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Delos Interview with Robert J. Sawyer
Copyright © 1996 by Robert J. Sawyer
All Rights Reserved.
An interview with Robert J. Sawyer for the Italian e-zine
Delos Science Fiction.
Interview conducted Monday, May 6, 1996, by Luigi Pachi.
Q: I've just heard you've won the Nebula award with your novel
The Terminal Experiment,
which is going to be published in May 1996 here in Italy. What's your
feeling about winning such an important award? Were you expecting this
A: Without a doubt, winning the Nebula Award is the biggest thing
that's ever happened to me professionally. I was totally
surprised to win. This was my first-ever Nebula nomination;
usually, an author is nominated several times before actually
winning. Also, this was an award from the Science Fiction and
Fantasy Writers of America, and I'm not an American. Rather, I'm
a Canadian, and the book is set entirely in Canada. I sort of
expected a little prejudice against the book because of that.
Also, mine was the only one of the six nominees to be originally
published in paperback, and the only one for which the publisher
didn't mail out a large quantity of copies to SFWA members,
trying to garner votes; usually hardcovers have an advantage in
the awards. When they opened the envelope and called my name at
the awards banquet, I was absolutely shocked.
Q: In your opinion, which one of the ingredients you have used
for your novel has been the reason for winning the Nebula award
A: The great American literary novelist William Faulkner once
said that "the human heart in conflict with itself" is the only
thing worth writing about. Science fiction seems to fight
against this, though. It's often about technology or neat tricks
of science, but not about anything human. Well,
The Terminal Experiment
is a very human novel, and it is, quite literally
about the human heart or soul in conflict with itself; the
main character of the novel ends up face-to-face with an
artificial-intelligence simulation of his own all-too-fallible
human soul. Without in any way denigrating the other very fine
novels that were nominated for the Nebula, I think mine was the
most universal in theme. SFWA has all kinds of writers in it
thoughtful, literary writers; action-adventure writers; high
fantasy writers; hard-SF writers. The theme of my book seemed to
appeal across group lines.
Q: Can you explain to our readers the environment in which your
awarded story has been set?
A: The Terminal Experiment is set in
Toronto, Canada, in the year 2011 just fifteen years from now.
Toronto is the largest city in Canada; it's a very modern, very clean,
very ethnically diverse city. It always seemed to me a natural
setting for an SF novel, but only one or two have ever previously
been set in that city. The world of 2011 is only a little bit more
advanced than our present day. There are no flying cars or teleportation
machines. But there is a much greater presence of computers in
day-to-day life; indeed, one of the most terrifying parts of the
novel deals with a character's "smart" house a house in which
every light and door and faucet is controlled by computer
turning against her.
Q: Which one of your characters in your novel do you like most
A: My favorite character in the book is Sarkar Muhammed. Sarkar
is the longtime best-friend of the main character, Peter Hobson.
He's got strong moral convictions as many Muslims do but
he's not a cardboard reactionary, as Muslims are often portrayed
in the media. Rather, he's a fun guy to be with, cracks a lot of
good jokes, and is also brilliant. He was a lot of fun to write.
Q: When did you start reading, and then writing, about science
A: I began reading science fiction when I was ten or so. My
parents are both academics, and they always encouraged me to
read. When my father discovered I was watching science-fiction
programs on television, rather than trying to discourage me from
that, he instead went out and bought some science fiction books
for me. He didn't read SF himself, but he knew the name
Isaac Asimov from Asimov's non-fiction work, and so that's who he
started me with. I began trying to write science fiction as a
teenager, and actually managed to sell a story when I was just
Q: Can you find one or more reasons why you decided to write
about SF, instead of choosing a different genre?
A: I chose SF for several reasons. First, because it's what I
enjoyed reading. Second, because I was always very interested in
science an interest I maintain to this day. Third, because
the path to career success in science fiction has always been
very clear: you write good short stories, you sell them, you
write a novel,
you get an agent to represent it based on the
strength of your short-fiction credentials, and so on. Other
branches of writing are very hard to break into, even if you are
talented; in SF, though, the process is completely open. It
seemed an obtainable goal, and that was important to me, since
I've always been very pragmatic.
Q: Where would you position yourself, and your way of writing
about SF, thinking among Golden Age, New Age, and Cyberpunk SF
authors? In other words, do you fell more close to the SF
written by, for example, Pohl, Ballard, or Gibson?
A: I think of myself as a golden-age author updated for the
Nineties. I really like sense-of-wonder and big,
thought-provoking ideas. My favorite SF author is Arthur C.
Clarke, and someone once quipped that I write like Clarke, but
with good characterization. That's an assessment of my work that
I'm very happy with.
Q: Could you kindly tell me your preferred authors and books?
A: In the SF field, my all-time favorite novels are Gateway by
Frederik Pohl and The Fountains of Paradise by Arthur C. Clarke.
I'm also a big fan of the short fiction of Larry Niven. Outside
of SF, my favorite novel is To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee.
Q: Which SF magazine did you used to read in the past, and which
one are you reading now? Do you feel any big difference between
the old and the current SF magazines?
A: I've always enjoyed the big three American SF magazines:
Analog, Asimov's, and The Magazine of
Fantasy & Science Fiction. I'm a hard-SF writer,
so Analog has always appealed to me most; it's
also the magazine that's changed the least in the last few
decades. Its editor, Stanley Schmidt, knows exactly what his
readers want, and he gives it to them every month. The big
change in Asimov's is, I think, a tendency to publish works with
minimal, or even no, SF content at all. I'm not 100% happy with
that; there are lots of venues for mainstream fiction, but very
few for SF anymore. I'd prefer to see real SF in each story.
Q: Trees are getting less and less common in our world. Do you
believe that the future of any magazine will be based on the
A: I suspect electronic publishing will eventually take over
but not nearly as soon as most futurists seem to think.
Magazines and books have all sorts of advantages over electronic
versions; although several million people are now on the
Internet, there are almost a thousand people who aren't for every
one who is. People like the feel of printed pages, they like the
portability, they like reading in their bath tubs. Online
publishing has lots of advantages for the publisher most
notably, reduced distribution costs but not nearly so many for
the actual reader, and, in the literary marketplace, it's the
reader who ultimately controls everything.
Q: What do you think about the Internet citizens and the
cyberhighway in our day-to-day society? Which evolution do you
A: The Internet has reached a crucial turning point.
All of those who do want to be on it who immediately perceive
the benefits are now on it. But there are many, many more who
aren't on it, who dismiss it as hype, or a fad, or a vast
wasteland. They'll need to be convinced to come on board, and
doing that is going to be difficult. I think the biggest shift
we're seeing in the Internet is a move away from interactivity
such as the Usenet newsgroups and toward simply getting
information without any human contact such as through a World
Wide Web home page. Ironically, that's probably going to bring
more people onto the Internet in the long run; many people get
burned very early on in the newsgroups by the incredible rudeness
of some of the people there. Human beings were not meant to
communicate by short snatches of text glowing on a computer
screen; we see everything that's written as much harsher than the
writer intended it. Until we find some way to deal with that,
the Internet will still have a wall around it keeping most people
Q: What are your main projects for the future? Is there any new
book coming out?
A: I have three more books completed and on their way out.
Starplex is a hard-SF far-future novel, which will be published
in the U.S. in October 1996, after serialization in Analog.
Frameshift is a novel very much
like The Terminal Experiment,
set in the present day and dealing with some of the moral quandaries
presented by genetics research. After that, it's
a courtroom drama with an extraterrestrial defendant. I'm
keeping quite busy and loving every minute of it.
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