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Interview with Robert J. Sawyer
Here is our complete interview with Robert J. Sawyer. An abridged version appears in Challenging Destiny Number 5.
interview by James Schellenberg & David M. Switzer
CD: Are there particular writers you consider major influences on your writing?
RJS: Within the SF field, the biggest influence on me was Arthur C. Clarke. My first novel, Golden Fleece, was clearly an homage to 2001. It's about a sentient computer aboard a spaceship that commits murder, which is a premise that obviously impressed me greatly when I first saw 2001 in 1968, when I was eight years old. We got to go see it in its first run on the big screen, in 70 mm -- it was wonderful. The sense of wonder in Clarke's work is something that I always try to bring to my work, this kind of transcendental sense that somehow by reading SF you've sort of touched the infinite. I think he does that very well.
Although I did once do a trilogy -- Far-Seer, Fossil Hunter, and Foreigner -- I did not in fact enjoy doing a trilogy, and Clarke once said the best way to end a book is so that the reader can write the sequel in his or her own mind. You see that in 2001, you see it in Childhood's End, and you see it in Rendezvous With Rama. In fact, Rendezvous With Rama is the perfect example, because it ends with that great line, "The Ramans do everything in threes." Then he actually, with Gentry Lee, wrote the sequels -- which sucked. It would have been much better not to do that. So you'll find often at the end of my books that there's an epilogue or a final scene that opens up a whole new doorway, but I never go there. I leave it for the reader to go there. People keep asking me, "When's there going to be a sequel to Golden Fleece? When's there going to be a sequel to Starplex? When's there going to be a sequel to Terminal Experiment?" And my answer is: Whenever you sit down and think it up in your own mind, that's when there'll be a sequel.
The other writer in SF who had a huge influence on me was Frederik Pohl, but only really the work he did in the 1970's. In the 1970's he did a few really spectacular novels, in a career that before and since was prolific but relatively mediocre. In the seventies he did Gateway, which I think is the finest SF novel ever written, and he also did Man Plus, and Gem, and The Cool War. I read all of those, and as a teenager I was shelling out to get new Pohl in hardcover, because it was so good. There were two things that he brought to his work that I took from him. The first was the idea of doing hard SF, which is what I do, but that was character-based. Clarke has never been a characterization person but Pohl, when he's good, is. Gateway is a brilliant novel of characterization set against a brilliant hard SF idea. You do the idea in two paragraphs, and the whole novel's exploring the characterization.
The other thing that Pohl did, and you see it again in Gateway, is use main characters who are not heroic, and not necessarily even good people. There's a very poignant scene in Gateway -- and this was the first time I'd read something like this in SF -- where the main character, Robinette Broadhead, had become friends with a handicapped person who wanted to go on this space voyage with Robinette. Robinette told him: oh for sure, we're buddies, you're coming with me, no problem. And then when the guy wasn't around, Robinette went and arranged to make sure that this guy would be excluded from the mission, because he was uncomfortable with him and didn't want him around. And every bit of SF I'd ever seen -- and I grew up watching Star Trek in the 1960's -- was incredibly hopeful, positive, and all the characters were better than I was or anybody else I knew was. They were something that you would strive to be, but were unrealistically good characters. You saw this so much in the SF that was influential, certainly in the sixties and seventies: Paul Atreides in Dune is like a quintessential hero, and there's nothing less than heroic about him for even a moment of the book. But Pohl wrote characters that were deeply flawed, and weren't necessarily even likable, and this was a big epiphany for me, the realization that the protagonist doesn't necessarily have to be a hero. And I think you see that a lot in Terminal Experiment: Peter Hobson is a deeply flawed character around whom events flow in the novel without him necessarily being entirely admirable or likable. I think that makes for much more sophisticated fiction when you put aside the idea that the character has to be somebody you admire, and I think you get much better fiction if the character is somebody who is interesting and believable and multi-layered. Admirable characters tend to have only one layer: they do the right thing in all circumstances. Captain Kirk is a perfect example. I grew up with Captain Kirk, who had a huge impact on me. This was a man who was a great leader, and when he made a mistake he would always apologize. You would see him say he was sorry to Uhura or Scotty if he had been harsh with them. Even when he was bad he went and rectified it afterwards, and that was the quintessential SF hero. But I realized that flawed characters were much more interesting characters to write about, and that came from Pohl.
Outside of SF, Harper Lee's To Kill A Mockingbird is the novel that influenced me the most in my life. I think it's the best novel I've ever read. I like it because it does a couple of things really, really well. One is: the main story is apparently about a couple of kids having adventures over a summer holiday, but what it's really about is racism and the coming of age of the South in dealing with black civil rights in the South, at the same time that these kids are coming of age. The idea that the overt content, what the book appears to be about, isn't really what it's about at all has appealed to me enormously. A novel of mine, Fossil Hunter, which appears to be about a power struggle on a planet of intelligent dinosaurs, in fact is about the Roman Catholic Church and its stance on birth control and abortion. What it's really about is completely different from what the surface content appears to be, and certainly that's something that Harper Lee gave me as a mode of writing.
CD: You mention that book specifically in Frameshift.
RJS: Avi Myer in Frameshift actually ruminates on the book because it had a profound effect on him. I think they make you read a lot of dumb books in high school English class, but that's one of the few ones that I can see you giving to a student that they would carry with them for the rest of their life, as something that really had an impact on them.
Another enormous influence is classical Greek tragedy--Sophocles, Aeschlyus, Euripedes -- I studied that at length; it's a narrative form that, if you're familiar with, you see all kinds of echoes of. In Fossil Hunter, there's a character called The Watcher, who appears between chapters and makes commentary -- he's just the chorus out of a classic Greek play. In Flashforward, that I just finished, for the first time I have a main character who's Greek, and he's reflecting on the hamartia that propels Greek tragedy -- is there a way to avoid your fate? Golden Fleece again is told entirely from the point of view of a computer, which is really just the eyes and ears on the wall in the novel and really I was telling the novel from the point of view of the chorus in a Greek tragedy.
Robert B. Parker's Spenser novels had a big impact on me, for dialogue. Eric Wright, a Canadian mystery writer, had a big influence on me for his eye for detail. Terence M. Green, another SF writer who's also Canadian, stylistically.
CD: What authors do you read these days?
RJS: In SF, one of the most interesting things that I've read recently is Jack McDevitt's Ancient Shores, which is archaeological SF set entirely on Earth, and does one of the things that I also try to do well. One of the things that I try to do is write SF that can be read by people who are not SF fans. If you pick up Frameshift, for instance, you don't have to have read Heinlein and Clarke and Asimov, you don't have to know the three laws of robotics, you don't have to know what an ansible is or what FTL means or any of those things. It's a story that anybody can read that happens to be a SF story. And there aren't a lot of authors who are doing that. Far too many authors are mining this very narrow vein of SF for people who have read SF since they were six years old. McDevitt, brilliantly, in that book writes a mind-expanding SF novel that could be read by anybody. I think it's severely hampered by the cover that HarperPrism gave it, which is a cover that would turn off anybody except a dedicated SF reader. It's got this alien vista, it's got the requisite buxom woman on it and all of that. The book starts off in this bucolic setting in North Dakota on farm land, and it's almost like -- maybe you saw in physics class once upon a time this movie Cosmic Zoo where two people are having a picnic and they keep pulling back, back, back until it's the entire universe -- he almost pulls that off, in a sense, in this novel. And I think it's the best SF novel I've read in the 1990's including, I dare say, even my own work.
Outside of SF, the best novel that I've read is Carol Shields' The Stone Diaries, a Canadian-authored book and Pulitzer Prize winner. I spend a lot of time teaching SF writing, and also a fair bit of time editing -- recently doing Tesseracts 6, and I just finished another anthology for Pottersfield Press called Crossing The Line. SF, more than any other genre, is ruled by writers workshops. People who go to Clarion have somehow bought themselves a credential to call themselves an SF writer, without ever having published anything -- you pay the money, you take the course. I have taught an SF writing course at Ryerson, and another one at the University of Toronto. I find that in SF -- and you see this in book reviews because book reviews tend to be written by beginning writers (more experienced writers have more valuable things to do with their time than reviewing other people's work) -- you get these beginning writers who do book reviews and they'll always point out, as if it's a flaw in a novel, when somebody does something that violates one of the standard bits of received wisdom that is foisted upon you in a creative writing class. In The Stone Diaries, Carol Shields breaks every single rule you'll ever hear from a creative writing instructor. There's that rule: Show, don't tell. She tells for fifty pages without showing you a single thing, but it's brilliant. There's that rule where you should only have one viewpoint character in every scene. She's bopping around from head to head like a ball in a pinball game, and yet it's fascinating because it works really well.
CD: So, structurally, a lot of interesting things are happening.
RJS: A structurally fascinating book, so much of it is passive, correspondence or diary entries, all the kinds of things that a creative writing instructor would go and kill in a writer, a writer who had the idea of trying something stylistically a little bit different. They'd just say: you can't do that. Not only was it a great book, but also it was Carol Shields, who herself has gone through what we all do of teaching creative writing at some point, thumbing her nose at all the other creative writing teachers, and saying you can tell a really good story, and there are no limits on how you can tell it. What counts is not the checklist of things that they give you as guidelines in a creative writing class, what counts is the effect that the reader is left with at the end of the tale. She did that brilliantly, so that's my recommendation. Even if all you read is SF, that one is well worth reading for getting a sense of how good fiction that isn't like the Clarion cookie-cutter can be.
CD: Have you seen any good movies lately?
RJS: Actually, I tend to think that the best SF movies are the ones people won't even recognize as being SF. I thought -- and I nominated for the Hugo -- that Liar, Liar was the best, if not SF, then certainly speculative fiction or fantasy film of the last few years. It takes that classic thing, that one premise, which is: suppose a little boy's birthday wish could come true. That's the only speculative element in it, but it's there, and the entire film evolves naturally from that. I thought it was a brilliant piece of fantasy film-making. One of the things the last couple of years of movies has made apparent to me is that SF books and movies are different art forms, and they work better when they follow their own separate paths. The worst SF films of the last few years in many cases have tended to be the SF films based on novels. The Postman, obviously, is the classic example. But Starship Troopers is a letdown, and Sphere is a good example. And even Contact, which I thought was brilliantly done, was so much less than what the novel was, and philosophically, I thought it destroyed the message of the novel. The message of the novel Contact is there are two belief systems, there's religion and there's science, and science is the superior belief system. In the movie, one or the other, you take it or you leave it, whichever one you prefer, they're both equally valid. And in fact if a man wants to ruin a woman's career, as Matthew McConaughey does to Jodi Foster, just because he doesn't agree with her philosophically, well that's okay too. So I thought what they actually did was a dumbing down of what Sagan set out to say, and I rather suspect that he would have been quite vocally disappointed with the film had he lived to see it come out.
But the SF film that I thoroughly enjoyed last year was Gattaca, which is not based on anything except somebody doing in many ways similar stuff to what I was doing in Frameshift, somebody looking at everything that's happening in genetics, and trying to come up with a story to tell about it. If you think about the Gattaca story for any length of time, it falls apart, but that's okay, because film isn't necessarily about a rigorous linear narrative that makes sense at each and every instant. It's about stunning visual images that leave you again with an effect or an impact at the end.
That said, I would love to have the money that goes with having one of my books turned into a film, but I can't imagine being happy with it. The only author I ever heard of being happy with his adaptation was Frank Herbert, who was said to be ecstatic with Dune -- which just sucked. This was a guy, normally a brilliant guy, who just got so dazzled by the klieg lamps and so forth that he had no sense at all of how they were dumbing down, destroying and muddifying what he had been trying to do. There's just no way you can go into it with anything other than: this is my retirement, if they do it, I've got money for retirement now, my financial woes are over.
CD: Tell us about the film rights that have been optioned on your books.
RJS: With Illegal Alien, we had two competing bidders, one in Hollywood and one in Toronto. I am a Canadian patriot and my hope was that we could end up going with the Canadian one. Ultimately, the bids ended up being so similar in terms of the amount of money being offered and the other terms, that it really just came down to me choosing, and I chose the Canadian one, in part because it's a lot easier for me to go visit the set. And because I think the guys who have optioned it -- which are David Coatsworth, who is a major producer, and Michael Lenick, a major special effects designer -- I think they really can do it and will do it in a way that I won't be ashamed of. One of the things the other guys were talking about was making the aliens humanoid. In Illegal Alien I went to great pains to devise non-human aliens, and the Canadian group said: that's a real challenge because no one's ever done that. They've done non-human aliens like in Alien that you see in the shadows, or you see them in action scenes, but you've never had a novel that was essentially characters talking and interacting where the other character had to be done entirely by special effects, computer graphics, prosthetics and all of that. Nobody has ever really done that sort of thing. It's comparable to trying to do Larry Niven's Ringworld and have somebody believably do the Puppeteer as somebody you would talk to. I think these guys were excited by the challenge of that, and are undertaking to do it so I'm very pleased about that.
The Terminal Experiment has just recently changed hands. It was under option for two years to a British producer, and he left the company he was with in Great Britain. What he said to us was: I'm leaving my company in Great Britain at the beginning of November, and I'm coming to Los Angeles by the middle of November, and I know the option expires at the beginning of November. I don't want to renew it while I'm with the British company, I want to come to the States and renew it with my new company. So we said: that's fine, we gave him an indulgence, that is we were going to let the contract lapse but still let him pick it up at basically the same place he'd been. And he got to the States and he seemed to express great enthusiasm but nonetheless was dragging his heels, and so finally my agent started shopping the book around again. One of the people he sent it to was Jon Landau. When Titanic won the Oscar for best picture, two people went up on stage to accept the Oscar, the two producers of Titanic, James Cameron and Jon Landau. Although Cameron is the name always associated with Titanic publicly, Landau was in fact his full partner in the production of the film. So Landau actually has now the most recent best picture Oscar, and he's optioned The Terminal Experiment.
CD: You've had a lot of experience with some pretty intense negotiations.
RJS: Exactly. And he's an amazing guy. In addition to all the film-related stuff he does, he's also Bruce Springsteen's manager. You send out these books and you try all sorts of people, but this guy just came off of doing the biggest money-maker in the history of motion pictures, and now he's optioned my book so I'm just ecstatic.
CD: You mentioned that you write hard SF. Could you give us your definition of that?
RJS: For me, hard SF is SF in which: one, science is integral to the plot; two, the science is rigorously researched so that whatever is in the book either is true or is a reasonable extrapolation of things we know to be true. It doesn't necessarily mean that the book is about science per se. There are writers like Gregory Benford who write hard SF in which the science is in essence the book, and the character stuff is all secondary to that. And I don't think hard SF necessarily has to be non-character-driven SF. Not to say that Greg doesn't do great characters, but they clearly aren't the reason for the book. The reason for the book is the exploration of science. Charles Sheffield is another writer like that. But I think it's just a mindset of saying it's important to me as a skeptical person that the story that I'm reading, or writing, is something that might really possibly happen. I just have no patience whatsoever with fantasy. I can't read it, I don't enjoy it, I find it a silly thing for adults to be spending their time on. But SF, if as long as I'm reading it I'm willing to believe, I'm convinced by the writer and by the writer's research that this is, if not probable, at least plausible. That's important for me. That's what I refer to as hard SF. Star Trek, on the flip side, is soft SF where they just make up stuff as they go along, and Vulcans and humans can breed and produce offspring, which is ridiculous. That's hand-waving and giving an air of science by throwing in some jargon. Hard SF is where the science is pretty bullet-proof.
CD: Why do you write hard SF?
RJS: That's actually a very good question because I don't have a science degree, I have an arts degree in radio and television arts from Ryerson. But I've always loved science -- I just find science fascinating. I don't think there's a single question that you can ask about anything for which the scientific method isn't the best tool for providing the answer. It's obviously the best tool for providing: What crop should I grow in this field? But I think it's equally the best tool for answering: Is there a God? Or anything in between. We have developed over thousands of years a system of inquiry that works for whatever you want to throw at it. And writing books about something is important to me, not just writing plots, not just telling stories, but having books that have a philosophical content to them, that explore something important. For me, the right tool for exploring just about any important issue is science. Ask the questions, put forward a theory, test that theory, if the theory is no good discard it and come up with another theory. If you have a theory that seems to be working and new evidence presents itself, find a way to either incorporate that new evidence or again discard the theory. Make sure that what you see can be replicated by somebody else, so that they see it too. Think of all the stupid wars that have been fought over all the thousands of years by one guy who says he saw a god, and nobody else was able to see it but he's damned if he's going to be dissuaded by the fact that his results are irreproducible. I think it's a reasonable approach for structuring any sort of human intellectual inquiry, and no matter what I was writing, whether it's SF or nonfiction or haranguing tracts or something, they would be about serious issues and I think science is the right tool for addressing serious issues of any nature.
CD: You mentioned that you have a thing against fantasy, although you have written a few fantasies.
RJS: When I have written fantasy stories, they still seem to me like SF stories, although I have accepted something implausible or impossible as being part of them. And if you accept faster-than-light travel, you probably are putting a magical element in the story anyways. I have never of my own volition written a fantasy story. All the fantasy stories I've ever written I was commisioned to write -- an editor said: Will you write this story, or this book? I never write short fiction unless there's some pressing deadline, unless somebody's commisioned something. So when somebody says: Yeah, I'll buy this story if you write it, but it's for a fantasy themed anthology -- like my story "Peking Man" in Dark Destiny 3, like my story "Above It All" in Dante's Disciples -- I figure what the hell. But nonetheless it's all ridiculous. The thing is, SF, when it's good, is the farthest thing in the world from escapism. It's a literature that's designed to make you think. I just finished reading an interview with Dave Duncan in the book Northern Dreamers that just came out, where he talks about fantasy being a tropical vacation from the Canadian winter. Fantasy is getting away from it all, fantasy is putting aside your cares.
Almost all fantasy is based on a fundamentally ridiculous assumption, which is that there is pure good and there is pure evil and they are in conflict, and you can always identify which is which. And we don't see that hardly ever in the real world. Hardly ever have we seen any example of pure good or pure evil. Hitler comes the closest probably to being pure evil of anybody who's walked around in the twentieth century and had any kind of major role to play. But the idea that the entire universe breaks down into this struggle between light and dark, or good and evil -- there's just no empirical evidence that that in fact has any basis in reality, so why would we revel in reading stories about this? You might as well write stories about characters who on the one hand all of them speak in rhyming verse, and on the other hand all of them tattoo into each other's arms whatever it is they're going to say. Two opposing camps that are as ridiculous as the camps of pure good and pure evil. But for some reason there's a segment of the population, and I can understand the psychology -- there's a frustration and also an inability on the part of a lot of people to deal with moral ambiguity, and so they stay out of moral debates. They don't weigh in, they say I don't have an opinion about abortion, I don't know what we should do about aboriginal rights, I'm not sure what should happen in the post-apartheid trials in South Africa. People look for excuses to avoid having to face isssues, and in fantasy there are no issues, the issue is given to you on page one: here are the good guys, here are the bad guys; here are the white hats, here are the black hats. We'll wait and see what course of action will be required for good to triumph, but it always does. And I can see how that's comforting, but I like to think that adult readers aren't looking for security blankets. A child might take some pleasure out of a simplistic black and white, good and evil story, but I don't think it provides much nourishment for a sophisticated adult.
CD: As a hard SF writer, how do you get your ideas and research them?
RJS: It's the flip side, actually: you start doing the research and then the ideas just pop up. A classic example is Frameshift. I just sat down -- I knew I had to write a new novel -- and I started making a list of topics that sounded like they would be fruitful areas to explore. I wrote down artificial intelligence, I wrote down first contact with aliens, I wrote down genetics, I wrote down three of four others. Then I just stared at the list for a while, and I decided you could not pick up a newspaper, or read Time or Maclean's, without constantly seeing articles about genetics, and breakthroughs: they've discovered the gene for this and the gene for that. And I thought this has to be a very fruitful area. I didn't have a plot at all, I didn't have anything other than: I was going to write a book about genetics. I sat down and spent two months just reading about genetics, without any preconception of what I was going to find, just reading articles about genetics and books about genetics, and noting down things that I thought might make interesting, dramatic situations. What were the issues in genetics? And was there a human being that I could use to illustrate those issues? People always ask where do you get your ideas as if they appear full-blown, as if you get ideas the way you get heartburn, it just suddenly is there. It doesn't happen that way. You spend months digging into a topic. For Frameshift, the words that kept coming up over and over again obviously were genetic testing, and discrimination by insurance companies, and in articles against genetic research you kept hearing the phrase Nazism being bandied about, and cloning. When you look at Frameshift, it's a story that involves human cloning and the search for a possible Nazi war criminal who might be in the human genome project, insurance companies discriminating against those who have genetic disabilities, and the impact of predictive testing on a specific human being. The issues were all there in the research, and I just kept looking to see ways to dramatize these to make a point about them.
And I didn't know what point I wanted to make at first. Anybody can have a facile opinion about anything. It's easy to say I think we should do this about Pakistan having done nuclear testing, but you have to really chew on this and decide what we really should do, after careful consideration, not: well, what we should do to restore peace to the world now that Pakistan and India are using nuclear weapons is we should nuke them all back into the stone age, and that'll solve the nuclear problem. The facile responses are easy to come by. By the time I finished Frameshift I had positions on all of those issues, but they weren't knee-jerk positions, they were considered positions. The big one that I came to that I feel quite passionately about is that the genetic revolution absolutely mandates the requirement for socialized medicine. The only effective way to have any kind of health insurance in the genetic age is if it's entirely socialized, if you share the risk across the entire population, because otherwise it just isn't insurance. If I go and say give me one of your cells, and I say you're going to have a heart attack at 45, we're not going to insure you for that; you're going to have Alzheimer's at 63, sorry we're not going to insure you for that; you're going to develop low sperm motility at 42, that one goes off the list too. That just isn't insurance. The only way to do it is you play the hand you're dealt, but everybody shares the risk across the board. And Frameshift, if it's in any way an important novel, it's important because its largest audience by far is in the United States, and that's a message that they need to hear.
CD: We really liked the aliens in Starplex. How do you create an alien race?
RJS: Here is, in the first interview ever, the secret of the Starplex aliens. Back in 1980, I tried to write a Star Trek novel -- this was before Star Trek V, back when there only was Star Trek: The Motion Picture -- and I tried to write a novel where the Enterprise met God. The editor loved the novel but rejected it on the basis that it was too controversial for their Star Trek line. One of the things that I set out to do in writing that novel was incorporate alien races that had been significant in the classic Star Trek TV series. They had a race called the Tellarites, who were these pig-like, quarrelsome aliens. And I sat down and thought to myself: how do you get to this point where you've got supposedly adult, mature beings who spend all their time arguing with each other? And I ended up developing a back-story for the Tellarites, based on: well, why would you end up with incredibly competitive, argumentative males? Maybe because there are seven males for every female and only one of them gets to breed, and that would engender a sort of competiveness. It's basically worked out from that point of view, where I started with an end point, and I changed a few details to give them extra arms and so forth. But I started with an end point that I wanted to justify, and then I tried to work backwards as to what physiology, and what evolutionary biology would have led to that.
The same thing happened with the Quintaglios in Far-Seer, Fossil Hunter, and Foreigner, where again when I was working on the Star Trek novel I tried to ask myself -- remember the Gorns from the Star Trek episode "Arena," who were these incredibly territorial, reptilian aliens. How does an alien end up having a civilization while still being so territorial that they wiped out a whole human colony because they got anywhere near them? And again I worked backwards, and in that case if you read the whole series it turns out to be a psychological rather than a biological explanation for that level of rabid territoriality. That's one way to do it. I just started with an alien that had intrigued me in Star Trek but on the surface made no sense, and how would I justify that.
The premise of the Star Trek novel that never got finished was that some millions of years ago, this being had come through the previous cycle of big bang-big crunch, and had been shaping life in this universe. The alien, the god, had decided that it wanted to die, but had no way to commit suicide, so it decided to guide the evolution of one galaxy, guide the evolution of all the races in that galaxy, to produce incredibly violent beings, and then go and challenge them so they would all come and kill it. So I was looking at all the different beings in Star Trek, and one thing they all have in common is they tend to be quite belligerent: the Klingons, the Romulans, the Gorns, the Tellarites were shown to be nasty guys. The Andorians we were told were a proud, warrior race. This kept coming up over and over again. In "Where No Man Has Gone Before," which is the second Star Trek pilot, we're introduced to the concept that there is this energy barrier around the galaxy. So I thought, okay, so the god had taken one galaxy, put a big barrier around it so none of these races could ever get out, then spent millions of years guiding their evolution so that they'd all end up being the meanest sons of bitches possible, and then have them all come at him so that he could finally die. I thought it was a really good premise, and I may still turn it into a novel at some point, but it set me to thinking: what kind of explanations could there be for all these violent races? The explanation on Earth is the simplest one of all, which is you just set plate tectonics going and you isolate populations for thousands of years, and then once they reach a level where they're sea-faring, suddenly they meet each other, and of course we have conflict, which is the whole bloody history of our planet. I don't think we ever would have had that level of conflict if we'd always been able to walk and talk to each other, instead of having mountain barriers and ocean barriers between us. So that's one way to do it.
The other way, which is in fact the more satisfying way because it has no other source material, is what I did in Illegal Alien, where you just start in the ancient past. If you followed all the information that came out from the Burgess Shale, which is this fossiliferous area from five hundred million years ago in British Columbia, it documents clearly something called the Cambrian Explosion. Five hundred million years ago dozens of different fundamental body plans appeared in the fossil record, and they were around for a short period of time, and almost all of them died out. One of the very few that survived was our body plan, which is a central spinal chord with two sets of parallel limbs off of it. But there were dozens of other different ones. And as many people have observed, Stephen J. Gould being the most famous one in his book Wonderful Light, any one of those body plans seemed to be just as good for the environment that existed five hundred million years ago. Now granted, this one did turn out to be pretty good for today, but the other ones might have as well. So I just thought, well why don't we just go back and start with a different fundamental body plan, and for the aliens in Illegal Alien, I started off with quadrilateral symmetry instead of bilateral symmetry, and with four limbs that were evenly spaced around shoulders, rather than two sets of limbs, one set of shoulders and one set of hips. And I started developing forward, running through five hundred million years of evolution. What would they look like after they got out of the water onto the land? How would they start using their limbs? How would they free up limbs for manipulative purposes while still having limbs for locomotive purposes? And when you follow that chain of reasoning, starting at the very beginning and going on, you develop a psychology for the aliens that's based on the body plan. In Illegal Alien it worked out perfectly. They had developed an asymmetry with four limbs that hung off the shoulders. The two on the left and the right remained long and hung down to the ground so that they could walk, and the ones in the front and the back became the manipulatory ones, but they gave preference to the one in the front, so that there's a strong front arm and a weak back arm. All of the concepts that we have in human psychology based on the two sides to every story, and everything moving from a continuum -- we talk about that in politics all the time, from the left to the right -- none of that exists for these people because they have a psychology that's based on one side always being immediately obviously stronger than the other side. The psychology that permeates Illegal Alien came from going right back five hundred million years and evolving forward a life form and seeing what it would develop.
So those are the two fundamental ways to do it. You either start with a finished product, and if it's an intriguing enough product, then you can backtrack some interesting stuff. Spock is an unintriguing alien because who cares why his ears are pointed instead of rounded, there's nothing intriguing about that. But aliens who are territorial and you would think could never even work together but somehow are, which is a throwaway in Star Trek, became the meat for three full novels that I wrote.
CD: You mentioned that you started writing a Star Trek novel. Would you consider writing one of these Star Trek or Star Wars novels or even a novelization these days?
RJS: The only kind of product like that that I would be remotely interested in doing would be one that I actually loved the source material for. So classic Star Trek, maybe Planet of the Apes which I also have a great fondness for. I might be intrigued if the opportunity presented itself to me. Well, it has -- I talked to John Ordover and he certainly expressed interest in having me write a Star Trek novel. But fundamentally I think franchise fiction and media tie-ins are bad for the genre, I think they've hurt SF enormously over the last decade. All the shelf space for them has come out of the SF section. Star Trek is a 1960's vision of the future, Star Wars is a 1970's vision, and yet these are the best-selling SF products that we have to offer in the 1990's? It's really disappointing for me how these things have flooded the marketplace. Also, there is a perception if you write franchise fiction, I think it really does hurt any aspirations you have of being taken seriously. Everybody points to Joe Haldeman: he wrote two Star Trek novels back in the 1970's. He was one of the first to write Star Trek novels. He won the Hugo for The Forever War and I think they paid him a hundred thousand dollars a book -- which was a lot of money back in the 1970's -- for these two Star Trek novels. And James Blish, who wrote all the novelizations of the original Star Trek TV shows, was a Hugo winner for A Case of Conscience. But this was early on in the game. When you look at the writers who are doing it today, they're almost without exception second string writers, writers who have no significant following for their solo, stand-alone work. And they all keep saying -- it's almost like a mantra for them -- that there's going to be crossover. That of the million people who buy the Star Wars novel, one per cent, which would be ten thousand, will run out and buy their novel. But in fact there's zero evidence that anything more than a couple of dozen readers give a damn that so-and-so is the author, and will seek out so-and-so's work. All they care about is the next adventure of Luke, Han, and Leia; or Kirk, Spock, and McCoy; or Picard, Data, and Riker. They don't care at all about the next book by fill-in-the-name.
CD: What inspired you to write, and how did you get started writing?
RJS: Well, I've been writing stories since I was a little kid -- I've always written stories. What got me started writing professionally was: in 1979 the Strasenburgh Planetarium in Rochester, New York -- my parents happen to have a vacation home near Rochester -- had a contest to write a SF story that would be adapted into a dramatic star show for the planetarium. I'm a planetarium junky, whenever I go to a town I go to the planetarium -- I'd been going to this planetarium for five years at that point. They were doing really creative stuff, so much better that what McLaughlin was doing. They were a smaller planetarium, smaller budget, but doing much more inventive shows and interesting special effects, and just not this incredibly ponderous approach to astronomy that McLaughlin had been doing. And they had this contest, judged by Isaac Asimov: write a short story up to five thousand or seventy-five hundred words, that could be adapted into a star show. And I entered and I thought that's great, I love Asimov, I love planetariums. I wrote the story, and I didn't win. They sent a letter out saying you didn't win, but we're having a reception for all the participants anyways who entered the contest. And I thought what the heck, I'll go down to Rochester for this event, and when I arrived they said: we've been trying to reach you for weeks. See, I cleverly used my U.S. vacation home address with nobody there in the winter, because I thought there might be a prejudice against a Canadian writer -- the only time in my life when I thought that might be true -- but it turned out there was no truth in it at all. They said well, Asimov picked this story and it was a great story but we can do it in seven minutes, it's just a short little punchline story that he really liked. To fill up the hour we want to do two other stories as well, and we want to do yours. So they actually did mine and two other people's. The other two guys never, as far as I know, published anything else ever again. I'm the only one who went off and did anything. And the story they did actually was, I wouldn't say it's an early version of the Starplex novel because the plot line is not the same at all, but it was about the starship Starplex, and introduced the characters and settings that I used subsequently in the book Starplex. That book came out in 1996, and this was a star show in the summer of 1980, so it took sixteen years for it to appear in book form. But that's what got me started. And after that, my first serious attempt, it was produced and I got some money, I was hooked and I just kept writing SF.
CD: How has your web site helped your career?
RJS: It's helped my career in a number of ways. The hardest thing for any writer is to get people to try their work. People are enormously reluctant. This is why the Star Wars and Star Trek crap continues to sell, because at least you know what you're getting, you know what kind of story it's going to be, you know what the equation is. I put down this amount of money, I get that many hours of relatively mindless, inoffensive entertainment. When you go and do a novel, people don't know you, they've never tried your work before, and these days novels are pretty damn expensive. Frameshift in hardcover was $32.95 Canadian, and that's a piece of change, right? I think it's worth every penny, but it's a piece of change. How do you convince people that they should try a novel? The traditional ways are what the publishers do: you try to put a good cover on, you try to have an intriguing blurb, three or four paragraphs that describe the book. I think a much more effective way is to say, as I do for all my novels: here are the opening chapters, read them at your leisure, print them out, read them in your bathroom, whatever. Give them a try, it doesn't cost you a thing. Try them at your leisure and if it intrigues you, then you can go to the bookstore and buy it. And that's been very effective. I've got all kinds of people who've said they're surfing the net, click here, click there, and end up at my web page, have never heard of the guy, try a few chapters and go to the bookstore or amazon.com or barnesandnoble.com and buy everything. So from that point of view, it's been effective in gathering new readers -- one.
Two, I'm not a prolific short story writer, but I do have a number of award-winning short stories. I don't have enough, though, to make a collection, so I put them all on my web page. People said you're crazy doing that because that'll kill your reprint market. In fact, exactly the opposite has happened. I keep selling reprint rights to my stories left, right, and centre all the time. I just sold three to a publisher in Poland, they bought the package of three of them for $250 U.S., which by Polish standards is a lot of money. I put the stories up there and the guy went and read them and said, can I publish these in my Polish magazine in translation, I want to translate them and put them in my Polish magazine. He never would've found me if it hadn't been for that. The column that I do for Altair, the Australian publication, is essentially the same column I used to do for On Spec. The guy had been looking at web pages, found my old On Spec columns, and he said, what do you want for reprint rights? And I said what do you want to offer? Well, he ended up offering double what On Spec had been offering for them the first time out, but in U.S. dollars instead of Canadian dollars. So I thought, yeah, okay, if you want. And it's constantly getting people picking up stories off my web pages or columns on fiction and wanting to pay to reprint them. So that's been enormously useful.
The third thing -- I've kind of hit the jackpot with this -- is in July 1998 I was USA Today Online's author of the month. They have one author every month that they highlight with a biography and links to buy their stuff at barnesandnoble.com, and they promote you for an entire month. The books editor does this just by going around, bopping around on the internet looking for interesting authors' pages. And because mine is elaborate and comprehensive and interesting, she said: would you like to be our author of the month for July? And this is huge: USA Today Online has thirty-five million hits a day. It's one of the most popular web pages in the world. It's the electronic edition of the USA Today newspaper. Not every one of those thirty-five million is going to go to the books page, but the amount of exposure that I'm getting through that is clearly more that all of my advertising all of my publishers have done for all of my books to date. And that comes directly from having done not just a web page--lots of authors have really weenie little web pages, maybe a picture of themselves and their cat, one old short story, and then a schedule of their public appearances that hasn't been updated for three years. I update my web page and something new goes up at least once a week, to keep people coming back. The cost of doing it is so infinitessimal and the results have been so outstandingly large that I can't imagine why anybody would not have a good, solid author's website. It's wonderful. So mention the URL: sfwriter.com.
CD: You were just elected president of the Science Fiction Writers of America.
RJS: It's actually the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America.
CD: What are you hoping to do with that organization?
RJS: Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America is the oldest and largest professional association of SF writers in the world. We've got fourteen hundred members, of which eleven hundred are voting members and three hundred are editors or cover artists or book reviewers, people like that, allied professionals, in twenty-three countries around the world. Despite the fact that we're in twenty-three countries around the world, we still are the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America. One of the things I want to do is get the organization more international in what it actually does. All of the major U.S. publishing companies are owned by non-American concerns, they're mostly owned by either German or Japanese companies. It's silly that we're pretending in 1998 that SF publishing -- even though the offices are in New York -- is still an American-controlled thing, when in fact it isn't, it's controlled in Europe and in the Far East. I think it's important that we recognize that aspect of it, that SF as a business is international. It's parochial and provincial of us to pretend that American publishing is the only thing that counts. Right now, if you sell a short story, we actually have a stupid rule, a legacy of one of my predecessors as president, which is: we accept for membership credentials publication in English anywhere in the Americas (Canada, the United States, Mexico, Central America, South America). But not in Great Britain. So if you sell a novel to HarperCollins Voyager, which is the big SF publisher in Great Britain, or to Interzone which is the top British SF magazine, you can't join SFWA. But if you sell a story to a little publication in Guatamala that happens to publish in English, you can. It's just ridiculous. So I want to rectify that; I want to make sure that we represent the professional interests of everybody who's publishing English language SF worldwide. I think it's premature for us to try and tackle the other languages, but it's ridiculous that we don't recognize the fact that British, Australian, New Zealand writers are all writing for the same companies anyway, in ultimately the same corporate hands. So that's one thing.
The other thing that's happened to SFWA over thirty-three years now that it's been in existence is, frankly, we've got a lot of deadwood in the organization. We have a policy that once you qualify for membership, you're a member for life. When I joined SFWA in 1983, they advertised in their recruiting brochures that if you put "active member SFWA" on your manuscript and sent it to a magazine like Asimov's, Analog, or F&SF, you'll go to the top of the slush pile, because it means that you're a professional and worthy of serious consideration. A survey was done last year by the magazine Speculations, which is an American semi-prozine devoted to the business of writing SF, and they actually went and asked every major editor in the field, book publishers and magazine editors, and said, what does it mean when it says "active member SFWA"? And every single one of them said not a blessed thing any more. The reason is that there's so many people in SFWA who either nobody even knows why they got awarded active membership status, or sold one story or even three stories in the fifties, sixties, or seventies and nothing since, or sold to questionable markets, that it no longer actually is the badge of an accomplished professional. For me -- I've sold twelve novels, I've won the Nebula award, I'm a four-time nominee for the Hugo award -- it makes no difference whether I put "active member SFWA" or not on my manuscripts. I get attention immediately, and so do all the big names in SFWA. What I want to do is have membership requalification: require every five years everybody to reapply for membership. This has been tried before, but it was perceived as the old guard trying to keep out newcomers, which is exactly the opposite of what we're trying to accomplish. We're trying to re-empower the newcomers. If you sold three stories but nobody knows your name, you're a newcomer to the field, you've just started out, you've sold to Asimov's and F&SF and an anthology published by Tor, you want to be able to have some way of making sure that the editor knows that you've reached a certain level of stature, just as they're sorting the manuscripts when they come in. "Active member SFWA" -- okay, I've got to give that one serious attention. That one over there I'll let the assistant read because there's no reason to think that it's anything but junk. I want to give that back to the beginning writers. The field is the toughest it has ever been. There are even magazines paying only in copies these days for god's sakes. It is the toughest it's ever been to make a living in this field, and the toughest for anybody to get into the field and catch on as a new name. I want to give that back to the beginning writers, and to do that, it's going to be acrimonious, there are going to be a lot of people who are against it, but I ran on a platform based on doing this, and I beat my next nearest opponent Norman Spinrad by a fifty per cent margin. I won on this issue, but nonetheless it's going to be an acrimonious battle to see if we can actually bring in the requalification. That's the other big thing I want to accomplish this year.
CD: Tying into the international aspect of it, we'd like to ask about perceived Canadian-American differences, and how you see yourself as a Canadian writer?
RJS: I think there are an awful lot of Canadian SF writers right now -- a whole bunch of them emerged in the last couple of years. It used to be in the 1970s and 80s a bunch of academics went around potificating about the differences between Canadian and American SF. They always did it in a crafty fashion, because they would simply disregard certain authors to make their theory work. And now Canadian SF has so many authors, and we're also such a diverse lot that there just is nothing defensible that you can say about what makes Canadian SF different from American SF without somebody else immediately coming up with three or four writers who are counter-examples. David Ketterer wrote the classic nonfiction book about Canadian SF called Canadian Science Fiction and Fantasy, in which he said Canadians don't write hard SF -- and he said that even though Phyllis Gotlieb had already been an established name for twenty years at that time, even though Donald Kingsbury from McGill University was writing hard SF, even though I was writing hard SF, Steve Stirling was writing hard SF, and Spider Robinson was writing hard SF. He just asserted this -- which is what academics do, they assert a position and this becomes their pet theory -- but it just doesn't hold water.
Robert Runté had this theory that American SF had happy endings and Canadian SF had sad endings and British SF had no endings at all. It's a good quip, but it just doesn't hold up at all. There's incredibly uplifting Canadian SF -- I don't usually write it myself -- but there is such stuff out there, and there's American SF that makes you want to slit your wrists. Of any genre, SF is the least national. The western is clearly a novel of the American southwest, and in mystery there's clearly a diference between the British and the American hard-boiled mystery. To try and find a way of theorizing William Gibson, Robert Sawyer, Charles de Lint, Terence M. Green, James Alan Gardner, Julie Czerneda, Michelle Sagara, Tanya Huff, Guy Gavriel Kay and look for a theme or style uniformity -- it's just ridiculous. It just isn't there. The one thing that might possibly be true is most of the Canadian SF that's getting published these days, at least the stuff that's selling, is in fact really good. I think we're producing quality material. I don't think there's an author you can point to in this country who's just cranking out crap after crap book at the low end of the marketplace. There's an endless number of names in the States that are just producing filler stuff, nothing ambitious, isn't particularly well-written.
CD: Could you tell us about your latest book, Factoring Humanity?
RJS: Well, there's stuff about artificial intelligence, there's stuff about recovered memories of childhood abuse, there's stuff about quantum computing, there's stuff about radio messages from aliens, and there's a whole big other thing that's in it too. You'll have to read the book to find out.
When you write a mystery novel, you enormously simplify the universe, you say: OK, there are 6 billion human beings, there are 8 who might have committed this murder, and there's one guy who will solve the murder, and the murder usually was committed with a simple, definable motive. It's in essence a morality play: there's the good detective, and the bad person who has to get caught, and there's not a whole lot of analysis of that.
When you write a SF novel, one of the great joys is that you embrace the fact that we live in a huge, complex, ancient long-lived universe that's full of diverse things. The great thing about writing SF is that you have that huge canvas, and if you've got all of that, why would a writer want to narrow himself to one narrow little plotline? It doesn't make any sense to me, and yet there are writers who do that very, very well. There are lots of writers who prosper doing that in this genre. But it's not what I want to do, it's not what I set out to do as an artist. This is what I set out to do: bring a whole bunch of different things together, like a collage. The Science Fiction Book Club did an edition of The Terminal Experiment that had a wonderful cover because it was a collage: a little bit of an EEG printout, a watch, computer components. If I were a visual artist, collages, as opposed to portraits, would be the kind of thing I would do.
CD: Could you tell us about some of the responses you've received to the ethical points you've made in your books.
RJS: By and large the reaction has been extremely positive. I expected to take some flak from people on both sides of the abortion issue for what I said in The Terminal Experiment, and a lot of flak from Americans over the pro-socialized-medicine position taken in Frameshift. But very little of that has emerged. Indeed, most people have been pleased that I took a reasonable middle-ground approach to abortion; it seems lots of people really are ambivalent about this issue, but aren't comfortable articulating that ambivalence, because it's so important to be seen to be on the "right" side of the question (which side is right, of course, depending enormously on where you live). And I guess I made the case for socialized medicine in a pretty iron-clad way (I really do think it's a no-brainer); many Americans have thanked me for making the case in a way that finally makes sense to them. I did have one rabble-rousing extremist try to get The Terminal Experiment banned because it did not, in her view, support organ donation; of course that's utter nonsense, but there's very little you can do when confronted by someone who is clearly out of touch with reality. I suppose the comment I get most often about the ethical issues I raise in my novels is, "I don't necessarily agree with you, but you did make me think." I can't ask for anything more than that.
CD: In Far-Seer, you talk about how the Quintaglios need to undergo a rite of passage as a race, and in Starplex, Keith comes to realize the same thing about humans. What rite of passage do you think our civilization will go through next? Should go through next?
RJS: Well, first of all, I thought we'd actually gone through one of the major rites of passage: I thought we'd passed through the era of nuclear combat. I'm enormously distressed to see India and Pakistan pursuing that particular road to hell again. So, I guess that banning nuclear weapons is the right of passage our civilization has to pass through next. After that, it's facing the crisis that will occur when the first thinking machines are created. It is, quite literally, suicide to create your own successors; some people are hell-bent on doing that; hopefully, we'll be smart enough to stop them before they succeed. This is a theme I explore at some length in Factoring Humanity.
Last modified: December 31, 1998
Copyright © 1998 by Robert J. Sawyer