In Ask A Prophet, we probe the brains of sci-fi, fantasy, and speculative fiction writers. This week, we spoke with the Hugo and Nebula award-winning Robert J. Sawyer about why he prefers stand alone books to series, how to include the right amount of research, and why humans are wrong about evil.
How do you approach your world building?
I am a thematically driven writer. I figure out what I want to talk about and then construct a reality in which I can get to the big ideas underpinning the story. This novel Quantum Night is set in present day on planet Earth. So the big bang did the world’s build for me starting 14 billions years ago. I had to find characters that would let me explore the thought experiment that underpins Quantum Night. One of the main characters is a female quantum physicist. The other main character is a male experimental psychologist. The sparks that fly between them and between their contrasting disciplines — the hardest of the hard scientists, quantum physics and the softer side of psychology — is what drove the creation of the rest of the book.
How do you find the theme that you want to explore? Do you keep current with reading world news and studies?
I am a voracious reader of nonfiction and I go to science conferences. Over 25 years now as a published novelist, I have developed a network of working scientists in all disciplines who are constantly and generously forwarding me links and new notes that help spark my imagination. For this particular book, I started very early on realizing that the topic I wanted to explore was ‘evil’. It is normally dealt with in fantasy novels, good versus evil. In science fiction, we seem to dodge the question and yet there’s an enormous amount of neuroscience, of experimental psychology, and certainly of history to draw upon in trying to do an empirical research-based study of why evil continues to flourish in what is supposedly an enlightened world.
So my research was all in that area, and out of that came out my thematic statement — which is simply that the most pernicious lie humanity has ever told itself is that you cannot change human nature.
What’s the most interesting thing you’ve read recently?
I think everybody got energized by the revelation that we’ve actually detected gravity waves. Albert Einstein, who predicted gravity waves, said we will never detect them; it’s a technological impossibility. What we did was detect a compression of the whole planet Earth by an amount less than the diameter of one atomic nucleus, caused by two black holes colliding over a billion years ago. It’s unbelievable that we have the technology to measure that. You can forgive Einstein himself for thinking we would never be able to do that. So that totally captured my imagination. I’m thinking — as I imagine every one of my colleagues is — about what stories this will suggest.
Since you do a great deal of reading and research, is there some that does not make it into your novels?
Tons. The job of a science fiction writer is to do an iceberg’s worth of research and to have only the barest tip stick above the water. I always say being a hard science fiction writer is like being a graduate student who changes his or her thesis topic at whim. At the end of whatever book you’re writing, you should be able to also write a University-level dissertation on any of the topics that you’re writing about.
I would feel very comfortable if somebody asked me write now to give a University level course on the history of experimental psychology as related to the nature of human evil. Absolutely. A friend of mine named Sasha Miller used to say, “there are parts in many books that come down to ‘I’ the author has suffered for my art. Now you, the reader, are going to suffer too.” Meaning, “I’m about to dump every single thing I know about the topic into the narrative whether it belongs there or not.” A good writer knows to be very judicious in picking out only the most illustrative and fascinating nuggets into what has to be a character-driven and plot-driven entertainment device.
Was that a skill you had to learn over time, not including too much information?
Not at my science fiction career, because I started out as a journalist knowing about the inverted pyramid style. It means you have no idea how much of your article is going to run in the newspaper. Some editor will arbitrarily cut it off at one of the paragraph breaks and say we didn’t sell a lot of ads or some leader passed away. So you have to know important stuff comes up front and you work your way progressively down this inverted pyramid to the less and less important stuff. So I learned to do a triage on facts very early on, knowing what I had to get in and what could be left out. That served me very well. Science fiction is based rigorously in real science and extrapolation of real science. But never do I overload the reader, and that’s a skill that came not from writing or even reading classic hard science fiction, but having done over 200 feature articles for newspapers and magazines before my first novel came out in 1990.
Is it ever aggravating when you have to cut out something for the convenience of the plot?
Yes, absolutely! In fact in this book I did something I have never done before. I put a bibliography at the end of the book. It has 52 books cited in it for anybody who is interested in going down essentially the same journey I took in the three years it took me to write this book. Here, 52 other works of nonfiction informed what got distilled down into this one novel. So absolutely, I regret so much had to be left out that I wanted to leave a road map for those who might want to do the exploration on their own. I thought my editor might say, “come on nobody wants to see a bibliography in a novel,” but they were happy to leave it in. They were as intrigued as I was to do a little further reading about some of the topics that were raised.
How have you seen the genre evolve over time?
The biggest thing that has happened to science fiction in the quarter of a century that I have been a professional practitioner of it at novel length is the marginalization of science fiction in print while it’s gone on to dominate at the box office. I am delighted to be able to continue to publish in this genre, but I mourn every single day for writers who were starting when I started out in writing science fiction, who are still alive and well but no longer being published because the market place simply isn’t as robust as it used to be.
What was your experience like with Flashforward being adapted into a TV show?
It was a wonderful experience. Everybody involved treated me with respect and dignity. I got to write one of the episodes, I consulted on all the episodes, I spent time working in the writer’s room with the staff writers, I spent a lot of time on set and on location. It was truly one of the peak experiences of my life. I would love to be involved with another television adaptation of one of my books. I’m working very hard with a number of good people, both in Toronto and in Los Angeles about trying to gather other things of mine onto the screen.
If you could choose another one of your books to have a TV adaptation, which one would you choose?
Wake, Watch, and Wonder, the trilogy. About the world wide web gaining consciousness and a formerly blind 16 year old girl become a real-world avatar. Its eyes and ears and hands in our physical reality. The first book was nominated for a Hugo Award in 2010, all three books separately, each one Canada’s top science fiction award, the Aurora. I’ve had some repeatedly very positive interests from broadcasters and producers in Los Angeles and Toronto, but we have yet to close a deal with anybody. I really do think this one would work wonderfully as a TV series.
Which TV shows do you watch?
I’m very serious about having another sale to Hollywood. So what I watch is whatever my agents or producers want me to. I just finished watching Season 1 of Mr. Robot. Very interesting show — and obviously if I’m trying to sell a show about artificial intelligence, Mr. Robot isn’t necessarily about A.I., but it is about hacker subculture. The only TV I watch for entertainment is when I’m treadmilling. I’m working my way through season three of The Mindy Project, which I adore.
Is there anything you’ve read recently that you enjoyed?
I have become absolutely fascinated with the Manhattan project, the origin of the atomic bomb. I’ve been reading biography and history book, one after another relating to that topic. Most recently I read and was absolutely fascinated by the book American Prometheus: The triumph and tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer. I write science fiction to get at the intersection of science and ethical questions. There never has been a more profound example of that than the gathering of the world’s greatest physicists to create the most destructive weapon that humanity has ever seen.
With regard to your own books, was there any that you had a particularly wonderful experience writing?
People always ask what your favorite book is and they seem to think the answer will be your best book or the one that made you the most money. In neither case that would be my answer. My one would be the one that I most thoroughly enjoyed writing. I’ve got to say it was Quantum Night. I had done something I had never done before! I’ve got 22 years of being a novel-a-year-man; cranking out a book every 12 months. I took three years to do this one. The luxury of getting to spend an entire year of doing nothing but the research for Quantum Night actually makes it hard to write another book because I know I likely won’t have that luxury again of spending that time reading and learning. It made it the most enjoyable research and writing experience I’ve had to date.
And were any of your books particularly challenging to write?
For me, the hardest thing was the third book in a very early trilogy: Far-seer, Fossil Hunter, and Foreigner. I hadn’t conceived it as a trilogy. My agent at the time said this should be an on-going series. I never wanted to be the guy who wrote an on-going series — I wanted to be known as a versatile, nimble writer, rather than somebody who was known for just one set of characters. By the time I was on to the third book of that series, having not planned to have anything more than a single book, I was pulling my hair out. If you’ve seen any recent author photos of me, you’ll know I never recovered from that, because I’m as bald as a cue ball.
The science fiction genre has even more series than others. Have you felt much pressure to write them since?
Absolutely my agents and my publishers have all said somewhat wistfully, “wouldn’t it be nice if you had an on-going series?” In fact, when I won the Hugo for Hominids, that book came out in 2002, but the Hugo ceremony was in September of 2003. The same weekend that I won the Hugo, the third book in the trilogy, Hybrids, came out. So I just won the Hugo for the first book and the third book finished the trilogy is out.
My editor, the late, great David Hartwell, said to me the day after I won the Hugo, “if you want you could go on writing Neanderthal books for the rest of your life and it would be a very handsome career.” He realized that a series that begins with a Hugo winner has the potential of going on indefinitely and being a cash-cow. I said to him, with gratitude, “thank you David, but that’s not what I want to do.” I have done three trilogies out of 23 books, so nine books that are parts of trilogies and 14 that aren’t. I much prefer writing stand alones. Science fiction is about exploring strange new worlds — not revisiting tired old ones.