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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
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
I like to quip that I'm more interested in the survival of my
memes than my genes "memes" being
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,
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
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
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,
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
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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