Special Feature: Author Interview with Robert J. Sawyer
Lesley L. Smith
Robert J. Sawyer has won almost too many awards to count. He's one of only eight writers in history to win all three of the science-fiction field's top honors for best novel of the year: the 2003 Hugo Award for Hominids, the 1996 Nebula Award for The Terminal Experiment, and the 2006 John W. Campbell Memorial Award for Mindscan. Rob is also the only writer in history to win the top SF awards in the United States, China, Japan, France, and Spain. The ABC TV series FlashForward is based on his novel of the same name. Rob has taught writing at several universities including the University of Toronto and the National University of Ireland, been Writer-in-Residence at various venues and given hundreds of talks around the world. He's a renowned futurist and also edits Robert J. Sawyer Books, the science-fiction imprint of Red Deer Press. The final book of his new WWW trilogy, WWW:Wonder was recently released.
Your new trilogy, the WWW Trilogy, is compelling on many levels. It seems like you've taken your writing to a new level with its multiple very-well-characterized protagonists, fascinating technology, intriguing plotting, and important themes such as the nature of consciousness and morality.
Certainly the protagonist, Webmind, is very fascinating and empathetic. How difficult was it to create this non-human character and why did you write his point-of-view in first person?
Thank you for the kind words. Getting Webmind's voice right, at all the stages of his development-from his first stirrings of sentience in a state of complete sensory depravation to his vastly intelligent, incredibly powerful mature state-was the hardest writing task I'd ever posed for myself. It turned out the former-writing a being without senses-was harder than the latter; after all, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle proved over a century ago with Sherlock Holmes that one could write convincingly about entities who are more intelligent than the author.
We humans seem to be captivated with Artificial Intelligence; why do you think that is?
You're right; we totally are. Honestly, there's a bit of me that thinks it's a genetically imprinted species memory: until 27,000 years ago, when the Neanderthals disappeared, we were only one of multiple intelligent species on this planet; we were in routine contact with Neanderthals, and, before that, with other branches of the Hominin bush. There's something in us that expects there to be other forms of intelligence lurking in the background. Our fascination with both artificial and extraterrestrial intelligence may have come out of that.
Also, it's almost fifty years since Gordon Moore articulated Moore's law: computing power doubles every eighteen months. We've had that as the background of our life for so long, I think we've all been just waiting for AI to emerge; we know in our bones that it's inevitable.
You seem extremely knowledgeable about AI and a lot of other technology for that matter; how do you handle research for your novels?
It's changed over the twenty-plus years I've been a novelist. Research used to be much harder. Now, like everyone else, I do most of it online. But I also spend a lot of time talking face to face with working scientists and engineers-not to mention philosophers, doctors, and other interesting people-about what they're currently working on and finding exciting. For the WWW trilogy, I had great talks with consciousness researcher Stuart Hameroff over a lovely dinner in L.A., and with AI pioneer Marvin Minsky in his lab at MIT. I also try to attend a couple of interesting scientific conferences each ranging from the Paleoanthropology Society to the famed Toward a Science of Consciousness Conference in Tucson, where I gave a keynote last year, but also sat in on many of the papers.
Given the limitations of the speed-of-light, what do you think is our best chance for meeting a non-human intelligence?
Seth Shostak of the SETI Institute, astrophysicist Ray Jayawardhana, and I recently participated in "The Great Extraterrestrial Debate" in Toronto. Seth and Ray basically took the position that we're right on the cusp of finding intelligent life in the universe, but I'm not at all sure. We've been doing SETI for fifty years, and found nothing. I do suspect that extraterrestrial intelligence exists, but whether we'll detect it this century or not, I don't know. But I am convinced we'll have self-aware computers before this century is even half over. I'm firmly convinced that there is nothing mystical about human consciousness; it's just an emergent property of sufficient complexity. So our best chance at meeting a non-human intelligence-setting aside, of course, conversations with our primate cousins, which I deal with at length in the course of the WWW trilogy-will be artificial intelligence, either deliberately designed or spontaneously emerging.
In addition to the high-tech aspects of the story, the WWW Trilogy also shows us the adventures of some unique human characters. I love the teenaged Caitlin Decter character, she's so spirited and realistic. Considering you've never been a teenaged blind girl, how the heck did you pull this off?
Thanks! She was a real challenge to write, but I totally fell in love with her; she's my favorite of all the hundreds of characters I've created over the years. I'm lucky enough to have four terrific nieces, and I've watched them with a novelist's eye for years. I also read tens of thousands of words of blog postings and LiveJournal entries by teenage girls, to get the flavor of the way they write, and I sometimes do high-school classroom visits, and that lets me see young women interacting in a way that even their parents don't normally get to see. And, of course, I had some teenage girls read the book in manuscript, too, just to be sure.
Another unique character is Caitlin's autistic father, Malcolm Decter. As more people are diagnosed with the disorder, autism has become a very timely issue. How tricky was it to create this character?
Asperger's Syndrome and other autism spectrum disorders are common among science-fiction fans; I've known a lot of Aspies over the years. They're also common in computing circles, and I've spent a lot of time, there. Malcolm was actually very easy to write, because I knew so many real-world counterparts of him. And I guess I'm of the school of thought that autism is just another way of being human; it's not a disease-in some cases, it's a gift.
Caitlin's adventures in gaining sight are really the catalysts that kick off the creation of Webmind and all the rest; the interweaving of the plots and subplots is done masterfully in the trilogy. How did you keep track of all this?
Thanks! Mostly I just juggled it in my head-but it was indeed a lot to keep track of. For shuffling plot beats around, I used a Windows computer program called Writer's Blocks (http://writersblocks.com). I see they've just released version 4.0, but I have 3.0.
The nature of consciousness is theme running throughout the trilogy, from Helen Keller's soul dawn to Julian Jaynes' theory of the Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, to, obviously, Webmind's experiences. What is it about science fiction that lends itself so well to exploring these big-picture issues?
I think science fiction is misnamed; it should really be called philosophical fiction-phi-fi instead of sci-fi! It's all about the big ideas. Science-fiction readers are the best-informed, most-intelligent readers on the planet; they like to be challenged intellectually-and that is wonderfully liberating for a writer. Instead of the kind of slow-pitch that much science documentary television engages in-which is tedious for anyone who knows much of anything about science-in a science-fiction book, you can dive in with both feet and immediately get to an exploration of what something really means, exploring its myriad ramifications.
One riveting idea of WWW: Wonder is a paradigm shift in human culture. As Malcolm says, "...the way our generation lived our lives-hiding who we really were, ...living in fear of being shamed for nothing more than doing what almost everyone else was doing anyway-well as Caitlin would say, that is so over." Do you think our society is on the verge of a 'fight versus sight' paradigm shift?
Yes, I do, and I'm urging that it happen sooner rather than later. We're at the tipping point: the human race has the power to make the world a much better place, and I want to do my small part to help usher in that transition-because if we don't take positive proactive steps, if we let the bullies and the terrorists and the science deniers and the Luddites and the fundamentalists win, then the world is doomed. And I don't want that; I want us to go on and on-and this trilogy is an attempt to provide one road map for that.
I'm impressed that you weren't afraid to address such hot-button issues as theism/atheism, gay marriage, abortion, and even sexting. Are you afraid you'll turn-off readers? What would you recommend to aspiring writers in this regard?
I would rather have readers have a strong reaction to my work-some loving it and others hating it-than be blandly acceptable to everyone. My advice to beginning writers is this: your job isn't to appeal to the masses, because nothing challenging ever will; rather, your job is to be the favorite writer of a narrow segment of the population.
And, let's face it, it's a cop-out to call science fiction "the literature of ideas" and posture that it deals with "the big questions," then chicken out when it comes to hot-button topics. You've got to weigh in on these real-world issues, or you're not doing your job.
I've heard of the thermodynamic arrow of time and the cosmological arrow of time, but your idea of a moral arrow through time: "the same force-complexity-that produces consciousness also naturally generates morality, and that as interdependence increases, both intelligence and morality will increase." is new to me. Are you a dreamer?
You may say I'm a dreamer-but I'm not the only one. My own thinking on these issues has been informed by many other people, including the Jesuit paleontologist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin and nonfiction author Robert Wright, who wrote Nonzero: The Logic of Human Destiny and more recently The Evolution of God. Bob and I were recently both speaking at a public-policy conference in Washington, DC., sponsored by the New America Foundation; it was the first time we'd met, and we've become friends. But, yes, I'm a dreamer, and an optimist, but I'm also a realist, I think-and I don't think those are contradictory things to be.
The wonder of the title WWW: Wonder has to do with a peaceful revolution which is catalyzed by Webmind, and it makes me wonder (sorry!) if Homo sapiens need a nonhuman to truly teach us right from wrong. What do you think?
Oh, no; I think exactly the opposite. Webmind learned his morality from a very human mentor, Caitlin Decter. We have the answers within us, although I do think it takes an effort for us to overcome our natural tendencies toward competition and aggression, which the Darwinian process instilled in us. But we are moral beings, and we are capable, I'm firmly convinced, of true altruism, not just the oxymoronic "reciprocal altruism"-which is nothing but enlightened self-interest-that most evolutionary theorists talk about.
There are a lot of fun pop-culture references in the trilogy, from Planet of the Apes, to Star Trek, to 2001: A Space Odyssey, to Buck Rogers and many others. This makes the story much richer, in my opinion. Why don't more writers do this?
Frankly, I'm baffled that they don't. It's such an easy and effective way to ground a story in our here and now. Pop culture is the mythology of our era, the shared stories and tropes that form the backdrop to everything we do. Pop-culture references are touchstones; they resonate with us. Also, frankly, it's a bit arrogant for science-fiction writers to disdain pop culture; we are purveyors of pop culture ourselves. And yet most science fiction is set in an alternate universe in which Jules Verne, H.G. Wells, Hugo Gernsback, Isaac Asimov, and Arthur C. Clarke never existed: you almost never see a character in a science-fiction novel who is a science fiction fan or anything in the story that acknowledges that this genre-and this mode of discourse-exists. If, on my good days, I see a tad further than those who've gone before me, it's because I stand on the shoulders of giants: the creators of science-fiction visions from generations past, and I feel it's honorable to directly acknowledge my debt to them in the pages of my books.
You recently had a foray into the world of television with FlashForward. What did you take away from that experience?
I loved, loved, loved the experience. I was treated with respect, well paid, made a lot of friends amongst the staff writers, cast, and crew, consulted on every episode including the pilot, wrote one of the episodes, and had a little cameo in the pilot. It was one of the best experience of my life, and my only regret is that it ended after one year. I'd love to get involved in more television writing, and, indeed, just came back from Los Angeles were I had some very interesting meetings toward that end.
Do you think the human race will survive when the sun turns into a red giant? As a futurist, do you have any suggestions on how can we facilitate this?
Oh, yes, indeed. Humanity can indeed outlive the sun-and, if we survive to the end of this century, we probably will. In this century, we'll either solve poverty, ease international tensions, deal with global environmental change, and see to it that all human beings share fundamental rights-in which case we're on our way to being a multi-billion-year civilization-or we'll collapse in a morass of class warfare, environmental degradation, and war, and see the end of our civilization. And I think we will opt for the former; I look forward to a sunnier tomorrow.
What's your next project?
I've just delivered my 21st novel, Triggers, to my editors; it's a novel about post-traumatic stress disorder and the linking of minds-and it'll be out the first week of April in 2012.
Thanks so much! This has been fascinating!
Readers can find WWW:Wake, WWW:Watch, and WWW:Wonder at all major booksellers.
Rob's website is: sfwriter.com .