Robert J. Sawyer

Hugo and Nebula Award-Winning Science Fiction Writer

Happy FlashForward day — and birthday!

by Rob - April 29th, 2010.
Filed under: Uncategorized.

Today is the day everyone saw a glimpse of during their flashforwards in FlashForward , the ABC TV series based on my novel of the same name. It also happens to be my 50th birthday. In honour of both, I provide the English text of an interview I just did for a Hungarian publication. Enjoy!

1. Playing with memories and the future is recurring theme in SF, still the idea of Flashforward is unique. How was it born?

At my 20th anniversary high-school reunion, everyone was saying, “If I’d only known back then what I know now, my life would be better.” They all thought they would have avoided bad marriages, or bad careers, or bad investments. I wondered if foreknowledge of the future really would be a good thing, and so contrived a thought experiment to answer that question in the form of a novel.

2. There are two futures in the book, the one in 2009 (which was 10 years from your present when you wrote the novel) and the one in 2030. Which one was the harder to create and why?

It’s always harder to predict further ahead, especially since the rate of technological progress is exponential, not linear: there will be much more than three times as much progress thirty years in the future as there will be ten years in the future. Still, it was tricky to pick which things would be around in ten years, and which would take longer — most people just think about the future, period, not that the future has an infinite number of gradations to it.

3. The seemingly unimportant inventions in the far future like flying cars and emagazines are very interesting. Were you thinking a lot about them or they just came while writing the book?

I spend a lot of time studying technology and looking at what scientists and engineers are contemplating; I certainly didn’t just make things up, but rather was looking for reasonable projections. It’s very hard to do right!

4. Flashforward contains a lot of scientific elements still the book is very amusing. Was it hard to write it this way?

Actually, no. I love talking about science in my day-to-day life, and I think it’s at least as interesting a topic as politics or sports, so it’s easy for me to make it entertaining on the printed page.

5. Have you ever been in CERN? Was it hard to depict it in the novel?

No, I haven’t. Back when I was writing FLASHFORWARD, in 1997 and 1998, my career as a novelist had only just begun to really take off, and I simply couldn’t afford the trip. But I did lots of research about CERN, and spoke to people who worked there. Many who have been to CERN have been surprised to learn that I’ve never been; they think I must have been there because I got the details right. Of course, if I knew that ultimately FLASHFORWARD was going to make me more money than any other book I’d ever written — thanks to the TV series — I would have sprung for that trip back in 1997. Sometimes it sucks not being able to see the future!

6. Do you do a lot of research for your writings?

Tons! It’s my favourite part. I spend three or four months doing nothing but research for each book before I write the first word. I love learning new things, and if I could just do research all day long, I’d be a happy guy.

7. Besides technical and scientific elements, human relationships are strongly present in the novel. Do you think it’s important for an SF book to depict both of these themes?

Absolutely! Although some very-technical science fiction is intellectually intriguing just for that, good stories are about people, and I really try hard to make mine interesting, nuanced, and believable.

8. When did you get to know that there’s going to be a TV series based on your book and what were thinking and feeling back then?

It was a two-stage process: first, ABC decided to make a pilot episode — which was great, but it was also all I thought we’d ever get; many pilots are made, but only a few get picked up to become ongoing series. I was thrilled because it represented a lot of money just to have the pilot made, but somewhat subdued, because most failed pilots are never broadcast; there was still a very good chance no one would ever see it outside of the boardrooms at ABC. But when the series was picked up — initially for 13 episodes, later expanded to 22 — I was ecstatic: I knew many millions of people worldwide were going to be exposed to my work for the first time; it was a wonderful feeling, and I got the word when my wife and I happened to be over at the house of some friends, so we immediately had a celebration.

9. How do you like the series? What is good and what is not so good in it in your opinion?

I very much like the series; it looks fabulous, the cast is great, and the storylines are gripping — what’s not to like?

10. Do you think FlashForward gives a chance for other SF writers to get their writings adapted?

Honestly? No. For the most part, Hollywood doesn’t even see FLASHFORWARD as science fiction: it has no spaceships and no aliens, and ABC actually didn’t want us calling the series “science fiction.” We’re already into the next year of TV pilots in the States, and no other author has had a science-fiction series pilot made from his or her books this year; fantasy, yes, but not science fiction. FLASHFORWARD was a unique occurrence.

11. Are there any other of your works that are going to be adapted on TV or film?

Yes, indeed. Four of my other properties are currently in development: two theatrical motion pictures, a made-for-TV movie, and a television miniseries. Of course, anything can go wrong before the cameras start rolling, so I’m not holding my breath. But it’s very exciting!

12. You have won almost every SF award imaginable. Do you think it’s important for a writer to get this kind of honour?

Absolutely! As more and more people self-publish and as books move to electronic form, we’ll see a flood of material to choose from — and it will be very hard for readers to sort the wheat from the chaff. The notion that somehow online reviewing will do that isn’t likely to come true; for many major SF books now, has only two or three reviews — most books released to the marketplace in future will get very few reviews, if any. But being a Hugo Award winner or a Nebula Award winner has always been the sign of quality in the SF field. Authors who succeed in the 21st century will have to become brand names, and those credentials help enormously.

13. Which one of your books is your favourite and why?

It varies from year to year, but currently I’m most proud of CALCULATING GOD. I think I did the best job I’ve ever done of telling a philosophically rich story with believable characters; it’s hard to make people both think and cry, but readers tell me I managed it in that book.

14. The relation of science and religion is a recurring theme in your writings. Why is this so important to you?

Stephen Jay Gould said that science and religion were “nonoverlapping magisteria,” each with its own appropriate area of influence, but I think that’s a wrong — and even cowardly — thing to say. There is only one reality, and we should be able to examine the claims of anyone purporting to understand it with a critical eye, whether those claims come from someone wearing a lab coat or a cassock. Science fiction is all about the fundamental questions of who we are, where we came from, where we’re going, and what, if any, meaning there is to life. Neither science nor religion is going away — much to the chagrin of extremists in both camps — and science fiction is a natural place to discuss the validity of both.

15. Have you got favourite writers who influence your works?

Yes, indeed: Sir Arthur C. Clarke, first and foremost, for the sense of wonder, and for first showing me that science and religion could be rationally explored in fiction. Then Frederik Pohl and Larry Niven, the former for depth of characterization and the latter for cool science. I think you can see their influence in every one of my 20 novels to date, including, of course, FLASHFORWARD: the cosmic ending is Clarke-like; the angsty characters are Pohl-esque; and the cool physics is Nivenish — while at the same time the whole thing is, I hope, pure Rob Sawyer.

Robert J. Sawyer online:

7 Responses to Happy FlashForward day — and birthday!

  1. Many happy solar returns, Rob!

  2. Happy Birthday and welcome to the 50’s club. Looking forward to reading http://www.wake and many more. Spotlighted you on both my personal and my sci fi challenge blog Mind Voyages. You almost shared your birthday with Larry Niven. His is tomorrow. Many happy returns!

  3. Heya, Rob, and Happy Birthday!

    It’s funny that this should come up now, because I am currently flipping between re-reading “Flash Forward” on my e-book reader and watching the first part of the TV series, via the DVD set I picked up last week.

    Incidentally, by re-reading the novel, I happened to catch a little throwaway line that you made which, looking back, is either extremely eerie, or you REALLY cast a wide net with your research.

    Remember that the “present” in the book was 2009. One of the news snippets that is included in reaction to the initial event was a little note about a delayed movie release. It seems that, in wake of what happened in the book, it was thought that a disaster film called “Catastrophe” would cause PR problems.

    Now… what was one of the most heavily hyped movies last year? “2012”, a film about a global catastrophe. Considering that you wrote that 10 years before…. a rather interesting coincidence. :)

  4. Happy Birthday, and I hope that it’s a great year for you!

    It’s nice to see some love for Calculating God- I just finished re-reading it, and it’s a wonderful book.

  5. No arguments here, Jen, although “Calculating” is only second on my list of favorite Rob books. For me, the best one is “Factoring Humanity”.

  6. I am a few days late, but happy 50th birthday! I hope it was a good one.

  7. There are rumours flying around that there might not be a second series due to a drop in ratings in the US. Is this true? I am totally hooked on the series and would hate for it not to be on!

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