Robert J. Sawyer

Hugo and Nebula Award-Winning Science Fiction Writer

Ask Me Anything transcript

by Rob - September 3rd, 2015.
Filed under: Interviews.

A year ago today – 3 September 2014 — I did an Ask Me Anything session for Reddit. Here’s a transcript:


For Rob Sawyer:

Your books seem very thematically strong to me. What do you try to do with your books, in terms of having a theme and a message?

And do you start out with your theme and build a book around it, or does your theme grow out organically from the story?


Thanks for the thoughtful question! My writing mentor early on, Terence M. Green, used to speak of creating “thoughtful entertainment” — something that left you pondering for days or weeks after you finished it. I’ve always strived to do work that does the same thing (and, of course, was hugely influenced by the original STAR TREK and the original PLANET OF THE APES, which likewise did that).

I definitely start with a theme — something I want to say — and then work out the plot and characters that will let me say it. Science fiction is often termed “the literature of ideas,” and I think the core of really good SF is a fresh thematic statement, a new idea about something fundamental. For my current novel, THE PHILOSOPHER’S ZOMBIE [since retitled QUANTUM NIGHT], I have a non-printing comment at the very top of the manuscript file spelling out precisely what the theme is, so that I can remind myself to test each scene to see if it’s in service of that theme.


For Rob Sawyer and any other writers on the list with Canadian roots:

Do you think that being Canadian has had either a positive or negative effect on you as a professional writer, both on the business side and on the artistic side? Thanks!


Hugely, hugely positive effect, Drakkenfyre. I get all the traditional benefits of being a genre-fiction writer in the US plus the sorts of things that rarely happen to my American SF-writing colleagues in the states. I get invited to mainstream literary festivals; my books get taught at just about every Canadian university; I’ve been interviewed over 300 times on Canadian radio and over 300 times on Canadian TV. Canada treats its writers like movie stars (because so few movie stars live here!); I can’t think of a single downside to being Canadian in terms of my writing careers, and oodles of upsides — the biggest of which, of course, was being able to go full-time as a self-employed writer when I was just 23, because I had government-supplied health insurance. ;)


Thank you! Fascinating… especially about health insurance.


For Robert, the final part of the final part of the question trilogy

Favorite Candy Bar?

Since you are a frequent DragonCon attendee, any favorite Atlanta restaurants yet?

Best hangout in Toronto?

Have you ever gotten to tour CERN?

Again, Robert…thanks. I look forward to that Nov 2015 release [QUANTUM NIGHT since moved to March 2016]. Now, how does one arrange a signed first edition in advance/on release?


My favorite candy bar is Aero — I like my chocolate pretty plain (no nuts or fruit).

I ate three meals at Durango’s steakhouse near the Westin in Atlanta this past weekend, and it was excellent each time. Despite being packed, the service was fabulous and the food first-rate — and it was quite reasonably priced. I noted that my colleague Timothy Zahn also ate there on multiple nights, so I think it’s fair to say it’s a favorite among Dragon Con authors.

I don’t actually live in Toronto; I live in the adjacent city of Mississauga. But I quite like pubs and am seen frequently at The Foxes Den Bar and Grill at 1075 Bay and also at Orwell’s pub out by Islington subway station; Orwell’s has Toronto’s best chicken wings.

And no, sadly, I’ve never yet been to CERN.

We’ll be selling signed first editions via my eBay store. :)

Many thanks for the questions and the kind words!


Durangos, my new DragonCon dinner hangout. Many, many thanks Robert for being kind enough to answer all of these.


For Robert, part 2

Thanks for the great reply to my first post.

Do you write a certain amount each day, or do you tend to write more when you are “in the zone” and less when you aren’t?

I really enjoy my Kindle, but I am curious to know, have ebooks helped or hindered your books sales? Sometimes I like the feel of a physical book, but honestly, there are times when I have time to kill and I find the ebooks a blessing. (Of course, it is tough to get an ebook signed…)

So…what was Robert Sawyer doing in 2029 during his Flash Forward? His 15th AMA on Reddit?


Forgive the slowness of my replies: Reddit is telling me I have to wait up to 9 minutes between postings, despite them supposedly having whitelisted me for this session; an overly aggressive antispam system.

I try to do 2,000 words a day when I’m writing my first draft — which is the only part I consider work; I enjoy research and I enjoy revisions. I don’t tend to vary much from the 2,000 — if I do less, I don’t feel happy with myself, and if I do more, I find that the next day I the well tends to be a bit dry.

I love ebooks and do almost all of my reading electronically. Traditional publishers — my own included — overprice their ebooks and underpay their authors for them (an effective 17.5-percent royalty vs. the 70-percent Amazon offer to authors who self-publish). But I’m honestly happy if you buy me in print or in ebooks. (I prefer the Kobo platform to Kindle, but I own both, as well as a Nook.)

Well, in 2029, I’ll be 69 years old. I might do a second AMA on Reddit by then, if they get this spam-delay thing fixed. ;) Seriously, I’d love between now and then to get a second (and third!) TV show made based on one of my books, and I hope that I’m healthy and happy. :)


Hi, Everybody! Glad to be here in support of the Pixel Project, raising funds to end violence against women. This is an “Ask Me Anything,” so, um, ask me … y’know … anything. ;)

— Rob


Welcome, Rob!

Uh, exactly how many plastic dinosaur toys do you have? :)


At a guess, about 200. My only criterion for adding one to my collection: it has to have been scientifically accurate at the time it was made. I’ve been collecting them since I was a kid, and have disposed of many over the years. These days, there are excellent ones from many sources.


That’s awesome! My little nephew would definitely go nuts if he ever saw your collection – he LOVES dinosaurs!


For Robert Sawyer

Thanks for doing this AMA and for lending your support to a very worthy cause.

Is there any chance we might see Rollback, Mindscan or Calculating God on either the small or big screen? Are they optioned?

What are some other writers you personally enjoy reading?

What did Robert Sawyer see himself doing in 2029 during the Flash Forward?

Which Trek series is your favorite? Favorite Trek villain?

Lastly, what can we look forward to reading about in your next work?

I got to meet you at DragonCon in 2010, and you were kind enough to pose for a photo with me. Now, I get to say “Thanks” again. And since I didn’t have one of your books with me that day to get signed, I just ordered one from your eBay store today. Thanks for doing that too. Best of luck to you in the future!


Hi, gjcbs! My pleasure — and the Pixel Project is indeed a worthy cause!

I have various properties of mine under option or in development for film, but not any of the three you mention. CALCULATING GOD, in particular, would be a difficult one to do; I sometimes jokingly call it “My Dinner with Andre the Alien.” It’s mostly just talking heads — albeit saying very interesting things, I hope! — and that doesn’t make for what Hollywood thinks a science-fiction film should be.

ROLLBACK was adapted as a stage play a while ago; it was very good, but had a limited run. And it’s certainly being and has been shown around in Hollywood; Tom Hanks read it a while ago, and seemed to be interested, but that fizzled out. And Shaftesbury, the Canadian company that makes THE MURDOCH MYSTERIES, had MINDSCAN under option for a miniseries a while ago, but sadly, after some good development work, that fizzled out, too.

I enjoy reading Robert Charles Wilson, Jack McDevitt, Julie E. Czerneda, and Allen Steele, among others.

For me, STAR TREK: THE ORIGINAL SERIES is my favourite; it’s the one I grew up with, and it was also the one most willing to take chances; it was OFTEN social commentary, whereas ST:TNG would only do occasional “on a very special NEXT GENERATION …” episodes that were about anything interesting and subversive.

My favorite villain was the original Gorn, with the Tholians as a runner-up. Klingons and Romulans and Cardassians are cool, but too conventional to really interest me in the long term, and, of course, they’re more or less neutralized as villains as time goes by — the Klingons by the Organian Peace Treaty, and the Romulans by, well, as Spock put it:

“The reason for my coming here has never been more clear. The union of the Vulcan and the Romulan people will not be achieved by politics or by diplomacy — but it will be achieved. The answer has been here before us all along: an inexorable evolution toward a Vulcan philosophy has already begun. Like the first Vulcans, these people are struggling toward a new enlightenment. And it may take decades or even centuries for them to reach it, but they will reach it. And I must help.”

My next book, which has the working title THE PHILOSOPHER’S ZOMBIE, will be out in November of next year (2015) [title since changed to QUANTUM NIGHT; release date changed to March 1, 2016].

Many thanks for the kind words!


For Robert Sawyer: When do you anticipate technological singularity and/or human immortality? What form do you think it will take?


Hi, fireJB. I’m not officially here for another half-hour, but what the heck. :)

The technological singularity — the point at which machine intelligence equals or surpasses that of humanity — isn’t going to happen in a lab; there’s been zero progress toward anything like the sort of self-aware machine consciousness that, say, HAL 9000 exhibited in the movie 2001. But I do think it could occur as an emergent property of the complexity of the World Wide Web (and the underlying Internet); if that’s going to happen, it’ll happen within ten years.

As for human immortality — well, we won’t know if anyone’s lived forever until the end of time. ;) But radical life prolongation I expect to see within thirty years; by that point, we’ll have reached what Aubrey de Grey calls “escape velocity” — the average human lifespan will be increasing by more than 12 months for every year that passes. :) In the words of the prophet, may we all live long and prosper! ;)

Robert J. Sawyer online:

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