There was once a time when Robert Sawyer could merely be considered Canada’s leading science fiction author, but those days are long past. Now, with a Hugo, Nebula and John W. Campbell award under his belt, among other awards and a host of best-selling novels, one of which was adapted into an acclaimed TV series, FlashForward, it’s safe to say he’s one of the world’s leading science fiction authors. In addition to FlashForward, his other novels include End of an Era, Frameshift, Factoring Humanity, Calculating God, the Hominids Trilogy, and the WWW trilogy. His most recent novel is Triggers and his next novel, Red Planet Blues, hits the shelves March 26.
1. First off, congratulations on Red Planet Blues! This new novel is a bit of departure for you in that it’s a hard-boiled Dashiell Hammett-style mystery as well as science fiction. Tell us a little about the kinship you feel exists between both genres, and what you think is the criteria for a good genre hybrid?
It’s always bothered me that science fiction and fantasy are often shelved together, given that they’re antithetical genres. Science fiction is about things that plausibly might happen; fantasy is about things that never could happen. But science fiction and mystery both celebrate rational thinking, and both require the reader to pick up clues as he or she goes along—in mystery, obviously, to solve the crime, and in science fiction to figure out the milieu of the story. The two genres are a natural pairing.
For a hybrid to work, it has to succeed separately within each genre. Red Planet Blues is a science-fiction novel about the discovery of fossils on Mars, and the stampede of prospectors hoping to get rich off them; it’s also a novel about uploaded consciousness and practical immortality. On that basis alone, it’s a successful science fiction story, and I’ll point out that the first ten chapters of Red Planet Blues were previously published as the novella “Identity Theft”—and that novella was nominated for both the Hugo and Nebula Awards, and won Spain’s top science-fiction award. So, clearly, it works as science fiction.
But Red Planet Blues is also a story of missing persons, murder, and decades-old mysteries, all being solved by an honest-to-goodness hardboiled detective. I immersed myself in Hammett and Chandler while writing the book—and I’ve earned my mystery chops: back in 1993, I won Crime Writers of Canada’s Arthur Ellis Award for best crime story of the year, and my previous SF/mystery hybrid, Illegal Alien, was named the best Canadian mystery of its year by the mystery-fiction reviewer for the Globe and Mail, Canada’s national newspaper.
2. Red Planet Blues is also one of your many novels to draw upon paleontology, anthropology, and archaeology as the sources of extrapolation. There are other science fiction writers who have delved into these fields for inspiration, most notably Chad Oliver and Ursula K. Le Guin, but you’re one of the few identifiable hard science fiction writers to have done so. What is it about these fields that intrigues you so much, and has provided a fertile ground for your story ideas?
From Kindergarten up until my last year of high school, I intended to become a vertebrate paleontologist; I planned to devote my life to that area of study. Oh, I also wanted to write science fiction, but that always seemed an impractical dream. But when I turned 18, I decided I’d never forgive myself if I didn’t at least take a stab at being a writer, and fortunately that worked out. But the beauty of paleontology is that we’re dealing with truly alien lifeforms—look at some of the critters from the Cambrian explosion, for instance.
And as a science-fiction writer, I’m always wondering about alternative possibilities: why did we survive and the Neanderthals die out (the basis for my Hugo Award-winning Hominids and its sequels); what if dinosaurs hadn’t gone extinct (my Far-Seer and its sequels); what if there had been intelligent life on Mars 65 million years ago, at the end of the Cretaceous (my novel End of an Era); and, now, what if Mars had had its own equivalent of the Cambrian explosion deep in its past? I don’t regret not becoming a paleontologist; I’ve become good friends with several over the years, and I usually get the behind-the-scenes tour when I visit a museum. But that’s another reality, too: the one in which I spent my life hunting fossils.
3. One of the aspects of your novels I personally find most fascinating is that you focus on the institutional as well as social dimensions of science. You’ve drawn your own experience as a journalist in order to conduct ethnographic research to help you on this level: at TRIUMF for FlashForward, and at Sudbury’s Neutrino Observatory for the Hominids trilogy, and more recently, you were writer in residence at the Canadian Light Source synchrotron in Saskatchewan. What is your typical research process like, and how much of it typically winds up in the finished novel?
Both my parents were academics, so I grew up in a university setting, and saw that in a way most people never do; it certainly informed my understanding of how academics think and what the work is really like. I love visiting labs, and although I’m always fascinated by whatever cutting-edge research is going on, I’m really looking for the telling human details: what the lunch room is like, what magazines people are reading, how scientists talk to each other, talk to administrators, talk to support staff, and talk to the public.
And, I have to say, this has led to some of the coolest experiences of my life. Certainly, going down two kilometres below the surface of the Earth to visit the Sudbury Neutrino Observatory was absolutely amazing, and getting to actually go into the Apollo-era Mission Control Center in Houston—sit in the chairs, push the buttons, and so on—is something I’ll never forget.
4. You’ve used your novels to advance a number of political positions that can safely be called liberal-progressive, but as the busy and fervent discussions on your Facebook page demonstrate, you also enjoy a fan base that ranges all across the political spectrum. What advice would you give to aspiring writers, regardless of their political views, on trying to convey a political message while retaining an ideologically diverse audience?
The science-fiction audience is the best audience in the world. They are thinkers. They love ideas—and they love arguing about them. So my advice is: don’t pussyfoot; say what you believe with clarity, and let people respond. The strength of the field has always been that: works in dialog with each other—the classic example is Robert Heinlein’s jingoism in Starship Troopers contrasting with Joe Haldeman’s pacifism in The Forever War. We read both those classics to this day because they pull no punches. A namby-pamby book is forgotten as soon as it’s published.
5. The TV series adaptation of FlashForward, although sadly short-lived, remains much beloved among its fans; however some fans of the book felt that it should have been more faithful to the novel. As someone who writes regularly on the relationships between print science fiction and its film and television stepchildren, what is your criteria for a good adaptation?
I loved the FlashForward TV series. I signed off on all the major changes before I’d sold the TV rights to ABC; I knew exactly what Brannon Braga and David Goyer intended to do in the pilot, and I thought they pulled it off magnificently. And remember, I was consultant on every episode and I wrote the nineteenth episode, Course Correction.
The novel I wrote might well have made an excellent movie, but it had to be opened up and changed to make it work as a TV series. My bachelor’s degree is in Radio and Television Arts from Ryerson University, the top broadcasting program in Canada; the business of making television has been a great interest of mine for decades. In fact, I’d go so far as to say The Making of Star Trek—the 1968 book by Stephen E. Whitfield and Gene Roddenberry that was the first-ever “Making of” book—was, for me, the single most influential nonfiction book I’ve read.
My favourite movies are all very liberal adaptations: Dr. Strangelove from Peter George’s very serious novel Red Alert; Casablanca from a tepid play called Everyone Comes to Rick’s; Planet of the Apes, which, in movie form was about the dangers of nuclear war and a satire on race relations, from Pierre Boulle’s very different novel La Planète de Singe, which was a satire on academic stuffiness; 2001: A Space Odyssey from Arthur C. Clarke’s short stories “The Sentinel” and “Encounter at Dawn.” So, I’ve always understood, and appreciated, what scriptwriters bring to the source material. Right now, as it happens, I’m working on a commissioned screenplay adaptation of my recent novel Triggers. It’s a fascinating exercise re-envisioning the work for film instead of print, and I’m enjoying every minute of it.
(We’d like to dedicate this interview to Gerry Anderson, who made our imaginations soar).