INTERVIEW: Science fiction author Robert J. Sawyer

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In the galaxy of science fiction writers, Robert J. Sawyer is a particularly shining star. Author of 23 novels, Sawyer has received all three of the most prestigious awards for best science fiction novel of the year: the Hugo, the Nebula, and the John W. Campbell Memorial Award. The Mississauga-based writer is one of only eight people in history to accomplish this feat, and the only Canadian.

Soon, the documents that gave rise to this body of work will reside at McMaster. In November 2011, it was announced that McMaster would be the official repository of Sawyer’s archives. In honour of the donation, this weekend McMaster will host a conference entitled “Science Fiction: The Interdisciplinary Genre.” In addition to Sawyer, the guest list includes several other heavyweights of Canadian science fiction, such as authors Julie E. Czerneda, Élizabeth Vonarburg, and Robert Charles Wilson, as well as editors John Robert Colombo and David Hartwell.

The Robert J. Sawyer Archives at McMaster will include manuscripts, correspondence, working papers, journals, and other materials. Yet, this massive transfer of documents began with just a single email. In March 2008, Carl Spadoni, former Director of The William Ready Division of Archives and Research Collections at McMaster, contacted Sawyer in conjunction with former University Librarian Jeffrey Trzeciak. “I was delighted to get this letter,” said Sawyer, “[Spadoni] went on to explain why he wanted the archives and he wanted them as part of McMaster’s very extensive holdings in Canadian literature.”

Other institutions, including the University of California, Riverside, the University of South Florida, and the Merril Collection of Science Fiction, Speculation and Fantasy, had previously sought Sawyer’s papers. Yet, McMaster’s pitch was unique. “When I started thinking about what I wanted my legacy to be and how I wanted to be remembered, I decided I wanted to be remembered for my contributions as a Canadian writer. That McMaster came to me recognizing that I was, in their estimation, an important part of the Canadian literary landscape, swung the balance,” said Sawyer.

Even before various groups began seeking Sawyer’s archives, however, the author was already preparing for such a donation. In fact, this was one of the first lessons he learned when he joined the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America in 1983. “Frederik Pohl, the great science fiction writer, had written an article in the handbook that said, save your papers, someday they’ll be worth something. You can donate them for a tax break to some institution. At that point, at age 23, I still had a lot of the stuff that I had written as a teenager,” said Sawyer.

He heeded this advice, even though few of his colleagues were so diligent. “So many science fiction writers that I’ve spoken to have said, wow you kept that stuff. And I said yeah, didn’t you read the handbook when you joined the organization?” said the decorated writer.

Five years have passed since McMaster first approached Sawyer. In the interim, however, he claims to have entered a transitional phase that makes his donation particularly timely. “I’m writing my 23rd novel right now,” he explained. “I don’t have any contracts to write any subsequent novels. Not because I can’t get them, but because I haven’t sought them. Right now, I’m vigorously pursuing more film and television work. I’m at a point where I may or may not continue writing lots and lots of novels.” Although he was quick to add that he was not announcing his retirement, the author felt that it was “a good emotional time and career milestone time to box up, and get out of the house all the things related to that phase.”

McMaster is still completing the archival work necessary to make these boxes available to library users. Nevertheless, Sawyer already has certain aspirations for how the contents will be used. “One of the things I want is for scholars to be able to trace the development of an idea,” he said, “and see how, through successive drafts, I’ve honed in on what the work was supposed to say thematically and philosophically, and got it to a degree of clarity that might not have been apparent in the initial drafts.” In this way, Sawyer hopes to demonstrate that, “fundamentally, science fiction is hard work. An enormous amount of effort goes into creating an ambitious work of science fiction.”

Dispelling the myth that science fiction is lightweight or hastily written literature is similarly a goal of this weekend’s conference. According to Sawyer, “When a big university like McMaster says we’re going to do a big, splashy conference about Canadian science fiction, or about science fiction, that sends a signal that its more than just something to be ghettoized.

Likewise, Sawyer hopes that the conference will demonstrate the considerable breadth of Canada science fiction literature. “I want to remind everybody who studies Canadian literature, and everybody who teaches Canadian literature, that that field includes science fiction by Canadian authors,” he said, “and hopefully remind them to include it in their course syllabi, or in their research papers if they are students.”

Sawyer cites the interdisciplinary nature of science fiction as another important takeaway for conference attendees. “There is no other field of writing that draws on so many disparate areas,” he said. “I was thrilled by the breadth of academic areas from which we had paper submissions. We have philosophers, theologians, game theorists, astronomers, computer scientists, geneticists; the variety of kinds of people who put in paper proposals was absolutely what we were looking to highlight.”

Among the scheduled presenters is Sawyer himself. In addition to delivering an inaugural address on Friday, Sawyer will also be speaking on Martian geology and paleontology in his most recent novel, Red Planet Blues.

This weekend, these insights into science fiction will be available to all comers. Registration for the conference is free and open to the general public, which pleases Sawyer. “McMaster really came to the table and said, let’s make it free,” he added. “I’m absolutely thrilled that McMaster recognized the value of having this be open to the public, and particularly to students.”

For many McMaster students, daily life at the university may seem humdrum, and far removed from the fantastic visions of science fiction. Yet, with its accessibility, diverse paper presentations, and engaging guest of honour, this weekend’s conference promises to be on-campus experience that is out of this world.

ONLINE EXCLUSIVE: Mac to host a conference for sci-fi community in honour of Sawyer.

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Author: Cooper Long

Cooper is the Sil's assistant ANDY editor.

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