JMW: Hello, this is Jean Marie Ward for BuzzyMag.com. With me today is Robert J. Sawyer, bestselling, multi-award winning science fiction novelist. Welcome, Rob.
Robert J. Sawyer: Hi, Jean Marie.
JMW: Your 2016 release, “Quantum Night” uncannily captured the zeitgeist of the past two years. Did you intend the novel as a warning?
Robert J. Sawyer : I did. Unfortunately, the warning was not heeded. The novel is about the rise of a far-right authoritarian president of the United States with disastrous consequences both for the United States and the rest of the world. It seemed clear to me as a dual citizen, American-Canadian living in Canada looking on from the northern direction, it seemed to me that the right in the United States was drifting farther and farther towards extremism. And it was only a matter of time before somebody who is beyond the pale became president of the United States. I actually had it happening in the election after the one where Donald Trump came in. My novel set in 2020, he got in in 2016, but it was supposed to be a warning cry, nobody listened.
JMW: Scary, isn’t it?
Robert J. Sawyer : Well, it is scary. And this is, you know, as a science fiction writer, Ray Bradbury said it best. He said, “My job isn’t to predict the future, my job is to prevent the future. My job is to warn people to say, ‘Look, man, pay attention.'”And Cassandra was the figure from Greek Mythology that always knew the truth and nobody listened. And I fear that’s a lot of many science fiction writers, we get to say, “I told you so a lot.” We would much rather say, “Oh, no, you’re welcome. Glad we were able to save you all.” But we don’t get to say that as often as we wish.
JMW: No, we don’t. You’ve said that you start with a theme, and then build your cast and plot from there. How does that work in something like “Quantum Night”?
Robert J. Sawyer:: Yeah, “Quantum Night,” actually, I start with a topic first. The topic was simple, it was evil. And then I just read everything I could, I’m a science fiction writer about the science of evil. There’s lots of fantasy fiction about evil where it assumes evil as an elemental force or as personified in the devil or demons or Darth Vader or Sauron. Exactly. In science fiction, there’s not a lot about this notion of evil. So the first thing I did was asked myself, “Is there any science of evil?” And soon as you put that question into Google, you’re actually overwhelmed with research from the social sciences, from neuroscience, from psychology, from game theory, from all kinds of disparate areas. I knew I was on to something.
And what I came up with is that the standard, for my theme, the standard excuse for evil, why we tolerate it in all aspects of our lives, is this pernicious lie, and here’s my theme, it’s the most pernicious lie humanity has told itself is that you can’t change human nature, in other words, that we’re stuck with evil. We’re not. There are ways out of being evil and that’s what the novel explores.
JMW: So there is a way out of this mess?
Robert J. Sawyer: Well, I think there is. The number one thing is recognizing that it’s not just the difference of opinions. You know, we have a political spectrum in every country, Canada, United States, just a spectrum, that’s fine. But there is actually altruism and empathy, and they, I think, really demonstrably exist, you can show they exist, I think in the lab. And there also is self-interest and not caring about other people, psychopathy. The standard definition of a psychopath is someone who has no empathy. And in our definitions of good and evil, they’re not arbitrary. Good are people who do things that are self-sacrificing, evil are people who do things only for themselves. And in the end, humanity’s only hope of surviving is to promulgate the good and get rid of the evil. The evil may still exist but you don’t have to get it power, that was the big mistake and the most recent. I would say, people will disagree with me in the comment section, no doubt, but I would say, the biggest mistake was not that evil existed, but that here, or in Nazi Germany, or Pole Pot, and any number of times in between, evil was allowed to have power.
JMW: Yes. There’s a quote to the effect of all that is necessary for evil to win is for the good people to do nothing.
Robert J. Sawyer: To stand by and do nothing, exactly, exactly. And that’s you know, what happens. And in fact to my noble, “Quantum Night,” I essentially have three levels of human consciousness, it’s a novel about the science of consciousness, the neuroscience of consciousness. And one of those levels is just going along with crowd, be it like a bird in a flock or a fish in a school, you have no real thought, you just, “Okay, this guy is going this way, that guy is going that way. I’ll average the vectors and I’ll go that way,” which is what a bird does. It doesn’t stop and think, “Well, maybe it’s more interesting that way or it would help another bird if I went this way.” It’s just straight, mindless thinking. Birds do it, bees do it, and I think human beings, the great majority of them do it too unless they are made alert to the notion that just going along with the crowd is the worst thing they can do.
JMW: You talked about the research you did for this book. Is that level of research common across your novels or was it…?
Robert J. Sawyer: Across my novels, yes. And I just had lunch actually with a couple of my writer friends who are being pressured to do two novels a year, three novels a year, by their publishers. I’ve never done better than a novel a year and “Quantum Night” took three years to do. I love diving in and doing an enormous amount of research and structuring a very complex narrative. The current publishing environment doesn’t actually reward that very well, the publishing environment right now is all about rapid consumption. The more books you can get out, the faster you can get them out, the bigger your audience will be, it doesn’t matter if they’re ambitious or not.
And so I’m not sure that I fit in to the contemporary environment where there’s a lot of fungible, interchangeable, military science fiction, or space opera, or endless fantasy novels that are cookie cutter. But, yeah, the reality is that it is a lot of hard work to do a Rob Sawyer novel. I don’t know if in the end, it sells enough to justify the hours put into it but it is the kind of thing that I do right.
JMW: And obviously, the movies and TV, agree, or are they…?
Robert: I’ve been very lucky. At first, of course, that ABC made a TV series based on my novel Flashforward…
JMW: Flashforward, yes.
Robert J. Sawyer: …in 2009, 2010, and that was a fabulous experience. It also gave me what my friend, Joe Haldeman, another science fiction writer calls, I’ll be polite and call it, “F you money.” It lets me not have to jump through every hoop my publishers would want to hold up. It let me say, “I don’t want to do that,” or, “I don’t want to do immediate tie-in. I don’t want to write three books a year. I want to take my time and do a book that interests me.” I belong to that school that says, “You write the books that you want to read yourself. You don’t write the books that’ll make you the most money, you write the ones that you couldn’t find in Barnes & Nobel’s or on Amazon or up in Canada at Chapters that don’t exist, but that you’re dying to read.”
JMW: And obviously a lot of people are dying to read them, I think.
Robert J. Sawyer: Well, you know, I grouse and complain about this current state of publishing. But the reality is I’ve had a great run. I’ve been publishing novels since 1990, short stories since 1980, it’s been a lucrative career, it’s been a rewarding career, you started off by mentioning that I just won the Heinlein Award. Literally, last weekend I was inducted into the Order of Canada which is Canada’s highest civilian honor. It’s the closest thing Canada has to a knighthood, the first person ever to get for work in the science fiction genre. So I can’t really complain. But I guess it’s the prerogative, as you get older and older, to complain more and more that the world is not as you’d hoped it was going to turn out to be.
JMW: Well, I think Jeremiads and writers sort of go together, don’t they?
Robert J. Sawyer: You know, this is it. I think really people say that. You get Amazon reviews periodically, not professional reviews, you know, this isn’t a publisher’s weekly review. But Amazon will say, “Oh, keep your politics out of your books.” “Well, no, I’m not gonna do that. You know what? Go read somebody else’s books.” Amazon says they’ve got 6 million in their catalog, you don’t have to read mine if you’re not interested in that. But I want to talk about ideas and every idea ultimately is a political or philosophical idea. Whether, you know… Kim Stanley Robinson, a colleague of mine, a friend of mine, he wrote his Mars Trilogy, and in some ways he took the easy way out of…forgive me, Stan, if you’re listening. But the easy way out was to assume there was no life now or ever on Mars, so was ours do with what we wish and we terraform it in his book. But even, do we terraform Mars? That’s an interesting question. Do we make deserts bloom? The “Dedication in Dune” by Frank Herbert is to the dry-land ecologists who make deserts bloom, is that the right thing to do? To take a desert which is its own ecosystem and turn it into an oasis for humanity, or is that in fact the worst thing we can do. Every issue in science and technology ultimately is a political issue. And I think absolutely, as you say, the polemic, the argumentative novel, goes right back to the heart of this genre. What I just despair for is so much of science fiction is just pure escapism. I don’t want to read or write escapism.
JMW: Yes, but you do to a certain extent. Your novels are filled with mystery. And a lot of the narrative breath of your novels is the solution of a mystery which, you know, is, to a certain extent, frequently escapism. So let’s…
Robert J. Sawyer: Well, I don’t know about that. You know, I hear what you’re saying and I agree that the solution of a mystery, it’s an intellectual engagement. And I suppose you could say in the sense of doing Sudoku is escapism, or crossword, or whatever your thing is, but simply getting people to prize and appreciate the scientific method, logic, deduction, reasoning, rationality, that’s actually a pretty important mission in a country where…or in a world where there’s still all kinds of people who were creationists despite the over… We know that evolution occurred as well as we know any other fact in science. We know that climate change is happening at it’s human-caused, as well as we know any other fact in science, as well as we knew that the total solar eclipse was gonna happen a short time ago.
And reminding people that there is a process by which you can reach reliable conclusions that we live in a world where it’s not, “Yeah, I got this opinion, you got that opinion, eh who knows? How can we tell?” We can tell. And inculcating that mindset is actually the exact opposite of escapism, it’s didactic if anything.
JMW: What are you working on now?
Robert J. Sawyer: Yes. So I’ve been spending a lot of time researching “The Manhattan Project.” I think, in fact, I saw this phrase in reference to it just yesterday, that it was the hinge of the 20th century. It’s when we went from being technologically naïve to having the ability to destroy ourselves, the invention of atomic and then subsequently nuclear weapons, hydrogen bombs, following atomic bombs. And the morality of that, it never could have been done without the greatest scientific minds, and they chose to do it. And ultimately, remember the purpose of “Manhattan Project” was to defeat Hitler. And then Hitler did with one bullet what all of the allied forces were unable to do which is put an end to Hitler. He just decided to commit suicide. And nonetheless, we went and drop the atomic bomb after that on Japan, and I say, “We,” because “Manhattan Project” was United States, Great Britain, and Canada. There were three countries involved. We decided to do this which was not the original goal and some of that seemed to be just, “Hey, look what we invented, how cool are we,” the politics and the morality of that. So I’m working on long answer to the question, short answer is an alternate history of “The Manhattan Project.”
JMW: Okay. That will be fascinating. Is there anything you’d like to add?
Robert J. Sawyer: I think that I need people to get out there and be more evangelical about science fiction, it’s the only thing I want them to preach. Science fiction is drying up. When I started in this field, my second published, my first was born in 1990. Starting in ’92, my second publisher was Ace, known as Ace Science Fiction, in the day. Did six titles a month, five science fiction, and one fantasy. They now do five fantasy a month, and one science fiction except sometimes it’s an alternate history and it isn’t even technically science fiction, some would argue.
Science fiction is disappearing as a separate literary form. I sometimes quip that if you were to look at whatever replaces Wikipedia a thousand years from now, look up science fiction, it will say, “A 20th-century American literary genre.” It is endangered of disappearing as a separate literary art form. And so if you love science fiction, for God’s sake, it’s Christmas and Hanukkah and Kwanzaa are coming up, give a good science fiction, it doesn’t have to be mine, I don’t care, just give a good science fiction gift, you know, a book as a gift and help spread the word.
JMW: Okay. Well, with that, I will say thank you, Rob.
Jean Marie Ward writes fiction, nonfiction and everything in between, including art books, novels (2008 Indie Book double-finalist With Nine You Get Vanyr), and short stories such as WSFA Small Press Award finalist “Lord Bai’s Discovery” and “Personal Demons” in the award-winning anthology Hellebore and Rue. Her videos include author interviews and tutorials.