Interview with Lynda Williams

An interview with Lynda Williams
By Derek Newman-Stille

It is always refreshing and exciting to have the opportunity to talk to a writer who is willing to really interrogate and question the world around them through SF, and I am glad that Lynda Williams is willing to share her insights and observations with readers and help us to step out of our taken-for-granted observations of the world around us. I am happy that she was willing to do an interview here and help us to debate and question our world. I hope that you enjoy this interview as much as I enjoyed talking to Ms. Williams about these complex topics.

Spec Can: To begin our interview, could you tell readers a little bit about yourself?

Author and family photo courtesy of Lynda Williams

Author and family photo courtesy of Lynda Williams

Lynda Williams: I’m a nice middle-class girl who went to university, got a good job, got married, raised three great daughters and once led a grass-roots movement to get internet connectivity for the general public. Anyone interested in more about my work as an applied technologist and teacher of computing is welcome to check out my profile at LinkedIn http://www.linkedin.com/in/lyndajwilliams

My intellectual life has been equally important to me as a person. In some ways, I’ve always been an observer of life requiring a conscious effort to mimic what comes naturally to others, and felt most at home in fiction where everything has some kind of meaning. On the whole, in antithesis to the deconstructionist era in literary studies, my goal has been to construct meaning wherever I find pre-existing maxims unsatisfying. Writing is the necessary by-product.

Spec Can: In your Okal Rel Saga you explore two civilizations, the Reetions and the Gelacks, who both descended from Earth populations but were cut off from each other and Earth and culturally drifted over the years. Now, upon re-encountering one another, they are confused by different cultural customs that have developed. What inspired your interest in cultural drift and change?

Lynda Williams: Perhaps it started with the arguments about religion among my fathers’ siblings. They were all religious but could never agree with one another.  It made me think. So I read about dozens of religions. I also joined Amnesty International, became a volunteer crisis counselor and read a lot of anthropology, mythology, history, popular science and stuff like theories of culture and social order down the ages. I remember being deeply impressed by the ancient Greek play, Antigone, in which the heroine accepts a death sentence in order to honor her brother’s corpse, motivated by cultural imperatives that make no sense to a modern reader. But the dilemma is no less real.

Spec Can: What got you interested in the idea of culture contact?

Lynda Williams: Star Trek, originally. The old TV show. I branched out to history where I discovered most of the injustice surrounding culture contacts arose from an imbalance of power. That’s what got me thinking about methods of social control and what might happen if the tribal culture, like the neo-feudal Gelacks, had one kind of power (reality skimming prowess) while the culture that considers itself more advanced and sophisticated, like the Reetions, had another (medical and information science, and political infrastructure). But neither side is more powerful in an absolute way, so they have to work out their differences.

Spec Can: The topic of taboos is one of the areas where the Reetions and Gelacks differ from one another. What interested you in the idea of conflicting taboos and conflicting religious and social patterns? How can this help readers to think differently about cultural and religious difference?

Lynda Williams: I grew up with the Canadian mosaic idea of celebrating differences. Then I encountered things like a father justifying the murder of a daughter over her choice of husband and realized I was not okay with complete cultural relativity. None of the cultures of the Okal Rel Universe are without blemish. Rire is where I’d prefer to live, but Reetions can be obnoxiously superior.  In Part 5: Far Arena, for example, they are so resistant to viewing Gelacks as their equals that not even living in a transparent society prevents them from lying to themselves. Most Gelack cultures discriminate between classes of Sevolite and the Nesaks practice genocide toward “non-eternals”, which means any human less than highborn in the court biological hierarchy.  Yet there are good people in all these cultures, and individuals who think for themselves. My hope is that by examining fictional cultures in conflict, readers might learn to think through situations in their own world on a case by case basis.

Spec Can: The Reetions and the Gelacks each have different ideas about sexuality (the Reetions encouraging acceptance of sexual difference whereas the Gelacks have created a fundamentally homophobic society). What inspired your interest in sexuality? What do you hope readers will take from this interaction?

Lynda Williams: I knew nothing about homosexuality until first year university, where I spent hours discussing it with a couple of gay acquaintances in my favorite study spot, the Raven’s Wing Café. Di Mon became a homosexual the minute I learned a tough guy could be. This move gave the very principled Di Mon, who was already a well-loved main character, the same problem as Amel’s whiny abuser, H’Reth. So naturally it struck me as a perfect thought experiment.  If there’s a message in this for readers it’s a complex one about responsibility for one’s actions while, simultaneously, registering the non-trivial nature of finding oneself on the wrong side of a cultural norm.

My initial interest in sexual differences sprang from something like rebellion against male and female stereotypes. Hence the extremes, among the Gelacks, of Vrellish woman, like Vretla, and Golden Demish men, like Amel.

Spec Can: When I was younger, there were very few science fiction novels that had queer characters (unless they were portrayed as villains). How is this shifting, and what can we do to encourage more representation of LGBTQ characters?

Lynda Williams: Let the LGBTQ characters be fully realized, even if that means they won’t always be perfect role models. I’ve had readers express impatience with Di Mon, for example, because he can’t “get over” his dislike of being homosexual. Really? Given what’s at stake for him? When the idea of Di Mon jelled for me, back in the 1970s and 80s, it was radical to contemplate a gay hero. Now, it sometimes feels as if he’s lost the right to be a character with hang-ups because he has to represent something. If readers need proof that the Okal Rel Universe can also harbor a well-adjusted homosexual character, Ranar is right there. Di Mon is Di Mon, and that’s all there is to it. And Vretla is a female-chauvinist pig who believes there aren’t really any “girl-sla” women, just horny ones suffering a shortage of available males. But we love her anyway. Real people aren’t perfect. Neither are believable characters.

Spec Can: Your work often explores notions of compassion, and, particularly the point at which compassion shifts from being beneficial to almost self-harming. What inspired your interest in the complexities of compassion?

Three Versions of Amel by Yukari Yamamoto.

Three Versions of Amel by Yukari Yamamoto.

Lynda Williams: I think I’ve always admired the combination of great sensitivity and great strength, but recognized it could lead to an undesirable martyrdom.  If I’d discovered Dostoyevsky’s novel, The Idiot, at an earlier age, I might have saved myself the work of creating Amel. Amel’s history in the Okal Rel Saga also dramatizes the question of whether science should be used to “fix” people. For example, my father used to hate being on anti-depression medication because it altered his sense of who he was. But he couldn’t cope without it, either. As we become more and more able to directly intervene to change ourselves, medically, the questions Amel and his Reetion doctor, Lurol, dance around in books 1 and 5 will get nothing but more important.

Spec Can: I was at a conference recently where a speaker (Robert Runte) discussed the incredible work that you are doing including and encouraging fan participation in the Okal Rel world that you have created. What inspired you to encourage fan participation and what are some of the benefits of involving fans in the worlds you create?

A photo from Lynda Williams' Teen Years - The origins of the Okal Rel universe

A photo from Lynda Williams’ Teen Years – The origins of the Okal Rel universe

Lynda Williams: The Okal Rel experience evolved out of playing with others http://okalrel.org/i-promised-my-dolls/ , so it invites participation naturally. But it’s a misconception to assume it is easy to get involved. The very first prerequisite is to learn the Okal Rel Universe. It isn’t light reading. And it isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. I’m arriving at a stage of life where I’m losing interest in complying with marketing imperatives to make out that one’s work is “just like” something better known in order to ride on its coattails, or to define an audience niche and conform to its standards for acceptance. I count among my favorite readers high school students and university professors. What they share is a love of rich cultural settings, intense human relationships, and well-plotted stories that are sometimes funny, sometimes dramatic and always emblematic of some dilemma or concern that preoccupied the writer. When I find people among this audience who have the talent and mind-set to play with me, I welcome them. I never called them fans but collaborators. People are welcome to write fan fiction if they want, too. But that’s not the same thing. The benefits? The Okal Rel Universe is nearly as old as I am, and has matured with me under the influence of constant challenge and stimulus from others. It feels like a lived-in place for a reason. And I love collaborating, as an adult, as much as my youthful self loved playing make-believe.

Spec Can: Your encouragement of fans shows that you view readers as valuable participants in the process of creating worlds. Are there any drawbacks or challenges to fan participation?

Lynda Williams: The Okal Rel Saga is the sum of my life’s work of making meaning of my world through fiction. So I am sometimes frustrated to see it branded as a shared-universe as if all that mattered was the rule-book for how to write about Sword Law, or arbiters, or reality skimming physics.  I suppose this is a fate I brought upon myself by blurring the distinction between “pro” and “fan” that writer-culture fights to maintain. At the same time, I am proud of the people who engage with me, from the professional writers and artists to the amateurs who walked a mile with me in the ORU during an important stage of their lives, crossing the “line” between fan and collaborator. I embrace both ways of making meaning. But I sometime cringe at the label “fan” because I fear it may be taken as an insult by the professional participants. The truth, I think, is this: many (but not all) readers have the potential to be creators, but most are discouraged by what pilots in the ORU might characterize as the hard rel of doing any kind of art for a living. So they stop. I can’t help but love the creative engines of the ORU for being a micro-environment where a greater-than-usual diversity of skills, styles and even genres thrive under one “roof”. In the end, like many things about the Okal Rel phenomenon, the role of collaborators in its creation is a complex and evolving business.

Spec Can: In addition to being an author, you also work in higher education at Simon Fraser University. In what ways do these roles complement each other?

Lynda Williams: A day job makes it harder to commit time to promoting one’s work, but it’s a rich source of material. I’ve seen and participated in big changes brought about by information technology, for example, which makes me sympathetic to both Erien’s drive for progress and the resistance of conservative Demish society. The politics of Fountain Court are as much informed by life as a “nobleborn” in post-secondary institutions as by my reading of history. And my crisis centre work was an eye-opener. But my use of real life in fiction is always a mash up. Colleagues, friends and family will be hard pressed to identify themselves in any particular character. It’s the essence, not the details, of a real life problem that I abstract into fiction to examine.

One great thing about having a good day job is the freedom to write what you want. I worked as a professional writer for a few years, as a journalist. It was a great experience. But the Okal Rel Saga was what I always wanted to write and being able to do it as a part-time job meant I could take my time to get it right, over the years.

Spec Can: How is Science Fiction a process of education and learning, and how can it encourage readers to think in new ways?

Lynda Williams: It makes us think outside the box. People can have petrified attitudes about a topic due to past associations which aren’t necessarily part of the package. In science fiction, we can alter the stimulus. We can identify exactly what we want to show the reader and see if he/she has the same reaction without the usual triggers. Take the Nesaks. They loom, throughout the Saga, as the war-mongers who periodically invade the empire. Their religious motivations might suggest a jihad, and, in fact, Part 9 of the saga is called Holy War. But if there’s a touch of Islamic warriors about the Nesaks there is also a touch of American family-loving Christians who believe the rest of the world has got it all wrong. The combination of real family values and militaristic theocracy is something I’ve always had trouble reconciling. But it happens. Readers can weigh what’s right and what’s wrong about it in their reaction to the Nesaks without automatically applying beliefs they might otherwise be unable to avoid falling back on.

Spec Can: Many of your characters have been visited by trauma or have been heavily influenced by traumatic events of the past. What encouraged you to involve characters that are coping with and learning from trauma?

Lynda Williams: I think I needed to believe anything could be survivable when I was young. The more I found out about just how awful “anything” could be, the harder it was to believe. So I invented a hero, Amel, whose job was not only to survive it all but to retain the ability to love. I read up on the topic, a little, and saddled him with some of the problems suffered by abuse victims. I didn’t want him to just get up, dust himself off, and be emotionally whole. Putting yourself back together after trauma is a lot of very hard and scary work. But there’s an opportunity to learn about how to do it, or how not to do it, in studying the lives of characters. Eler, in Part 2: Righteous Anger, is messed up by the implosion of his family over religious and political differences. He reacts by spending the rest of his life poking and prodding people to prove they aren’t what they seem. Di Mon suffered a trauma in the loss of his first lover, Darren, and responds with iron self-denial and devotion to duty which, arguably, kills him in the end. But the interpretation of Di Mon’s suicide haunts the series to its conclusion. Was it a maladaptation to his homosexuality, or a rational act motivated by the desire to die with dignity?

Spec Can: In The Courtesan Prince, the Reetion civilisation is fundamentally socialist and has gotten rid of class divides, whereas the Gelack civilisation is entirely based on class distinctions and has been shaped by a strong belief in the differences between classes. Why did this idea of competing class systems interest you? What shaped your fascination with classes and how they orient societies?

Cover photo of The Courtesan Prince courtesy of Edge Publications

Cover photo of The Courtesan Prince courtesy of Edge Publications

Lynda Williams: I think I became fascinated by class distinctions because at some fundamental, instinctive level at which most people ‘get’ who is important and who isn’t, I just didn’t. I therefore found myself, from a young age, in the midst of a never-ending social game of hierarchy where I had to keep figuring out the rules. It still bewilders me why anyone would be excited about spotting a celebrity on the street, for example. But I did come with a conceit of my own. My upper class English heritage. Or, at least, the sense of it conveyed by my mother and grandmother. It made perfect sense to me that Oliver, in Oliver Twist, was a different kind of being from his fellow orphans who were what my grandmother would have termed “common children”. How my family managed to simultaneously instill in me an impression that being half-Welsh was a little bit magic, is a mystery, given what the English think about the Welsh. But I do know that one of my early mental images of Amel was as an Oliver Twist kind of character, so obviously better than those around him that it leaps out at the reader, even though it is invisible to other characters. The blindness of social systems, in other words, is revealed by the participants’ failure to see the very truth they most profess to value.

Spec Can: Your work engages with tough social questions and complex ideas. In what ways can Canadians SF ask those tough questions or help people to challenge their social situation and think outside the box?

Lynda Williams: We profess to be above class distinctions in Canada. I don’t believe it. People are always pegging each other in some hierarchy or other. The saving grace, I think, is that there are now multiple hierarchies in which to participate and we can choose which we prefer to take to heart. Just like Ilse Marin, a merely nobleborn woman of the Midlord birth rank, takes pride in being Blue Demish, we can chose to measure our own self-worth in terms of our education level, income, family, professional distinctions, volunteer roles, creative skills, etc.  We can build our identities in our chosen spheres of influence while still respecting other people’s worlds. But to be truly happy, I think, we have to make peace with the idea people just aren’t equal in all things. No amount of wishing is going to make us all equally attractive, strong or smart. Writing about how people negotiate the class system of Sevildom, within and across cultures, gives me toys to play with for dramatizing hierarchy issues of all sorts. For example, in the fourth Okal Rel anthology there’s a brilliant story by M. Alexis Pakulak about a woman who defines herself as a Sevolite, finds out she isn’t, and has to decide whether it matters. In her case, it’s mostly a psychological affair because she’s a Fractional Sevolite, but for this dilemma the question of actual differentiation of abilities wasn’t an important issue. But what if, like Gadar, in my story “Going Back Out”, it is physical? Gadar, as a natural human, will never be able to outfly a highborn. Ann’s answer is “so what!” That only means we need you all the more for Reetion purposes. “Fly for your own reasons,” says Ann. Good advice, not always easy to follow. But there’s something deeply gratifying about pursuing one’s own, particular rel, no matter what.

Spec Can:  In addition to your work as an author, you also are known for running blogs about Canadian SF. What can blogs add to the developing nature of Canadian SF? How can they help people to think differently about SF?

Lynda Williams: For many years, writing was a bizarrely private experience for me, shared primarily with a few special friends. But I wanted to get my characters out there in the world and felt the pressure to promote. Most of the ways of doing this rankled. And, let’s face it, if something goes against the grain of your soul, you aren’t apt to do it very effectively. The pleasure in writing, for me, has always been about creativity and ideas. The heroes. The questions. The larger-than-everyday feel of SF.  Blogging let me extend that preference to a wider public. It’s a social thing for me, letting me collaborate with kindred spirits in a way that feels good. It is also an outlet for my surplus thoughts and idea about life, which prevents me driving my family nuts. I enjoy inviting fellow authors and thinkers to appear on Reality Skimming. And since I’m a Canadian SF author, it is true that a good number of the guests are Canadians but that’s more an accident of overlap than a real intent to focus on Canadian SF. Some writers are fiercely national in their outlook but international in their audience. I’m probably the opposite. A would-be citizen of the world in my outlook, but Canadian by default.

Spec Can: Is there anything further you would be interested in including in this interview?

Lynda Williams: Just to thank you for the opportunity to respond to such insightful questions. People keen to talk about themselves are legion. Those game to bring their heart and mind to the task of encouraging another to explore her inward halls of thought are rarer stock.  The Okal Rel Universe is proud to count you among its readers, and I hope additional books in the series have the pleasure of your visitations there. Ack rel.

I want to thank Lynda Williams for being willing to do such deep analyses of her own work and of the world around her. I am honoured that she was willing to let me participate in this interrogation of the deeper issues expressed in her SF and to share this conversation with readers who may be interested in the worlds she creates and the potential of SF to not only create different worlds, but to question this one and encourage readers to be comfortable questioning their own worlds and their own perspectives. 

The In-Between Space

A Review of Lynda Williams’ The Courtesan Prince (Edge, 2005).
By Derek Newman-Stille

Cover photo of The Courtesan Prince courtesy of Edge Publications

Cover photo of The Courtesan Prince courtesy of Edge Publications

The Reetions and the Gelacks, two branches of the human race that were separated from Earth due to temporary losses of space travel. The Reetions developed from the first group of people to leave Earth and settle in a colony. Connections to Earth were lost, and they developed into a divergent civilisation. They developed an egalitarian system of government with open policies, public access to information, and general public engagement in decision-making processes.

The Gelacks developed from a second wave of human space travel. They too lost contact with Earth. The Gelacks were a civilisation that had been changed by the intervention of genetic technology, technology that changed certain people to better sustain the biologically damaging effects of space travel. This group became stronger, smarter, and better at healing than the regular human population. Because Gelack population had both genetically modified humans and unmodified humans (as well as interbred populations), a class system developed along feudal lines. The genetically modified populations attained positions of superiority and hegemonic control.

The Reetions and Gelacks had met before, and the results were devastating, with misunderstandings and miscommunications on both sides. Now, both sides have discovered that traders are making jumps between their civilisations and it has become clear that they may need to make formal contact again. In The Courtesan Prince, Lynda Williams explores the diversity of cultures and the misunderstandings that can come from cultural difference. She illustrates to readers that a large part of conflict comes from misunderstandings and the more diverse the populations are, the more effort needs to be put into understanding the cultural gap and communicating effectively with others.

The Courtesan Prince follows the life of Von, a courtesan who seems to be more than he appears to be. Von’s life and understanding of the world is challenged when he encounters the Reetions, and, in particular Ann, who encourages him to understand her on a deeper level and get rid of some of his xenophobic fears and beliefs that human social relations can only be understood through a Gelack lens.

Simultaneously Ranar, a Reetion anthropologist is left among his research subjects, the Gelacks, and is forced to understand their way of life, even if it is both fundamentally different and even hostile to his own. The Gelacks are a fundamentally homophobic people, with a deep and violent hatred for queer-oriented people. Often this homophobia erupts into public torture of gays and lesbians, followed by their murder and the murder of any children they may have had. Ranar, a gay man, is left in a vulnerable position, having to hide his sexuality for the first time in his life. Among the Reetions, sexual diversity is respected and people are encouraged to accept themselves and there is never a question of sexual interest being either bad or problematic in any way. It is simply another form of relationship. With this openness of sexuality, Ranar has to quickly shift his own openness about his sexuality in order to keep himself safe. When one of the Gelack leaders Di Mon develops an attraction for him (an attraction that he hates in himself and that encourages violence from him), Ranar is confronted with the idea that his own sexuality could be harmful to a lover who is part of a system that systemically oppresses queer-oriented people. He has to keep his sexuality hidden not only for his own protection but to preserve the life of his lover, Di Mon.

Unlike many SF authors, Lynda Williams does not just stick to heteronormative SF, but presents homophobia as something that is socially created and that can be resisted. By contrasting two cultures with different treatments of queer-oriented people, she illustrates that our own homophobic culture has been created by our own social issues and is not something that is taken-for-granted (as it is often portrayed by people who espouse homophobic beliefs). By having one culture that has a healthy, open approach to sexual diversity, and another that has a deep-seated hatred of queer people, she illustrates that homophobia is a choice, not homosexuality.

Lynda Williams is willing to do deep cultural critiques, exploring the development of different cultural ideas and contrasting them in societies that essentially descended from the same roots. She is willing to interrogate politics, ideas of social equality, the complexity of sexuality, ideas of privacy, biological change, and technology. And she is unwilling to give the readers simple answers, but encourages them to interrogate these issues, think for themselves, and develop their own ideas. The Courtesan Prince is a pedagogical text in the best sense of the word, not because it gives answers (as many think that teaching does), but because it asks questions, opens things to debate, and encourages readers to be uncomfortable with any easy answers.

Gelacks and Reetions are contrasted with one another in a way that pushes readers into an uncomfortable intergalactic, in-between space, stuck in the limbo between different ideologies. And this is a hugely powerful creative space where readers are made aware of how much their ideas and thoughts are socially defined and they are encouraged to get rid of cultural trappings and question things freely. The Reetions focus on the idea of honesty, and everything being public… but with that comes the limitations on privacy and the sense of living in a panopticon where everything can be easily seen. The Gelacks are more private, but lying is culturally entrenched to maintain secrets. The Gelacks have a population with bodies that are stronger, heal faster, and survive better… but the power of these bodies have meant tight restrictions on mating practices and the social control of “common” people by a small minority of physically stronger people. The Reetions don’t genetically modify people to be stronger, which means they are able to attain an egalitarian civilisation… but because of this their pilots often have short careers, damaged by the ravages of space travel which destroys normal human bodies. The Reetions are more comfortable with technology… but this means that they are also willing to modify people’s minds through psychotherapy. Whereas the Galecks consider certain forms of technology taboo, which prevents healing adaptions… but they are able to reduce the construction of any weapons of mass destruction. Nothing is easy in The Courtesan Prince and neither civilisation is portrayed as the model of perfect human society. Both have flaws, and these challenges make Lynda Williams’ novel more complex, more rich in substance, and portray the idea that the struggle for perfection is culturally defined and that one person’s ideal may be another’s horror.

The Courtesan Prince is book 1 in Lynda Williams’ Okal Rel Saga, to find out more about it and other books in the series, visit Edge’s website at http://www.edgewebsite.com/index.html . To find out more about Lynda Williams and the Okal Rel universe, visit her site at http://okalrel.org/ .

Interview with Robert J. Sawyer

An Interview with Robert J. Sawyer
By Derek Newman-Stille

I recently had the opportunity to meet Robert J. Sawyer at the International Conference for the Fantastic in the Arts. We only had time for a short chat since both of us had a great deal of events on our plates, so I wanted to have the chance to do a full interview with Mr. Sawyer here on Speculating Canada and give him the chance to provide some of his insights to readers.

Author photo courtesy of Robert Sawyer

Author photo courtesy of Robert Sawyer

Spec Can: To begin our interview, could you tell us a little bit about yourself?

Robert J. Sawyer: My friend David Gerrold and I had a discussion a few years ago, when we were both giving talks in Istanbul, about how one should answer that question. My answer is, “I’m a Canadian science-fiction writer.” David contends that’s what I do, not who I am—but I don’t agree. Over the last few years, I’ve given up using the very nice office in my home and moved to writing in my living room, because I simply don’t make a distinction between work and the rest of my life. Besides, being a science-fiction writer is too much fun to actually be termed “work.”

I was born in Ottawa in 1960, grew up in Toronto, and now live in Mississauga. I write a novel a year, and have been doing so consistently since my first, Golden Fleece, came out in 1990. I’m fortunate enough to be one of only eight writers ever to have won all three of the world’s top awards for best science-fiction novel of the year: the Hugo (which I won for Hominids), the Nebula (which I won for The Terminal Experiment), and the John W. Campbell Memorial Award (which I won for Mindscan). Oh, and the ABC TV series FlashForward was based on my novel of the same name, and I was one of the scriptwriters for that show.

Most recently—and of interest to Canadians—I was lucky enough to win three consecutive Canadian Science Fiction and Fantasy Awards (“Auroras”), one for each volume of my WWW trilogy of Wake, Watch, and Wonder. Humanist Canada just gave me their first-ever Humanism in the Arts Award, the Governor-General’s office just awarded me a Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Medal, and the RTA School of Media at my alma mater, Ryerson University, just named me one of the 12 initial inductees to their Wall of Fame. They say a prophet—if a science-fiction writer may be termed that—is never honoured at home, but that certainly hasn’t been my experience.

Spec Can: A lot of your written work shows an interest in anthropology and paleontology (such as Hominids, Humans, Hybrids, and Red Planet Blues). What inspired your interest in these fields? Why do they speak to you?

Cover photo for Red Planet Blues courtesy of Robert J. Sawyer

Cover photo for Red Planet Blues courtesy of Robert J. Sawyer

Robert J. Sawyer: Ever since I was a pre-schooler, I’ve been fascinated by paleontology, and especially dinosaurian paleontology—so much so, that right up until halfway through my last year of high school, I intended to make a career out of being a paleontologist, and was accepted to study that field at the University of Toronto.

I love studying ancient life for the same reason I love the notion of extraterrestrial life: they’re alien beings. Not only is that cool in and of itself, but both are highly speculative areas: in paleontology, we try to puzzle out what dinosaurs might have looked like, and extrapolate from elusive clues what their reproductive strategies, diets, and social structures might have been like. In astrobiology, we go even further, trying to figure out what extraterrestrial intelligences might be like from first principles, without a single actual specimen to study.

My focus on these issues has led me to have a wonderful relationship with the SETI Institute, by the way; I’m the only science-fiction novelist who was invited to their two public SETICon symposia, and their chief astronomer, Seth Shostak, often has me as a guest on the SETI Institute’s radio program “Big Picture Science.” In turn, I named a genus of Martian fossil Shostakia in Red Planet Blues.

The foremost Canadian paleontologist is the dinosaur specialist Philip Currie, currently at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, and the CBC, the Globe and Mail, the National Post, the Ottawa Citizen, and others have been kind enough to call me the foremost Canadian science-fiction writer. But Phil always wanted to be a science-fiction writer, and I always wanted to be a dinosaur expert. It tickles us both that in some alternate timeline, he’s me, and I’m him.

As for my fascination with anthropology, and especially paleoanthropology, again, it mirrors my interest in extraterrestrial intelligence. A Neanderthal or an individual of Homo erectus or Homo ergaster is fundamentally much more alien than, say, a Vulcan or a Bajoran. Figuring out what the cognitive processes and lifestyles of our cousins or ancestors might have been like is as thrilling as any detective story.

Spec Can: There is an upcoming conference in your honour called “Science Fiction: The Interdisciplinary Genre”. What makes SF so interdisciplinary? How does it extend beyond traditional genre boundaries?

Robert J. Sawyer: Yes, indeed. This September, McMaster University is hosting this conference, which will surely be the largest academic conference ever held devoted to Canadian science fiction and fantasy, in honour of the donation of my archives to that institution. I am totally thrilled about that. The paper proposals that have come in are amazing.

I’ve often said that science fiction is the literature of intriguing juxtapositions. Where else will you find, say, quantum computing and paleoanthropology sparking off each other, as they do in my Hominids, or information theory, primate communication, and Chinese politics jointly driving the plot, as they do in my novels Wake, Watch, and Wonder?

Cover photo for Watch courtesy of Robert J. Sawyer

Cover photo for Watch courtesy of Robert J. Sawyer

For a large number of my books, I’ve focused on consciousness studies, which is the most interdisciplinary area of all: neuroscientists, cognitive scientists, artificial-intelligence researchers, evolutionary biologists, philosophers, theologians, and so on, all have places at the table in debates about the nature of consciousness, and those clashing perspectives have fueled my novels The Terminal Experiment, Factoring Humanity, Hominids and its sequels, Mindscan, Wake and its sequels, Triggers, and the novel I’m writing now, tentatively titled The Philosopher’s Zombie.

Most other genre fiction is plot-driven; at its best, science fiction is thematically driven, and the high-level exploration of a theme—does God exist, do we have free will, what are our ethical responsibilities to other intelligences that already exist or that we might create?—demands an interdisciplinary approach.

Spec Can: Many of your novels blend or bend genres. What are some of the genre-bending novels you have most enjoyed writing? Why were you interested in pushing genre boundaries?

Robert J. Sawyer: People who don’t read science fiction tend to think of it as a very narrow category: space opera, and not much more. But it provides the widest possible canvas: all of space, all of time, all forms of life. And beyond that, it let’s you tell any kind of story, including courtroom drama (as I did in Illegal Alien), romance (Rollback), thriller (Triggers), and noir detective fiction (Red Planet Blues). Calgary critic Hugh Graham observed recently that it’s almost impossible to believe that Triggers and Red Planet Blues—so different from each other in style and voice—were written by the same person; that pleased me immensely.

I push genre boundaries for three reasons. First, because I don’t actually believe in the boundaries; our genre distinctions come out of American bookselling, and the attempt to organize the shelves in a store—it’s entirely artificial, and of little artistic interest.

Second, because it keeps me fresh. If I’d been a mystery-fiction writer, I’d very likely be doing my twenty-third novel about my ongoing series detective character; instead, I’ve gotten to write twenty-three very different novels, and that’s very artistically satisfying. I enjoy stretching different muscles with each new work.

And third, because it makes sound business sense. It’s a way to grow my audience, bringing in people who don’t think they’d like science fiction. I love that Penguin Canada publishes my books under their mainstream Viking imprint, and I’m so proud that first Waterloo Region and then the County of Brant chose books by me for their community-wide reading programs (Hominids in Waterloo; Rollback in Brant—which includes Paris, Ontario, and environs), and that I’m currently a finalist for the Ontario Library Association’s Evergreen Award for best Canadian-authored fiction or nonfiction book of 2012 (for Triggers). That’s a reach way beyond what an author who stayed comfortably within the SF box would ever normally get.

Spec Can: What is distinctly Canadian about the characters and/or worlds you create? How does your Canadian identity influence your writing?

Robert J. Sawyer: My novels are mostly set in Canada, have Canadian protagonists, revel in Canada’s diversity, and deal with Canadian themes. I’m a pacifist, and Canada is a country of peacekeepers, not aggressors—and you see that very much in my books. I’m firmly committed to diversity, and I reflect Canada’s multiculturalism in everything I write—and I’m so proud to twice have been nominated for the Gaylactic Spectrum Award, which honours works that positively portray gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgendered lifestyles. As the Globe and Mail has said, “Sawyer sells so well in Canada because of his celebration of our culture; citizens seek him out for both a good story and affirmation of our identity. By writing about us, he has pried himself loose from the SF purgatory and onto the bestseller lists.”

Spec Can: What distinguishes Canadian SF from that of other nationalities?

Robert J. Sawyer: How’s this for an answer: its quality.

On April 29, 2013, which happens to be my 53rd birthday, I’ll be celebrating my 30th anniversary as a full-time professional writer, something that’s only been possible because of Canada’s wonderful socialized healthcare. Malcolm Gladwell—himself a Canadian—wrote the great nonfiction book Outliers, in which he documents at length how it takes 10,000 hours of practice to become world-class at something. We Canadian writers, because we don’t have to be shackled to a nine-to-five to get health insurance, often get those hours under our belts decades before our American colleagues do, and you see that reflected in how many Canadians show up on the Hugo ballot year after year—in numbers all out of proportion to Canada’s population size.

Spec Can: Where do you think Canadian SF is heading for here? What does the future of Canadian SF look like?

Robert J. Sawyer: We’ve long had a vigorous tradition of small-press SF publishing in Canada, and that’s going to continue. But I also think the big presses are going to start doing more and more honest-to-goodness science fiction. Penguin Canada was a trendsetter when it acquired me back in 2007, prompting the Canadian publishing trade journal Quill & Quire to opine, “When Penguin Canada snatched up domestic rights to science fiction giant Robert J. Sawyer, it felt like the Canuck industry was finally waking up to an entire genre.” And it has. You no longer have to go to US publishers to make real money writing science fiction in this country, and that’s all to the good.

Spec Can: What new questions or ideas can SF open in the minds of readers? How can SF challenge the status quo?

Author photo courtesy of Robert J. Sawyer

Author photo courtesy of Robert J. Sawyer

Robert J. Sawyer: SF is a subversive genre, and always has been. Sometimes it’s done with metaphors and disguises; I certainly did that in Hominids, which is as much about contrasting Canadian and American values as it is about contrasting those of Homo sapiens sapiens and Neanderthals. And sometimes it just stands up and does that. Page one of my novel Calculating God, published in 2000, says this:

The alien’s shuttle landed out front of what used to be the McLaughlin Planetarium, which is right next door to the Royal Ontario Museum, where I work. I say it used to be the planetarium because Mike Harris, Ontario’s tightfisted premier, cut the funding to the planetarium. He figured Canadian kids didn’t have to know about space—a real forward-thinking type, Harris. After he closed the planetarium, the building was rented out for a commercial Star Trek exhibit, with a mockup of the classic bridge set inside what had been the star theater. As much as I like Star Trek, I can’t think of a sadder comment on Canadian educational priorities.

A few Canadians objected to that, saying political commentary doesn’t belong in science fiction. They’re dead wrong, in my view. Going right back to H.G. Wells, it’s always been a vehicle for political comment.

Spec Can: What can SF do that “realist” fiction can’t?

Robert J. Sawyer: First, it’s important to stress that SF can do everything that mimetic fiction can: it can move you to tears, it can make you laugh out loud, it can explore character psychology in exquisite detail, it can dazzle you with stylistic experimentation and beautiful prose.

But on top of that, it can also get you to think about issues you haven’t thought about since late-night dorm-room bull sessions decades ago. All the topics we’re told to avoid in day-to-day life—politics, religion, sex, and alternative approaches to those things—are the core subject matter of speculative writing, whereas they are ignored in much mainstream fiction.

Spec Can: Your work often deals with the interconnection and collision of ideas of past, present, and future. What inspires your interest in the interrelationship between past, present, and future?

Robert J. Sawyer: I don’t write in a linear fashion—I never start at page one and go to page last; rather, I bop back and forth throughout the narrative as I’m constructing it. That reflects my belief that time itself isn’t really linear.  Now is now solely because you and I happen to—for the moment—agree on that point.  But here, a few seconds later, is the new now, oh, and look—here comes another now! Time is endlessly fascinating to me simply because it’s so often not thought about at all by most people, and because we know so little about its nature.

Spec Can: What inspired you to write SF?

Robert J. Sawyer: A confluence of things: seeing 2001: A Space Odyssey in a theatre in 1968 when I was eight years old; seeing a bit of the original Star Trek on TV; the Supermarionation TV shows of Gerry Anderson; growing up as the Apollo space program was happening; and reading the first few science-fiction books I encountered: Oliver P. Butterworth’s The Enormous Egg; The Runaway Robot, putatively by Lester del Rey but actually ghostwritten by Paul W. Fairman; Trouble on Titan by Alan E. Nourse; Space Skimmer by the same David Gerrold I mentioned in the answer to your first question; and the Asimov collection The Rest of the Robots —which, at twelve years old, I thought was about robots taking a break, not realizing that it was the leftover stories that weren’t in I, Robot.

Author photo courtesy of Robert J. Sawyer

Author photo courtesy of Robert J. Sawyer

I enjoyed all of those books enormously, and wanted to try my hand at creating my own stories. Ironically, of them all, the one that’s mostly not thought of as an SF book—The Enormous Egg—is the one that probably influenced me most, with its contemporary setting, its focus on paleontology, and its satiric bent.

Spec Can: Do your characters ever take you to places you didn’t intend to go? Do they take on personalities of their own?

Robert J. Sawyer: No, not really. They have the personalities I give them; I’m a craftsperson, and they’re carefully constructed pieces of my craft. I think they’re highly realistic, but they’re not voices in my head; heck, if I did start hearing voices, I hope I’d have the good sense to go see a psychiatrist.

Spec Can: What new technological advances most interest and excite (or frighten) you as an author of Speculative Fiction?

Robert J. Sawyer: The digitizing, copying, uploading, and modifying of human consciousness—which is one of the core topics I explore in my latest novel, Red Planet Blues.

I want to thank Mr. Sawyer for his incredible insights, particularly about the subversive nature of Canadian SF. If you haven’t had the chance yet, check out Robert J. Sawyer’s website at http://www.sfwriter.com/ .

Also, Mr. Sawyer mentioned above the conference Science Fiction: The Interdisciplinary Genre. If you are interested, you can explore it at http://www.sfwriter.com/cfp.htm . A conference on Canadian SF, could there be anything more fun? 

Demonthropology

A review of Marie Jakober’s The Demon Left Behind (Edge, 2011)
By Derek Newman-Stille

Cover photo of The Demon Left Behind courtesy of Edge ( http://www.edgewebsite.com/ )

Cover photo of The Demon Left Behind courtesy of Edge ( http://www.edgewebsite.com/ )

The world is full of invisible entities, entities affected by us and by the chaos of our world – demons. They aren’t evil, but rather morally grey, like us, varying in their outlook on the world. But because of the link between the visible and invisible worlds, they feel the need to study us, watch and observe us and ensure that no human (visie) action will affect them or their lives. Demons have become silent observers in Marie Jakober’s The Demon Left Behind, bound by a supernatural prime directive not to interfere with our world, but to observe it in case action needs to occur – particularly since human inventions like nuclear bombs could demolish demon life as well as human life.

When the young demon Wye Wye disappears, Melusine and her team are tasked to find him and bring him home. They discover that in his quest to discover threats to the world, he has become insatiably curious about militia groups who believe that the End of Times is upon them and believe that they have a role in protecting the world from things that they see as threats to Christian hegemonic control. Melusine and her group have to employ the work of a human informant and begin to re-trace Wye Wye’s steps as well as his research in order to find out what happened to him and how he became lost in his search to understand.

Jakober’s The Demon Left Behind plays with the image of ethnography, studying humanity from the perspective of an ‘Other’ that is so different from human experience that it does not have a bodily existence apart from the time the demons spend emulating humans in order to study us. Like in many early ethnographic texts, Melusine experiences the allure of the ‘Other’, feeling a desire to become more like the human beings she is observing. She feels a pull toward bodily existence, the desire to experience human sexuality, human desire, human food, and the complexities of bodily existence. Others in her group experience disgust at the idea of bodily existence, but as Melusine becomes closer to her human informant, Paige, she begins to better understand his experience and sees value in corporeality even though it would mean the loss of her immortality if she were to take human bodily form for too long.

The Demon Left Behind evokes in readers a sense of estrangement from the human experience, an othering of our own lives so that we can look at ourselves from an outside perspective and wonder at the strange things that occur in our world that we don’t question – that we normalise.

To explore this and other Edge books, visit their website at http://www.edgewebsite.com/ .