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

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Barnes and Noble Interview
with Robert J. Sawyer

An interview with Robert J. Sawyer for Barnes and Noble Online

Interview conducted Sunday, June 21, 1998, by Matt Schwartz.

Can you give our readers a little sense of what Factoring Humanity is about?

Factoring Humanity is my tenth novel. It tells the story of Kyle Graves, who is an artificial-intelligence researcher at the University of Toronto, and his estranged wife Heather Davies, who is a psychologist at U of T. Kyle seems to be about to make a breakthrough in quantum computing, and Heather is trying to decode radio messages that have been received from Alpha Centauri. These two plotlines — plus a real family crisis for Kyle and Heather, involving the suicide of one of their daughters — come together in a way that takes humanity on the next major step forward in its evolution. Balancing the very human and the grandly cosmic is really what good, modern SF is all about, in my view, and Factoring Humanity is probably my purest expression of that ideal to date.

With Illegal Alien and your new novel Factoring Humanity, you've helped to create a new subgenre — the hard-SF-thriller, kind of like mixing Science Fiction with John Grisham or James Patterson. Science Fiction has been viewed by some as a genre that is dwindling. Is this mix of SF with a currently very popular genre — the thriller — an intentional attempt at expanding SF's reach, or did it just happen to figure into your storylines?

It's absolutely intentional. I really am afraid that science fiction is in danger of going the way of horror or westerns. We've seen SF take a real body-blow in the last couple of years, largely because the independent-distribution channel (which places paperback books in wire racks in drugstores, grocery stores, and so on) has stopped carrying any category SF, except for media tie-ins. Also, the average age of those attending SF conventions has, in the twenty-odd years that I've been attending them myself, always been equal to my own age: when I started going, the conventions were filled with teenagers; now, they're filled with people in middle age. So SF is definitely in crisis. I'm not selling out, though; I still write real SF, with real science. But by emphasizing strong, page-turner plots, and by setting the books in the near future (my current Hugo Award nominee, Frameshift, was set in the present day; Illegal Alien is set in 1999; and Factoring Humanity is set in 2017), I'm trying to reach out to those who have never read SF before, and who have maybe been intimidated by the spaceships and aliens. Fortunately for me, the core SF audience continues to embrace my books, but I've also managed to attract a lot of non-SF readers . . . and I think that's good not just for me, but for the SF field in general.

Factoring Humanity analyzes the power to travel through humanity's collective subconscious. If you were offered that trip — the ability to really see into anyone and everyone — is that something you would want to do?

For sure. I once met a woman who was going on about how complex and difficult her life was, and I finally commented (gently, I hope) that, you know, your life really doesn't sound any more difficult than mine or anyone else's. She was floored by the suggestion that someone else could have as complex an internal life as she did, being as conflicted, and confused, and torn apart by issues as she was. And yet we all reinforce that impression: people ask us "What are you thinking," and instead of replying honestly, we say "nothing," instead of revealing the million secret thoughts swirling through our heads. The chance to see the vast, chaotic complexity of another mind would be enormously enlightening for anyone, and I'd certainly jump at the chance myself. As for which historical figures I'd like to peek into, well, many would be writers, of course, to see how the creative process worked for them. But I'd also like to visit some of my personal heroes, such as Martin Luther King, Jr., Charles Darwin, and Canada's first Prime Minister, Sir John A. Macdonald.

Do you find it difficult explaining — and using as a central plot point — theoretical concepts, such as the fourth dimension, in the context of a novel whose purpose is to entertain?

Before I became a full-time novelist in 1991, I worked as a journalist, often doing articles about science and high technology. So, no, I have no difficulty explaining complex stuff clearly and concisely; indeed, one review has already observed that "the science in the book is given articulate treatment, and even the densely argued The Emperor's New Mind by Roger Penrose becomes understandable after reading Factoring Humanity."

I realize having a novel contain a discussion of quantum computing, or the many-worlds interpretation of quantum physics, or what a tesseract is isn't to everyone's taste. But I really do try to keep the story moving even when I am exploring an intriguing bit of physics or math. Sure, anything that isn't just pure plot is a turn-off for some readers, and that's fine with me. I don't want the largest possible number of readers; rather, I simply want for all the readers who like the same things I like to discover my books.

Salvador Dali's controversial painting of the crucifixion of Christ entitled Christus Hypercubus plays into Factoring Humanity. Are you a fan of Dali's? Would you call him an influence?

Dali seemed a perfect motif to use for this particular novel (Jung was also a great motif, too, and I use references to him and his work throughout the book, as well). I do enjoy Dali's work, though, to be honest, I like Renoir and Emily Carr much more than I like Dali (and, as far as mind-bending pictures are concerned, give me a nice M. C. Escher instead of melting watches any day). But paintings in general are certainly an influence on me. I can't paint at all, but an image capture on a canvas is like an image captured in a paragraph: frozen for all time, capable of being revisited again and again. In most of my books, you'll find descriptions of the paintings or art prints people have on their office walls.

Factoring Humanity's protagonist Heather Davis spends a large part of her career deciphering a message from space. If you had the power to send a message off to space that would represent humanity to other lifeforms in the universe, what would that message be?

They cynic in me would send a pictogram of the planet Earth with a solid box around it, saying, in essence, keep away — not because of any fear of what the aliens might do to us, but out of concern over what we might do to them. But my cynical part is usually held at bay. I think we've already taken a pretty good stab at the kind of message I'd want to do: the Voyager record. There's virtually no science we could teach anyone: aliens who could receive and understand our messages are likely to be decades if not centuries more advanced than us. So, I'd send our art — our music, our paintings (including Dali!), photos of sculpture, and so on. Art really is the signature of civilization.

My one sadness is that the art form that I myself practice — writing — is the least likely to ever be appreciated by aliens. I really do think that any lifeform in the universe could indeed appreciate Mozart or a well-composed painting; the principles of both music and design are mathematical, after all. But the written word is meaningless unless you know the language — and our language, the tool we use for shaping our thoughts, is the most uniquely human thing we possess.

Factoring Humanity doesn't exactly seem to put the profession of therapist in high regard, even showing the potential dangers of an unsuitable therapist. Does it represent personal feelings you have towards therapy, or was it essentially a necessary plot point?

This is always a problem for writers: the reader wants to generalize one character into a worldview. If you have a corrupt lawyer in a novel, suddenly you're seen as saying that all lawyers are corrupt (and, of course, the political-correctness backlash means that many writers shy away from any uncomplimentary view of any character, lest you be accused of believing that all whites, or all blacks, or all men, or all women, or all gays, or all straights, are just like your character).

In point of fact, I went to great pains to make clear in Factoring Humanity that the therapist was unlicensed, didn't have a doctorate, and probably shouldn't have been practicing. And, of course, there are bad therapists, and exposing them, and their practices, is an important and righteous thing to do. Still, I tried to show some real compassion toward the therapist in Factoring Humanity; she, too, had been abused, after all. And I fully recognize that therapy has been tremendously useful for a lot of people, and, indeed, my earlier novel Foreigner (Ace, 1994) actually has a therapist as the main character; that therapist manages not just to cure her chief patient but that character's entire species as well. But, sure, I expect to get letters complaining about that, and other, aspects of the narrative . . . but provoking strong reactions is one of the hallmarks of good writing, so that's fine by me.

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