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

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Panel Suggestions

When an author is asked to be a program participant at a science-fiction convention, he or she is also often asked to suggest panel topics, or to help flesh them out with provocative questions. I first put together this list in 1994 for ConAdian, the Winnipeg Worldcon, and update it periodically. One year, the convention Contradiction in Niagara Falls, New York, simply used my entire list of suggestions as their core programming.

Dinosaurs in SF

Was it all just cashing in on Jurassic Park, or did any real literature emerge from the dino glut? Do we now know so much about dinosaurs — why they died, how they lived — that they're no longer fun to write about?

Genre Crossing

Can cross-over books ever be the best in either field? Will an SF novel ever win an Edgar? Do crossovers get a bigger audience (all SF plus all mystery fans) or a smaller one (only mystery fans who like SF)?


Given we only have one life-bearing sample to work from, isn't world-building a crock? Do some writers get so immersed in their world-building that they forget that it's just a book, dammit?

Aliens in SF

We can't decide whether dolphins are sentient; what makes us think we'd recognize an alien intelligence? Isn't it true that SF about aliens can only be "literature" when its aliens are metaphors for humanity?

Time Travel That Alters History

Isn't the fact that we live in a world in which the Holocaust happened proof that such time travel is impossible? Does chaos theory mean that altering the past will never have the effect you intend?

How to Sell SF to General Readers as Literature

Do you have to disguise any SFnal elements in packaging such a book? (No mention of Hugos, of "SF," etc.) Isn't it all wasted effort? Don't general readers deny that any work they like could possibly be SF? And aren't the usual SF publishers incapable of reaching mainstream audiences, anyway?

Short Fiction vs. Novels

Why would anyone who can sell novels bother writing lower-paying short fiction anymore? Has anyone ever expanded a short story into a novel that was actually better than the original short story? What about so-called novels — ranging from Asimov's Foundation books to Allen Steele's Coyote and Matt Hughes's The Commons — that are really linked short stories?

Creating an Internally Consistent Religion

Many SF writers are atheists or agnostics; aren't we all really setting up "straw men" religions? Isn't "internally consistent religion" an oxymoron? Aren't they all really studies in contradictions?

How We Deal with Death and Dying

Is it possible to write about life-after-death in an SF context? Or is it all just mystic mumbo-jumbo? Doesn't SF — especially military SF — cheapen the meaning of death? Isn't it all just war porn?

Intersection Between SF and Contemporary Issues

Does an average 14-year-old understand that The Forever War is really about Vietnam? Are such allusions wasted effort? Does a writer limit his or her shelf-life by tying work too closely to the present day?

Tidally Locked Worlds

Can life evolve on one-face, tidally locked worlds? Would there be different lifeforms on each side of such a world? Reverse the premise: why would beings from a one-face world argue against life on non-tide-locked worlds?

Defining SF

Should we endeavor to keep ourselves pure, defining SF so as to exclude fantasy? Must a definition of SF include a reference to "science" or "technology"?

The SF Market Today

Isn't the SF market the worst its ever been for making a living? Do writers doom themselves to poverty by writing category SF, instead of Crichton-style thrillers? What about sharecropping and work-for-hire media tie-ins? Aren't they killing the genre?


Where the hell was SFWA when agents started charging 15%? Isn't 15% outrageously high? Aren't literary lawyers, who are paid only once, better than agents, who get a percentage for the life of the book? Also, how do you get an agent? How do you fire an agent? Can you manage your career yourself?

Canadian SF&F

The only Canadians writers read by significant numbers of people are published in the US, so isn't there really no such thing as Canadian SF? The British "New Wave" changed American SF forever, but is Canadian SF sufficiently distinctive and coherent to have a comparable impact? Why does the Canadian government give grants to writers nobody wants to read, while genre-fiction writers starve to death?

Learning to Write

Is it possible to learn how to write? Why does Clarion enjoy such a great reputation when the fact is that two-thirds of those who attend it never publish a single word professionally? Aren't writers workshops just the blind leading the blind? What should you look for in a creative-writing course? Will you learn more about writing by reading the dozen or so good books out there on how to write SF, or to read a dozen true classic novels, such as To Kill a Mockingbird and The Catcher in the Rye?

The Skeptical Movement

When it started, the modern skeptical movement, as exemplified by the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (CSICOP) and its magazine, The Skeptical Inquirer, was a bastion of rigorous inquiry into unusual phenomena. But in recent years, CSICOP and its publications have become increasingly rigid, and are, in the view of some, treating skepticism like a religion, with dogmatic positions, supposed apostates being shouted down, and actual scientific inquiry being very much set aside. Can skepticism be saved?

Some More Ideas

And here are some new panel suggestions emphasizing literary SF and writing that I submitted to the Calgary convention Con-Version 22 in June 2006:

Separate Awards?

Science Fiction and Fantasy: do we need a separate Hugo and Nebula Award for each type? Was it a great breakthrough, or the end of the world as we know it, when Harry Potter won a Hugo?

Canadian Small Press

The Canadian small press: a huge opportunity, or just giving your books and stories away to markets very few people read? A look at the SF/F publishing programs of EDGE Publications, Robert J. Sawyer Books, Bundoran Press, On Spec, Tesseracts, Neo-Opsis, and more.


Exposition in SF and fantasy: can it be handled elegantly, or does it always degenerate into indigestible infodumps? Do people want to learn while they're being entertained, or do we separate fiction and nonfiction for good reason? How much did the infodumps about Christ and Catholicism contribute to the success of The Da Vinci Code?


Writers' workshops and formal writing initiatives: from online workshops like Critters, through big groups like Calgary's Imaginative Fiction Writers Association (IFWA), and small informal gatherings of just a few writers, does making writing into a group activity actually help? What are the pluses and minuses of workshopping and writing retreats? Do things like NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) and three-day novel-writing competitions really get people producing good work, or just burn them out? And what about formal writing courses?

From Banff to Beijing

What's special about Canadian science fiction and fantasy books? They're selling well on the world stage — why? What can a story set in Alberta possibly have to say to someone in China? Is Canadian stuff really different from the American brand, and, if so, how?

Authors and Editors

Editors and authors have the same goal — making the work the best it can be — but they don't always agree on what will accomplish that. How do authors handle disagreements with their editors? How do editors cajole authors into seeing the light? Is self-publishing the great liberator by getting rid of the editor altogether, or the road to mediocrity?

Is Hard-SF Getting Too Hard?

Everyone can understand the basic math and tech behind Larry Niven's Ringworld or classic stories such as his "Neutron Star" and Tom Godwin's "The Cold Equations," but who the heck understands quantum entanglement? Is the science in today's science fiction so abstruse and complex as to make the stories inaccessible to most readers? And is this why fantasy has overtaken SF as the more popular of the two genres?

The Philosophy of Fantasy

Sure, there's an escapist element in a lot of fantasy, but much of it also has serious philosophical underpinnings. Look at R. Scott Bakker — bestselling fantasy writer who is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in philosophy. What is it that today's fantasists are trying to say, and why do they choose this particular storytelling form to say it?

"Comme toujours, on peut dépendre sur la performance de certains auteurs: Robert J. Sawyer est un panéliste hors-pair." ("As always, you can depend on the performance of certain writers: Robert J. Sawyer is an outstanding panelist.") — The Prix Aurora Award-winning blog Fractale framboise

More quotes about Robert J. Sawyer at conventions

More Good Reading

What's an SF convention like?
Why authors attend Science Fiction Conventions
Rob's upcoming convention appearances
Rob's stints at Guest of Honor
Comments from convention attendees about Rob

(Also see Rob's comments about why authors attend SF conventions in Canada's The National Post newspaper, Monday, February 21, 2000, page A18.)

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