Interview with Hope Nicholson and Rachel Richey about Nelvana of the Northern Lights

An Interview with Hope Nicholson and Rachel Richey About Nelvana of the Northern Lights
By Derek Newman-Stille

Image courtesy of Hope Nicholson, and Rachel Richey.

Image courtesy of Hope Nicholson, and Rachel Richey.

I met Hope Nicholson and Rachel Richey at the recent Fan Expo Canada where they revealed that they were working on an archival project about the Canadian comic book character Nelvana of the Northern Lights, one of the world’s first superheroines in a field that was largely dominated by male superheroes. Nelvana predated Wonder Woman and paved the way for the inclusion of women in heroic roles in comic books.

Rachel Richey and Hope Nicholson revealed that they were seeking to resurrect Nelvana of the Northern Lights, re-publishing some of these Canadian comic book history gems. I am fortunate that they were willing to share some of their insights with us here on Speculating Canada. 

Spec Can: Hope and Rachel, could you tell us a little bit about yourselves to begin this interview?

Hope Nicholson: Sure, I’m a producer for the upcoming documentary film Lost Heroes (directed by Orphan Black and Bitten writer Will Pascoe) and work fulltime in the media industry. I have a BA in communications and film studies from York U, but I’m from Winnipeg originally.

Rachel Richey: I have a background in English and Journalism, and have worked in communications. I worked for Library and Archives Canada on the John Bell collection of Canadian Comics, and write a history blog referencing Canadian comics as well called Comicsyrup, and I did research for Lost Heroes as well. I currently manage a comic shop in Toronto, and work with the Doug Wright Awards and the Joe Shuster Awards.

Spec Can: What is the history of Nelvana of the Northern Lights?

Hope Nicholson: Nelvana of the Northern Lights was inspired by a story told to Group of 7 artist Franz Johnston during his travels up north to different Inuit towns. He then relayed the bones of the story, about a female protector of the North who was the daughter of a god, to his illustrator friend Adrian Dingle. When WWII started and US comics were banned from entering Canada, Adrian Dingle decided to start up his own comic book series, headlined by the adventures of Nelvana of the Northern Lights, who he changed from a crone to a ‘doll in a miniskirt’. After 31 issues headlining the series Triumph, the series came to an end and Nelvana faded from history. At the time, she had her own graphic novel and merchandise available for purchase, making her one of the more recognizable characters of that time period. She was brought back in the 1970s by a group of ambitious animators named Michael Hirsh, Patrick Loubert, and Clive Smith, who purchased the rights and collections to the entire Bell Features catalogue, including the Nelvana issues. They then formed their own animation company which they named Nelvana and travelled around Canada to showcase the original artwork. Nothing has been done with her since, sadly (until now!)

Spec Can: Could you tell us a little bit about what got you interested in Nelvana of the Northern Lights? What inspired your passion about this comic series? 

Image courtesy of Hope Nicholson, Rachel Richey, and Libraries and Archives Canada

Image courtesy of Hope Nicholson, Rachel Richey, and Libraries and Archives Canada. Copyright Corus Entertainment

Hope Nicholson: Around 6 years ago, even though I was obsessed with comic books, I had no idea that Canada had its own history with the medium. Finding out about the Canadian Golden Age, thrilled and angered me. These comics are amazing, why were they been pushed into an obscure part of history, they sold millions of issues across Canada! Nelvana was the most compelling of the bunch. You can’t look at the artwork of these issues and not see the skill and talent behind it. The stories were fairly sophisticated for a comic book, but never dragged on. The villains were colourful and charmingly eccentric (ether people, Queen of Static, mammoth men). It was just a fun read and beautiful to look at, even though I had to read badly scanned copies on microfiche!

Rachel Richey: Mine is a similar story to Hope’s, actually. About 3 years ago I discovered the same thing and had the same reaction. When I found out what the Archives had I essentially begged them to let me catalogue it. They didn’t actually even know what was in there! Luckily they let me do it (Best job ever) and since then it’s been my prime directive to make people aware of Canada’s comics industry. Nelvana in particular is a favourite, how could it not be? She’s righteous and intense. She’s a babe! She’s tough and interesting, not a run of the mill hero. She’s honest. This comic is quality work and confidently, awesomely, distinctly Canadian. Something that should be within reach to anyone growing up reading comics.

Spec Can: What got you interested in digitizing Nelvana of the Northern Lights and making the comics available to the public?

Hope Nicholson: As soon as I saw the comics I knew I had to share them with the world, it wasn’t fair that Adrian Dingle doesn’t get the respect he deserves for creating this wonderful character. When I first had access to the microfiche I would go to the library every day after work and copy as many pages as I could to a digital drive before the library closed. I did this until I had the complete run of Triumph comics (32 issues at roughly 60 pages each!) digitized for my own interest. While working on Lost Heroes I discovered who the current copyright holders were and my interest was renewed. With the rise of Kickstarter I realized that the financial burdens of getting these comics digitized, printed, and distributed could be lightened and we could actually do it. So we are.

Rachel Richey: During the time Nelvana was published, American comics were off limits to Canadians, as they were not allowed to be imported into the country. What is so amazing about Nelvana is that she had Canadians’ attention to be anything she wanted. Nelvana had an eager audience, and she was never overshadowed by American culture which has never since been the same. Kids could participate in the contests and see the names of Canadian cities in the letter pages. I think what was cultivated both tangibly and intangibly in these pages is something that should have been passed on ages ago, and we’re so desperately excited to do so.

Spec Can: What is different about Nelvana of the Northern Lights from other super heroes or heroines?

Hope Nicholson: Her connection to the Northern people is the most prevalent theme in her issues. I won’t say that Adrian Dingle always does the best in his representation, but it’s rare to find representations of the north in comic books today. Even though her powers can be used to injure, she’s a pacifist and is strongly sympathetic to the horrors of war as mentioned a few times in the series. It’s also striking how the series isn’t quite sure what genre it’s supposed to be. It blends elements of crime, sci-fi, adventure and humour comics. Luckily it stays away from romance for the most part. Nelvana has a male companion, the RCMP officer Corporal Keene, but there’s no romantic attachment there.

Rachel Richey: I agree with Hope, but my favourite thing about Nelvana is that she is independent. Perhaps given the extra 65 years to develop story line Nelvana would have been swayed romantically, but for the 31 issues, she’s pretty much business and I really think this is a positive role model for women reading comics, and also young girls, who are presented with a singular role model unhindered by excessive romance and more about positively caring for other people and the environment. She’s got her priorities.

Spec Can: What do you feel are some of the most important features that a comic book series should have?

Image courtesy of Hope Nicholson, Rachel Richey, and Libraries and Archives Canada

Image courtesy of Hope Nicholson, Rachel Richey, and Libraries and Archives Canada. Copyright Corus Entertainment

Hope Nicholson: I prefer a strong serial narrative. I love comics in a way that if I was a different person, I could have loved soap operas. I want to tune in and be on the edge of my seat to find out what happens next. Character interactions with each other and development of personality is more interesting and compelling to me than action scenes, or even elaborate plots. Of course, if they look good that’s always nice too.

Rachel Richey: Yeah, I would say that I love dialogue/character interaction and art best. And like most comics during this period, they only got better with age. Dingle’s brush stroke later in the series is to die for.

Spec Can: What is particularly Canadian about Nelvana of the Northern Lights? Is there something about her that speaks to the Canadian experience?

Hope Nicholson: I like that it doesn’t stick with one genre. We’re a nation where our literature often blurs the lines of expectations. We usually can’t do superheroes unless they’re parodies, because of the strict superhero genre is confining and inaccessible to us. American based creators do strict genre very well, and we’re all pleased to read their superhero comics, and watch their procedural cop shows, but it’s not a format that most Canadians has been comfortable creating in. Nelvana succeeded and is so interesting precisely because it doesn’t need to stay within the confines of the superhero genre.

Rachel Richey: Great answer, Hope. Nelvana is around the RCMP. Nelvana is around snow. Nelvana is associated with the North. Fur trim. She’s not glamorous. She doesn’t need recognition. She’s good because why wouldn’t she be if someone else is suffering and she can do something about it?

Spec Can: How did Nelvana represent underrepresented groups and how does this differ from most comic book representations of women, aboriginal people, and other underrepresented groups, particularly those of the time?

Hope Nicholson: The fact that there is representation of Inuit people is amazing. Adrian Dingle does venture sometimes into either over-romanticizing the ‘tragic northern people’ as was common at the time, and vilifying the Japanese in a way that’s quite jarring to read now. On the whole though, the Inuit people are an integral part of the early Nelvana storylines, which is impressive. I wouldn’t necessarily say it is the most positive representation, since it’s not terribly nuanced or varied. As a woman, Nelvana to me is a great representation. Admittedly, she does get bound in her first few issues and needs to be rescued from her brother, but from that point on she takes control of the story fully. To the point where she tells her one-arc love interest Prince Targa that she doesn’t need to be saved by him. She’s acknowledged as being beautiful, but her attractiveness has little to do with any storylines and isn’t the focus of her character.

Rachel Richey: Nelvana is a woman who gives the inuit people a presence in comics in the 40s. I would say gender played about as much role in Nelvana as it did in say, Superman or other Golden Age comics. It was more about the adventure, it was committed to the story. There was no subtext or other purpose than to have this story with these people because it was a good story, which to me is a good enough reason. Like Hope said, in the beginning it wasn’t a perfect portrayal but it was pretty impressive relative to other comics in the 40s.

Spec Can: What is the importance of remembering Canadian comic book history?

Image courtesy of Hope Nicholson, Rachel Richey, and Libraries and Archives Canada

Image courtesy of Hope Nicholson, Rachel Richey, and Libraries and Archives Canada. Copyright Corus Entertainment

Hope Nicholson: We [Canadians] don’t do a great job of remembering our own history or spreading it. The few of us who are fascinated by it sometimes feel alienated by our interest and so the information stays with us and our like-minded friends. We need to stop that and start bothering people in the world even if they seem bored by it! We need anchors to our past, to our history, so we don’t make mistakes that we have in the past, and so we feel connected to a culture that we’ve all worked hard to create.

Rachel Richey: Comics are a beautiful form of literature and storytelling. Beyond the fact that these comics are so original to Canada, they are part of an extremely interesting time in Canadian history. But they’re the foundation of Canada’s comics history and after so many years in the dust they need support.

Spec Can: How would you feel about the idea of doing a new run of Nelvana of the Northern Lights  comics… a new series or revisioning/ revamping of the comics for a modern audience?

Rachel Richey: I would love it! Who knows what the future holds!

Spec Can: In what way do you think Nelvana may have inspired the women in comics who came after her?

Hope Nicholson: I don’t think she inspired anyone. No one knows about her! But I’m hoping after this project she will inspire some creators. If fans think that modern comics must be more open-minded and progressive than they were in the past, this should open their eyes a bit. Since the Canadian comic industry faded off after the 1950s, there were few enough children who grew up reading Nelvana who actually went into the comic book industry afterwards, even though millions of children at the time did know who she was.

Rachel Richey: This is what I meant before. She is part of an amazing foundation of comics that was essentially lost after 1946. Our culture and industry pretty much HAVE YET to be inspired by her.

Spec Can: What do you hope will happen with the Nelvana of the Northern Lights project?

Hope Nicholson: I hope that when I say Nelvana of the Northern Lights, the vast majority of comic fans will instantly understand who she is and what significance she has to our history, and to the history of comics in general.

Rachel Richey: Yep, Hope pretty much hit the nail on the head. I want to make her AT LEAST a comics household name.

Spec Can: Is there anything further you would like to add to this interview?

Hope Nicholson: We were lucky to discover Nelvana because collectors and researchers made hints of information available about her. But who knows what comic characters and history is still hidden? Be modern day adventurers, ask your grandparents what they read, look into old publishers! Curiosity is the strongest motivation for us to get as far as we have.

Rachel Richey: Another one, and one that I can’t stress strongly enough, is support small press. You never know what great gems you will find there and you’ll be supporting Canadian produced comics and, I’m sure, inevitably a healthier indigenous comics industry.

Image courtesy of Hope Nicholson, Rachel Richey, and Libraries and Archives Canada

Image courtesy of Hope Nicholson, Rachel Richey, and Libraries and Archives Canada. Copyright Corus Entertainment

I want to thank Ms. Nicholson and Ms. Richey for this fantastic interview and voyage into Canadian comic book history, and, particularly, the history of female figures in Canadian superhero comics. I hope everyone else is as excited as I am about the re-release of the Nelvana of the Northern Lights comics and I think that after this interview I am even MORE interested in reading the Nelvana comics.

I particularly enjoy the fact that Nelvana seems to appear in this interview almost like another participant – she has become so intense, so powerful, so REAL for Ms. Richey and Ms. Nicholson that she is almost voicing herself in this interview. One can easily see the mythic potential of Nelvana of the Northern Lights based on the way she has evoked such a strong response and LOVE from these two researchers. Thank you to both of these researchers for a fascinating interview and for bringing Nelvana alive for us out of the depths of history.

If you are interested in Rachel Richey’s Canadian comic book history blog Comicsyrup, you can explore it at http://comicsyrup.com/ .

You can check out information about the Canadian comic book history documentary Lost Heroes  that Hope Nicholson is producing at their Facebook site at https://www.facebook.com/LostHeroesMovie .

You can explore information about Nelvana of the Northern Lights and Rachel Richey and Hope Nicholson’s project to republish this classic comic book figure at their Facebook site at https://www.facebook.com/NelvanaComics

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Upcoming Interview About Nelvana of the Northern Lights with Hope Nicholson and Rachel Richey on Friday September 27th

Have you ever heard of Nelvana of the Northern Lights? Did you know that Canada had one of

Image courtesy of Hope Nicholson, Rachel Richey, and Libraries and Archives Canada

Image courtesy of Hope Nicholson, Rachel Richey, and Libraries and Archives Canada

the first superheroines, predating other women in superheroic roles like Wonder Woman, and paving the way for women in comics? Since so few people know about the history of Nelvana of the Northern Lights, Hope Nicholson and Rachel Richey were inspired to do some archival research and resurrect Nelvana like so many characters from the comic books themselves who are brought back out of the darkness into life.

Rachel Richey and Hope Nicholson were inspired by their research to re-release the classic Nelvana of the Northern Lights comics, and since Nelvana is such a fascinating character, I asked them if they would be willing to share some of their insights with us.

Check out our upcoming interview on Friday September 27th and hear about the connection between the Group of 7 artists and Nelvana’s creation, the portrayal of Nelvana’s connection with northern indigenous people in Canada that were rarely depicted in comics of the time, the potency of a pacifist superheroine at a time of war, and the power of this series to blend sci-fi, crims tories, adventure, and humour comics. Ms. Richey and Ms. Nicholson went through a similar excitement at the discovery of Canadian comics to what those of us who love comics have gone through when suddenly they discover that Canada IS INDEED part of the comic book world, and they took steps to bring that joy to others by resurrecting this figure from Canadian comic history.

Rachel Richey: “It’s been my prime directive to make people aware of Canada’s comics industry.”

Hope Nicholson: “After 31 issues headlining the series Triumph, the series came to an end and Nelvana faded from history. At the time, she had her own graphic novel and merchandise available for purchase, making her one of the more recognizable characters of that time period.”

Rachel Richey: “When I found out what the Archives had I essentially begged them to let me catalogue it.”

Hope Nicholson: “Around 6 years ago, even though I was obsessed with comic books, I had no idea that Canada had its own history with the medium. Finding out about the Canadian Golden Age, thrilled and angered me. These comics are amazing, why were they been pushed into an obscure part of history, they sold millions of issues across Canada!”

Rachel Richey: “Nelvana in particular is a favourite, how could it not be? She’s righteous and intense. She’s a babe! She’s tough and interesting, not a run of the mill hero. She’s honest.”

Rachel Richey: “What is so amazing about Nelvana is that she had Canadians’ attention to be anything she wanted.”

Hope Nicholson: “Even though her powers can be used to injure, she’s a pacifist and is strongly sympathetic to the horrors of war.”

Rachel Richey: “My favourite thing about Nelvana is that she is independent… For the 31 issues, she’s pretty much business and I really think this is a positive role model for women reading comics, and also young girls, who are presented with a singular role model unhindered by excessive romance and more about positively caring for other people and the environment.”

Image courtesy of Hope Nicholson, Rachel Richey, and Libraries and Archives Canada

Image courtesy of Hope Nicholson, Rachel Richey, and Libraries and Archives Canada

Hope Nicholson: “I like that it doesn’t stick with one genre. We’re a nation where our literature often blurs the lines of expectations. We usually can’t do superheroes unless they’re parodies, because of the strict superhero genre is confining and inaccessible to us.”

Rachel Richey: “Comics are a beautiful form of literature and storytelling. Beyond the fact that these comics are so original to Canada, they are part of an extremely interesting time in Canadian history.”

If you are interested in the history of Canadian comics, women in comics, or the awesomeness of superheroic figures, you will definitely not want to miss this interview on Friday September 27th!

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? 

Upcoming Interview with Robert J. Sawyer On Friday, April 12.

I recently met Robert J. Sawyer at the International Conference for the Fantastic in the Arts and had the opportunity to invite him to do an interview here on Speculating Canada. For those of you who are not familiar with Mr. Sawyer’s work, he has been, at various points in his career, the recipient of all three of the world’s top awards for science fiction writing: the Hugo, the Nebula, and the John W. Campbell Memorial Award as well as the Canadian Aurora awards, the Humanism in the Arts Award, and the Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Medal.

Author photo courtesy of Robert J. Sawyer

Author photo courtesy of Robert J. Sawyer

On April 12, Robert J. Sawyer and I will be talking about the separation between life and SF writing, extraterrestrial intelligence and astrobiology, the distinct nature of Canadian SF, the interdisciplinarity of SF, and SF’s ability to ask complex questions. He is a science fiction writer who has as much interest in the past as he does in the future and lets that interest speak to his SF work. Mr. Sawyer experiments with the SF genre, infusing it with elements from courtroom dramas, detective fiction, romance, and thrillers.

Here are some teasers from our upcoming interview

Robert J. Sawyer: “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.’”

Robert J. Sawyer: “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.”

Robert J. Sawyer: “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.”

Robert J. Sawyer: “I’ve often said that science fiction is the literature of intriguing juxtapositions.”

Robert J. Sawyer: “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.”

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.”

Robert J. Sawyer: “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.”

Robert J. Sawyer: “SF is a subversive genre, and always has been.”

Robert J. Sawyer: “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.”

Explore our full interview on Friday April 12 and hear more about the power of SF to subvert the norms and question social trends and ideas.