Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Forbes.com interviews Robert J. Sawyer

Forbes.com -- the online site of the famed business magazine -- interviews Robert J. Sawyer in his capacity as futurist.

They only used a portion of the interview we did; here's the whole thing:

I'm both a science-fiction writer and a futurist -- which are related but distinct disciplines. A futurist's goal is usually to predict the future, but a science-fiction writer's goal is often to prevent the future, by depicting a plausible but undesirable scenario with enough credibility that society decides to make a course-correction to avoid that vision becoming reality.

No one would say that George Orwell's Nineteen Eight-Four was a failure as science fiction just because the real 1984 turned out to be so different from the predictions he'd made in 1948, when he was writing that book. Rather, he was wonderfully successful because in direct response to his thought experiment about where society might be headed we prevented, or at least staved off for a time, the kind of technological totalitarianism he foresaw.

I'm a huge advocate that science-fiction writers make the best futurists: A futurist on his or her own is good at extrapolating statistical trends and telling you what the population size might be in a given year, or how big the economy will be. But real science fiction -- not Star Wars escapism, but thoughtful works that reasonably extrapolate not just technological but also social trends -- does more than just project cold data forward. A science-fiction writer's job is to go further, placing all that in societal context: what will the changes coming down the pike actually mean to lives of ordinary people at work, at home, at play.

I like to think, regardless of which hat I'm wearing, that I've got a good track record of successful predictions. Most science-fiction writers totally missed the World Wide Web, but I predicted it in 1982, and even had the name almost right, calling it the TerraComp Web, "Terra" being Latin for "Earth."

And in 1998, in my Hugo Award-nominated novel Factoring Humanity, I wrote about the democratization of media, and the consequent loss of truly high-quality work: "A thousand channels to choose from, from all over the world, plus all the desktop-TV crap being produced out of people's homes coming in over the net." (The term "desktop TV," of course, was by analogy to the then-current revolution in "desktop publishing.")

Still, to date, the prediction I've gotten the most recognition for is suggesting in 1995, in my Nebula Award-winning The Terminal Experiment, that the Pope right now would be named Benedict XVI. That wasn't a wild guess, but rather what seemed reasonable extrapolation, given the fact that Popes usually take names to honor a predecessor they see as a role model.

But you asked a couple of specific questions. I'll note gently that your questions are loaded, in that they ask for two examples of failures, and none of successes. Your first question -- "What's one thing you were sure would happen, but didn't?" -- seeks a sin of commission, a prediction that turned out to be wrong. And your second question -- "What's something that happened and totally surprised you?" -- seeks a sin of omission.

But, anyway, for me the answer to both is the essentially the same: like so many science-fiction writers and futurists, I predicted a rational twenty-first century, a new millennium in which old superstitions and fundamentalist religion would have faded into the background -- and so I was shocked by the rise to the heights of power of the Religious Right in the United States (even though I did predict fraud using electronic voting machines in my first novel, 1990's Golden Fleece ...).

It's a mistake many futurists have made. We assume the rest of humanity is like us: forward-thinking, rational, and enamored of science. I mentioned Nineteen Eighty-Four before; the other famous work of prediction named after a year is Arthur C. Clarke's 2001: A Space Odyssey, and that had orbiting hotels and chatty artificial intelligences and suspended animation and cities on the moon by the turn of the century -- none of which we got.

But it wasn't that the things Clarke predicted where impossible; it's just that he assumed when writing that screenplay in 1966, that the world's enthusiasm for space, which he so keenly felt, couldn't possibly peter out. Hundreds of science fiction writers predicted the first man to walk on the moon would do so in the 1960s; not a single one predicted the last person would do so just three years later. When we fail in our prediction, as science-fiction writers and futurists, it's because, down deep, even if our visions are occasionally apocalyptic, we're really optimists: we love the future, and we want it to hurry up and get here.


As a science-fiction writer, Robert J. Sawyer is one of only seven writers in history to win all three of the world's top awards for best science-fiction novel of the year: the Hugo (which he won for Hominids), the Nebula (which he won for The Terminal Experiment) and the John W. Campbell Memorial Award (which he won for Mindscan). He's also the only writer ever to win the top SF awards in the United States, Canada, China, France, Japan, and Spain. His latest novel, Rollback (published by Tor), looks at the bioethics of life prolongation.

As a futurist, Sawyer has done consulting for CA (Computer Associates), Kodak, Motorola, NASA, and Canada's Federal Department of Justice. He's given dozens of futurism keynotes, including to the Federation of State Medical Boards, the Association of Biomedical Communications Directors, and the Canadian Public Relations Society, and he is a frequent futurism commentator for Discovery Channel Canada and the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. His physical home is in Toronto; online, he's at http://sfwriter.com.

The Robert J. Sawyer Web Site



At October 16, 2007 9:34 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm not sure, as The Terminal Experiment is one of the few novels of yours that I haven't read yet, but didn't you (also?) make your Pope Benedict prediction in Flash Forward?

Cincinnati, OH

At October 16, 2007 9:53 PM , Blogger RobertJSawyer said...

I first used the name Benedict XVI in Chapter 30 of The Terminal Experiment; I later used it in Chapter 9 of Flashforward.

The former was published in 1995; the later, 1999.

At October 16, 2007 10:16 PM , Anonymous Hugh said...

Ah, thanks. As I said, I haven't read The Terminal Experiment yet, but I have read Flashforward, and I didn't realize that you had used Benedict XVI before.

I'll have to move The Terminal Experiment up on my TBR pile. :)

At October 22, 2007 1:35 PM , Blogger Shaun Farrell said...

Nice stuff, Rob. Though, as an interviewer who has accidentally asked "loaded" questions, I must play devil's advocate just a little.

Still, you did a wonderful job at showing that the reporter's assumptions about SF were showing, even if the reporter didn't know.


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