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

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Interview with Robert J. Sawyer

Copyright © 2002 by Robert J. Sawyer
All Rights Reserved.

An interview with Robert J. Sawyer for the French SF magazine Science-Fiction.

Interview conducted Thursday, May 16, 2002, by Marc Bailly.

Marc Bailly Can you tell us a little bit about yourself, and your background?

Robert J. Sawyer: I was born in Canada's capital, Ottawa, on April 29, 1960. Both my parents were university professors; my father taught economics and my mother taught statistics. From an early age, I loved science fiction and science. My earliest introduction to SF was through TV shows of the 1960s, such as Gerry Anderson's Fireball XL5 and Thunderbirds, Star Trek, and Lost in Space. My father started buying me SF books by Isaac Asimov, and I was hooked for life. My two main areas of scientific interest have always been paleontology and astronomy. I've been married to Carolyn Clink, a woman I met in my high-school science fiction club, for 17 years now, and we live just outside of Toronto.

Marc Bailly In Factoring Humanity, you give a rather bleak description of our society. Your vision of mankind is really that negative?

Robert J. Sawyer: I'm really ambivalent about humanity, and I suppose my work reflects that. On the one hand, we are capable of such greatness, such beauty. On the other, we perform acts of monstrous evil and indifference. For every Mahatma Gandhi, there's an Adolf Hitler. But I do think we're getting better: the strides made in the last century in overcoming racism, sexual oppression, and so on, were enormous. I expect us to keep improving . . . but the only way the improvement will happen is if we never forget that we've still got a long way to go.

Marc Bailly The end of the book is very optimistic. A collective sense heals the planet of its plagues, wars, rapes, family feud. Do you believe in the future?

Robert J. Sawyer: I just read an article in Science News that proposed that the average lifetime of a primate species, since the first primates emerged sometime in Cretaceous, has been 2.5 million years. Well, Homo sapiens is only 100,000 years old — and that means we've got 2.4 million years to go, even if we do no better than your average monkey. So, yes, I very much believe in the future. At heart, I am a utopian — I do think we will make a great tomorrow for ourselves. But there are still obstacles to overcome, and the stories of overcoming those obstacles are perfect subject matter for science fiction.

Marc Bailly Just like in Frameshift, the family seems to be the central point in the book. Can you tell us a little bit more about this notion?

Robert J. Sawyer: It is strange that I write so much about families, since I don't have any children of my own — and I don't have any by choice. In fact, I've spent a lot of time wondering about that.

I am a Darwinian evolutionist, and the very definition of success in Darwinism is passing on the most copies possible of your own genes to the next generation. Well, I'm not passing on any copies, and I have two brothers, and they don't have kids, either, and my father was an only child — so the Sawyer genes are coming to an end with this generation; my family is going extinct.

I like to quip that I'm more interested in the survival of my memes than my genes — "memes" being Richard Dawkins's term for successful ideas that reproduce and survive like genetic material. Another theme that shows up over and over in my books is immortality (it's in Foreigner, The Terminal Experiment, Starplex, and FlashForward, among other places), and that's clearly a related issue: my desire to have me, or something of me, survive into the future.

And yet, still, I have no kids; indeed, when I turned 40, I had a vasectomy. That means that as far as evolution is concerned, I'm a total failure — and yet, I think most of the worst of the human condition comes from kin-selection and nepotism and favoring one's own relatives at the expense of others. So maybe I'm fascinated by families because I think they're a stage the human race has to ultimately outgrow.

Marc Bailly In Factoring Humanity and in Illegal Alien, the first contact is near. Do you believe that you will see this first contact? And do you believe in good hearted aliens?

Robert J. Sawyer: I don't believe anything without evidence. Right now, there is zero compelling evidence that extraterrestrial life exists, and, indeed, as time goes on, we find more and more reasons to believe that the set of circumstances that gave rise to biology on our world might be highly improbable, if not unique.

When I was a kid, I used to say aliens must surely exist — but with four decades of SETI (the search for extraterrestrial intelligence via radio telescopes) under our belts, and no positive results, it's harder to believe that there are lots of aliens out there. But if aliens do exist, yes, I suspect we'll make contact in this century — hopefully while I'm still alive.

And I do think good-hearted aliens are more likely than evil ones, for the simple reason that evil ones would tend to destroy themselves before they developed interstellar travel. Also, energy is energy, no matter where you live in the universe: there simply are no material goods that it would be cheaper to come here and get than it would be to make at home. The only things aliens could want from us would be to experience our culture and to learn what we know.

This all ties in with who my parents are. My mother, the statistician, would say, despite the best efforts of SETI proponents to project the number of intelligent races that must exist in the galaxy, that you can't predict any trend from one data point. The existence of life on Earth tells us only that life is possible in this universe; it says nothing about it being probable. And my father, the economist, would say nothing is done without return on investment. It just doesn't make economic sense for aliens to come here for slave labor or food or natural resources.

Marc Bailly The four books of yours published in France are set in the near future. Do you write more easily in this context that in a 'distant future' frame of mind?

Robert J. Sawyer: I have written about the distant future — notably in my novel Starplex, but also in many of my short stories. But I do prefer to write about the present day or near future for three reasons.

First, I really don't think anyone can make reasonable predictions about what the far future holds: will nanotechnology work out? Will the standard model of physics endure? Will artificial intelligence be possible? Is the universe teeming with life? No one knows the answer, and so at some point they just start making things up out of whole cloth. Look at Greg Bear's Moving Mars as an example: ostensibly a hard-SF novel, but the "descriptor theory" in it, and the ability to teleport planets but not people, is just stuff Greg made up; it's magic. Same thing with David Brin's recent Kiln People: the idea of the soul as a standing wave that can literally be imprinted on lumps of clay; a very cute notion, but, really, it's just made-up magic.

Second, I think fundamental changes in what it means to be human will happen before the end of this century, and those changes will alter human psychology in ways that will make stories about such beings uninteresting to us, and stories about us uninteresting to them. I could write about post-human futures, in which we've transcended physical form, or merged our individuality into hive minds, or so altered our bodies that notions of sex, gender, physical form, and so on mean nothing. But a writer's job is to comment on the human condition — and there really is no relevant comment to make about our condition today by writing about new forms of existence. The alternative, to write about a Star Trek future in which people are basically the same despite centuries of technological advancement, strikes me as silly.

Finally, there is a marketing issue. My books are mainstream bestsellers in Canada because people who don't normally read science fiction are happy to read what I write. The near future is very much on everyone's mind; the far future is something most people don't worry about. I find it much more interesting, and my readers find it much more relevant, for me to write about the beginnings of artificial intelligence, the beginnings of genetic modification, and so on. And so I will continue to set most of my work in the present day or very near future.

Marc Bailly Do you see yourself as a hard-science writer?

Robert J. Sawyer: Very much so, although not everyone agrees. Characters and characterization are very important to me, and they're not to some other hard-SF writers. But my books always have plots that hinge on science; if you remove the scientific element, there is no story to tell. And the science is always rigorously researched and as accurate as I can make it.

Marc Bailly You were the first non-American president of the SFF Writers of America. How do you react to that?

Robert J. Sawyer: I'm no longer SFWA president — in fact, I haven't been since 1998. But I do think SFWA has foolishly ignored the rest of the world. One of my proudest accomplishments as SFWA president was finally getting the organization to recognize non-US publishing credentials for active membership. Science fiction wasn't invented by the Americans — it is, of course, the child of Jules Verne and H. G. Wells, a Frenchman and a Brit — but the Americans tend to see it as exclusively their genre. They're wrong, and I, and other SF writers all over the world, are hopefully proving that to them.

Marc Bailly There are only four of your books published in France. Are there others books ready to be translated?

Robert J. Sawyer: In total, I've sold seven books to France: The Terminal Experiment, Illegal Alien, Starplex, Frameshift, Factoring Humanity, FlashForward, and Calculating God, with, I hope, even more to come.

Marc Bailly And the classic question : what are your future projects?

Robert J. Sawyer: I'm currently in the middle of writing a trilogy called "The Neanderthal Parallax" about an alternate Earth were Neanderthals survived to the present day, and we did not. The Neanderthals develop a technological culture, but with very different customs and sexual mores, and manage to exist on this planet without destroying its environment.

You mentioned at the outset that I sometimes seem to have a bleak view of humanity. Well, I certainly don't think it was inevitable that we ended up in the mess we're in: environmental destruction, rampant terrorism, poverty, and so on. By opening a portal to another possible version of Earth, I'm spotlighting how things might have gone differently, and examining some usually unquestioned assumptions, such as whether the adopting of agriculture was a good thing, and whether developing religion was inevitable.

Hominids, the first book in the trilogy, was just published in English. I've finished Humans, the second volume, and am now working on Hybrids, the final volume. It's the largest-scale, most ambitious work I've ever done, and I'm loving every minute of it.

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