Science Book a Day Interviews Robert J Sawyer


Special thanks to Robert J Sawyer for answering 5 questions about his recently featured book – Hominids (Neanderthal Parallax Trilogy)

Robert J. Sawyer — called “the dean of Canadian science fiction” by The Ottawa Citizen and “just about the best science-fiction writer out there these days” by The Denver Rocky Mountain News — is one of only eight writers in history (and the only Canadian) to win all three of the science-fiction field’s top honors for best novel of the year, the World Science Fiction Society’s Hugo Award, which he won in 2003 for his novel Hominids; the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America’s Nebula Award, which he won in 1996 for his novel The Terminal Experiment; and the John W. Campbell Memorial Award, which he won in 2006 for his novel Mindscan. – From Robert’s Homepage

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#1 – What was the impetus for Hominids?

I was having dinner with Tom Doherty, the publisher of Tor Books, sometime around 2000. At the time—and this never really materialized—Tom was interested in getting Tor more into publishing licensed novels in established. universes. He’d seen the success that Pocket had with Star Trek novels and Del Rey had with Star Wars novels. He asked me if there was any property that I might be interested in writing a novel for if he acquired the license. I immediately said classic Planet of the Apes, the 1968 version and its sequels.

Tom’s immediate response was Planet of the Apes was very depressing, and so I launched into an exegesis of all the things I loved about that series. Tom was impressed by my passion, but said in the end it would be more lucrative for both of us if I created an original property to let me do the same sort of looking at modern humanity through distorting lens. I soon came up with the notion of two parallel worlds, this one where Homo sapiens survived to the present day and another, starkly contrasting with it, where Neanderthals survived instead.

#2 – You write about Neanderthals living in a parallel world with them as the dominant species instead of us. How did you go about creating their world and civilization? What assumptions did you make in creating their history?

I started out with no assumptions; I simply read everything in the paleontological literature that had been discovered or proposed about Neanderthal culture. For instance, back when I was researching Hominids in 2000 and 2001, there was no evidence that Neanderthals had ever had any religious belief, so that became one of the cornerstone of my version of their society.

An anthropologist named Lewis Binford had proposed based on a site known as Combe Grenal in France that male and female Neanderthals had lived largely separate lives, which was a fascinating idea to play around with.

Then there was the simple reality that they were physically more robust than we are, meaning any fight that got out of hand might well lead to the death of someone—and so I had to devise a civilization that can work around that.

Beyond that, it’s been observed that my Homo sapiens and Neanderthals differ in the ways that Americans and Canadians differ: the Neanderthals are more secular, more embracing of alternate sexuality, more ecologically minded, and more peaceful. I’m a dual US-Canadian citizen, and the differences between the two countries is endlessly fascinating to me.

#3 – The idea of the Companion implant is an interesting idea. Why did you introduce this element to your storyline?

On July 9, 2001, I was invited by Kodak to participate in a ideation session geared toward suggesting new imaging products that company might pursue. I said the problem with their ad campaign about “Kodak moments” was that you often didn’t know in advance that something exciting was going to happen, and by the time you got your camera out, it was over. What was needed, I said, was a device that recorded everything all the time, and then let you select the still or moving images after the fact that you wanted to keep.

Well, Kodak didn’t do that, or much of anything else that was innovative, hence their current dire straits. But the idea stuck with me, and I put it together with that old saw that if God didn’t already exist we would have to invent him. My Neanderthals did not believe in any God; no one was keeping track of what they were doing, and so they decided to do that themselves. It made sense to me: this wasn’t about totalitarianism, it was about protection. You, not the state, controlled the data in your alibi archive, and it could exonerate you of any false accusation.

#4 – Your book won the Hugo Award in 2003. Has this changed your career? What has the response to the book been in the last 12 years?

Well, it certainly was the highlight of my career to date—it’s the top international award in my field. But I’d previously won the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America’s Nebula Award for Best Novel of the Year, in 1996, and that’s the one that really changed my career, simply because it came earlier.

As my editor at the time said, at the Nebula Banquet aboard the Queen Mary, “you’ve gone overnight for being a promising newcomer to an established bankable name.” My advances went up, my book started coming out in hardcover, I was suddenly being translated and published all over the world, I got my first of what has since been dozens of film options, and so on. So, yes, the Hugo is wonderful, and I’m enormously proud of it, but by the point it came along, whatever boost such an award might give to a new author I’d already received from the Nebula for my novel The Terminal Experiment.

#5 – Are you working on any new projects/books you can tell us about?

I’m just finishing up my twenty-third novel. As with many of my books, Hominids included, but most prominently Mindscan and Wake, this one deals with the nature of consciousness. My working title was The Philosopher’s Zombie, but neither my Canadian nor my new American editor liked that, so at the moment it’s got the title of Thoughtless. It explores the notion that a large percentage of the human race may in fact have no inner life but simply be automata. It’s a very complex novel involving a lot of quantum physics and neuroscience, and I’m having a blast writing it. It’ll be out in April of 2016.

[Image Credit: Christina Frost – ]


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