In Conversation with Robert J. Sawyer
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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 21/06/2014 (3088 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
Robert J. Sawyer likens himself to Spock, and as a science-fiction author that comparison is very apt. He’s both an American and Canadian author. He was born in Ottawa and lives in Mississauga, but most of his books were published in the States. He has also received almost every major award possible for science fiction authors, and some beyond, including the Hugo Award, Prix Aurora Award and Nebula Award. He also received an honorary doctorate from the University of Winnipeg on June 12. He recently spoke to Free Press reporter Oliver Sachgau.
FP: What’s it like being a Canadian author and American author at the same time?
SAWYER: Well, when I started publishing — my first novel came out in 1990 — there were no options for publishing science fiction in Canada. There were no small presses, and the large presses simply would not touch it at all. So I had to publish in the United States. And I realized at that juncture that I had kind of an interesting double life, an interesting perspective to share with America, because I am an American. My mother is an American.
It’s significant in all kinds of ways, but I took it seriously. For example, one of my novels is Frameshift, which is my genetics thriller at the high level of it, but the message of it is one that I thought was very important to make to Americans, which is that the only thing that makes sense in the era of ubiquitous genetic testing is socialized medicine. That model came out in ’97, they got their first hint of socialized medicine in 2014. It takes a while for anything to change in that country and I hardly claim cause and effect between me and Obamacare, but there were virtually no Americans making that case to the American audience in the 1990s. And I was privileged, through the vehicle of science fiction, to make that case.
It gives me a certain amount of moral authority to preach to the Americans, because I preach to my own.
FP: How have things changed since then? Is it easier?
SAWYER: Yeah, in 2007, my last book that only had an American publisher came out. That was Rollback. At that point, it had become apparent that there were possibilities in Canada. There were occasional overtures, from Random House in Canada, to Penguin Canada, in previous years, but they all sounded like ‘Well, we’d like to try and experiment in publishing science fiction,’ and I thought ‘Well great, you let me know how that works out, but I’m not a guinea pig.’
(The publisher of Penguin Canada) was a big fan of my work and he said “Not only do we want to publish you Rob, we will hire an editor to work with you, we will invest the resources of Penguin behind actually making this work. It’s not going to be an experiment, it’s going to be a success.” And that’s exactly what I wanted to hear.
FP: Social progress is a recurring theme in your books. What direction do you think we’re headed in terms of social progress?
SAWYER: You’re absolutely right. Social progress is a big thing for me. Although science fiction is traditionally concerned with the hard sciences, which is chemistry, physics, and some might argue biology, my father was and still is a social scientist at the University of Toronto. So the idea that there were trends in society as opposed to just breakthroughs in astrophysics that one could use as part of one’s extrapolation came out of the fact that I was the son of a social scientist.
As for what’s coming down the pipe, it isn’t even hard to predict. What’s been easy to see is the enormous change in our willingness to expand the definition of personhood. In 1960 when I was born, the only privileged people in the West were white males. And yay me, I was born a white male. But what happened in the ’60s was African-Americans started to get their due, and women started to get their due. And this was very obvious to me.
What’s next is when we expand the boundaries and realize that non-humans also are entitled to rights. It’s already happened in a few European jurisdictions (where some apes and chimpanzees) have been accorded what amount to human rights: freedom (from) torture, freedom (from) use in medical experimentation. All the things, in other words, that Americans did with African-Americans up until half a century ago are now also verboten for our closest non-human relatives, and that will continue. We will also see a move toward embracing artificial intelligences. As soon as they emerge, the legal challenges will occur, and ultimately… that’s what the courts are going to decide in all these cases. Whether it’s created in a lab, written by a programmer, or lands on the White House lawn as a visitor from the stars, if it acts like a human being, it is a human being.