Words by Leo Graziani
It’s been nine years since I’ve been to Robert J. Sawyer’s home, and the moment I step through the door, the memories come flooding back. The last time I was here, I was a student doing an interview for an assignment. Many of the details I remember are still present: the neatly lined bookcases, the original cover art for some of his novels hanging on that wall there, the Neanderthal skull replicas, and the action figures from Battlestar Galactica and Planet of the Apes. There is a new detail, though: a large model of the USS Enterprise, with working lights that match the model used on the original show.
Sawyer is a household name in science-fiction. He’s one of only eight writers—and the only Canadian—to ever win all three of the top awards in sci-fi for best novel: the Nebula, for The Terminal Experiment in 1995; the Hugo, for Hominids in 2003, and the John W. Campbell Memorial Award for Mindscan in 2005.
So it’s apt that these memories come back to me as we sit down to chat about his new novel, Triggers. It’s his 21st novel, and it’s a sci-fi thriller—emphasis on thriller—which, along with assassination plots, terrorist attacks, secret military operations, and empathy, also deals extensively with memory. Along the way we also discuss transhumanism, atheism, pacifism, how George Lucas ruined science-fiction, the sheer glory of the universe, and the fate of the human race. So, you know… light stuff.
1. Triggers: the action movie that was a book.
2. Facial memory and the brilliant brain.
3. Canadian content.
4. Remember Canadian Heritage Minutes?
5. Transhumanism and the human adventure.
6. 5,000 Facebook “friends.”
7. On empathy and the Canadian experience.
Robert J. Sawyer: Well, that’s very deliberate. I had a lot of success with the FlashForward TV series from 2009, which was a liberal adaptation of my 1999 novel. The book was an introspective and philosophical story, but to make it supposedly work in primetime television, the decision was made—with approval from me—to add conspiracies and thriller elements, all kinds of explosions, people running and jumping and firing off guns. All to the good—the show looked wonderful, and it brought me more readers than ever before. You just can’t beat the exposure of being on primetime American television.
So when people started coming to my books, most of them loved them, which was delightful. But they certainly were conscious, and I was conscious, that they weren’t seeing lots of explosions and car chases and things blowing up and guns being fired and conspiracy plotlines. In some ways, the TV series was a little bit of an uneasy marriage between Robert J. Sawyer and the sensibility of [24 writer] Brannon Braga, who co-wrote the pilot. It was definitely Robert J. Sawyer meets 24. And I thought that was an interesting combination. There are some people who now associate me with that kind of thriller, so I thought why not see if I could write a novel in that style?
But there’s more to it. My forte for the last decade or more has been an exploration of the nature of consciousness: FlashForward is about everybody getting a glimpse of the future; Mindscan is about people uploading their consciousness; The Neanderthal Parallax is about how we having true consciousness and Neanderthals not led to us surviving and them not surviving; Wake, Watch and Wonder are about emergent consciousness. But the one part of consciousness I hadn’t spent a lot of time on was memory. And as much as anything, that defines who we are. Do you like or hate this particular person? Are you for or against that particular party? Do you enjoy or not enjoy this particular food? All of that is your memory. Without your memory, you don’t know, you have no opinion on these things. You are what you remember.
In the last 15 years, we have learned an enormous amount about memory: how it’s stored, how fallible it is, and the fact that what I remember, even vividly, is simply a reconstruction that my brain has made from a handful of clues that it has stored. Imagine if I was asked tomorrow about this interview:
“Hey, Leo interviewed you yesterday.”
“Yeah, he did.”
“What was it like?”
“Well, you know, we’re both a few years older since the last time we saw each other.”
“What was he wearing?”
“I… I don’t remember.”
“Well, was he wearing blue jeans?”
“Yeah, yeah, blue jeans.”
Well you’re not—you’re wearing black slacks. But unless I brought that up right now, I wouldn’t remember that, but I would visualize you wearing clothes and I would convince myself that that’s what you were wearing. So I was fascinated by the fallibility of memory, that it absolutely defines us, and yet it is nothing at all like a PVR or a computer hard disk in terms of the fidelity of what it records. All these elements [conspiracy thrillers, memory] came together to form Triggers.
RJS: And you’re recording this interview, because when you go to write it up, you won’t remember what I said.
LG: Exactly—there’s way too much to absorb. But there was also the bit about how we remember just the important details of someone’s face, and how it differs from the default in our minds. So I thought OK, let’s put that to the test: I’ll think of my best friend. And I can picture him, I can see him, but you’re right—it’s just those few little extra details that surface: I know the shape of his eyes, the abundance of his hair, things like that.
RJS: We’ve all had that experience. You will look at somebody whom you haven’t seen for a while, or maybe even your spouse or your best friend whom you’ve seen recently, and you will be conscious that something has changed, but you won’t know what it is. Something’s different. Oh, you’ve shaved off the moustache. Or you’ve grown a moustache or a beard, or a woman might have dyed her hair. Think of one of those classic, almost stereotypical situations where a woman will go and get her hair done and the man won’t notice, and somehow that means the man is not actually interested in the woman anymore—it’s nothing at all like that. It simply has to do with how we process faces and memory.
The brain is brilliant. Evolution has exactly configured it to deal with the realities we deal with, which is that our hair does change in length, colour, and quantity as years go by. Facial hair comes and goes—but eye colour doesn’t change. Your smile doesn’t change. But something as transitory as the way you’re wearing your hair or whether or not you’ve got a new pair of glasses—your brain hasn’t bothered to code that as an identifying detail for you anyway, because it knows it’s a transient detail.
LG: Something else I immediately noticed about the book—and maybe this is a result of your extra exposure from the FlashFoward TV series—was how much more American it is, compared to most of your other novels.
RJS: Well, a huge difference is that it’s set in the United States. And yet we have Dr. Singh, a Canadian character—
LG: A pivotal Canadian character.
RJS: A pivotal Canadian character! And I’m proud that he’s a Canadian character who represents a portion of our multiculturalism. He’s a Sikh, yet is identified in the text as “The Canadian,” which I think is exactly right.
As soon as I settled on an assassination plot, I discovered that it just doesn’t ring true in Canada. There are lots of people who are furious at Stephen Harper, just as there were lots who were furious at Jean Chrétien before him, but the notion of a Canadian actually eliminating the prime minister through assassination: A) It just goes against the grain of who Canadians are, even wacky Canadians; and B) because of the way our political system is structured—it doesn’t make any difference. We don’t have this “Queen Bee” setup that the Americans have, where the president makes all the difference. Stephen Harper gets eliminated, the deputy prime minister steps in. The same party stays in power—who cares? You can’t change the policies because our system isn’t based on one guy being able to say, as George W. Bush said, “Well, let’s go to war. We don’t actually have any evidence, but let’s do it!”
RJS: Yee-haw! I know there are supposedly systems, but fundamentally it does come down to that sort of thing. In Canada, we railed when the Conservative Party tried to rebrand itself as The Harper Government, but in the States, terms like Obamacare—not Democratcare—are bandied around because they understand that it’s the president’s program that’s doing it. So part of the Americanism was necessary for that.
Another reason is the way Americans handle collective memory. I was born in Ottawa. It’s hard to imagine two national capitals that are more different than Ottawa and Washington, D.C. You try to find the “MacDonald Memorial” in Ottawa—there isn’t one. You go to the United States and there’s the Washington Monument, the Lincoln Memorial, and the Jefferson Memorial. They do memorials, they do pomp and circumstance, they do collective memory in a way that we consider in Canada to be unseemly.
And when you’re writing about memory, having something take place at the Lincoln Memorial, where The Gettysburg Address is carved in stone—which is about memory—is significant. You can’t set this novel with the same effect in Canada. The same was true twice before in my career. One was Illegal Alien, and the other one was Frameshift.
So all three of these novels—three out of 21—seemed to make sense to set in the United States. And yet I found a way to put my Canadian content in all three of them.
LG: I wasn’t deliberately searching for them, but the Canadian Sawyer-isms are there. One in particular was when someone says to Dr. Singh, “About six feet?” and Singh replies, “About two metres, yes.” There are little winks to the Canadian reader in the novel.
RJS: The most significant one in there for me, besides Singh’s nationality, is that he was motivated to become a brain researcher because of the Heritage Minute on Canadian television for Wilder Penfield. We called Penfield the greatest Canadian alive. That little bit of business—three or four paragraphs in the novel—won’t mean anything to my American readers, but it’s there for my Canadian readers, who will very much appreciate it. Heritage Minutes were terrific. And they were an aberration for Canada, because we do so little of that celebration of our own culture—except for actors. We have way more to celebrate than just our pop culture. And I say that as a purveyor of Canadian pop culture.
RJS: Yes. Let’s explore this a little bit. I’m very interested in transhumanism, though I’m not, in fact, a transhumanist. Transhumanists are people who devote their lives to becoming something other than what we recognize as human beings. There are two major thrusts of transhumanism. One is the biological thrust, which says that through stem cells, genetic engineering, and possibly bionics, our physical biological existence will A) transmogrify and B) become much more enduring—we’ll live much longer.
The other is the computerized or mechanized thrust, which says, no, no, no, biology is so last millennium. We should be doing everything we can to copy, digitize, or upload our consciousness either into artificial bodies or simply to a virtual realm. I explored that on an individual basis in two separate novels, because I’m fascinated by it: the biological one in Rollback, and the mechanized one in Mindscan. I then spent six years of my life writing what I think of as my magnum opus, the WWW trilogy [Wake, Watch, and Wonder], which is about the future of interconnected machines and how they become something more than the sum of their parts. And so the logical next thing to do, just as Rollback and Mindscan were a pair, was to do something similar to the WWW trilogy but biologically—the interconnections of human beings.
One of my favourite movies is Star Trek: The Motion Picture. The first line on the ending credits is “The human adventure is just beginning.” I’m a huge believer in that. I don’t think we’re at the end of biological evolution or biological potential, especially with the more we learn about how our brains and bodies work and also how we work as societies, and societies of societies. I think there’s an awful lot still to happen in the human adventure, to use the Star Trek term, and Triggers was very much my attempt to explore that.
LG: There are a few points in the novel where the characters say something like “I know all about this person, but I don’t know them,” when talking about the sudden access to a stranger’s memories—which reminded me of Facebook. Building off of the web analogy, does Triggers also have parallels to social media?
RJS: I think that’s a very insightful observation. I hadn’t thought about that parallel, but I think you’re exactly right. We have devalued the term friend on Facebook. I have 5,000 friends on Facebook, but I would not recognize more than 1 percent of them on the street. What I know of them are a handful of details, a single image, usually only as big as a 100-pixel-wide photo next to a posting. On Twitter, where you’ve only got a 140-character limit, all you get is the tiniest little insight into what they say.
We think we know other people through social media and also just in life. You think you know somebody, and yet you don’t know anybody, not even your spouse, your parents, your children, or your siblings even 1 percent as well as you know yourself. You only know A) what they care to project to the outside world, and B) what you project onto them. “Oh, I know what he’s thinking,” you think, when you don’t know what he’s thinking, right? You could be thinking right now, “What a profoundly interesting answer,” or “Oh my God, he’s going on and on, I wish he would shut up so we can get onto the next question.” I project onto you what I think you’re thinking. And with Triggers, where people actually suddenly are sharing memories, and suddenly getting to know another person the way they know themselves, that does underscore the paucity, the impoverished nature of the way we think we know other people in our social media, and even in our real-world society.
LG: Two of the key words I thought of when I read the book were understanding and empathy. For me, the big message I took away from Triggers was [whoops, that’d be spoiling things, kids]. And that’s refreshing to hear in a genre that often tends to glorify war.
RJS: Thank you. It was very deliberate. The more you know another person, the more you walk a mile in somebody else’s shoes, the more inclined you are to see somebody else’s point of view. And we don’t empathize enough with people who are less well-off than we are, or with people who are from or live in cultures different from our own. So much of the horror that goes on around the world is driven by a simple lack of empathy.
Think about the slave trade in the United States. I don’t speak very much of it in Triggers, but it’s there, especially because I bring Lincoln and the Gettysburg Address into the foreground. It’s only a lack of empathy that could allow you as a slave owner to treat human beings like property. So yes, I think the ability for people to empathize with others is the most wonderful thing of all.
I look on, appalled, at the United States right now at the attacks on Obama, which are obviously, in so many cases, attacks on the notion of having an African-American in the White House. I was just in Winnipeg, giving a talk at TEDxManitoba. There were two African-Americans there: one to talk, and one was the partner of the person who had come to talk. The night before, there was a reception for all the speakers at a law office in Winnipeg, and the black man went into the law office and had a fabulous time. And he was telling me the next day, “You know what? Now I know what it feels like to be white. I have never walked into a place of power, a law office, a government agency, or a military facility anywhere in the United States, and not immediately felt people looking at me as if to say ‘What are you doing here?’ because of the colour of my skin. And when I walked into that law office, and they welcomed me… I had never experienced that in my life before. Now I know what it’s like to be white.”
And that’s an incredibly Canadian thing, that we do have this multiculturalism and it does work. It brought to mind the reality that for all kinds of people, they’re conscious of the fact that every day there’s a lack of empathy or a lack of appreciation for them that they have to endure in a thousand askance looks, subtle gestures, and petty indignities. And wouldn’t it be wonderful if someday that just dissipated?