Robert J. Sawyer

Hugo and Nebula Award-Winning Science Fiction Writer

A new interview with me

by Rob - May 28th, 2016.
Filed under: Interviews.

The great Italian science fiction and fantasy magazine La Bottega del Fantastico interviews me in its just published fifth issue, which you can get for free here. In the magazine, the interview, conducted by editor Franco Giambalvo, appears in Italian (and is accompanied by this fabulous portrait of me by the artist Giuseppe Festino), but you can read my original English responses below.

1) Robert, often in your novels and stories you talk about new technologies, for example in your WWW trilogy. What is your attitude against this true epochal mutation? Is, in your opinion, a good, positive instrument, useful for the Humanity, or vice versa you may think it will lead to a sort of global dehumanization?

If one is a policy-maker, one has to pick a version of reality and advocate for it. That’s not the job of the sciene-fiction writer. Our job is to outline as many possible futures as we can, and let the public see which ones they prefer to choose. So, I’ve written about the Singularity — the dawn of artificial intelligence that exceeds human capabilities — as both a wonderful thing, as in my Factoring Humanity. Which it will be, I don’t know — but I do know that if we don’t have at least one positive roadmap, such as the one I outlined in my trilogy, if all the scenarios being considered are negative ones (elimination per The Terminator; subjugation per The Matrix; or assimilation per Star Trek‘s borg), then we are doomed to end up in one of those disastrous futures. Of course, I hope for the best — I’m generally an optimist about most things — and would like to see us find a way to survive the advent of intellectually superior AI with our essential human liberty, dignity, and individuality intact.

2) Your SF is “Hard Science Fiction” with solid scientific basis, and many people think of you as a new Arthur C. Clarke. In your case, however, the characterization is more thorough, rich of introspection and intimacy. Emblematic in this regard, I feel is your novel Rollback. Moreover, you have declared to appreciate the “sense of wonder”: how you amalgamate these different and apparently contrasting aspects?

Thank you for noticing! Clarke is my favourite science-fiction writer, but he had only a glancing interest, if any, in characterization. My own mission statement for my work is to combine the intimately human with the grandly cosmic. Put another way, I think science fiction should be fractal: no matter what level of magnification you look at it — a single person, a couple, a family, a community, a city, a nation, a world, a solar system, a galaxy, a universe, the multiverse — it should be interesting. No other type of literature has that zoom-in / zoom-out potential, and I like to take full advantage of it. As to how I do it, well, it simply comes from remembering that “science fiction” as a term consists of two equal parts — in English, both words have seven letters — and one shouldn’t be weighted more heavily than the other. Even a hard-SF writer, if he or she takes the position that characterization is simply the dramatization of principles from the science of psychology, can achieve this, telling stories of believable people facing extraordinary events.

3) If science fiction really is a literature of ideas, you are a valid representative. But I would really understand why you write science fiction? What is that’s attracting you in this literary movement, unlike “mainstream” production?

Science fiction is about all of space, all of time, and all forms of life; it’s the least-limiting, not the most-limiting, form of storytelling. I’ve gotten to write science-fiction adventure (Far-Seer), science-fiction romance (Rollback), science-fiction mystery (Red Planet Blues), science-fiction philosophy (Quantum Night), and science-fiction thriller (Triggers); no mainstream author gets that amount of freedom. Indeed, a romance writer has to tell the same basic story over and over again; a mystery writer often spends his or her entire career writing about one single detective character.

3) If you had a non-SF idea, would you start writing a book using it?

No. I have tons of ideas I will never get around to writing, but the reality is that no one would pay me nearly so much if I wrote in another genre; I’d get beginner’s money — the kind of money I got for my first SF novel a quarter of a century ago — if I tried to sell a mystery novel or a mainstream thriller. Given that I have to do triage on my ideas — choosing which will live as books and which will die unwritten — I might as well do the ones that will make the most money, or best serve my loyal, already established audience.

4) How do you consider the current situation in science fiction? Do you agree with the so told Law of Sturgeon, when he says that “the standards categorize 90% of science fiction as trash, crud, or crap”?

I’m not a fan of the proliferation of military science fiction; I’m not a fan of space opera. I think SF should tell stories of social comment, of philosophical rumination, not just escapism or action/adventure — or crazed power fantasies of blowing up aliens. So, yeah, it’s still 90% crap — but the good modern stuff, the stuff by Marguerite Reed and Julie E. Czerneda and Paolo Bacigalupi and David Brin and Robert Charles Wilson, is the best science fiction ever written.

5) If you were abandoned on a distant planet, and could hold a book of SF, what would it be and why?

Gateway by Frederik Pohl, my all-time favourite science-fiction novel. I learned so much reading that book as a 17-year-old; everything I said SF should be above — fractal; intimately human as well as grandly cosmic — Pohl did in spades in that book; he also taught me something far too few writers ever learn: that your main character doesn’t have to be likable, only believable.

6) What do you think about the proposal to write detective stories? You have some experience in SF-detective stories: I’m thinking about The Terminal Experiment or Golden Fleece or Illegal Alien perhaps.

I think science fiction and mystery compliment each other very well: both require the reader to pay attention to the text, picking up subtle clues — about the crime in mystery; about the world in SF; both prize rational thought. In addition to the books of mine you mentioned, Factoring Humanity, Frameshift, FlashForward, Hominids, Triggers, and Red Planet Blues are also all in part mystery novels; it’s a combination that’s worked well for me, and it’s one I’ll doubtless use again.

7) Do you follow the SF production outside America?

Given that I don’t live in America, the answer is clearly yes. Canadian SF is a distinct beast, far more prone to downbeat or ambiguous endings than the American brand. And, of course, I’m aware of the vigorous hard-SF tradition in the United Kingdom. As for the rest of the world, we get so little in translation, sadly, although of course I’ve read Stanislaw Lem and Pierre Boulle, and was thrilled to see the Chinese novel The Three-Body Problem take the Hugo last year.

8) Do you remember the first book you read? Not only SF: the first full book you read!

Ah, but they are one in the same! I was an SF reader from very early on; the first book I recall reading, beyond Dr. Seuss, was The Enormous Egg, by Oliver Butterworth, about a chicken laying an egg out of which a Triceratops hatches; the novelist knew dinosaurs and birds were closely related, and once you get past the outlandish premise, the interaction of his paleontologist characters and all their dialog was spot on; it’s a wonderful book, gently satirizing big business, government, small-town life, and institutionalized science.

9) May you say to me something about the place where you live, and what do you like in your place?

I live in Mississauga, a city of 850,000 that abuts Toronto’s western border; Toronto is the largest city in Canada. I live in a penthouse apartment — top floor of a condominium tower — in the heart of downtown Mississauga. I love it: fantastic views, a wood-burning fireplace, and lots of room. I also love that it’s close to the Toronto International Airport (which is actually in Mississauga not Toronto), since I fly at least twice a month, heading off to science-fiction conventions, science conferences, literary events, or on research trips; the airport is 15 minutes from my home.

10) There is something in your production that you could have done differently, or better? And what is it?

Differently? Sure; there are many approaches I could have taken. Better? That’s for others to say; I’ve done my very best on every book, but I made a deal with myself when the first one, Golden Fleece, came out in 1990: I wouldn’t re-read each one until 40 years after its publication, when I could look at it with fresh eyes; I’ll re-read Golden Fleece in 2030; you can ask me then if, in hindsight, I would have done anything differently.

11) Have you never lived the literary stress so often proposed in the stories about Authors, of being behind in the writing, and your editor asking for an immediate result?

Oh, sure. This is a deadline-driven profession. But I wrote for newspapers and magazines before becoming a novelist; you quickly learned that you need to be disciplined and to meet your deadlines. That said, my most-recent book, Quantum Night, was finished way past its orginal deadline; it should have been completed in 2013, and published in 2014, but, sadly, the day after I wrote the first paragraph of it, my younger brother Alan got in touch to say he was dying of lung cancer. When I told my editors — Ginjer Buchanan in New York and Adrienne Kerr in Toronto — that I was going to be late with the book, they were 100% supportive; as they both said, I’ve been so good about meeting deadlines for decades, when a real reason for being late came along they were happy to grant me whatever time I needed.

12) Thank you, Robert: this is the last question: in Italy the illustration of science fiction has a rich tradition of valid artists like Kurt Caesar, Karel Thole, Giuseppe Festino, Franco Brambilla. Do you know them? What do you think of them? Which is the illustrator you like best, and why?

I know Franco; he and I are friends; we met when I was one of the guests of honour at DelosDays: The 2011 Italian National Science Fiction Convention in Milan. I love his work, and his covers for the Italian editions of my WWW novels are spectactular. I also know Fred Gambino, who is of Italian heritage; he did the magnificent cover for the British edition of my novel The Terminal Experiment; I liked it so much, I bought the original art from him.

Robert J. Sawyer online:

Leave a Reply