SFWRITER.COM > About Rob > Backgrounder
ROBERT J. SAWYER: Backgrounder
This comprehensive backgrounder (updated February 2021) has been vetted by Fiona Kelleghan of the University of Miami, one of the world's foremost Robert J. Sawyer scholars.
Robert James Sawyer is a Canadian science fiction writer, born in Ottawa on 29 April 1960 and has lived in Mississauga since 2000. He has published 24 novels, [1a] and his short fiction has appeared in Analog Science Fiction and Fact, Amazing Stories, On Spec, Nature, and over seventy-five anthologies.  
The Quintaglio Ascension Trilogy:
The Neanderthal Parallax Trilogy:
The WWW Trilogy:
Awards and Honors
Sawyer has won sixty-four national and international awards for his fiction, [1b] [4a] most prominently the 1995 Nebula Award  [pictured] for his novel The Terminal Experiment; the 2003 Hugo Award  for his novel Hominids, the first volume of his Neanderthal Parallax trilogy; and the 2006 John W. Campbell Memorial Award  for his novel Mindscan. He has had two additional Nebula nominations, ten additional Hugo nominations, and four additional Campbell Memorial Award nominations. [4b]
His books have appeared on the major top-ten national mainstream bestsellers' lists in Canada, as published by The Globe and Mail newspaper  and Maclean's magazine,  and they have reached number one on the bestsellers' list published by Locus,  the trade-journal of the SF field. Translated editions have appeared in Bulgarian, Chinese, Czech, Dutch, French, German, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Polish, Romanian, Russian, Serbian, and Spanish, [1c] and he has won major SF awards in Canada,  China,  France,  Japan,  Spain,    and the United States. [1d]
In 2002, Sawyer received Ryerson University's Alumni Award of Distinction in honor of his international success as a science fiction writer  (Sawyer graduated from Ryerson in 1982 with a Bachelor of Applied Arts in Radio and Television Arts). [1e] On June 2, 2007, Sawyer received an honorary doctorate (Doctor of Letters, honoris causa) from Laurentian University in Sudbury, Ontario,  and on June 12, 2014, he received a second honorary doctorate (Doctor of Laws, honoris causa) from the University of Winnipeg.
In 2014, Sawyer was one of the initial inductees into the Canadian Science Fiction and Fantasy Hall of Fame. In 2016, he was inducted into the Order of Canada, the highest honor bestowed by the Canadian government, and in 2017 he was made a member of the Order of Ontario, the highest honor bestowed by his home province; in both cases, he was the first person ever to be inducted for work in the science-fiction field.
Style and Themes
Sawyer's work frequently explores the intersection between science and religion, with rationalism always winning out over mysticism [20a] (see especially Far-Seer, The Terminal Experiment, Calculating God, and the three volumes of the Neanderthal Parallax [Hominids, Hominids, and Hybrids], plus the short story "The Abdication of Pope Mary III," originally published in Nature, July 6, 2000).
He has a great fondness for paleontology, as evidenced in his Quintaglio Ascension trilogy (Far-Seer, Fossil Hunter, and Foreigner), about an alien world to which dinosaurs from Earth were transplanted, and his time-travel novel End of an Era. In addition, the main character of Calculating God is a paleontologist, Wake features a chase scene at the Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology in Beijing, and the Neanderthal Parallax novels deal with an alternate version of Earth where Neanderthals did not become extinct.
Sawyer often explores the notion of copied or uploaded human consciousness, most fully in his novel Mindscan, but also in FlashForward, Golden Fleece and The Terminal Experiment, plus the Hugo-, Nebula-, and Aurora-award-nominated novella "Identity Theft," its sequel the Aurora-winning short story "Biding Time," and the Hugo- and Aurora-award-nominated short story "Shed Skin."
His interest in consciousness studies is also apparent in his WWW trilogy, beginning with Wake, which deals with the spontaneous emergence of consciousness in the infrastructure of the World Wide Web. His interest in quantum physics, and especially quantum computing, inform the short stories "You See But You Do Not Observe"  (a Sherlock Holmes pastiche) and "Iterations,"  and the novels Factoring Humanity and Hominids.
SETI, the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence, plays a role in the plots of Golden Fleece, Factoring Humanity, Mindscan, Rollback, the novelette "Ineluctable," and the short stories "You See But You Do Not Observe" and "Flashes." Sawyer gives cosmology a thorough workout in his far-future Starplex. 
Real-life science institutions are often used as settings by Sawyer, including TRIUMF in End of an Era, CERN in FlashForward, the Royal Ontario Museum in Calculating God, the Sudbury Neutrino Observatory in Hominids and its sequels, and the Arecibo Observatory in Rollback.
Another Sawyer hallmark is the mortally ill main character. Pierre Tardivel in Frameshift suffers from Huntington's disease, Thomas Jericho in Calculating God has lung cancer, and Jacob Sullivan in Mindscan has an arteriovenous malformation in his brain; one of the main characters in Rollback vividly suffers from that most fatal illness of all, old age. Sawyer nonetheless is known for tales that end on an upbeat, and even transcendent, note. 
Sawyer is unusual even among Canadian SF writers for the blatantly Canadian settings and concerns addressed in his novels, all of which are issued by New York houses. His politics are often described as liberal by Canadian standards (although he contributed a Hugo Award-nominated story called "The Hand You're Dealt"  to the Libertarian SF anthology Free Space, and another called "The Right's Tough"  to the Prometheus Award-winning Libertarian SF anthology Visions of Liberty). He holds citizenship in both Canada and the United States, and has been known to criticize the politics of both countries. He often has American characters visiting Canada (such as Karen Bessarian in Mindscan and Caitlin Decter in Wake) or Canadian characters visiting the U.S. (such as Pierre Tardivel in Frameshift and Mary Vaughan in Hominids and Hybrids) as a way of comparing and contrasting the perceived values of the two countries.
Sawyer's style is simple, with clear prose, that Orson Scott Card compared to that of Isaac Asimov.  [28a] He has a tendency to include pop-culture references in his novels (his fondness for the original Star Trek, The Six Million Dollar Man, and Planet of the Apes is impossible to miss).
Sawyer's work often crosses over from science fiction to mystery; he won both Canada's top SF award (the Aurora Award) and its top mystery-fiction award (the Arthur Ellis Award [pictured]) for his 1993 short story "Just Like Old Times."  Illegal Alien is a courtroom drama with an extraterrestrial defendant; Hominids puts one Neanderthal on trial by his peers for the apparent murder of another Neanderthal; Mindscan has the rights of uploaded consciousnesses explored in a Michigan probate court; Red Planet Blues is a hardboiled detective novel set on Mars; and Golden Fleece, Fossil Hunter, The Terminal Experiment, Frameshift, and FlashForward are all, in part, murder mysteries.
Of Sawyer's shorter SF works, the novella "Identity Theft" and the short stories "Biding Time," "Flashes," "Iterations," "Shed Skin," "The Stanley Cup Caper," "You See But You Do Not Observe," and the aforementioned "Just Like Old Times" are all also crime or mystery fiction, and "Looking for Gordo" depicts a courtroom battle.
Conference papers about Sawyer's work include "The Science and Religion Dialogue in the Science Fiction of Robert J. Sawyer," by Valerie Broege, presented at The Uses of the Science Fiction Genre: An Interdisciplinary Symposium, Brock University, October 2005 ; "The Intimately Human and the Grandly Cosmic: Humor and the Sublime in the Works of Robert J. Sawyer," by Fiona Kelleghan, presented at the 29th annual International Conference on the Fantastic in the Arts in Orlando, Florida, March 2008;  and "Time and the Fiction of Robert J. Sawyer: Flash Forward to the End of an Era," also by Fiona Kelleghan, presented at the 30th annual International Conference on the Fantastic in the Arts, March 2009. 
Critical studies and scholarly reviews of Sawyer's work have appeared in many places, including:
His fiction has received starred reviews (denoting "books of exceptional merit") in Publishers Weekly, [44a]   Library Journal,  Booklist, [44b] Quill & Quire, [44c] Kliatt, and Anatomy of Wonder: A Critical Guide to Science Fiction, Fifth Edition, by Neil Barron.
Sawyer is profiled in The Canadian Encyclopedia, [28b] Canadian Who's Who,  Encyclopedia of Literature in Canada,  The Oxford Companion to Canadian Literature, Contemporary Authors volume 212,  Something About the Author volume 81, [20b] St. James Guide to Science Fiction Writers, and The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction. The hour-long documentary In the Mind of Robert J. Sawyer premiered on Canadian television on January 8, 2003,  and has been shown numerous times since on various channels, including Space: The Imagination Station, for which Sawyer is a frequent commentator.
Sawyer's papers are housed at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario. In 2013, McMaster held the academic conference Science Fiction: The Interdisciplinary Genre in honor of Sawyer's archival donation.
In addition to his own writing, Sawyer edited the Robert J. Sawyer Books  science-fiction imprint for Red Deer Press, part of Canadian publisher Fitzhenry & Whiteside; contributes to The New York Review of Science Fiction;  is The Canadian Encyclopedia's authority on science fiction;  and is a judge for the Writers of the Future  contest.
In 2009-2010, ABC produced 22 episodes of the hour-long dramatic TV series FlashForward, based on Sawyer's similarly novel of the same name, after successful production in February and March 2009 of a pilot episode scripted by David S. Goyer and Brannon Braga, directed by Goyer, and starring Joseph Fiennes and Sonya Walger.  Sawyer was story consultant on each episode of the series and wrote the 19th episode, entitled "Course Correction." 
Sawyer wrote the original series bible for Charlie Jade, an hour-long science-fiction TV series that first aired in 2005-2006, and he did conceptual work in 2003 for reviving Robotech. He has also written and narrated documentaries about science fiction for CBC Radio's Ideas series, and he hosted the 17-part weekly half-hour documentary series Supernatural Investigator [pictured] for Canada's Vision TV, which premiered January 27, 2009 . He provided analysis of the British science fiction series Doctor Who for the CBC's online documentary The Planet of the Doctor,  frequently comments on science fiction movies for TVOntario's Saturday Night at the Movies, and co-edited an essay collection in honor of the fortieth anniversary of Star Trek with David Gerrold, entitled Boarding the Enterprise.
Sawyer has taught science-fiction writing at the University of Toronto, Ryerson University, Humber College, and the Banff Centre. In 2000, he served as Writer-in-Residence at the Richmond Hill, Ontario, Public Library. In 2003, he was Writer-in-Residence at the Toronto Public Library's Merril Collection of Science Fiction, Speculation and Fantasy (the first person to hold this post since Judith Merril herself in 1987).  In 2006, he was Writer-in-Residence at the Odyssey Writing Workshop. Also in 2006, he was the Edna Staebler Writer-in-Residence at the Kitchener Public Library in the Region of Waterloo, Ontario,  following on the Region of Waterloo's choice of Sawyer's Hominids as the "One Book, One Community"  title that all 490,000 residents were encouraged to read in 2005. In 2007 he was the Berton House Writer-in-Residence at Berton House in Dawson City. In 2009, he was the first-ever Writer-in-Residence at the Canadian Light Source, Canada's national synchrotron facility in Saskatoon. 
^ 20 a b J. Sydney Jones (2004). Something About the Author on Robert J. Sawyer (Sidelights). Retrieved 2007-12-06.
^ 24 Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (2007). Sawyer says Chinese readers see freedom in sci-fi's ideas. Retrieved 2007-12-06.
^ 30 Michael Berman (2005). The Uses of the Science Fiction Genre: An Interdisciplinary Symposium. Retrieved 2008-04-15.
^ 31 Fiona Kelleghan (2008). The Intimately Human and the Grandly Cosmic: Humor and the Sublime in the Works of Robert J. Sawyer. Retrieved 2008-04-15.
^ 32 Fiona Kelleghan (2009). Time and the Fiction of Robert J. Sawyer: Flash Forward to the End of an Era. Retrieved 2009-05-10.
^ 33 Gabrielle McKee (2008). The Unified Theology of Robert J. Sawyer's Calculating God. Retrieved 2009-05-10.
^ 37 Richard Parent (2004). Double Vision: Robert Sawyer's Utopian Dystopia (excerpt). Retrieved 2008-12-29.
^ 43 Nick W. Peterson (2006). Canadian Journal of Criminology and Criminal Justice reviews Hybrids. Retrieved 2007-09-25.
^ 44 a b c Margaret Cannon, Orson Scott Card, Cori Dusmann, R. John Hayes, Roberta Johnson, Trevor Klassen, Moira L. MacKinnon, Henry Mietkiewicz, Shane Neilson, Marc Piche, Philip Snyder, Hayden Trenholm, Robert J. Wiersma, and anonymous (1990-2007). Review Tearsheets. Retrieved 2010-07-09.
^ 53 The BRB Catalogue (2007). New York Review of Science Fiction #176 to current. Retrieved 2007-12-06.
^ 57 SFWRITER.COM Inc. (2008). TV rights to Sawyer's novel Flashforward sold to ABC. Retrieved 2009-05-09.
^ 69 Stanley Schmidt (2008). Analog Science Fiction and Fact November 2008 issue description and table of contents. Retrieved 2008-11-07.
Derived and expanded from a version of the "GNU Free Documentation License" reference article from the English Wikipedia. All text is available under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License.
More Good Reading
Decade in Review: January 1999 to December 2008