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Robert Charles Wilson:
Eight Random Thoughts
The Introduction to
Robert Charles Wilson's
"Julian: A Christmas Story"
by Robert J. Sawyer
Copyright © 2005 by
Robert J. Sawyer
All Rights Reserved.
In 2006 PS Publishing, a prestigious small press in England,
produced a beautiful signed, limited edition of Robert Charles Wilson's
novella "Julian." I was honoured to be asked to write the introduction.
Bob later expanded the novella, which was nominated for a Hugo,
into a full-length novel published by Tor.
Robert Charles Wilson was the Author Guest of Honor at Ad Astra,
Toronto's annual science-fiction convention, in 2003. As the con
was approaching, Bob confessed to his wife, the vivacious Sharry,
that he had no idea how to craft a Guest of Honor speech. She
said, "Just write down the next six or eight thoughts that come
into your head give them five minutes each, and you're
done." Bob took her advice and gave the best GoH talk I've ever
heard (the text of which is online as
"Eight Random Thoughts"
on Bob's own website).
Well, in a spirit of homage and because I have no better
idea of how to capture all the complexity and wonder that is the
man in question I hereby offer up eight random thoughts on
Robert Charles Wilson.
1. He's an excellent writer.
Not just an excellent science-fiction writer which is
sometimes said when one wants to damn with faint praise but
an excellent writer, period. He's one of those, like Theodore
Sturgeon (to whom Bob was often compared early on), that we can
hold up as incontestable proof that SF does produce writing as
fine as anything in the mainstream. I say Bob used to be
compared to Sturgeon; he's still every bit as good, but Bob's
focus has shifted, quite noticeably of late, to hard SF, with
novels such as Blind Lake and Spin which does
make for a problem: there is in fact no one to compare the
modern Bob Wilson to. He's sui generis: a hard-SF writer
with the soul of a poet; a dreamer who can write with equal
facility about cosmic events spanning billions of years and
single heartbreaking moments in quiet, ordinary lives.
2. Bob's writing is fractal.
Many authors shine best at a specific length, but Bob Wilson's
work shows the same marvelous qualities at any scale. He's had a
pair of extraordinary thousand-word microfictions published in
the British science journal Nature (one of which was
subsequently picked up for Gardner Dozois's Year's Best
anthology). He's written stunning short stories of more
traditional lengths (many of which are collected in The
Perseids). His novelette "The Cartesian Theater" has
been singled out by multiple reviewers as the best piece in the
remarkable 2006 anthology Future Shocks, edited by Lou
Anders, and "Julian: A Christmas Story," the novella you're about
to read, is a masterwork. As for novels, Bob serves 'em up both
short and long: Bios can't be more than 60,000 words,
while Spin weighs in at 140,000 (and he's not done yet
for the first time ever, Bob is writing a sequel; yes,
folks, the Spin Cycle has begun!). But no matter what length
he's working at, Bob provides pitch-perfect, highly polished
prose; brilliant, original speculations (I'm frankly jealous of
the genius behind the central conceits in The Chronoliths,
Blind Lake, and Spin); and characters so nuanced
and vivid you'll swear you can hear them gently breathing if you
hold one of his books up to your ear.
3. Bob loves science fiction.
I mean, he really loves it. How can I tell? Well,
there's a science-fiction bookstore near Bob's home called Sci-Fi
World and that's where he chose to get married. Actually,
he and Sharry tied the knot in the Sci-Fi Café, a fast-food joint
attached to the store; the signature item on the menu is the
twelve-ounce Mothership Burger. It turned out to be a
superlative venue for the wedding of a guy who loves to read SF,
loves to write it, and loves to talk, as he often does with great
affection, about what he calls the genre's wonderful, weird,
gaudy history. (Bob has done a great job of educating Sharry
about this crazy stuff he loves so much; Sharry, incidentally, is
a proofreader for Harlequin romances theirs is an inspiring
4. Bob hates science fiction.
Or, more precisely, he hates what's wrong with the field
and he knows exactly what that is. In the summer of 2005,
Bob, Nalo Hopkinson, and I were summoned down to the Canadian
Broadcasting Corporation's studios to record a joint interview
for a radio documentary about SF. During it, Bob made a point
that I'm still repeating (with attribution!) about SF having
become so inbred, and so reliant on assumed familiarity with its
core texts, that it has set up an insurmountable barrier to
newcomers. But Bob's own work is an antidote for that. He
writes for a larger audience; although his concepts are as
mind-blowing as anything in Robert Forward or Larry Niven, anyone
can read and enjoy a Bob Wilson book (indeed, my own father reads
only two SF authors: me, out of paternal pride, and Bob).
5. Bob's an outsider.
And he likes it that way, I think. The dust jacket for the
gorgeous hardcover of his latest novel, Spin, says he
lives in Toronto, but that's not true. The northern border of
Toronto is a street called Steeles Avenue, and he lives just
beyond that. I think this is wonderfully appropriate: Bob is
just outside of a lot of things. He was born in the US, but now
lives in Canada, looking back at his homeland from just beyond
its borders a circumstance clearly echoed in his writing:
Blind Lake is all about eavesdropping from a distance;
Spin puts a literal, physical border around Earth, and has
a Martian look on. (Yes, a Martian in modern SF and he
pulls it off!) Speaking of Mars, I remember the absolute glee
with which Bob watched every day as new pictures taken by
Spirit and Opportunity were beamed back from there;
Bob was in his heaven, comfortable in his bright, airy home, old
vinyl records playing on the tube-driven stereos he lovingly
restores, peeking in at the goings-on on an alien world ...
6. He's won lots of awards.
And, I'm proud to say, I helped give him his first. Long before
Bob and I became friends, I was on the jury for the Philip K.
Dick Award, which honors the year's best SF book published in the
US in paperback. The other jurors and I kept grousing that most
of what we'd seen was unworthy, and, in one of our conference
calls for deliberating, I said, "You know, I just read a book
that was better than anything that's been submitted
Mysterium, by this guy, Robert Charles Wilson."
Another juror piped up to say he'd admired Mysterium, too;
we got on to Bantam and had them send copies to the rest of the
jury, and Bob was ultimately named our winner. Since then, he's
John W. Campbell Memorial Award
(for The Chronoliths), and three Canadian
(for the short story "The Perseids" and the novels
Darwinia and Blind
Lake), plus he's been nominated for four
Hugos, three World
Fantasy Awards, and two
Nebulas, and had three of his titles
named Notable Books of the Year by the New York Times.
It's a CV better than that of 99% of the writers the SF field has
ever produced, but, in a field plagued by giant egos, he never
mentions any of this. Our man Bob does no self-promotion, rarely
goes to cons, doesn't have a blog, doesn't maintain a website.
He just writes, and lets his brilliant words speak for
7. He's unassuming.
You might think a guy who uses three names would be swaggering
and pompous the Charles Foster Kane of sci-fi;
alternatively, you could be waiting for Locus to report
that he's been arrested as a serial killer, SF's own John Wayne
Gacy. But, in fact, Bob's triple-decker moniker is to
distinguish him from Robert Anton Wilson (although these days, I
suspect it's the Illuminati author who is less well
known); there already were authors using "Robert Wilson" and
"Robert C. Wilson." But you've got to give Bob credit; he really
did try not to have such an overwhelming byline: his first
published story, in Analog, way back in 1975, was signed
Bob Chuck Wilson. (On the other hand, the less said about Bob's
occasional pseudonym Uriah Cuthbert Poon the better ...)
8. He's my brother.
See, in SF circles, we're known as "Rob and Bob," or as
I've overheard it said a couple of times (and I'm sure Bob
cringes as much as I do at this) the Bobbsey Twins: two
middle-aged, balding, bearded, bespectacled science-fiction
writers living in Toronto. We've also been called (by the
Ottawa Citizen, no less) "the Martin and Lewis of SF."
But I think the comparison is more like Kirk and Spock: I'm
outgoing; Bob's reserved. I'm constantly joking around; Bob's
wit is subtle and dry. And yet, as Kirk once observed, he and
Spock are brothers (to which Bob might reply, as Spock did on
that occasion, that, "Rob is speaking somewhat figuratively, and
with undue emotion, but what he says is logical and I do, in
fact, agree with it.") Of course, we weren't born
brothers, but we became so and I know precisely when. In
1998 Tor Books, and Tor's Canadian distributor, H.B. Fenn and
Company, sent Bob and me out on book tour together, promoting his
Darwinia and my
Factoring Humanity. We hardly knew
each other then, and we were both somewhat nervous, I think
after all, spending many sleep-deprived days together on
the road was a recipe for friction. But there was none; instead,
Bob and I bonded, becoming the very best of friends. Tor and
Fenn teamed us up again in 2005, sending us to fourteen cities in
fourteen days promoting my
Mindscan and his Spin;
every moment was a joy. There really is no one I feel closer to
in this profession, nor anyone I like more. That I happen to
think he's also just about the best writer in the business is
merely a bonus. But don't take my word for it turn the
page and see for yourself.
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