15. Mississauga’s own.
16. Why this city?
17. The future (?) of print publishing.
19. Sawyer’s favourite book.
20. George Lucas ruined science fiction for everybody.
22. What’s next?
RJS: I moved here in November of 2000, so that’s 11 years and 4 months now.
LG: A significant amount of time, then.
RJS: Yes. This is longest I’ve lived anywhere.
RJS: Pearson, the airport, also keeps me here. I travel two or three times a month, and being close to the airport is enormously convenient. I also love the safety, prosperity, and cleanliness of Mississauga. I love that looking out my windows one way I see the hustle and bustle of Hurontario, and looking out the other way I see a river filled with ducks.
I never feel unsafe walking at night in Mississauga. I always feel comfortable here. It’s a fascinating mixture of having an interesting downtown core—built around the City Hall, the Living Arts Centre, the library and Square One—which is surrounded, within walking distance, by people who actually live there. Lots of cities don’t have that. You go to Calgary, and at 5:00 p.m. the downtown just empties. Nobody lives downtown, it’s all office towers. I like the fact that Mississauga functions all day and all night. It’s just a great city.
LG: We’ve heard several times over the years that print is dead; that the publishing industry is in trouble. Print, to me, doesn’t really seem to go anywhere. You’re in the publishing business, I’m in the publishing business—I think we both have an interest in keeping the written word alive on paper. But I wonder: what do you think of the state of publishing? Are digital readers the way of the future?
RJS: Digital readers are the way of the future—I think there’s no question about that. They’re convenient, you can take your whole library with you wherever you go, you can easily look up words in dictionaries or online as you’re reading, and you can set the type size to whatever you want. I don’t know if dedicated digital readers are the way of the future, that is, whether devices like the Kobo Touch, the Kindle Touch, or the Sony Reader will be around 10 years from now. A lot of people are doing their e-book reading on their iPads or on their Playbooks or on their smartphones—I do a lot of reading on my iPhone.
But the reality is that I’m in the business of words—it doesn’t matter where you read them. You read them on the printed page? I’m happy. You read them as an e-book, that’s fabulous. If you listen to them as audio books, I’m delighted. As long as you’re receptive to receiving my words, I don’t really have an issue. I do like books—physical, printed books overwhelm my home—but I recognize that I’m part of the last or the second-last generation that actually has an emotional attachment to paper.
My whole life, you would judge a person—or at least I would [laughs]—by going into their house, and looking at their books. That’s how you would size up who they were as a person: what were they reading? If they didn’t have any books, oh my God, who the hell were they? And that’s going to disappear, because now they aren’t physically on display in people’s homes as much, and they won’t be in the years to come.
In the 11 years that I’ve lived here, I’ve seen the Chapters near me—the one you used to work at—devote less space to books, and more to what they call “lifestyle” products and giftware. The people who run bookstores are savvy. They recognize what is and what is not generating income. I’d rather see them continue than not continue, so I don’t begrudge them what they have to do to stay in business. But it’s a reality that the grand old profession of being a bookseller is a tenuous one these days.
RJS: We call that a library, [laughs], and it used to be a part of homes. A rich or middle-class Victorian would have a library in his or her home. That would be a normal room to have, with a really comfortable chair and a nice lamp. And you don’t see that anymore. People now have game rooms, entertainment rooms, TV rooms, or rec rooms, but it was not at all uncommon 100 to 150 years ago for people to have a room full of books in their house.
What we also have today is a profusion of books. As it happens right now I’m re-reading The Maltese Falcon, but that’s an aberration for me and for most people today. Most people, even when they’re constant readers, read something new every time. When people ask you today, “What’s your favourite book?” you think fondly back of a book you read 25 years ago, perhaps. When you ask somebody that same question 50 or more years ago—when books were a little more expensive—they would tell you right away because it’s the one they re-read every year, because they only had X number of books that they had access to in their life.
RJS: To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee. It does what all the best science-fiction does without being a science-fiction novel. If they had put a spaceship in it, it would’ve been perfect. It’s a novel that isn’t about what it seems to be about. It seems to be about the coming of age of Jem and Scout, two kids in the Deep South, over one summer, but really it’s about racism in the South. It’s a novel full of social comment and satire, brilliantly drawn characters, beautiful prose, and I absolutely adore it. But I haven’t read it in over 20 years. I’ve got all kinds of other books to read.
LG: Why is that? Is it because SF is considered nerdy? Is it that people just aren’t interested in thought-provoking speculative fiction? And especially since lately it seems that being geeky, if you will, is cool, then why hasn’t it spilled over into the reading?
RJS: Two words: George Lucas. In 1977, George Lucas came out with Star Wars, and it redefined for most people what science-fiction is. It defined it as escapism mostly aimed at adolescent boys and comic-book style narrative without any real meat or engagement with issues. You have to go back nine years to 1968 to find a year that had major science-fiction films in the theatres. In ’68, there were two: 2001: A Space Odyssey and Planet of the Apes. 2001 was nominated for several Oscars including Best Original Screenplay, and Planet of the Apes was seen by adults as being in line with Jonathan Swift, and H.G. Wells, and the other satiric writers of science-fiction or social comment disguised in the fantastic. Star Trek, from ’66 through ’69, was also seen as an adult program. By ’77, George Lucas took that away, and we haven’t recovered from it.
Earlier in this interview, you mentioned that I do months of research. I went to a family reunion about 10 years ago, and one of my great-aunts asked me what I had been doing of late, and I said, “Research for my next science-fiction novel.” And she looked at me—and she didn’t mean anything disparaging by it—and said “What research could you possibly do for a science-fiction novel?” Because she understood it to be stuff that was made up from whole cloth, about nothing other than firing blasters and rescuing the princess in distress, which is what Star Wars is about.
We have a lot of problems in that regard. More than a decade ago, William Gibson’s publishers decided to no longer brand him as science-fiction. Margaret Atwood’s publishers chose never to brand her as science-fiction when she writes in that mode, which she does. 22 years ago, as I was embarking on this career, I made the decision to be a science-fiction writer and nothing else; to fight to rehabilitate the term in the public consciousness. I wanted to write books that were thoughtful, thought-provoking, had something to say about society and politically, that were aimed at adult readers, and that would be called science-fiction. It turned out to be a very tough uphill battle. I underestimated the degree of the prejudice, and possibly overestimated my ability to do anything about it. My licence plate, an Ontario vanity plate, says SF WRITER. My website is sfwriter.com. I put on my tax return, “science-fiction writer.” I’m proud of it. But that said, I understand that the vast majority of people do not understand what I mean when I say the words science-fiction. And that’s their loss.
RJS: First above all others is Arthur C. Clarke. I saw 2001: A Space Odyssey when I was eight and I started struggling through Clarke’s short stories when I was eight. He taught me about the sense of wonder; this vastness of the universe. He taught me that you could explore theological issues in science-fiction—as he does in some of his most famous short stories, such as “The Nine Billion Names of God,” and “The Star,” and his novel Childhood’s End, to some degree 2001—without sneering too much.
After him, Isaac Asimov—for his rationalism, his pacifism, and his fascination with artificial intelligence. No doubt that I would never have written Wake, Watch and Wonder, or my first novel, Golden Fleece, or any of the other things in between that dealt with A.I. if I hadn’t read Isaac Asimov early on.
Frederik Pohl taught me with a novel called Gateway that characters in fiction don’t necessarily have to be likable—they only have to be believable. That was a big revelation for me at the time (1977) because most of what I’d been seeing either had no characters at all, just cardboard (a standard science-fiction failing), or had these super-likable characters that George Lucas gave us in Star Wars. Everybody likes Leia, Luke, Han, Chewie, and Ben.
LG: I wanted to be a Jedi when I was a kid.
RJS: Everyone did! We love these characters, and we still do, decades later. But that’s not necessary. And it’s a lesson that literary fiction learned a long time ago: that as long as the character portrayal rings true, it doesn’t actually have to be about heroes and villains.
So those guys were the biggest influences on me. Earlier I said that I’m re-reading Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon, because the book I’m writing now, The Great Martian Fossil Rush, is a detective noir SF novel set on Mars. I’ve been re-reading [Raymond] Chandler too. Hammett and Chandler are the masters of this form, and it’s good to have their use of the language pinging around inside my skull as I try to write that sort of thing myself.
RJS: The Great Martian Fossil Rush will be out in April 2013. It’s about the only private detective on Mars. Hopefully it’s a fun, rollicking book. It’s probably lighter in tone than the things I’ve written of late. But I never want to write the same thing twice—I always want every project to be different. And this was a different direction for me, and I’ve very much enjoyed working on it.
RJS: I’ve been pitching Triggers in Hollywood and in Toronto, and we have come close a couple of times to television deals for a series based on it, but close only counts in horseshoes. However, the beauty of FlashForward is that my name is known, and we’re having no trouble getting meetings with very high-level people. I have, in the works, adaptations of Triggers and the WWW trilogy (adaptations that I’m working on myself), and already in the works is an adaptation of The Great Martian Fossil Rush. Others have under option The Terminal Experiment for a motion picture, and Rollback is under option right now with some very high-level Hollywood players involved, but until the cameras start rolling, you never know what will happen.