Robert J(ames) Sawyer (1960-)
Robert J. Sawyer writes science fiction novels that deal variously with computers running amok, dinosaurs reliving the Age of Enlightenment, time-traveling paleontologists, and space-age detectives. But his books are much more than the sum of their parts. A self-proclaimed rationalist, Sawyer charts a course of conflict between science and superstition in each of his novels, and the reader soon understands that the author is firmly on the side of science and its ability to illuminate truth in the world. Sawyer's novels are meant to stretch a reader's horizon of knowledge and make one think. They are, according to R. John Hayes in his Quill & Quire review of Fossil Hunter, "not just wonderful SF, [but] wonderful fiction." In addition to the adult audience for which they were originally published, the author's stories have captured a large young adult readership.
Little else about Sawyer's life is unintended or accidental: from an early age, he appeared destined to become a science fiction writer. "It started with an imaginary friend I had as a small child," Sawyer once told SATA in an interview. "It was actually a hook. Like a big, magic fishing hook that had dropped down from outer space and followed me around." Sawyer's fanciful imagination was soon coupled with an appreciation of books. The son of academics, Sawyer was introduced to the written word at a very early age. "My father would read to me each night before I went to sleep," Sawyer once recalled. "Stories, but also nonfiction. Science and how things work. So from quite early on, I was aware that books were where you got stories, but also where you could find information about all manner of things. Books were for knowledge and not just entertainment. This awareness has colored everything that I have done since, for science fiction writers both entertain and educate." As a child, Sawyer read widely, but when he first discovered a book on dinosaurs, he became truly hooked.
"Unlike trolls and dragons," Sawyer once said, explaining the universal fascination with saurians, "dinosaurs actually existed. As kids, we are all fascinated by monsters, but as we grow older, we lose most of those monsters. The dinosaur, however, is one monster no one can take away from you. Also, I think you must recognize the quality of imagination necessary to reconstruct dinosaurs. We only have clues of dinosaurs—a nest of bones, shell fragments, a footprint—with which to reconstruct them. And that takes imaginative energy. Other amazing creatures such as the elephant are too common. All you need to do is go to the zoo to learn everything about them. There is no act of the imagination needed."
It was not a long jump from dinosaurs to science fiction for Sawyer. "My fascination with dinosaurs soon led me to an appreciation of science in general. I always wanted to be a scientist. In particular, I thought I would be a paleontologist, somebody who studies dinosaurs. That went on from age five to eighteen. And it was this love of science that got me into an appreciation for science fiction." Television was the conduit for his first experiences with science fiction. Because he lived in Canada, he was exposed to both British and American sci-fi television, including the original Star Trek series and the British series Fireball XL5 and Thunderbirds. "I am part of the very first generation of science fiction writers who were brought into it by television," Sawyer once said. From television science fiction, Sawyer soon moved to the masters of the printed form: Isaac Asimov, Robert Silverberg, Arthur C. Clarke, and Lester del Rey.
This reading was the one bright spot for Sawyer throughout much of his early school life. It was not until grade six that he felt challenged by his classes, when his teacher gave him independent work. He fit in well socially, and by high school he was a high achiever: president of the student council and editor of the school paper. But most importantly, he founded a science fiction club, finding other people who shared his interest in the genre. "That was probably the single most important event of my life," Sawyer once recalled for SATA. "From that club, the Northview Association for Science Fiction Addicts, or NASFA, I got not only my career, but also my wife, a group of friends I am still close to, and the main character of my first successful novel." It was in high school, also, that Sawyer began writing short stories, and vacations in Italy and Greece when he was sixteen and seventeen gave him a new perspective with which to view the world. But, as graduation approached, his investigations of a future career as a paleontologist bore discouraging fruit. "After a bit of research, I discovered there were only three people in all of Canada who made their livings studying dinosaurs; twenty-four in the entire world. That wasn't very good odds. So I decided to become a writer, instead."
To that end, Sawyer attended Ryerson Polytechnical Institute in Toronto, where he studied script writing and broadcasting. After graduating, Sawyer stayed on as a teaching assistant for a year while his high school sweetheart, Carolyn Joan Clink, was finishing her degree. They married in 1984, and Sawyer never looked back to academe. He set up as a freelance writer until 1989, working with businesses and publishers in Toronto, doing everything from corporate newsletters to radio broadcasts. This apprenticeship taught him the value of deadlines and of the need to produce daily, as well as some of the fundamentals of good writing, such as voice and narrative technique.
"By 1989, I had enough in the bank to take a year off to write my first novel," the author once said. He turned in the completed manuscript of the novel Golden Fleece to his agent, who sold it within six weeks. "I was incredibly lucky with that first one," Sawyer once remarked. "I sent it to the right person at the right time." Golden Fleece is a science fiction mystery narrated from the point of view of a sentient computer named Jason. Reminiscent of HAL, the computer in Arthur C. Clarke's 2001, Jason kills a member of the crew who was jeopardizing the ship's forty-seven-light-year mission. Most of the narration and the subsequent unraveling of the death is told through the computer's numerous lenses aboard the ship. "The result," wrote Gordon Graham in Quill & Quire, "is a well-paced page-turner replete with hard science." Writing in Books in Canada, Gary Draper thought the execution of Sawyer's first novel was done "with wit and imagination."
"I got the idea from my time at Ryerson," Sawyer once commented to SATA. "Working in the control room of the television studio, I became fascinated by how different the view of the selected shot on one of the monitors was from the chaos that was really taking place on the studio floor. I thought it would be an intriguing idea to write an entire novel from the point of view of a camera. And from that, there developed the idea of Jason and his fixed camera eyes and his limited view of reality." Sawyer, who has seen the movie version of 2001 two dozen times, also gives credit to that piece of fiction, but he blends it into something new and explores themes beyond simply the confusion of computer mentality with human consciousness. "There is a tendency in most writing to have a strong protagonist and antagonist," Sawyer once explained. "The white hat and the black hat. I never really believed in this dichotomy. Never really believed that somebody would be all good or all villain. With two of the characters in Golden Fleece, Jason and Aaron, the ex-husband of the murdered female crew member, I wanted to make it unclear just who was the good guy and who the bad. I wanted to make it more like real life."
Though the reviews were mostly positive and the book garnered the prestigious Aurora Award, sales were poor. For his next novel, Sawyer had to go hunting for a new publisher. With Far-Seer, he turned to a staple that had been nourishing him for many years: dinosaurs. Inverting the acronym of his old high school science fiction club, he came up with the name Afsan for his protagonist, a dinosaur in a world in which such creatures—known as Quintaglios—have evolved sophisticated intellects comparable to human consciousness. In the Quintaglio civilization, there are cities, religions, rulers, and a budding science. Afsan is an apprentice to the court astrologer, and on a voyage to pay homage to the god of their religion, he discovers—with the aid of a new invention called the far-seer or telescope—that his world is not the center of the universe after all. He learns, in fact, that the Quintaglio world is only a moon which eventually will crash into the planet it orbits. This Copernican discovery, described in minute detail, is bound to make Afsan a pariah to court and priests alike, much as it did for the historical astronomers Copernicus and Galileo in their time. Afsan's attempts to convince others of the truth of his scientific discoveries and the need for resettlement of the Quintaglios provides the engine for the novel that Graham described in another Quill & Quire review as "refreshingly original." Far-Seer was submitted to Sawyer's agent, Richard Curtis, who immediately saw the possibilities of a series in the book and convinced Sawyer not to kill off Afsan in the first volume. A touch of rewriting and the book was auctioned with options for the remaining volumes. This time the sales were on a par with the reviews: "A tour de force," wrote a critic in Isaac Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine, adding that the book is "vastly enjoyable, beautifully realized." The book also earned positive reviews in the mainstream press. A contributor to the Toronto Star reported that "without question, Far-Seer will be remembered as one of the year's outstanding books." And for the first time, young adult reviewers were looking at Sawyer's work. Katharine L. Kan, writing in Voice of Youth Advocates, termed the book "an enjoyable read, especially for dinosaur fans," while a reviewer in Kliatt wrote that "this is a truly great piece of fantasy SF."
The task remained, however, to turn the book into the first part of a trilogy. "I remembered a quote by Freud," Sawyer once said to SATA. "He talked about the three great revolutions of thought in humankind: the destruction of the old Earth-oriented astronomy by Copernicus and Galileo; the theory of evolution as proposed by Darwin; and the revelation of the unconscious by himself, Freud. And I thought that would be a great framework for the books. I already had written the first revolution." The second followed in Fossil Hunter, where the Darwinian world was explored. The son of Afsan, Toroca, continues where his father has left off, and in searching for minerals necessary for the space-flight evacuation of the Quintaglios from their world, he uncovers their fossil record. Like Darwin, Toroca must come to terms with the implications of such a record. He concludes that the Quintaglios developed elsewhere and were transplanted onto the moon they call home. Meanwhile, an element of murder mystery creeps into Sawyer's story, for with the deaths of two of Afsan's children, the old dinosaur sets out to find the culprit. It is a blend to which Larry D. Condit, writing in Voice of Youth Advocates, responded positively: "Sawyer . . . has done an admirable job and has developed a world into which YA science fiction and dinosaur [fans] will enjoy a brief escape." "The characterization is brilliant," wrote Hayes in Quill & Quire, "the plotting enviable, and the narrative technique tight and fast-paced." And once again, a Toronto Star critic gave it a thumbs up: "A superlative science-fiction novel."
The final book in the trilogy, Foreigner, was published in 1994. Afsan, now an old and venerated astronomer, again plays a key role in the action, as does a female dinosaur named Mokleb, who becomes a saurian Freud, examining the aggressiveness and intense feeling of territoriality that makes it so difficult for the Quintaglios to work together. Reviewers again commended Sawyer on his blend of science and action. Writing in Booklist, Carl Hays noted that Sawyer "deftly combines well-reasoned hard-science speculation with psychology, imaginative anthropology, and even linguistics." R. John Hayes of Quill & Quire wrote that Foreigner was "a fine end to a brilliant series, one that should vault Sawyer into the first rank of science fiction writers."
Sawyer's fifth book, End of an Era, again deals with dinosaurs—but this time more tangentially—as two paleontologists travel back in time to the Cretaceous Period to find out what really caused the reptiles' extinction. "The book is full of action, adventure, and humor," Sawyer said in his interview. "And it is the first time that you can recognize an alter ego in my work. In a way, I lived through my old dream of becoming a paleontologist with the writing of this book." Written before Far-Seer, End of an Era was held up by Sawyer's publisher until the "Quintaglio Ascension" trilogy was completed.
In 1992, Sawyer's second book, Far-Seer, was put on the New York Public Library's list of Best Books for the Teen Age. It was a revelation for Sawyer. "Frankly, I hadn't thought of myself as a YA author until that moment. But when I stopped to think of it, I could see why the book and its sequels appealed to a younger audience. The protagonist in Far-Seer was an adolescent in terms of human years. And there was a lot of explanation of scientific matters in it, blended with good action. I was delighted to know that my writing could reach audiences across the age spectrum. With subsequent books, I took into consideration the fact that I was reaching young readers. I don't mean to say I simplified language or plot at all, but I did begin to look more closely at the moral statements my books were making." Visiting one seventh grade class that had used Far-Seer for a reading project, Sawyer was impressed not only by the art and science projects that the book inspired, but also by the fact that fully one-half of the class went on voluntarily to read the second book in the trilogy. "To have a bunch of young adults so enthused about my stuff that they would search out more to read, that was terrific," Sawyer once said.
Another novel with YA appeal is Calculating God, which "smoothly combines ethical questions and comical dialogue in a highly absorbing tale," Roberta Johnson wrote in Booklist. Tom Jericho, a paleontologist at the Royal Ontario Museum, is visited by an alien named Hollus. This alien's species, the Forhilnors, and an alien species from another planet, the Wreeds, have noticed strange parallels between the natural histories of their two planets, particularly in regards to mass extinction events. They suspect that these parallels might indicate the hand of God intervening in their evolution, so the aliens now want to examine Earth's fossil record to see if the same things happened here. That explains why they walked into the Royal Ontario Museum and asked to speak to a paleontologist. Jericho is skeptical of religion, and "much of the novel is relatively cerebral, as Jericho and Hollus argue over the scientific data they've gathered in support of God's existence," explained a Publishers Weekly reviewer, who went on to call Calculating God "unusually thoughtful SF." Jericho's newfound interest in religious matters is strengthened by the knowledge that he is dying: years of breathing rock dust have given him terminal lung cancer. "It sounds like a recipe for a rather depressing book," Margaret Mackey commented in Resource Links, "but in fact it is engaging and stimulating."
Sawyer's next trilogy, the "Neanderthal Parallax," presents more mature situations and describes them more graphically than many of his previous works. These three volumes, Hominids, Humans, and Hybrids, are premised on a parallel universe where Neanderthals, not Homo sapiens, became the sole intelligent species. One of these Neanderthals, scientific researcher Ponter Boddit, accidentally finds himself in real-world, modern Canada when he slips through some sort of portal. Boddit must now adapt to the foreign ways of the human world, while meanwhile in his home universe, his research partner must defend himself from charges that he murdered Boddit. In the second book of the trilogy, Boddit persuades a Canadian scientist, Mary Vaughan (whom he befriended in the first book) to come visit his universe. Now it is her turn to be perplexed by an unfamiliar society, one which is highly advanced, technologically and culturally, but which never adopted agriculture. In the final book, Vaughan and Boddit decide to conceive a child together, which forces them to face the implications of the genetic engineering necessary to make such a child viable, while also fighting off various humans who want to exploit the trusting Neanderthals and plunder their world's wealth.
Sawyer once elaborated on his writing method to SATA: "In science fiction, it's not enough to have just one good idea. You need to blend at least half a dozen good ones to be able to weave an intriguing story together. . . . I need to let these ideas sort of brew for a while to see how they might come together into a workable story line." Once Sawyer's ideas have brewed sufficiently, he goes to the library. "I do about two solid months of research for each of my books. Everything from scientific journals to popular magazines to interviews with working scientists. After that there is about six or seven months of writing to get a finished novel. But throughout this process, I try to keep regular hours. Sort of a nine-to-five approach so that I can have a normal life apart from the writing."
"I am a great believer in science," Sawyer once remarked. "A champion of rationalism. In all my works, I try to look at the battle between science and superstition. I blend science with action/adventure stories in an attempt to make you think. I myself am not a scientist; I have an arts degree, and I think that far too many people think of science as something irrelevant to their lives, or something so complex and arcane as to be incomprehensible. But science actually belongs to everybody and is vital to everybody. I want to bring science into everybody's daily life."
Biographical and Critical Sources
Benson, Eugene, and William Toye, The Oxford Companion to Canadian Literature, second edition, Oxford University Press (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), 1997.
Clute, John, and Peter Nicholls, editors, The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, St. Martin's Press (New York, NY), 1993.
Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 251: Canadian Science-Fiction and Fantasy Writers, Gale (Detroit, MI), 2002.
Reginald, Robert, Science Fiction and Fantasy Literature, 1975-1991, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1992.
St. James Guide to Science Fiction Writers, fourth edition, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 1996.
Sawyer, Robert J., autobiographical essay in Contemporary Authors, Volume 212, Gale (Detroit, MI), 2003.
Van Belkom, Edo, Northern Dreamers: Interviews with Famous Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror Writers, Quarry Press (Kingston, Ontario, Canada), 1998.
Analog Science Fiction & Fact, December 15, 1990, Tom Easton, review of Golden Fleece, pp. 179-180; June, 1992, Tom Easton, review of Far-Seer, pp. 164-165; August, 1993, Tom Easton, review of Fossil Hunter, pp. 164-165; March, 1994, Tom Easton, review of Foreigner, p. 161; October, 1994, Tom Easton, review of End of an Era, p. 163; December 15, 1994, Jay Kay Klein, "Biolog: Robert J. Sawyer," pp. 69-70; May, 1997, Tom Easton, review of Frameshift, pp. 146-147; January, 1998, Tom Easton, review of Illegal Alien, p. 145; September, 1998, Tom Easton, review of Factoring Humanity, pp. 133-134; September, 1999, Tom Easton, review of Flashforward, pp. 132-137.
Booklist, March 15, 1994, Carl Hays, review of Foreigner, p. 1333; October 15, 1994, Carl Hays, review of End of an Era, p. 405; October 15, 1996, Roland Green, review of Starplex, p. 408; April 15, 1997, William Beatty, review of Frameshift, p. 1387; May 15, 1998, John Mort, review of Factoring Humanity, pp. 1606-1607; May 15, 1999, John Mort, review of Flashforward, p. 1682; April 15, 2000, Roberta Johnson, review of Calculating God, p. 1534; June 1, 2002, Roberta Johnson, review of Hominids, p. 1698; January 1, 2003, Roberta Johnson, review of Humans, p. 862; September 1, 2003, Roberta Johnson, review of Hybrids, p. 75.
Books in Canada, March, 1991, Gary Draper, review of Golden Fleece, p. 56; March, 1993, interview with Sawyer, pp. 22-25.
Calgary Herald (Calgary, Alberta, Canada), July 21, 1998, interview with Sawyer, p. B5.
Canadian Literature, spring, 2001, Douglas Ivison, "Knights and Alien Signals," pp. 163-165.
Columbus Dispatch (Columbus, OH), October 6, 1999, p. C10.
Edmonton Journal (Edmonton, Alberta, Canada), April 16, 1997, p. B6.
Financial Post, November 23, 1996, p. 35.
Globe and Mail (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), July 22, 2000, review of Calculating God, p. D10; June 8, 2002, review of Hominids, p. D19; November 22, 2003, review of Hybrids, p. D22.
Halifax Chronicle-Herald (Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada), September 20, 1996, p. D2.
Isaac Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine, June, 1992, review of Far-Seer, p. 170.
Kirkus Reviews, May 15, 2002, review of Hominids, p. 712; December 1, 2002, review of Humans, pp. 1741-1742.
Kliatt, April, 1991, p. 21; September, 1992, review of Far-Seer, p. 23; September, 1993, p. 22.
Library Journal, November 15, 1990, Jackie Cassada, review of Golden Fleece, p. 95; April 15, 1993, Jackie Cassada, review of Fossil Hunter, p. 130; August, 1996, Susan Hamburger, review of Starplex, p. 120; May 15, 1997, Susan Hamburger, review of Frameshift, p. 106; June 15, 1998, Jackie Cassada, review of Factoring Humanity, p. 111; April 15, 2000, Jackie Cassada, review of Calculating God, p. 126.
Locus, August, 1990, p. 21; January, 1991, p. 58; January, 1992, p. 19; June, 1993, p. 31; February, 2003, interview with Sawyer, pp. 92-94.
Maclean's, August 19, 1996, "A Canadian Writer's Newfound Respect," p. 53; June 21, 1999, interview with Sawyer; October 7, 2002, Robert J. Sawyer, "Privacy: Who Needs It?," p. 44.
Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, December, 1990, Orson Scott Card, review of Golden Fleece, pp. 89-90; May, 1991, p. 50; December, 1994, Charles de Lint, review of End of an Era, pp. 30-31; October-November, 1996, Charles de Lint, review of The Terminal Experiment, pp. 61-62.
Metro Pulse (Knoxville, TN), November 25-December 3, 1998, p. 17.
Mystery Review, spring, 1999, interview with Sawyer.
Ottawa Citizen (Ottawa, Ontario, Canada), May 26, 1998, interview with Sawyer, p. C7; July 5, 1998, p. C3; September 4, 2003, interview with Sawyer, pp. A1-A2.
Publishers Weekly, May 4, 1992, review of Far-Seer, p. 54; November 10, 1997, review of Illegal Alien, p. 59; May 25, 1998, review of Factoring Humanity, p. 70; April 19, 1999, review of Flashforward, p. 66; March 20, 2000, review of Calculating God, p. 75; June 17, 2002, review of Hominids, p. 48; January 13, 2003, review of Humans, pp. 45-46; September 1, 2003, review of Hybrids, p. 69.
Quill & Quire, July, 1990, Gordon Graham, review of Golden Fleece, p. 55; July, 1992, Gordon Graham, review of Far-Seer, p. 37; May, 1993, R. John Hayes, review of Fossil Hunter, p. 26; January, 1994, R. John Hayes, review of Foreigner, p. 33; May, 2000, Meredith Renwick, review of Calculating God, pp. 29-30; July, 2002, Robert Wiersema, review of Hominids, p. 35.
Resource Links, October, 2001, Margaret Mackey, review of Calculating God, p. 57.
Rocky Mountain News (Denver, CO), review of Calculating God, p. 4E.
St. Catharines Standard (St. Catharines, Ontario, Canada), June 28, 1997, p. B1.
Science Fiction Chronicle, September, 1993, interview with Sawyer; October, 1994, review of End of an Era, p. 38; June-July, 2000, interview with Sawyer.
Tennessean (Nashville, TN), January 11, 1998, p. K1.
Toronto Star (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), August 22, 1992, interview with Sawyer and review of Far-Seer, p. H14; July 3, 1993, review of Fossil Hunter, p. H14; December 3, 1994, review of End of an Era, p. SS2; August 1, 1998, interview with Sawyer, p. K4; August 6, 2000, review of Calculating God, p. F8.
Toronto Sun (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), September 11, 2002, "Career Connection," p. 4.
Voice of Youth Advocates, October, 1992, Katharine L. Kan, review of Far-Seer, pp. 242-243; August, 1993, Larry D. Condit, review of Fossil Hunter, p. 170.
Winnipeg Free Press (Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada), October 16, 1997, interview with Sawyer, p. 14.
Robert J. Sawyer Home Page, http://www.sfwriter.com/ (January 22, 2004).
In the Mind of Robert J. Sawyer (one-hour television special), 2003.
Sawyer, Robert J., telephone interview with J. Sydney Jones for Something about the Author, August 26, 1994.*
Brief BiographiesBiographies: Paul Anthony Samuelson (1915– ) Biography to Bessie Smith (1895–1937) BiographyRobert J(ames) Sawyer (1960-) Biography - Career, Awards, Honors, Sidelights - Personal, Addresses, Member, Writings