Robert J. Sawyer

Notable Works: Hominids, Calculating God, Mindscan, Frameshift

Robert J. Sawyer Confronts Our Damn Life Clocks in Rollback


"There are clocks -- biological, financial, societal -- clicking in the background of everything we do. How liberating it would be not to have just a handful of decades to live! How great the art we create might be if someone could spend five hundred years on their magnum opus.”

HSF: How did you get interested in science?

RJS: I sometimes quip that my father is a dismal scientist — which he is, in a way: he's a renowned macroeconometric theorist, and professor emeritus at the University of Toronto, and, of course, economics was dubbed "the dismal science" by Thomas Carlyle. My mother was an academic, too: she was a child prodigy who ended up teaching statistics at the University of Toronto. Both of them put a huge premium on learning. My brothers and I could have any book or toy we wanted — so long as it was educational. When I was a kid, we only had one TV, and you could only reserve it for an educational show: National Geographic or The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau trumped Hockey Night in Canada or Get Smart. My father read to me every night before I went to bed, mostly science and nature books. As it happened, the ones on astronomy and dinosaurs appealed to me the most — and, to this day, astronomy and paleontology are still my favorite sciences.

HSF: What initially inspired you to write hard science fiction?

RJS: One of my favorite books as a kid: Oliver P. Butterworth's wonderful The Enormous Egg, which is about a hen that lays a Triceratops egg. Although the book didn't have to have any real science in it, it actually has tons — not to mention some really spot-on portrayals of scientists and the politics of science.

HSF: How important is it to you, if at all, that your readers actually learn scientific concepts from your stories?

RJS: Well, you have to remember that there's a continuum of readers for science fiction, ranging from those who know no real science to those who actually are high-ranking professional scientists. So, you can't set out to teach in your books — a goodly part of your audience knows more than you possibly can, at least in their narrow area. I prefer to think of my job as being to intrigue people, not to educate them. So, if someone is moved to go on and learn more about quantum computing or paleoanthropology or genetic engineering because of something they read in my books, I'm delighted.

HSF: Some hard sciences, like quantum physics and string theory, are understood by a very small percentage of the world. How does this affect you as someone who is trying to sell hard sf books?

RJS: Oh, it's an opportunity more than anything else. I've had hundreds of people tell me they finally understood quantum mechanics after reading my Factoring Humanity, for instance. As a writer, I do have to understand these things — and, to be a good hard-SF writer with fresh ideas dealt with in depth, you have to have a pretty detailed understanding.

I do get mad at my colleagues who say in the acknowledgments of their books that the source of their science was one episode they watched of Nova or one article they read in Discover. Research is the heart and soul of modern SF writing; scientists are handing us gigantic ideas — mind-boggling stuff. It's a wonderful time to be an SF writer, but it means you have to work hard. I like working hard, and I love doing research, so that's no problem for me, but I have heard some of my colleagues privately admit that they're happy about the rise of fantasy, because in fantasy all you have to be is internally consistent — you make it up, and follow your own arbitrary rules. In science fiction, the writer has to really struggle to understand — although if you do your job well your reader never struggles; for them, the science should be fun.

HSF: What types of research do you do to gain scientific accuracy in your stories?

RJS: In general, I do four kinds of research. First, there's voracious reading of magazines (New Scientist and Science News are my mainstays), books (I'm currently working through a stack of books on the nature of human vision), and journals (I've found a lot that's useful in The Journal of Consciousness Studies, for instance).

Second, I go to scientific conferences when the chance presents itself — the Paleoanthropology Society, the Canadian Conference on Intelligent Systems, the International Symposium on Physical Sciences in Space, and so forth.

Third, I visit scientists at universities and research institutions: I've had the VIP behind-the-scenes tour at the Canadian Light Source, the Sudbury Neutrino Observatory, the Royal Tyrrell Museum of Paleontology, the Johnson Space Center, the Smithsonian, and others.

Fourth, of course, is online research, which is fun but also a potential trap: I can't count the number of days I've lost just following endless chains of fascinating links online.

And, fifth, at this stage I've got a large network of readers who forward interesting things to me: URLs, magazine articles, journal articles, what have you.

HSF: Do you generally write what you know about, or do you intentionally write in unknown territory?

RJS: I'm often prompted to write in unknown territory. I remember in 1999, I think, that Time did a cover story on the origins of humanity, and it made reference to Homo ergaster, and I thought, my God, I used to be totally up on paleoanthropology, but I've never even heard of that species. So I thought I should really dive into the current literature — and from that, my Neanderthal Parallax trilogy sprang. Same thing with Frameshift — I thought I didn't know enough genetics, so I dived in to learn all about it ... and ended up on Rivera Live on CNBC talking about the Human Genome Project and advising Canada's Federal Department of Justice about it.

HSF: Which writers, books, or scientists have influenced you the most?

RJS: Reading Roy Chapman Andrews's All About Dinosaurs when I was a kid inspired me to want to be a scientist. He died the year I was born, so I knew that we'd never meet — but in a way that inspired me to become a writer: knowing that, with words, you could reach across time, even after death, to influence people. It was a huge shock for me to discover that he was a racist, and that his Gobi Desert expedition hadn't really been to look for dinosaurs, but rather to prove that humanity had arisen in Asia, rather than Africa, the latter being an unpalatable notion to him.

I certainly read a lot of Carl Sagan, too, in the 1970s and 1980s, and that had an impact.

In SF, Arthur C. Clarke has been the biggest influence on me, followed, I think, by the Fred Pohl of the 1970s, when he was doing his breakout work: Gateway, Man Plus, Jem. Today, I'm lucky enough to have many friends who are scientists — including some who are world famous, like paleontologist Phil Currie, and they inspire me constantly.

HSF: What scientific fields or topics do you think will be most prevalent in the coming years?

RJS: The standard answer would be to say nanotechnology or quantum theory, or something like that, but I think that's wrong: what we're seeing is that the old notion of subdividing science into discrete subtopics has gone about as far as it can go. We end up with a mess, like the current state of string theory, in which the science becomes so recondite, and so few people actually work in that tiny area, that we come to a standstill.

Multidisciplinary studies are the future: one of the reasons I write so much about the burgeoning science of consciousness — as I did in Hominids and Mindscan and my current project, Wake — is that it is so multidisciplinary: neuro-scientists, cognitive scientists, AI researchers, anesthesiologists, quantum physicists, philosophers, and even some of us lowly science-fiction writers have made important contributions.

HSF: Is science fiction a case of art imitating life imitating art? Do you think sf inspires real-world scientific advancement?

RJS: Absolutely! The standard case in point is Hal, from 2001: A Space Odyssey. Grab a copy of the book Hal's Legacy, which has contributions from AI researchers of all types who were inspired to try to make machines that really could do all the things Hal could: face recognition ever from drawings, beat good human players at chess, read lips, moral reasoning, colloquial speech, and on and on. Or get I'm Working on That, the book William Shatner co-authored about real scientists inspired by Star Trek. Scratch a working scientist, and you'll often find a science-fiction fan underneath. Like so many of my colleagues, I've been thrilled and touched by meeting people who tell me they've gone into sciences — be it paleontology, quantum physics, anthropology, or cosmology — because of things they read in my books.



HSF: Now let’s talk about your new book, Rollback. What inspired you to write about age reversal?

RJS: Honestly? Losing weight. Writing is a sedentary profession, and I've been a full-time writer for twenty-four years now. You only have to add a couple of pounds a year to find yourself, as I did, fifty pounds overweight. After I won the best-novel Hugo in 2003, I was looking around for another challenge, since winning that was the highest honor in my field and I didn't know how to top it, and I said, heck, if I can do that, I can certainly tackle this. I took off the 50 pounds — and felt twenty years younger.

That feeling was a large part of what I tried to capture in Rollback. As the book says, "Just walking along felt like the way he used to feel on those motorized walkways at airports — like he was bionic, moving so fast that it'd all be a blur to onlookers. He could lift heavy boxes, jump over puddles, practically fly up staircases — it wasn't quite leaping tall buildings in a single bound, but it felt damn near as good."

HSF: The novel starts aptly with a quote by Satchel Paige, "How old would you be if you didn’t know how old you were?" How do you think the self-awareness of our own mortality has affected the way we live our lives?

RJS: It has a huge impact, on everything. We compartmentalize our lives: being a student until a certain age; building a family and a career after that; and finally retirement. And we all have an intuitive sense of when those periods should start and how long each of them should be; we're always conscious, on some level, of where we actually are versus where we should be.

In the last month, I've had friends say such things as, "I'm too old to go back to university" – this from a 30-year-old -- to "I'm too old to be a father," from a 40-year-old, and "I'd hoped to retire at fifty-five, but I'm going to have to keep working at least until I'm sixty," from a 50-year-old. Oh, we hear phrases such as "lifelong learning" and "active retirement," but those are the exceptions, not the norm. There are clocks -- biological, financial, societal -- clicking in the background of everything we do. How liberating it would be not to have just a handful of decades to live! How great the art we create might be if someone could spend fifty years -- or five hundred -- on their magnum opus.

HSF: In Rollback, you write about two interesting subjects: age regression and extraterrestrial contact. What inspired you to merge both of these subjects into one story? Did one plot inspire the other?

RJS: The notion of writing about rejuvenation came first, and then I started searching around for a job for the character that might require long time periods to perform. My first thought was to just have the character doing something on a bigger scale than was possible in a normal lifespan: writing a ten-million-word novel, for instance.

But what was really needed was a paradigm shift: I started looking around for jobs that already undertake with the knowledge that whatever they begin will have to be finished by future generations. And SETI immediately popped to mind: the first message from Earth deliberately sent to potential alien listeners was broadcast by Frank Drake from the Arecibo Observatory in 1974. He sent it to M13, a globular cluster 25,000 light-years away, meaning any response wouldn't come for 50,000 years. How different his thinking might have been on the whole process if he'd expected a response in his own lifetime!

HSF: In Rollback, Sarah states, "Evolution eventually gives rise to technology, which has a survival value up to a point." What exactly does she mean by this? Does this mean that Evolution is ultimately self-destructive?

RJS: Evolution isn't ultimately anything. It's not teleological; it has no goal in mind. But big brains and dexterous hands give rise to technology, and with technology you can kill on a large scale. As my novel suggests, the reason Star Trek's Borg became a hive mind may have been that that was the only way they could see for intelligent beings to survive once the technology for mass destruction was available to individuals. A hundred years ago, the best a malcontent could do was kill dozens of people; we saw with 9/11 that they can now kill thousands -- and soon that number will be millions and then billions. We're already wrestling to balance liberty and security, and finding it very, very hard.

Evolution demands variation among individuals; without it, there's nothing for natural selection to work on. That means psychological traits are going to vary, too, so as long as evolution continues you will have some people who are crazy -- and the equation "crazy person plus weapon of mass destruction equals big trouble" will be a universal reality.

HSF: Dracons -- the aliens in your novel -- appear to grapple with the same ethical and moral dilemmas as Earthlings. Do you think all advanced life would experience these same dilemmas? Is there any point in evolution that an intelligent being might look beyond such moral dilemmas, or perhaps solve them all?

RJS: It's part of the received wisdom of a certain school of hard SF that aliens will be incomprehensible; that comes out of the 1950s and earlier -- before the modern field of evolutionary psychology, and before game theory was applied much to biological systems. But we now do understand that certain issues will likely crop up time and again throughout the universe, and will need to be wrestled with.

Is it personally better to cooperate in group endeavors, expending personal resources to do so, or to cheat and be a freeloader, reaping the benefit of the collective enterprise without contributing to it? That's a poser that beings based on selfish genes will grapple with anywhere in the universe, for instance -- and collectively those individuals will have to decide what's right and wrong for the group.

Now, one of the possible consequences of life prolongation is that a species might give up reproducing, since obviously living space on the home world is finite. That neutralizes the selfish-gene arguments: you are the final expression of your genetic heritage, and your long-term survival now depends not on outbreeding others but on making sure that no one already extant is so disadvantaged as to want to kill you and everyone else in anger or frustration or despair; that paradigm shift might indeed solve a lot of moral quandaries.

The other advantage of long life spans is that they actually give people time to wrestle with really complex issues. The very best moral reasoning we've ever had is the cumulative work of merely a few decades of thought; could we solve the really tough ones with centuries or millennia of reflection? It's worth finding out.

HSF: Do you think age reversal will ever be possible?

RJS: Absolutely. Everything that isn't barred by the laws of physics will be possible; we might never go faster than the speed of light or travel backward in time, but revitalize our bodies? Sure; we're already making progress. And given the increasing rate of scientific advancement, I think I pegged it about right in the novel: we should have that technology in about forty years.

HSF: If Rollbacks were a common procedure, do you think most people would have it done to them? What is the general appeal of age regression?

RJS: Vigor, first and foremost. It sucks being old. Hell, it sucks being middle-aged. From the time we finish puberty until the time our bodies start to noticeably slow down is -- what? -- a decade? And every year it gets worse. Even if rejuvenation didn't re-set your personal death-clock, even if you were still going to kick the bucket eighty years after you were born, people would line up for the procedure to get rid of the physical aches and pains, the deteriorating eyesight, the decaying personal appearance, and the mental fuzziness that goes with aging.

Add on top of that the bonus of seeing not just your children but your grandchildren graduating from college, of attending your great-grandchildren's weddings, of actually getting to read all the books you've always wanted to read, and it becomes an irresistible combination. If it were generally affordable -- which it is not, at the time my novel Rollback is set, people would be lining up for the procedure for sure.

HSF: So, what would you do differently if you could be 25-years-old again?

RJS: First, let's contextualize my answer. In Rollback, Don is chronologically 87 but ends up being physically 25; in April 2007, I turn 47, so for me it would be just winding back the clock a couple of decades.

But, still, sure, there are things I would do differently. At twenty-five, I was three years out of university with a degree in Radio and Television Arts; I'd enjoyed my studies (and made lifelong friends, including DAW fantasy author Tanya Huff, who was in my class), but I also knew that I'd decided not to pursue a career in electronic media, and instead wanted to be a print writer. I felt I had to get on with making a living, though, rather than going back to school, and that was a mistake; I don't regret the degree I do have, but I should have gone on to do another degree not in writing (which is a waste of time in almost all cases), but in philosophy; that would have been much more useful than the work I did during my twenties (a couple of hundred totally forgotten and now irrelevant articles about computers and personal finance, written to pay the bills). But those damn life clocks I alluded to earlier seemed to be ticking too loudly to ignore.

And I'd have traveled more -- done that after-graduation year in Europe that everyone fantasizes about but precious few actually do. Yes, now that I'm reasonably affluent, I do travel a lot, and certainly stay at better hotels than I could have in my 20s, but I also don't have the energy to just keep going the way I used to.

But these are small regrets. I'm fortunate: by twenty-five, I knew what I wanted to do for a career -- write science-fiction, even if I hadn't yet made much progress, beyond a few published short stories. And I'd met and married the woman I want to spend the rest of my life with. So, rolling back to the way I was in 1985 wouldn't really set me down a different path -- but it would be nice to visit my hair again.


Click here for more author interviews