Science Fiction Author Interview

Robert J. Sawyer following the 2003 Worldcon, Toronto.

Robert Sawyer had just won his first 'big one' award - the Hugo for 'Best Novel' - at the 2003 Worldcon, Torcon 3, so it was a good time to catch the man for a few words.

Concat: Canada, like the UK with space opera and SF noire, recently seems to have had somewhat of a mini boom in SF, with writers such as your good self and Robert Charles Wilson. Is this happenstance or what...?

Robert Sawyer: It grows directly out of the 1994 World Science Fiction Convention in Winnipeg, Manitoba. Tor decided, to do an anthology of contemporary Canadian reprint SF to be launched at that con; the book was called Northern Stars. They expected modest sales, but it was a big hit in Canada, and not just at the con. That opened Tor's eyes to the fact that mainstream Canadian readers would read SF by Canadians in a way that mainstream American readers simply would not read SF by Americans, and so they started buying SF novels by Canadian authors aggressively. These books do no worse in the US because of their Canadianess, and sometimes do very well in Canada (although I'm alone in having hit the actual mainstream bestsellers lists in Canada with books published by Tor).

Concat: Who would you rate among current Canadian SF authors?

Robert Sawyer: Certainly, there's the Tor stable, consisting of such authors as Charles de Lint, Candas Jane Dorsey, Terence M. Green, Ed Greenwood, Donald Kingsbury, Spider Robinson, Karl Schroeder, Peter Watts, Robert Charles Wilson, and a few others. Of course, de Lint and Greenwood are principally fantasists, as is, these days, Green. Of the rest, Spider is a perennial favourite, Wilson is the biggest name, and Schroeder is the newcomer making the biggest impact.

Significant writers with other houses are William Gibson of course, Alison Sinclair, Julie E. Czerneda and James Alan Gardner.

Concat: Your SF seems to have a fair bit of science in it...

Robert Sawyer: I love science, and indeed wanted to be a scientist - specifically a vertebrate palaeontologist. It didn't quite work out that way, but I still follow science. As Fred Pohl says, it's the best spectator sport in the world.

Concat: What do you read to keep up to date in science?

Robert Sawyer: New Scientist, Science News, Discover, Astronomy, and Scientific American are mainstays, but I also read more-technical literature - these days, because of what I'm currently writing, I'm reading a lot in the Journal of Consciousness Studies, for instance.

Concat: How do you research your books? We can see from your introductions that you thank a lot of people for assisting you, how much do you rely on people and how much on your own knowledge and reading?

Robert Sawyer: Well, everything I research becomes part of my own knowledge. When there's quantum physics or palaeoanthropology in my books, it's stuff that I know - how could it be otherwise? But that knowledge is often imparted to me during the course of researching a novel via face-to-face interviews with experts, or e-mail correspondence, or whatever. I attend a lot of scientific conferences, go behind the scenes at a lot of science facilities - Lawrence Berkeley Labs, the Sudbury Neutrino Observatory, the Carnegie-Mellon Robotics Lab, just to name a few. I'm a sponge for knowledge, and I absolutely love doing research.

Concat: 'Evolution' writ large seems to be a recurring theme. (cf. The 'Hominids' trilogy, Illegal Alien, and Calculating God.) What keeps bringing you back to this?

Robert Sawyer: Well, evolution is still a subject of debate and contention, and the beautiful underlying principles need to be reinforced in the public consciousness as often as possible. So in that sense, I'm a man on a mission. And, of course, evolution is hugely explanatory in all sorts of areas: not just the diversity of life, but also in psychology, computer-systems development, and so on. It's a natural generator for story ideas.

Concat: Do you have any other areas of scientific interest that you have yet to explore in your fiction writing?

Robert Sawyer: I keep trying to find a way to work game theory prominently into a novel. Jock Krieger, in the 'Neanderthal Parallax' trilogy, is a game theorist, but that's really only mentioned in passing. But as an SF writer, I've had the privilege of bopping all over the place in science: quantum computing, nanotechnology, evolutionary biology, evolutionary psychology, cosmology, artificial intelligence, palaeontology, anthropology, linguists, genetics, and more. I don't know that I've avoided any area to date, but the beauty is that we keep getting more new science, and that means more new story ideas.

Concat: Who are your favourite SF authors and why?

Robert Sawyer: Of contemporary authors, Robert Charles Wilson and Jack McDevitt; of classic authors, Arthur C. Clarke, Larry Niven, and James White. All for the same reason: plausible, exciting extrapolation, resulting in that wonderful frisson we call the sense of wonder. The modern guys add to that sophisticated, complex, believable characterization, which I think is vitally important to good storytelling.

Concat: Short story writing or novels: which do you prefer and why?

Robert Sawyer: Novels, hands down. I find writing them a joy, I find the large scale a natural fit for the kinds of ideas I like to explore, I find it much easier to do justice to a character's inner life in a novel, and, of course, on a per-word basis, novels are much more lucrative for me - hey, a fellow has to eat!

Concat: You have won a number of awards in your time. If in some parallel universe it could only be one (one of the ones you have won in this universe) which would it be and why?

Robert Sawyer: The Hugo, obviously and hands-down; I won the best-novel Hugo Award for Hominids. I'm grateful for all my awards: the Nebula, as recognition from my peers; the national awards including the Aurora from Canada and the Seiun from Japan; the Premio UPC de Ciencia Ficcion, which came with a big cheque - all are nice. But the best-novel Hugo is the one that confers immortality on a work and job security on an author.

Concat: Are you coming to the European Worldcon (Glasgow, 2005)?

Robert Sawyer: Honestly, I haven't decided. I'm currently without a separate British publisher (although I'm open to offers); HarperCollins did a number of my books in the UK, and, indeed, it was at Harper's request that I created a trilogy, which turned out to be the Neanderthal Parallax, and, of course, the first volume of which just won the Hugo for best novel of the year - but after asking for a trilogy proposal, Harper didn't actually contract for the books, so the Tor editions are the only English-language ones. British/UK rights are still available; if I find a UK publisher, as opposed to just having US editions of my books imported into the UK, then Glasgow would definitely be on my itinerary. Otherwise, I'm not sure: I was at the last Worldcon in Glasgow and, gently, it wasn't quite up to the standards of other non-North American ones. I know the slogan for 2005 is "once more with ceiling," and maybe the convention centre in Glasgow will be a more appropriate venue this time out. As I say, I'm still mulling it over.

Post script: The reference to the 'big one' award in the sub-head at the beginning of this interview refers to the 2003 Hugo Award ceremony at the World SF Convention, Toronto. At it reference was made to the 'Best Novel' category being referred to as 'the big one'. This was Sawyer's first Hugo and it was a 'big one' and contrasted with Dave Langford's 'Best Fan Writer' Hugo win that was one of a series of wins of 'small ones' for Dave. Much japes and good humour among current and past winners abounded at Toronto.

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