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Publisher: Bluejack

December, 2005 : Interview:

A Conversation with Robert J. Sawyer

Robert J. Sawyer is the author of seventeen best-selling novels, including the Nebula-winning The Terminal Experiment, Factoring Humanity, Frameshift, Calculating God, Mindscan, and the Neanderthal Parallax trilogy of novels: Hominids (winner of the Hugo), Humans, and Hybrids. He has been heralded as "the dean of Canadian science fiction" by the Ottawa Citizen, and has won every major SF award from the United States, Japan, France, and Spain. In fact, he is the only writer ever to have done so. Rob is highly regarded as a speaker for various Canadian television shows, and has taught writing at several universities. He has also been Writer-in-Residence at both the Richmond Hill Public Library in Toronto and The Merril Collection of Science Fiction, Speculation, and Fantasy at the Toronto Public Library. This interview was conducted at Dragon*Con 2005, in Atlanta, Georgia.

James Palmer: What is your definition of science fiction?

Robert J. Sawyer: That's a very contentious question, but I do have a definition. Science fiction is the mainstream literature of an alternative reality. I think that actually does better than most of the other attempts that people have tried to define this thing. It is told just like any other kind of story, as if the reader of the story was already familiar with the milieu of the story, the backdrop of the story. But of course, the reader actually isn't, so the special storytelling trick is to talk—if your story is set on Mars in the year 2500, you're writing to an audience that is already familiar with Mars in 2500 and you just plunge them into this the way you would plunge them into a story set in New York City in 2005, without stopping to say, "Well, you know, New York City was founded in this year, it's named after York in England." You don't build up the background and dump the background information on them. You assume they're already familiar with it. One of the reasons why Star Wars is fantasy as opposed to science fiction is that it assumes its audience is not familiar with the background, which is why you have the great crawls at the beginning of the film to tell you what the situation is. If it was a science fiction film, you would've been dropped into the story without ever having any introduction to the universe you were in, and you would pick it up by gathering clues as you go along through the narrative. So the mainstream literature of an alternative reality works for me.

JP: It's like John W. Campbell said, it should be like you're reading a newspaper from the future.

RJS: Yes. Absolutely, I agree with that. And I don't agree that any definition of science fiction has to have "science" as part of the definition. You know, Isaac Asimov defined it as "that branch of literature that deals with the responses of human beings to changes in science and technology." I think that's right for what Isaac Asimov wrote, but it isn't right for what an awful lot of science fiction writers wrote. Michael Moorcock does not write about the responses of human beings to changes in science and technology, yet is clearly a science fiction writer.

Robert J. Sawyer

Robert J. Sawyer
(Photo © 2005, Carolyn Clink)

JP: People seem to think that science fiction equals "not real." I've run into that attitude from people. In fact, a couple of weeks ago on the news I heard a local scientist say recently that intelligent design was science fiction. What do you say to those people?

RJS: It pisses me off because there's this general use of the term "science fiction" to be equivalent to crazy, far-out non-science, and it's not that. We have a field in which some of the principal practitioners are working scientists, like Gregory Benford, who has a Ph.D. in Physics; and David Brin, who has a Ph.D. in Physics; and Joe Haldeman, who has a Ph.D. in Astronomy and so forth. You have these people who are real, working scientists writing in this field and those of us who aren't working scientists—I used to be a science and technology journalist. We know whereof we speak, and we're very serious about the science and technology content of our work, and being reasonable in our extrapolations of what might happen in the future.

I once upon a time thought I would try to organize a committee of writers who would write to newspapers and magazines every time they said something was "just science fiction" as a way of dismissing it as far-out and crazy. And I ultimately realized that would be the full-time work of all of us for the rest of our lives, just hunting down and objecting to that usage of the term. It is enormously frustrating because it's bandied around by people who have never read science fiction and they're the ones, when they say something is "just science fiction" or that is bad science fiction, who are misusing science and misunderstanding what they are talking about. We're the ones who do what we do with accuracy and care. They're speaking not with accuracy, not with care when they tar science fiction with a brush of being impossible, outrageous, unreasonable, and unbelievable. It is none of those things.

JP: Because of that, do you think that's the reason science fiction can talk about some of these controversial issues, that it's "safe" literature in a sense?

RJS: Going right back to H.G. Wells. Science fiction's grandmother was Mary Shelley, who wrote Frankenstein, and even there, she was talking about stuff at a polite remove. She was talking about women's roles in society. The most valuable contribution women have to the human race is that they control reproduction. And they do it with a certain ethical authority—in her world view and the world view of her time, a God-given ethical authority—and when a man mucks with reproduction, with creating life as Victor Frankenstein does, things go wrong. And yet if you want to, in a mainstream sort of novel, say "Hey, you know, women actually are of significant and supreme value to the human race," it becomes extremely political and people decide from page one, or even from the title, do you want to read a book about how important women are to the human race? As soon as you see the title, you decide whether or not you want to read that book and you don't get the message across. Well, Mary Shelley knew she could talk about a very profound feminist issue without even having a major female character in the book, by doing it in the context of a different kind of novel, which she invented—the science fiction novel.

H.G. Wells wanted to talk about British imperialism and what it felt like to be under the foot of an uncaring, technologically superior power. To try and tell his countrymen, "Hey. Stop for a second and think about what the people we're doing this to in India and elsewhere might feel like." But if "Why British Colonialism Is Bad" was the title of his book, people would either say, "Yeah, I agree," then there's no point in reading the book, they already agree. Or "No, that's not for me," and then the ones who want to read the book aren't reading it. So science fiction, right from its roots, from its grandmother Mary Shelley, to its father a generation or two later, H.G. Wells, has been about using this disguise or this remove from the mainstream to let us get at really important issues, sneaking them up on the reader so that the reader's preconceptions are left at the door. And indeed, I mean, intelligent design is everywhere: on the cover of Newsweek and Time and all of that, but science fiction was talking about it in my novel Calculating God in the year 2000, five years ahead of it hitting all the front pages of all the newspapers in the world. It was very much something you could've written about and not had it be a polarized debate if you'd been reading science fiction.

JP: You write hard SF, like Stephen Baxter and Arthur C. Clarke and some of these guys, but you have a B.A. degree. Are people surprised by this when they find out?

RJS: Yeah. If I had lived in the United States—I'm a Canadian, born and raised—I probably would have a Ph.D., and I'd probably be an academic, and I probably wouldn't be writing science fiction. I wanted to be a scientist. In particular, I wanted to be a vertebrate paleontologist who specialized in dinosaurs. I'm a kid at heart and I never outgrew my love of dinosaurs. And as I was finishing up high school and preparing to embark on that career, I discovered that at that time, and that was the late 1970s, there were only three dinosaurian vertebrate paleontologists in all of Canada, my whole country. And the chance that if I decided I was going to take the ten-year path of going from the end of high school to the end of a Ph.D., that one of them would say, "Oh, Rob's arrived on the scene, I'd better retire," or "It's time for me to switch jobs and make a space for Rob," was very, very slim. Because I lived in a country that actually didn't have a lot of opportunities for people in pure research-oriented science, I looked for another outlet. And I thought that the crazy dream was being a science fiction writer and the practical dream was being a full-time, working scientist. It turned out that there are more opportunities to be a science fiction writer—in fact there were almost none in Canada at that time, and I thought "Well, it doesn't make any difference that I live in Canada because I would be writing for an American publisher and there are hundreds who do it for American publishers full time." So I thought I would pursue that, but I wanted to have a fallback; I wanted to have the ability to do something other than write science fiction, so I studied screen writing and script writing. Not so much to write for movies and TV, but because there's a very good market in writing for corporate video and corporate training films and all that kind of stuff. So my degree is in Radio and Television Arts from Ryerson University in Toronto. And yeah, it does surprise people.

On the other hand, you look at Frederik Pohl, one of the great hard science fiction writers of all time, and he never even went to high school, let alone had a university degree. So sure there's a disparity, but also you mentioned specific names and I don't want this to become associated with any specific names, but there's a fact that—not to speak ill of the dead—but some of the hardest SF writers of all time, Robert Forward being an example: Ph.D., working scientist, highly respected in his industry, couldn't write a character to save his life. The utter divorcing of the people who concentrated so hard on actual hard science from being in touch with the humanities has led to this kind of hard science fiction that's unreadable to anybody except a real hard science nut. Robert Forward doesn't have any readers outside the science fiction genre without some really fascinating character exploration. There's just none of that in Forward. He doesn't even try to do it, and, technically, was probably incapable of doing it. He concentrated in a certain area. And maybe science fiction is well served by writers who have a familiarity with and understanding of the sciences but also the humanities. I think that's where we get those two words getting equal balance: "science" and "fiction," rather than it all being "SCIENCE!" all capital letters with "fiction" in a little tiny typeface.

JP: How difficult was it to get the grounding in science you needed in order to write hard science fiction?

RJS: There's a whole industry devoted to telling the general public, people who aren't scientists, about science these days. In the '70s, it wasn't that big. When I was in high school, Nova was on PBS. Well it's still on PBS, but there's also the Discovery Channel, and the National Geographic Channel and there are New York Times bestsellers constantly coming out that are science nonfiction books. The first really big breakthrough one was Stephen Hawking's A Brief History of Time, but now we have Simon Singh's The Big Bang on the New York Times list, Brian Greene's The Elegant Universe on the New York Times bestseller list, plus a PBS miniseries to go with it. Again, in the seventies when I was starting out, Discover magazine was just starting, and Scientific American was very dry and unreadable. Now Scientific American is lively and readable, Discover and other magazines like it are widely available on newsstands. New Scientist, which I think is the single most important magazine for a science fiction writer to read, is a wonderful magazine. It comes out every week from Great Britain and is on every newsstand. New Scientist is part of this whole infrastructure of making really cutting-edge science understandable.

Early in the twentieth century, I think it was Bohr and Einstein—I'm sure I'm telling the joke wrong—but Bohr and Einstein were talking, and Einstein said, "You know, there are only three people in the world who really understand quantum theory," and Bohr looked blank for a second, and Einstein said, "What?" And Bohr said, "Well, I'm just trying to think of who the third is." Today, there are tens of millions of people who aren't scientists who understand quantum theory, because of this infrastructure of popular science. In fact, Tor, my publisher, has been after me for some time to write a popular science book for them. Stephen Baxter has already done that. He wrote one of these celebrity science biographies that are becoming popular, where people write about a famous scientist to make their life's work accessible. Stephen did one about a geologist who sort of revolutionized our understanding of the Earth. He was a British geologist, and Tor has published that. So I don't think it's hard at all. All you have to do is be willing to do the research. And I do an awful lot of research directly, face-to-face with working scientists who are like anybody, they are happy to talk about their profession to somebody who's sincerely interested in what they have to say.

JP: What writers influenced you?

RJS: It's funny, because I've said all this stuff about getting the art half and the fiction half into it, but the writers that I grew up with were the quintessential hard SF writers, starting with Arthur C. Clarke, who was the first big influence on me. And Isaac Asimov, who was also a huge influence on me. And moving into my teenage years to Larry Niven, who was sort of the quintessential—of that era—hard science fiction writer. And I read Robert Forward, who I mentioned, and Hal Clement. The quintessential hard SF writers. It was only as I started to get older—my first novel didn't come out until I was 30—that I got to wonder more and more about character and about how this stuff impacted human beings and what it did to the human heart. And so, although I still admire those writers greatly, I don't find them particularly nutritive to read these days. But it was no doubt that I came directly out of the camp of reading the Campbellian—the ones who influenced by John Campbell—hard science fiction writers.

JP: How did the Robert J. Sawyer Books line come about?

RJS: I did a collection of twenty-two short stories for a Canadian small press. Very deliberately. Tor would've happily published my collection, but I had seen what had happened for a couple of other authors that they'd done collections for, and they freely admit this is the case too. I won't mention who the authors were, but they were significant Tor writers whose novels were doing well in hardcover. One of them had recently had number one on the Locus bestseller's list for a novel of his in hardcover. And then Tor did their collection in hardcover. Now nothing against Tor. Tor does a wonderful job, and to their credit, is one of the few publishers that will do short-story collections. But what happened was, if a short-story collection is really, really successful, will sell one-fifth, twenty percent, of the copies of a novel. There just aren't that many people who want to buy short-story collections. What happens is that the bookstore clerks will look and see that, OK, two books ago you were way up here in sales, then there's an eighty percent drop in sales. So when it comes time to order your next book after that, what are they gonna do? They're gonna order only a few copies of your next book, because they don't see that they're apples and oranges in comparison. All they see is that the last hardcover from Tor, by this author, plummeted in sales, so they will only order a few copies of it. I wanted to avoid that trap, so I went to a Canadian publisher and had the book done in hardcover, where I'm well enough known in Canada that everybody knows—I'm a best-selling national, top-ten, mainstream author in Canada—that there wasn't going to be a problem with them confusing my Canadian hardcover from a Canadian small press with my imported American Tor hardcover, so I wasn't gonna hurt my numbers in Canada they way they would've been hurt in the States. And the book was done in Canada, solely for the Canadian market. Afterwards, another Canadian publisher approached me and said, "Well, what if we do a trade paperback, which is a large-format paperback, for the North American market of the same collection?" And I said, "Trade paperback? That's interesting, because I worry about my hardcover numbers in the States; I worry about my mass market paperback numbers in the States. I don't give a crap about my trade paperback numbers in the States." Because the only things that are done in trade paperback of mine in the States are reissues of older titles, and they'll sell modestly regardless. So I said, "Yeah, OK," and we did that. The publisher was called Red Deer Press. It's been around for thirty years, a well-established Canadian small press, and the thing just sold huge numbers in Canada and the United States, to my surprise, and did way better than most short-story collections do. And so I was talking to the publisher about science fiction and we just hit it off so well about what we thought science fiction should be and should do and all of that, that he said to me, "You know, I really want to have my own science fiction line. I was glad to do this book, but I'd like to do books on a regular basis. And of course we don't have a lot of money, we're a small press," and I said, "But I'm a busy, busy man." And he said, "But we'll call it Robert J. Sawyer Books," and I said, "I'm listening." (Laughs).

And we came to a deal that I would do it, and I've now bought for them five books, and four of them are out and the fifth one is going to be out next spring, and we're doing two hardcovers a year. The reviews have been fabulous, the books physically look great, and I've kind of had a little specialty. On the one hand, I'm doing first novels, which are really hard to break into the U.S. market right now. It's very tight. The big publishers are dropping authors. Authors they've been with for five or six years who aren't developing a big sales following are just being told, "Sorry. Thanks for playing, but next contestant please," and are out of the game, and two of the novels I've done are by authors who were in that category, who had good books, what I thought were first-rate books, by major U.S. publishers and had been dropped because of poor sales. And I'm like, "No, you don't." If the field was healthier these guys would never had been dropped, and they had just fallen through the cracks. So I bought the second books from those two guys, relaunched them in hardcover with new introductions and a good push behind them, and those books are doing very well.

And the other thing that I've been doing is first novels by authors who in both cases had novels that had been sitting on editors' desks at major U.S. publishers for in one case three years and in the other case four years, waiting for a response, and I said, "This is just nuts. Tell the editor that you've got somebody who will publish them and they should make their decision." And in both cases the editors said, "It's gonna be years still before I get around to looking at these unsolicited manuscripts," and so we bought them off the desks of other editors. And that's my two specialties: revitalizing careers that were killed by the vicissitudes of the American market, and by first novels that should've been major finds for U.S. editors and they're just swamped by so much stuff that it falls through the cracks. The line's doing very well and I'm having a great time editing it.

JP: Are you looking for books that evoke a particular feeling or share your ideas, or just something you think will sell?

RJS: I'm doing only science fiction. I think science fiction has lost too much ground in publishing to fantasy. And even in the awards. You know, they just gave out the Hugo Award for this year, and it went to a fantasy novel. They gave out the Hugo Award last year, and it went to a fantasy novel. It may only mean something to me in my mind, but I'm the most recent winner of a Hugo Award for best novel for science fiction, because it's been three years now since it went to a science fiction novel. And we're just losing any distinction. Science fiction doesn't have an award for itself anymore, there's no publisher that just does science fiction, and for most of the publishers that do both science fiction and fantasy, the tail is wagging the dog.

Fantasy has become the big part of it. At Tor, Tor lives on the proceeds of Robert Jordan and Terry Goodkind, and everything they do in science fiction is funded by the great success of their huge fantasy superstars. So I said to Denise Johnson, the publisher of Red Deer, that I want to do science fiction. I think it is a vigorous, prominent, important genre and it's getting lost in the shuffle of U.S. publishing these days, and British publishing too. So it's gonna be purely science fiction, no fantasy. And I think that science fiction has been hurt by the prevalence of series and trilogies, so I want to do vigorous, stand-alone novels and I want to do novels that are philosophically rich, that actually have thematic content, that aren't just action/adventure, that are the things that, when I get into arguments with people about whether or not science fiction is literature, whether or not it has something important to say, whether or not it is good, well-crafted fiction, that I can hold these up as examples and say, "Here's what the genre is capable of." And so far, five books in, we've managed to do that with every single book.

JP: You’re considered an SF writer here, but a mainstream writer in your native Canada. Why do you think this is?

RJS: You know, it's funny, but in the next half-hour here, I'm doing a talk with Jack Dann, and Jack is interesting because he is in Australia, and I'm in Canada, and I'm sure we're gonna say we have the same experience, which is all of our American colleagues envy us because people of the same sales level as we do in the United States are nonetheless totally in the SF ghetto in the United States. I just, on this trip, the place I was just before this was Singapore because I was at the Singapore Writer's Festival, which was a mainstream literary festival where I got an all-expense paid trip to Singapore to give a reading.

Because we're not physically in the United States, because we're part of smaller but more broadly-based literary communities in Canada and Australia, we're considered writers first, not genre fiction writers. So nobody uses the word "hacks" in relation to what we do, whereas in the States, the literary community very much looks down on genre fiction writers: science fiction, mystery, western, romance. And because they are in those categories, they never get out into mainstream literary festivals, they rarely get taught at universities. And if they're taught, they'll be taught in a science fiction course. My books are taught in Canadian literature courses and philosophy courses, as well as, of course, in science fiction courses. So there are huge advantages to being part of the literary community of Canada. Canada is only one-tenth the population of the United States. There are no Canadian publishers, with one exception, that do categories of fiction. They just do fiction. We have a list of fiction, and when McClelland and Stewart, Canada's largest publisher, chooses to do a science fiction novel as they did with Margaret Atwood's Oryx and Crake, it's not that they don't label it science fiction because they don't like science fiction, it's because they don't label anything. If they do a mystery novel by Peter Robinson, who is a big, best-selling mystery writer, they don't label it a mystery novel. All they do is books. They're uncategorized. The only exception is the world's largest fiction publisher, it's in fact a Canadian publisher, it's Harlequin, which is based in Toronto. It's obviously the world's largest publisher of romance fiction. And if you publish with Harlequin you're still in that same ghetto in Canada, you'll get little respect for being with Harlequin. But outside of that, if you publish a book in Canada you are a writer, you are a literary craftsperson. And it doesn't matter that it's got that label "science fiction" on it. If you publish a book in the States, the irony is the bigger your print run, the less respectability you'll likely have as a writer. So if you have a big print run for Tor verses a little print run for Four Walls Eight Windows, to name off the top of my head a small American literary press, you've got more respect by having the small print run for Four Walls Eight Windows, than you do by having the big print run from Tor, in terms of being in the literary community in the States. In Canada I've got the best of both worlds: big print runs, good commercial success, and also I get to still be part of the literary community with all the joys that that brings as well.

JP: The exploration of consciousness you began in the third book of The Neanderthal Parallax, Hybrids, moves easily into the theme of your latest novel, Mindscan. Do you do this in a lot of your work? Or were you just running with a particularly big idea that took two different books to work out?

RJS: I didn't know what I was going to write after the Neanderthal trilogy when I started it, but it definitely has the theme of consciousness running all through it. Two things that you have to do when you're a science fiction writer: one is you have to take a position on various science issues. Because you're saying, "In the future we will discover that this is actually the right answer." For instance, let's take the Big Bang as an example. You're either gonna say, "Yes, future science is going to vindicate the Big Bang", or "Future science is going to overturn the Big Bang." Well, if you write a book where it vindicates the Big Bang, and then you've got another idea for a book where it overturns the Big Bang, you can't do them in the same book. So when I was doing all my research on consciousness, the nature of consciousness, what gives rise to consciousness, what they call the "neural correlates of consciousness," what it is in the brain that gives rise to subjective experience, while I was doing the Neanderthal trilogy, all kinds of other ideas were occurring to me. And when I was finished I said to my editor, David Hartwell at Tor, "I'm finished with the Neanderthals, but I'm not finished with this area of consciousness. In fact, there's some opposing and complementary issues that I want to explore and I've got an idea for another book, Mindscan." And as he always says, he said, "Tell me about it," I told him about it, and he said, "Fine," and here's a contract and go and write that. And the book I'm writing now, the next book, is not about consciousness, but the one after that, I'll go back to that issue again.

Science fiction goes through waves. And sometimes I've been lucky enough to kind of be on the cutting edge of science fiction. My novel Frameshift was a fairly early science fiction novel about the genetics revolution. Calculating God was a fairly early novel about the evolution versus creationism debate, which is now front-page news and lots of other writers are weighing in on it in science fiction. I think that the next big wave in science fiction is going to be explorations of the scientific basis of consciousness. And I'm happy to be there at the beginning of that. We did space travel in the '50s, we did time travel, a lot of time-travel paradox stuff in the '60s and '70s. We did a lot of computer information technology stuff in the '80s, with William Gibson and Bruce Sterling and cyberpunk. And in the '90s we did a lot of genetics stuff, and I think in the 2000s we're gonna look back and a lot of the stuff is going to be consciousness studies-related.

JP: So we're looking inward instead of outward.

RJS: That's right. Judy Merril, who was a mentor of mine and a friend of mine, the great science fiction editor of the '50s and '60s who came to Toronto in her later years, used to say that science fiction has given up being about outer space, it's now about inner space, and I think there's a lot of truth in that.

JP:Why does so much of your work discuss religion?

RJS: It was not a conscious choice. Writers don't make these conscious choices that my career is going to be about so-and-so, unless they've written a manifesto, and some have. Bruce Sterling had a manifesto that he wrote that this is what I'm going to accomplish. I did not, but I had always been fascinated by the fact that there's this perceived dichotomy between science and religion. That the press always talks about the conflict between science and religion, yet most of the great scientists of the past—almost all the great scientists of the past—were religious men, Galileo, Newton and so forth. And many today. One of the things I found when I started one of my early books, End of an Era—which was in fact my first book although it was published as my fifth—meeting Dale Russell, who was one of those three Canadian guys who was a vertebrate paleontologist specializing in dinosaurs, was that he was a devout Roman Catholic. Wait a minute. How could this be? The vision I'd gotten of science from science fiction was that all scientists, not only were they atheists, but they were militant atheists. So their job was to quash religion at every opportunity. And that is certainly what you see in some of the fiction of Arthur C. Clarke and Isaac Asimov.

And yet when I started working with and meeting real scientists, that wasn't the case, with the exception of a few very vocal people, like Stephen Jay Gould, who could have been characters that could have been made up; Isaac Asimov could've made up Stephen Jay Gould, that's the kind of scientist Gould was. But by and large I was finding all sorts of scientists who had questing minds and were interested in big questions of morals and ethics. The phrase "intelligent design" is now so co-opted and polarized that you can't talk about it without it becoming an argument. But, I found that lots of scientists were curious about whether or not the universe was, to put it another way, the lab experiment of some advanced being. There are lots of scientists who will say, you know, I don't think evolution is disputed in mainstream scientific circles, but whether the origin of life or the origin of the universe—the study of the fundamental constants that made the universe bio-generative, made the universe likely to give rise to life, is something that an intelligence had monkeyed around with, is still an open question for a lot of working scientists. Martin Rees, the Astronomer Royal in Great Britain, has written a book called Just Six Numbers that makes a very strong case that the universe's fundamental design parameters had to be either chosen by an intelligence, or that so many parallel universes exist that every possible combination would've come out by random chance. We know of no evidence that long-term parallel universes exist. He happens to choose to believe that parallel universes exist in such profusion, but it's a leap of faith to say that they do, because we don't know that they do. And we know that parallel universes exist at the exact same physical parameters as our universe exists, at least in the short term. That's the explanation of the double slit experiment, which is one of the classic physical experiments. But there's no evidence that any universes with different physical laws exist. And yet that's the only Get Out of Jail Free Card to the conclusion that our universe had its parameters specifically tweaked at the fundamental design level to give rise to long-term existing stars, stable temperature regions that exist for an extended period to give rise to an environment in which the natural process of evolution can take hold and give rise to life.

So, because science is in fact so intimately tied in with these big questions, I think science fiction should be tied in with these big questions, and science fiction did a disservice in the '50s when it started pretending that real science was the same atheistic dogma that science fiction put forth. In fact, real science is very much done by scientists who are also religious people, and instead of ignoring that, I've tried to explore that in what I write.

JP: We've seen science curriculums decline in our schools here. People don't understand science. They feel it is counterintuitive, and don't seem to show any interest in something unless it can kill them. What do you think will happen to us as a society if this trend continues?

RJS: It's funny, because when you look back at the history of the United States, everybody recognizes that the twentieth century belonged to the United States, that the U.S. had scientific supremacy. The moon landing proved it graphically in a way that nothing else could have. But in fact, all the great scientific breakthroughs in the twentieth century were the result of American science. To some degree, this was the result of the American educational system, but the truth of it also is that the American scientists simply grabbed all the great German scientists after World War II and so forth. So what we're seeing now is a twenty-first century where we're having a generation of American scientists who came up through the American educational system, instead of being able to grab them from elsewhere in the world, and we're seeing a decline in American scientific leadership. There is no doubt that, if somebody had to put somebody in space this week for whatever reason, the Chinese could do it and the Americans can't. There is, right now, a working Chinese manned space program. There is not a working American space program. And allowing a watering down of the quality of science education in the United States is probably the single worst thing for American supremacy that the country could possibly do. The fact that it's even considered for a minute, to take the single, overarching explanation for how life works out of the classroom, i.e. the banning of the teaching of it, or to present it to people as "only a theory" by people who don't understand what the word "theory" means. It's only a theory in the sense that gravitation is only a theory. It is a wonderful, comprehensive explanation that has stood the test of time.

JP: And people think it's up for debate, like the truth is up for debate.

RJS: The single best explanation we have for the origin of the universe right now is the Big Bang Theory. There is a small minority of working physicists who dispute the Big Bang Theory. But we don't, therefore, teach creationism in physics class, and say, "Well, the alternative to the Big Bang is that God created the universe in seven days and it started not with darkness—which is how the Big Bang started—but with light. And you can make up your own mind." We don't do that. In most areas, we don't allow a debate in the science classroom, unless somebody has come up with evidence that stands up to scientific scrutiny in peer-reviewed journals. There are in fact peer-reviewed journal articles that dispute the Big Bang. There are in fact peer-reviewed journal articles that suggest that the universe is not expanding, that we've misconstrued the red shift information that seems to suggest an expanding universe. Which there are alternate explanations, for instance, not that the universe is expanding, but the speed of light has changed over time, and that sort of thing. There are no good peer-reviewed assaults on evolution, and so it doesn't belong in a science classroom. Science classrooms are where you teach science. Does it belong in a civics classroom? An ethics classroom? A philosophy classroom? A religion classroom? Yes, it does. Should it be mandatory for people to study those things the way it is to study science? Maybe it should be. But to suggest that evolution is on shaky ground, and to raise a generation of scientists who think, well, we don't actually know the mechanism by which one form of life changes into another form of life, is going to enormously hurt American science. At the end of the twentieth century, we looked back and said all the great scientific breakthroughs were American. At the end of the twenty-first century, we're gonna be dealing with the legacy of students who've been brought up to not understand the science that we've known since the nineteenth century, such as evolution. And that, I suspect, is going to put America very much in the middle of the pack, if not even farther back, when it comes to science and technological innovation in the twenty-first century, unless they nip it in the bud now, and stop this insidious watering down of scientific education by people who are coming at it, not with a scientific agenda, but a political agenda.

JP: I think of it like the Middle East. They invented mathematics, science, and astronomy, and look at them now.

RJS: Right, they went as far as they could trying to understand what Allah had done, and as soon as there became a conflict with understanding what Allah had done and how the universe actually seemed to be, they stopped. "We're not going there." And yeah, they were transcendent in basically working out the early physical nature of the universe. And then they just basically came to a stop. And the United States was supposed to be the opposite of that, and now we're seeing a drift where, if it doesn't meet up with what our holy book says, then we'll just stop exploring that area. And so the grinding to a halt of Muslim science, which happened hundreds of years ago, we're seeing happening again in the United States and it's a horrible thing.

JP: That's what it looks like to me. I think that's a good comparison, and a good example of what a theocracy does.

RJS: That's right. Now the one great safeguard the United States has, is they have elections every four years. The current theocrat cannot be elected again. There's an opportunity to stop all this. The opportunity comes in November of 2008. And it's only three short years away, so let us hope that good sense will prevail. In some ways, getting all this stuff on the front page, getting everybody in the United States to understand the kind of directly, religiously-oriented watering down of the science curriculum, that it is becoming front-page news, maybe will mean that next time you'll elect somebody who has a different agenda.

JP: I hope so. Well, that's it.

RJS: Cool. I was delighted to do it.


Copyright © 2005, James Palmer. All Rights Reserved.

About James Palmer

James Palmer has written articles, reviews, columns, interviews and poetry for the defunct SciFiNow.com, Strange Horizons, RevolutionSF, Vision: A Resource for Writers, S1ngularity, and SciFaikuest. He also writes a movie column entitled "Barium Cinema" for the print magazine Continuum Science Fiction. James is also a freelance copywriter, and has written press releases, mainstream magazine articles, and co-authored two business books. He is currently producing a press kit for an independent horror film, and is on the PR committee of Mythic Journeys, a multidisciplinary conference on the power of myth.

COMMENTS!

Dec 9, 03:09 by IROSF
Thread for the discussion of Robert Sawyer, or James Palmer's interview with the Hugo Award winner.

The article is here.
Dec 9, 10:35 by Ryan Oakley
Excellent interview.
Dec 9, 11:44 by Mike Manzer
Wow. I wasn't really familiar with Sawyer's work going into this. It sounds really intriguing. He made a lot of interesting points on a lot of topics. SF vs. Fantasy, for example. I read a lot of both and he's right, there really does seem to be an erosion of SF in Fantasy's favor sometimes. Maybe SF does need it's own award or two, specifically for SF and not Fantasy.

On the other hand, I also really love stories that fall into the borders between SF and Fantasy (take Harrison's _Light_, for example, one of my favorite books in recent memory. It was published as SF, and I would say it is, but has nothing much to do with actual scientific fact or anyting and could easily be seen as Fantasy) and I hate to make clear dividers between them.

Anyway, interesting stuff.
Dec 9, 21:01 by Jim Van Pelt
James, great interview. Robert Sawyer is one of my favorite people in science fiction. He's always been more than kind and generous with advice. One night at WorldCon when it was in Australia in '99, I went outside to look at the sky. I'd never seen it in the southern hemisphere, and I was particularly interested in finding the Southern Cross, but the sky was completely unfamiliar, and I had no idea where to be looking (or what, exactly, I should be looking for). Robert Sawyer wandered by and asked what I was doing. It must have looked peculiar, me standing there staring stupidly up. He not only showed me the Southern Cross, but he pointed out several other prominant features I couldn't see in America.

It's one of my fondest convention memories.
Dec 10, 13:03 by James Palmer
That's a great story, Jim. Rob is such a fountain of information, as I found out conducting the interview. Talking to him is one of my fondest convention memories. I'm really glad you liked the interview.

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