|Robert J. Sawyer. Photo by Adrià Guxens|
You only need to cross a couple of words with Robert J. Sawyer to realize he’s a very wise man. You also soon realize he’s a university professor because when he talks about a deep matter, he doesn’t give up until you have understood what he wanted to say. But since he is wearing a strange Asian T-shirt with a golden dragon, you would never say he’s one of the very few writers who have won the three most important science fiction awards out there –the Nebula, the Hugo and the John W. Campbell. Instead, you may thing he is another fan who has come to the Celsius 232 Festival of Avilés to get to know his idols. But what’s most important for Robert is not the shape, but the content; the metaphors that are hidden in a book. Thus, he argues science fiction (sci-fi) should be named philosophical fiction (phi-fi) because the goal of this type of literature is to throw questions.
Adria’s News talks with this Canadian author who is very proud to be the first science fiction writer to own a webpage. “That’s the reason I have the coolest domain”, says, referring to his site, www.sfwriter.com. In this interview Robert is the last one to ask a question: “Do you have by any chance a car so Steven Erikson, my wife and I can go to the Astúrias Jurassic Museum?” His, is an addiction to knowledge and history that seems to have no limits.
You are called the Dean of Canadian Science Fiction. Do you feel you have a big responsibility?
It was the CBC that first called me that and I do think it comes with some responsibility. I’ve been very active in lobbying for the various art councils in Canada to recognize the value of science fiction and fantasy. Earlier this year in the Ottawa Citizen, which is the largest circulation newspaper in Canada’s capital city, I wrote an opinion piece about the fact that the Canada Council for the Arts has systematically ignored science fiction, including my own work, in my case for almost 20 years.
Fortunately, things changed for you.
Yes, I’m lucky enough to have a platform, a voice, on the Canadian national stage and I do think I have a responsibility to remind the Canadian people and the Canadian Government that we have world-class science fiction and fantasy writers in Canada. I’ve spent an enormous amount of time mentoring and working with young emerging Canadian science fiction and fantasy writers. Right now I’m working with a native Canadian woman. Science fiction has marginalized our native, aboriginal people, so she is marginalized in three ways: marginalized as a woman, marginalized as a native and marginalized as a science fiction writer. I have chosen to mentor her because as Peter Parker would say: “With great power comes great responsibility”.
You are also one of very few writers who have won the three major awards of science fiction: the Hugo, the Nebula and the John W. Campbell. Did you expected to win them?
I won the first of the three in 1996, the Nebula, and although I loved winning them all, that was the one that changed my life. Overnight, I went from being a promising newcomer to an established, bankable name. It changed my economical circumstances. I had been a full time science fiction writer for about four years at that point, but it was a marginal living. Winning the Nebula changed everything. My American advances doubled, my Japanese advances went up five times... I never had to worry again about being published or having an audience. The other two awards came later, next the Hugo, finally the John W. Campbell Memorial Award and they certainly were wonderful to win, but the life-changing one was the Nebula.
On your early years you wanted to be a palaeontologist. Why a palaeontologist?
I’ve been fascinated by dinosaurs my whole life. My friend Robert Charles Wilson, another Canadian science fiction writer, also a Hugo winner, says of me that I never outgrew my childhood fascinations: dinosaurs, science fiction, pizza and chocolate milk. I think he’s correct [Laughs].
They’re all nice fascinations.
They’re wonderful! But to me, I’m drawn to dinosaurs for the same reason I was drawn to science fiction, which is that they are an alien form of life. When I was a kid, we had no notion that this park [the interview is being held in a park] was filled with dinosaurs because in 1960s we didn’t know that birds were dinosaurs. We thought these great creatures had lived and died possibly from some cosmic catastrophe, which was later confirmed. They were alien in every aspect. I like the detective story of piecing together from fragmentary remains and subtle hints in the fossil records what their physiology and lifestyles might have been like. It stills fascinates me! My friend Steven Erikson, who you’ll interview next, is an archaeologist. The same thing! The fascination of civilizations and forms of life that did exist, but don’t exist anymore. That asks a deep question: why are we lucky enough to exist now?
You mentioned aliens. Do you think they exist?
Will we get in touch this century?
That’s a different question [Laugh]. You know, there are maybe four hundred billion stars in our galaxy and there are billions if not trillions of galaxies. It seems highly probable that there’s life elsewhere in the universe; that some small smidgen of planets would have lead to intelligent life. I even suspect there is life in our Solar System, on Mars, on the Oceans of Europa, you know? Under the surface. So I don’t believe in aliens because there is no empirical evidence for them, but I think it’s highly likely that aliens exist. And if we’re ever to make radio contact with them, I do believe this is the century that we will either make contact, as in to detect an intelligible signal, or will have done a sufficiently wide range of surveys to say that statistically it is likely that we are alone. Either answer is astonishing, but we will have one or the other by the end of the century, yes.
Your work highlights the intersection between science and religion. Why are you attracted to this mixture?
Because, I don’t know how it is here in Spain, but in the United States, in particular, we’ve seen a nation that was the most technologically advanced of the 20th century -the man on the moon, the nuclear power- sliding backwards into a superstitious nation that actually demonizes science and scientists. The whole world is teetering at the edge of its existence because of climate change, which is indisputably caused by humans. It is also an indisputable fact for the consensus of scientists worldwide that the climate is changing and that we are the cause and, therefore, only actions taken by us will solve the problem. We have what was the most technological nation that the world has ever seen sliding backwards and despairing science for religious reasons. The survival of the human race! Myself, you, everybody depends on this war between science and religion. But this war has to be treated now or we will die as a race, and there is no more important issue in our time. It’s our decision whether or not we are going to choose rationalism, which is a path to -ironically- salvation, or mysticism, which is a path of Armageddon.
I can see your strong scientific side. However, are you religious?
No. I’m not. I have a great deal of respect for religious people who question things with an open frame of mind. There is a metaphor in my novel Wake (2009), which is about a blind girl whose best friend happens to be Muslim and claims to feel the presence of God in her life. The blind girl has to think about this and says: “Well… when she says to me that she can see stars in the sky, which I have never seen, when she says to me that she can see rainbows, which I have never seen, when she says to me that the top of the street, which I’d never reach, has greenish objects, when I’ll never know what green is…” Is she just making it up? Is she delusional? Is she lying to me? Or does she really have an experience that I’m incapable of, for whatever neuronal problem I’m subjected to, which is the more likely hypothesis. What about her religious beliefs? That she has been touched by someone who has not touched me and I suspect that I’m not wired intellectually to experience. So there is something… I don’t believe that a God exists.
What about after-life, immortality? Another topic in your novels
I don’t believe in an after life… Actually, I think to believe in an after life is the most perniciously wrong human notion ever. Fifty-five days ago my younger brother died. Is he gone completely or is his soul somewhere in heaven or hell or whatever, limbo, who knows? No. He’s gone completely. The biochemical processes that were Alan Sawyer ceased to be last month. Those chemical bonds broke down and he is gone. I’m absolutely convinced of that. He would have been convinced of that. I’m also convinced that we are at a cusp beyond the one I mentioned about climate. My generation, and I was born 1960, is either the last generation to die after a natural life span or the first generation to live an extended life span beyond anything that someone has experienced. I’ve seen that here, in Aviles, they’re doing Hecuba, by Euripides. I’m a big fan of Greek tragedy. My favourite Greek playwright was Sophocles. How old did Sophocles live to be?
I don’t know.
Ninety! A nice acceptable age 2400 hundred years ago! It was exceptional, but not miraculous. Today, ninety years is a good age to live. Some people, nowadays, live a hundred years and maybe someone in the Ural Mountains 110. That’s it. I think 115 is the best that has ever been documented or around that. So my generation either has its older member die at 115 or so, or will we start to have the first to live 120? I think that absolutely is a technological reality that will happen; there’s nothing miraculous or supernatural about death. It’s a biochemical process. And I’d rather choose to live longer.
One, I enjoy life. Two, questions such as communicating with extra-terrestrials, and the only way to communicate back and forth through thousands of light years, is an extended life span. Otherwise, you ask a question and when you get the answer it’ll be another guy who will answer. So we need longer life spans to be part of the Cosmic Civilization.
So we need a longer life span to debate bigger philosophical questions…
Yes, because we still have to debate today so many of these issues, such as do we have free will or not? Interesting question, what I’m writing about right now in my latest novel, the abortion debate, when does life begin? We’ve been debating on this forever without real progress. One plausible answer is that these questions are beyond our human capacity. I don’t buy that. The other possibility is that they take more than several decades to solve. There has been no philosopher that has spent more than a century on any of these questions and maybe it’s a question that needs 120 years of study and contemplation to solve. We simply press the reset button to let the next generation try and solve some of them. A longer life span is clearly necessary.
Why do you write science fiction and not fantasy?
Although everyone tends to put them together I think they are antithetical. Science fiction is about things that plausibly might happen. There is always a way to get from our here now to the milieu of a science fiction story. The normal way is for time to pass and during that time reasonable changes happen on technology and social structure. There is never any way to get from our here now to the milieu of fantasy story. Fantasy is about things that could never happen, that disconnect. And I think science fiction is important as literature because it talks about what the future might actually be; its job is not to predict the future but to present the whole range of possible futures so that we can choose as a species what future we want to make a reality.
You mean it can be used to produce thought…
I mean, in fantasy it’s all well and good that you defeat the Orcs, and kill the Elves, and capture the ring, and go back the The Shire, but it has nothing to do with our real life. Although occasionally a fantasy writer of great literary ambition can find a way to say something metaphorically interesting about the human condition, the fact that they set up in a milieu of the impossible tends to take away the power of whatever they want to say. Nobody rallies around The Lord of the Rings as an important work; it’s entertainment work, beautifully written, but not important. Fahrenheit 451, translated: Celsius 232! [The name of the Festival where we hold the interview] is important. Brave New World, science fiction, is important. Even H. G. Wells’, The Time Machine, which talked about British class structure, is important. So a message grounded in reality is always more important than a fairy tale, and it always will be.
You have been teaching science fiction to young writers. Do we have talent for a lot of years? Is it alive?
Yes, it is! There’s astonishing good writers writing science fiction right now, and the quality of the prose is so much greater than it used to be. The Internet changed the world wonderfully. Now, in my own case, I have no fewer than twenty people read in common on each manuscript prior to its publication. That feedback is invaluable and it’s the Internet that enables me to have experts and colleagues, some of whom read for style, some of them for technical issues, some of whom read for the political content of my work and give me feedback. It brings the level of the work up, the best science fiction that has ever been written is being written right now. Fifty years from now we will have the science fiction of the year 2063, when I’ll be a 103 and still going, I hope, it will be the best science fiction I’ll have written. Absolutely, it is a wonderful time to be a science fiction writer.
Because we are getting more and more cosmopolitan, and we have more countries where science fiction is being written. Science fiction was invented by a Frenchman, Jules Verne, and an Englishman, H. G. Wells, and later arrived in the United States, but now we have great Spanish tradition of science fiction, Japanese tradition, Chinese tradition, South American… We are living the Renaissance of science fiction.
- Interview with George R.R. Martin (A Song of Ice and Fire).
- Interview with Patrick Rothfuss (The Kingkiller Chronicle).
- Interview with Neil Gaiman (American Gods).
- Interview with Brandon Sanderson (Mistborn)
- Interview with Tim Powers (The Anubis Gates).
- Interview with Joe Abercrombie (The First Law series).
- Interview with Steven Erikson (Malazan Book of the Fallen).
- Interview with Adrian Tchaikovsky (Shadows of the Apt).
- Interview with Dmitry Glukhovsky (Metro 2033).
- Interview with Lisa Tuttle (Windhaven).
- Interview with David Simon (The Wire).
- Interview with Christopher Priest (The Prestige).
- Interview with Ian Watson (Artificial Intelligence).
- Interview with Robert J. Sawyer (FlashForward).