Thursday, January 21, 2010

R.I.P, Paul Quarrington

Great writer, great person. A real loss.
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Friday, September 18, 2009

Henry Gibson passes on

Henry Gibson died this week as well; people today probably knew him best for his recurring role as a virginal judge on Boston Legal, but to people my age or older, he was best known for his poetry on Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In, which I watched often with my parents in the 1960s.

Anyway, it astonishes me to learn from the obituaries that "Henry Gibson" wasn't the comedian's real name, and instead that it was a pun on the name of Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen (as said with a southern-US accent). Few puns slip by me, but maybe because I was all of eight when I first encountered Henry Gibson, I can be forgiven. :)

(Yes, I know, my parents are sounding like hippies this week, what with my earlier talk of them enjoying the 60s' protest folk songs of Peter, Paul and Mary, and now this discussion of Laugh-In.)

(And, yes, we never missed the Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour -- the must-see prime-time American TV show for liberal intellectuals in the 1960s, either; of course, it's tame by today's standards, but it was, in fact, where people like Pete Seeger finally got to return to TV after being blacklisted in the McCarthy witch hunt.)

(I also remember my parents taking all three of us boys to see the Beatles' movie Yellow Submarine, and my parents leaving us at home so they could go see a nude production of the musical Hair ...)

(So, no, they weren't hippies, but the were hip.)

Visit The Robert J. Sawyer Web Site


Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Mary of Peter, Paul and Mary passes on

One of the things I inherited from my parents is a love of folk music. I am a huge Pete Seeger fan, and also greatly admired Peter, Paul and Mary.

(In fact, this no doubt had an influence on the kind of writer I turned out to be. One school of writing says, if you want to send a message, call Western Union. Another -- the one Pete Seeger (and Woody Guthrie) and Peter, Paul and Mary -- subscribed to says, if you want to send a message, send a message! I'm of the latter school, and it's the protest songs of these artists that influenced me.)

Mary -- Mary Travers -- of Peter, Paul and Mary passed away today.

Among the songs the group was known for: "If I Had a Hammer" (which they performed during the 1963 March on Washington), "Where Have All the Flowers Gone?," and "Blowin' in the Wind" (and, yes, "Puff, the Magic Dragon").

The New York Times has an death notice.

And here's Pete Seeger himself introducing a clip of Peter, Paul and Mary. I have tears in my eyes right now listening to it.

Frolic in the autumn mist, Mary: you deserve it. What you did mattered, and it made a difference.
Visit The Robert J. Sawyer Web Site


Friday, February 27, 2009

The Rocky Mountain News folds

The Rocky Mountain News, a major daily newspaper in Denver, Colorado, one of the few US dailies to routinely and intelligently review science-fiction novels over the years, is gone.

Mark Graham, the usual SF reviewer there, had been very kind to me. For instance, on Calculating God, he wrote:
"I always look forward to Robert J. Sawyer's books. One reason is that Sawyer is just about the best science fiction writer out there these days: compelling stories, believable scenarios, science and fiction that really interact. But the main reason is that after reading and reviewing several Sawyer novels, I know that each book he writes will be unique.

I think it is safe to say that no book of popular science fiction exists that is remotely similar to Calculating God. In an effort to convince Tom Jericho of God's existence, Hollus uses scientific laws and the mathematics of probability. His arguments are the most convincing I have seen since Thomas Aquinas — maybe more so.

I have always thought that a good novel keeps readers turning the pages to find out the fate of characters they care about. But for fiction to be called literature, the story should stay with readers and keep them thinking about it long after the book has been put away. It is safe to say that Sawyer has accomplished both with Calculating God
The paper went on to name Calculating God the best SF novel of the year -- giving it the paper's Rocky Award -- and included it on their list of the year's best books of any type.

And on me in general:
"Here are a few of the things I like about Robert J. Sawyer: His novels are fast moving and tightly constructed; his characters are developed so that I care what happens to them; the science in his science fiction is intrinsic to the plot but not so arcane that readers have to be nuclear physicists to understand it; and he doesn't imitate others or himself."
Robert Charles Wilson and I had a wonderful lunch with Mark Graham at last year's Worldcon in Denver (Mark's a big fan of Bob's books, too), and when I was in Denver on book tour for Rollback, Mark gave the introductory comments about me at my event at The Tattered Cover.

The Rocky Mountain News published its last edition today, 55 days shy of its 150th birthday. They will be sorely missed by the science-fiction publishing industry.

The Robert J. Sawyer Web Site

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Sunday, January 25, 2009

Skeptic Henry Gordon dies

Eric McMillan, the Chair of Skeptics Canada, reports:
With great sorrow, we report that Henry Gordon has passed away.

Henry was a professional magician, journalist, book author, and leading Canadian skeptic. He was a founder and chair of the Ontario Skeptics, a precursor to Skeptics Canada, for which he remained chair emeritus and a respected member. He was also a fellow of the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (CSICOP), now CSI. He was well-known internationally for his exposures of Uri Geller, Shirley Maclaine and other paranormal practitioners in his books, articles and television appearances.
I was quite an admirer of Henry, and even named an institute after him in my first novel, 1990's Golden Fleece. In a scene written March 14, 1989, I wrote [from the point of view of a scheming artificial intelligence]:
I made a mini-backup of myself so that I could undertake the interactive dialogue necessary for testing. I let the backup play inquisitor, while I, on the lowest and most simplistic level, tried to access the Aaron Rossman memories I had recorded. It was a tricky process, involving as much learning about Aaron's particular style of recording information as it did fine-tuning my ability to access specific facts.

The discovery by Barnhard and his group at the Henry Gordon Institute in 2011 that each human seemed to use a unique encoding algorithm put an end to the claims of psychics, mind readers, and other charlatans. Oh, it could be demonstrated that humans did indeed give off electromagnetic signals that corresponded to their thoughts. And, indeed, if one had sufficiently acute sensing devices and the ability to screen the weak signal from the background EM noise, then, yes, one could detect that energy. But the fact that every individual used a different encoding algorithm and key, and, indeed, that many individuals used multiple algorithms depending on the kinds of thoughts they were thinking -- the alpha and beta waves of the EEG being the crudest indication of that -- meant that even if you could pick up the thought signals, which seemed impossible without direct physical contact with the person's head, you couldn't decipher the thoughts without massive number crunching.

Number crunching, of course, is something I have a knack for.
Given who Henry was, it would be wrong to say he's passed on or to wish that he might rest in peace. Henry is gone, pure and simple -- and the world is poorer for it.

The Robert J. Sawyer Web Site

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Wednesday, January 14, 2009

R.I.P., Señor Armando

All the press coverage about the passing today of the very talented Ricardo Montalbán is mentioning his work on Fantasy Island and Star Trek. And, of course, I loved his portrayal of Khan.

But you know what his best work was? The role of Señor Armando in Conquest of the Planet of the Apes, the fourth film in the series. (He was also in the third, playing a younger version of the same man, but that was a flamboyant performance.)

In Conquest, the darkest film in the series, he was really called upon to act, and he rose beautifully to the challenge, playing the world-weary father figure to Cornelius the chimpanzee as a man of integrity and honor; he brilliantly underplays the role, one of only two sympathetic humans in the entire film.
Police officer: "Circuses are past history."
Armando: "Not while I live and breathe."
Rest in peace, Señor Montalbán.

The Robert J. Sawyer Web Site


Patrick McGoohan passes

"Where am I?"

"In the Village."

"What do you want?"


"Whose side are you on?"

"That would be telling. We want information. Information! Information!"

"You won't get it."

"By hook or by crook, we will."

"Who are you?"

"The new Number Two."

"Who is Number One?"

"You are Number Six."

"I am not a number -- I am a free man!"

(maniacal laughter)

Patrick McGoohan, star, creator, producer, and writer of The Prisoner, one of the most amazing TV shows of all time, passed away yesterday. He was 80.

The Robert J. Sawyer Web Site


Friday, December 5, 2008

Forrest J Ackerman passes

Monday, April 22, 1996: Carolyn and I arrive in Los Angeles for a few days of vacation leading up to the Nebula Awards ceremony. Went to NBC, but arrived too late to get tickets to The Tonight Show and so we drove around in our rental car, looking for somewhere to eat, and found a Sizzler.

Across the room, I recognize a man whose photo I'd seen many times: Forrest J Ackerman, the great science-fiction fan, editor, agent, and collector. He was eating with some friends of his.

I thought, what the heck, I'd go up and say hello:

"Mr. Ackerman, you don't know me, but my name is Rob Sawyer, and I'm visiting from Toronto."


"Yes, and, well, I'm here for the Nebula Awards banquet -- see, my novel The Terminal Experiment is one of the nominees this year, and --"

"Then you must come back to the house!"

My heart almost stopped. "The house," I knew, was the famed Ackermansion: the giant, sprawling home that contained his amazing 300,000-piece collection of science-fiction books, magazines, and film and TV props, costumes, and memorabilia.

When lunch was done, Forry took us to his place, and OMG, it was incredible. He gave us a two-hour private tour of his 18-room home, and it was unbelievable. The robot from Metropolis. A Cylon from the original Battlestar Galactica. One of the sets of makeup appliances worn by Kim Hunter as Zira in the original Planet of the Apes. Two different sizes of Martian war machines from George Pal's The War of the Worlds. And so much more.

I remember Forry's wonderful kindness to a young writer he'd never met before. And I remember, all over his mansion, portraits of his deceased wife Wendayne, and how he spoke repeatedly about her with so much love.

I'm not given to believing in such things, but I do sincerely hope they're together now. Forrest J Ackerman passed away yesterday at the age of 92.

The Robert J. Sawyer Web Site


Monday, June 23, 2008

George Carlin passes on

Last week, I posted my comments on the American Film Institute's list of the top-10 SF films, and suggested some of my own substitutions for that list.

That list only went to ten places, but one that's on my own list of the top 20 SF films is Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure. Seriously. If you've never seen it, you should. It gets all the time-travel stuff exactly right; all the historical stuff right; and is very, very clever and funny -- a much better film than Back to the Future, for my money. And it starred George Carlin.

Carolyn and I went to see George Carlin perform in Las Vegas in 1994. He died yesterday. R.I.P, Mr. Carlin.

The Robert J. Sawyer Web Site


Friday, June 13, 2008

Eulogy for Bill Dial

Baby, if you've ever wondered,
Wondered whatever became of me,
I'm living on the air in Cincinnati.
Cincinnati, WKRP.

Got kind of tired of packing and unpacking,
Town to town, up and down the dial.
Baby, you and me were never meant to be,
But maybe think of me once in a while.

The Robert J. Sawyer Web Site


Bill Dial, R.I.P.

In the introduction to my short story "Star Light, Star Bright," which appears in my first collection, Iterations, I wrote:
In 1997, I happened to run into WKRP in Cincinnati star Gordon Jump at a deli in Los Angeles; I introduced myself by saying I wanted to shake the hand of the man who had uttered the funniest line in sitcom history -- a line that was echoing gently in my mind as I wrote this story.
Sometimes, people send me emails asking just what the heck was the line I was referring to. It was, of course, "As God is my witness, I thought turkeys could fly," and it comes from the WKRP episode "Turkeys Away."

The man who penned that line, Bill Dial, has just passed away, as SF Scope reports. He also wrote for the later Star Trek series, and appeared twice on WKRP (very memorably uttering the line "Speed kills, Del" in another episode) as dour radio-station engineer Bucky Dornster.

R.I.P., Bill Dial.

The Robert J. Sawyer Web Site


Thursday, May 15, 2008

Eric Layman passes on

A fixture of Toronto SF fandom, and a mainstay of the science-fiction club U.S.S. Hudson Bay, Eric Layman passed away recently. A poet and a thinker, Eric could be cantankerous, but he was always courtly toward my mother, who sometimes attended meetings of that same club. He won an Aurora Award in 2004 for his fan writing.

Eric was born in December 1943 in New Westminster, British Columbia, and died April 27, 2008, in Toronto, unexpectedly, after a brief bout of pneumonia. A bio of him, published in 2000 in the club newsletter, is here.

The last time I saw him was at the Hudson Bay meeting on April 12, 2008, a special filk-concert meeting he'd organized for the club. The photo of Eric above was taken by me at a party at my place on January 14, 2006.

Eric was intelligent and talented and passionate, and my friend. He's already missed.

The Robert J. Sawyer Web Site


Monday, January 28, 2008

Ed Hoch passes

For over thirty years, my family had a vacation home near Rochester, New York, and I got pretty plugged into the literary community down there. And the grand old man of Rochester letters was Edward D. Hoch -- a real gentleman, and a very fine writer.

Peter Sellers and I published a story by him in our book Over the Edge: The Crime Writers of Canada Anthology (yes, even though he was an American, Ed was a dues-paying member of the Crime Writers of Canada).

Ed had a story in every single issue of Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine since May 1973 -- over thirty-four years without missing an issue.

He passed away earlier this month at the age of 77, and he shall be sorely missed.

Here's the New York Times obituary.

The Robert J. Sawyer Web Site


Monday, January 7, 2008

Robert Fitzhenry passes

My Robert J. Sawyer Books imprint is published by Red Deer Press, which, in turn, is owned by Fitzhenry and Whiteside, a long-established, mid-sized Canadian publisher, run by Sharon Fitzhenry, daughter of co-founder Robert I. Fitzhenry.

Sharon's dad just passed away. There would be no Robert J. Sawyer Books -- and a lot less Canadian publishing in general -- if it hadn't been for him, and he will be missed. The Globe and Mail ran this brief obituary, with the promise that a full one is forthcoming:
Toronto -- American by birth but Canadian by choice, publisher Robert Fitzhenry died at home in his sleep on Thursday, Jan. 3. He was 89.

A wordsmith and an entrepreneur, he moved across the border in 1966 and co-founded Fitzhenry & Whiteside, a significant distribution company that represented Harper & Row (now part of HarperCollins) and other American houses, especially in the 1970s and 1980s. Mr. Fitzhenry published a number of Canadian reference books, including the Funk & Wagnalls Canadian College Dictionary and the Fitzhenry & Whiteside Thesaurus, Book of Quotations, Book of Canadian Facts and Dates and Trees in Canada.

He had been in ill health since suffering the first of two serious strokes in 1995. Predeceased by wife Hilda and daughter Bridget, he is survived by daughters Sharon and Hollister Doll (Holly) and three grandchildren. There will be a private family funeral followed by a public memorial service at a later date.
As another science-fictional connection, it should be noted that Fitzhenry & Whiteside used to be the Canadian distributor of Ace Books.

Rest in peace, Mr. Fitzhenry.

The Robert J. Sawyer Web Site


Friday, September 14, 2007

Percy Rodriguez, R.I.P.

Canadian actor Percy Rodriguez -- known to Classic Star Trek fans as Commodore Stone from "Court-Martial" -- has passed away.

It's hard to overstate the impact in 1967 of having Captain Kirk's superior officer be a black man, and the absolute authority and dignity Rodriguez brought to the part was perfect.

I'm sorry to see him go; I've always liked his work. He was born in Montreal in 1924.

IMDb entry

Wikipedia entry

The Robert J. Sawyer Web Site


Friday, August 3, 2007

Benjamin Libet leaves us

Those of you who've read my Mindscan may remember this scene that takes place shortly after Jake has his consciousness copied into an artificial body:
I went to see Dr. Porter about the problem with thoughts I intended to keep private being spoken aloud.

"Ah, yes," he said, nodding. "I've seen that before. I can make some adjustments, but it's a tricky mind-body interface problem."

"You've got to fix it. Unless I explicitly decide to do something, it shouldn't happen."

"Ah," said Porter, his eyebrows working with glee, "but that's not how humans work -- not even biological ones. None of us consciously initiate our actions."

I shook my head. "I've studied philosophy, doc. I'm not prepared to give up on the notion of free will. I refuse to believe that we live in a deterministic universe."

"Oh, indeed," said Porter. "That's not what I meant. Say you walk into a room, see someone you know, and decide to extend your hand in greeting. Of course, your hand doesn't instantly shoot out; first, stuff has to happen in your brain, right? And that stuff -- the electrical change in the brain that precedes voluntary action -- is called the readiness potential. Well, in a biological brain the readiness potential begins 550 milliseconds -- just over half a second -- prior to your hand beginning to move. It really doesn't matter what the voluntary act is: the readiness potential occurs in the brain 550 milliseconds before the motor act begins. Okay?"

"Okay," I said.

"Ah, but it's not okay! See, if you ask people to indicate exactly when they decided to do something, they report that the idea occurred to them about 350 milliseconds before the motor act begins. A guy named Benjamin Libet proved that ages ago."

"But -- but that must be a measurement error," I said. "I mean, you're talking about milliseconds."

"No, not really. The difference between 550 milliseconds and 350 milliseconds is a fifth of a second: that's quite a significant amount of time, and easy enough to measure accurately. This basic test has been replicated over and over again since the 1980s, and the data are rock solid."

"But that doesn't make sense. You're saying --"

"I'm saying that what our intuition tells us the sequence of events should be, and what the sequence actually is, don't agree. Intuitively, we think the sequence must be: first, you decide to shake hands with your old friend Bob; second, your brain, in response to that decision, begins sending signals to your arm that it wants to shake hands; and third, your arm starts to swing up for the handshake. Right? But what really happens is this: first, your brain starts sending signals to shake hands; second, you consciously decide to shake hands with your old friend; and third, your arm starts to swing up. The brain has started down the road to shaking hands before you have consciously made any decision. Your conscious brain takes ownership of the action, and fools itself into thinking it started the action, but really it's just a spectator, watching what your body is doing."

"So you are saying there's no free will."

"Not quite. Our conscious minds have the free will to veto the action. See? The action begins 550 milliseconds prior to the first physical movement. Two hundred milliseconds later, the action that's already been started comes to the attention of your conscious self -- and your conscious self has 350 milliseconds to put on the brakes before anything happens. The conscious brain doesn't initiate so-called voluntary acts, although it can step in and stop them."

"Really?" I said.

Porter nodded his long face vigorously. "Absolutely. Everybody's experienced this, if you stop and think about it: you're lying in bed, quite mellow, and you look over at the clock, and you think to yourself, I really should get up, it's time to get up, I've got to go to work. You may think this a half-dozen times or more, and then, suddenly, you are getting up -- the action has begun, without you being consciously aware that you've finally, really made the decision to get out of bed. And that's because you haven't consciously made that decision; your unconscious has made it for you. It -- not the conscious you -- has concluded once and for all that it really is time to get out of bed."

"But I didn't have this problem when I was biological."

"No, that's right. And that was because of the slow speed of chemical reactions. But your new body and your new brain operate at electrical, not chemical, speeds, and the veto mechanism sometimes comes into play too late to do what it's supposed to do. But, as I said, I can make a few adjustments. Forgive me, but I'm going to have to pull back the skin on your head, and open up your skull ..."
That was based in large part on the pioneering research of Benjamin Libet. Sadly, Dr. Libet passed away last week, at the age of 91. I'm sorry to see him go. Wikipedia has a good article about him. R.I.P., Dr. Libet.

The Robert J. Sawyer Web Site

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Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Anna Nicole Smith

Air Canada managed to get me on a later flight, after my earlier flight from Vancouver was canceled because of an impending snow storm in Toronto, and so I'm now home safe and sound in freezing Mississauga (quite a contrast to the balmy weather in Victoria).

I've been on the road for five days, but it feels longer; I'm exhausted, and will sleep in tomorrow. (If I had my druthers, I'd stay in tomorrow, sitting by my fireplace, but I have to go out and pick up my tuxedo for the Book Lover's Ball on Thursday ...)

It was on this trip to Victoria that I discovered that Anna Nicole Smith had passed away. I was sorry to hear that; her life had turned out to be such a sad struggle. And then it occurred to me that I actually mention her (not unkindly) in Rollback. There will doubtless be those who will comment on what they perceive as insensitivity in this -- naifs who think books appear in stores within days or weeks of their authors finishing them. But, of course, Rollback was finished long ago (on April 24, 2006, to be precise), and was serialized in Analog months before Anna Nicole's passing. I hope she rests in peace.

The Robert J. Sawyer Web Site


Sunday, January 21, 2007

Denny Doherty, R.I.P.

I am a huge fan of the Mamas and the Papas, and usually have a CD of theirs in my CD changer.

Denny Doherty, the Canadian member of the group, passed away on Friday, here in Mississauga. He was far too young to go; just 66.

I was telling a friend just a couple of weeks ago that one of my big regrets was missing the play "Dream A Little Dream" that Doherty wrote about the Mamas and the Papas, when it was at the Hart House Theatre in Toronto in 2001.

I will miss him, and tonight, I will listen again to his music. Nothing unusual about that, except this time, it'll make me sad.

The Robert J. Sawyer Web Site


Monday, October 30, 2006

Howard Miller, R.I.P.

Those who bother to read the Acknowledgements in my novels may have notice the name Howard Miller there; it's in just about every novel of mine starting with The Terminal Experiment (and will be in the Acknowledgments of my upcoming novel Rollback).

Howard read and commented on those books prior to publication, as well as End of an Era, Starplex, Frameshift, Illegal Alien, Factoring Humanity, Calculating God, Hominids, Humans, and Mindscan.

Howard passed away last week. We'd been friends for at least fourteen years, maybe longer. We'd met through the Science Fiction and Fantasy Forums on CompuServe, and kept in touch by email -- which, for Howard, was the best way to communicate, for he was both deaf and blind ... not to mention confined to a wheelchair.

Howard died from respiratory failure, after being admitted to the hospital with pneumonia. He made the decision himself to halt treatment, and, according to his grandmother and his cousin, was conscious and lucid to the end. The funeral was on Sunday; Howard was buried on Long Island, New York.

He read my novel manuscripts on an electronic Braille display -- and always managed to catch typos that every one of the sighted people who read the books in manuscript missed. Indeed, in December 1994, Howard asked me to write him a letter of reference about his skills as a proofreader, which he was hoping to develop into a business. Here's what I had to say (and I meant every word):

To whom it may concern:

I've been fortunate enough to have Howard Miller proofread diskette copies of the manuscripts of my last several novels prior to their typesetting. Even though the manuscripts had already been read innumerable times by myself, my wife, and several writing colleagues, Howard nonetheless found errors that had slipped by everyone else (not to mention having eluded my word-processing program's spelling checker).

These days, I wouldn't want my editors to see a manuscript that hadn't first been checked by Howard. He is fast, efficient, accurate, and pleasant to deal with. I wholeheartedly recommend his services.

But Howard's contributions went far beyond just catching typos. He had an extremely sharp intellect, and was always quick to debate issues and ideas. And he was constantly sending me links to interesting web pages and news stories.

Howard wrote science fiction himself. Checking my notes I see that on October 29, 1992 -- exactly 14 years before Howard's funeral -- I wrote a critique of the first 4,200 words of Howard's science-fiction novel Beneath the Martian Crust.

We only met in person once, and that was at ConAdian, the 1994 World Science Fiction Convention in Winnipeg (which he'd learned about from me). I was privileged that Howard considered me one of his favorite authors (he sometimes ordered autographed copies of my books from me to be sent to his family members); another of his favorites was Anne McCaffrey, and I had the honor of introducing Howard to Anne in the flesh at that same Winnipeg con.

As some of you know, my current writing project, the novel Wake, features a deafblind character. Although in my book the character is a young woman, there's no doubt that she is in large part inspired by Howard, and I was so very much looking forward to having his feedback on the manuscript. He was my dear friend, and I shall miss him.