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Metro Pulse The Stuff of Science Fiction

Award-winning author Robert J. Sawyer talks about Cons, conflicts, and Canadians.

By Adrienne Martini

NOVEMBER 30, 1998:  "My God..." said Rissa.

"Tell me that's not a weapon," said Jag, rising to his feet and standing with both sets of arms crossed behind his back. "We would have been incinerated if we hadn't moved the ship."

"Could it—could it be the Slammers?" asked Lianne.

It's the kind of passage every science fiction fan dreams of, full of threatening aliens and spacecraft and genetic manipulations. This is the hard stuff, text that is built upon solid science, a respect for physics, and a drive to illustrate the interaction between man and machine. It's not mere pulp. Pulp would imply that the writer went for the splash and sacrificed plausibility for a lurid story. Instead this passage, and Starplex the novel it is excerpted from, is a finely-crafted piece of prose that engages your sense of wonder while telling a compelling story. Canadian science fiction author Robert J. Sawyer has built his career on this kind of skilled work.

And what a career it has been. Sawyer has been nominated four times for the Hugo, the People's Choice Award for science fiction and fantasy. In 1995, he won the Nebula, which could be considered the Academy Award of the genre, for The Terminal Experiment. ("It jumped my career ahead 10 years from a single sentence announced from a podium at an awards ceremony," Sawyer says.) The Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA) recently voted Sawyer into their president's office. It's all amazing when you consider that he's only been professionally working at this fiction thing for just under 10 years.

SF fans will have the opportunity to meet the much-lauded Sawyer at ConCat 10, a convention of genre aficionados held by the Knoxville Area Science Fiction Association over Thanksgiving weekend. Sawyer is the Guest of Honor, an invited author who will "preside" over the convention, speaking on panels about his work and rubbing elbows with the assembled fans. Why would Sawyer agree to leave his work and home to come to Knoxville?

"They asked," Sawyer says by phone. His accent, which sounds a bit like News Radio's Dave Foley, places him squarely in the Great White North. "The idea of getting to go a little bit south in November appeals greatly when you're up in Toronto. I have been to Tennessee several times before—there is a publisher in Nashville that has done a couple of limited editions of one of my early books. And I loved Knoxville the time I was in it briefly in the past. So when somebody says, 'Would you like an all-expense paid trip for you and your wife down south in November?' the answer is almost always yes."

For the uninitiated, the idea of a convention, or Con, can be an odd one. Fans of the genre gather to celebrate the works and their creators. Some do this through panel discussions, some by elaborate costumes that pay homage to favorite creations, and some by boisterous parties at the hotel in the off-hours. Still, the most unique thing about Cons is that authors, even oft-awarded authors like Sawyer, hob-nob with their fans. It is difficult to picture John Updike or Tom Wolfe jetting into this by choice.

"It's just a nice bit of recognition, that people are enjoying your work,' Sawyer says. "One of the big things about being an author is that it's a lonely profession. You sit alone—I mean, I was alone here until you called, yours is the first human voice I've heard for hours. When some people say we like your work so much that we'd like to fly you across the country, or even internationally as the Knoxville crowd is doing, because we'd like to tell you face-to-face how much we enjoy it—that means an awful lot."

While all Cons are an opportunity for consumers and creators to cross-pollinate, each Con still has its own personality, and there is a noticeable difference between the Cons in Canada and the U.S.

"I notice is that in the States it's getting harder and harder to find conventions that just celebrate the written word, that just celebrate books without also being a Star Trek or X-Files or Star Wars convention. In Canada, we still sort of keep the distance between the two. I think that has to do with the perceived differences between the two countries. In Canada, we look at American pop culture as something we have to keep a defense against lest it overwhelms us.

"We embrace books. There's always been a tendency to think of books as an international media because, even if my books are published in the States, which they are, I also have a British publisher, German publisher, Japanese, Dutch, Bulgarian, etc. Books are very international and have different editions, even translations, and movies and television everybody views as Hollywood. No matter where there made in the United States, it's a Hollywood product.

"So, in Canada, we still have a lot of conventions and a lot of fans who are purists about literary SF books. In the States—I don't speak of Knoxville in particular because I haven't been there yet—but I find it's much harder to get together a group of SF fans and have them actually be talking about the latest books, instead of the latest movies or this week's episode of Deep Space Nine."

In fact, there are even fairly large stylistic differences between the books themselves. Even if any given book shares a language, it still may vary according to its origin—something that can be easily overlooked by those who underestimate our neighbor to the north.

An academic once said, "'American science fiction has happy endings, Canadian science fiction has sad endings, and British science fiction has no endings at all.' I think there's a lot of truth in that," Sawyer says. "I've certainly encountered it. My [American] editor likes to see a very positive resolution at the end of the book. As a Canadian, I think I'm not predisposed to write that. I think it has to do, actually, with the differences between the two countries. The United States is the world's only Superpower now and is quite used to getting its way, having no problem that is insurmountable.

"Canada is a middle power. We're small but respected. We're very used to, at the conclusion of hours of international diplomacy, reaching, at best, compromises. We rarely win, we often end up being halfway happy and halfway unhappy with how things turn out.

"I think that is reflected in not just my work but the work that other Canadian science fiction writers do. We tend to have more ambiguous endings, where the hero may have given it the best possible shot but never actually achieved what he was trying to achieve.

"Fortunately, I don't think it has hurt sales. It seems the Canadian way of looking at things is going down a little better in the States than the American publishers thought it might, which is very gratifying."

Sawyer, however, is more than a writer. Currently, as president of SFWA, he has become a voice for speculative fiction writers everywhere.

"SFWA has 1,400 members in 23 countries around the world," Sawyer says. "We have about a $250,000 budget. Our job is to advocate for better working conditions for writers. As an example, right now we have a [magazine] publisher that has decided it wants to bring out a CD-ROM with all of its back issues. We're arguing right now that you can't do that, you didn't have a contract to issue them on CD-ROM, all you had a contract for was to put them in print.

"I'm the point man. I go in there and I'm actually talking directly to the president of the publishing company involved, trying to negotiate a settlement. Or, really what we're trying to do is, to get them to say, 'We aren't going to do this.'

"Another example is just in the past month, literally in the past month. Science fiction book publishing contracts have started to include clauses related to print-on-demand, meaning that your publisher doesn't need to keep your book in the warehouse, they just have to print it when somebody orders a single copy. They can do that economically now.

"My association is arguing that print-on-demand is not the same thing as being in print. For an author to make money off of his or her books, the book has to be in print in bookstores, people have to be buying it and you get royalties. If all it is is a record in a database that they might print out at some point, it's not generating any money for the author. But the publishers are asserting that nonetheless, because it's available for printing, it's still technically in print and the author can't get the rights back. We want to get the rights back so that the author can resell it to another publisher who might actually be able to get it into bookstores."

Despite the headaches that go along with the business of being a writer, the Cons are still a joy to Sawyer, particularly meeting those who read his books.

"Ninety-nine times out of 100, it's wonderful. Absolutely wonderful," he chuckles. "Because it's a lonely profession, and because almost all of the readers want to meet you because they liked what you did. The problem is that there is that one percent of readers who are obsessive about an author and his work. That's the scary thing.

"You have people who sort of glom on to you at the beginning of the weekend and literally not let you go to the bathroom without following until the end of the weekend. Even worse are the ones who—and I've had this happen—show up on my doorstep. There's no other word for it, it's frightening.

"But it has nothing to do with science fiction, and I want to make that point because it's often said that science fiction fans are weirdoes. There is one percent fringe in any area. And in science fiction, the only thing that makes that fringe able to get at you a little more easily is because you are accessible at conventions. You don't have to scale a fence to get at me the way you do to get at John Grisham. I'm easy to find if you care to track me down. That can be very disconcerting. I know authors who have just given up going to conventions altogether because the one percent spoils it for them.

"Fortunately for me, I find it a tonic. I find it really buoying to meet readers who are enthusiastic and really enjoyed what I did. It energizes me to go back and do more good work for those people."

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