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Robert J. Sawyer Interview

Conducted at Eeriecon III
in Niagara Falls, NY
Saturday, April 21, 2001

Full text version
with minor editing for fluidity.

AZJ: I'm going to ask you some questions, first of all about writing, and then move into some more philosophical things about some of your work. So let's begin.

In books on writing, the good ones, the ones that are outlines rather than"here's how I write, so here's how you should write," there tend to be three general guidelines. Read, write and submit. Those are kind of the key foundation. Do you have any other advice to someone who wants to get started writing?

RJS: Yes. It's more of a refinement of that advice. Because one of the big problems with people who want to write science fiction is that often all they want to read is science fiction, and I find that the best way to learn how to write is to read great literature; not to just read science fiction. I wish that I'd spent many more parts of my teenage life reading classics instead of reading Larry Niven. Niven is fine, but a book like To Kill a Mockingbird is worth twenty Ringworlds in terms of learning how to write. And, so make sure that, even if you want to write in a narrow area, you read more generally. That's one.

Two, my second piece of advice is: When someone asks me where I get my ideas, the first question I ask them is "When was the last time that you read a work of non-fiction?" There are all sorts of people who want to be writers who never open up a non-fiction book or read a current events magazine or anything. All of my ideas come from the non-fiction that I read. I think, "I can see how to dramatize that. I can see how to make a story out of that."

So that's what I have to recommend. Read widely, not just science fiction, and read voraciously all sorts of fields of non-fiction.

The second part, that you have to write, I think is absolutely true, and it can't be lost in the shuffle if you want to be a writer. There are so many people who want to write, but never get around to the writing.

AZJ: Yeah, I was in that stage for about 8 years.

RJS: It's easy to lose 8 years, or even a few decades, putting it off. I'll write; all I need is the spare time. I'll write when the kids are out of college. I'll write when I retire. Well, no matter what your life is, what stage you're at in your life, you're going to be busy. You have to make it a priority. You have to find time in your schedule.

AZJ: So we've covered reading and writing. Anything on submitting?

RJS: Yes. Absolutely. Submit, submit, submit. The first story that I submitted, I was 17 years old, and it didn't sell, naturally. It's like being a guy who has to ask a girl out on a date. It's the hardest thing in the world to do. Because you might get turned down, right, and your whole mental image of yourself, your psyche, is on the line there. What, you, are you kidding? It's what an editor can say; it's what a girl can say, too. And you have to get over that. You have to submit as many times as you can, because you learn to take rejection. Edo Van Belkom, who's here at Eeriecon, gives a panel from time to time called "Thriving on Rejection," where he reads from the something like 400 rejection slips that he has in his files. The amusing ones, the encouraging ones, whatever. Now, he's sold almost two hundred stories. You know, his ratio is very good. But you have to get over that. What I find that I do sometimes when I teach creative writing is that I'll get people in their thirties, their forties, even their fifties who have wanted to be a writer, or have even been writing, for decades, but have never sent something out. The reason they don't send it out is fear. Not fear that they'll be rejected, per se, because they don't have to tell anyone that, but fear that they're going to learn that they aren't really any good. It's so easy...

Everyone else you have dealings with in your life has a vested interest in making you happy. Your parents, your teachers. They all want to say, "Hey, way to go. Nice job." They want to make you feel good. Because they have to live with you. The editor doesn't have to live with you. And people have to put the story out in front of someone who doesn't have any vested interest. Even I, when I teach creative writing, have a vested interest in you being happy as a student, because at the end of class you get a form to fill out that says "How was Mr. Sawyer as an instructor?" And if I say your story sucks, you're going to say I suck as a teacher. Even I, even the creative writing teacher, has a vested interest in not telling you the absolute truth.

But the editor has no such vested interest. The editor knows well that most people who submit to magazines don't buy them, don't subscribe to them, and never will. So he doesn't care. He tells you the truth. People avoid hearing the truth about their writing. I started hearing it when I was 17. I began growing as a writer the first time my work was rejected. And to avoid that part of the process is to avoid the growth that's needed to become a talented writer.

AZJ: Now, you started out in short fiction, but you've said you weren't really good at it...

RJS: I was selling short stories in the eighties that were 800 words long, 250 words long. 1,500 words was a magnum opus for me. I was selling at these lengths, but with very slight stories, with, if any characterization at all, the most fleeting suggestion of it. Plots were incredibly simple. One, two, three events. They were micro-fiction. And although I was good as a prose stylist, sentence by sentence, I wasn't learning any of the skills of characterization and counterbalancing theme and plot that are so much at the heart of good fiction. So, yeah, I couldn't do those. If I could have written a 5,000 word story, I would have. I just didn't know how to do it. It was only after I started writing and selling sixty and eighty thousand word stories, i.e. novels, that I saw "That's how you do it," and I was able to go back and write short stories.

AZJ: You're a full time science fiction writer? No side jobs?

RJS: No side jobs.

AZJ: Well, you teach?

RJS: Well, okay. I teach seven days a year at the Banff Center for the Arts. I get a thousand bucks Canadian for that. I teach twelve days a year at the University of Toronto and they pay me, I think, $1200 Canadian for that. So, in combination, I make less than one percent of my income teaching. I enjoy it a great deal. And the Banff Center for the Arts is in the Rocky Mountains, one of the most beautiful places on the Earth, a ski resort. I'd go there for free. They wouldn't have to pay me anything. So, no... I make a hundred percent of my living writing. Absolutely.

AZJ: So, here's my question: How long did it take for you to reach that position? From the timeframe of when you first decided "I want to be a writer" to the time you could do that? From the time of your first sale? How many books did you have to have?

RJS: I've actually been a full time, self-employed writer for 18 years now, since 1983. I started when I was 23 years old. Since leaving Ryerson, where I was at university, I haven't had a job except being a writer. But in the 80's, almost everything that I wrote was non-fiction. And it took me about two years to make a decent living writing non-fiction. But I was doing press releases, and corporate newsletters, and speeches, and product description brochures, and all sorts of magazine and newspaper articles. All of which paid quite well. The difference between fiction and non-fiction is that non-fiction tends to pay about 10 times as much as fiction and it's 10 times easier to write than fiction, too. Which means that it's a hundred times more lucrative than fiction. That's the actual truth of writing an article versus a short story. It's 100 times more cost-effective to be writing that article if you're being paid a dollar a word for the article versus 10 cents a word for the story.

AZJ: Is that the rate [for an article]?

RJS: Oh, absolutely. You know, the article you can do in an afternoon, and the story you labor on for a week.

What is significant, I think, for your audience, is when I became a science fiction writer full time. And actually, in 1988, I'd been writing for 5 years and dilligently saving for 5 years, because I knew that I had to clear my schedule to write fiction. I had to have some money. My wife was still in school when I started being a freelance writer. We had to have some income. I'd saved, in 5 years, I managed to save $100,000 Canadian which is a lot of money, but it's not that much in American. It's like $65,000 US. But it's decent enough amount of money to have in the bank. And I said to my wife in 1988, when I was twenty-eight and the future was looming ... my thirtieth birthday... that I intended to be a novelist. I didn't intend to be a press release writer. And we were living fairly modestly in our twenties, so if I didn't make any money in three years, we wouldn't be out on the street. We'd be able to pay our rent, we'd be able to feed ourselves, and all of that. And I took the first year of 1988 and wrote my first novel, and it didn't sell. At least at that time.

AZJ: Golden Fleece?

RJS: No, it was The End of an Era. That was my actual first novel. In 1989, I wrote my second novel, which was Golden Fleece. Golden Fleece sold very quickly, but for a whopping -- this is US dollars -- $3,500. A year's work, and I'd made $3,500. Now if I wasn't making $3,500 a month when I was writing non-fiction it was a lousy month. But that was a year's work, writing this novel. And that's what I got paid for it. Not very much at all, but I loved it. I loved what I'd done. I enjoyed the year. I enjoyed writing the book. And I knew I couldn't turn back.

I guess it was about... the turning point for me was when I won the Nebula. In 1995, The Terminal Experiment came out. In 1996, it won the Nebula. A month after winning the Nebula, just one month, there was $30,000 worth of foreign rights sales to the book that won the Nebula. Japan is paying $15,000 for the book. And places like Germany that usually only pay a couple of thousand dollars are paying $8,000. But it's adding up. And suddenly I was making a lot of money from that one book, The Terminal Experiment. So there's no doubt about it. The reason I make a good living as a writer now is that one award that I won.

In terms of making a really comfortable, upper-middle-class six-figure income, it's been four years now that I've been doing that as a fiction writer. And four years ago, actually, my wife quit her job in the printing industry and just came to work for me full time as my salaried assistant. She does accounting, research, publicity, my travel schedules, all that sort of thing... which lets me not worry about all of that and do more writing. So yeah, I'm the sole income earner, and I'm very lucky that I make a really decent amount of money doing this.

AZJ: Okay, so that leads me into another question which is, of course, the important question. I have here a hardcover copy of Calculating God. $34.95 Canadian.

RJS: An outrage!

AZJ: (A look of confusion.)

RJS: No, it's worth every penny.

AZJ: (Lightbulb going off above his head as he gets the joke.) So, the question is, how much of that do you get?

RJS: Ten percent. This is how it works. On a hardcover, for the first five thousand copies, the author gets 10 percent of the cover price. For the next five thousand, you get 12.5 percent, because they've already made up the cost. And for anything over ten thousand copies you get 15 percent. We sold well over ten thousand copies of Calculating God, so on the later copies I was getting 15 percent, but only 10 percent on the earlier copies.

So in US that's like $2.40 per copy in the hardcover. But the real money is made in the paperback. Paperback you only get 8 percent of the cover price. The paperback copy of Calculating God is going to be $7 US. So I get $0.56 on each paperback. But they'll sell many tens of thousands of the paperback, and those tens of cents add up.

But no writer that I know of makes a decent living writing science fiction just for the North American market. Half of my income is from foreign language editions of my books. I do nicely in the US and Canada, but I'm also big in Japan, Poland, Germany, France, Russia, Spain, Bulgaria, Italy, and some other countries. None of them, individually, pays as well for the book, in terms of the advance, as the American publisher does, but in aggregate, you add up the countries, it comes out to at least as much as you get for the North American sales. And the biggest reason a writer needs an agent isn't for domestic sales, it's for those foreign sales that really add gravy to it.

AZJ: Now, obviously, you're a fan of Star Trek. (I motion toward a Star Trek 3-dimensional chess game that he purchased in the dealer's room earlier.)

RJS: I am! Classic Star Trek.

AZJ: You can tell that from reading your books, because there are frequent references. Some subtle, some not so subtle. Are you also a fan of Star Wars?

RJS: No. Not really

AZJ: Have you ever considered writing Star Trek... either episodes or novels?

RJS: Oh, I'd love to write an episode. The very first novel I tried to write, in 1984, was a Star Trek novel. I wrote 20,000 words of it. Back then the Star Trek novels were running about 60,000 words. So I wrote a third and an outline and sent it in Pocket. At the time, David Stern was the editor of the Star Trek books. And he said "Great, finish it!" And I said, "Not without a contract." Because where else was I going to sell this? So he said, "Okay, we'll send it through the approval process, which we don't usually do until the end, but I really like this." So we sent it off to the Paramount approval people, and they rejected the book. This was in the era that there was only Star Trek and Star Trek 2: The Wrath of Khan. There hadn't yet been a Star Trek 5. I had a novel where Kirk met a being claiming to be God. And it was much more sophisticated than Star Trek 5. A lot of the things that ended up in Calculating God started in that Star Trek novel. And they said, "No, no religion in Star Trek." And I could name a dozen episodes that had religious themes in the original series. But no, not in the franchise books. So I've never gone back to it, though I've been making notes periodically. I've got an interesting idea for a Star Trek novel I might write someday.

The only reason that I think a writer should do franchised fiction is if it's a labor of love. If you really love Star Trek, then write a Star Trek novel. But if you're doing it for money, it will show in the work, you'll be labelled a hack, and in fact you'll be a hack. There are people who turn out Buffy novels, they turn out Hulk novels, they turn X-Men novels... Whatever it is, they'll break for a buck. Writing done quick and cheap, that's their moto. That's not art and I don't want anything to do with that. I think it's bad for a writer's career.

AZJ: Now, you said that you wrote that in 1984. That was before you were writing science fiction, wasn't it? I was under the impression you couldn't really get into those markets starting out.

RJS: Yeah, I was surprised too. But I knew my Star Trek absolutely cold. I was the first person to bring Sarek, Spock's father, back. It was a hard one to break into cold, but they liked my idea. Now you can't at all, but back then they'd at least look at submissions from unknown writers.

AZJ: Any interest, on your side or someone else approaching you, on having any of your books turned into movies?

RJS: Yeah. Illegal Alien is under option now for the third year to David Coonsworth (?) who was the executive producer on Arnold Schwartzenegger's The Sixth Day. Arnold's most recent film. But what's important is that he's a real player in Hollywood, with the connections and so forth to actually have the film made. His partner in this is a screenwriter named Michael Linnek (?) who's done about 8 drafts of the Illegal Alien screenplay and, I think, has really gotten it finally. So they've got a good screenplay, they've got a real credible producer associated with it, and they've paid me a lot of money over the last three years to hold on to the rights on this.

AZJ: Do you have any say in that process? Or they bought the rights and that's it?

RJS: They can make anything they want out of it.

AZJ: Because I know that Orson Scott Card has written a screenplay for an Ender's Game movie, but hasn't sold the rights yet because he wants to be sure that he'll sell it to someone who'll do it the way he wants it done.

RJS: Orson Scott Card is a multi-millionair and can afford to do that, and I'm not. I'm a multi-thousandair. My integrity is in my books. And always and forever, no matter how many movie versions or spin-offs of Illegal Alien are ever made, Illegal Alien in its purest form is the novel by Robert J. Sawyer. But if somebody is going to offer me enough money to look after my retirement to make a movie out of one of my books, I'm not going to say, "Well, wait a minute, I don't want you to change my main character from this to that." I'm going to say, "Make sure you spell my name right on the check."

AZJ: And on the credit.

RJS: And on credit, yes. And, in addition, Golden Fleece has been under option. The Terminal Experiment has been under option. We've been approached about Calculating God. At the moment the only one that looks like it might really happen is Illegal Alien... To round out that question.

AZJ: Your next project is a trilogy... so want to say something about it?

RJS: Sure. The trilogy I'm doing for Tor, my publisher in New York, the trilogy title is Neanderthal Parallax. There are three books, each with a title from one of Hamlet's soliloqueys -- Infinite Faculties, Noble Reason, and Quintessence of Dust. It's about a parallel Earth. 40,000 years ago, there was a split in the timeline, and in one of those timelines Cro-Magnons continued to evolve and became us -- our world. In the other world, it was the Neanderthals who went through that process and Cro-Magnons died out. So in present day, in the dawn of the 21st century, the two versions of Earth come back into contact -- a gateway opens up between them -- and the two versions of humanity, who each in their own past exterminated the other version, have to work together to save Earth from an external threat that will put both versions of reality in jeopardy. So it's a look at different ways of being human, and different ways that this planet could have been managed over the last 40,000 years.

AZJ: So what's it like... You've written one trilogy before, but it wasn't intended as a trilogy.

RJS: Yeah, it was not conceived of as a trilogy. In fact when I turned in Far-Seer, the first book in the series, to my agent at the time, Richard Curtis, in my last chapter I killed the main character. I thought it was very poignant. And Richard called me on a Sunday morning, having just read it in bed. "Rob, I love it. It's fabulous! But you killed the main character at the end." I said, "Yeah, isn't that great?" "No, if you leave it open-ended maybe we can make this a series." So I re-wrote the ending, and the main character was horribly wounded, but survived at the end.

AZJ: Not nearly as poignant.

RJS: No, not nearly as poignant! And I wrote two more books, because my publisher wanted two more books. And the one thing that I hate is somebody telling me what I have to write. The only other thing I hate is someone telling me what to read -- "Oh, you must read this right now!" No, I'll read it when I feel like it. If I want to write it, I'll write it. So it was purgatory for me. In 1991, when I wrote Far-Seer, I loved it. I enjoyed writing the book immensely. 1992, when I wrote Fossil Hunter, it was like, "Oh, god, I'm back with the same characters. It's horrible." In 1993, when I wrote Foreigner, it was like pulling teeth to do that book. It was just horrid, even though, in many ways, I think it was the most sophisticated book I've ever written.

This time out, I've planned the big canvas in advance. In fact, I just finished the first volume in the trilogy, Infinite Faculties, and I've just scratched the surface of the story I've got to tell. My publisher hasn't heard this from me yet, but I'm thinking there may be 5 or 6 books about this Neanderthal world, not 3. Assuming the first one does well, which we're all hoping that it will.

AZJ: Which one's your favorite book.

RJS: Factoring Humanity.

AZJ: That's a really good one.

RJS: Thank you. The reason is that each novel I write a combination of two things -- the deeply personal and the grandly cosmic. And some of those work really well. The Terminal Experiment has got that, certainly. But I think the best mixture of the intimately human and grandly cosmic was in Factoring Humanity. And also, the other thing for the writer, which has nothing to do with the merits of the book, is how was your life when you were writing that book? Were you happy, sad, sick, healthy? Was your family healthy? Your friends? That book I wrote at a really good time in my life.

AZJ: Well, that was right after the Nebula.

RJS: Yes, that was the first one I wrote after the Nebula. I'd already finished Frameshift. I was on top of my game. I'd just won the top award in the field and I'm writing a book that I'm really pumped about. So that's the one I enjoyed writing the most. The one I enjoyed the most, if I were ever to go back and read one of mine, which I never have, is The End of an Era.

AZJ: Never read that one.

RJS: It'll be re-issued this fall. It came and went very quickly. My friend, Edo van Belkom, said it had a "cup of coffee" on the bookshelves, meaning it was there for fifteen minutes. I think it's a fine book and Tor, my current publisher, agrees and is doing a new edition out in September.

AZJ: Great. Now, you write hard science fiction. That's how you'd classify yourself. But you read horror and fantasy?

RJS: Yeah, I'm up for the Bram Stoker Award from the Horror Writers Association for best short fiction. For a short story called "Fallen Angel." So I also write horror.

AZJ: I was going to ask if you wrote fantasy and horror.

RJS: Only at short lengths. The career of the novelist is really a tenuous career. You have to pick something that you'll be happy doing for decades. I write hard SF. Readers know that if they read a Robert Sawyer book it's going to be hard SF, with certain other hallmarks that come with a Robert Sawyer book, and I have to not deviate from that too much, because the reader who wants that "brand name" product, they don't want to open up a Pepsi and have it taste like chocolate milk. Because as much as they like chocolate milk, they want it to taste like a cola, because that's what they intended to buy. I have to give them that. If they open up a Rob Sawyer, it has to be what they expect a Rob Sawyer to be. So in my novels I have a very narrow range. For the last five or six novels, and certainly for the next several novels, everything that I've been doing is present day or near future, on Earth, and very often with a first contact situation. Starplex is the one aberration. But it's doing very well, so why would I complain?

The short fiction is scattered hither and yon, in all kinds of anthologies. So no one has a chance to see them all and get a pattern out of it. If I feel like writing a horror story I write a horror story. If I want to write a fantasy story, I wrote one. I've done all these things, but I'd only ever do that at the short length.

AZJ: Are you ever going to collect those short stories?

RJS: Yes, it's happening this fall. In a book from a Canadian literary publisher called Quarry Press. The collection is 22 short stories. The title of the collection is Iterations and Other Stories. Short story collections sell about one-tenth of what a novel sells. People these days... short stories aren't the preferred reading form. So the only people who buy my collection are doing it because they're Rob Sawyer completists. They loved his novels and they want his short story collection. That's fine. But they're going to see different things in the stories, a wider range of Rob Sawyer. And I think that's fine, because they know the next novel they buy will be in the vein of the books they're used to seeing.

AZJ: Would you ever be interested in writing fantasy or horror novels? I know there are some authors who can jump between science fiction and fantasy -- Orson Scott Card and Anne McCaffrey spring to mind.

RJS: You mention two of the biggest names in the industry. I'm lucky enough to know them both and to consider them friends. They're great people. They have two things I don't have. First, lots of money. And second, they've very prolific. I do one book a year. Now, Scott's slowed down a bit now, but Anne and Scott can do two books a year. He can do an Alvin Maker book and then an Ender book, Scott can, without anybody being thrown. And Anne, though she can do science fiction and fantasy, there are those who would say that her science fiction has an awfully fantastic feel to it. That Pern really reads like fantasy, even though it's science fiction. So that she isn't actually doing as wide a range of material as Orson Scott Card is doing. And Card is a category unto himself. He's so big, so talented, so rich, that he can write anything he wants. Outside of science fiction, Stephen King is the same. He doesn't have to write a horror novel for it to sell. John Grisham has to write a courtroom novel, or nobody will buy it.

AZJ: Okay, I'm transitioning toward the philosophical questions. Now you write science fiction and you've been a fan for years. Your first convention was when you were 13. But your degree was in Broadcasting?

RJS: Radio and Television Arts was the actual Bachelors degree name to that.

AZJ: But at 17 you wanted to be a science fiction writer.

RJS: Yes, but I didn't think that it was a practical career goal. I'd read interviews with all kinds of science fiction authors over the years. Fascinating to read the stories of these authors who were my idols and how many of them had trouble making a living. I was a practical man. My father and mother both taught economics, so I understood the realities of making a living. And I didn't think that a career in the arts made any kind of financial sense. So if I'm going to pursue the arts, then I should pursue big bucks arts. Script writing is very lucrative. And screenwriting is more lucrative for writers than writing novels is. So I learned to write scripts and what I learned was that I could write scripts, but the nature of scripwriting is very collaborative. You end up having to work often with another writer, the producer, the director, the star... all want to have input into what you're doing. I don't want anybody monkeying with my words. I realized I wanted to make a smaller amount of money working on novels and being proud of the finished product than getting a larger amount of money for writing scripts, but going, "Well, it's kind of what I had in mind." I'm much happier writing novels, but I'm extraordinarily lucky that by my fifth novel, The Terminal Experiment, I was starting to make really decent money off my writing. Lots of authors who are every bit as talented as me, or more talented as me, never have it so lucky. Many authors spend their entire career being really, really admired, but never making much money for their writing, because their books appeal to a rarefied taste, not to the masses.

AZJ: So you have an interest in the science, even though you didn't take science in college.

RJS: Well, I took psychology, if you count that as a science. But you never know.

I was going to be a paleontologist, actually. I wanted to be a vertebrate paleontologist. I really wanted to study dinosaurs. What happened was when I finished up high school I was looking into different universities, and job prospects. In my whole country of Canada, there are three people who make their living studying dinosaurs. 30,000,000 people in Canada; 3 make their living studying dinosaurs. The odds of being that 1 in 10,000,000 is very slim. I realized that none of these guys were going to step aside because Rob Sawyer stepped on the scene. I'd have to wait until they retired. It wasn't a practical career goal. Now, I could have gone into paleontology and worked for the oil industry. There are lots of paleontologists who find deposits which might be oil bearing. But that's not what I wanted to do, I wanted to study dinosaurs. And when I realized I couldn't do that, I started looking.

And I also thought I wanted to be a writer. Lo and behold, I found there were thousands of people in Canada making their living as writers. Three dinosaur guys versus thousands. Well, maybe this is the more practical degree. There's part of me that sometimes regrets not going into a scientific career, because I very much enjoy science.

AZJ: Most of your books have evolution as a major role or a minor sideline. It's obviously an interest of yours. Where does that come from?

RJS: It comes initially from my interest in dinosaurs. Ever since growing up, I was brought up with evolution. My parents read me science books that had evolution as a fact. In fact, it wasn't until I was a teenager that I found out there were people in the world who didn't believe in education. My social circle was people who were well educated, darwinian, and there was no question. We had solved the problem of where we came from. It was a known fact. It had been known since the 19th century, when Darwin and to a lesser extent Wallace had explained where we came from and how natural selection works.

What still surprises me is that people shy away from evolution as an explanation. And I guess my fascination is as much with evolution as a process as with why people reject evolution. My all time favorite play is Inherit the Wind. The issues that play out there are so fascinating, because it turns out that what I thought was just a scientific debate impinges morality, ethics. Those who don't believe in evolution believe that by removing God from the picture you're removing an absolute standard of behavior. You're removing good from the equation. There's no good, just survival and the fitness to survive, under evolution. And I find that the moral and ethical ramifications of how people look at evolution are such good fodder for fiction that I keep returning to it again and again. And obviously in the Neanderthal trilogy, evolution will keep figuring in that story. It's one of the defining intellectual touchstones of my life and I go back to it over and over again, as an almost endless supply of material comes from it.

AZJ: What kind of feedback have you gotten on Calculating God? I saw on Amazon.com someone ranting about the pseudoscience.

RJS: There are also people saying good things about Calculating God on Amazon.com!

AZJ: I'm one of them. I think I have review number 187 or something up there.

RJS: The response has been great, except for people at the extremes. Absolute dyed-in-the-wool, biblical literalist, young-earth creationists hate the book. Absolute dyed-in-the-wool, far extreme evolutionists hate the book. Everyone who's 99% an evolutionist, but sometimes wonders if there's sometimes something bigger, and everyone who's 99% a creationist but sometimes says, "Maybe it did happen another way," seems to embrace the book. I've gotten great reviews not just in science fiction publications but in science publications and I've gotten great reviews of theologians. One of the best reviews was on the religion page of the Toronto Star, Canada's largest circulation newspaper. An Anglican priest read the book and loved it. It's only the fundamentist evolutionists who say, "We have all the answers," and the fundamentalist creationists who say, "We have all the answers," who say, "You're doing a disservice by trying to look for whether there might be a common ground."

Stephen J. Gould would be one of those guys who's at the far end. Gould says that religion and science are, he has this phrase, "non-overlapping magisteria." Two completely unrelated disciplines which just have no overlap. And I think that's crap. I think that evolution -- the science and religion -- are both attempts to understand the biggest questions there are. Where do we come from? Why are we here? Is there a purpose to life? Where are we going? What happens when we die? They're scientific questions, but they're also religious questions.

AZJ: [At this point, I interrupt Rob to tell him that I say the same thing on my website.]

RJS: And if you take a paragraph at random out of a lot of good science books and a lot of good theological books, you couldn't tell which one it came from. The questions being asked, and the logical process being applied to the questions, is much the same. The big eye-opener for me in the last five years has been to read some creationist stuff and learn that they aren't the little straw men that they're portrayed as in the scientific literature. The vast swath of humanity is creationist, which is about 5 billion out of 6 billion. Of those 5 billion, maybe 500,000,000 are Biblical fundamentalists, and not even that. The vast majority of the human race is in the middle. It's clear that five-sixths of the population believes in God, in an afterlife, but of that only a very small percentage are fundamentalists. Everyone else is looking for answers. Well that's the definition of science. Science if from the latin word for "to know." I want to know things. I'm going to do science.

AZJ: [At this point, I begin suggesting books to Rob Sawyer. My arrogance knows no bounds. In my defense, he actually seemed interested in them, and had me write down the names and authors of several of them.]

But anyway, there are lots of people out there who point out gaps in evolutionary science. And I've found that most people who have scientific mindsets have an almost knee-jerk reaction. They won't even listen to the argument. They try to knock over the "straw men" even if you aren't talking about those arguments. You aren't holding the straw man, you're holding the "clay man" or something.

RJS: If I had a message or purpose in writing Calculating God, it was to say to the scientific community that they are being as bad as the creationists that they make fun of in their approach to evolution these days. Darwin raised evolution as a theory. Now a theory doesn't mean that it can't ever be proven; a theory is a comprehensive explanation. He said, let's debate this. Let's discuss this. But what you have now is a seige mentality. If an evolutionist admits, "Well there are gaps in the fossil record. We don't really know how this happened and we aren't 100 percent sure how one species rises to another." they're afraid that it will be seized upon by the religious right. Don't teach it in schools. If you can't prove it, you can't teach it. And as soon as you reach a point where you aren't willing to ask questions, you've ceased to be science. You've become a religion. Evolution is, to extremists like Dawkins, a religion as much as Genesis is religion to a Christian fundamentalist. Questions can't be asked. Any argument is dismissed, not necessarily dealt with, but just dismissed. "You don't understand. Your question isn't relevant." That's stupid. You should be able to ask any question and if that question can't be answered... There are lots of questions that can't be answered. Things about relativity and quantum mechanics. We will eventually be able to answer them. I have faith in that.

AZJ: But it is an article of faith.

RJS: Yes, it's very much a work in progress. And evolution is very much that. Certainly the Darwinian model of evolution, which was gradualist, turned out not to be true. It turns out that species don't incrementally change generation by generation. Elredge and Gould are right that there's punctuated equilibrium.

AZJ: Even though Dawkins, for example, says that's b.s.

RJS: Yeah. Dawkins and Gould are funny. The only people who hate each other more than Dawkins and Gould are a Southern Convention Baptist and a Northern Convention Baptist. The most trivial of differences between them, and they will kill each other in a holy war.

AZJ: So the job of science is to ask questions, and to be open to questions that are difficult. You always bring up deep issues of what science be capable of proving to the foreground. It's what I like most about them, actually.

RJS: It is all about asking questions. The thing that used to bug me was... My whole life, I've been interested in science. I'd go to a cosmology or astronomy talk at a planetarium and someone would ask, "Well, what was there before the Big Bang?" And the odd answer, "That's a meaningless question." That's not an answer! It's a perfectly valid question. And it's been said that if you can't explain it to an eight year old, you don't understand it yourself.

I see that time and again, when scientists are dealing with complex issues. "That's a meaningless question" or "There's no way to see beyond the singularity to answer that question." If it's a question that can be asked, the only good answers are "We don't know" or "Here's the explanation." Not "You shouldn't even be asking that." That's dogma; that's not science. That bugs the hell out of me, when someone says you can't even ask that question. And the conceit in most 20th century scientists, and now 21st, is that you can't invoke, for instance, God as part of an explanation and still be scientific. Now I happen to have been raised an atheist and don't consider myself anything really less than an atheist these days, but I don't like the idea that you can't even suggest the idea of a superior being -- I don't like the idea of a supreme being, because it's an absolute.

It's funny, 2001 -- the most popular science fiction film amongst science fiction fans and certainly one of the great ones of all time -- is entirely about the theme of a superior being interfering with the evolution of life on Earth to create intelligence. It's a very religious story, full of religious imagery. Rebirth. The Christ story is in there. All these crucifixes in the astronomical imagery, with the stars lining up, the monoliths at right angles to them. And it seems absurd to me that if you ask that question of a real scientist, "Is there any evidence that any intelligent entity interfered with or had a hand in what we are today?" and the answer is "You can't even ask that question! It's a ludicrous question because it pre-supposes a God or a God-like being, and that's outside the realm of science."

I don't think it is. It's a question worth asking and Behe and others ask it in a very interesting way. I found his book -- Darwin's Black Box -- fascinating. They were fascinating questions. How does this come about? How do you explain irreducible complexity in terms of evolution, by the process we know as natural selection?

AZJ: And everyone I ask says, "Well you have to realize, there are millions of years."

RJS: That's not an answer to the question. And the funny thing about science, and Hal Clement was saying this on a panel here at the convention this morning, is that there's so much knowledge out there now that nobody can know everything. And there's sort of an assumption -- and Behe touches on this in his book -- that if I'm in biochemistry and I don't really know the fossil record, I have faith that those guys doing the fossil record have the answer, I just haven't seen it. And the guys doing the fossil record are thinking that the biochemists, "Oh yeah, they know the answer."

The one beautiful thing that the science fiction writer gets to do that scientists don't get to do anymore is be the generalist. I can dip into a dozen disciplines and try to find a synthesis of them. And someone who is a blood-clotting microbiology hematology guy can't get into any other area of chemical reactions that's outside of his confidence to talk about. So we get extraordinary specialization, but no generalization. That's where science fiction comes in. It gives the over-arching picture anymore.

AZJ: True. I majored in physics, and that's part of the reason I didn't continue with it. It's not as fun!

RJS: It's not like being Newton, where he's like "Let's solve everything!" Into planetary motion and optics and all of that. It's "What aspect of quark-gluon plasma theory are you going to specialize in."

AZJ: [More suggesting of books. Realizing that we've gone about 50 minutes so far. Then Rob got a phone call.]

One of the books that you talked about in FlashForward was The Physics of Immortality. And you have immortality in The Terminal Experiment and Starplex. What aspects of that are people actually looking into? People throughout history have been trying to find ways to become immortal. If anybody did it, they'd be millionaires.

RJS: Well, if there's one thing you'd pay an infinite amount of money for, it would be to live forever.

AZJ: So are there any theories on this that might have merit?

RJS: I wish I could say that the answer is yes, but it's only amongst my friends who are science fiction writers who I find a real belief that any of us who are alive right now are going to live forever. The last time I saw Larry Niven, I said "How are you doing, Larry?" And he said, "I'm just biding time, waiting for them to invent booster spice." Booster spice was the material in his Ringworld series that conferred immortality. I don't know how old Larry is... he was born in the 1930's... So sixty-something. So Larry's thinking "Okay, I can hold on another ten years, I'll live forever." Ben Bova, used to be at Analog and Omni, wrote the non-fiction book Immortality by Dr. Ben Bova. Well, he has a degree in education, not medicine. And he thinks, too, that people who are already alive will get to live forever.

And I had to think this through. Partly you have to think about it when you reach middle age, as I'm facing now, because you have to think about retirement. So I'm wondering if I'll be around a hundred years from now? God I've love to be. Realistically, I come from a long-lived family, so I've probably got another fifty years -- forty of which I'll be in quite good health, and ten of which I won't be in horrible health. And that's it. And I think that yes, I'm impressed by lots of the technologies and discoveries, but I don't think that immortality is something that we'll have in the next century, which means we won't have it for me.

But I do think that we'll have it. A couple of hundred years or so. I don't think it's an intractible problem. I don't believe in intractible problems, unless you can point to a law of physics. You can tell me we can't travel faster than the speed of light, and you can convince me of why that's true. You can tell me that we can't travel in time, and convince me that's true, although we may turn that on its head at some point. But you can't tell me that there's a fundamental law, unless you want to say a law of God, that says we have to die to give way to the next generation. I don't see an insurmountable barrier. I see the work being done in telomeres. I see the work being done in rejuvenating cells and stem cell research and all of that seeming to show that the degredation of the body, though it may serve a purpose, in terms of passing away for the next generation, isn't a natural law. It can be reversed. I've just slowly reconciled myself, aside from vicariously having immortals in my novels, I will not be around to see the 22nd century.

AZJ: You used, in The Terminal Experiment, nannites. You called them nannies.

RJS: Yes, they're nannies because they're looking after you.

AZJ: Do you see those being realistic? There's work being done, but I wonder how much of that is just talk.

RJS: There are really two kinds of nanotechnology. It's really just very small machines, and obviously we're going to have them. Miniaturization has been the thrust of all development in technology. As it gets smaller, it gets cheaper. So am I going to have to worry about having a heart attack when I'm seventy? No, because they'll just inject little machines into my blood to clean out the arteries. That's a mere engineering problem. I have no question that will eventually be done on that scale. Will we be able to go to the big level of nanotechnology, where we take this table, break it down into its constituent parts, and turn it into Claudia Schiffer. I'm not convinced that we'll be able to do that.

AZJ: If only we could.

RJS: Well, it's the alchemist's dream again. That may still be magic, because when you get down to those very small scales there's quantum indeterminancy, there's quantum effects, there's randomness and chaos. It may be impossible to take something apart and put it back together at the subatomic level and get back what you want. But can we have little tiny machines? Sure, we'll have all types of them. We won't be vacuuming fifty years from now, we'll have machines that we don't even see that will grab the dust and carry them away.

AZJ: Well, that's pretty much all that I had to ask you about. Do you have anything else you'd like to say?

RJS: Despite the fact that I write at length about what people would consider to be metaphysical issues, I'm a rationalist. I think that the lesson that one should take from science fiction is that there's nothing that's outside of the boundaries of science. But no one should throw skepticism out the door either. The reason I'm interested in the idea of whether a God exists is because I'm skeptical about the idea of God. I'm not credulous. I don't say, "Oh, there must be a God!" When I look out at the world, there are people who say, "Well, can't you see God's handiwork everywhere?" Well, I say, "No, I don't. I see suffering and people having troubles and body parts that don't work properly and having to go to a surgeon to have my wisdom teeth extracted." That doesn't seem like a very good plan to me. I have to wear eyeglasses. What kind of shoddy engineer is God that I have to go to Lenscrafters to be able to make his product work properly. I think that's the point. The favorite review of my book is one from the Toronto Star which says, "Sawyer forces us to grapple with questions that we used to think were too metaphysical to deal with rationally." That's what I think good science fiction is: the rational approach to the metaphysical.