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

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Robert Charles Wilson:
Eight Random Thoughts

The Introduction to
Robert Charles Wilson's

"Julian: A Christmas Story"

by Robert J. Sawyer

Copyright © 2005 by Robert J. Sawyer
All Rights Reserved.

In 2006 PS Publishing, a prestigious small press in England, produced a beautiful signed, limited edition of Robert Charles Wilson's novella "Julian." I was honoured to be asked to write the introduction. Bob later expanded the novella, which was nominated for a Hugo, into a full-length novel published by Tor.

Robert Charles Wilson was the Author Guest of Honor at Ad Astra, Toronto's annual science-fiction convention, in 2003. As the con was approaching, Bob confessed to his wife, the vivacious Sharry, that he had no idea how to craft a Guest of Honor speech. She said, "Just write down the next six or eight thoughts that come into your head — give them five minutes each, and you're done." Bob took her advice and gave the best GoH talk I've ever heard (the text of which is online as "Eight Random Thoughts" on Bob's own website).

Well, in a spirit of homage — and because I have no better idea of how to capture all the complexity and wonder that is the man in question — I hereby offer up eight random thoughts on Robert Charles Wilson.

1. He's an excellent writer.

Not just an excellent science-fiction writer — which is sometimes said when one wants to damn with faint praise — but an excellent writer, period. He's one of those, like Theodore Sturgeon (to whom Bob was often compared early on), that we can hold up as incontestable proof that SF does produce writing as fine as anything in the mainstream. I say Bob used to be compared to Sturgeon; he's still every bit as good, but Bob's focus has shifted, quite noticeably of late, to hard SF, with novels such as Blind Lake and Spin — which does make for a problem: there is in fact no one to compare the modern Bob Wilson to. He's sui generis: a hard-SF writer with the soul of a poet; a dreamer who can write with equal facility about cosmic events spanning billions of years and single heartbreaking moments in quiet, ordinary lives.

2. Bob's writing is fractal.

Many authors shine best at a specific length, but Bob Wilson's work shows the same marvelous qualities at any scale. He's had a pair of extraordinary thousand-word microfictions published in the British science journal Nature (one of which was subsequently picked up for Gardner Dozois's Year's Best anthology). He's written stunning short stories of more traditional lengths (many of which are collected in The Perseids). His novelette "The Cartesian Theater" has been singled out by multiple reviewers as the best piece in the remarkable 2006 anthology Future Shocks, edited by Lou Anders, and "Julian: A Christmas Story," the novella you're about to read, is a masterwork. As for novels, Bob serves 'em up both short and long: Bios can't be more than 60,000 words, while Spin weighs in at 140,000 (and he's not done yet — for the first time ever, Bob is writing a sequel; yes, folks, the Spin Cycle has begun!). But no matter what length he's working at, Bob provides pitch-perfect, highly polished prose; brilliant, original speculations (I'm frankly jealous of the genius behind the central conceits in The Chronoliths, Blind Lake, and Spin); and characters so nuanced and vivid you'll swear you can hear them gently breathing if you hold one of his books up to your ear.

3. Bob loves science fiction.

I mean, he really loves it. How can I tell? Well, there's a science-fiction bookstore near Bob's home called Sci-Fi World — and that's where he chose to get married. Actually, he and Sharry tied the knot in the Sci-Fi Café, a fast-food joint attached to the store; the signature item on the menu is the twelve-ounce Mothership Burger. It turned out to be a superlative venue for the wedding of a guy who loves to read SF, loves to write it, and loves to talk, as he often does with great affection, about what he calls the genre's wonderful, weird, gaudy history. (Bob has done a great job of educating Sharry about this crazy stuff he loves so much; Sharry, incidentally, is a proofreader for Harlequin romances — theirs is an inspiring cross-ghetto union.)

4. Bob hates science fiction.

Or, more precisely, he hates what's wrong with the field — and he knows exactly what that is. In the summer of 2005, Bob, Nalo Hopkinson, and I were summoned down to the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation's studios to record a joint interview for a radio documentary about SF. During it, Bob made a point that I'm still repeating (with attribution!) about SF having become so inbred, and so reliant on assumed familiarity with its core texts, that it has set up an insurmountable barrier to newcomers. But Bob's own work is an antidote for that. He writes for a larger audience; although his concepts are as mind-blowing as anything in Robert Forward or Larry Niven, anyone can read and enjoy a Bob Wilson book (indeed, my own father reads only two SF authors: me, out of paternal pride, and Bob).

5. Bob's an outsider.

And he likes it that way, I think. The dust jacket for the gorgeous hardcover of his latest novel, Spin, says he lives in Toronto, but that's not true. The northern border of Toronto is a street called Steeles Avenue, and he lives just beyond that. I think this is wonderfully appropriate: Bob is just outside of a lot of things. He was born in the US, but now lives in Canada, looking back at his homeland from just beyond its borders — a circumstance clearly echoed in his writing: Blind Lake is all about eavesdropping from a distance; Spin puts a literal, physical border around Earth, and has a Martian look on. (Yes, a Martian in modern SF — and he pulls it off!) Speaking of Mars, I remember the absolute glee with which Bob watched every day as new pictures taken by Spirit and Opportunity were beamed back from there; Bob was in his heaven, comfortable in his bright, airy home, old vinyl records playing on the tube-driven stereos he lovingly restores, peeking in at the goings-on on an alien world ...

6. He's won lots of awards.

And, I'm proud to say, I helped give him his first. Long before Bob and I became friends, I was on the jury for the Philip K. Dick Award, which honors the year's best SF book published in the US in paperback. The other jurors and I kept grousing that most of what we'd seen was unworthy, and, in one of our conference calls for deliberating, I said, "You know, I just read a book that was better than anything that's been submitted — Mysterium, by this guy, Robert Charles Wilson." Another juror piped up to say he'd admired Mysterium, too; we got on to Bantam and had them send copies to the rest of the jury, and Bob was ultimately named our winner. Since then, he's won the John W. Campbell Memorial Award (for The Chronoliths), and three Canadian Aurora Awards (for the short story "The Perseids" and the novels Darwinia and Blind Lake), plus he's been nominated for four Hugos, three World Fantasy Awards, and two Nebulas, and had three of his titles named Notable Books of the Year by the New York Times. It's a CV better than that of 99% of the writers the SF field has ever produced, but, in a field plagued by giant egos, he never mentions any of this. Our man Bob does no self-promotion, rarely goes to cons, doesn't have a blog, doesn't maintain a website. He just writes, and lets his brilliant words speak for themselves.

7. He's unassuming.

You might think a guy who uses three names would be swaggering and pompous — the Charles Foster Kane of sci-fi; alternatively, you could be waiting for Locus to report that he's been arrested as a serial killer, SF's own John Wayne Gacy. But, in fact, Bob's triple-decker moniker is to distinguish him from Robert Anton Wilson (although these days, I suspect it's the Illuminati author who is less well known); there already were authors using "Robert Wilson" and "Robert C. Wilson." But you've got to give Bob credit; he really did try not to have such an overwhelming byline: his first published story, in Analog, way back in 1975, was signed Bob Chuck Wilson. (On the other hand, the less said about Bob's occasional pseudonym Uriah Cuthbert Poon the better ...)

8. He's my brother.

See, in SF circles, we're known as "Rob and Bob," or — as I've overheard it said a couple of times (and I'm sure Bob cringes as much as I do at this) — the Bobbsey Twins: two middle-aged, balding, bearded, bespectacled science-fiction writers living in Toronto. We've also been called (by the Ottawa Citizen, no less) "the Martin and Lewis of SF." But I think the comparison is more like Kirk and Spock: I'm outgoing; Bob's reserved. I'm constantly joking around; Bob's wit is subtle and dry. And yet, as Kirk once observed, he and Spock are brothers (to which Bob might reply, as Spock did on that occasion, that, "Rob is speaking somewhat figuratively, and with undue emotion, but what he says is logical and I do, in fact, agree with it.") Of course, we weren't born brothers, but we became so — and I know precisely when. In 1998 Tor Books, and Tor's Canadian distributor, H.B. Fenn and Company, sent Bob and me out on book tour together, promoting his Darwinia and my Factoring Humanity. We hardly knew each other then, and we were both somewhat nervous, I think — after all, spending many sleep-deprived days together on the road was a recipe for friction. But there was none; instead, Bob and I bonded, becoming the very best of friends. Tor and Fenn teamed us up again in 2005, sending us to fourteen cities in fourteen days promoting my Mindscan and his Spin; every moment was a joy. There really is no one I feel closer to in this profession, nor anyone I like more. That I happen to think he's also just about the best writer in the business is merely a bonus. But don't take my word for it — turn the page and see for yourself.

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