Here’s an interview I did with Rob Sawyer, award-winning sci-fi writer and author of Calculating God, a novel that addresses the intelligent design controversy, which I review here. The interview was for the Fall 1998 number of the sadly defunct Mystery Review , whose editor Barbara Davey was forced to cease publication in 2003 when she learned she had terminal cancer. (Requiescat in pacem aeternam.)
Science Fiction Star Experiments with Mystery/Sci Fi Blend – And It Works
by Denyse O’Leary
Although he is Canada’s best known science fiction writer and the recipient of nineteen awards, including the Nebula for Terminal Experiment (HarperCollins), the Canadian Aurora Award for Starplex (Ace Books) and the Japanese Seiun Award for End of an Era (Hayakawa), Rob Sawyer is not one to just let the space turf grow under his feet.
Recent books such as Terminal Experiment, Frameshift (Tor Books), and Illegal Alien (Ace) intentionally incorporate the mystery novel into the sci fi genre. So far, the fans love it. But for Sawyer it’s a matter not only of personal interest but also of survival in an increasingly demanding publishing world.
Sawyer, who has been able to write full time for about eight years, has thought a lot about science fiction novels and about mystery novels and the curious similarities between the two.
“I find the genres incredibly intertwined both in publishing history and in many of the creative challenges they face,” he acknowledges. “In mystery, very often, the main character is a detective. In science fiction, for a great part of its history, the main characters were always scientists. I still have a tendency to write about scientists. But many of my colleagues beat the bushes to find characters they can write about who aren’t traditional scientists, just as mystery writers beat the bushes, asking “‘Who can I write about, who can I thrust into a crime, that wouldn’t naturally be there?’”
When Sawyer does beat the bushes for characters, he’s pretty thorough. Some of his murderous characters are: an overzealous computer with a talent for lying (Golden Fleece); an electronic entity seeking vengeance through the Internet (); an alien from Alpha Centauri who thinks there is no free will (Illegal Alien ); and far more poignantly, a war crimes suspect pursued by a man dying of Huntington’s chorea (Frameshift ).
One difference between science fiction-based mystery and conventional mystery is obvious from the above list. Only a science fiction writer could introduce any of the first three as possible suspects in a mystery.
How and why science fiction has changed over the years
Another critical difference between the two genre traditions, Sawyer believes, is that mystery fiction has had a close relationship with “serious” literature for a much longer period. “Science fiction, even more than mystery fiction, came out of a pulp magazine tradition,” he notes. “Mystery always had some really great writers. But science fiction through the Thirties, Forties, and Fifties didn’t have any really great English writer.”
In fact, he believes that by the Sixties, the science fiction genre was really faltering. TV and movies had co-opted “outer space” with riveting special effects. How could tales of wonder in mere prose compete with Space Odyssey 2001? And prose science fiction hadn’t yet found something it could do better than celluloid.
But “in the late Sixties in Britain they started to redefine science fiction,” he says, ” The phrase they adopted was ‘the exploration of inner space,’ of human psychology.”
At last, prose science fiction had found something it could do better than movies. Because, as Sawyer explains, “For us it wasn’t just exploring characterization. A good mystery obviously explores characterization. But we could explore characters in situations that had never existed before, that no human being had ever experienced, and have it ring as true. I never knew a man who lived for ten million years, as in one of my books, StarPlex. The inner life of the characters became the real challenge for science fiction writers in the last couple of decades.”
“In one way, it’s great that science fiction started to do that. In another it’s a damning indictment of the genre that it wasn’t until the late Sixties that we should actually be talking about characters,” he adds.
“In science fiction, I’m actually of the right age,” he muses. “I was born in 1960 the first generation that got interested in science fiction through television, as opposed to reading. I discovered it through the original Star Trek and TV series like Lost in Space that were on in the 1960s. In 1968, when I was eight years old, my father took me to see the movie 2001.”
Did he understand the movie?
“It’s incomprehensible to an adult; imagine how incomprehensible it was to an eight-year-old! I found it absolutely fascinating. It was TV – and that movie – that got me interested. My father was a professor at the University of Toronto. He realized that (science fiction) was a way to get his son reading.”
But after graduating from radio and television arts at Ryerson Polytechnic in Toronto in 1982, Sawyer had learned something else: Despite his love of TV and movies, he did not want to write for them. “I am not by nature a collaborative writer,” he explains. “In a novel, you labor over every word. You’re lucky if a screenplay bears some resemblance to what you wrote, yet it may still have your name on it. I found this a source of infinite frustration. Writing books, although it is a less lucrative and less secure profession, was going to be much more emotionally and creatively satisfying for me.”
Career planning: How Sawyer became a sci fi writer
Interviewed early in 1998 in his comfortable condo in Thornhill, full of books and science fiction memorabilia, Sawyer, verging on forty, seems the very picture of genre novel success. His wife, Carolyn Clink, was able to quit her job at a printing company to work as his full time executive assistant a refreshing alternative to the too-common role of the hapless “writer’s spouse” who works to support the other spouse’s writing habit.
But it soon becomes clear during the discussion that Sawyer planned his career as a writer very carefully, which is perhaps fitting for the son of a professor of economics. He knew early on that the odds are against any writer making money, unless the writer is both very good and has an excellent business sense. Sawyer majors in both. His success was no doubt a pleasurable surprise, but it was not by any means a mere chance.
He did some documentary work for the CBC after graduation but then moved into corporate and business journalism during the Eighties. “That was beautiful because I didn’t care at all,” he recalls, “I was doing all of this with a definite goal in mind. The goal was to save a lot of money. I was saving enough. Even before my first novel had sold I had essentially quit writing non-fiction and was writing fiction full time.”
Bankrolling money for a fiction career turned out to be a critical decision, because the young Sawyer soon discovered a sad fact of the writing life: Non-fiction writers seldom write much fiction. “I kept thinking I would.,” he remembers, “But you’re at your clients’ disposal day or night. During the six years I did this, I maybe sold one 1500 word short story a year. I was not finding the time.”
Today’s book market: Go big or go home
Sawyer had both a practical and an aesthetic reason for blending the science fiction and mystery genres in his work. First the practical: The decline of small press runs and small book shops in publishing has endangered writers who appeal only to one genre. Sawyer sees his crossover into mystery as a key to appealing to a large enough selection of readers to stay near the top of the list.
“One thing I stopped doing is setting books in outer space,” he admits, “Only a hard core science fiction fan will read a book set on a starship. I saw the writing on the wall that the mid-list – which was where I was when I was writing books like Golden Fleece - was drying up. You either give up or broaden your audience appeal.”
But Sawyer, whose favorite contemporary author is Eric Wright (he is also a big fan of Robert P. Parker and of Sherlock Holmes), also found an innate sympathy between the two genres. “The classic novel of detection is based on the premise that there is some mystery to be solved through the gathering of clues and the interpretation of facts. In fact, the traditional mystery novel is an intellectual exercise, a work that prizes the rational process. Science fiction is very similar. You very often are dealing with a mystery.”
“The second thing they have in common is a great deal of ‘talkiness,’” he adds. “You read Peter Robinson’s Inspector Banks, and you’re fascinated by the way Banks will question somebody and how he will cogitate on what he has learned until he puzzles it all out. I think that the science fiction reader and the mystery reader both understand fundamentally that ‘talking heads’ should not be a pejorative statement. Two people talking about things that have great consequences are interesting!”
“There has never been a more interesting time to be alive,” he insists. “We are faced with issues that Plato and Aristotle couldn’t even conceive of. We’re in an era of ethics and the issues are not clear cut. At the end of the book, you’re still left pondering.”
Truth, fiction, and consequences
Many of Sawyer’s novels deal with science and ethics issues that have great consequences. For example, in Frameshift , a Neanderthal girl is recreated by cloning her from DNA. In the wake of the success of recent mouse cloning experiments, would it be possible today, one wonders? Or what about recreating a tyrannosaur, as in Jurassic Park?
“Can we bring back the passenger pigeon? I think they could do it today,”Sawyer believes. “I also think it’s going to be very easy to recreate things that have been extinct for a few hundred thousand years. We will certainly be able to bring back early forms of humanity. But is it ethical to do so? If you brought back homo erectus, he would be considered, by all the standards of our day, severely mentally retarded. But DNA is very fragile and the chances of pulling off the Jurassic Park scenario are almost nil simply because there probably is no intact tyrannosaur DNA. It’s like asking a thousand years from now if somebody still has a copy of the first issue of the Toronto Sun.”
Right now Sawyer is working on a book called Mosaic [Flashforward ], in which, due to a bungled physics experiment, the consciousness of everybody on earth jumps ahead twenty-one years for three minutes. He explains, “The mystery plot is this: One of the main characters sees nothing. If you see nothing, you’ll be dead. He becomes obsessed can he prevent it somehow? He’s trying to track down people who got a glimpse of who might have killed him.”
Celluloid and novels: Dumberer and still dumberer?
Will any of Sawyer’s books become films any time soon?
Sawyer is ambivalent about the possibility. “The sad truth is that if you look at all the great mystery and science fiction writers of the twentieth century, there’s been no Eric Wright movie, no Peter Robinson movie. What movie there was of Sarah Peretsky’s V.I.Warshawsky stunk. In science fiction, the worst film of last year, The Postman, was an adaptation of a fifteen-year-old novel by one of the finest science fiction writers. It was ruined in the translation to movies. Hardly any writers get a movie made of their work and when that movie is made it is almost always a disappointment to the author and to the fans. The only reason I would want to have a movie made of my work is that I would make hundreds of thousands of dollars. But I prefer writing novels.”
“And,” he adds, “I rankle a little at the idea that a novel is a stepping stone to a movie. A novel is a complete work of art. No more is my novel somehow unfulfilled because it hasn’t been committed to celluloid than Michelangelo’s David is unfulfilled because Mattel hasn’t made an action figure of it.”
Denyse O’Leary (firstname.lastname@example.org )is a freelance writer based in Toronto.
Toronto-based Canadian journalist Denyse O’Leary (www.designorchance.com) is the author of the multiple award-winning By Design or by Chance? (Augsburg Fortress 2004), an overview of the intelligent design controversy. She was named CBA Canada’s Recommended Author of the Year in 2005 and is co-author, with Montreal neuroscientist Mario Beauregard, of the forthcoming The Spiritual Brain: A neuroscientist’s case for the existence of the soul (Harper 2007).