Robert J. Sawyer—called “the dean of Canadian science fiction” by The Ottawa Citizen and “just about the best science-fiction writer out there these days” by The Denver Rocky Mountain News—is one of only eight writers in history (and the only Canadian) to win all three of the science-fiction field’s top honors for best novel of the year: the Hugo Award (for Hominids), the Nebula Award (for The Terminal Experiment), and the John W. Campbell Memorial Award (for Mindscan). He has written more than twenty books, including Flashforward, which was adapted into a television series on ABC. The show ended in 2010, but more Sawyer adaptations are in the works, and the author himself has been tapped to write the screenplay for a feature film version of his 2012 novel Triggers, a near-future conspiracy thriller.
This interview first appeared on Wired.com’s The Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy podcast, which is hosted by John Joseph Adams and David Barr Kirtley. Visit geeksguideshow.com to listen to the entire interview and the rest of the show, in which the hosts discuss various geeky topics.
First of all, your new novel Red Planet Blues started life as a novella called “Identity Theft.” So how did that story first come about?
Yeah, very interesting. The meta-story is that amazon.com was kicking the crap out of book clubs in general. It used to be it was only through book clubs, mail order book clubs, that people in rural areas could get a decent selection, and so the Science Fiction Book Club was always a reprint publisher. When Amazon started really eating into their business, they got a brainstorm that they would try some original, only available through the Science Fiction Book Club publications. They commissioned the great Mike Resnick to edit an original anthology for them called Down These Dark Spaceways, science fiction and detective fiction combined together. And he commissioned me, Catherine Asaro, Jack McDevitt, David Gerrold, [Robert Reed], and himself to write novellas for this anthology. And it had not occurred to me to do anything in the noir vein, although I had always been a fan of that genre, but Mike is the guy who kind of orchestrated this shotgun wedding of the two genres for me. I was very lucky that my novella, which was called “Identity Theft,” was very well received. It was nominated for the Hugo and the Nebula. It also won Spain’s top science fiction award; it got me six thousand euro for that. So it did very well in its own right, and it came out in 2005. But I had gotten a lot of fan mail about it over the years, a lot of very positive feedback, and I really enjoyed the character and the setting. And I thought, “You know what? I’ve got 25,000 words of story here. All I have to do is add another 75,000 and I’ve got a full length novel.” Sounded easy. Turned out to be one of the hardest novels I’ve ever written.
What was so challenging about it?
What was challenging about going from the novella to the novel? You know, I thought, “Very easy. Start off with 25,000 words and you’re kind of a quarter of the way there. Boom.” But it isn’t easy. Part of it isn’t easy because I’m going back and trying to write in a voice that I hadn’t written in for six or seven years at this point. I’ve changed as a person. My writing style changes, only incrementally from book to book, but cumulatively in the half dozen books I’d done in the interim, quite substantially. My advice to anybody who thinks there is a shortcut to writing a novel by taking an existing piece of work, you know what? That isn’t really true. It’s going to end up being more work, not less, to try and do justice to what you started with, but also to really give value for money. And I wanted to be absolutely sure that anybody who had already read “Identity Theft” would not feel they were getting anything less than a full new book’s worth of material when they went to buy Red Planet Blues.
How about combining the science fiction aspects and the detective aspects, did that come naturally to you or was that a challenge?
Yes, that did come naturally. You know, I often said that science fiction and fantasy never should have been paired because they’re antithetical genres. Science fiction is about things that plausibly might happen. Fantasy is about things that never could happen. They’re completely opposite from each other. But science fiction and mystery both prize the rational thought process, and both require the reader to go along picking up clues as he or she reads. In the mystery, of course, to solve the ostensible mystery or crime at the heart of the novel. And in science fiction, we writers artfully salt little clues as to what the whole world of the story is like. We don’t stop for a lecture on the politics or the ecological situation at the time, but we drop little hints here and there. It’s the same reading process to read science fiction that goes into reading detective fiction. My very first novel that came out in 1990, called Golden Fleece, was a science fiction/detective novel, and I’ve repeatedly done science fiction mystery crossovers. My Hugo winner from 2003, Hominids, is a science fiction mystery crossover features a lot of courtroom drama that’s playing out as one of the major subplots of that novel.
One of my favorite books growing up was Larry Niven’s The Long Arm of Gil Hamilton, which is a set of science fiction detective stories, and in that book he talks a little about the history of the science fiction detective story. And he says that, actually, John W. Campbell said it was impossible to write a science fiction detective story.
Yeah, and Campbell was wrong! And he wasn’t often wrong. Let us not run a steamroller over John Campbell here in our haste to mention this. Of course, as the editor of the great Astounding Stories, which went on to become Analog, he was the mentor to Asimov, to Clarke, to Heinlein, to a whole generation of writers. But yes, he felt that it would be too easy for the detective to say at the end of the story, “Well, as you know (in fact we don’t know at all) that gravity on the planet Zetox works in reverse, so of course the corpse floated to the ceiling, and that’s why nobody noticed it when they came into the room and they thought it was simply a missing persons case.” Or whatever ludicrous thing they could lay on the unsuspecting reader as almost a deus ex machina, something they pulled out of the air to solve the crime. Niven very adroitly dealt with that issue in, as you say, The Long Arm of Gil Hamilton—very good story—part of his known space universe. I actually prefer, and I hope Larry will forgive me, what Isaac Asimov did to refute, while Campbell was still alive, directly to Campbell, this notion. And of course the great Asimov novel is The Caves of Steel, which works absolutely perfectly as a mystery story. It works absolutely perfectly as a buddy cop drama. And it works absolutely perfectly as a science fiction novel. It is, to my way of thinking, the best novel that Asimov ever wrote. And it certainly puts to rest this notion, which, you know, Campbell said it. Campbell’s a brilliant writer. Campbell wrote Who Goes There? which became John Carpenter’s The Thing. This is a guy that did lots of really important writing and editing, but he had this notion that he tossed off, and may we all be forgiven for these little things that we toss off at some point and say, “Well of course this is impossible.”
So you say in the introduction that “My working title for this book was The Great Martian Fossil Rush, but my American publisher wanted something that played up the noir angle. I asked for suggestions online and hundreds of possibilities were put forth.” I was just wondering, do any of these suggestions stand out as being particularly odd or memorable?
It’s funny. At this point I’ve forgotten almost all of them, I have to say Blood Red was one, which is not bad, you know? Red for Mars and the blood. But the one that definitely resonated for me immediately was Red Planet Blues, and it was suggested by multiple people in multiple online venues. It’s also the only one my US editor, Ginjer Buchanan, liked. And we were all set to go and then, boom, flag on the play, my friend Michael Walsh points out that Allen Steele had used that title for a novella he had written in the late ’80s. Well, I don’t want to use Allen’s title without permission. Allen incorporated that novella into a book that he called Labyrinth of Night. Labyrinth of Night was about the face on Mars. It’s out of print now. Allen considers it justly, reasonably out of print, in that what it wrote about is no longer considered scientifically valid: that there might have been an archaeological artifact that looked like a giant face on the surface of Mars in the Cydonia region. That’s just gone from science now. So the book is fallow, out of print, and he never used the novella or reprinted it subsequently, so he said, “I’d be flattered. Go ahead, use my title.”
Since it was supposed to be called The Great Martian Fossil Rush, obviously the premise is that people are going to Mars looking for fossils. What do you think about that as a scientific possibility?
I think that if I was a betting man, I would bet a substantial amount of money that we will eventually find fossils of life on Mars. I would bet a reasonable amount of money that we will find extant active biology on Mars. Sub-surface, microbial, but still living. But I think it will defy most of our understandings of biogenesis, of the basic principles of how life came into being. That Mars was a warm, wet planet billions of years ago. That if life did not emerge then, we really do have another thing coming about how common life is in the universe. I think we will find fossils on Mars. And that we’ll find them as soon as we get actual people on the surface. Finding fossils requires covering an awful lot of territory with trained eyes. That’s how we do it on Earth. Little Pathfinder and Curiosity and Sojourner and so forth aren’t quite yet up to that. We’ll get paleontologists to Mars and then we’ll find the fossils.
And it comes up in the book that fossils on Mars would be different than the fossils that we find on Earth. Could you talk about that?
Sure. There are two possible answers to the question of life on Mars, if you accept that there is life on Mars. One is that that life and our life share a common ancestry, that is, biological material was transferred from Mars to Earth, or from Earth to Mars, which is a little bit of a harder one to do, on ejecta, material that was kicked out by asteroid or cometary impacts drifted through the solar system and landed on the other planet, which means that we’re all cousins. Martians, humans, we’re all cousins. The other option is that there were two separate biogenesis events: one here and one there. And the one there, if it’s different, would have given rise to different kinds of lifeforms. My Martian fossils are all more or less invertebrate. They’re all fairly primitive. They’re equivalent to the things that would have existed on Earth about 550,000,000 years ago, at the beginning of the Cambrian explosion. But on Mars, I have it happening much, much earlier in their history. So over three billion years ago, when Mars still had an awful lot of surface water.
Well, it wouldn’t be mineralized, right?
That’s an interesting question about how fossilization occurs. On Earth, it mostly is mineralized. That is, you take a natural bone and it gets buried in sediment and minerals percolate through the sediment from rain water and ground water and fill in the little gaps in the original material, all the little cellular spaces in your bone, for instance. And it gets filled up with minerals and it gets, as you say, mineralized or petrified, turned to stone. What happens with my Martian fossils is very different. Mars underwent a great desiccation. It dried out almost completely. It’s a very, very arid planet, and very rapidly did it dry out, too. So what I have is things that actually are frozen in permafrost for billions years and have not been mineralized. When you pick up a Martian fossil and thaw it out, the permafrost melts away. The shell or the exoskeleton that you get is the actual shell or exoskeleton that was part of a living creature billions of years ago. It’s a very different kind of paleontology that’s being done on Mars, though I think a plausible one, given the very different geological histories of Mars and Earth.
The Mars colony in this book is covered by a dome that’s described as being made out of aloquartz. What is aloquartz?
Right. “Alo” is a prefix that’s used in chemistry to mean “altered,” so it’s simply quartz that’s been altered. In this particular case, it’s been altered so that it has a sharper fractive index for ultraviolet radiation and helps a little bit with the radiation shielding as well. Quartz is silicon dioxide. It’s easy to come by. It has the property already of being clear, as you well know; it’s what glass is made of. I allow for a little bit of material science modification of source material, because it is the future. One of the things John W. Campbell said, and he was right about, is that the future doesn’t happen one at a time. You don’t get uploaded consciousness, as I have in this novel; you don’t get routine interplanetary travel, as I have in this novel; you don’t get human hibernation, as I have in this novel, without also getting a whole bunch of other technological advances as well.
What are the basic facts of life on Mars you have to keep in mind when writing a story set there that you wouldn’t have to think about in a normal detective novel?
Well, the single best thing about Mars is the reduced gravity. It’s thirty-eight percent of Earth’s gravity, about one-third. Almost never have you seen that portrayed in film or television. Mars is just portrayed as a place that’s got reddish sand, but otherwise is pretty much identical to the Mojave Desert. And that’s not the case. Fundamentally, it is very, very different. How that impacts it being a detective story, when you get to it being a noir detective story, where your characters end up roughing people up and there’s some fisticuffs and there’s face-to-face personal combat, you get very, very wild and exciting fight scenes. I like to think that I went to town in writing them in this novel, taking full advantage of the fact that you can really pick up somebody and throw them across the room in a way that would be fantastic to watch. The other thing, of course, is that Mars is deadly everywhere except under the dome. Death is very close at hand. And for a mystery story, especially a noir story, it’s hard to write a story about how dangerous it is to be in the dark streets of, let’s say London, England, that’s the classic example right now, because there are no dark streets anymore, in the sense of not being observed by security cameras. On Mars, you open it up to an area where you’ve got dark spaceways, dark alleyways, places that aren’t covered by cameras, and a whole wide planet whose surface area is equal to the surface area of Earth’s. Dry land surface area is equal between the two planets. That is an enormous place to run around on, where death literally lies around every corner.
So this book describes how the first visitors to Mars were, “too crazy, adventurous, thumbing their noses at all the moribund space agencies.” How likely do you think that is as a scenario?
Look at the front-page headlines these days. Is private sector going to be the way that space exploration is going to happen, especially manned space exploration? The obvious answer is that the only initiatives toward manned space exploration that are going on right now are private sector ones. We understand the profit motive for going to mine the asteroids, for going to mine things on the moon, for going to mine things on Mars, the enormous tourism opportunities. And I embrace that with all the gung-ho-ness that has gone with the private sector opening up the American West, and where I live, in Canada, our whole north was opened up by the Hudson’s Bay Company, which was a company of adventurers and explorers, very much in pursuit of the wealth of the fur trade. Believe me, it wasn’t the geological survey of Canada, nor was it the geological survey of America, that spread out and tamed the land. It was people that thought there was a buck to be made, and endured enormous hardships to go and get that buck.
You mention in the introduction that this book was partially inspired by a trip you took, I think to the Yukon, and you stayed at Jack London’s house, something like that?
I stayed across the street from Jack London’s house. I stayed at Pierre Berton’s house. The name won’t mean anything to most Americans, but to Canadians, he’s the great Canadian writer of popular history. He’s our Shelby Foote and our Alex Haley rolled into one. And he has bought back his childhood home in Dawson City, heart of the Klondike Gold Rush, and it’s a very competitive writer’s retreat. You apply for it; lots of people want to get the opportunity. I was lucky enough to get the opportunity to spend three months living there, across the street from Jack London’s cabin, just down the street from Robert Service’s cabin, right where all of the madness of the great Klondike Gold Rush took place, and that was the template for my Great Martian Fossil Rush.
And there’s actually a writer’s retreat on Mars in this book, too.
There is. That’s right, there absolutely is. On a similar basis that well-to-do, in this case, adventure novelist, actually patterned a bit on Jack London, has left a stipend in his will to make it possible for writers to go and spend some time on the red planet and hopefully capture it in a way that perhaps the scientists are not able to, and a way that greedy throngs who are rushing there to make money aren’t bothering to take the time to.
Okay, speaking of writers, obviously there’s a long tradition of science fiction stories set on Mars. So which of those had the most impact on you?
You know, that’s a great question. I love Mars in science fiction because it’s got so many different faces. It can be Ray Bradbury’s Mars. It can be Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Mars, Stanley G. Weinbaum’s Mars, Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars, Ben Bova’s Mars. Everybody who comes to look at it, it’s a Rorschach test. H.G. Wells, of course, War of the Worlds. Every writer whose come to look at Mars sees it in a different way. And that’s the beauty of the planet over history. (A), we have learned more about it and so we keep reimagining it, and (B) even in the present day, I said quite forcefully that I think there probably was life on Mars and probably still is life on Mars. Other people look at that same rock hanging there in space and say, “It’s sterile now and it always has been sterile.” It’s wonderful that we can respond in all these different ways to it. That said, the Mars stories that I enjoyed the most were not actually novels about Mars. I read all the Burroughs books and Kim Stanley Robinson’s Red Mars, but I actually liked short story treatments of Mars, and my favorite one is one that Campbell turned down, I think: “A Martian Odyssey”—actually written, I guess, a little bit before Campbell took over Astounding—“A Martian Odyssey,” by a guy named Stanley G. Weinbaum. And it was the kind of story that you can’t sell anymore. It’s just a travelogue. It’s a guy who goes to Mars. His little ship crashes away from the base camp and while his co-astronauts are trying to find him, he tries to trek across Mars to make it back to safety, and along the way he has an endless series of adventures meeting all kinds of interesting Martian lifeforms, including one Martian lifeform based on silicone instead of carbon chemistry. And I loved that story when I first encountered it in the book The Science Fiction Hall of Fame, edited by Robert Silverberg. It’s the first story in the book. And I still love that story to this day. Stanley G. Weinbaum’s “A Martian Odyssey.” Sadly, Weinbaum died a year and a half after his first story was published and never really made the popular impact on the field that he should have. His name should be as well-known when we talk about Mars as Burroughs or Bradbury.
Speaking of Burroughs, isn’t there a bar named Barsoom in the book?
Yes. You know, as far as my research showed, nobody had yet used the name Barsoom for a bar on Mars, and it just seemed like such a natural joke to me. I’m sure somebody listening to this podcast will now comment and say, “No, no, no, it was used in this story or that story.” Barsoom is, of course, the name from Edgar Rice Burroughs’ John Carter stories. The natives don’t call Mars “Mars,” they call it “Barsoom.” And it just seemed like a cute and fun name to use. I mentioned a little bit about this “walking in the footsteps of.” Isaac Newton said, “If I’ve seen farther than those who’ve gone in front of me, it’s because I stand on the shoulders of giants.” You can’t be a 21st-century science fiction writer writing about Mars without doing tips of the hat to Edgar Rice Burroughs, to Ray Bradbury, to H.G. Wells, to the guys who first put it in the popular imagination that Mars was an exciting place. And I like to sprinkle those throughout Red Planet Blues.
I listened to an interview you did about the TV show based on your novel Flashforward, and you talked about meeting with the producers. I was really struck about how many rules they had about what a television show had to conform to. It couldn’t look like the future. It had to be set in a major American city. The main characters couldn’t be scientists. They had to be cops, doctors, and lawyers. Everyone has to be young and gorgeous, stuff like that.
Yes. Now all that said, for American network prime time television, that’s what they were aiming for. Obviously there are television shows around the world that aren’t set in the United States, but for the American prime time television market, those were the things that they felt would be the keys to success, none of which were in my novel Flashforward. It was set in Europe. Flashforward the novel has people flashing forward twenty-one years, not six months, so that would mean the beautiful young people who might have been in the cast would spend a large part of their screen time with the old and haggard—that was a non-starter. And at the time—this is now 2007 when we had this meeting, to show it on the air in 2009—at the time, it was a fair statement to say that the only shows that Americans watched in big numbers were shows about lawyers, doctors, or cops. Now, I had the great pleasure one day, working in the writer’s room at Flashforward’s offices on the Disney lot in Los Angeles, to say to the staff writers, “Sorry guys, I gotta leave early today. I’m heading off to a taping of that show that kicks our butt every week in the ratings that is about three physicists and an engineer,” which of course was Big Bang Theory. In 2007 Big Bang Theory was not the breakout hit that it became in 2009, so yes, absolutely, those rules made sense at the time they were articulated, which is now six years ago.
You think those were true at the time, though? I heard you say that, when you first started out, everyone told you not to write books set in Canada because it wouldn’t sell, and that just turned out to be superstition or something.
Yes, it turned out that nobody had empirically tested that, that people writing popular fiction in Canada, mystery and science fiction, fantasy, were shying away from any Canadian content or reference, because they had assumed that it would not work. Now, there had been TV shows about scientists. I can name a bunch from the 1970s that lasted a single season or less. Gemini Man is one. That starred Ben Murphy. It was actually a riff on The Invisible Man by H.G. Wells. It lasted, I think, one season. It was about scientists. Didn’t last. Man from Atlantis was a TV series about scientists at the foundation for oceanic research and their discovery of a living, breathing, Aquaman kind of thing. It did not last. The ones that did last, The Six Million Dollar Man, when they went from being pilot film and the first two subsequent 90-minute movies, when they went to an hour-long format, I did not like this move, but what did they do? They took the three characters they had, the superhero, the government bureaucrat, and the scientist, Dr. Rudy Wells, who had made Steve Austin into a cyborg, and dropped the scientist. So he was gone as a regular from the first three seasons of The Six Million Dollar Man, because people don’t tune in to watch scientists unless they are forensic scientists. Dexter is a scientist. He’s a forensic scientist, which is close enough to being either a cop or a lawyer or a doctor to be palatable. But yeah, it was advice that actually made sense. I wish it wasn’t true. I wish that, more than just as comedic figures, people would rally around the interesting lives of scientists in television drama. But it’s been a very, very hard sell to the public to make that happen.
So I saw on your Facebook page that you recently appeared on Naked News?
I did, for the third time!
So what’s that like?
Well, Naked News is the longest running pay-per-view show on the internet. And I think it was the New York Times that said it has the best international coverage this side of the BBC. It’s a legitimate news program that happens to be presented by beautiful women who strip naked while they’re presenting news stories. And they also do lighter, magazine-style pieces, including interviews, occasionally with authors or actors or musicians and so forth. And it happens that a lot of people at Naked News are fans of my books, which I’m very, very grateful for. And they love having me on and I love talking to beautiful naked women so it strikes me as a win-win scenario. Victoria Sinclair was the name of the woman who interviewed me this time. She’s the senior anchor. She’s also the longest-serving anchor, the original anchor, at Naked News. She’s absolutely brilliant, and I will tell you this, and let’s say present company excepted, no reflection on the current interview that we just did, it was the best interview that I’ve done in the last year. And last year when they interviewed me about Triggers, I can confidently say now—that was my previous book. We’re no longer talking about Triggers, rather my new book Red Planet Blues—they did the best interview of all of the dozens and dozens of interviews I did about Triggers. Why? One simple expedient: The interviewer actually reads the book from cover to cover. Most interviewers don’t. They rely on secondary material, press releases, jacket copy, what have you, Amazon write-ups. She read the whole book, thought deeply about the issues in the book, asked probing questions, and was willing to let me answer at length, which a lot of television interviews won’t let you do.
I saw that you just donated your papers to McMaster University?
They’re actually sending the truck on Monday, so the paperwork for the donation has been done. The actual physical donation is happening, as you and I speak now, five days from now. Yeah, absolutely. McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario approached me. They’re not my alma mater. I’ve never taught there. I have no connection to them, but they have very large holdings in the field of Canadian literature. Now, I’ve been approached by a lot of institutions, including the University of California Riverside, the University of South Florida, and various other places who wanted my papers for their holdings in science fiction. And at the end of the day I thought, “You know what, my legacy in science fiction is secure. I’ve won the Hugo for best novel. I’ve won the Nebula for best novel. I’ve had a TV series adapting one of my books.” My legacy in Canadian literature—it’s always been an uphill climb for anybody who writes genre fiction to be taken as part of the literary establishment. I was very flattered and moved that McMaster wanted to put me along the side the papers of great Canadian writers and editors, including Pierre Berton, whose retreat I started Red Planet Blues at. I’m thrilled at this opportunity and very much looking forward, not just to the donation of the papers, getting all the stuff out of my home will free up a large amount of space, but McMaster is actually hosting a three-day academic conference this fall, the fall of 2013, called “Science Fiction: The Interdisciplinary Genre,” because so much of my science fiction crosses genres. Red Planet Blues is exobiology, paleontology combined together. That kind of juxtaposition is the hallmark of my work. They’re doing a conference about the juxtaposing of interesting things within science fiction in honor of this. I’m really thrilled about that. “Science Fiction: The Interdisciplinary Genre,” September at McMaster University in Hamilton. Free and open to the public.
And how about the Lifeboat to the Stars award?
Yeah, gee, I’m the coordinating judge, which means that I am the chief cat herder of all the other judges who are looking for a work published in 2012 or 2011 that deals realistically and significantly with interstellar travel, not interplanetary, but interstellar travel. And surprisingly, as we’ve gone hunting for these, there have been very few in the last couple of years. It used to be such a mainstay of science fiction and it just isn’t really that much anymore. But we’ve been looking at—I’m not giving away our shortlist because that hasn’t been decided yet, but amongst the books the I’ve been looking at, of course, are Larry Niven and Gregory Benford, who have their first collaboration out, The Bowl of Heaven, which is a wonderful book. I say that because my cover blurb appears on the front cover of that book. Kevin Anderson and Steven Savile have a great book out called Tau Ceti, about the first generation ship voyage to the star Tau Ceti, one of our near neighbors. There’s wonderful stuff out there that we’re sorting through and looking for the best of the best, to give an award, and to bring it all full circle at the end of our interview, at the John W. Campbell conference, which is held each year at the Center for the Study of Science Fiction at the University of Kansas, in Lawrence, Kansas. The Lifeboat to the Stars awards $1,000 to be given at the Campbell conference in June.
That about does it for our questions. Are there any other new or upcoming projects that you would like to mention before we go?
Well, I am very excited about the fact that I’m just embarking on an adaptation of my novel Triggers as a screenplay. I’ve been commissioned by a production company, a very credible one. I won’t say the name right now because we’re still dotting Is and crossing Ts on some of the paperwork. But they want to adapt and make a very big-budget feature film out of my novel Triggers. In most cases somebody else does the screenplay [but] I’m a trained broadcaster, my degree is in radio/television arts, I’m a member of the Writer’s Guild of America and the Writer’s Guild of Canada. I’ve been doing scriptwriting professionally for twenty years and those credentials were sufficient to convince them that I had the chops to tackle this and I’m really, really enjoying that project and very, very excited about the prospect of it moving ahead and actually getting made.