Interview: Robert J. Sawyer

Robert J. Sawyer is the Hugo-, Nebula-, and John W. Campbell Award-Winning author of 20 novels and several short story collections. An Ontario native, he can frequently be found as a guest of honour at Science Fiction Conventions around the globe, or online at Today he talks about literary heroes, science fiction both in Canada and Hollywood, and what we have to look forward to with novels number 21 and 22.

I think of some of the Canadian science fiction authors I read regularly: Margaret Atwood, Robert Charles Wilson, Cory Doctorow, Robert J. Sawyer. At least when it comes to fiction, you’re the only prominent SF writer I know who explicitly writes from a Canadian perspective. (Editor’s Note: Many GMR readers are no doubt familiar with the work of Charles de Lint and Tanya Huff, both of whom frequently write urban fantasy from a Canadian perspective.) Why do you think an Irish, Colombian, or Japanese writer will happily write a work of fiction firmly rooted in their own culture, while a Canadian, particularly a Canadian genre writer, will think the most natural thing in the world is to set their story in some version of the United States? Did you make a conscious decision to avoid always doing so yourself?

I very much made a conscious effort to be conspicuously Canadian. When I was starting out, twenty-odd years ago, everyone was telling Canadian writers not to set their work in Canada if they wanted an international audience. I could understand that for mystery writers—the laws of the land are different on each side of the 49th parallel, and US readers might not understand Canadian jurisprudence. But for science fiction, the stricture seemed to make no sense: the laws of physics are the same on both sides of the border.

Of course, when I was starting out, [no] domestic Canadian publisher was doing science fiction. Later on, a few small players emerged, and one or two actually survived. But it finally reached the point where Canadian publishers were vigorously courting me, and Penguin Canada went so far as to hire a new genre-fiction specialist to work with me and writers like me, and that’s terrific.

The knee-jerk desire to not set something in Canada is part of the Canadian national inferiority complex: we figure no one could possibly take any interest in us. But for a science-fiction writer, Canada is an amazing place. I’ve taken full advantage of such Canadian settings as the Sudbury Neutrino Observatory (in Hominids and its sequels) and the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics (in Wake and its sequels).

Also, Canada at its best is a political and societal model for the twenty-first century — a compassionate, fiscally sound, high-tech, non-aggressor, conservationist, liberal, semi-socialist democracy that celebrates multiculturalism and believes in gender equality and doesn’t discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation — that the rest of the world needs to see, and I take pleasure in showing it to the readers of my books in 20 languages around the globe.

Your upcoming novel, Triggers, is due to be released in April. What can you say about it?

I got a huge new audience for my books because of the FlashForward TV series, based on my novel of the same name (which, of course, is also available as an audiobook). In some ways, that series was very much typical Robert J. Sawyer — with a lot of philosophical musing and big ideas. But the producers wrapped that up in a thriller package with conspiracies and federal agents. I thought it would be prudent to offer a novel that would appeal to that new audience without alienating my traditional readers, and so I crafted Triggers. The main character is a female Secret Service agent dealing with an attempted assassination of the US president, and the discovery that someone whose identity is a mystery can read the president’s memories.

You’ve described Triggers as a thriller. Was it a very different experience to write than your other books?

Sure. But I try to make every book a different experience. Otherwise this would start to seem like a job!

Was it good to do a stand-alone novel after finishing your WWW trilogy?

Yes, indeed. In fact, I think I’m through with trilogies. I’ve done three now, one apiece for each of the three ways one might construct such a thing. With my first trilogy of Far-Seer, Fossil Hunter, and Foreigner, I wrote a novel that was a success, was asked for a sequel, did that, and it, too, was a success, and was asked for another one. With my second trilogy of Hominids, Humans, and Hybrids, I did a natural triptych: a modern-day Neanderthal comes to our world, one of us goes to their world, and a final volume in which the characters try to find the best of both worlds. And for my latest trilogy of Wake, Watch, and Wonder, I did what Tolkien did with Lord of the Rings — write one massive book that was published as three volumes. The trilogy form doesn’t hold any further creative challenges for me, and I much prefer writing standalones, so I think it’s going to be standalones from here on in; certainly my next two novels after Triggers, with the working titles of The Great Martian Fossil Rush and The Downloaded, are standalones.

I attended one of your readings for Wake, and I was struck by an observation you made. Our survival instinct, our aggression, all of our human emotions and tendencies have been hard-wired into us over the course of millions of years. But an artificial intelligence, whether it came into being spontaneously or was programmed, doesn’t have that evolutionary baggage. Similarly, you’ve imagined versions of “the other” as modern day Neanderthals, dinosaurs, and many alien species in your past books. Do you also “discover” these species by imagining their evolutionary history up to the present?

Absolutely. All species are products of their evolutionary history. To create the Tosoks for Illegal Alien, for instance, I started right back with the equivalent of the earliest aquatic vertebrates on their world. The fact that they have a front hand and a back hand, and that one is clearly stronger than the other, led in part to their self-righteousness: their conviction that one side is clearly right and the other is wrong. For the Quintaglios in Far-Seer and its sequels, so much of their culture and psychology came from their evolutionary past as highly territorial carnivores. And so on.

Are there any literary heroes you would cite as having a major influence on your writing?

Arthur C. Clarke taught me the sense of wonder and that you and write about metaphysical issues without being irrational. Isaac Asimov taught me that you can write exciting books without violence or physical action. H.G. Wells taught me to use science fiction as a means for social comment. Frederik Pohl taught me that characters don’t have to be likable but merely realistic. And Canadian writers Terence M. Green and Eric Wright taught me to keenly observe the minutiae of everyday life and the foibles of individuals.

What about the books or authors you are really enjoying right now?

I get almost no time for pleasure reading, sadly. It’s almost all research for my books. But I always enjoy the fiction of fellow Ontario writers Robert Charles Wilson, who writes great science fiction, Peter Robinson, who writes great mysteries, and Linwood Barclay, who writes great thrillers.

Fox has just announced a series based on Lev Grossman’s novel, The Magicians. Recently, HBO’s A Game of Thrones mini-series, based on George R.R. Martin’s book, was nominated for 13 Emmy Awards. Of course Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, and Narnia have dominated the summer movie market for a decade. Do you think science fiction in popular culture has declined at all as a result of the major trend upwards in fantasy the last 10 years or so?

It’s not a zero-sum game. Science fiction has declined, without question, but that’s a response to world events: the end of the American-crewed space program; the end, indeed, of the American century; the squelching of science education in schools; the general unease about whether we even have a future. Sure, there are a lot of fantasy movies and TV shows, but there are also a lot of reality TV shows and comic-book-inspired movies and movies about couples, and so on. More power to those things that are having success, but their success didn’t come at the expense of science fiction.

Speaking of television adaptations, your WWW trilogy of Wake, Watch, and Wonder, has been optioned by Original Pictures. You must be excited about that.

Yes, I’m very excited. Kim Todd, Nick Hirst, and I are the Executive Producers. We’ve come up with a very good take on the material, and really think it would make an outstanding ongoing series. We’re trying to line up a broadcaster now.

You were quick to make the switch from paper books to e-readers. Is there a particular device you would recommend for late-adopters?

I’m a big fan of touchscreen e-ink devices, which are passively illuminated, rather than the current crop of LCD color-tablet-devices, which are not nearly as comfortable for reading books. Any of the Kindle, Kobo, or Nook touchscreen devices are fine choices. My current favorite is the Kobo Touch, which has a lot of user control over page layout and font choice.

Triggers has just been released. Have you begun thinking about your next project, or is it too early to say?

Oh, I’ve almost finished my next project. Triggers will be out April 3, 2012, and my deadline for the book after that is about a month later, but I’ve almost finished the first draft. It’s a hard-boiled detective novel set on Mars called The Great Martian Fossil Rush.

Thanks so much for taking the time to answer these questions today. Was there anything else you wanted to say to your readers?

Go to your local independent bookstore and buy some books there. Support them. They need it.

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