Robert J. Sawyer is one of the world’s most successful and prolific science-fiction writers, and he’s very popular in China.
The Canadian author of 22 novels, including “Flashforward” (1999) has won all the major science-fiction awards, including the Nebula (1995), Hugo (2003) and the John W. Campbell Memorial (2006).
A number of his works have been published in Chinese, including “Factoring Humanity” (1998), “Calculating God” (2000) and “Triggers” (2012).
Sawyer talked with Shanghai Daily about the genre, the future and alien at the Shanghai Book Fair last week.
Q: In the West, science fiction is declining in popularity, especially losing readers to fantasy novels. Your view?
A: It is true that more people are reading fantasy now. There are two reasons — the fall of the Soviet Union and the September 11, 2001 attacks. Before the Cold War ended, people were very interested in science and technology, because there was a potential enemy, and that period was also the peak of science fiction. Then September 11 changed the psyche of Americans forever. Many people wanted to believe a world where absolute good beats absolute evil, and they find it in fantasy novels.
The two genres are often talked about together, and recently many originally sci-fi awards have been given to fantasy novels, but they are distinctly two genres. What is written in science fiction will possibly happen in the future. What is written in fantasy novels will never happen.
Q: Is there a remedy to declining readership?
A: My personal remedy, which has worked and allowed my books to be widely read, is to write a book that is science fiction but also something else, because people who have never read sci-fi can also enjoy it.
I have three significant turning points in my career of over 20 years. My first five books were not well read and that was very frustrating. They were about far future, and I realized only the really hardcore sci-fi readers would read far-future books. So I decided to write about the near future instead, and suddenly I got a much bigger audience and won the Nebula Award and everything was different.
After the September 11 attack, I took change No. 2. Before that, I was always positive about the future, but afterward, people couldn’t feel safe anymore. So I became more realistic, grounded and more pessimistic. I started dealing more with reality, with the really evil people, as in “Triggers.”
Change No. 3 was when “Flashforward” was made into a drama series. The Hollywood experience was amazing and educational. I learned you have to have a fast pace and a lot of excitement. I got many more readers from countries where my books could not reach, and I decided I should write all my books in a way that could be explained to Hollywood producers in one sentence, and be easily adapted.
Q: Disaster movies, alien movies and movies like “Transformers” are very popular, while sci-fi readership is declining. Is that a contradiction?
A: It is true that not many sci-fi books have been adapted into movies. Of the 47 winners of the Nebula Award since 1966, only three have been adapted into movies. Sci-fi tends to be thoughtful and filmmakers want spectacle, so many very famous and classy sci-fi books have not been adapted.
When ABC picked “Flashforward” to make into a series, they told us never to call it a science fiction, instead present it as thriller or drama. That got us a bigger audience.
Q: A lot of great science fiction has predicted the future, some great fiction has not. Do you feel a responsibility to make accurate predictions?
A: It is important for predictions to be believable and possible. Science-fiction writers don’t provide “the” future, we provide possibilities of the future ... I don’t feel responsible to give accurate prediction of the future, but it is sci-fi writers’ responsibility to alert the world to what is going to happen.
Q: Your books are relatively optimistic about science and technology and aliens. Is that your personal view?
A: I made my living as a journalist covering science and technology in the 1980s, during the personal computer revolution. I could see then, as it turned out, that the world was going to be a better place because of science and technology. So, yes, I am optimistic about science and technology. But more than that, I am optimistic about human nature.
In my lifetime, we have become better people. We have seen racists come to welcome the integration of black and white people. We have seen homophobes now accept gay marriage. We have seen people who feared immigration now recognize its necessity. When I was a kid, nobody cared about the environment. Words like ecology, pollution, environmentalism were unheard of. Now everybody is concerned.
The value of intelligence lies in overcoming or overwriting what evolution has forced upon us and overcoming Darwinist selfishness. So I do hold an optimistic view on aliens. If they survived the earlier days of nuclear power, biological technology, and the ability to change and potentially destroy their environment, then they must be intelligent enough to overcome such selfishness.