The OF Blog: Robert Sawyer Interview

Tuesday, April 01, 2003

Robert Sawyer Interview

Robert J. Sawyer has accumulated 28 major awards for his writing: US (Nebula), Japan (Seiun), France (Le Grand Prix de l'Imaginaire), Spain (Premio UPC), and Canada (Aurora). He is the first author in history to win this entire set of awards, and has been nominated for the Hugo 6 times as well! Born and raised in Canada, he originally considered a career as a dinosaurian paleontologist. Later he decided on a career in writing, his other passion. He stayed in Canada, earning a degree as broadcaster, specializing in script writing with extra studies in psychology. During this time he sold his first story, and now has 15 novels and many short stories under his belt.

Read the interview, he touches on many topics of interest while we cover his career. At the end of the interview I have headings for topic or writing questions. Please post anything you would like further comment on from Robert J Sawyer there, he will be in April 14th to reply.

Thanks for coming in!!


1 ) With all of your success garnering awards, do you have any insight into what it is that sets your books so far apart from your contemporaries?

Well, that's a very kind question! I think there are two significant things about my books. First, I write science fiction that can be read by anyone, not just habitual SF readers -- that said, I never soft-pedal the science-fictional content. Still, I consider my greatest achievement not the Nebula Award -- although that was nice! -- but that my novel Calculating God was a national top-ten mainstream bestseller in Canada, and hit number one on the Locus bestsellers' list, the principal barometer for SF-category sales; that meant I was indeed properly serving both my intended audiences.

Second, I have a mission statement as a writer, something I honestly think many of my colleagues have never bothered to formulate. My mission is to combine the intimately human with the grandly cosmic. Many SF authors concentrate on one or the other of those things; few take it as their brief to really try to give equal weight to both.

2 ) In the past you have instructed university-level writing; could you describe your current Writing Workshops program?

I'm on the creative-writing faculties of both the University of Toronto and the Banff Centre for the Arts -- but my total teaching commitment to both institutions is only eleven days a year. At U of T (where, by coincidence, both my parents taught for many years), I do the science-fiction section at the annual four-day Taddle Creek Writers Workshop; at Banff, which is my absolute favorite teaching experience, I do seven days each spring teaching SF writing as part of the Banff Centre for the Arts' "Writing with Style" program. Banff is a ski resort, and one of the most beautiful natural locations in the world; I just adore it.

At both programs, we do Clarion-style workshopping: everybody reads manuscripts by the other workshop members in advance, then we do round-the-table critiquing, during which the author of the piece under discussion has to stay quiet. I provide a critique last, so as not to prejudice anybody else's critique, and then the author has a chance to rebut or reply, if he or she sees fit -- and I always tell them that "I'm sorry it went over your head" is a perfectly acceptable response to a critique. Most people come to these workshops with the idea that the principal benefit is getting a bunch of critiques, including one by an established pro, of their writing, but in fact the real benefit is in learning to look at writing critically through analyzing other people's work, and learning how to apply those techniques to your own work. By the end of the sessions, almost everyone sees their own work in a new, objective light, and that helps them enormously.

I'm very proud of the students I've had, including Pat Forde who wrote the phenomenal novella "In Spirit" that was in Analog last year; Robyn Herrington, who sells frequently to U.S. anthologies; Doug Smith who went on to win an Aurora Award; and Derwin Mak, who has brought his special brand of SF to a variety of out-of-genre markets.

3 ) From April 1 through June 30 you will be serving as the Writer in Residence at The Merril Collection of Science Fiction, Speculation and Fantasy. What does this entail and what type of people participate?

Writer-in-Residence programs are common in Canada and many other countries, but less so in the States, where there isn't as much tax money to support the arts. They're win-win scenarios for all concerned. A library or university pays an author a full-time salary for a period of time, and during that time the writer devotes typically 40% of his or her time to residency duties, and the other 60% is subsidized time to work on a writing project.

Now, just what are "residency duties"? My main task is to read manuscripts by beginning and experienced writers in the community, prepare critiques of them, and meet with the writers in a private one-on-one hour-long session, going over the critiques and answering any questions the writers might have. There's no charge to anyone for any of this.

At the Merril, the submissions are limited to 15 standard manuscript-format pages -- a short story or a chapter from a novel, or maybe a novel outline. Anyone, from anywhere, can submit manuscripts, but the author must physically come to the Merril, in downtown Toronto, for a critique. I've got lots of Saturday hours in the summer at the Merril, so people in the northeastern US and Eastern Canada might consider making a summer car trip up to Toronto for this, and maybe catch a Blue Jays game, as well. Full details on the residency program are at:

4 ) What exactly is The Merril Collection of Science Fiction, Speculation and Fantasy?

In the early 1970s, Judith Merril moved to Toronto, to protest US involvement in Vietnam. In the 1950s and 1960s, she had been the most influential editor in science fiction, doing the annual "Year's Best" anthologies, and compiling a landmark anthology called England Swings SF that introduced the British "New Wave" -- a move toward softer, literate, psychological tales that explore inner space -- to the U.S.

In 1971, Judy donated her 5,000-item SF collection to the Toronto Public Library, which agreed to expand the collection and house it permanently. The collection opened to the public under the name "The Spaced Out Library." About ten years ago, the name was changed to The Merril Collection of Science Fiction, Speculation and Fantasy -- the precise formulation of that name was actually my own coinage, at a meeting of the Friends of the Merril Collection. The Merril Collection has grown to the world's largest public-library collection of SF, and is also the repository of manuscripts for numerous authors, including Guy Gavriel Kay. It's a phenomenal institution.

5 ) You involve many of today's scientific and social issues in your stories. In Nebula winner The Terminal Experiment you deal with abortion, immortality, and the afterlife. What is your opinion of the likelihood of an afterlife?

Honestly, I think the chance of an afterlife for my books is fair to midling -- thanks to institutions like the Merril, some scholar will be going through them long after I'm dead. But as for a personal afterlife -- an immortal soul -- I don't believe I have one. When I die, I expect to be worm food. That said, I'm fascinated by why, since the dawn of consciousness, the bulk of humanity has believed in a mind that survives the death of the brain; it's a belief that goes back at least 40,000 years. My latest novel, Hybrids, deals head-on with that very question: what bit of wiring in our brains makes us predisposed to religious notions. Hybrids will be out in September 2003.

6 ) You have promoted the possibility of nanotechnology allowing immortality, barring destruction of the body by outside forces. How far into the future do you think this type of science is, and should we develop it?

My brother-in-law and his wife are expecting twins later this year. I expect enormous life prolongation during their lifetimes; I would not be the least surprised if they live to be 200 or more. Actual immortality -- you'll live forever unless your body is totally destroyed -- is probably farther off, but I don't see it as an intractable scientific problem. Should we be developing this? Sure! All of us who are getting older notice that our perspectives get deeper, and we gain a little more wisdom every year. The human race could certainly use some people who've had centuries to develop perspective and wisdom.

Of course, you can't have immortality, continued births, and no space program. Going hand-in-hand with living extremely long lives is the need to move out into the universe; you can't have an infinitely expanding population confined to a little hunk of rock.

7 ) In The Terminal Experiment, you used an Islamic character to support some of the philosophy. What is your reasoning for using this particular character?

Hardly anything in my fiction is autobiographical, but that one element is. The relationship between Peter Hobson and Sarkar Muhammed is very much patterned on the relationship between myself and one of my oldest and closest friends, Shaheen Azmi. Indeed, my real brother's name is Peter, and Shaheen's is Sarkar. We've been buddies since high school. Shaheen is devoutly Islamic, and I'm not devoutly anything. Our conversations about quantum physics, the meaning of life, and so on have been among the most rewarding I've ever had, and The Terminal Experiment seemed the perfect book to work that stuff into.

Also, just as a matter of principal, I think it's important to have ethnic diversity in science fiction. Toronto has been officially recognized by the UN as the most multicultural city in the world; it would be unrealistic not to have a widely varied ethnic cast in my novels, most of which are set there.

8 ) At different times you have characters representing creationism or evolution. How do you reconcile this in your mind? Do you find one more likely than the other?

Oh, there's no question in my mind whatsoever: evolution as proposed by Darwin and Wallace -- with random mutations giving some creatures an advantage in the struggle for life, and those advantaged individuals having disproportionately more offspring -- is absolutely how life on Earth developed. Evolution is true; young-Earth creationism -- the view that the world was created 6,000 years ago by a supreme being -- is false.

My point in Calculating God was to get a third alternative that's been floating around the scientific community for a number of years into the mainstream of public thought: intelligent design. Now, there are two levels of intelligent design. One says that there is some admittedly contestable evidence that a guiding intelligence set down the fundamental parameters of this universe: the ratios of strengths between the four fundamental forces (gravity, electromagnetism, and the weak and strong nuclear force), and so on. I think that position is fascinating, and I do think the evidence for it is credible, although there are alternative theories that are also credible.

The second level, what I call strong ID, says that not only do the fundamental laws of physics show signs that an intelligence was on hand twelve billion years ago, when the Universe began, but also that that intelligence has carefully engineered a variety of biological systems, including the cascade reaction the produces blood clotting, the motor structure of the flagella and cilia that move sperm and bacteria, and so on. I find those arguments interesting, but less compelling, because I'm the first to admit that there's a lot of basic science to be discovered still.

But I'm more a social commentator than anything, and what I find particularly fascinating is how parts of the established scientific community, and dogmatic elements of the skeptical community, have gone to great lengths to discredit strong ID via ad hominem attacks on its proponents and by rhetorical dishonesty, lumping ID under the label of Creationism, and then dismissing it by saying we've already dealt with creationism, instead of rising to the challenge of actually defeating -- if they can -- the ID theory through the scientific method. That parts of the scientific world and of the so-called skeptical movement are behaving as dogmatically and as unfairly as the religious right is a real problem, which needs to be exposed to the maximum possible light.

9 ) Many of the purposes of religion are to guide us through moral dilemmas. As science advances do you find it less important for us to have these guidelines?

Quite the contrary! Every big moral issue we face today is fundamentally rooted in science and technology. Abortion wasn't a big issue until the middle of the last century, when it finally rose above the level of butchery of the mother -- setting aside any question related to the infant. When science made it possible for pregnancies to be easily terminated without putting the mother at medical risk, we then were suddenly in the midst of a huge debate about when life really begins.

Likewise, the current war in Iraq is a huge moral issue -- but the war itself is putatively over "weapons of mass destruction" -- that is, the fruits of modern science -- and it's being fought with the most sophisticated machines ever built by humans.

Where religion fails as a moral teacher is when it doesn't keep up with what's happening in science and technology. Despite the impression one gets from the media, in terms of religion there is exactly the same demographic breakdown among scientists as there is among the general public: the same percentage of atheists, of devout, of questioning, and of pure nuts. There really is no battle between science and religion; rather, there's only a battle between open-mindedness and dogma, and there are those guilty of the latter equally dispersed in both realms.

10 ) The Neanderthals in your new series (Hominids and Humans of this trilogy are out now) practice sterilization of criminals and those containing 50% or more of the criminal's blood. Do you believe that this culling of the gene pool would be a superior way to deal with current criminals and the further evolution of our species?

I'm not advocating the sterilization of criminals, but, as a childless man who has had a vasectomy, I perhaps have more openness to the notion that reproduction isn't everything. And I do believe that we will have to face the moral issue of being able to identify predispositions to violence, psychopathy, pedophilia, and so on, through genetic markers. Should we sterilize people just because they have those markers? I don't think that would be right. Should we sterilize people who actually exhibit the behaviors those markers predispose them to, in order to reduce the concentration of those markers in the gene pool? Well, science fiction is about presenting a smorgasbord of possibilities, and that's what I'm doing. I'm putting out on the table one possible solution, and basically saying, "Let the debate begin."

11 ) These Neanderthals also live is a society that is without any religion at all. What drove you to visualize such a society?

Everything about my Neanderthal culture is drawn from the actual paleoanthropological record. We used to believe that Neanderthals buried their dead with flowers, indicating perhaps a belief in an afterlife, and that they worshipped cave bears. But both of those notions have been totally discredited. The truth is that even 10,000 years after our own ancestors -- Homo sapiens -- had developed religious notions, the Neanderthals had not.

That said, certainly I had a fictive agenda in exploring this. The idea that any intelligent species must develop religion is sort of a knee-jerk belief for us; I don't think it's necessarily true, though. And religion is responsible for so much of what goes on in our world. The people who flew planes into the World Trade Center believed they would be rewarded for doing so in an afterlife; George Bush has publicly declared that he's on a mission from God in the current invasion of Iraq. Certainly, if religion is shaping our history, it behooves us to ask if that's a good thing -- and whether or not it was inevitable.

12 ) Frameshift has elements of genetic diagnosis of peoples' potential health. Do you see this as an approaching dilemma for us in the near future?

It's a dilemma right now -- the characters in Frameshift that are dealing with diagnoses of Tay-Sachs disease and Huntington's chorea are facing real problems that exist today. We can diagnose those diseases, but we can't cure them. It's going to get worse as time goes on: our ability to identify bad genes will become very sophisticated, but cures take a lot longer to develop. Frameshift was very much my wake-up call to the world about that.

13 ) Also in that story, there are further issues raised about cloning. What path do you believe we should take with this rapidly advancing technology?

There is nothing inherently evil about cloning. A clone is just an identical twin born at a different time. The only restraint on cloning should be on the growing of full, brain-intact bodies for the purpose of raising transplant organs. Should people be allowed to clone themselves and raise them as children. Sure, why not?

14 ) In addition to scientific quandaries, this book deals with social issues. What do you see for the future of socialized medicine?

Socialized medicine is fundamentally government-run health insurance: it says that every person is entitled to health care regardless of their genetic predispositions or economic status. As a Canadian, I've grown up with socialized medicine, and it does work. More, in the genetics age, I firmly believe it's the only thing that makes sense. Traditional insurance is based on shared risk: a bunch of people putting money into a pot, and individuals drawing it out as luck and happenstance make necessary; if you're the poor sap who gets cancer or heart disease, you win the money. Well, in the future, we will know at birth who is going to get cancer and who is going to have a heart attack, based on genes. In that case, it's no longer shared risk -- because we don't all share the risks. In such a world, socialized medicine makes sense economically and in a humanitarian sense.

15 ) Factoring Humanity touches on topics ranging from infidelity to child abuse and recovered memories. Do you draw on any personal or near experiences when writing about topics like these?

Actually, my own life is wonderfully happy; I've never had a real personal tragedy, and I recognize how very lucky I've been. But many of my friends have faced such thing, and I've certainly drawn on their experiences. Still, fundamentally, readers should realize that writers just make this stuff up; it's not autobiography -- it's fiction. That said, as a writer, I want to explore raw human emotions, and those are never more on display than in cases of family troubles.

16 ) The advances in computers, genetics and medical science are creating huge quantities of data on people. Do you see us losing any semblance of privacy, and to what extent do you find our loss of privacy a detriment to society?

Yeah, I'm with Scott McNealy of Sun Microsystems, who said, "You have zero privacy anyway. Get over it." There's just no way to preserve traditional privacy, so let's find the advantages of the new paradigm: constant monitoring means the end of rape, child abuse, assault, theft, money laundering, and so on. Now, don't get me wrong. Although I'm to some small degree in the public eye, I do like my privacy. But, really, if you wanted to know how much money I make, or where I live, or what things I'm allergic to, or how many traffic tickets I've had, there's not much I can do to keep you from finding out. The trick is to make sure, as my friend David Brin says, that the new world order is transparent in both directions: yes, the authorities can keep an eye on us, but we can keep an eye on the authorities.

17 ) What do you think of the current state of sci-fi? Are there any other authors out there that interest you?

I'm extraordinarily proud to be an SF writer these days, because of the phenomenal quality of the work my colleagues are doing. This is a literature of great value, thanks to the work of such writers as Robert Charles Wilson and Nalo Hopkinson and Jack McDevitt and Mike Resnick and Scott Mackay and Connie Willis, and so many others. SF may not be in the best economic shape it's ever been in, but it's absolutely creatively the healthiest it's ever been.

18 ) How about when you were coming up, which authors guided you to the sci-fi genre?

Arthur C. Clarke, Isaac Asimov, David Gerrold, Larry Niven, and James White had huge impacts on me. One of the greatest joys of my life has been getting to meet all of those fine gentlemen, except Clarke, and to get to count David Gerrold as a friend.

19 ) You have done one short story collection, Iterations, which came out last year. This book is packed full of award winning stories; do you have any plans for another one?

I'm not a prolific writer of short stories, but I've got about 60,000 words of uncollected stories right now, and at the rate I'm going I should have enough to make another 100,000-word book in a couple of years. I really like doing short fiction -- I just wish it paid better!

20 ) What is on the computer screen now? The third book in the Neanderthal Parallax, or something else entirely?

I've finished Hybrids, the third book; indeed, I wrapped it up in December 2002. I'm in negotiation now for a new two-book contract with Tor for a couple of standalone novels about one of my favorite themes, artificial intelligence. And I'm under contract to a major Hollywood animation company to write the series bible for a revival of a very well known animated SF series -- I'm not at liberty to say which one just yet -- and I'm having an absolute blast doing that.

Also, I just resold my long out-of-print Quintaglio novels -- Far-Seer, Fossil Hunter, and Foreigner -- to Tor, which will be reprinting them starting in 2004. I'm going through the old versions of those books to see if there's anything I want to change, having not looked at them in a decade. So, I'm busy, and I'm having a blast. What more can a writer ask?

Thanks so much for taking the time to do this for us Rob! I sincerely appreciate it and look forward to seeing you here next week to look over the members questions.



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