Friday, 30 March 2012

Interview with Robert J. Sawyer

Photo Credit: Christina Molendyk

Robert J. Sawyer is one of only eight writers in history to win all three of the science-fiction field’s top awards for best novel of the year: the Hugo, the Nebula, and the John W. Campbell Memorial Award. He has published in Science (guest editorial), Nature (fiction), and Sky & Telescope, was a participant in the workshop “The Future of Intelligence in the Cosmos” sponsored jointly by the NASA Ames Research Center and the SETI Institute, and is a contributor to DARPA’s “100 Year Starship Project.” His website is

  1. During your childhood, was there a film, television show, comic or novel, which acted as a primary catalyst to your passion for science fiction?
All of those except for the comic.  On TV, it was Star Trek: The Original Series, on film it was 2001: A Space Odyssey, and as for novels, it was the wonderful book The Enormous Egg by Oliver P. Butterworth.

  1. You have won over forty awards for fiction, including the Nebula Award, the Hugo Award, the John W. Campbell Memorial Award and several Aurora awards. What would you say is the key to your critical acclaim and phenomenal success?
Doing that one thing that hard science fiction is traditionally the least good at:  putting believable human characters in fantastic situations.  Most SF—especially hard SF—has cardboard characters; I labor hard to make mine live and breathe.

  1. In the world of publishing, there seems to be ongoing tension between independents and the established, traditional publishers. What advice, or encouragement, can you give to independent authors and publishers? 
For independent authors, remember that quality does matter.  Hire yourself an editor, a copyeditor, a proofreader, and a real cover artist—all four of them.  You’re competing with those who are having those skills brought to their books by their traditional publishers, and each of those experts brings an enormous amount to the finished product.  At the moment, for most independent authors, you’re competing mostly on price, at least in the ebook arena: you’re cheaper than the ebooks from the traditional publishers.  But ebook prices from traditional publishers are bound to drop, and then you have to compete point-for-point with authors who have a solid professional team behind them.

For independent publishers, stop overstating things.  Print publishing isn’t dead, it’s not “legacy publishing,” and you haven’t yet taken over the world and perhaps never will.  For every reader you win over with hype, you turn one off.

  1. Tell us about Triggers.
Well, Publishers Weekly calls it “a turbo-charged technothriller,” and that pleases me because it’s exactly what I was trying to produce.  It’s a slam-bang novel about an attempted assassination of the US president, and an experiment that goes awry, linking people’s memories—including letting some unknown person read the president’s memories, thereby posing a huge risk to national security.

  1. Why did you write this book, and what do you hope to achieve with it?
In 2009-2010, ABC aired a wonderful TV series based on my novel FlashForward.  That novel, like most of my novels, was a thoughtful, philosophical tale, but ABC turned it into a conspiracy-theory thriller—with my approval and cooperation, I hasten to add: I wrote one of the episodes and consulted on all of them. I gained an enormous number of new readers because of that series, but they expected something like what they’d seen on TV—and so I decided to give it to them, while hopefully still serving up the philosophy and introspection my existing readership has come to expect from me.

  1. You are a teacher of science fiction writing who has served as Writer-in-Residence for several prestigious institutions. You are also a highly respected authority and keynote speaker on technology and future genetics with an interest in palaeontology. Did your lifelong interest in science fiction inspire your study of science, and how has it influenced your writing?
I was a science fan first, ever since I was a little boy. When I was in public school, I wanted to be a palaeontologist, and I was also fascinated by astronomy.  It was definitely my interest in science that led me to science fiction, not the other way around.  For me, the most interesting questions in science are the speculative ones  why did the dinosaurs die out (which was a big mystery when I was a kid), what causes galaxies to have the shape they do (which is still a big mystery).  The speculation fascinated me, and when I found there was a field of literature devoted to asking such questions and positing entertaining and intriguing answers, I was hooked.

  1. What do you find most rewarding in the writing process?
Feedback from readers.  My readers have been hugely supportive over the years, and many have become friends.  It’s so gratifying to know that they’re enjoying my work.  I write for them.

  1. What do you find most challenging, and how do you overcome it?
Keeping up my own level of interest during the year-long process of creating a book.  Around about the halfway mark, when I’ve finished all the research and am well into the manuscript, I start to get antsy for moving on to my next project. Fortunately, I know other writers, including the wonderful horror writer Edo van Belkom, who have the exact same problem. They talk me through my crisis, and I talk them through theirs.  It’s always worked—so far!

  1. Rationalism versus mysticism and the intersection between science and religion is often explored in your work. Do you come from a religious family background, do you have strong religious views, and would you argue that there is a place for religion in science fiction?
Exactly the opposite.  I come from a secular background.  My father is a non-practicing Anglican and my mother is a Unitarian—and I’m an atheist.  But unlike most atheists, I don’t disparage those who have beliefs.  I’ve met too many thoughtful, questioning, intelligent people who believe in God to dismiss them.  I don’t have any patience with fundamentalists, but those are only the fringe, fortunately.  And given that science fiction is indeed the literature of ideas, there are no more interesting ideas to explore than whether there are intellects greater than our own that might have had a hand in how we got here, and what might become of us after we die.  I explore the former in Calculating God and the latter in The Terminal Experiment, and I think it’s only in science fiction, with its tradition of grand thought experiments, that you really can grapple with such issues.

  1. In a genre where many writers opt for dystopia, disaster and nihilism, your work is often refreshingly optimistic particularly regarding the future of humanity. Tell us why you believe the future of the human race is bright.
Simple:  the central skill of the science fiction writer is the extrapolation of trends, and the world has been consistently improving over time.  The smallest percentage of the population ever is currently involved in armed combat, the highest number are literate, and so on.  We also are more compassionate than we’ve ever been, according the rights of personhood to a larger proportion of the human race than ever before.  If you don’t believe me, read the excellent non-fiction books The Evolution of God by Robert Wright and The Better Angels of our Nature by Steven Pinker.

  1. My wife is Armenian and the cosmopolitan approach to science fiction pioneered by the original Star Trek is very close to my heart. With prominent characters such as Karen Bessarian in Mindscan, and Professor Ranjip Singh in Triggers, can we deduce that the inclusion of diverse races and cultures is important to your work? And if so, why?
Absolutely. I grew up watching the original Star Trek, and that inclusiveness just seemed so natural to me.  Plus, I grew up in Toronto, which the UN officially recognized as the most multicultural city on the planet.  The future belongs to the whole human race; I’d be doing a disservice if I didn’t reflect that in my fiction.

  1. Tell us about FlashForward.
It’s a novel about everyone on Earth blacking out for two minutes, and those who survived waking up with overlapping visions of what, it seems, the future is actually going to hold.  My novel came out in 1999, and it was adapted for television by ABC Studios in 2009. 

  1. What aspirations, or reservations, do you have regarding the screen adaptation of your original books?
I loved the FlashForward TV series, and I’d very much like to see other works of mine adapted for the big or small screen.  I have no problem with liberal adaptations; after all, my books, with my specific visions, will always still exist.

  1. Tell us a little about a good science fiction or fantasy book you’ve read recently.
Julian Comstock: A Novel of 22nd Century America, by Hugo Award-winner Robert Charles Wilson.  It takes on religious fundamentalism in the US, and, with some of the current debates going on, it could not be more timely.  Plus, it’s a joy to read.

  1. What new developments, in the world of science fact, excite you?
Exo-planets!  I love that we finally are discovering strange new worlds—and that so many of them are so strange is just fabulous.

  1. Tell us about your other interests.
I love palaeontology, I used to captain a pub-league trivia team, I enjoy reading, and I love to travel.


Dedicated website for my WWW trilogy: