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

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Robert J. Sawyer

Copyright © 1997 by Robert J. Sawyer
All Rights Reserved

First published in the Fall 1997 issue of Tangent.

Tangent is a Hugo-nominated fanzine devoted to reviews of short fiction. In 1997, Tangent editor Dave Truesdale asked me to write a profile of myself for his magazine, in honor of my Hugo nomination for Starplex. This profile concentrates on my career as a short-story writer.

Although I've had 200,000 words published in Analog, most short-fiction readers don't know me. The reason? My contributions to that magazine have been novel serializations: Hobson's Choice in the Mid-December 1994 through March 1995 issues, and Starplex in the July through October 1996 issues.

I've done well by those serializations. Hobson's Choice, which was published in book form by HarperPrism in May 1995 under the title The Terminal Experiment, won the Nebula Award for Best Novel of the Year, and Starplex, which was released in book form by Ace in October 1996, is a current finalist for the Hugo.

I have had six other novels published, starting in 1990: Golden Fleece, End of an Era, and the just-released genetics thriller Frameshift, plus my Quintaglio trilogy (Far-Seer, Fossil Hunter, and Foreigner), and I have two more books finished and in the pipeline: Illegal Alien (Ace, December 1997) and Factoring Humanity (Tor, June 1998).

Still, as I say, I'm not known as a short-fiction writer. But, since this is Tangent, I thought I'd talk a bit about my short stories.

Like most writers, my first sale was a short story — but to a most unusual venue. In 1979, when I was 19, the Strasenburgh Planetarium in Rochester, New York, sponsored an SF-writing contest judged by Isaac Asimov. They were looking for a single short story to convert into a dramatic planetarium starshow. I submitted one called "Motive." It didn't win . . . but the story that did win turned out to only have enough meat for a fifteen minute starshow, and Strasenburgh's shows ran 40 or 50 minutes. The producers bought rights to two more stories and made their starshow into a self-contained trilogy. "Motive" became one-third of Futurescapes, which had 192 performances in the summer of 1980.

Although it was never published anywhere (not for lack of trying!), "Motive" helped shape the rest of my career: it introduced the dinosaur-like Quintaglios who featured in my trilogy that began with Far-Seer; it dealt with a conniving artificial intelligence (reminiscent of JASON in my novel Golden Fleece); and it was set aboard a massive exploration ship called Starplex, which returned seventeen years later in my novel of the same name.

My second short-fiction publication also involved a contest. In 1980-81, The Village Voice: The Weekly Newspaper of New York sponsored a ten-week competition for short-short SF stories of precisely 250 words in length. My "If I'm Here, Imagine Where they Sent My Luggage" (title words didn't count in the tally!) appeared in the January 14-20, 1981, edition. I still get a kick out of that story and have its full text reprinted on the back of my business card.

I sold a few other SF stories during the 1980s, including three to Patrick Price at Amazing Stories ("Uphill Climb" — the first print appearance of my Quintaglios — March 1987; "Golden Fleece," September 1988; and "The Good Doctor," January 1989). [Golden Fleece]

"Golden Fleece" got selected to be the cover story. The version in Amazing was a novelette, 13,000 words long — but I'd never expected it to end there. Rather, I was emulating what two of my friends here in Toronto had done to crack the U.S. novel market: Terence M. Green and Andrew Weiner had both expanded previously published short stories into novels. I intended to do the same thing with Golden Fleece. The strategy worked: not only was I able to land a top agent based on the novelette's appearance in Amazing, but that agent, Richard Curtis, was able to sell the novel version in just six weeks. Orson Scott Card, who was reviewing for The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, named Golden Fleece the best SF novel of 1990 in his year-end summation, and it also won me my first Canadian Science Fiction and Fantasy Award ("the Aurora").

It was clear when I finished my first novel that a book-length canvas was my preferred medium. And with magazine response times getting ridiculously long, I decided that short fiction was really more bother than it was worth. (I was also discouraged by having been unable to sell a story I wrote in 1987 called "Lost in the Mail" that I thought highly of — indeed, my other publications aside, that failure had left me wondering if I really did have any talent as a short-story writer.) I figured I'd devote the nineties and beyond exclusively to books.

And then came Mike Resnick.

In July 1992, Mike asked me if I'd write a story for the anthology Dinosaur Fantastic, which he and Martin Greenberg were doing for DAW. This was just weeks after my second novel, Far-Seer, came out; Far-Seer was about intelligent dinosaurs, so presumably this lucky bit of timing is why Mike sought me out.

Note what Mike was doing: he was commissioning a story. I wouldn't have to go through the slush pile, I wouldn't have to wait the better part of a year for a response. Throughout the 1980s, I had made my living as a freelance non-fiction writer. I'd done over 200 articles for Canadian and American magazines: everything from dollar-a-word features for Report on Business Magazine (Canada's top financial publication) to a piece for Sky & Telescope. Of course, freelancers are used to working on commission; it's much preferable to the endless farting around I'd gone through trying to sell my beloved "Lost in the Mail." I accepted Mike's offer, but with trepidation. I hadn't written a new short story in five years — what if I'd forgotten how? Or, even worse, what if, as the failure of "Lost in the Mail" had apparently demonstrated, I never really knew how in the first place?

Well, my finished story, "Just Like Old Times," turned out to be quite a success: Mike used it as the lead story in Dinosaur Fantastic, and I also sold it to On Spec: The Canadian Magazine of Speculative Writing. The On Spec people reprinted it in their "best-of" anthology, On Spec: The First Five Years; Marty Greenberg scooped it up for his hardcover anthology Dinosaurs (Donald I. Fine); Jack Dann and Gardner Dozois reprinted it in their Dinosaurs II (Ace); and David G. Hartwell and Glenn Grant bought it for their anthology Northern Stars (Tor). The story went on to win both Canada's top SF award (the Aurora) and its top mystery-fiction award (the Arthur Ellis) for Best Short Story of 1993.

What had happened, I assumed, was that in writing novels, I'd learned, sort of ASCII-backwards, to also write short stories. Mike Resnick soon commissioned another from me, this time for Sherlock Holmes in Orbit. That story, "You See But You Do Not Observe" is, I think, the best one I've done to date. It won Le Grand Prix de l'Imaginaire, France's top honor in SF, for best foreign short story of the year; it also garnered a HOMer Award voted on by the 30,000 members of the SF&F Literature Forum on CompuServe, and was the seventh most nominated story for the Hugo Award, missing the final ballot by only four nominations.

Editor Edward E. Kramer noticed my short stories in Mike's anthologies, and he commissioned a piece from me. Whereas Mike was asking me to contribute to books that played to my strengths (Mike had known my first novel, Golden Fleece, was an SF/mystery crossover, making me a natural for Sherlock Holmes in Orbit), Ed was suggesting things that seemed, at first blush, totally wrong for me, and yet, in retrospect, turned out to be some of the most satisfying and rewarding writing I've done — at any length.

The first book Ed invited me into was Dante's Disciple, which he was co-editing for White Wolf with Peter Crowther; it was an anthology about encounters with the devil. Ed, baby, I said, I'm a hard-SF writer — I don't know nothin' 'bout no devil. But Ed said, well, you could set it on a spaceship — and from that my story "Above It All" was born. It's about a cosmonaut who commits suicide aboard Mir, and the American astronaut who has to retrieve the body; it turned out to be rather a controversial story, since many have read it to be damning the space program (although I got a wonderful fan letter from someone at NASA, and the story won this year's HOMer award).

Ed was delighted with the story and promptly ordered up another — a piece in honor of the hundredth anniversary of Bram Stoker's Dracula, for the anthology Dark Destiny III. I thought, Dracula? Dracula?! But once again, Ed knew what he was doing. My story "Peking Man" explains what really happened to the fossils of Sinanthropus pekinensis, which went missing in World War II. Ed made it the lead story in the book, and it won the Aurora Award (and, bringing things full circle, I'm toying with expanding it into a novel). [Free Space]

Then Ed came a-callin' again: this time with what seemed a nearly impossible task. He wanted a story from me for a libertarian SF anthology called Free Space: Tales of the Galactic Federation (just out in hardcover from Tor) that he was co-editing with Brad Linaweaver. I said, Ed, I'm a Canadian — I don't think it's technically possible to be both a Canadian and a libertarian. But, as he always does, Ed said a few magic words: "Well, you know, you could write a story that shows the problems with libertarianism — we're looking for a balanced book." And, lo and behold, "The Hand You're Dealt" was created.

And what about poor old "Lost in the Mail"? Well, in 1995, I finally sent it to Dale Sproule and Sally McBride for their new magazine TransVersions, and they snapped it up. To my relief, it got wonderful reviews: "Among the full-length stories in TransVersions #3, the standout is `Lost in the Mail'" — Tangent; "This great and gimmicky story almost makes the whole package worth it all by itself" — Scavenger's Newsletter; "If there is any justice in the world, Sawyer should win the Aurora Award for the emotive `Lost in the Mail' — Sempervivum; "Excellent, imaginative and well-written — further evidence of Sawyer's talents." — NorthWords. The story was indeed an Aurora finalist (it came in second), and I immediately sold reprint rights to an anthology. So I guess maybe I could write short fiction all along . . . and, now that I'm back into doing it, I don't plan to ever give up again.

It's just too much fun.

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