[Robert J. Sawyer] Science Fiction Writer
Hugo and Nebula Winner

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Canada's Far-Seer: An Interview
with Robert J. Sawyer

Canadian Space Gazette

A slightly shorter version was published in the October 1996 edition of 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 Nebula and Aurora Awards for best SF novel of the year, and was a finalist for the Hugo Award. His seventh novel, 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 technology.

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 means?

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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