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

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St. James Guide to Science Fiction Writers

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Copyright © 1996 by Robert J. Sawyer
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St. James Guide to Science Fiction Writers (formerly known as Twentieth Century Science Fiction Writers) is the best reference work on contemporary SF authors. Published by Gale Research (the same publisher that produces Contemporary Authors and Something About the Author, which profiled me in Volumes 149 and 81, respectively), St. James Guide pairs an essay by the author with an appraisal of the author's work written by a major critic (in my case, the appraisal — which is quite insightful — was done by Don D'Ammassa, book reviewer for Science Fiction Chronicle).

The book also includes a comprehensive bibliography for each author covered, as well as biographical details; in all St. James Guide to Science Fiction Writers gives oodles more info on each author than does The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction. You should be able to find St. James Guide to Science Fiction Writers at large libraries, or you can order it for US$135 from Information/Reference Group at 1-800-877-4253 or 1-313-961-2242.

What follows is my own essay from the Fourth Edition of St. James Guide to Science Fiction Writers, published in January 1996.

[Robert J. Sawyer] ROBERT J. SAWYER

I am Canada's only native-born full-time SF writer, and I take that very seriously: although Canadian fantasy writers have often set work in Canada, very little SF has had identifiable Canadian content. I've undertaken to rectify that: my novels The Terminal Experiment and End of an Era take place entirely in Canada (and the latter's time-travel mission is a decidedly Canadian low-tech, low-budget affair), and the lead human characters of Golden Fleece and Starplex (to be published by Ace Books in 1996) are Canadians. To my delight, American editors and readers have embraced this warmly; to my chagrin, Canadians continue to remark, "You know, Americans aren't going to understand those references . . ."

My work often crosses the boundaries between science fiction and mystery, and has been hailed by readers in both genres. For instance, my short story "Just Like Old Times," about a serial killer sentenced to die in the prehistoric past, won both the Aurora, Canada's national SF-writing award, and the Arthur Ellis, its national mystery-writing award. Some people have reacted with surprise to my mixing of the genres, but to me SF and mystery, which both prize rational thought and tell stories that hinge on the way things really work, are much more closely allied than the traditional pairing of SF and fantasy.

Golden Fleece and The Terminal Experiment are equal mixtures of SF and murder mystery, and Fossil Hunter has a prominent murder-mystery subplot. Even so, I'm not particularly interested in writing about murder — except as a way of illuminating morality (a topic that endlessly fascinates me). But I am very intrigued by the rational intellectual process (and why people sometimes shy away from it), so, besides its overt murder plot, Golden Fleece also involves deciphering an alien radio message; Far-Seer deals with an astronomical mystery; Fossil Hunter with a geological conundrum; and Foreigner treats psychoanalysis as an exercise in detective work.

Reviewers often remark on the old-fashioned sense of wonder in my work, and they also often praise my characterization. Writers traditionally excel at one or the other; if I've got any special strength as a writer, I'd like to think that it's the ability to combine the transcendent and the very human. Indeed, although many SF writers (especially those whose work is labeled "hard SF," as mine usually is) give short shrift to characterization, I think SF's most important role is not technological prediction, nor sounding warning bells about dangerous trends, but rather to allow us to examine what it means to be human by using a suite of literary tools unavailable to writers in other genres.

One of the most powerful of those tools is the ability to look at the human race from outside. That's why Golden Fleece is told from the point of view of a computer; The Terminal Experiment has dialogs with three computer simulations of modified human minds; and the Quintaglio Ascension trilogy has no humans in it at all — but, of course, is intended to be read as a parable about humanity.

Some SF writers will spend days working out a problem in celestial mechanics to the thirtieth decimal point — as if that were important and meaningful — but then populate their stories with characters who behave as no real person ever would. Anyone can use a calculator; the tricky job is getting characters' reactions to both the mind-boggling and the mundane to ring true. The key to that, I believe, is understanding that real people are studies in gray. Fantasy and much space opera often assumes the existence of absolute good and absolute evil. I prefer to explore the subjective nature of morality; there are few clear-cut heroes and villains in my books. Indeed, Golden Fleece was an attempt to have conflict between two very different points of view — that of the human Aaron and the computer JASON — without it ever being clear which one was in the right. In End of an Era, I contended that the only truly immoral position is to not take responsibility. And in The Terminal Experiment, I attempt to identify the actual cause of human morality.

The book of mine that I'm proudest of is The Terminal Experiment; the one I enjoy the most is End of an Era; and my favorite character is Dybo, a supporting player from the Quintaglio Ascension. Unlike many characters in SF, Dybo is rather dim intellectually, but he struggles to do the right thing. He's a being of the heart in a hard-SF setting, a personification of the themes I try to bring to my writing.

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