Robert J. Sawyer

Hugo and Nebula Award-Winning Science Fiction Writer

WWW trilogy wins MIFRE Media Award

by Rob - April 19th, 2022

I am pleased as punch to have just won the 2021 Media Award from the Machine Intelligence Foundation for Rights and Ethics (MIFRE) for my WWW trilogy of Wake, Watch, and Wonder. The award trophy is truly gorgeous, consisting of layers of laminated wood under glass — I just love the look of it.

The award is given “for the recognition of the representation of human and Machine Intelligence forming and thriving in a cooperative peer relationship.” Works published in any year are eligible for nomination. This is the second year the award has been given; last year’s winner was the story “When Robot and Crow Saved East St. Louis” by Annalee Newitz.

In announcing this year’s win, David Miller wrote:

It is my pleasure, as president and co-founder of the Machine Intelligence Foundation for Rights and Ethics, to present you with the 2021 Media Award for your series, the WWW Trilogy. It was exactly what we had hoped to find: a story that demonstrated the positive cooperation between humans and conscious machines, for the benefit of all.

We enjoyed what was a fascinating possible origin story for Machine Intelligence, and particularly appreciated how it demonstrated that its relationship with the human race could become a mutually beneficial partnership. Our species has a discouraging record of first contact with new peoples, and stories like yours show that we can and should be better than we have in the past. Our hope is that by promoting works such as yours, we can encourage the public to welcome the idea of different kinds of “people” as friends and partners. We feel that the future depends on our ability as a civilization to be welcoming and respectful as the existence of conscious machines looms as a near certainty.

Please accept my heartiest thanks for your thoughtful and encouraging series. I hope that our recognition gives you a small fraction of the pleasure we received by reading it.

We wish you the best of luck in what is already a thriving and varied writing career, and hope that in the future, we may see another of your works nominated for the award again.

This Friday, I’ll be recording an episode as guest on the always-interesting MIFRE Podcast.

For more about the Machine Intelligence Foundation for Rights and Ethics, see here:

And to nominate for the 2022 MIFRE Media Award, see here:

Press Release

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What my Patreon patrons got in January 2022

by Rob - January 31st, 2022

Here’s what my US$3-and-up patrons got on Patreon in January 2022:

  • Video: my TEDx talk “To Live Forever — Or Die Trying”

  • Audio: the first of three hour-long episodes of “Other Worlds, Other Minds: A Science Fiction Odyssey,” a documentary series I wrote and narrated in 1985 featuring in this episode interviews with Spider Robinson, Isaac Asimov, Shawna McCarthy, Samuel R. Delany, Jon Lomberg, Gardner Dozois, Stanley Schmidt, and Judith Merril

  • The draft synopsis and the draft brainstorming outline for my 26th novel — the one I’m just starting

  • An essay on my love affair with ebooks

  • Correspondence between me and my producer on The Downloaded

  • A discussion of AI companions, including Replika

  • Thoughts on which writers my work is in conversation with

  • A look at the nonfiction books I’m currently reading for my next project

  • A letter to my New York agent

  • A letter to my Hollywood manager and his reply

  • A comparison of my bio notes from the 30th- and forthcoming 50th-anniversary editions of The Bakka Anthology

  • Candid notes about my experiment in Facebook advertising

  • Audio: my talk on “Astronomy and Science Fiction” for the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada’s Vancouver Centre

For access to all this, plus everything from beforehand, and the goodies coming up next month, why not become one of my patrons?

Robert J. Sawyer online:

Trying out Facebook advertising

by Rob - January 30th, 2022

Trying out a little Facebook advertising for my latest novel, The Oppenheimer Alternative; we’ll see how it goes. This ad will run for the next week aimed at people 18 years and older in the US who have selected “science fiction magazines” and/or “hard science fiction” as areas of interest. The link goes to the US Amazon page for the book.

(There is no general “science fiction,” “science fiction novels,” or “alternate history” category available to choose.)

Robert J. Sawyer online:

Star Trek TOS season 3

by Rob - January 29th, 2022

Star Trek: The Original Series Season 3, submitted as defense exhibits one through five:

How compact your bodies are, and what a variety of senses you have! This thing you call language, though — most remarkable. You depend on it for so very much, but is any one of you really its master? But most of all, the aloneness. You are so alone. You live out your lives in this shell of flesh, self-contained, separate. How lonely you are. How terribly lonely.

You see, I feel sorrier for you than I do for him, because you’ll never know the things that love can drive a man to: the ecstasies, the miseries, the broken rules, the desperate chances, the glorious failures, and the glorious victories — all of these things you’ll never know, simply because the word “love” isn’t written into your book.

You’re finished, Lokai! We’ve got your kind penned in on Cheron into little districts, and it’s not going to change. You’ve combed the galaxy and come up with nothing but mono-colored trash, do-gooders, and bleeding hearts. You’re dead, you half-white–!

KIRK: I agree there was a time when war was necessary, and you were our greatest warrior. I studied your victory at Axanar when I was a cadet. In fact, it’s still required reading at the Academy.

GARTH: As well it should be.

KIRK: Very well. But my first visit to Axanar was as a new-fledged cadet — on a peace mission.

GARTH: Peace mission! Politicians and weaklings!

KIRK: They were humanitarians and statesmen, and they had a dream — a dream that became a reality and spread throughout the stars, a dream that made Mister Spock and me brothers.

Bones, Spock, since you are playing this tape, we will assume that I am dead, that the tactical situation is critical, and both of you are locked in mortal combat. It means, Spock, that you have control of the ship and are probably making the most difficult decisions of your career. I can offer only one small piece of advice, for whatever it’s worth. Use every scrap of knowledge and logic you have to save the ship, but temper your judgment with intuitive insight. I believe you have those qualities, but if you can’t find them in yourself — seek out McCoy. Ask his advice, and, if you find it sound, take it.

Bones, you’ve heard what I’ve just told Spock. Help him if you can. But remember he IS the Captain; his decisions must be followed without question. You might find that he is capable of human insight and human error. They are most difficult to defend, but you will find that he is deserving of the same loyalty and confidence each of you have given me.

Take care.

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R.I.P., J. Brian Clarke

by Rob - January 17th, 2022

One of the greats of Canadian science fiction has left us. Calgary’s own J. Brian Clarke, born May 23, 1928, who used to often appear in Analog, passed away on December 17, 2021, at the age of 93; his son James just wrote me with the news.

Brian was the inaugural winner of the A.E. Van Vogt Award for his novel Alphanauts, and I wrote this introduction to that book:

Introduction: Science Fiction’s Other Clarke

by Robert J. Sawyer

I know what it’s like.

My last name is Sawyer, and so people are forever asking me if I’m any relation to Tom. If I’m in a good mood, I just politely answer no; if my mood is more foul, I point out that Tom was a fictional character, and so there’s no possible way I could be related to him since, last time I checked, this was the real world.

J. Brian Clarke has it equally tough — maybe more so, in his chosen field of science-fiction writing. People ask all the time whether he’s any relation to 2001 author Arthur C. Clarke.

And, actually, the answer isn’t as clear-cut as in my own case.

Is Brian a member of Sir Arthur’s immediate family. No.

But as a writer …

As a writer, Brian has a lot in common with Sri Lanka’s most-famous resident.

Arthur C. Clarke’s long-time association with the British Interplanetary Society is well known. J. Brian Clarke is a Fellow of that organization — as well as a past president of the Calgary Centre of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada.

Arthur C. Clarke is famous for his ties with the magazine that was once called Astounding Stories and now goes by the moniker Analog Science Fiction and Fact.

J. Brian Clarke is a regular in that publication’s pages, with sixteen stories, including five cover stories, to his credit.

And, of course, Arthur C. Clarke is known for somehow turning a bunch of scientists sitting around talking into some of the most scintillating, unputdownable prose around.

Ditto our Brian. He writes about scientists and engineers, about people who think and do, about problems that have to be solved and the men and women who roll up their sleeves and get the work done. His characters are the kinds of scientists-as-heroes that our real world inexplicably lacks but that were the mainstay of the Golden Age of science fiction.

Most of Brian’s Analog stories are in his “Expediters” universe — including his best-known tale, “Earthgate,” which appeared as the lead story in Donald A. Wollheim’s The 1986 Annual World’s Best SF. These stories were combined into a wonderful gem of a novel called The Expediter that came out from DAW in 1990. I remember reading that book with great fondness, years before I first had the pleasure of meeting Brian.

This current novel started in the pages of Analog, too, with the novelette “Return of the Alphanauts” in the August 1990 issue, and the sequel “Adoption” from the May 1992 issue. Alphanauts is an even better tale than The Expediter — the work of a writer who has the easy confidence of experience, not to mention one of the biggest hearts in science fiction.

Brian is unflaggingly supportive of new writers. He gave me excellent feedback on a draft of my own early novel Starplex, and he’s often seen in classrooms helping young people learn how to tell their own stories.

He’s also seen frequently at SF conventions — indeed, he recently made quite a stir in Canadian SF circles with his rousing defense of SF conventions in The Calgary Herald newspaper.

SF could ask for no better ambassador. So sit back, relax, and enjoy: the alphanauts have come home.

Here’s a profile Brian himself wrote anonymously for the March 1993 issue of Alouette, the newsletter for Canadian members of SFWA that I used to produce.

Robert J. Sawyer online:

Doctor Who: Spearhead from Space

by Rob - November 24th, 2021

We just finished watching the Blu-ray version of the very first Jon Pertwee Doctor Who serial (Pertwee was the Third Doctor, and my all-time favourite), “Spearhead from Space.” It was first broadcast almost 52 years ago in January 1970, and was the first Doctor Who made in colour. We hadn’t seen it since it aired on TVOntario back in the mid-1970s.

It was just fabulous, and, for its time, virtually non-sexist, starting off by showing us a competent female commander of the United Nations Intelligence Taskforce (UNIT) who had a male subordinate technician, and introducing the wonderful Liz Shaw, a totally professional scientist, as the Doctor’s companion. Sadly, Liz lasted only a year, replaced by the flighty Jo Grant (although I am fond of her, too).

Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart has never again been so smart, so competent, or so clearly the right person to head up UNIT, which was created to deal with extraterrestrial threats.

The script by Robert Holmes (who also wrote my all-time favourite Doctor Who serial, “The Time Warrior,” a Pertwee story that introduced the Sontarans) was tense, charming, serious in intent, and well-paced.

“Spearhead from Space” had great production values and, rare for classic Doctor Who, seemed like it had a significant budget; it certainly had a big cast and lots of extras.

“Spearhead” looks fabulous on Blu-ray because it had been the first Doctor Who serial to be made entirely on film (and on location), instead of largely on videotape, because there was a strike going on at the BBC studios. To make the Blu-ray, the BBC scanned the original film at full 2K Blu-ray resolution and digitally cleaned it up.

I loved it.

Robert J. Sawyer online:

Christmas gift ideas!

by Rob - November 23rd, 2021

Christmas shopping? A friendly reminder that I sell autographed copies of my books online.

Robert J. Sawyer online:

Watch the Aurora Award ceremony live tomorrow

by Rob - October 15th, 2021

Tomorrow (Saturday, October 16,) at 7:00 p.m. Eastern Time is the virtual ceremony for the Canadian Science Fiction and Fantasy Awards (“the Auroras”). The ceremony will stream live here:

I’m nominated for both best novel (for The Oppenheimer Alternative and best fan writing (for my “Random Musings” column in BCSFAzine, the newsletter of the British Columbia Science Fiction Association).

The schedule and impressive line-up of presenters is here:

And the whole list of nominees in each category is here:

Robert J. Sawyer online:

Nichelle Nichols’s amazing debut

by Rob - September 1st, 2021

My friend Asbed, visiting Toronto from Los Angeles, came by again yesterday, and, in honor of the Gene Roddenberry centenary, we watched the only never-broadcast episode of his series The Lieutenant, entitled “To Set It Right,” written by Lee Erwin and directed by Vincent McEveety, both of whom went on to work on Star Trek.

“To Set It Right” dealt with racism — and the difficulty of talking about racism — and we all agreed it was excellent and as relevant today as it was when it was made in 1964. The guest stars were Don Marshall (who went on to play Lt. Boma on TOS), Dennis Hopper, and, as the credit read, “Introducing Nichelle Nichols.”

The Pentagon had previously cooperated in the production of The Lieutenant, which was a series about the United States Marine Corps in peacetime, but it objected strenuously to the filmed episode and so it was never aired. Roddenberry fought for it to be shown, enlisting the help of the NAACP, but that just resulted in his series being canceled a week later.

The entire cast (including series stars Gary Lockwood and Robert Vaughn) was fabulous, but I feel really sorry for Nichelle Nichols. She was incredible in this, her TV acting debut. It was a meaty part, she knocked it out of the park, and if the world had seen it, she might have gone on to a much more significant career. You can well understand why she wanted to quit STAR TREK after the first season: she was capable of so much more than what TREK gave her to do.

The Lieutenant is available on DVD; this episode is on the second of two the sets, “The Lieutenant – The Complete Series, Part 2.”

Here’s the Wikipedia entry on this extraordinary episode:

Robert J. Sawyer online:

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.

Robert J. Sawyer online:

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

Robert J. Sawyer online:

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.


  • 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.

Robert J. Sawyer online:

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.


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

You’re a thug.

Did one of the defendants speak?

I did. I said you’re a thug and you are.

Dave —

Please sit, Mr. Dellinger.

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

Marshals, seat the defendant.

If we’re guilty, as you clearly decided —

Watch yourself.

–decided we were a long time ago —
(to a MARSHAL)
You don’t need to grab my arm.
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.

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.

Robert J. Sawyer online:

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

Robert J. Sawyer online:

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.)

Robert J. Sawyer online:

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.”

Robert J. Sawyer online:

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
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.

Robert J. Sawyer online:

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.

Robert J. Sawyer online:

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

Robert J. Sawyer online:

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.

Robert J. Sawyer online:

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.

Robert J. Sawyer online:

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

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

Robert J. Sawyer online:

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


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:


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:

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: or 905-507-1346

Online press kit

Robert J. Sawyer online:

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:

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


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: or 905-507-1346

Online press kit

This press release as a PDF

Robert J. Sawyer online:

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 and other audiobook vendors worldwide. (And a physical-media CD-ROM edition will be out later this year.)

Robert J. Sawyer online:

Why the Crawdads Stink 2 of 2

by Rob - June 25th, 2020


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.


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.


Robert J. Sawyer online:

Why the Crawdads Stink 1 of 2

by Rob - June 24th, 2020



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


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.


Robert J. Sawyer online:

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.)

Robert J. Sawyer online: