Robert J. Sawyer Takes Us Out of This World

Robert J. Sawyer Takes Us Out of This World

By Angelique Fawns


Robert J. Sawyer is no stranger to big ideas in science fiction. The winner of the Nebula, Hugo, and Aurora Awards, he also recently received the Lifetime Achievement Award from Writers of the Future. Called the “Dean of Canadian Science Fiction,” he is the author of twenty-four novels and is lauded as one of the most decorated science fiction writers in history. 

Sawyer currently is a judge for the SciFidea Award — Dyson Sphere Sci-Fi Writing Contest, and he’s a Guest of Honor at this year’s World Science Fiction Convention (the Worldcon). I’m incredibly honored that he agreed to sit down with me. 

AF: Why science fiction? How did your grand journey begin? 


RJS: I was part of the first generation of science-fiction writers to come into the genre not through the pulp magazines (such as Amazing Stories and Astounding Science Fiction), but rather through TV and film. I was born in the 1960s, and Gerry and Sylvia Anderson’s “Supermarionation” science-fiction shows from England, including Fireball XL5, Stingray, and Thunderbirds, were my favorites, with me eventually graduating to the original Star Trek. And in 1968, when I was just eight years old, my 43-year-old father took me to see 2001: A Space Odyssey. Well, even at that age, the math was easy: I’d be two years younger than my dad was then by the time the real 2001 rolled around, which would supposedly have all the wonders I was seeing in Kubrick’s film. From that point on, I was hooked on thinking about and envisioning the future.


AF: How do you decide on the themes/subject matter for your books?


RJS: Through tons and tons of nonfiction reading: I read voraciously in science, ethics, history, philosophy, and more, constantly on the lookout for things that might make an exciting story. To me, science fiction is the literature of ideas, so I’m always looking for some current trend that I can extrapolate forward into the future, or some knotty conundrum in philosophy or ethics that might really torture a character who has to deal with it. I’m a huge believer that science fiction isn’t about the putative date that it is supposedly set in, but instead is always about the year in which it was written. The movie 2001 is a case in point.


AF: Can you describe your writing process? Do you use a certain structure or formula to create your stories?


RJS: The word “formula” is anathema to me: with every project I try to do something markedly different from anything I’ve attempted before; I never want to repeat myself. Still, I do have a broad workflow. As I’ve already suggested, it starts with months — and, in some cases, years — of research, leading me to develop a theme. From there, I develop a character who will be most uncomfortable with the theme, so that I can put them through the wringer. Most of the best moments in my novels — the most gut-wrenching character moments or most exciting plot twists — come to me as I am writing; I’m much more of a pantser than a plotter.


AF: You’ve bucked the trend of writing many novels on the same theme in the same series. You’ve even jumped genres. Did this give you advantages in your career? 


RJS: I truly think it did. It made me stand out from the crowd. I have two cohorts: other Canadian writers of any type and age, and science-fiction writers worldwide who began publishing novels, as I did, around about 1990. No doubt some of them made a lot more money than me, but I did just fine in that regard, and the unique and diverse nature of my oeuvre has brought me all sorts of honors rarely bestowed on members of either group: four lifetime achievement awards, two honorary doctorates, an academic conference held in my honor, Ph.D. theses worldwide about my novels, speaking at conferences alongside Stephen Hawking and Ray Kurzweil and Erin Brockovich and Neil deGrasse Tyson, and over sixty different national and international writing awards. As far as the Canadian side is concerned, I’m the only person ever inducted into The Order of Canada, which is my country’s highest honor, and The Order of Ontario, which is the highest one for my home province, for work in the science-fiction field.


AF: If you could go back in time to when you first started writing/selling fiction, what piece of advice would you give your newbie self?


RJS: Never be tempted by work-for-hire projects no matter how much they pay; I’ve written some of my best stuff for film, TV, and gaming companies, but don’t own it, and even though in many cases they never made the projects, I can’t do anything with the material.


AF: Congratulations on your Lifetime Achievement Award this year! How did you become involved with Writers of the Future? What role did WotF play in your career?


RJS: I won the best-novel Hugo Award at the 2003 World Science Fiction Convention for my novel Hominids. John Goodwin from Writers of the Future was at that Worldcon, and he invited me to attend the Writers of the Future banquet the following year. I was blown away by what I saw there, and had long been impressed by who the other judges were — including giants such as Jack Williamson, Robert Silverberg, Anne McCaffrey, Larry Niven, and Gregory Benford — so I immediately signed on to be a judge. Of course, I’d been aware of the contest since it started and had entered three times myself early on. 


AF: How did you become involved with the Scifidea Contest? Do you think Dyson Spheres will become a reality?


RJS: They reached out to me, along with many of the biggest names in modern science fiction. Although the contest is based in Singapore, many of the organizers came from China, and I was lucky enough to win China’s Galaxy Award some years back as the most-popular foreign science-fiction writer. Personally, I’m dubious about an actual Dyson Sphere — a solid shell around a star — because that’s a very difficult engineering challenge, but I suspect many of the contest entrants will have exciting ideas that will challenge my thinking on that.


AF: Can you give a few hints as to what the judges are looking for?


RJS: Good science, good storytelling. Simple as that.


AF: In your opinion, what are the best resources for writers looking to enhance their craft? Any seminars, books, or cons you suggest? 


RJS: Honestly, my own website: go to and click on “How to Write” in the dropdown menu. There’s tons of material there, including all my acclaimed “On Writing” columns from Canada’s On Spec magazine. As for books, anything by superagent Donald Maass — or, for that matter, any of Don’s seminars. The best writer-oriented convention I know of is When Words Collide in Calgary, and it’s an absolute bargain compared to all the for-profit conferences out there.


AF: The themes of AI and uploaded human consciousness are found lurking in much of your work. What is your opinion on the current advances in AI and the near future implications?


RJS: Remember, I got my start with 2001: A Space Odyssey, so I’ve been thinking for 55 years now about how artificial intelligence might go horribly wrong. But I’m also very interested in game theory, and there are four possible outcomes for relations between AI and humans: win-lose, lose-win, lose-lose, and win-win. That final one rarely gets much attention in science fiction, but I’ve been doing my best to make sure it’s at least part of the discussion. My novels Wake, Watch, and Wonder deal with a positive symbiosis between AI and humanity, and I’m hoping that’s what we’ll end up with, but it does bother me that there’s virtually no government oversight over AI research.


AF: What can we expect next from Robert J. Sawyer?


RJS: My novel The Downloaded is coming out first as an Audible Original, with a full cast of name actors reading the parts. I’ve been sitting in on the recording sessions, and it sounds amazing. It should be out by the end of this summer.




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