SFWRITER.COM > About Rob > Canadian Space Gazette Interview
Canada's Far-Seer: An Interview
with Robert J. Sawyer
Canadian Space Gazette
A slightly shorter version was published in the October 1996
Canadian Space Gazette,
a publication of the Canadian Space Society.
Robert J. Sawyer is Canada's only native born, full-time
science-fiction writer; his work is hard-SF in the mode of Arthur
C. Clarke and Larry Niven. He earned his Bachelor of Applied
Arts degree in Radio and Television Arts at Ryerson Polytechnic
University, and has been a full-time writer for thirteen years.
Sawyer's most recent novel, the critically acclaimed
The Terminal Experiment, won the prestigious
Aurora Awards for best
SF novel of the year, and was a finalist for the Hugo Award. His
Starplex, will be released by Ace this month.
Sawyer was recently interviewed by the Gazette editors.
Gazette: Every generation has its media events that impact on its
consciousness. Do you associate yourself with generation
that saw Apollo land on the Moon, or the generation that saw
Challenger explode in the skies?
Sawyer: I was born in 1960, so I'm definitely part of the Apollo
generation; I even remember the Mercury and Gemini flights. But
it wasn't really Apollo 11 and the first landing on the moon that
affected me the most. Rather, it was Apollo 8, which contained
the first human beings who got far enough away from our world to
see it in its entirety. In fact, in Starplex, I have a character
who gets to be one of the first humans to see our own galaxy, the
Milky Way, from outside, and he reflects on that:
Keith remembered reading about Borman, Lovell,
and Anders, the Apollo 8 astronauts who had
circled the moon over Christmas of 1968, reading
passages from Genesis back to the people on
Earth. They had been the first human beings to get
far enough from the homeworld so that they could
cup it in an outstretched hand. Maybe more than
any other single event, that view, that
perspective, that image, had marked childhood's end
for humanity the realization that all their
world was one tiny ball floating against the night.
And now, thought Keith, maybe just maybe
this image was the one that marked the beginning
of middle age: a still frame that would become the
frontispiece of volume two of humanity's biography.
It wasn't just Earth that was tiny, insignificant,
and fragile. Keith lifted his hand, reached out,
and cupped the Milky Way in his fingers.
Gazette: Your second novel, Far-Seer,
was an allegory to the life of
Galileo and the struggle between reason and superstition. As we
approach the new millennium, superstition and pseudoscience appear
on the rise (e.g. UFOs, "Faces" on Mars). Can we avoid becoming
what Carl Sagan called "the demon-haunted world"?
Sawyer: Science fiction, unlike other forms of literature, has
always been a genre with a mission: throughout the 20th century,
that mission was to make humanity understand the power and
ramifications of its technology. And SF succeeded at that: the
consciousness of our species has been raised. No new
mega-engineering project is undertaken without an environmental
assessment; no one anywhere is ignorant of how careful we have to
be with nuclear technology; no one is untouched by the
information revolution. You don't have to be an SF reader
anymore to have these insights. So we're looking for a new
agenda for SF something that will make it relevant in the next
century. And I do think the fight for rationalism and the
rejection of superstition is the message SF has to preach in the
coming years. Hopefully we will be just as good at shaping
perceptions in this area as we were in the area of unbridled
Gazette: In Starplex, human and alien explorers cheat special relativity
by employing "shortcuts" through normal space. If humanity
never finds a way around the light-speed barrier, do you think
people will want to travel to other stars using slower-than-light
Sawyer: There are some people who want to travel to other stars
right now. There will always be such people. Today, we can't
conceive of the kinds of hardships people endured to colonize
North America (right back to the aboriginal peoples, who had to
walk here from Eurasia over an arctic land bridge). And yet
people did that. Humanity will go to the stars. It's
inevitable. Shortcuts like those in Starplex would certainly
make it simpler, but even without them, there will eventually be
human colonies which will later become independent nations
on the planets of other stars.
Gazette: The novel
End of an Era speculates that Mars was once
inhabited by a race of intelligent viruses called the Hets. In
light of NASA's recent announcement of possible microfossils
discovered in a Martian meteorite, do you have any apprehension
that your fiction may be outpaced by reality?
Sawyer: Not at all. If anything, the discovery of the putative
Martian life has given
End of an Era additional credibility. But
even if it hadn't, all science fiction is an artifact of its
time. One can still read with great pleasure Edgar Rice
Burroughs's 1912 novel A Princess of Mars, for instance. Sure,
we know now that no Mars as he portrayed it ever existed but
that hardly matters. Indeed, SF should never be measured by how
good it is at predicting things. On that scale, Nineteen
Eighty-Four would have to be counted a dismal failure; the real
world of 1984 turned out to be nothing like Orwell's nightmare.
But in fact the novel is of course one of the great works of
literature of the 20th century.
Gazette: As one who helps to inspire that sense-of-wonder
feeling in your books that motivates people to support space
activities, what goals should Canada pursue that will most
inspire a sense of wonder in space?
Sawyer: Canada is in a very tricky position. We simply don't have a
lot of money, and space travel is a game for the rich. And, as
SF giant Robert A. Heinlein quipped, only NASA a bunch of
bureaucrats could make a grand adventure like space
exploration seem boring. Well, on a per capita basis, we've got
even more bureaucrats here than they do in the States. Canada's
greatest contribution to space travel may not have been the
Canadarm but rather the wonderful IMAX films about spaceflight,
such as The Dream is Alive. Those six-story-tall images have
done more to inspire awe about space travel in the minds of the
public worldwide than anything since Neil Armstrong's one small
step and, ultimately, it's the public that funds, or chooses
not to fund, space travel. Of course, we have to strike a
balance. Canada, after all, is unique: it was created through a
massive engineering project, the building of the Canadian Pacific
Railway. So, certainly we should build on our engineering
background, but we should also remember that space belongs to,
and must be seen as interesting by, all of humanity and
Canadian artists will have as much to do with ensuring that as
will Canadian engineers.
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