Website & fanzine of the SF fan club USS Hudson Bay, Toronto, Canada






On What It Means
To Be "Human"

By Alex von Thorn

I had the honour of interviewing Rob Sawyer on August 5, 2002 in his home west of Toronto. With his wife, Carolyn Clink, he lives in a penthouse condo which has the best view one can find in any Ontario suburb, and it has a working fireplace as well. Rob's place is decorated almost exactly as one might expect: bookshelves in every room, and quite a lot more books discreetly hidden away. His study has a row of filing cabinets stuffed with manuscripts, and a shelf unit in a corner holding the awards he's won over the years. He writes in a large easy chair, with a wireless keyboard and mouse at hand.

Can you talk about what you want to do in the sequels to Hominids?

I've actually finished the first sequel, Humans, and am in the process of finishing the final one of the trilogy, Hybrids. The first volume was really a fish-out-of-water story: Ponter coming to our Earth, a stranger-in-a-strange-land story, which is a classic mode of science fiction. In the second volume, I felt it was important to give the flip side, without making the whole volume about this. I get Mary Vaughan, the main human character from the first book—excuse me, Homo sapiens character; my "sapient" chauvinism is showing—over to the Neanderthal world. Also in the second volume, I wanted to resolve, mostly, the most difficult part of the first volume, which was the rape subplot. I certainly won't give away how it is resolved, but it is a major part of the action of the second book.

And I wanted to establish the "green-eyed monster." To take a phrase from H.G. Wells, I wanted to have our people turn "envious eyes" on the Neanderthal world. What happens is that we begin to realize that there is a threat facing both versions of Earth, a geomagnetic reversal which will cause both Earths' magnetic fields to collapse for a period of time. It's no big deal for the Neanderthals, because they have an intact ozone layer, but we have ravaged ours. So the alternatives are to do something about the pending problem, or to say, "Gee, isn't there a nice clean version of Earth, where we can take over and get a fresh start over there." So the groundwork is laid in the second book, and the third book is about plots on the part of some bad folk from this world to see if perhaps we could take over that world.

In the third book I also get very much into one of the fundamental interpersonal conflicts from the first book. Mary is a Roman Catholic believer, and Ponter comes from a culture where there's never been any religious inclination whatsoever. People will say this is an odd coincidence, but at Laurentian University, in Sudbury, there's a researcher named Michael Persinger who claims that, with electrical stimulation of the brain, he can reproduce the traditional religious experience of having visions, out-of-body experience, and so forth. I can't ignore the issue that my characters are passing by this guy who would be fascinated by the question of the religious experience in Neanderthals. Obviously I'm fictionalizing it, but the research really is done in Sudbury. So Mary has a crack at the equipment, and discovers that the experiences she has thought were legitimate can be reproduced at the touch of a button. And it is discovered that the religious experience cannot be generated in Ponter; he has a differently wired brain. I also spend a fair bit of the third book of resolving the issue of where the religious impulse in human beings came from.

I like to have lots and lots of stuff. If I'm ever guilty of anything bad in my books (in some people's eyes), it's cramming too much into any one book. Certainly many other writers would take any one of those ideas and build a whole new trilogy out of the one idea, and I like to put eight or ten really big ideas into one novel. So I need thirty big ideas for this trilogy.

You mentioned having people from our Earth take over the other Earth. What is the appeal in making Homo sapiens the villains?

We certainly are the bad guys ecologically, in comparison between the two worlds. But the Neanderthals do have a somewhat totalitarian society with no privacy. It's been surprising how many people have written to me and said, "When are we going to see some of the negatives of the Neanderthal society?" because I think they're implicit throughout the text. But that said, when I set out to write the series, I had no preconceived notion that one side or the other was going to come out looking better. As I got working on the series, there's no question that on balance the Neanderthals and their treatment of their world and each other comes off better than ours does. I think it's just a reflection of my own anger at my own species, that we have so much technology, so much wealth, so much goodness about us, and yet whenever I pick up the newspaper or watch the news, there's nothing but one horrible story after another, in Toronto, in the Middle East, people dying in Africa. Why the hell is any of this still going on? We have the ability to make a utopia here, and we seem to be derailed constantly. So that was part of what led to the Neanderthals coming out looking better than we did.

I had an epiphany when I was writing the second book. What I'm really writing about, in a lot of ways, is not Homo sapiens versus Homo neanderthalensis; it's Americans versus Canadians. We Canadians traditionally have more ecological awareness. We're much more willing to sacrifice individual liberties for the good of the society, and as anybody who's been to the southern States knows, we're much more open on matters of sexual orientation and so forth. We've found ways to deal with questions of interpersonal violence by putting controls on it, e.g. our gun control laws. It's unheard-of for the Americans: "Yes, we have the ability to kill each other, and by God we will enshrine that right for all time." So I wasn't consciousness that that's what I was doing in the first place, but by the second book it had become absolutely clear to me that, down deep, my Neanderthals were idealized Canadians and my Homo sapiens were kind of—I don't want to say it in a pejorative way—stereotypical Americans.

[At this point I turned off the tape recorder to mention how, in my interview with Karin Lowachee for SF Site, she took a different take on the subject of Americans and Canadians. After a little while, he went on a tangent where he spoke about a project he is working on for CBC Radio entitled Faster than Light. He has recorded a pilot which is scheduled for broadcast in September, and if it works out, it will be a regular feature—AvT.]

It's a science fiction radio drama series, that I would play a Rod Serling role for. But between the segments, there will be fillers in the form of interviews with SF authors and other bits of science fiction news things. In one of these, I interviewed Nalo Hopkinson, and I said to her, "You put your ethnicity right out front in what you're doing." And she turned to me and said, "Well, so do you, Rob; so does every other writer." Which, of course, was absolutely true. But nobody thinks of themselves doing it; they only notice if it's not their own ethnicity.

Speaking of being in the media, I see a lot of you (not just in person), and I wonder how much time you spend appearing on television and radio, and why you do so much of it.

Well, the why is easy. It certainly helps my book sales. I would not do it as much if I didn't constantly get letters from people saying, "I heard you on Quirks and Quarks," or, "I saw you on the Discovery Channel." One that I just recently did was Tech TV. I was on their show Screen Savers, and I got just flooded with e-mail from people saying, "Oh, your book sounded so interesting I ordered it from Amazon, and I loved it." So it definitely has to do with promotion of my work.

I do actually enjoy it. Tanya Huff and I were classmates at Ryerson doing Radio and Television Arts, class of '82. I have always had a fondness for the media, although I never thought of myself as an in-front-of-the-camera kind of guy, as a media personality or commentator, which is in a very small sense what I've become. I was always much more interested in the technological stuff behind the scenes.

Why I do so much: I certainly haven't been looking for it lately; it just keeps coming. Today I'm being interviewed by you, but earlier this morning I was interviewed by a radio station in Indianapolis. Tomorrow I'm off to do an episode of The Sex Files for Discovery Channel, talking about the future of sex: After we upload our bodies into computers, what's sex going to be like? I'm going to be their futurist on that. It does seem that I'm doing three or four interviews a week these days, all over the place. I did say to Carolyn recently that if I didn't think it would sell the books, I would be cutting back, because it does interfere with my writing time.

The final reason I do this is that I do have this degree in Radio and Television Arts, because I thought originally that I wanted to be scriptwriter, not a book writer, and it makes me not have to mentally write off the years I spent getting that degree. I actually am doing something in broadcasting, even if it wasn't what I ever envisioned doing.

But you must enjoy it.

I thoroughly enjoy it. There've been only a couple of times in my life where an interview has not gone well and I haven't enjoyed it. One was when Avril Benoit was briefly hosting This Morning on CBC Radio, and she was just so snarky about science fiction, and she seemed to listen to nothing I said. That was unpleasant. But on the flip side, getting to be interviewed by Elwy Yost, whom I grew up with on Saturday Night at the Movies, and he had me on to talk about The Thing and Invasion of the Body Snatchers—I mean, how cool is that?

It's easy to sell to the SF fan community, because you can just go to conventions, but you do a lot of other things. What process do you use to sell your work to the trade and to the public?

The SF fan community is hugely important because of things like the Hugo Awards and the Aurora Awards, which they're responsible for. But in fact, if I sold a book to everybody who went to Worldcon, and that was the only people I sold books to, I would starve to death. You have to reach out to a much larger audience. And certainly the media interviews and the Web presence are very important for that. One of the things that's well worth doing, in terms of the feedback we've gotten, is posting reading group guides, questions for discussion for my novels on my website. I find that I do get a lot of book clubs saying, "Well, we made a pack that we were going to pick a science fiction novel [for], and we chose yours because there was a book club guide for it."

I'm lucky enough to get to speak at conferences that aren't directly related to science fiction. Earlier this year, I got to speak at the twelfth annual Canadian Conference on Intelligent Systems, which is for researchers in AI and robotics; it's held in Calgary. Last year, I got to speak to something called the Life Communicators Association, which is people in communications for the life insurance industry, where I was talking about what impact cloning and life prolongation and the Human Genome Project and uploading consciousnesses are going to have on their industry, issues that these people had never been exposed to and are going to rewrite everything they have to do in the next 25 years. It's wonderful to give a talk to a group like that and open their eyes.

And there's an attitudinal thing in the work that I write. Back in 1985, I was lucky enough to interview Spider Robinson for CBC Radio's Ideas series. It's the first time I'd ever met Spider; of course we're friends now, but back then I was in awe of him. (I'm still in awe of him.) Spider said to me, "I write science fiction that my mother-in-law can read. She's not a scientist; she's not a genius; she's just a normal human being." What he was talking about was a degree of accessibility in the text, not ever skirting issues of science and technology, but not assuming that the reader is (a) a habitual reader of science fiction, and (b) somebody who is totally up to speed on everything that is happening in science and technology. So, although I've never soft-pedalled science in my books, I always say to myself, "Could my mother-in-law read this and enjoy it?" An awful lot of science fiction writers enjoy the cliquishness of science fiction and its readership, and will love to use abbreviations like "FTL" or just throw off a reference to an ansible as an homage to Ursula K. LeGuin without ever explaining that what they're talking about is instantaneous communication over long distances. Or even, until the Spielberg films came out, the initials "A.I." or "E.T." were cryptic to most people. I've always made a point of making sure that somebody who doesn't read science fiction can still read my book.

People ask, "What's the greatest achievement you've had as a writer?" I actually think it was not winning the Nebula, not any of the awards; it was having Calculating God hit number one on the Locus bestseller list—meaning I was absolutely appealing to the core science fiction reader, because that list is drawn from science fiction specialty stores across North America—and simultaneously having the book on the Globe and Mail and Maclean's bestseller lists, which is a desert for science fiction. That meant in cold hard numbers that I'd achieved exactly what I was trying to do, which is appeal to mainstream readers without alienating the science fiction readers.

On the subject of awards, you won an Arthur Ellis award from the Crime Writers of Canada for a mystery short story, and you often use mystery motifs in your stories, such as Illegal Alien; even in Hominids you've got a parallel-universe murder trial. How do you apply the motifs from the mystery genre in your stories?

I wanted to be a paleontologist when I was younger. About the time that I was 15 or 16, I had an epiphany. I realized that paleontology really was detective work because it was all about dead life forms for which you only had the scantiest of clues about what their lives had been like and what had caused their demise. At that point, even though I was active in our high-school science fiction club, I realized that science fiction and fantasy really have nothing to do with each other, but science fiction and mystery have an enormous amount to do with each other. They both require the reader to act as a detective, picking up clues in the text, even just what the background of the world is and what the underlying rules of the world are. Ever since, going right back to the stories I was writing as a teenager, I have incorporated mystery elements in science fiction. It just seems to me such a natural pairing that I'm surprised that it's not more common. Obviously, Isaac Asimov did it and Larry Niven did it, and there are others, most recently Lynn S. Hightower is one I admire (who did Alien Blues and its sequels). It just seems to me that they go together really well.

Also, there's no better way to get at the core values of a society than through its system of jurisprudence. In Illegal Alien, when we talk about first contact with aliens, a real core way of getting down to what constitutes what we believe in is what we consider to be right and wrong as a matter of law. I did the flip side with Hominids. It would not have been as satisfying a book if Ponter had just shown up and we never really saw his culture. But I knew that two thirds of the book was going to be Ponter in our world, and one third was going to be anchored in his world. [I thought about] could I delineate his world effectively, economically, and the answer was, put somebody on trial there. As soon as you get into the system of jurisprudence, you get down to ethics and morals and justice and fairness, and alien conceptions of that, which can be very different.

The final reason, I think, is that as I grew up a Trekkie, so my mother grew up a Masonite—a Perry Mason fan. In the Sixties, you could get Perry Mason three times a day in Toronto, and I remember my mother being delighted when we started getting CKVR in Barrie as part of the basic cable package in Toronto, because they showed Perry Mason too. She would have Perry Mason on constantly, she knew every episode, just as I know every episode of classic Trek. There's just no way to avoid growing up without that having impinged on me.

You had mentioned wanting to be a scriptwriter, and at one point this year you were working on a media project. Are you allowed to talk about what you were working on, and what happened to it?

Sure. Out of the blue in January, I got a phone call from a fellow named Bob Wertheimer, one of the producers of Due South, saying he had a deal with Space: the Imagination Station to produce an hour-long Canadian science fiction/film noir/detective series called Charlie Jade that would be filmed in Cape Town, South Africa. There was South African money and British money and Canadian money invested in the series, the Canadian money being CHUM/City, Space's parent company. To my surprise and delight, my agent negotiated that I would be head writer and co-executive producer of the series. (It pays to have Stephen King's agent.) There were little delays. First we were going to go to South Africa in February, then March, and then boom! the world fell apart in April, when the British Parliament brought down a budget in which one of the tax rule changes was eliminating tax credits for foreign co-productions. So the British money for the series pulled out, and it looked like the series was dead. Bob Wertheimer and people from CHUM/City were scrambling since April to find new funding. They went to Europe and Los Angeles, and although there were many fruitful conversations, the money didn't actually materialize.

Then just last week, after numerous complaints from Canadians who were involved in Canadian-British co-productions, the Canadian government stepped in and said, "We will cover the shortfall for the money you would have gotten from Britain." That would have been the magic "go" for the series. But even when we had all three sources of funding, only 90% of the show's budget was accounted for. It was $1.4 million US an episode, so it was about $3 million shy of what we needed to go ahead. That's where we sit right now.

I did not write the pilot scripts; they were written by a fine Canadian writer named Stephen Zoller. Bob Wertheimer and his partner, Chris Roland, a South African, created the series. But I did write the series bible, which was a lot of fun to do. And I did map out the 22 episodes with Bob, and what the character arcs and series arc were going to be. If we can just get that 10%, Carolyn and I will indeed move to Cape Town for nine months minimum. If the show takes longer to produce, I suspect we'll be there for a year. If you'd asked me two weeks ago, I would have said it was dead. No one had officially pronounced the corpse to be defunct, but we had gone so long without being able to come up with the missing money. Now that we're back to being only 10% shy, to my astonishment, it looks like it might in fact happen.

Did you write any episode scripts for the Charlie Jade project?

My contract calls for me to write five of the first season. But we did not get to the stage where I had done that. They got me on board, and I worked on the series bible. We did map out 22 episodes; I certainly know which ones I want to keep for myself, and which ones will be farmed out to other people.

The series would be a really clever, subversive, social comment on our reliance on technology. The model we keep talking about amongst ourselves is Max Headroom. It's been 20 years since Max Headroom was on the air, but something that would have that level of social sting in it, as well as being good science fiction.

Have you done any screenwriting before this?

Yes. Nelvana hired me two years ago to create a computer-animated half-hour science fiction TV series, and to write the pilot script for that. I worked closely with Patrick Loubert, the president of Nelvana. It was called Exodus: Mars, and it was pretty darned cool. William Shatner had actually signed on to be executive producer of the series, and one of the great thrills of my life was that I got to spend two days of my life in L.A. with Bill Shatner, pitching the series to American broadcasters including WB Kids, Fox Kids and the Sci Fi Channel. Captain Kirk had always been my hero, and to meet the man in the flesh was an enormously fun experience. Sadly, despite all of our enthusiasm for it, they weren't able to find a buyer for it, and so that has been shelved. There certainly are far more experienced people working in that format in Canada. Though I like to think [that] if you want to buy a science fiction writer in Canada, format isn't the only thing you're looking for.

The South African project was as interesting because of the move to South Africa as it was because of any other aspect. Carolyn and I are lucky; Carolyn works with me, so we can travel, and we've been talking for a number of years of wanting to go live in New Zealand for six months or whatever, and this just sort of fell in our laps. Here's a chance where someone would actually pay all the costs of putting us in Cape Town for nine months or a year.

Orson Scott Card, in his book Characters and Viewpoint, refers to a "MICE quotient"...

Milieu, Ideas, Character, Event.

Yes. Where do you think your latest novel stands on these points?

I know Card's MICE quotient very well; I teach it when I teach science fiction writing. By Card's light, Hominids is a milieu story, because a milieu story begins when the stranger arrives in the strange milieu, and ends when the stranger either dies, or goes back home, or realizes he can't go back home. So The Planet of the Apes is a milieu story: George Taylor arrives at the beginning, and he realizes he can't go back home because he already is, at the end. The Wizard of Oz is a milieu story: Dorothy arrives and realizes that all she had to do was learn the lesson that there's no place like home, and then she could go home. And as The Planet of the Apes and Return to Oz eloquently proved, we don't need to know what happens after the end.

What makes Hominids a bit different is that the milieu that is the strange, bizarre, fantastic world is our world of 2002 in Ontario, Canada, but being seen through the eyes for whom it is an alien place. The second one is much more a character story, about Ponter and Mary and whether they can make a relationship work, and the final one is what Card would call an event story. The event is that the magnetic field is about to reverse, and dealing with the events leading up to that, and whether there's some way to forestall it, and what the consequences are going to be if it does happen.

I think every Rob Sawyer book is by definition an idea book. That's what I do. But I've given the other three of [Card's] four letters a book apiece in this trilogy.

You've spent a lot of time teaching writing at the University of Toronto, Ryerson University, and Humber College. What do you like about teaching?

Two things. One is that it always forces me to remember the basics. It's so easy for a writer—and you see this constantly—to get sloppy as the years go by. You can see this in the late work of Heinlein, the late work of Asimov, for instance. I'm nowhere near my "late work"; I'm in my middle work right now. But I find it very productive to actually explain to people who don't yet understand it the notion of point of view, the notion of a character arc, and so forth. The second thing is, I just find it an enormously pleasant process. I've never had a bad moment in the classroom. I suppose it runs in my genes; both my parents taught at the University of Toronto, and I really like working with people who are anxious to learn.

I do think I've got to cut back. In July, I did six days at Humber College and four at the University of Toronto; that's a third of the month gone teaching, and teaching does not pay as well as science fiction writing does. I would have made more spending 10 days working on a novel than I would have made spending 10 days in the classroom. So I've got to find an appropriate balance. But I do very much enjoy the teaching.

What's the most important thing that you try to get across in your sessions with people?

The most important thing is actually perseverance. I firmly believe that only 10% of writing science fiction professionally is talent, and 10% is luck: if you're in the right place and the right time, you wrote the right story on the right day, or was on the editor's desk on the right day. But 80% is perseverance. It is so easy to get discouraged early on by your first rejection, or by your first bad review, or by the first book that doesn't earn out its advance. The ones who survive are the ones who never give up, by definition.

Next to that, I think the thing that people have the most trouble with is this concept of point of view. It's just something that, once they get it, you can see the light go on of how to do point of view, particularly limited third person, which is what most fiction is written in these days. Their fiction takes a whole new step forward and gets a clarity and focus that it didn't have at the beginning. Because I teach short, concentrated courses—never more than a week—if you can accomplish them just getting point of view, that's wonderful. I think [that] of all the things they need to get, it is the trickiest one to really become second nature for a writer, but once it does, your writing becomes so much more powerful.

I want to go back to Hominids. I wonder if you can talk about the basis for the speculation of a technological civilization which arises without the benefit of agriculture or urban development.

The principal book that got me thinking about this is Neanderthals, Bandits & Farmers: How Neanderthals Really Began by Colin Tudge, part of a series called the Darwinism Today series by the London School of Economics. As he points out, what's really surprising is not that it took us so long to come up with agriculture, but that anybody stuck with it, because agriculture is extraordinarily hard work. It was also responsible for conceptually so many of the fundamentally evil things in our economics. Agriculture was the first human activity where the amount of effort you put into it is rewarded with the amount of crops you get out of it. If you work fourteen hours in the field, you'll produce twice as much as someone who works seven hours out in the field. Whereas for hunter-gatherers, it's not true. If you work seven hours you're doing fine; if you work fourteen hours you'll find you've eaten everything and killed it all. This book really was an eye-opener for me about the concept that agriculture had far more negatives associated with it than positives.

The second book that had a big impact that way, one of the greatest books that I've read in the past decade, is Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs, and Steel, where he talked about the fact that most of the diseases that affect human beings today come from the high population densities that go with agricultural communities, and from being transferred to humans from the animals that we have domesticated. It just seemed to me that what science fiction is all about is getting people to question assumptions that they normally leave unchallenged. One of the hugest assumptions you see over and over again is that it had to be this way in terms of agriculture and that food production of this type was the prerequisite for culture. Clearly it was not. There was lots of human culture prior to 10,500 years ago, when the oldest farms appeared. We had pretty nice jobs of painting caves and making statuary, and all sorts of interesting things, for 30,000 years prior to that. But we think today that the only way you can have a civilization is by clearing the land, destroying the environment there, setting down some permanent roots, and finding some way to get a huge labour pool who will work the land. It just appealed to me, as a science fiction writer, to explore a culture that directly challenged that received wisdom.

To have an advanced civilization you need ideas, and to have ideas you need a lot of people, some of whom do the thinking, and I thought that required more population.

You say that as a member of Mensa, whose membership is drawn from the top 2% of the population. The problem with the human race is that our average IQ is 100, by definition, and that for every guy who's got a 120 IQ, there's some guy wandering around with an 80 IQ, because it's a pretty straightforward bell curve in terms of IQ distribution. It does not seem to me that there was any reason that 100 (except that that's what we set to standardize the scale)—[that] that amount of intelligence was the amount that a life form need have. You wouldn't need 6 billion people to get 600 million people who had IQs of 110, or whatever the distribution is, if the average IQ was already 110.

Neanderthals had bigger brains than we have; they have brains that were between 10 and 20% larger than ours. Most paleoanthropologists like to explain that away for one reason or another. And I thought, "No, that's just our arrogance," that they couldn't possibly have been brighter than us. Maybe they were brighter than us. If you had a population of people—because even the brightest human being who's ever lived has got an IQ not much more than double the average IQ, right?—where the average person was at what we would have considered to be 110 or 120, and in the next standard deviation over were people that were 130 to 140 IQs, I think you could have had an awful lot of technological progress without needing that big population. We need 1 billion people in the Western world, in Western Europe and North America, to give us 100,000 really bright people who are responsible for all the innovations. You could do it with one-tenth the people if you had ten times as many who were bright.

The other part of it is that a hunting-gathering society, by its nature, enforces leisure time on its population. Hunter-gatherers who work with the ardour and fervour that farmers work find that very rapidly, they've eaten everything. They've taken all the food, killed all the animals, and they die, so it's self-correcting very quickly. The hunter-gatherer who realizes that "If I only hunt for three hours today, then I'll be able to hunt for three hours tomorrow, and I'll have fresh food tomorrow" is much more likely to survive than the hunter-gatherer who says, "Well, I'm awake for 16 hours and I'll work 16 hours today." So hunting-gathering societies, right back to the dawn of time, have had a lot of leisure time. Whereas agricultural societies, until they developed a leisure class, the class that owns the land but they don't work it, did not have a lot of leisure time. So I don't think it's true that you have to have a big population or agriculture, all you need is a brighter population, and people who use their leisure time to actually do something bright with their time.

This becomes very explicit in the second book. I talk about the IQs of my Neanderthals, and it's somewhat humbling for us Homo sapiens to recognize that on average they are in fact brighter. The single, significant trait that brightness gives them, or that I use for them, is that, well, there's absolutely no doubt that the more intelligent you are, the more likely you have done retirement planning. There's a direct correlation between intelligence and being able to think in time frames that are longer than, say, 30 days. My Neanderthals, being on average a brighter group, have done a better job of thinking about long-term consequences than we ever did. We've never really thought about what it would mean if we keep dumping our bodily wastes into the local lake, until "suddenly" the lake is poisoned, and then we say, "Well, gee, how come we didn't see that coming?" And we have done iterations on that theme a billion times in human history. Never once has the general population said, "Well, wait a minute; shouldn't we be thinking about the things that leave long-term effects with us?" So the single greatest thing that my Neanderthals have is some foresight, some ability to see what consequences are going to be five or even just ten years down the road. If we had been thinking ten years down the road about any number of things, we would not have been in the environmental mess we're in today.

[At this point, I wish to reassure readers that Mensa gatherings do not tend to devolve into discussions of retirement planning. The only real differences between Mensans and the attendees of a typical SF convention is that Mensans are perhaps a couple of years older and tend to have a broader range of literary interests. It is purely a coincidence that my mother was a professor of environmental studies who worked on projects to improve the energy efficiency of low-income homes and gave tours of Love Canal to her students as an object lesson of what not to do—AvT.]

You cover a lot of ground in your stories. Is there a theme or a moral that links your different works?

Yes. I think the theme is that the scientific worldview, which says that you have to be able to replicate results, and if you can't, as appealing as the results might be, you have to throw them out and discard them, and go onto some other possible explanation, is the only worldview that makes sense and that can be applied to questions that are normally considered metaphysical. So "What is the meaning of life?", "Does God exist?", "Is there life after death?", "Is abortion right or wrong?", any of these ethical questions, I do think, are subject to scientific inquiry. And I guess if I have a message or a moral, it is that science isn't separate from ethics; science is the ideal tool for the explanation of ethics.

So if I didn't see your name on something, how would I know you had written it? What makes something a Rob Sawyer story?

Two things. First, I always try to combine the intimately human with the grandly cosmic. So there's always a very human tale about a family or a person in crisis, with something earthshatteringly large in the background, like in Flashforward the flashforward event, or the discovery of a parallel world in Hominids. Secondarily, it is that there will be an underlying philosophical issue being explored. In Flashforward it was whether or not we have free will, and in Calculating God it was whether or not God exists, and in Hominids it was whether or not things had to turn out this way, whether we were inevitably going to become a planet full of mutually warring factions who, as a by-product, destroyed the environment that had given rise to them.

[Postscript: At the Torcon 3 World Science Fiction Convention in 2003, Rob won a Hugo Award for Hominids—Ed.]

Also on this site: "The Speculative Torontos of Robert Charles Wilson and Robert J. Sawyer."

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