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

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Science Fiction Chronicle Profile:
Robert J. Sawyer

by T. Jackson King

Copyright © 1993 by T. Jackson King.
All Rights Reserved.

Mr. King has graciously granted exclusive display/electronic rights for this article to be used as an integral part of Robert J. Sawyer's World Wide Web web site. It may not be copied or posted anywhere else.

This article originally appeared in the September 1993 issue of Science Fiction Chronicle.

The view of America from beyond our borders can often be disconcerting — and illuminating. Canadian Robert J. Sawyer is a hard-SF writer, and one whose books have garnered early acclaim and awards on both sides of th border. Although a dual Canadian-American citizen, he's a Canadian first. And he reacts strongly when asked why his writing includes frequent Canadian references.

"I always find that question amusing. No one would ask an American why they chose to write about the United States. Teachers always say you should write what you know. Well, I know, and love, Canada. Besides, Canada is the perfect metaphoric setting for SF stories. It's an SF country: it began as a fusion of two disparate cultures, the French and the English, and despite the occasional difficulties we have that make headlines, in fact we've made that fusion work extraordinarily well. Plus, Canada was drawn together not by war or rebellion, but by a giant, almost-impossible engineering project — the building of the Canadian Pacific Railway. The story of Canada's history reads like a good Analog serial."

Then does he think Canadian writes have an advantage over American SF writers?

"America is a funny country. Its culture — music, television, films, books — dominate the world, yet it really seems to discourage the arts. The United States, for instance, is one of the very few English-speaking countries that doesn't compensate writers for royalties lost because libraries circulate their books for free. I get a check from the Canadian government each spring to make up for that. Canada also has a program of direct government grants to writers. I've never benefited from that, but other SF writers, including Spider Robinson, Élisabeth Vonarburg, and Judith Merril, have had a lot of government support. It's all at arm's-length from the government; there's no sense in which the state is dictating what the writers should write. But I think the biggest advantage a writer has in Canada is free government-sponsored health care."

How so? "I was able to become a full-time writer because I didn't need a job in order to get health insurance. Canada — and just about every other industrialized country — considers health care a basic human right, but in the States so many people who might otherwise take the plunge and become full-time writers have to stay shackled to a nine-to-five job so that they won't be financially ruined should they be in an accident or get ill. I've donated items to auctions in support of George Alec Effinger, one of our finest writers, who, last time I checked, still owed $40,000 in medical bills. That kind of thing is mind-boggling to a Canadian or a Briton or a French person; I've never even seen a medical bill in my entire life." [Science Fiction Writer Robert J. Sawyer]

No medical bills? Talk about an SFnal experience . . . Sawyer thinks Canadians have other things to offer, too. "The idea of fiction genres is an American one, an outgrowth of the need to have some way to categorize the vast number of American books that come out each year. Canadian authors, by and large, don't believe in genres. When a bestselling mainstream Canadian writer, such as Margaret Atwood, writes what Americans would call an SF novel, such as the Nebula-nominated The Handmaid's Tale, Canadians don't say, `Oh, look, she's switching genres.' Most of Canada's mainstream writers have tried their hands at SF or fantasy; we Canadian writers like to move from form to form. When I did Golden Fleece there was a lot of buzz in the States over it being a mystery/SF crossover, but to a Canadian that seemed the most natural thing in the world to do; we just don't perceive genre walls the way Americans do.

"Likewise, there's a tendency to bring mainstream writing values to what in the U.S. will be packaged as genre fiction — such as the inclusion of difficult material such as discussions of child molestation in my SF works. There's nothing in the Canadian literary tradition that says those things don't belong in a genre novel. So if Élisabeth and I (and others, such as Robert Charles Wilson and Terry Green and William Gibson) are bringing something special to SF, I think it's that sense that we're writing general fiction, not genre fiction. Case in point: Books in Canada, my country's principal book-review magazine, reviewed Far-Seer without ever once mentioning the words "science fiction." They treated the book as a parable about Galileo and Columbus, which is indeed one of the things I intended it to be. But no American publication would dream of not categorizing the book by genre, and then they would review it not on its own merits but rather based on the preconceptions suggested by that genre label."

Despite the genre label, Sawyer has done well within its confines. His published and scheduled books included Golden Fleece (Warner/Questar, 1990), Far-Seer (Ace, 1992), Foreigner (Ace, 1994), and End of an Era (Ace 1994). Japanese translation rights to three of Sawyer's books — Fleece, Far-Seer, and Era — were sold by his agent to Hayakawa of Japan; the University of Guadalajara recently acquired rights to do a Mexican translation of Fleece; and both Fleece and Far-Seer were bought by the Science Fiction Book Club. Fleece was also chosen by Orson Scott Card as the best SF novel of 1990, it won Canada's national Aurora Award for Best SF Novel of 1990, and both books made it to the preliminary Nebula Ballot.

His short fiction has appeared in Amazing Stories, Leisure Ways, White Wall Review, The Village Voice, and Story Cards, and the anthologies Ark of Ice (Pottersfield Press, 1992), 100 Great Fantasy Short Short Stories (Doubleday, 1984), and Dinosaur Fantastic (DAW, 1993). He is also The Canadian Encyclopedia's authority on science fiction, a commentator on SF for CBC Radio's Ideas series, and an SF book reviewer for The Globe and Mail, Canada's national newspaper. He lives just north of Toronto and is married to the published poet Carolyn Clink, who is also his first reader.

Given his aversion to genre labels, why then does Sawyer write SF?

"I write to make points. Golden Fleece is basically a cautionary tale about the Strategic Defense Initiative, sounding a warning about the fundamental unreliability of software systems. Far-Seer is about the need for rationality, and the rejection of mysticism, something that needs to be said pretty loudly, what with all this new-age crap. Foreigner is my piece about traditional family values. End of an Era is my call for people to take personal responsibility for their actions. If I lived in a different time or place, I might have been a polemicist or essayist, rather than a fiction writer. But today, nobody wants to stand still to listen to a well-reasoned argument. So by using the metaphoric devices of aliens and time travel and future worlds, I get to talk about issues without people bringing their natural resistance or their preconceptions to the table."

Those preconceptions extend to the view American writers have of overseas markets, and the chance to sell in foreign markets. "I'm always amazed at how provincial Americans are, if you'll excuse the pun. I spent a good part of the last two years fighting to establish the Canadian Region of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America. I was amazed at how many American writers simply have no idea that there's any real publishing outside of the continental 48. They think SF is an American invention — it's not; it's British. They think the ABA is the world's biggest book fair — it's not; the Frankfurt Book Fair dwarfs it. They think Arthur C. Clarke is an American. Damon Knight once said the most unrealistic thing about science-fiction stories is the preponderance of Americans: `practically no one,' he said, `is an American.' Well, it would be going too far to say that practically no publishing is American, but it is only one facet of book publishing worldwide. So, yes, I'm delighted my books are selling in other countries. The fact that there are new markets in Eastern Europe and Russia is something every SF writer should be thinking about; by its very nature, SF tends to be more translatable than much mainstream fiction. Mainstream often assumes the readers is familiar with the story's milieu and therefore doesn't explicate it, whereas SF, when artfully constructed, contains the entire milieu within the text of the work itself."

Sawyer is known for doing extensive promotion and publicity about his books. He is convinced of the value of self-promotion.

"I took a hint from author John E. Stith and did 75 bound galleys at my own expense for Golden Fleece. That cost me about $500, including printing and postage. It turned out to be the best $500 I've ever spent. I knew Warner wasn't going to do any bound galleys of a first novel by an unknown author. The page count for my galleys was different from that of the final book, and most reviews cite the page count, so I'm positive that almost every one of the dozens of reviews Golden Fleece got was directly because of those galleys. The reviews, which, to my delight, were almost all very positive, aided the sale of Golden Fleece to the Science Fiction Book Club, something Warner hadn't bothered to pursue. And my three-book sale to Japan was based solely on the reviews; Hayakawa, the Tokyo publisher, had read only them, not the books themselves, when they made their offer. The good publicity from Golden Fleece meant that my next book, Far-Seer, came out as a lead title from Ace, with Ace doing 200 bound galleys plus a postcard campaign plus a full-page inside front-cover ad in Locus. But if I hadn't drawn some attention to Golden Fleece, my second and subsequent books would have been midlist instead of lead titles, and the publisher would be doing next to nothing to promote them.

"I also do my own press releases for my books. The response has been overwhelming, with articles in national newspapers and major magazines and over fifteen TV interviews. The investment in doing press releases is so tiny, and the return on that investment so huge, I'm amazed that most authors don't bother to do them."

Sawyer's emphasis on promotion draws from his academic training. He began as a non-fiction writer, graduating from Ryerson Polytechnical Institute of Toronto in 1982 with a B.A.A. in Radio and Television Arts. He quickly found lucrative work writing corporate news release and business magazine articles. "See, from 1983 until about 1988, I kept thinking I could squeeze SF writing in around doing the corporate and magazine work, but not much really happened. I sold maybe one SF short story a year. I finally decided that if I wanted to make a career of SF writing, then that's all I should be doing. My wife and I had been saving carefully, and we had over a hundred thousand dollars in the bank, so we were able to go on quite comfortably as I settled in to write fiction full-time. Still, to this day my phone rings with offers of magazine article assignment at 75 cents or a dollar per word. These are pretty standard rates for the kinds of magazines I used to write for — glossy national business publications — but they're quite literally ten or twenty times what most short SF pays. If the article sounds interesting enough, I still occasionally say yes. But, heck, if I only wanted to make money, I would have become a lawyer. Toronto got fifteen centimeters of snow today, and while others are struggling to get to work, I'm sitting at home doing exactly what I want to do. That's worth an awful lot to me."

That push to writing came at an early age for Sawyer — in elementary school. "By coincidence, I had the same teacher in both grade 5 and grade 6, although she got married during that time so she started off as Miss Matthews and ended up as Mrs. Jones. She encouraged both my interest in writing and my interest in science. There were a few other teachers who encouraged me over the years, but also several who were completely indifferent to my writing, and one — in grade 9 — who actually tried to dissuade me. She was pretty old back then, though, so I suspect she's pushing up daisies now."

Sawyer's original career goal was to be a paleontologist specializing in dinosaur studies. But he regretfully had to give up that idea. "As I entered my final year of high school, I came to realize that I didn't want to spend another ten years in school so that when I finally graduated I could make $18,000 a year sifting dirt. I still love paleontology, have attended an annual meeting of the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology, and have taken paleontology continuing-education courses at the University of Toronto. But my particular interest was dinosaurian paleontology, and there are only a couple of dozen people who have jobs in that field in the entire world. Aspirant writers talk about how tough it is to break in, but publishing is wide open compared to specialized paleontology. Although people think it's risky to try to become a novelist, I had a much better chance at succeeding at that than I ever would have at getting to spend my life hunting dinosaurs."

Sawyer's advice for new writers is equally pragmatic: "It's often said that writers are a dime a dozen. That's only partially true: workmanlike writers are a dime a dozen. Really good writers are rare. So, rule number one: become a really good writer. Quality really does count. The only way to distinguish yourself from the pack is through the excellence of your work. Don't ever say, hey, this is as good as some of the stuff I've seen published. Ask yourself, is this the absolute best I can do? If not, it's time for another rewrite.

"Second, publishers will pay you poorly at the outset — and maybe always. Rule number two: have money in the bank before you embark on your writing career. Be able to afford the time it takes to learn to do the job right, and don't end up trying to squeeze creating works of art in around flipping burgers at McDonald's. Think of embarking on a writing career as going to grad school: it should be your number-one priority.

"Third, take advantage of the anonymity of writing. I've seen countless wannabes at conventions buttering up editors. Don't do this. Send your work cold through the mail, and let the work be judged on its own merits. If it stinks, the editor will — politely — tell you so. Just write well. That really is the sum total of your job."

Writing well also goes to the heart of what Sawyer thinks is wrong with today's science fiction writing. "Most mainstream writers — and readers — take a disparaging view of SF because most SF is crap. It really is. I find myself finishing less than one SF book in ten that I start reading. The field has been ruined by endless series, sequels to books that didn't need sequels, sharecropping, packaged books, and so on. Also, SF tends to be exclusively self-referential. Oh, one might use the word `ansible' for an instantaneous communications device in homage to Ursula Le Guin, but the field tends to be completely isolated from other literature. I was truly amazed to find readers and reviewers of Far-Seer who didn't recognize the allusions to Moby Dick in that book. Indeed, at one point, two of the characters, Keenir and Dybo, exchange lines of dialog that are taken right from Melville; nobody caught that, let alone a lot of more subtle stuff that I've done. In a mainstream novel, you assume your reader is well and widely read. In much of SF, any allusion at all is wasted effort. That's not true of all SF of course; when SF succeeds it is better than the best of mainstream literature because it tells us something new about what it means to be human, instead of giving us the umpteenth reiteration of Romeo and Juliet. But mostly, as writers and as readers, we set our sights way too low, and it's no surprise that we're looked down upon."

He is equally adamant about whether SF speaks strongly to today's readers. "Actually, I don't think it speaks to today's reader much at all. Most readers won't even try a work of science fiction. SF's biggest problem is that it has built up barriers to the entry of new readers, including nonsense like correcting someone who innocently says "Sci-Fi." A lot of fans and several of my colleagues will jump all over someone who uses that abbreviation, and tell them, puh-leeze!, call it SF. Well, having certain abbreviations that are in and others that are out is tantamount to secret handshakes; they're walls that keep newcomers out. One of the best novels published in our genre in the last few years was James Morrow's Only Begotten Daughter, but he'd have had ten times the readership if the book had not been presented as SF. A lot of people have dumped on Margaret Atwood and P. D. James for abjuring the term SF in relation to their books The Handmaid's Tale and The Children of Men, but they're wise to do so. Most SF isn't about anything significant at all. It used to be the genre of cautionary tales, and, heaven knows, our world needs a measure of reflection as we rush madly into new technologies. But very little of that is left in SF; we end up with thinly disguised war-porn and mindless action adventure. I'd love to be able to say that SF writers were the conscience of the technological age, but we aren't; we gave all that up years ago."

Sawyer is not only different from many writers in how he views SF; he's also different in how he writes his novels. "I have discovered one thing about the way I write that shocks several of my colleagues: I don't write my books in order from beginning to end. Instead, I write whatever scene strikes my fancy that particular day, and at the end I assemble them all together. A lot of reviewers have used the term `page-turners' to describe my books, and yet I never thought of myself as a writer of suspense. I think the fast pacing is just fallout from having the books consist of scenes that I really wanted to write, with the connecting material and bridges dispensed with in as few words as possible."

Using those few words and tight scenes with strong characterization, Sawyer focuses on things that matter — including a vision of the future that is sometimes harsh, unfair and includes traumatic content such as child molestation. It's a conscious choice for Sawyer.

"I do that for the simple reason that I live in a harsh, unfair present that includes such things. I use SF solely as a vehicle for commenting about today; only a fool believes he's really predicting the future. I must say, though, that I'm surprised by some of the reactions people have had to my work. Aaron, the human main character in Golden Fleece, was molested by his uncle as a little boy, and Afsan, the main character of the trilogy that begins with Far-Seer, has something quite terrible happen to him, too. I can't begin to count the number of people who have said to me, hey, how come you did that to Afsan? Frankly, I've been disappointed to find out just how high a percentage of the SF reading audience is interested only in escapism. To me, the gut-wrenching stuff is very important, so you'll find not just child molestation, but also aged parents dying of cancer, divorce, adultery, blindness, mental instability, and so on in my work. But you'll also find the miracle of birth, love kindled, love re-kindled, personal triumph, and more — I don't think of myself as a depressing writer. Rather, I'm trying to reflect the whole range of human experience, without sanitizing it."

This complete engagement with life is one reason why Sawyer enjoys reading contemporary fantasy. "In The World Beyond the Hill, Alexei and Cory Panshin have made much of SF as the literature of transcendence. But in SF so often that transcendence, that sense of wonder, comes by simply pointing at some Really Big Thing — a ringworld, a Dyson sphere, a giant alien spaceship, a weird astronomical phenomenon, things that no one will likely encounter in their lifetimes. But there is wonder in daily life, too: in childbirth and rainbows and tulips in spring. Contemporary fantasy reminds us to look for the wonderful and the unusual around us in our day-to-day lives. That's why I cringe so much when I hear SF fans disparagingly referring to non-fans as "mundanes." Who's more limited? The person who has to have some massive feat of engineering described for him in order to feel transcendence? Or the person who can see the wonder in an icicle melting in the sunlight?"

Sawyer's visions of wonder are only begun. If he's graced, they may sparkle long after debates over genre and mainstream are consigned to dusty catacombs, leaving behind only the transcendent.

T. Jackson King is an Arizona archaeologist who's sold stories to Analog, Tomorrow, Pulphouse, Absolute Magnitude, Expanse, and other magazines. His SF novels include Retread Shop (Warner, 1988) and Ancestor's World (Ace, 1996). His non-fiction has appeared in Writer's Digest, Science Fiction Chronicle, Kinesis, and many other places.

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