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The tangled web

Renowned sci-fi author's new series explores wide-ranging power, increasing influence of Internet

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You think your kids or your spouse spend too much time Googling on the Internet?

Just wait 10 or 20 years, says Robert J. Sawyer, Canada's most successful science-fiction author.

You ain't seen nothin' yet.

"People think of the World Wide Web as something related to their computers," says Sawyer, who will be reading at the Grant Park McNally Robinson Booksellers at 2 p.m. Saturday.

"But that idea is going to fall apart."

In an age of wirelessness and nanotechnology, Sawyer explains, web addresses (or URLs, as they're known) can be attached to any device or object on the planet.

"The web will be part of everything humans do," Sawyer, 49, insists. "In the future, it will be all-encompassing, pervasive, ubiquitous and unavoidable."

The Toronto-based sci-fi star's new novel, Wake, his 18th, is the first of a trilogy about the web becoming smarter than humans.

Its protagonist is a blind 15-year-old girl who gets wired into the burgeoning "webmind" after having a device implanted to restore her sight.

"I got the idea about 10 years ago," he says. "I read a science article that said in about 2010 the web would have as many interconnections as the human brain."

In the last decade, as his own career has exploded, Sawyer has become one of Canada's go-to guys for science explanations and prognostications.

As the author of novels that synthesize and dramatize the latest scientific thinking, he is often called Canada's answer to Michael Crichton, the late American author of such books as Jurassic Park and The Andromeda Strain.

"I like that analogy, except for one thing," Sawyer says. "Crichton had a pessimistic view of science and technology. I am very pro-science."

Winnipeg novelist David Annandale praises Sawyer for creating engaging characters and setting them in fast-paced narrative that contains accessible scientific speculation.

"He has, I think, one of these enthusiasms for science that is genuinely joyful," says Annandale, who teaches English and film at the University of Manitoba.

"And this translates into a drive to pass on to the reader a similar passion."

Sawyer blogs regularly on his state-of-the-art website and he hosts a program on Vision TV called Supernatural Investigator, which debunks quasi-scientific quackery.

He praises the liberal multi-faith cable channel for never censoring his frankly atheistic views.

"I'm a rationalist," he says. "And I can see no evidence for a benevolent and interventionist creator."

Of the recent spate of neo-atheist polemics, he finds Richard Dawkins' The God Delusion the strongest, though his admiration is tempered.

"I have no problem with its content, but its tone is too sneering," he says. "He's not going to convince anybody who's not on his side."

He much prefers the 2006 comic monologue Letting Go of God by former Saturday Night Live performer and lapsed Catholic Julia Sweeney.

"It's very funny but the humour is gentle."

Sawyer has just had a major breakthrough into the U.S. market.

Last week, ABC Television ordered 13 episodes of a new series, Flash Forward, based on his 1999 novel, in which everyone in the world blacks out for two minutes and then has visions of six months into the future.

ABC is expected to position it next fall as a successor to its massive hit Lost, whose final episodes are to be shown in the winter of 2010.

"I've had many of my books optioned," Sawyer says. "But this is the first one to get made."

For the record, Sawyer has already seen the new Star Trek movie twice.

"It's the best science-fiction movie of the millennium, even though the science in it is as wobbly as Star Trek science has been," he says.

"It's really about parents and children -- what we owe our parents and what parents owe their children."

At his Winnipeg appearance, Sawyer (who has no children of his own) plans to read a section from Wake and talk about the transfer of Flash Forward from the page to TV.

He will also be checking out the prominent placement of his novels in McNally Robinson Grant Park, since the Winnipeg-based chain has anointed him "author of the month" for May

A few weeks ago he launched Wake at McNally's new Toronto big-box location at The Shops of Don Mills.

"It's gorgeous," he says. "Toronto has nothing like it, at least on this scale."

Sawyer and his wife of 25 years, Carolyn Clink, are spending June and July in Saskatoon.

He has accepted a gig there as writer-in-residence at the Canadian Light Source, the country's largest particle physics lab. His job will be to help the physicists with their written communication.

While there, Sawyer hopes to start writing Watch, the third part of his WWW trilogy. Part 2, Wonder, is already in his publisher's hands for release next April.

"I love my job," he says. "In the best atheist sense of the word, I feel blessed."


Close Encounters of the Sawyer Kind

Robert J. Sawyer was born April 29, 1960, in Ottawa. Raised in Toronto, he resides in Mississauga with his wife, poet Carolyn Clink.

In the last 20 years, he has sold 20 science-fiction novels to U.S. publishers, and his books have been translated into 14 languages.

He is one of only seven writers in history -- and the only Canadian -- to win all three of the world's top science-fiction awards for best novel of the year: the Hugo (in 2003 for Hominids), the Nebula (in 1996 for The Terminal Experiment), and the John W. Campbell Memorial Award (in 2006 for Mindscan).

He has also won a record 10 Canadian Science Fiction and Fantasy Awards (Auroras), as well as an Arthur Ellis Award from the Crime Writers of Canada.

He's also won the top science-fiction awards in China, France, Japan and Spain; in total he has received 41 national and international awards for his writing.

In 2008 was named one of the "30 most influential, innovative, and just plain powerful people in Canadian publishing" by Quill & Quire, the Canadian-publishing trade journal.

He is "by any reckoning, among the most successful Canadian authors ever," according to Maclean's.

He has made almost 500 radio and TV appearances, including Canada AM, NPR's Science Friday, and Rivera Live with Geraldo Rivera.

His award-winning website,, was the world's first science-fiction author website and has been called "the best author's page on the Internet."

ABC-TV has just purchased 13 episodes of a new sci-fi series called Flash Forward, based on Sawyer's 1999 novel. It stars Joseph Fiennes (Shakespeare in Love) and John Cho (Star Trek).


Sources: Canadian Press,

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 14, 2009 D1

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