Author Interview – Robert J Sawyer, Author of “Quantum Night”
Robert J. Sawyer — called “the dean of Canadian science fiction” by the OTTAWA CITIZEN and “just about the best science-fiction writer out there” by the Denver ROCKY MOUNTAIN NEWS — is one of eight authors in history to win all three of the science-fiction field’s highest honors for best novel of the year: the Hugo Award (which he won for HOMINIDS), the Nebula Award (which he won for THE TERMINAL EXPERIMENT); and the John W. Campbell Memorial Award (which he won for MINDSCAN).
Rob has won Japan’s Seiun Award for best foreign novel three times (for END OF AN ERA, FRAMESHIFT, and ILLEGAL ALIEN), and he’s also won the world’s largest cash-prize for SF writing — the Polytechnic University of Catalonia’s 6,000-euro Premio UPC de Ciencia Ficcion — an unprecedented three times.
In 2007, he received China’s Galaxy Award for most favorite foreign author. He’s also won fourteen Canadian Science Fiction and Fantasy Awards (“Auroras”), an Arthur Ellis Award from the Crime Writers of Canada, ANALOG magazine’s Analytical Laboratory Award for Best Short Story of the Year, and the SCIENCE FICTION CHRONICLE Reader Award for Best Short Story of the Year.
Rob’s novels have been top-ten national mainstream bestsellers in Canada, appearing on the GLOBE AND MAIL and MACLEAN’S bestsellers’ lists, and they’ve hit number one on the bestsellers’ list published by LOCUS, the U.S. trade journal of the SF field.
On October 6, 2013, Rob received a Lifetime Achievement Aurora Award, then on October 5, 2014, he was one of the initial inductees into The Canadian Science Fiction and Fantasy Hall of Fame — both honors bestowed by the Canadian Science Fiction and Fantasy Association.
Rob is a frequent keynote speaker at conferences, teaches SF writing occasionally, and edited his own line of Canadian science-fiction novels for Red Deer Press. His novel FLASHFORWARD (Tor Books) was the basis for the ABC TV series of the same name. He enjoyed spending time on the set and wrote the script for episode 19 “Course Correction.” His WWW trilogy, WAKE, WATCH, and WONDER (Ace Books), is all about the World Wide Web gaining consciousness.
QUANTUM NIGHT is Rob’s most recent novel. The paperback, from Ace Books, comes out in February 2017.
For more information about Rob and his award-winning books, check out his web page: http://sfwriter.com
1. Tell us more about you and what ignited your passion for words.
I’m part of the first generation of science-fiction writers to come into the genre through film and TV, rather than through books and pulp magazines. Fortunately, at the point I discovered the field, as a kid in the 1960s, we were in the middle of the first flowering of serious media SF: The Twilight Zone, the original Star Trek, the original Planet of the Apes. What each of these had in common was using SF as a medium for social commentary.
More recent writers who discovered SF through Star Wars and superhero films think of the genre as escapism, having nothing to do with the here-and-now. But Rod Serling — who, of course, created and hosted The Twilight Zone, and co-wrote the screenplay for Planet of the Apes — and Gene Roddenberry, who created Star Trek, both knew that if you told a story metaphorically, with disguises and masks, you could talk about hot-button issues in a way that would get past people’s deflector shields.
When I later started reading print science fiction, I soon gravitated to H.G. Wells, who had invented the notion of using the SF medium for social commentary: his War of the Worlds isn’t about Martians invading Earth but rather is a comment on the evils of British colonialism; his The Time Machine likewise had nothing to do with the year 802,701 A.D., and everything to do with the negative effects of the British class system in 1895, the year that book was first published. I’ve tried to continue in that mode, using SF to address the social and political issues of our present day.
2. What type of books are you writing? Can you tell us more about it or where we can find it if already published?
I’ve done 23 novels to date, all for big-five New York publishers. The most recent is Quantum Night, which, to my delight, hit number one on the hardcover bestsellers’ list published by Locus, the trade journal of the science-fiction and fantasy fields. The paperback comes out this month, February 2017. And, as my first answer suggests, it’s a novel of social commentary, asking how a far-right authoritarian could end up as leader of the free world — basing it all in real science and real sociology.
In particular, I’m building on Prof. Robert D. Hare’s world-famous studies of psychopathy done at the University of British Columbia and Prof. Bob Altemeyer’s research into authoritarian leaders conducted at the University of Manitoba (and quoted extensively by Nixon White House counsel John Dean in his nonfiction book Conservatives without Conscience).
Of course, a good novel isn’t a political tract; it’s also an entertainment — a page-turner. Quantum Night is the story of Jim Marchuk, an experimental psychologist who comes to realize that he’s missing his own memories of six months of his life, a dark time during which he slowly realizes he himself may have done horrible things.
I started the novel with one simple question: what, if anything, does science have to say about why we sometimes are evil? As soon as I started my research, it becomes obvious that there was an enormous amount of psychological and even quantum physics research related to this topic.
3. Would you mind sharing a high, a low or something special you experienced writing this book?
A definite high was getting to tour the new Canadian Museum for Human Rights in Winnipeg before it had opened to the public. Writers use verbal metaphors all the time — the moon is a balloon, that sort of thing — but I am also extremely interested in textually appropriate symbolic metaphors. Winnipeg is the geographic center of the North American continent, which made it the appropriate place to set a story about the nature of human behavior. It’s at the forks of two great rivers — indicating two possible paths our future might take. And it was in the process of building this wonderful monument and research center devoted to human rights — and those dark times when they have been ignored — and I knew that museum would be the perfect place to set some of the climactic scenes in my novel. So I finagled an invitation to visit several weeks before it opened to the public, and got to use it as a setting.
My experience with asking for behind-the-scenes tours as a writer has always been positive; I can’t think of anyone who has ever turned me down. It’s one of the great perks of being a novelist.
4. Are you working on anything new? At which stage are you with this new project?
It’s possible Quantum Night will be my last novel. I’ve done 23 novels to date, won all the major awards in the science-fiction field, had a network TV show based on one of my books, and so on. It’s been a great career.
But traditional book publishing is not in great shape, at least from the point of view of authors. I’m in no rush to sign another contract. I really want to see traditional publishers make some movement on ebook-royalty rates. They’re currently offering 25% of net (which is 17.%5 of gross); The Authors Guild, of which I’m a proud member, thinks the equitable split is 50% of net (35% of gross); self-publishing offers 100% of net (70% of gross).
I’m exploring platforms and possibilities for my future offerings, but right now am concentrating on expanding my work in TV. In fact, I’m doing this interview as I take a break on a trip in Los Angeles between a pitch meeting I just had with Amazon Studios and one that’s coming up in an hour at Lionsgate.
5. What advice would you give a new writer?
Never worry about what’s considered hot; never try to write to the marketplace; never work in someone else’s universe. You became a writer to write your stories, not to do piecework, work-for-hire, or forgettable marketing products. Find the stories you are most passionate about, and write them to the very best of your abilities. Ambitious work will be remembered; escapism is ephemeral and will be forgotten quickly. Be an ambitious writer.
6. Besides writing, what do you enjoy most? Can you tell us something about what you do outside of writing?
I’m lucky enough to be a full-time professional writer and have been for 34 years now. It’s a great life, but it’s also an almost all-consuming one, too; I have very little time for hobbies.
That said, my great passion is paleontology: I love dinosaurs, fossils, the history of life on Earth, and so forth. Whenever I travel, I make a point of visiting natural-history museums, and when I can I get out and collect fossils. A book that’s been in print for a decade is considered a great success these days — but to hold a fossil in your hand that’s half a billion years old, as many trilobites are — gives real perspective, not to mention a healthy dose of humility.
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