.

RJS: Which isn’t to say Déjà Doomed revolves around biology.

EML: Right. More physics and computer engineering, those being my first-career background.

RJS: Fair enough. And Déjà Doomed comes out when?

EML: The official release is May 25th, but it’s already available in many places for preorder.


For more about Déjà Doomed, visit Ed’s website, Edward M. Lerner: Perpetrator of Science Fiction and Technothrillers, and his blog, SF and Nonsense.

Robert J. Sawyer, Edward M. Lerner

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2021 Canadian SF&F Hall of Fame inductees

by Rob - April 24th, 2021

Carolyn Clink and I were honoured to serve on the jury selecting this year’s inductees into the Canadian Science Fiction and Fantasy Hall of Fame, along with fellow jurors Clint Budd, Marcie Tentchoff, and Chris Sturges.

It’s a delight to announce that this year’s inductees are Stan Hyde, the late Monica Hughes, and Jean-Louis Trudel. Bios below:


Stan Hyde is an exemplar of passionate, lifelong devotion to SF&F fandom and fan activity, specifically in the areas of club organization, writing, film media, and model kit making, painting, and collecting.

Stan is also noted for the numerous articles he has written for G-Fest, a magazine devoted to the topic of Godzilla, about whom Stan is a world-renowned expert and recognized as such by Toho Studios where he is always welcome. (He visits once every two years on average.)


Monica Hughes (1925-2003), an Officer of the Order of Canada, wrote about 40 books including more than 20 that ISFDB covers as speculative fiction novels. Although she spent a large part of her life writing, she was almost fifty when her first book was published (Gold-Fever Trail: A Klondike Adventure, a Canadian historical novel.)

The Isis trilogy comprises The Keeper of the Isis Light and two sequels, originally published by Hamish Hamilton of London, 1980 to 1982. Accepting the Phoenix Award for Keeper twenty years later, Hughes discussed her writing process in general and specifically for that work.

WorldCat reports that Invitation to the Game (Toronto: HarperCollins, 1990) is her work most widely held in participating libraries, by a wide margin. It is a dystopian novel set on Earth in the year 2154.

Her last book was The Maze (2002). It features a female protagonist and two bullies magically placed in a maze, where they all depend on her for rescue.

Invitation to the Game (Toronto: HarperCollins, 1990) won the Hal Clement Award as the year’s best science fiction novel for young adults.

AWARDS:

  • Governor General’s Award / Canada Council Children’s Literature Prize 1981: Monica Hughes, The Guardian of Isis

  • Governor General’s Award / Canada Council Children’s Literature Prize 1982: Monica Hughes, Hunter in the Dark


Born in Toronto, Jean-Louis Trudel holds degrees in physics, astronomy, and the history and philosophy of science. Since 1994, he has authored (alone or in collaboration with Yves Meynard as Laurent McAllister) three science fiction novels published in France, four fiction collections, and twenty-six young adult books published in Canada.

His short stories in French have appeared in magazines including Solaris and various other venues. In English, his short fiction has been published in several Canadian and U.S. anthologies, but also in magazines such as On Spec.

He currently teaches at the University of Ottawa, but he has also worked in recent years as a professional researcher, a museum curator, a translator, and a science fiction critic.

He has received several literary distinctions, including the “Grand Prix de la Science-Fiction et du Fantastique québécois” in 2001 and several Prix Aurora Awards.

His first Boréal convention was in 1986, and he became a Boréal board member in 1989 (he’s been the secretary-treasurer ever since). His involvement with the Caspers/Auroras continued, often as the intermediary providing the Awards Committee with the lists of eligible works. He has been associated with CSFFA since it was founded as a federal Society.

https://prixaurorawards.ca/home/hall-of-fame-home

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The Trial of the Chicago 7 — and Sorkin’s miscarriage of justice

by Rob - March 7th, 2021

We recently watched the new movie The Trial of the Chicago 7 (we watched the DVD I’d been sent for Writers Guild of America awards consideration, but it’s also on Netflix).

Written and directed by Aaron Sorkin, it’s a socially relevant courtroom drama right up there with Judgment at Nuremberg, To Kill a Mockingbird, Inherit the Wind, and Sorkin’s own previous A Few Good Men in quality. Absolutely gripping from beginning to end.

After watching it, I immediately read the 160-page script. It’s extraordinarily sparse in terms of stage directions or character description, and there’s nary a parenthetical, such as (sarcastically) in it. The standard rule-of-thumb is one page of script per minute of running time, but the movie is only 130 minutes. The extra 30 pages are indicative of just how packed this script is with dialog, all with Sorkin’s trademark sharpness and wit.

Sacha Baron Cohen is getting most of the awards attention for his spot-on portrayal of Abbie Hoffman, but really the entire cast is excellent. For me, other outstanding performances were Yahya Abdul-Mateen II as Bobby Seale and Sir Mark Rylance as defense attorney William Kunstler.

Great work is also done by Eddie Redmayne as Tom Hayden, Joseph Gordon-Levitt as prosecutor Richard Schultz, and Michael Keaton as Ramsey Clark.

Highly recommended — with one big caveat. Aaron Sorkin’s script for The Trial of The Chicago 7 takes some liberties with the facts — more so in the second half than the first. But there’s one I can’t forgive.

SPOILER ALERT!

It’s this scene in the courtroom involving defendant Dave Dellinger, taken from the screenplay:

DAVE
(quietly)
You’re a thug.

JUDGE HOFFMAN
Did one of the defendants speak?

DAVE
(standing)
I did. I said you’re a thug and you are.

TOM
(quietly)
Dave —

JUDGE HOFFMAN
Please sit, Mr. Dellinger.

DAVE
If we’re guilty, why not give us a trial? If we’re —

JUDGE HOFFMAN
Marshals, seat the defendant.

DAVE
If we’re guilty, as you clearly decided —

JUDGE HOFFMAN
Watch yourself.

DAVE
–decided we were a long time ago —
(to a MARSHAL)
You don’t need to grab my arm.
(to JUDGE HOFFMAN)
If we’re guilty, then why not give us a trial? I’ve sat here for six months and watched you —
(to a MARSHAL)
I’m asking you not to grab —

But A DIFFERENT MARSHAL grabs him. DAVE throws his arm off, then punches him in the face, sending the MARSHAL to the floor.

It all happened too fast.

The GALLERY and the DEFENDANTS jump up as the MARSHALS jump up as DAVE’s taken down by the other MARSHALS then dragged to his feet with his arms twisted behind him.

JUDGE HOFFMAN
Take him outa here. Lock him up!

As DAVE gets handcuffed, he looks to the back of the courtroom where his young son is looking at him.

That never happened. Dave Dellinger was a pacifist, a man devoted to peace, a man who embodies Gandhi’s principles of nonviolent opposition. Dave Dellinger was jailed during World War II as a conscientious objector. Sorkin skips over this, having a character saying only that Dave “sat out World War II” — he went to jail for his beliefs; that’s his mug shot above from being arrested for failing to appear for the draft.

As the real-life Dave, who had been an ambulance driver during the Spanish Civil War, said, “After Spain, World War II was simple. I wasn’t even tempted to pick up a gun to fight for General Motors, U.S. Steel, or the Chase Manhattan Bank, even if Hitler was running the other side.”

I’m a pacifist myself. I believe strongly in nonviolence. But Sorkin does Dellinger and all pacifists a great disservice here. He suggests that it’s all just talk, all just posturing, and when push quite literally comes to shove, a pacifist’s mask will drop and he’ll come out punching. And that’s just not true. A principled person lives — and, if need be, dies — by his or her principles. Dave Dellinger deserved better than Sorkin gave him.

On the “pushed to their limits” thing, I actually teach that when I teach writing, but the example I use is Mary Richards from the old Mary Tyler Moore show, who never swore and always called her boss Mr. Grant, until one day, pushed too far, she stormed into his office, slammed the door behind her, and shouted, “Damn it, Lou, I thought we were friends!”

But the difference is she let her guard down and revealed her innermost self. That’s what happens when you’re pushed to your limits. You don’t change who you are, you reveal who you are. And no matter how hard David Delligner was pushed, his innermost self was a pacifist — and that scene never would have happened with that character.

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A Future of What to Read Next

by Rob - February 13th, 2021

Did you enjoy my The Oppenheimer Alternative? Then your next read should be A History of What Comes Next, the brand-new Tor novel by the great Canadian writer Sylvain Neuvel, which is set against the same backdrop. I loved it! Here’s the blurb I gave it:

Sylvain Neuvel proves once again he deserves the title of the hottest new SF writer of the 21st century — and this time he does it by looking back at the storied development of rocketry in the 20th. Clever and compelling, with a succession of kick-ass heroines propelling events along via mayhem and murder behind the scenes, A History of What Comes Next blasts off on page one and will keep you enthralled until the end.

Robert J. Sawyer, Hugo Award-winning author of The Oppenheimer Alternative

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R.I.P., James Gunn

by Rob - December 24th, 2020

The great James Gunn has passed away at 97. When people ask me what books influenced me the most as a writer, I always cite his The Listeners, the first great novel (a fix-up of novellas, actually) about the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence. Without it, I doubt my two Hugo nominees also about SETI — Factoring Humanity and Rollback — would have existed.

Jim was always very kind to me, and I shall miss him. We had some enjoyable conversations about our respective experiences in having novels adapted for television. The 1970 ABC TV series The Immortal was based on his novel The Immortals; forty years later, the 2009 ABC TV series FlashForward was based on my novel of the same name.

R.I.P., my friend.

(Click the cover art above for a larger version.)

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78 years ago today: Chicago Pile 1

by Rob - December 2nd, 2020

Seventy-eight years ago today, the world’s first controlled nuclear chain reaction was achieved at the University of Chicago. Here’s how I dramatized that event in my 2020 novel The Oppenheimer Alternative:


“Jim, you’ll be interested to know that the Italian navigator has just landed in the New World.”

It was code, of course: the Italian navigator was Leo Szilard’s colleague Enrico Fermi, who had led today’s successful experiment. After months of labor, Fermi’s team had created that which Szilard himself had been the first to envision nine years previously: a controlled nuclear chain reaction. This afternoon, the world’s first atomic reactor had run for twenty-eight minutes — the first, that is, unless Nazi physicists had beaten them to the punch.

Szilard stood near his boss, Arthur Holly Compton, in the latter’s office at the University of Chicago. Arthur was on the phone with James Conant, chairman of the National Defense Research Committee, the organization in charge of secret war technology for the United States. Conant must have asked how the natives were because Arthur’s reply was, “Very friendly.”

Silence while Arthur listened for a moment. “No,” he said into the mouthpiece, “I suspect he’s gone … back to port.” A pause. “Yes, he’s here; let me put him on.” He handed Szilard the black handset. Never one for formalities, Leo said, “Hello, Jim.” His Hungarian accent made the name sound a bit like “Yim.”

“Congratulations, Doctor!” The voice was warm although there was much static crackling behind it. “None of this would ever have happened without you.”

Szilard rubbed his forehead with his free hand and said, because he knew it was what he was supposed to say, “Thank you,” and then he handed the phone back to Arthur.

Leo liked to think either in his bathtub — he often soaked for hours — or quite literally on his feet. He excused himself and headed out into the cold evening air while Arthur went back to his oblique conversation. As Leo ambled across the campus, he passed many students, some clutching textbooks, a few holding hands, and he felt twinges of guilt. If something had gone wrong today, all these young people at the beginnings of their lives, along with, quite possibly, almost everyone else in Chicago, could easily have been killed.

Leo’s breath blossomed into clouds in front of him. He hadn’t had a destination in mind, but his feet brought him across the width of Stagg football field. There’d been snow earlier in the week that had melted, leaving the brown grass dry. He made his way toward the concrete rows of angled seating that ran along the west side. The brick structure beneath these bleachers housed various athletic facilities; Leo greeted the guards at the north end and headed into the doubles squash court that had been their experimental working space.

A short figure with a receding hairline and an oblong face was looking down from the court’s spectator gallery at the giant cube of graphite blocks. The other scientists, doubtless in a mixture of elation and exhaustion, had all left, but Enrico Fermi leaned on the railing, just staring, apparently lost in thought.

The beast below was hibernating, all fourteen cadmium control rods having been shoved back in, picas into the hulking body of el toro.

Leo approached and solemnly offered his hand; Enrico took it. Their names had already been linked forever in history — or would be, once the security was lifted — thanks to the letter to President Roosevelt that Leo had drafted three years ago. That letter, signed by Einstein himself, had begun:

Some recent work by E. Fermi and L. Szilard, which has been communicated to me in manuscript, leads me to expect that the element uranium may be turned into a new and important source of energy in the immediate future.
“Well, we did it,” said Enrico, with his Italian accent. But this was only the beginning, and they both knew that. The Einstein letter had gone on to say:

This phenomenon would also lead to the construction of bombs, and it is conceivable — though much less certain — that extremely powerful bombs of a new type may thus be constructed.

“Yes,” Leo replied, “we did.” He let go of Enrico’s hand and shook his head slowly, looking at their creation below. “This will go down as a black day for mankind.”


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75 years ago today: a declaration for the peaceful uses of atomic energy

by Rob - November 15th, 2020

The President of the United States, the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, and the Prime Minister of Canada have issued the following statement:

1. We recognize that the application of recent scientific discoveries to the methods and practice of war has placed at the disposal of mankind means of destruction hitherto unknown, against which there can be no adequate military defense, and in the employment of which no single nation can in fact have a monopoly.

2. We desire to emphasize that the responsibility for devising means to ensure that the new discoveries shall be used for the benefit of mankind, instead of as a means of destruction, rests not on our nations alone, but upon the whole civilized world. Nevertheless, the progress that we have made in the development and use of atomic energy demands that we take an initiative in the matter, and we have accordingly met together to consider the possibility of international action:

(a) To prevent the use of atomic energy for destructive purposes.

(b) To promote the use of recent and future advances in scientific knowledge, particularly in the utilization of atomic energy, for peaceful and humanitarian ends.

3. We are aware that the only complete protection for the civilized world from the destructive use of scientific knowledge lies in the prevention of war. No system of safeguards that can be devised will of itself provide an effective guarantee against production of atomic weapons by a nation bent on aggression. Nor can we ignore the possibility of the development of other weapons, or of new methods of warfare, which may constitute as great a threat to civilization as the military use of atomic energy.

4. Representing, as we do, the three countries which possess the knowledge essential to the use of atomic energy, we declare at the outset our willingness, as a first contribution, to proceed with the exchange of fundamental scientific information and the interchange of scientists and scientific literature for peaceful ends with any nation that will fully reciprocate.

5. We believe that the fruits of scientific research should be made available to all nations, and that freedom of investigation and free interchange of ideas are essential to the progress of knowledge. In pursuance of this policy, the basic scientific information essential to the development of atomic energy for peaceful purposes has already been made available to the world. It is our intention that all further information of this character that may become available from time to time shall be similarly treated. We trust that other nations will adopt the same policy, thereby creating an atmosphere of reciprocal confidence in which political agreement and cooperation will flourish.

6. We have considered the question of the disclosure of detailed information concerning the practical industrial application of atomic energy. The military exploitation of atomic energy depends, in large part, upon the same methods and processes as would be required for industrial uses.

We are not convinced that the spreading of the specialized information regarding the practical application of atomic energy, before it is possible to devise effective, reciprocal, and enforceable safeguards acceptable to all nations, would contribute to a constructive solution of the problem of the atomic bomb. On the contrary, we think it might have the opposite effect. We are, however, prepared to share, on a reciprocal basis with others of the United Nations, detailed information concerning the practical industrial application of atomic energy just as soon as effective enforceable safeguards against its use for destructive purposes can be devised.

7. In order to attain the most effective means of entirely eliminating the use of atomic energy for destructive purposes and promoting its widest use for industrial and humanitarian purposes, we are of the opinion that at the earliest practicable date a Commission should be set up under the United Nations Organization to prepare recommendations for submission to the Organization.

The Commission should be instructed to proceed with the utmost dispatch and should be authorized to submit recommendations from time to time dealing with separate phases of its work.

In particular the Commission should make specific proposals:

(a) For extending between all nations the exchange of basic scientific information for peaceful ends;

(b) For control of atomic energy to the extent necessary to ensure its use only for peaceful purposes;

(c) For the elimination from national armaments of atomic weapons and of all other major weapons adaptable to mass destruction;

(d) For effective safeguards by way of inspection and other means to protect complying states against the hazards of violations and evasions.

8. The work of the Commission should proceed by separate stages, the successful completion of each one of which will develop the necessary confidence of the world before the next stage is undertaken. Specifically, it is considered that the Commission might well devote its attention first to the wide exchange of scientists and scientific information, and as a second stage to the development of full knowledge concerning natural resources of raw materials.

9. Faced with the terrible realities of the application of science to destruction, every nation will realize more urgently than before the overwhelming need to maintain the rule of law among nations and to banish the scourge of war from the earth. This can only be brought about by giving wholehearted support to the United Nations Organization, and by consolidating and extending its authority, thus creating conditions of mutual trust in which all peoples will be free to devote themselves to the arts of peace. It is our firm resolve to work, without reservation to achieve these ends.

The City of Washington
THE WHITE HOUSE
November 15, 1945

Harry S. Truman
President of the United States

C. R. Attlee
Prime Minister of the United Kingdom

W. L. Mackenzie King
Prime Minister of Canada


Text taken from the book 1945: Year of Decision (Memoirs: Volume 1) by Harry S. Truman.

Photo left to right: Truman, Attlee, King.


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Oppie and Dylan

by Rob - September 4th, 2020

Near the end of my new novel The Oppenheimer Alternative, I have J. Robert Oppenheimer thinking:

Gödel … was already out there, as were Feynman and five of the newer crop of physicists, two of whom were women; the times were indeed a-changin’.
Oppie and almost all of his male contemporaries would be considered flagrantly sexist by contemporary standards — although I did my best to call out that sexism in Chapter 26, in which Kitty refuses to go to Princeton unless she, too, can work as a scientist there. Still, it wasn’t until the 1960s that Oppie and his ilk really had to face up to the fact that women were becoming major scientists in increasing numbers, hence the line above, from a scene set in 1967.

Oppie’s thought here is, of course, a reference to the Bob Dylan song “The Times They Are A-Changin’.” (For those who recall that Oppie had been out of touch with pop culture, note that when this Dylan song — the title track from his album of the same name — came out, Oppie had a 19-year-old daughter living with him; he certainly would have heard this hit song a lot.)

I didn’t choose the Dylan reference only because of its appropriateness to the moment, but also as a bit of irony. The Oppenheimer Alternative is filled with people who had or went on to win Nobel prizes, but Oppie himself never got one — a reality many consider unfair, especially given his seminal papers on what we now call black holes.

But Bob Dylan did eventually get one, surprising himself and the whole world: in 2016, the Swedish Academy, feeling pressured to give the Literature award to another American, twenty-three years after the last one had taken the prize, named Dylan for his song lyrics, something some contend was unfair to the novelists, short story writers, and poets who had been hoping to receive the award. Me, though, I think Dylan was an excellent choice.

For more pop-culture references in my novel, see here.

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Oppie a #1 LOCUS bestseller!

by Rob - September 1st, 2020

The September 2020 issue of Locus, the US trade journal of the science fiction and fantasy fields, came out today, and my The Oppenheimer Alternative is #1 on the Trade Paperback bestsellers’ list (for the data period of June 2020).

The list surveys US and Canadian specialty bookstores (as well as both McNally Robinson branches in Canada), and so, although they only show the US cover, this is a win for both the US and the Canadian editions.

I’m particularly pleased because I can now claim a sort of triple crown. I’ve now been a #1 Locus bestseller in all three publishing-format categories:

New print editions!

by Rob - August 10th, 2020

New PRINT editions! Four of my backlist novels are now available in gorgeous print-on-demand trade-paperback editions, with spectacular new typesetting and interior design by Avery Olive of Bibliofic Designs.

The printing quality is phenomenal — every bit as good as traditional web offset — and, at 6×9-inch trim size, these are as big as full-size hardcovers.

You can get them exclusively at Amazon stores worldwide. In the US, they’re each US$14.99; in Canada, Cdn$19.99.

You can find all my self-published backlist by searching your local Amazon store for: SFWRITER.COM

Have a peek inside each of these gorgeous new editions! Designer Avery Olive shows off her work for me on the Bibliofic website. Each edition features:

  • All-new typesetting
  • Unique typographic ornaments for each title
  • New cover layout and design
  • Matte-finish covers
  • Beautiful cream-colored paper inside

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Canada’s astronaut Governor General: Let’s wait for the facts

by Rob - August 10th, 2020

Canada is the only country in the world to have an astronaut as commander-in-chief of its armed forces.

Unfortunately, said astronaut — Her Excellency the Right Honourable Julie Payette, the 29th Governor General of Canada — has come under a lot of fire the past couple of weeks, with columnists calling upon her to resign or (somehow) be ousted (the Queen is the only one who can actually do the latter, as Julie is the Vice-Regal, the Queen’s representative, in Canada).

Me, I’m like General Buck Turgidson: I hate to judge before all the facts are in. Yes, a number of staff members in the Governor General’s office have accused her of being merciless in criticizing their work (thereby creating a “toxic” workplace, they say). One newspaper opinion piece I saw yesterday said, “And what possible reason would all those staffers have for lying?”

Oh, I don’t think they’re lying. But, with all due respect to members past and present of the Canadian Federal Civil Service — and my father was one before he switched to being a university professor — it strikes me as possible that an astronaut and a professional engineer, someone who has worked with the demanding standards of excellence of both NASA and the Canadian Space Agency, a woman whose career has been surrounded by people who took Gene Krantz’s motto that “failure is not an option” to heart might, just might, find that some of our career civil servants actually don’t do very good work and, I dunno, maybe should be called on it. There really are light-years of distance between “failure is not an option” and “good enough for government work.”

As I say, I know some excellent Federal civil servants. But I suspect I’m not alone among people reading this who have had run-ins with complete incompetents in the civil service, too (my own, all too often, involve the Canada Revenue Agency).

Julie is now, among many other roles, the head of the Order of Canada, of which I’m a proud member. She didn’t induct me; her predecessor, David Johnson did. David previously was a university president — in other words, someone who just had to live with the tenured and unionized folk who putatively worked for him, regardless of their performance.

But Julie was there at that induction ceremony, learning the ropes (she’d already been designated David’s successor), and when I met her she was charming and warm and polite. (And I, like other members of the Order of Canada, get Christmas cards from her.)

Yes, yes, there are other issues. There’d been talk of spending $250,000 on renovations at Rideau Hall (renovations that were never done), but, hell’s bells, that is not a lot for renovations, especially of a historic building. The guy who has the mirror-image penthouse to mine spent $250,000 renovating his apartment.

And there are those who say that the purpose of the scuttled renovations — in part to let the Governor General enter and exit Rideau Hall without always passing through the grounds (which are open to the public) — is somehow inappropriate. Again, I don’t know. This year, we’ve already had one madman breach the grounds at Rideau Hall, looking to assassinate the Prime Minister (who was living in isolation in a cottage on the grounds, instead of at his official residence, during COVID-19).

There’s also the fact that Julie hasn’t taken up residence in Rideau Hall (although she works from there); it’s certainly unusual, but it’s hardly worthy of terminating her.

There IS an official investigation underway into the employee complaints and to the spending by her office. For my part, I’m waiting until the facts are in before I pass judgment. Until then, she has every right to the presumption of innocence and remains Her Excellency the Right Honourable Julie Payette.

(Pictured: Julie herself being inducted into the Order of Canada in 2011 by then Governor General David Johnson.)

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Microaggressions at the 2020 Hugo ceremony

by Rob - August 2nd, 2020

Many people of privilege (and I certainly qualify as privileged) don’t truly understand the concept of microaggression, something that others face every single day. George R.R. Martin gave a master class in it yesterday during the Hugo Award ceremony. As an ally of marginalized writers, I won’t talk about their pain: they have tongues of their own and are speaking loudly and clearly throughout the net today.

But let me elucidate one category of Martin’s microaggressions that cut across the entire spectrum of humanity by subtly excluding anyone not part of his old guard: his use of nicknames for writers and editors whose prominence was in days gone by, signaling that no matter who you might be, if you weren’t part of the inner circle back in the day, you’ll never really be a true fan (or pro) now.

In Martin’s very, very long commentaries during yesterday’s Hugo Awards ceremony, Robert Silverberg was “Silverbob,” George Alec Effinger was “Piglet,” and the editor Robert A.W. Lowndes was “Doc.” I think Martin also called Isaac Asimov “Ike” during his trips down memory lane, although I’m not going to sift through the hour and forty-five minutes of his rambling again (fully half of the total running time of the Hugo ceremony) to be sure.

You see? Even someone like me — 40 years a selling author in this field, and now 60 years of age — was never part of that ancient, early prodom. I’ve known Robert Silverberg since 1989 and knew Asimov and Effinger, too, but was never close enough to call them by cutesy nicknames.

And if someone like me feels left out after all these decades in the field, imagine how the newer writers, or the writers whose literary background wasn’t the American SF magazines, felt during the Hugo ceremony. Remember, this wasn’t casual conversation: this was the master of ceremonies reading from scripts he himself had written (he had them right in front of him) at the World Science Fiction Convention where an award is explicitly given for a new writer and where most of the Hugo nominees were new to the field, as well.

Yes, it’s a small thing — that’s why it’s called a microaggression — and it’s usually done without consciously intending to exclude or put down someone else, but microaggressions are pervasive and exclusionary in effect. We’d all do well to guard against committing them.

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2020 Cordwainer Smith Rediscover Award Winner announced

by Rob - July 27th, 2020

For Immediate Release
Wednesday, July 22, 2020

The 2020 Cordwainer Smith Rediscovery Award is presented today to:

Rick Raphael
(1919-1994)

The jury particularly cites:

  • Raphael’s 1966 fixup novel Code Three, composed of three shorter works the first two of which were published in Analog and were each separately nominated for the Hugo Award.

  • Raphael’s 1960 novella “Make Mine Homogenized,” also from Analog (April 1960), a masterpiece of science-fiction humor, reprinted in The Great SF Stories 22 (1960), edited by Isaac Asimov and Martin H. Greenberg.

The Cordwainer Smith Rediscovery Award has been presented annually since 2001 by the Cordwainer Smith Foundation, preserving the memory of science-fiction writer Paul Linebarger, who wrote under that pen name. The Cordwainer Smith Rediscovery Award honors under-read science fiction and fantasy authors with the intention of drawing renewed attention to the winners.

The award is normally presented at Readercon (which was not held in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic) and is sponsored by Paul Linebarger’s estated represented by B. Diane Martin.

The 2020 jury consisted of Barry Malzberg and Robert J. Sawyer. The jury mourns the passing of its third member, Mike Resnick, who died January 9, 2020. We are actively seeking new jurors with a deep knowledge of science fiction and fantasy history and invite those interested in serving to reach out to sawyer@sfwriter.com.

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Expert interview for 75th anniversary of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima

by Rob - July 26th, 2020

75th Anniversary of the Atomic Bombings
of Hiroshima and Nagasaki

BOOK AN EXPERT INTERVIEW!

Award-winning author ROBERT J. SAWYER
has over 800 radio and TV interviews
under his belt

The world first learned of the existence of atomic bombs seventy-five years ago next week. Commemorate these important anniversaries with an expert interview subject:

  • Thursday, August 6, 2020: 75 years since the first use of an atomic bomb, destroying the Japanese city of Hiroshima.

  • Sunday, August 9, 2020: 75 years since the last use of an atomic bomb in war, devastating Nagasaki.

Bestselling author Robert J. Sawyer‘s 27th book The Oppenheimer Alternative, about J. Robert Oppenheimer and his Manhattan Project team, which created the bombs, has just been released specifically to coincide with the above anniversaries.
Perimeter Institute physicist Lee Smolin, the author of The Trouble with Physics, says, “I know the history of this period well and I’m one or two degrees of separation from many of these people. Sawyer’s portrayals ring true to me.”

Gregory Benford, physicist at UC Irvine, agrees: “The feel and detail of the Manhattan Project figures is deep and well done. I knew many of these physicists, and Sawyer nails them accurately.”

Based on the latest research and recently declassified documents, Sawyer will enthrall your audience with stunning revelations about the dawn of the atomic age. Did you know that:

  • Following Hitler’s suicide, many Manhattan Project scientists did not want to continue the atomic bomb. The initial fear had been that the Nazis would get it before the Allies did, and, with the war in Europe over, they saw no reason to continue.

  • The Japanese had been making overtures to surrender through diplomatic back channels for over a year before the US dropped the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima. Had their one demand been accepted, the war in Japan would have ended in 1944.

  • Franklin Delano Roosevelt shocked the hell out of Winston Churchill by deviating from their agreed script and demanding “unconditional” surrender from Japan in a live radio broadcast. Churchill only subsequently backed that demand so as not to be seen as contradicting the American leader.

  • In the end, despite the posturing about “unconditional” surrender, the Allies gave the Japanese the one and only thing they’d wanted a year earlier, namely letting their divine emperor Hirohito retain his throne (which he did until his death in 1989).

  • Leo Szilard, who got Einstein to write to FDR urging the creation of an atomic weapon, tried to circulate a petition amongst the Manhattan Project physicists calling for a demonstration of the bomb in front of Japanese experts, rather than let it be used to annihilate Japanese cities.

  • General Leslie Groves had that petition branded Top Secret and hidden away so that both competing bomb designs — the “Little Boy” unleashed against Hiroshima and the “Fat Man” dropped on Nagasaki — could be tested on actual cities and in order to establish a post-war world with America as the only superpower.

Further details about the above points with sources: https://sfwriter.com/suoa.htm

MORE ABOUT SAWYER’S BOOK:

Every figure in The Oppenheimer Alternative is a real and famous historical person, portrayed with Sawyer’s usual meticulous attention to accuracy. Besides J. Robert Oppenheimer, the book features the powerful and quirky personalities of Edward Teller, Richard Feynman, Enrico Fermi, Hans Bethe, and Leo Szilard.

“Incredibly realistic: the characters, locations, the era, and even the science. I felt like I was back in Los Alamos — and I should know: I worked there! Breathlessly riveting; Sawyer pulls it off masterfully.” —Doug Beason, former Associate Laboratory Director, Los Alamos National Laboratory

“An imaginative restructuring of a phantasmagoric life into an alternative phantasmagorical story. Oppenheimer fans will be intrigued.” —Martin J. Sherwin, co-author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning biography American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer

“Sawyer portrays brilliantly and poignantly the struggles of the scientists who started it all and were consequently obliged to bear an unbearable burden.” —James Christie, Chair, Project Ploughshares, member organization of the Nobel Peace Prize-winning International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons

Robert J. Sawyer is a member of the Order of Canada, the highest honour given by the Canadian government. He has been interviewed over 800 times on radio and TV and countless times in print, and has published in major newspapers worldwide as well as in the journal Science.

The Toronto Star calls Sawyer “Canada’s answer to Michael Crichton” and The New York Times says he’s a writer of “boundless confidence and bold scientific extrapolation.” He has served as a consultant to organizations including NASA and Canada’s Federal government.

The Oppenheimer Alternative in depth: https://sfwriter.com/exoa.htm

The atomic bombs were dropped 75 years ago next week. Don’t miss reporting on this important story.

For interviews, please contact publicist Carolyn Clink: clink.ink@gmail.com or 905-507-1346

Online press kit

Robert J. Sawyer online:
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Bad Day at Red Rock

by Rob - July 15th, 2020

Fifty-five years ago, we got our first good look at the surface of Mars — a photo that figures prominently in my new novel The Oppenheimer Alternative. As I said five years ago, on the 50th anniversary of this picture from Mariner IV:

Possibly the saddest science photo ever. Our first close-up look at Mars, from Mariner 4, on July 15, 1965, showing not a twin of Earth but a dead, crater-scarred surface. No canals, no seasonal plant growth, no alien cities.
Somewhat spoilery, but here’s the scene from The Oppenheimer Alternative in which Robert Oppenheimer, Kitty Oppenheimer, and Nobel laureate I.I. Rabi are shown this photo by Wernher von Braun:


“Let’s skip the appetizers and get down to the giblets,” said von Braun, still boyish at fifty-three. “The key photo is this one, number eleven.” He moved it to the table’s center, and the other scientists craned to look at it. Oppie felt his heart jump. He heard Rabi suck in his breath, and Kitty muttered, “Shit.”

“That was taken at a distance of seventy-eight-hundred miles,” said von Braun, who stepped back now so the others could see the photo better. “East to west, it covers a hundred and seventy miles. North-south, one-fifty.”

“Where?” demanded Oppie. “What co-ordinates?”

Von Braun consulted a series of stapled sheets he had brought with him. “It’s centered on thirty-one degrees south and one-niner-seven degrees east.”

Oppie turned his attention to the giant 1962 Air Force map of Mars, flattening out its creases with his palm. He quickly found the spot. On the map, a canal cut diagonally across the middle of that area starting in the southwest and running up to the northeast as if flowing from Mare Cimmerium to Mare Sirenum.

And in the Mariner photo, maybe, just maybe, if he really, really, really willed himself to see it, there was a diagonal line, although at a less steep angle, running … no, not into a sea, or even a plain, but into —

There was nothing else it could be, was there?

— into a crater. Only one-half of its rim was clearly visible, like the bowed part of a capital D, but it dominated most of the frame. And the bloody thing wasn’t alone. Oppie quickly counted seven — no, eight! — other craters in photo eleven. Given the size of the area being portrayed, the D crater was perhaps eighty miles across, the one adjacent to it was maybe thirty, two were twenty, and the rest were ten down to as little as five.

Oppie knew that Mare Cimmerium was named in honor of the Cimmerians, a people Homer mentioned in the Odyssey who lived in perpetual darkness. And after three and a half centuries of looking at the red planet through telescopes, that darkness had finally lifted, and mankind was at last seeing the true face of its celestial neighbor.

It was heartbreaking.

It was like looking at the goddamned moon.

In photo eleven, there were small craters within large craters, and some craters overlapped and obliterated parts of others. And, once you’d seen them in this, the sharpest of the pictures, you couldn’t help seeing them in the other photos, too. Craters everywhere.

But no sign of water.

No sign of water erosion.

Just dusty death.

Even worse than that. Death implied there’d once been life, but this planet’s surface looked ancient, untouched for millions or billions of years. Barren, sterile.

With von Braun’s guidance, Oppie next located the spot on the Air Force map captured by picture eight. That area was bisected by Erinnys, one of Percival Lowell’s more prominent canals, which, according to him, flowed from the west end of Mare Sirenum to Titanum Sinus in Memnonia. But this photo, too, depicted nothing but craters, albeit none as large as the one that dominated picture eleven.

“And there’s more,” said von Braun.

“Oh, joy,” said Kitty.

“Mariner IV didn’t go into orbit,” said von Braun. “It was a fly-by mission. Still, it did pass behind Mars from earth’s point of view, and just before it did so — and just after it emerged on the other side — its S-band radio, beaming toward earth at twenty-three hundred megahertz, passed through the Martian atmosphere. There was no specific occultation experiment aboard, but we can make some reliable conclusions thanks to the amplitude and phase changes that were detected. Based on them, we were able to confirm that the Martian atmosphere is almost entirely carbon dioxide. That, of course, suggests that, despite our best hopes, the polar caps don’t contain any appreciable amount of frozen water — which could have been melted for drinking or irrigation, or electrolyzed into hydrogen and oxygen for fuel — but are almost exclusively dry ice.”

“Which is fun at a kid’s birthday party or to shatter a goldfish,” said Rabi, “but otherwise pretty damn useless.”

“Yes,” said von Braun, nodding. “And the occultation also let us get a handle on the density of the Martian atmosphere. It’s thin — even thinner than we’d thought. Somewhere between four and six millibars.” Earth’s was roughly a thousand millibars, one bar originally having been defined as earth’s sea-level atmospheric pressure. The red planet had an atmosphere about one-half of one percent as dense as earth’s — and what little of it there was consisted of poisonous CO2. Oppenheimer felt light-headed.

“The bad news isn’t over yet,” said von Braun. “Mariner IV had a helium magnetometer aboard. As it approached Mars, we expected it to detect the planet’s magnetic field. The sooner it detected it — that is, the farther from Mars Mariner found it — the stronger the field must be. We knew Mars couldn’t have as strong a field as earth. But based on the planet’s mass and rate of rotation, we figured it might have a magnetic field about one-tenth as powerful as earth’s, and so we expected Mariner to encounter the shock front many hours before making its closest approach to the planet. Now, I won’t say we didn’t find anything. There was one little hiccup slightly after closest approach that might have been the shock front. If it was, well, then Mars has a magnetic moment 0.03 percent of earth’s — and if it wasn’t, then it’s even less, or perhaps totally nonexistent.”

Oppie found a chair and collapsed into it, stunned. With such a minuscule magnetic field, Mars couldn’t possibly have anything akin to earth’s Van Allen belts. That lack helped explain the incredibly tenuous Martian atmosphere Mariner IV had detected — nothing to deflect the ever-present solar wind from stripping it away. But it also meant that any life on the surface — be it native lichen or refugee humans — would be pelted by long-range alpha particles that were always spewing out of the sun. The surface of Mars wasn’t just sterile; it was constantly being sterilized.

Oppenheimer looked from person to person. Von Braun’s eyebrows and arms were lifted in the classic don’t-shoot-the-messenger plea. Rabi, frowning deeply, was chewing at the edge of his thumbnail. Kitty was shaking her head slowly left to right.

“Well,” said Oppie, when he could at last find his voice again, “that’s just devastating  …”


Robert J. Sawyer online:
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Book an expert interview for Trinity Test and the Birth of the Atomic Age

by Rob - July 4th, 2020

75th Anniversary of the Birth of the Atomic Age
Book an Expert Interview!

Award-winning author ROBERT J. SAWYER
has over 800 radio and TV interviews
under his belt

The atomic age was born 75 years ago in 1945. Commemorate these important anniversaries with an expert interview subject:

  • Thursday, July 16, 2020: 75 years since the first atomic bomb exploded in the Trinity test in Alamogordo, New Mexico.

  • Thursday, August 6, 2020: 75 years since the first use of an atomic bomb, destroying the Japanese city of Hiroshima.

  • Sunday, August 9, 2020: 75 years since the last use of an atomic bomb in war, devastating Nagasaki.

Bestselling author Robert J. Sawyer‘s 27th book The Oppenheimer Alternative, about J. Robert Oppenheimer and his Manhattan Project team, has just been released specifically to coincide with the above anniversaries.
Perimeter Institute physicist Lee Smolin, the author of The Trouble with Physics, says, “I know the history of this period well and I’m one or two degrees of separation from many of these people. Sawyer’s portrayals ring true to me.”

Gregory Benford, physicist at UC Irvine, agrees: “The feel and detail of the Manhattan Project figures is deep and well done. I knew many of these physicists, and Sawyer nails them accurately.”

Based on the latest research and recently declassified documents, Sawyer will enthrall your audience with stunning revelations about the dawn of the atomic age. Did you know that:

  • Following Hitler’s suicide, many Manhattan Project scientists did not want to continue the atomic bomb. The initial fear had been that the Nazis would get it before the Allies did, and, with the war in Europe over, they saw no reason to continue.

  • The Japanese had been making overtures to surrender through diplomatic back channels for over a year before the US dropped the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima. Had their one demand been accepted, the war in Japan would have ended in 1944.

  • Franklin Delano Roosevelt shocked the hell out of Winston Churchill by deviating from their agreed script and demanding “unconditional” surrender from Japan in a live radio broadcast. Churchill only subsequently backed that demand so as not to be seen as contradicting the American leader.

  • In the end, despite the posturing about “unconditional” surrender, the Allies gave the Japanese the one and only thing they’d wanted a year earlier, namely letting their divine emperor Hirohito retain his throne (which he did until his death in 1989).

  • Leo Szilard, who got Einstein to write to FDR urging the creation of an atomic weapon, circulated a petition calling for a demonstration of the bomb for Japanese experts, rather than its use on Japanese cities. General Leslie Groves had the petition branded Top Secret and hidden away — so that the bomb could be dropped to end World War II, establishing a post-war order with America as the only superpower.

Further details about the above points with sources

MORE ABOUT SAWYER’S BOOK

Every character in The Oppenheimer Alternative is a real and famous historical figure, portrayed with Sawyer’s usual meticulous attention to accuracy. Besides J. Robert Oppenheimer, the book features the powerful and quirky personalities of Edward Teller, Richard Feynman, Enrico Fermi, Leo Szilard, and German rocket pioneer Wernher von Braun.

“Incredibly realistic: the characters, locations, the era, and even the science. I felt like I was back in Los Alamos — and I should know: I worked there! Breathlessly riveting; Sawyer pulls it off masterfully.” —Doug Beason, former Associate Laboratory Director, Los Alamos National Laboratory

“Sawyer portrays brilliantly and poignantly the struggles of the scientists who started it all and were consequently obliged to bear an unbearable burden.” —James Christie, Chair, Project Ploughshares, member organization of the Nobel Peace Prize-winning International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons

“An imaginative restructuring of a phantasmagoric life into an alternative phantasmagorical story. Oppenheimer fans will be intrigued.” —Martin J. Sherwin, co-author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning biography American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer

Robert J. Sawyer is a member of the Order of Canada, the highest honor given by the Canadian government. He has been interviewed over 800 times on radio and TV and countless times in print, and has published in major newspapers worldwide as well as in the journal Science. He has served as a consultant to organizations including NASA and Canada’s Federal government.

For interviews, please contact publicist Carolyn Clink: clink.ink@gmail.com or 905-507-1346

Online press kit

This press release as a PDF

Robert J. Sawyer online:
WebsitePatreonFacebookTwitterEmail

Audiobook of Oppenheimer Alternative now out

by Rob - June 25th, 2020

Production delays due to COVID-19 kept the audiobook of my new novel, The Oppenheimer Alternative, from coming out the same day the printed book and ebook did — but it’s out now, and it’s magnificent.

I told the audio publisher they’d need an actor who could do all the different character accents as well as correctly pronouncing the foreign phrases that appear in the text, and Josh Bloomberg masterfully rose to the occasion.

You can get the audiobook at Audible.com and other audiobook vendors worldwide. (And a physical-media CD-ROM edition will be out later this year.)

Robert J. Sawyer online:
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Why the Crawdads Stink 2 of 2

by Rob - June 25th, 2020

MORE SPOILERS — BIG ONES — YOU’VE BEEN WARNED!

Yesterday, in PART ONE of his discussion, I wrote about some of my problems with Delia Owens’s debut novel Where The Crawdads Sing. As I said then and I reiterate now, I did enjoy the book, and certainly don’t want to take away from anyone else’s admiration of it. It was, after all, the #1 bestselling book — both fiction and nonfiction — in the US in 2019; this novel clearly deeply touched a lot of people.

Again, though, I come at every reading experience cursed by being a writer myself. Yes, there are times when that perspective gives me joy perhaps beyond what a non-writer reader might get from a book: an appreciation of a technical achievement that is so apparently effortless on the page that most readers wouldn’t even notice what had been done. But it can also make stand out things that I, and most of my colleagues, would have done differently, and, we like to think, better.

The same is true, of course, for professional filmmakers, painters, athletes, musicians, dancers, and more: a trained eye or ear is a mixed blessing when it comes to enjoying works in your own field.

Indeed, that’s why my own field of science fiction has two major awards — the Hugo, so the readers can give an attaboy or an attagirl to works they liked, and the Nebula, so other pros can admire the craft. Although there have been times when both awards have gone to the same novel, more often they go to completely different works. There’s no doubt that Where The Crawdads Sing has taken the mainstream equivalent of the Hugo — the people’s choice award — but I doubt it’s likely to win major accolades from other writers.

Anyway, before I dive into the principal issue I wish to discuss, I want to say a bit more about Kya, the main character. Yesterday, I mentioned how much of an absolute genius she must be — world-class marine biologist based on reading a handful of books (plus, of course, years of field observation) and a painter of works so brilliant they’re collected into volume after volume, despite never having had a single art lesson.

But, on top of that, Kya is also drop-dead gorgeous. It’s said repeatedly in the novel: boys lose their heads over her (Chase damn near literally).

Now, yes, there were many a natural beauty in history, but we’re talking about someone who is gorgeous in the eyes of American teenagers and men in the era of blonde bombshells Marilyn Monroe and Tuesday Weld, and I’m not wholly convinced that a woman who has grown up in a swamp, who has never had a haircut except one she did herself, never had dental care, and never been to a doctor, would pass muster with that crowd. And, yes, I’d say precisely the same thing if Kya was a man; I’d very much be surprised to see all the women in Barkley Cove swooning over someone they called Marsh Boy.

So, we’ve got a genius-level intellect, a brilliant artist, a gorgeous face, and amazing figure, and someone who, in the end, gets away with killing the man who had mistreated here. You can see why so many people wanted to be that character — why this book has resonated with so many readers.

But, in fact, Kya precisely fits the definition of a Mary Sue. Per Wikipedia: “Mary Sue is a generic name for any fictional character who is so competent or perfect that this appears absurd, even in the context of the fictional setting. Mary Sues are often an author’s self-insertion or wish fulfillment.”

Of course, some might object that my own creation, Caitlin Decter in the WWW trilogy (Wake, Watch, and Wonder), is both intellectually gifted and physically attractive, so who am I to talk?

Indeed, yes, Caitlin has those attributes, and I won’t defend at length, except to say that her attractiveness serves a thematic point. Unlike Kya — who falls for Chase, the stereotypical high-school quarterback, who, in turn, wants her only because she is gorgeous and unrestrained in lovemaking — Caitlin’s attractiveness, which she is utterly indifferent to herself, having been blind almost her whole life, leads her to pick a worthy partner in the kind and supportive, but outwardly unattractive, Matt.

I was doing something thematic about inner lives, in a trilogy in which the central conceit is the exploration of an entity, Webmind, who has nothing but an inner life and no physicality at all.

Anyway, on to narrative voice.

The choice of how you’ll tell a story is one beginning writers rarely give much thought to, but it’s crucial to the impact you’re going to have on readers. Whose story is it? Does that mean that person should be the viewpoint character? Maybe … but maybe not: see Ishmael in Moby-Dick, Dr. Watson in all of Sherlock Holmes, and so on.

And in what voice shall the tale be recounted? In first-person (I did this); in second person (you didn’t do that!); or in third-person (he / she / they did something)?

For Crawdads, Delia Owens apparently made the most-common choice, which is that the main character is also the principal viewpoint character, and the story is told in third-person (Kya did this; she then did that).

But there’s more to a choice of narrative voice than just that. Third-person narration can be either limited (you are privy to the inner thoughts of only the viewpoint character) or omniscient (you get to hear the thoughts of all the characters in a scene).

The power of limited third-person (or first-person) is that the reader becomes the viewpoint character in a psychological sense: that’s precisely what we mean when we say the reader identifies with the character: by seeing the world through his or her eyes only, by knowing his or her thoughts only, you, the reader, become the main character, and the novel becomes your story. It’s the principal appeal of modern fiction, and it’s the one thing TV and movies can’t effectively emulate. In those latter media, you are a spectator, watching what happens to the hero, but in a novel, you are the hero, mind-melding with him or her.

Now, there are other possible versions of third person, and a good writer might employ them for specific reasons.

As I’ve often said, The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett is one of my favorite novels — and that’s not just because of the memorable characters, snappy dialog, and clever plot. I also love it because Hammett pulled off a technical tour de force. Although detective Sam Spade is the viewpoint character, inasmuch as we mostly follow him from scene to scene, we never enter his head; we never are privy to his thoughts.

Nor do we enter anyone else’s head. All we hear are the characters spoken words and all we see is their body language, which Hammett describes in almost forensic detail: every quirking of a mouth, lifting of an eyebrow, glance to one side, and more. He never tells us what people are thinking, but leaves us to deduce it, if we can, from posture and facial expressions.

Why did Hammett do that? Simple: everybody in The Maltese Falcon has a hidden agenda, everyone is lying to everyone else, and the reader is left guessing right up until the end about what’s actually going on. If we were privy to Sam Spade’s thoughts, the whole novel would fall apart: we’d know what he was up to before the end. And there’s no natural sidekick (no Dr. Watson) with him in most scenes whose head we can enter either. And so Hammett devised a narrative technique that let him tell his mystery tale without ever once violating his own rules and thereby always playing fair with the reader.

Well, Delia Owens faced a similar challenge in constructing Where the Crawdads Sing, and, in my opinion, from a novelist’s perspective, her answer is a cheat.

Yes, she does give us pale imitations of Hammett’s dispassionate external appraisal by the narrator:

Kya returned to the porch steps later and waited for a long time, but, as she looked to the end of the lane, she never cried. Her face was still, her lips a simple thin line under searching eyes.
But sometimes Owens does want us to know specifically what Kya is thinking, and so we bore into Kya’s skull and are indeed able to access her stream of thought (in what’s called limited third-person point of view, the standard mode of most modern fiction):
Kya touched the words as if they were a message, as though Ma had underlined them specifically so her daughter would read them someday by this dim kerosene flame and understand. It wasn’t much, not a handwritten note tucked in the back of a sock drawer, but it was something. She sensed that the words clinched a powerful meaning, but she couldn’t shake it free. If she ever became a poet, she’d make the message clear.
So, sometimes we can hear her thoughts and sometimes we can’t. And when we can’t but Owens still wants us to know what Kya is thinking, she has Kya talk out loud to herself, which is clumsy as hell. For instance, upon finding a feather Tate has left for her, Kya speaks her inner monologue even though she’s all by herself:
“How’d it get stuck straight up in the stump?” Whispering, Kya looked around. “That boy must’ve put it here. He could be watchin’ me right now.”
But then Owens decides to essentially have no rules at all about what we can and cannot know, except as it serves her plot. For instance, suddenly, in the same scene, we go from watching Kya without knowing what Kya is really thinking to being right inside the head of Sarah Singletary, the grocery-store cashier:
Sarah glanced at Kya and remembered the little girl coming barefoot into the market for so many years. No one would ever know, but before Kya could count, Sarah had given the child extra change — money she had to take from her own purse to balance the register. Of course, Kya was dealing with small sums to start with, so Sarah contributed only nickels and dimes, but it must have helped.
Now, why does this bother me so much? Simple: the whole plot of the story depends on the reader not knowing what Kya knows, and not being privy to Kya’s thoughts on crucial matters. All the time Kya is sitting in jail, and all during her trial, we don’t get to know what Kya is thinking because, of course, any honest account of it would be that she was thinking things such as:

  • Yeah, maybe they’ll send me to the electric chair, but I’m still glad I killed Chase.

  • Ooops! I didn’t do as good a job of covering my tracks as I thought.

  • Hah, fooled that witness! My disguise was good!

And, once you allow head-hopping (suddenly reading the minds of characters other than the original viewpoint character in a scene), you’re cheating if you don’t do it when the other characters in a scene have secrets. Chase must have been thinking all the time he was with Kya that if he kept falsely promising to marry her, she’d continue to provide wild sex. But if we’d known that, there goes the plot.

The artform Delia Owens tackled is a tricky one: the subgenre of mystery fiction in which either the detective is actually the killer or the presumed-to-be-innocent accused is. It’s very hard to play fair with the reader under such circumstances; it requires a lot of narrative finesse to pull off. And, despite all of its many other virtues, I simply found that finesse lacking in Where the Crawdads Sing.

For those who are curious, I talk more about the writer’s craft as related to point of view in this column:

Point of View


I’d orginally posted the above, as well as yesterday’s post, which was also about Where the Crawdads Sing, on my Facebook wall, and that led to this question from a reader there and my answer:


This is very insightful, thank you Robert :)

I feel I’m missing something important, though. Why do you regard the selective disclosure of internal information (thoughts/motivations) as worthy of a different treatment to the selective disclosure of external information (spoken words, body language, environment)? Isn’t selective disclosure the prime prerogative of the author?

As far as I can determine (and please forgive me if this seems reductive or uncharitable to someone at your level of his craft!), one might simplify a description of fiction to something like “the author tells you what they want you to know about a world they have imagined, in precisely the order they want you to know it.”

Based on this description I wouldn’t call Owens’ selective head-hopping “cheating” any more than I’d call withheld information in your novel Red Planet Blues “cheating,” because there couldn’t be a story without it. That to me suggests I haven’t understood why Owens’ approach is a faux pas.

Thanks!

My reply:

Well, in one sense, you’re right: the author can do whatever he or she pleases; that’s his or her prerogative.

But the reader is also entitled to accept or reject what the author does; that’s the readers prerogative. And when the author is clumsy, we have a term for it: we say the author has been manipulative. And Delia Owens was, in my view.

And speaking of prerogatives, what the character says vs. what the character thinks is actually the character’s prerogative (yes, I know, the author has created the character, but bear with me): if I see that lousy son-of-a-bitch I just can’t stand coming toward me — well, that’s what I’m going to think; I, the character named Rob, has no volition about what thoughts occur to me. But what I say to that person as he comes up to me — forced friendliness, open hostility, or nothing at all — is something I do get to choose.

What Owens did was show us the characters’ thoughts when it suited her and withheld them from us when it suited her: that’s both manipulation and lazy writing. In most other books, you either are or are not in the main character’s head; you aren’t pulled in and out at the convenience of the author.

It’s akin to the narrative rule that the description must include everything significant that a cursory examination of the scene by the viewpoint character would reveal. It’s fair to say this:

I opened the door, saw that there was a lion in the room but went in anyway, trusting that the animal wouldn’t kill me.
It’s unfair to say:
I opened the door, walked into the room, sat in the easy chair, picked up a magazine, did the crossword at the back, and then the lion — oh, hey, did I mention there was a lion in the room? — bit my foot off.
To your point about Red Planet Blues, well, I’m not going to provide spoilers for my own novel here (this thread clearly identified it as having spoilers for Crawdads only, and I prefer to limit it to that), but in my novel (which is told in first-person narration) you are 100% privy to Alex Lomax’s thoughts: you’re in his head and you hear exactly what his stream of consciousness would naturally be at each point in the novel; at no point does he conveniently become a black box impenetrable to the reader.

Now, the fact that you likely misinterpreted what he thought is me being artful — but it’s also natural, as I hope this slightly over-the-top example will demonstrate. If I’m feeling nostalgic, I might think something along these lines:

I miss my hometown.
That’s a legitimate transcription of my thought, precisely as I might think it. Now, what would not be natural would be if I’d purported to transcribe my thought thusly:
I miss my hometown, which is Ottawa, and although many people think where I live now — Toronto — is Canada’s capital, that’s not true; it’s just the provincial capital. Ottawa, formerly known as Bytown, is the national capital — although, interestingly, both Ottawa and Toronto are in the same province, the one called Ontario.
You might argue that, hey, the first version was withholding information that the second one conveys, but only the first one is what anyone would actually think in the moment, and Alex isn’t hiding anything in Red Planet Blues; you’re just guessing wrong about what he’s referring to when you read his thoughts: every time Alex thinks of the thing you’re wondering about in Red Planet Blues, he thinks about it precisely as he naturally would, and the thought is honesty and accurately relayed in the text.

Also, the plot of my novel does not in any way hinge on the thing I allowed the reader to misconstrue. It only affects how the reader might feel about Alex after he or she turns the last page.

But in Crawdads, the plot — the entire mystery — depends on us thinking we’re privy to Kya’s inner life only to discover that we’ve been lied to about that all along.

And that, my friend, in my view, is cheating.


GO BACK TO PART ONE


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Why the Crawdads Stink 1 of 2

by Rob - June 24th, 2020

THIS IS PART ONE OF TWO; PART TWO IS HERE

SPOILER ALERT!

Last week, I finished reading Where the Crawdads Sing, the much-lauded bestselling debut novel by Delia Owens.

I’M NOT KIDDING: SPOILERS!

I understand that a great many people love this book, and I myself enjoyed it a lot, although parts of it — Kya’s abusive childhood, in particular — were very unpleasant reading, as, of course, they were intended to be.

But, as a writer, this novel bothered me because of things that perhaps only a writer would worry about — indeed, obviously they bothered only a vanishingly small number of Delia Owens’s readers.

This, of course, goes to the heart of the problem with teaching writing: we writers tend to overemphasize things that readers may not care about at all: that’s why Dan Brown likely outsells all the books by all the full-time faculty in all the M.F.A. creative-writing programs in the United States combined. In the end, all the reader cares about is how they felt, not how that feeling was accomplished.

So, as the saying goes, your mileage may vary — indeed, it almost certainly did vary from mine. In this post, I’ll talk about some of the issues that tripped me up; in another post, I’ll tackle prose and narrative voice issues. Here goes:

Of course, I bring a science-fiction writer’s perspective to some of this that simply won’t resonate with mainstream readers. But, in many ways, Kya, living alone in a swamp, is an alien being.

And so, despite briefly having a teenage teacher in Tate, who taught her to read (very late in life, so late that it would be very difficult to do), she learned on her own to become a world-class expert in marine biology? Maybeeee, but my plausibility-meter is starting to move toward the red zone.

But then Kya is also a world-class painter, without a single lesson — good enough that her first book of paintings of marsh life got her an advance in 1968 of US$5,000, and that without an agent? That’s US$38,000 today. Well, good on her, I say, but … really?

Still, ignore those superior intellectual achievements; the plot doesn’t hinge on them. But it does hinge on this: Although growing up in the middle of the last century, Kya has never heard a radio drama, been to a movie, seen a TV show, or, from what’s said in the book, read any novels or any nonfiction except poetry and science books.

And yet, somehow, she’s savvy enough to know that if she is to get away with murder she needs an alibi (and a very elaborate one, at that, involving her suddenly becoming a master of disguise and not one but two secret journeys).

Okay, so somehow she learned that you have to cover your tracks for a crime (which she literally does), and indeed, somehow learned that fingerprints are evidence, too. Bright woman!

(Although she apparently doesn’t know about fiber analysis, leaving obvious clues that the detectives say she must have missed out of ignorance: “She probably had no idea fibers would fall off the hat onto his jacket. Or that the lab could identify them. She just wouldn’t know something like that.”)

But then she does the incalculably stupid and takes from Chase’s body the one thing that links her to the crime, the necklace she had given him years before and that he’d worn every day since. For what possible reason? She either does know how to cover up a murder or she doesn’t.

And why is she the only suspect? Why doesn’t Chase’s widow Pearl fall under suspicion? Chase had been cheating on Pearl and — making it worse! — with someone far beneath what Pearl considered to be their social station. Yes, Chase attempted to rape Kya — and that is horrendous — but Pearl is the woman scorned in the eyes of the community, and the police never so much as think about her as a suspect?

And that brings us to the next problem: Kya beats the living daylights out of Chase when he tries to rape her, right? Kicks him in the balls and repeatedly in the kidneys, and leaves him incapacitated, saying loudly enough not just for him but for others to hear that she’ll kill him if he ever comes near her again, right?

So just how does she lure him not back into the marsh, and not just back to her shack, but all the way back to the fire tower, up the ladder, and onto the platform? Why did he go? When did they make up enough (in his eyes) for him to want to go? Yes, we can speculate answers — but there are none in the text.

And if Kya did want to kill him, surely there were easier ways, and ones more likely to succeed than hoping he’d stand facing her just so and then let her push him through the open grate that he’d conveniently not closed behind him (he fell backward, remember, not forward; he was not leaning over to close the grate when pushed).

So what would have been an easier way? Well, Chase was out boating alone often. Kya could have lain in wait for him — she was repeatedly portrayed as skilled at hiding in the marsh from both him and Tate — kill Chase, then dump the body somewhere where it wouldn’t be found, or just make it look like a boating accident. Done.

The elaborate murder she committed instead required Chase’s cooperation to make it possible: he had to willingly go with her to the Fire Tower. And despite all the careful planning to conceal her involvement, she chose to kill him at a location that she had no reason to believe Chase hadn’t connected to her in his bragging to the other boys. And then, again despite all her planning, she took the necklace she’d given him, the one piece of evidence that tied her to him (and then kept it in her home — she’s lucky the cops were incompetent in searching it!).

Yes, her Columbo-esque elaborate murder might have satisfied all sorts of symbolic needs, but it also led to her being a hair’s breadth from the electric chair because the case so clearly pointed to her being the culprit.

And, remember, the murder depended on a very tight schedule, made even tighter by the night-time bus she took back to Barkley Cove running twenty-five minutes late. As Tom (her defense attorney) says quite clearly:

“Those actions would have taken one hour seven minutes minimum, and that does not count time supposedly waiting for Chase. But the bus back to Greenville, which she had to catch, departed only fifty minutes after she arrived. Therefore, it is a simple fact: there was not enough time for her to commit this alleged crime.”

The Sheriff’s only rebuttal is that she could have done it if and only if she’d gone to the fire tower by land, but she did not; she was seen by the fishermen — three of them — leaving there in her boat.

And speaking of the Sheriff and his deputy, these were completely cardboard characters who spent most of the book doing classic “As you know, Bob” dialog:

“That’s very curious,” Ed said. “What was it strung with? Maybe it came off when he fell.”

“It was a single shell hung on a piece of rawhide that was just long enough to go over his head. It wasn’t loose and was tied in a knot. I just don’t see how it could’ve flung off.”

“I agree. Rawhide’s tough and makes a mean knot,” Ed said.

There was no chemistry between the cops; no conflict; no witty banter. They were just there to provide exposition and move the plot forward. Contrast them with the brilliant portrayals by Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey of the two bayou detectives in the first season of True Detective.

Speaking of dialog, the constant attempt at transcription of Southern dialect got tiresome for me awfully fast, not to mention arguably being offensive:

“He’s done come sev’ral times now, Miz Clark, either brings sump’m or asks to see ya. Won’t ya see him today, Miz Clark? It’s Saderdee, no court, nothin’ to do in here the livelong day.”

The wording is evocative without all the misspellings and contractions. A little of that at the beginning of the novel would have sufficed for me, with the author then easing off and trusting us to hear the accents:

“He’s done come several times now, Miss Clark, either brings something or asks to see you. Won’t you see him today, Miss Clark? It’s Saturday, no court, nothing to do in here the livelong day.”

Robert B. Parker‘s novels are set in Boston, and if he had Spenser constantly saying things like, “Let’s pawk the caw ovah by Hawvaad Yaad,” people would have surely objected — and rightly so. So why isn’t this offensive when it’s done to portray Southerners and/or poor people?

Anyway, yes, in the end, the murder was satisfying emotionally — Kya killed Chase, the bastard who had toyed with her heart callously and then tried to rape her.

And, like most readers, I had the cathartic reaction Delia Owens intended to the fact that Kya got away with murdering this monster: Good for her!

But as a writer who wants a plot to go snick-snick-snick, as a mystery-fiction reader who expects the murderer to be clever and the murder plausible, it left me scratching my head.

Tomorrow, I’ll ruminate here on the narrative-technique issues in Where the Crawdads Sing that bothered me. But, again, let me say I did enjoy the book and am glad I read it.



GO TO PART TWO


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Clueless no more!

by Rob - June 21st, 2020

I’m chuffed to be the first clue in today’s Quizword crossword in the Sunday Mirror in the UK (Sunday, June 21, 2020). “6 Across” is “1999 science fiction novel by Robert J Sawyer.” I never foresaw that! ;)

(Click picture for larger version.)

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Doctor, doctor, give me the news!

by Rob - June 13th, 2020

Six years ago, on June 12, 2014, the University of Winnipeg — the oldest university in the province of Manitoba, Canada — gave me an Honorary Doctor of Laws Degree; former Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chréitien also received the same degree that day.

I was nominated for the honorary doctorate jointly by the Dean of Science, Dr. James Currie, and the Emeritus Dean of Theology, Rev. Dr. James Christie, in part in recognition of the thoughtful treatment of the science-and-religion dialogue in my work.

This was my second honorary doctorate; I also hold an Honorary Doctor of Letters degree from Laurentian University in Sudbury, Ontario, which was awarded in 2007.

So, does that mean I can call myself “Dr. Sawyer”?

In many contexts, yes, and, indeed, almost always when I speak at a university the professor introducing me does so by calling me “Dr. Sawyer.” Here’s an excerpt from the definition of “Doctor” in the American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language:

a. A person who has earned the highest academic degree awarded by a college or university in a specified discipline.

b. A person awarded an honorary degree by a college or university.

But I never use the title Doctor, or the abbreviation in front of my name, myself for several reasons:

First, my father worked really hard to get his PhD. Although he was incredibly proud when I received both of my honorary doctorates, him well understanding how rare and special an honor those are, I honor him by not using the title himself earned.

Second, even though my father was indeed Dr. Sawyer, he refused to use the title “Doctor.” We happened to live three doors up the street from an M.D. when I was growing up. My dad once said to me, when I asked him as a kid why he didn’t use “Doctor” that, if someone gets hit by a car out front of our house, he wants the neighbors to run and get Dr. Jacobs, who can help save the person’s life, not Dr. Sawyer, who can explain Keynesian and Neo-Walrasian macroeconometrics to the poor sap while he exsanguinates.

Third, for that matter, my father — and, by osmosis, I — resent the use of the related title my father was entitled to until the day he died by those who don’t have a PhD, namely “professor.” These days, every sessional instructor at a junior college swans around referring to themselves as Professor So-and-so, but professor traditionally an earned title, too, normally reserved for those who have a PhD.

My father earned the even rarer title of Professor Emeritus when he retired, upon recommendation of his colleagues and approval of the dean, meaning his contributions to his university had been of such magnitude that he’d continue to be considered a faculty member, with the privileges thereof (including supervising grad students if he wished) after he’d retired.

Fourth, honestly, I have honors far rarer than either an earned or honorary doctorate. I’m a Member of the Order of Canada, my nation’s highest honor, and a Member of the Order of Ontario, my provinces’ highest honor (and the latter, on a per-capita basis is an even rarer honor than the former).

Only on those extremely rare occasions on which one must peacock (the top line of my C.V., for instance), do I have more letters after my name “Robert J. Sawyer” than there are in my name:

C.M., O.Ont., B.A.A., D.Litt., LL.D.
Still, as I wrote in The Oppenheimer Alternative, when General Leslie Groves is talking with Los Alamos security chief Peer de Silva, who is the first speaker:
“Of course, he figured I couldn’t make head nor tail of them, or of what he was saying about them.”

“The intellectuals’ hamartia,” said Groves.

“Sir?”

“My goodness, son, don’t they teach the classics at West Point anymore? Their hamartia; their fatal flaw. Arrogance. They assume that anyone without a string of letters trailing behind his name like pretentious ducklings can’t possibly grasp their thoughts.”

So, as I say to everyone, “Just call me Rob.” ;)

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Problem with KOBO edition of Oppie

by Rob - June 7th, 2020

Users of Kobo E Ink reading devices,something has gone wrong at the Kobo servers, and the master file of The Oppenheimer Alternative seems to have been corrupted. I’ve just uploaded a replacement version, and I’ll let you know when it goes live. It was fine on launch day, and I don’t know what happened at their end.

Meanwhile, if you’re having trouble on a Kobo E Ink derived — text running the entire width of the screen left to right and top to bottom; no page breaks at chapter breaks — EMAIL ME at sawyer@sfwriter.com and I’ll get you the correct version immediately.

My apologies!

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Day-of-launch interview near Trinity site

by Rob - June 3rd, 2020


Yesterday (Tuesday, June 2, 2020) was the official publication date of my 24th novel, The Oppenheimer Alternative — and where better to launch the book than the place where it all began? I spent an hour in conversation with Mike Shinabery of the New Mexico Museum of Space History on his morning show on KRSY-AM radio.

You can download the full interview as an .mp3 file or stream it, if you prefer, from this .m3u link.

The show starts at the 1-minute mark with Benny Goodman’s “The Glory of Love,” which I use in my novel as the theme for Oppie and Jean Tatlock.

The outro is the great satirist Tom Lehrer singing his atomic-bomb song, “We’ll All Go Together When We Go.”

Commercials included, and, as a bonus for Star Trek: Discovery fans, the one at 27:17 is a PSA from Sonequa Martin-Green.

Since Mike and I couldn’t be together for the interview (my planned trip to Alamogordo having been scrubbed thanks to COVID-19), here’s a picture of Mike when he and Nichelle Nichols both flew on NASA’s SOFIA (Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy) 747 in 2015.

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Sawyer interview in a dozen major Canadian newspapers today

by Rob - May 30th, 2020

Calgary Herald

Across Canada today (Saturday, May 30, 2020), the major daily newspapers in 12 cities are running a terrific interview with me by Eric Volmers about The Oppenheimer Alternative.

You’ll find the interview in these newspapers coast-to-coast (in Canada, the major weekend edition of a newspaper is the Saturday one, not the Sunday one):

  • Vancouver Sun
  • Edmonton Journal
  • Calgary Herald
  • Regina Leader-Post
  • Saskatoon Star-Phoenix
  • Windsor Star
  • Chatham Daily News
  • Sudbury Star
  • Kingston Whig-Standard
  • Ottawa Citizen
  • Montreal Gazette
  • Halifax Chronicle Herald

Since Eric Volmers is the books editor for the Calgary Herald, I’m linking to the “home” version of the interview, but it’s also at all those other newspaper’s websites:

https://calgaryherald.com/entertainment/books/robert-j-sawyer-tackles-the-atomic-bomb-with-alternate-history-novel-the-oppenheimer-alternative

In addition, the article is also at Canada.com, as well:

Robert J. Sawyer’s The Oppenheimer Alternative rewrites war history

The layout is the same in all the newspapers: the top three-quarters of the front page of the book section, with author photo and Canadian book cover.

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Frank Drake’s 90th birthday

by Rob - May 28th, 2020

Today is the 90th birthday of SETI pioneer Frank Drake. I’ve had the pleasure of meeting Frank several times, and his work makes an appearance in The Oppeheimer Alternative:

“Yeah, that wouldn’t be so bad.” Feynman held up the latest Astronomical Journal, dated October 1959. “But Frank Drake’s got a note in here. He found decimetric radiation coming from Jupiter. Deci, not deca; DIM, not DAM.”

Oppie gestured for Feynman to hand him the journal. Dick had placed a slip of paper in it to mark the page, but Robert was momentarily confused. There were two notes from Frank Drake published in this issue, one after the other. The first was irrelevant, but the second — “Non-thermal microwave radiation from Jupiter” — was the one Feynman was concerned about. It actually had a co-author, which the journal listed as S. Hvatum. Oppie figured the initial was a typo; he knew the first name of Drake’s colleague at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory in Greenbank was Hein.

Sadly, the rest of the brief piece — just three paragraphs, taking up much less than a full page — was harder to find fault with. Drake was a good empirical research scientist: steady, reputable, occasionally brilliant.

And for those of you wondering if any of my signature quotes from Star Trek would make it into The Oppeheimer Alternative, there’s one in the last line above: “A good empirical research scientist: steady, reputable, occasionally brilliant.” Spock describes Dr. Leighton in the same words in “The Conscience of the King.”

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50th anniversary of Beneath the Planet of the Apes

by Rob - May 26th, 2020

Today is the 50th anniversary of the release of Beneath the Planet of the Apes, the second film in the series. I gain more respect for that film on each viewing.

There were production choices, dictated by budget I suppose, that bothered me when I first saw it as a kid:

  • the use of so many extras in masks instead of full make-up appliances, especially in the Ursus “Invade” speech scene
  • the ridiculous ape body suits Zaius and Ursus wore in the steambath
  • the terrible matte work when Taylor disappears into the illusory cliff face
  • the fairly crappy looking crash site (even as a kid, I recognized the Jupiter 2’s landing gear)
  • the pretty unimpressive looking Alpha-Omega bomb.

And, even as a kid, the continuity errors bothered me:

  • Brent on a rescue mission for Taylor — why? As far as Earth knows, Taylor is doing just fine, thanks.
  • Zaius calling both Zira and Cornelius “animal psychologists,” when Cornelius is, of course, an archaeologist.
  • Nobody in all the time they were making the film bothering to slap the first reel of the original onto a projector to check what the date meter said in Taylor’s ship so that the year in Beneath is 3955 instead of 3978.

And, of course, I keenly felt the lack of Roddy McDowall and was pissed off that they cut a line out of his resued reading from the Sacred Scrolls before the opening credits.

But I’ve come to appreciate the film more and more:

  • James Gregory is absolutely wonderful as Ursus
  • David Watson’s take on Cornelius is actually fine
  • Of course, Paul Dehn’s dialog is terrific
  • And the mutants and their ceremonies have grown on me over time.

It’s not a magnificent film, but it is a good, thoughtful, and ambitious one, and probably the best they could do given that Heston refused to appear in any more than just a cameo. And, given how graphically violent it is, it’s satisfyingly pacifist in its messaging.

And, as one reviewer noted, it still stands as “the most batshit insane G-rated movie of all time.”

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Science fiction: the literature of intriguing juxtapositions

by Rob - May 26th, 2020

[Einstein's 70th birthday]

There’s just one week left until The Oppenheimer Alternative comes out, so here’s our penultimate real-life chapter-head epigraph from the novel:

“The history of science is rich in the example of the fruitfulness of bringing two sets of techniques, two sets of ideas, developed in separate contexts for the pursuit of new truth, into touch with one another.”

–J. Robert Oppenheimer

Certainly, this is true of the science in The Oppenheimer Alternative. Oppenheimer started out as a chemist, his own pre-war work was in astrophysics, and only after the Manhattan Project became public was he famed as an atomic physicist.

And my novel brings together disparate thinkers indeed, including the physicists who built the bomb and rocketeer Wernher von Braun.

But, more than that, I think Oppie’s quote is particularly applicable to the field I’ve devoted my life to: science fiction. Indeed, when asked to define science fiction, I sometimes call it “the literature of intriguing juxtapositions.”

Where else would one find, for instance, quantum physics and paleoanthropology cheek-by-jowl except in a novel such as my Hominids? Or life-prolongation technology and SETI, the search for extraterrestrial intelligence, as in my Rollback? Or experimental psychology and (again) quantum physics as in Quantum Night?

At most universities, professors in such disparate departments probably don’t even know each other (unless they have to serve together on some cross-faculty committee).

When McMaster University decided to hold a three-day academic conference in honor of the donation of my papers to their archives, they took my suggestion and called it “Science Fiction: The Interdisciplinary Genre,” and we had papers presented by academics in such diverse fields as theology, theater, literature, philosophy, astronomy, and gender studies.

I initially set out to be a paleontologist — but you can’t just be a paleontologist; you have to drill down the tree of subspecialties until you end up being a paleontologist (level 1), a vertebrate paleontologist (level 2), a dinosaurian vertebrate paleontologist (level 3), a dinosaurian vertebrate paleontologist who specializes in theropods (level 4).

But I am interested in ALL THE THINGS, and being a science-fiction writer was one of only two possible career choices that would let me hop freely from scientific discipline to discipline (the other is science journalist).

And so, The Oppenheimer Alternative: a novel that combines political history, military history, the history of atomic and nuclear physics, astrophysics, quantum physics, rocketry, and Martian observational astronomy, along with — in the character studies — psychology into a single whole, which, to paraphrase Oppie, brings multiple sets of ideas, developed in separate contexts for the pursuit of new truth, into touch with each other.

The novel comes out one week from today, on June 2, 2020, in print, ebook, and audiobook worldwide.

Pictured, left to right, at Einstein’s 70th birthday party at the Institute for Advanced Study (where much of my book takes place):

Eugene Wigner, Hermann Weyl, Kurt Gödel, I.I. Rabi, Albert Einstein, Rudlof Ladenburg, and J. Robert Oppenheimer — all but Weyl and Ladenburg are characters in The Oppenheimer Alternative.

(Click picture for a bigger version.)
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Free eBook: The Maltese Falcon

by Rob - May 25th, 2020

Forget all those (cough, cough) rave reviews of my novel The Oppenheimer Alternative, coming out in eight days. Here are the reviews one of my top-five favorite novels got when it was first published in 1930: The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett. It’s a great read for a hot summer day!

“This department announces a new and pretty huge enthusiasm, to wit: Dashiell Hammett. Moreover, it would not surprise us one whit if Mr. Hammett should turn out to be the Great American Mystery Writer. The horsepower of Mr. Hammett’s pen must be sampled to be believed. In short, The Maltese Falcon is the best one … in Lord knows when. Read it and see.”

— Will Cuppy in The Herald Tribune

“If the locution ‘hard-boiled’ had not already been coined it would be necessary to coin it now to describe the characters of Dashiell Hammett’s latest detective story.”

The New York Times

“First and foremost among the new thrillers comes Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon. It stands out among the rest like a .45 among a flock of cap pistols. The story has plenty of action, a good plot, excellent characterization, and a startling denouement. Also, Mr. Hammett knows all about detective work, and the authors who really know that can be counted on the thumbs of one hand. This is not only probably the best detective story we have ever read, it is an exceedingly well-written novel. There are few of Mr. Hammett’s contemporaries who can write prose as clean-cut, vivid and realistic.”

— Walter Brooks in Outlook

The Maltese Falcon is in the public domain in Canada and many other countries (but not yet in the US, the UK, or the EU).

For those in countries with copyright terms of 50 years or less after the author’s death, here’s a FREE EBOOK VERSION

I took the text from Gutenberg Canada, cleaned up the formatting (smartening the punctuation and indenting the paragraphs), and added the cover from the first edition. FREE!

Enjoy!

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Pre-pub Oppie ebook special ends soon!

by Rob - May 19th, 2020

Just two weeks — a scant 14 days! — left to get my latest novel The Oppenheimer Alternative at the pre-publication special ebook price of an atomically small US$4.99 or local equivalent at Amazon, B&N, Apple Books, Kobo, etc., worldwide. After that, the price goes up, up, up like an Orion rocket!

Worldwide ebook buying links are here.

“My favorite Sawyer book of all; a solid award contender!” —Amazing Stories

“Science fiction fans will devour this smart speculative tale.” —Publishers Weekly

“I loved it!” —Lee Smolin

“This book has everything a reader wants from Sawyer.” —Analog

“Oppenheimer fans will be intrigued.” —Martin J. Sherwin

“I felt like I was back in Los Alamos — and I should know: I worked there!” —Doug Beason

“I knew many of these physicists, and Sawyer nails them accurately.” —Gregory Benford

“A compulsive fictional narrative.” —Jem Rolls

“Sawyer portrays brilliantly the struggles of the scientists who started it all.” —James Christie

“A novel as expansive as the physics (and physicists) under whose watch the original Project Orion was launched.” —George Dyson

“A realistic and intriguing look at Oppenheimer and his work.” —Booklist

“A terrific story.” —Eric Flint

“Sawyer has outdone himself!” —Jonas Saul

“I was hooked from the beginning to the end.” —Andre Bormanis

“I read this book at a gulp — now I’m going to go read it again. Bravo!” —S.M. Stirling

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Robert J. Sawyer online:
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