Robert J Sawyer – Writing the Future

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Robert J Sawyer. Photo by Christina Frost.

Robert J. Sawyer is one of only eight people in history — and the only Canadian — to win all three of the world’s top awards for best science-fiction novel of the year: the Hugo, the Nebula, and the John W. Campbell Memorial Award.

As a futurist, he’s consulted with NASA, spoken at Google’s headquarters, and advised Canada’s federal Department of Justice. Quantum Night, his 23rd novel, is about a far-right psychopath coming from out of nowhere to become the American president, propelled into office by large numbers of people manipulated to vote against their own best interests.

RM: Quantum Night feels a lot like a prediction of the current American political situation. What’s your take on that?

RJS: Absolutely. Of course, it was a prediction I did not want to see come true. But anyone who was watching American politics over the last couple of decades could see the inexorable drift toward the fringes of the right-wing on the part of the Republican Party. In the election nine years ago, we were just seeing the birth of the Tea Party. It seemed outlandish then, but now that group looks almost quaint in comparison to the blatantly misogynist, racist, homophobic, and anti-immigrant Alt-Right. When Sarah Palin became John McCain’s running mate in 2008, spouting demonstrably untrue statements but in a populist, homespun style, the template was set. It was only a matter of time before someone willing to say or do anything to get elected would manage to win the White House.

That said, it’s easy to understand a psychopath who wants to be a world leader; what’s harder to understand is what gives rise to the hordes of mindless followers required to let them take power. Well, one of the standard story-generating engines of science fiction is to take a notion we normally only think of as metaphoric and treat it as literal.  The concept of the “philosopher’s zombie” — a being that appears to be conscious but has in fact no inner life — has long been discussed in the literature of the science of consciousness, but in Quantum Night I do exactly what I think science fiction should do: be a laboratory for thought experiments that would be either unethical, impractical, or impossible to conduct in real life, asking what if countless philosopher’s zombies, easily swayed because the have no critical faculties of their own, actually did compose the majority of the electorate.

RM: Authors have to do a lot of research. For Quantum Night, you consulted Prof. Robert D. Hare’s studies of psychopathy and Prof. Bob Altemeyer’s research into authoritarian leaders. How important is research to speculative fiction and how does it help in your writing process?

RJS: It’s a fair question, but what astonishes me is that it’s asked so often. See, no one would ask a writer of legal thrillers whether getting the law right was important to what they did; it goes without saying that it is. Likewise, no one writing medical fiction or historical fiction ever gets asked, “Did you research this, or just, y’know, make stuff up?”  Again, it goes without saying that research is the very soul of that sort of writing. But despite the best efforts of me and my colleagues for decades to ground our science fiction in solid research and rigorous extrapolation, thanks to Star Wars and Lost in Space, people still figure it’s all just handwaving. Quantum Night has a 50-book annotated bibliography at the end to take people through the key research that underpins the storyline. I could have done something similar for every one of my previous books.

RM: As a futurist, what responsibility do you feel to your audience and the legacy of speculative fiction?

RJS: It’s not often said, but honestly the key role of the futurist is to help make sure there is a future. A science fiction writer can write a dystopian tale built on a depressing “if this goes on” premise that leads to Armageddon, but futurism is about illuminating a positive path — and in these parlous times that’s sometimes very tricky to do.

As for science fiction’s legacy, I’m very much in the tradition of our founding grandmother, Mary Shelley, and founding father H.G. Wells, by way of Gene Roddenberry and the original Planet of the Apes movies: science fiction is a trenchant vehicle for social comment.  Anyone who thinks The War of the Worlds or The Time Machine aren’t political novels, or that Frankenstein isn’t about gender —specifically about the callous male approach to reproduction, as seen by a disenfranchised woman — has utterly missed the intent of the authors of those works.

RM: Closely linked to that, how do you go about setting a good balance between entertainment and being informative?

RJS: I don’t think there’s a need for balance as if one comes at the expense of the other: informative works are entertaining. Remember, the reason we have separate fiction and nonfiction bestsellers lists is that, setting aside a few significant outliers, nonfiction far outsells fiction. In their spare reading time, most people given a choice between pure information and pure entertainment choose the former. My books are often termed science fiction thrillers, and I frequently get compared to Michael Crichton. I’m not anti-science, as Crichton was, but there’s no doubt that his books are page-turners as much for the mind-blowing ideas and what one learns while reading them as for the twists and turns of the plot. That said, I try to combine the grandly cosmic with the intimately human: there’s always a real, emotional, character-driven story at the heart of a Sawyer novel.

RM: There seems to have been a welcome shift back towards “smart” science fiction in mainstream entertainment. Would you agree with that, and do you have any favourites that spring to mind for you?

RJS: Well, maybe a bit, in film. We got The Martian — datapoint one — and we got Arrival — datapoint two. Any others? Oh, a few — but they’re utterly blown away at the box-office by superhero films. Also, there’s a tendency for people to say, “I don’t like science fiction” and, “I love the The Martian” without realising the contradiction in that. Fortunately, in science fiction publishing, there’s always been a good number of serious writers of smart fiction, including, some would say, myself, and certainly also Joan Slonczewski, David Brin, Gregory Benford, Robert Charles Wilson, Nancy Kress, and Kim Stanley Robinson, and such talented newcomers as Marguerite Reed.

RM: In your experience, are we doing enough to advance our society towards a positive future? What changes would you like to see implemented, in an ideal world?

RJS: Honestly? Elect scientifically literate leaders. We did that recently in Canada with Justin Trudeau, and that turned our backward policies from the Harper years completely around. German chancellor Angela Merkel has a doctorate in physical chemistry, and you can see how hard she’s working on behalf of not just her nation but the whole world.

RM: Having written so many books, winning literary awards and achieving worldwide recognition in speculative fiction, what is the fondest memory you have from the beginning of your writing journey?

RJS: I was lucky enough to have a couple of very good mentors when I started out in the 1980s. One of them was Toronto writer Terence M. Green, who was publishing frequently then in places including The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction and Asimov’s, and who went on to twice be nominated for the World Fantasy Award.  He read an early manuscript for my first novel, Golden Fleece, and rightly pointed out numerous flaws with it. When he read the finished book, after I’d rolled up my sleeves and fixed it, he said, “You’ve become better than I ever thought you would faster than I ever thought you could.”  A short time later, Orson Scott Card, doing his year-end summation for 1990 in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, named Golden Fleece the best SF novel of that year. I thank Card profusely, and also Terry Green, whose kindness to a beginning writer is something I will never forget.

Follow Robert J Sawyer on his official website.


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Rob Malan
Rob Malan is a writer, reviewer and freelance editor. He is a self-proclaimed movie aficionado, and passionate advocate of great story telling across various media formats, whether that be in films, TV, gaming, books or graphic novels. He holds a dream of one day finding the means to transmit the multiple epic stories in his head telepathically to the world at large, and retains a vivid imagination.