Robert J. Sawyer

Hugo and Nebula Award-Winning Science Fiction Writer

40 years since my first submission

by Rob - August 14th, 2016.
Filed under: Anniversaries, Short Fiction.

Forty years ago, on August 16, 1976, I made my first submission to a science-fiction magazine. I was sixteen years old.

I submitted a story called “Loophole” to a small-press magazine called Unearth: The Magazine of Science Fiction Discoveries, edited by John M. Landsberg and Jonathan Ostrowsky-Lantz.

I had almost no recollection of “Loophole” until I reread it last month. It features the Quintaglio race of intelligent dinosaurs that went on to feature sixteen years later in my novel Far-Seer. The story — doubtless quite rightly — was rejected eleven days after I submitted it with a personal note from Mr. Ostrowsky-Lantz.

(The original manuscript for “Loophole” and the personal note from Unearth‘s editor are now in the Robert J. Sawyer Archives at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario.)

Unearth had as its mission publishing new authors (plus, in each issue, one reprint of the first sale of an established author). According to the editorial in the first issue, the magazine was “a market solely for writers who had not yet made a sale, where their work would not have to compete with that of established authors … the only prozine to work exclusively with unpublished writers.”

I stumbled upon the magazine at Toronto’s Bakka Books (where I myself went on to work six years later) and bought the first issue there (pictured). It featured the first story by Paul Di Filippo, now a major name, ironically with an author’s note saying, “Paul Di Filippo has announced that he is leaving science fiction for greener pastures. He has vowed that `Falling Expectations’ is the last SF story he will ever write.”

The magazine launched several other notable careers in its three-year run, including William Gibson, James Blaylock, Craig Shaw Gardner, Rudy Rucker, and Somtow Sucharitkul.

My actual first publication came four years later, in 1980, when I was nineteen: the story “The Contest” in my university’s literary annual White Wall Review; that story went on to be reprinted in the anthology 100 Great Fantasy Short Short Stories, edited by Isaac Asimov, Terry Carr, and Martin Harry Greenberg.

Today, in 2016, I’ve essentially given up writing short fiction. I’ve done precisely one story in the last ten years, “Looking for Gordo,” which was a nominee for Canada’s Aurora Award, because the commission for that story, paying way more than I got as an advance for my first novel, was too good to turn down. But nonetheless, I had a nice little career as a short-fiction writer, which began (even if unsuccessfully) with that first submission to Unearth four decades ago:

  • I’ve had 45 stories published in total, with all but “Waiting for Gordo” collected in two volumes: Iterations and Other Stories and Identity Theft and Other Stories. The stories first appeared in a mix of classic genre venues such as Analog, Amazing Stories, and On Spec, original anthologies, and places that don’t normally publish fiction, such as The Toronto Star, The Globe and Mail, Leisure Ways (the magazine of the Canadian Automobile Association), and The Village Voice.

  • My stories were nominated for the Hugo, Nebula, and Bram Stoker Awards; won Science Fiction Chronicle‘s Reader Award for best short story of the year; won Analog‘s Analytical Library Award for best short story of the year in that magazine; won five Aurora Awards; won France’s and Spain’s top SF awards (the latter a record-setting three times); and won an Arthur Ellis Award from the Crime Writers of Canada.

  • I had a story in the journal Nature; had a story read on CBC Radio; had a story produced as a planetarium starshow; had stories optioned for film; and had work reprinted in Hartwell’s Year’s Best SF and in The Penguin Book of Crime Stories.

  • My short fiction has been praised as everything from “quietly intelligent” (Booklist) to “gobsmacking” (Publishers Weekly) and “highly entertaining” (Quill & Quire). Of Identity Theft and Other Stories, Booklist said: “Sawyer’s collection showcases not only an irresistibly engaging narrative voice but also a gift for confronting thorny philosophical conundrums. At every opportunity, Sawyer forces his readers to think while holding their attention with ingenious premises and superlative craftsmanship.”

So: many thanks to Unearth and its open-door policy for inspiring a teenage kid forty years ago to take a stab at this crazy game of publishing science fiction. Even without accepting my story, you gave me my start.

Robert J. Sawyer online:

2 Responses to 40 years since my first submission

  1. What a lovely post!

    I have a question: why did you stop writing short stories? Was it practical/economic concerns, or artistic reasons, or something else?

  2. Love your modern brain!!!


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