Sunday, June 28, 2009

Writers make their characters up

Yesterday, as part of my outreach duties as writer-in-residence at the Canadian Light Source synchrotron, I attended a book club meeting; the clubs members -- six very nice women -- had all just read my John W. Campbell Memorial Award-winning 2005 science-fiction novel Mindscan.

At one point, I got asked the inevitable question: who are the characters based on? And to answer that I opened one of their copies of my book and read this little scene, because not only is the answer true, it's also important. Here, Jake Sullivan is oohing and aahing over meeting Karen Bessarian, author of some beloved young-adult novels:

"I can't believe I'm sitting here talking to the creator of Prince Scales."

She smiled that lopsided smile again. "Everybody has to be somewhere."

"So, Prince Scales — he's such a vivid character! Who's he based on?"

"No one," said Karen. "I made him up."

I shook my head. "No, no — I mean, who was the inspiration?"

"Nobody. He's a product of my imagination."

I nodded knowingly. "Ah, okay. You don't want to say. Afraid he'll sue, eh?"

The old woman frowned. "No, it's nothing like that. Prince Scales doesn't exist, isn't real, isn't based on anyone real, isn't a portrait or a parody. I just made him up."

I looked at her, but said nothing.

"You don't believe me, do you?" Karen asked.

"I wouldn't say that, but —"

She shook her head. "People are desperate to believe writers base our characters on real people, that the events in our novels really happened in some disguised way."

"Ah," I said. "Sorry. I — I guess it's an ego thing. I can't imagine making up a publishable story, so I don't want to believe that others have that capability. Talents like that make the rest of us feel inadequate."

"No," said Karen. "No, if you don't mind me saying so, it goes deeper than that, I think. Don't you see? The idea that false people can just be manufactured goes to the heart of our religious beliefs. When I say that Prince Scales doesn't really exist, and you've only been fooled into thinking that he does, then I open up the possibility that Moses didn't exist — that some writer just made him up. Or that Mohammed didn't really say and do the things ascribed to him. Or that Jesus is a fictional character, too. The whole of our spiritual existence is based on this unspoken assumption that writers record, but they don't fabricate — and that, even if they did, we could tell the difference."

Visit The Robert J. Sawyer Web Site

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Saturday, May 9, 2009

Podcast: Sawyer neurosciences talk at Penn

On Wednesday, May 6, 2009, Hugo and Nebula Award-winning science-fiction writer Robert J. Sawyer gave an invited 90-minute talk at the Center for Cognitive Neuroscience [pictured] at the University of Pennsylvania ("Penn"). Sawyer was the first science-fiction writer ever invited to speak at the Center.

Sawyer's talk delved into the cognitive science, neuroscience, and other areas that informed the portrayal of a sentient World Wide Web in his 2009 novel Wake and the uploaded consciousnesses in his 2005 John W. Campbell Memorial Award-winning novel Mindscan.

SPOILER WARNING: His talk contains major spoilers for both books, giving away significant plot points; please do not listen to the talk until you've read these books. (However, he talks about them separately -- first Wake, then Mindscan.)

The talk is here as an MP3 file.

"Thank you again for making the trip to Penn! It was wonderful to finally meet you, after enjoying so many of your books. Your talk exceeded my fondest hopes -- it was so clear and interesting and provocative! -- and the group adored it."

-- Martha J. Farah, Ph.D.
Director, Center for Cognitive Neuroscience

"I enjoyed your talk immensely. It fit the bill perfectly in showing how excellent speculative hard science fiction can be informed by and inform those of us in the cognitive neurosciences."

-- Anjan Chatterjee, M.D.
Professor of Neurology

Information on booking Robert J. Sawyer as a speaker is here.

Visit The Robert J. Sawyer Web Site

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Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Philosophical Speculations

Randy Jansen, Ph.D., Professor and Chair, Department of Philosophy, at Northwestern College in Orange City, Iowa, has a great blog called "Philosophical Speculations: An Exercise in Wondering," and he recently did a very kind post about -- cough, cough -- Robert J. Sawyer, saying, among other things:
Many of Sawyer's books (although I confess I haven't read them all) are driven by a provocative thought experiment, often just the sort of thing that you'd find widely discussed in the philosophical literature. What would it be like if... everyone in the world were to catch a glimpse of the future? Or if we were to discover scientific evidence of a soul leaving the body at death? Or if we were able to return our aging bodies to their youthful condition? Or if we were to encounter an alien who believed in God? If you want to know what Sawyer thinks it'd be like if such things were to happen, read Flashforward, The Terminal Experiment, Rollback, and Calculating God, respectively. You can count on his books to engage your mind not only with plot and character but with ideas.
He then goes on to discuss Mindscan.

The post about me is here, and this is a general link to his blog.

The Robert J. Sawyer Web Site


Sunday, January 25, 2009

Bibliographies in novels

An academic on a listserver I read just asked about bibliographies in SF&F novels. My reply:
I sometimes include a bibliography. The one from my novel Hominids (Hugo winner, 2003; Tor Books) is online here.

And the one from my novel Mindscan (John W. Campbell Memorial Award winner, 2006; Tor Books) is online here.

But it's hardly a new practice. For instance, the horror novel The Night Stalker by Jeff Rice, basis for the Kolchak movies and TV series, first published in 1973, has an extensive bibliography (mostly about vampirism) including, cutely, a couple of made-up citations attributed to one of the characters.

The Robert J. Sawyer Web Site

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Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Rollback nominated for Campbell Memorial Award

I'm delighted to report that my novel Rollback has just been nominated for the John W. Campbell Memorial Award, the top juried award in the science-fiction field.

The full list of nominees is here.

The Campbell jurors are:
  • Nebula-winning physicist Gregory Benford, author of the classic SF novel Timescape
  • Historian Paul A. Carter, author of The Creation of Tomorrow: Fifty Years of Magazine Science Fiction
  • Hugo-winning author and scholar James Gunn, past president of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, and SFWA Grand Master Award recipient
  • Elizabeth Anne Hull, past president of the Science Fiction Research Association
  • Christopher McKitterick, associate director of the Center for the Study of Science Fiction
  • Hugo-winning scholar Farah Mendlesohn, editor of Foundation: The International Review of Science Fiction
  • Nebula-winning author and editor Pamela Sargent, editor of the Women of Wonder anthologies
  • T.A. Shippey, editor of The Oxford Book of Science Fiction Stories
The winner will be announced at the joint Campbell / Science Fiction Research Association conference in Kansas City, July 10-13, 2008.

Other honors to date for Rollback include its current Hugo Award nomination, a nomination for the Aurora Award, starred reviews (denoting a book of exceptional merit) in both Publishers Weekly and Library Journal, being included on the American Library Association's list of the year's 10 best SF novels, and being a Main Selection of the Science Fiction Book Club.

This is my fourth Campbell Memorial Award nomination. I won the award in 2006 for Mindscan, and was previously also nominated for Calculating God and Hominids. That's my trophy for Mindscan pictured above.

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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Friday, January 12, 2007

Kliatt on Mindscan

With all this talk about my upcoming novel Rollback, I wouldn't want to forget good old Mindscan, my current book.

And, as it happened, I saw a very nice new review of it today, from Kliatt, the principal reference used by schools and libraries for choosing young-adult material. Says the reviewer, Dr. Lesley Farmer:
Want to read a SF story that creates a movie in your mind? Then Mindscan should be your choice. Jake Sullivan is the appealing protagonist. This is high-quality, clever and thought-provoking near-future SF. The characters are nuanced, and the plot is believable. The story is a nonstop feast and inspiration for a great movie. Recommended.



Thursday, December 29, 2005

Mindscan paperback in my hands

MindscanWoohoo! A delivery man just dropped off two cartons of the Tor mass-market paperback of my Mindscan. It looks fabulous! It should be showing up in stores shortly (it's a January 2006 title).

I'm pleased that Tor has priced it aggressively. My last mass-market edition, Hybrids, was US$7.99 and Cdn$10.99; Mindscan is the same length (100,000 words), but is priced at US$6.99 and Cdn$9.99.