Robert J. Sawyer Interview

By Steve Nagy

Ancient mariners would guide their vessels by the stars, using the fixed position of such lights as the North Star to find their way. Science fiction, and speculative fiction in general, lets readers travel through these uncharted waters, exposing them to places, ideas, and people they would never consider or meet without assistance.
Robert J. Sawyer is one of those mariners. Maclean’s — the Canadian counterpart of Newsweek — actually labeled him the genre’s “northern star” — and like that celestial body, Sawyer has become a fixture as the years pass, and is one of the most successful Canadian authors. The tools he uses are as varied as a compass and a chip log, ranging from the recently reissued Far-Seer to Calculating God, just one seven Hugo finalists to his credit. The former opens The Quintaglio Ascension trilogy, and tells the story of a saurian “Galileo” whose discovery of the arrangement of the heavens is a matter of life or death for his race. The latter explores whether science can reconcile the existence of a God — an intelligent designer of the universe.
The Neanderthal Parallax trilogy — comprised of Hominids, Humans, and Hybrids — represents Sawyer’s most recent work. Hominids and Humans are available in mass-market paperback and Hybrids, published last year at the same time that Sawyer won the Hugo for best novel for Hominids, and it is available still in hardcover. Typical of his work, the books mix well-researched hard science — contact between our world and a parallel universe where Neanderthals thrived and reached levels of culture and science comparable to our own — with characters who must deal with personal crises that define them as individuals while also shining light on what makes both of “us” human and, ultimately, on whether we can co-exist with each other.

Sawyer’s interests don’t stop with his fiction. He is sought after by journalists for commentary on topics such as the predicted struggle between man and machine (recently illustrated for the viewing public’s summer enjoyment in the Will Smith film I, Robot; Sawyer spoke at length about this for the Tacoma Tribune), as well as the private sector’s attempts at space travel as illustrated by the varied attempts this year to win the Ansari X Prize; Sawyer spoke about this for CBC Radio, The Globe and Mail: Canada’s National Newspaper, and the Alamogordo Daily News. For the record, he’s worried about intelligent machines considering us the greatest threat to our survival, and he’s all for private-sector space exploration and tourism.
MARSDUST: You’re up for the Hugo for best novel with Humans on the heels of last year’s win with Hominids. What are your thoughts about the Hugo, especially now that you’ve won one, and how do you feel about Hominids‘ sequel and its shot this year?

ROBERT J. SAWYER: Yes, last year’s win for Hominids was my first Hugo — and, I do recognize, it might well be my only Hugo ever. Most authors never even win one, let alone multiple Hugos. If I never win another, I’m still content. Many commentators have said that last year’s Hugo trophy was the best-looking one ever, so if I am going to only have one, it might as well be that one!

My feelings about the Hugo haven’t changed since winning the award. I always admired it greatly, and considered it the top honor in my field — even after winning a best-novel Nebula Award from the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, as I did for 1995’s The Terminal Experiment, I still knew in my heart of hearts that the Hugo was the bigger of the two in the reading public’s mind. Don’t get me wrong, though: I’m honored to have both!
  Does Humans, the sequel to Hominids, have a chance at the Hugo? Well, it made it to the final ballot, so I suppose it does. I’m not betting any money on a repeat, though — but I do think it’s a good book, and I’m proud of the fact that it’s been nominated.

What were your feelings about Hominids last year? How do you think things might change if your Neanderthal Parallax scores a second time?RJS: I thought for sure that Kim Stanley Robinson was going to take the Hugo last year for Years of Rice and Salt; David Brin, who was nominated for Kiln People,
thought the same thing. We were both wrong; Stan came in dead last. So what do I know about handicapping these things? Of course, Years of Rice and Salt is alternate history, and Kiln People is a mystery. My Hominids is both alternate history and a mystery — so maybe that’s why it won: a little something for everyone!
If my Neanderthal Parallax trilogy scores a second Hugo, well, that would be fabulous, of course. I do think the trilogy gets even deeper and better as it goes along; having a second Hugo for it would certainly help convey that to the public.MD: What’s new and/or next in the works on the fiction front?

RJS: I’ve just turned in my sixteenth novel to Tor. It’s called Mindscan, and is a re-imaging of a short story I had in the January 2004 Analog called “Shed Skin,” having to do with what happens to the biological originals after you copy your mind and consciousness into an immortal android body. The subject matter is radically different from Hominids, of course, but the mix of courtroom drama and love story is similar, and the book contains one of the best characters I’ve ever created: Karen Bessarian, an 85-year-old woman rediscovering all the joys of life after being freed from her decaying natural body.

Why is Factoring Humanity your personal favorite, as noted on your website?

RJS: My mission statement as a writer is to combine the intimately human with the grandly cosmic, and I don’t think I’ve ever succeeded better at that than in Factoring Humanity. The human story is about a family torn apart by discovered memories of childhood abuse; the cosmic story is about an alien technology that allows one to surf the human collective unconscious the way a cyberpunk cowboy surfs the net — and, obviously, the two stories intertwine.
I usually don’t like my novels very much when I finish them — it takes a long time for me to come to accept that they’re pretty good — but when I finished Factoring Humanity, I said to myself, “That’s a slam-dunk.”
Tor recently reissued the book in a handsome trade-paperback edition, and I’m very pleased.

MD: How are things progressing with Robert J. Sawyer Books?

RJS: Wonderfully! I’m editing three books a year for Red Deer Press under the Robert J. Sawyer Books imprint. Our first title, Marcos Donnelly’s Letters from the Flesh is out in hardcover, and the reviews have been stellar. Also, it’s a gorgeous physical product; Red Deer does excellent work. The second book, Andrew Weiner’s Getting Near the End, will be out this fall. And our third book, a collection of stories by Karl Schroeder, with an introduction by Stephen Baxter, will be out in Sprint 2005. I’m thoroughly enjoying working on the other side of the fence!

MD: You’re quite popular in Japan, winning three Seiun awards for best foreign novel of the year. What do you think is the key to your cross-cultural appeal? Is it something tied to your subject matter or something related to science fiction in general?

RJS: Well, I’m a Canadian writer, and so my books do feel a bit different from American-authored books. So far, that perspective — writing from a technologically advanced country that is not a superpower — hasn’t hurt me in the U.S., and it does seem to be helping my in other markets. Also, my books are always a combination of rigorously researched hard science and philosophy, and the Japanese really seem to appreciate the juxtaposition of those two things. I’ve been to Japan twice, had a ball each time, and can’t wait to return for the World Science Fiction Convention in 2007!


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