If you want to discuss trends in science fiction, who better to ask than a writer steeped in science fiction? We chatted with Hugo, Nebula, and Campbell Memorial award winner, screenwriter, and novelist Robert J. Sawyer (Hominids, FlashForward) about how he researches the science behind his writing, scripting for studios and indie web series, and the upcoming projects he has in the works.
(You can find part 1 of his interview here.)
RECURSOR: What appeals to you about science as subject matter for fiction?
Science comes from scientia, which is Latin for truth. Science is truth. We live in — as many pundits have observed in the last few months — a post-truth society, where just claiming something over and over again is enough to give it validity. Science doesn’t work that way. Science is about testable propositions and changing your mind when the evidence is contrary to what you believe.
So, from my point of view, science fiction is not about geeky, techy stuff. It is about a fundamental engagement with reality. Science fiction is the literature of truthfulness in a society that is surrounded by Stephen Colbert’s truthiness.
You touched on your love for futurism and scientific research. How does that tie in to the fiction that you write? How do you “get the science right?”
I love doing research. It is my favorite part of the process. I only write the novels, honestly, to support my research habit. Nobody will pay to learn things that I want to learn for my own interests. But synthesizing what I have learned into a commercially accessible property allows me to make a good living doing what I want to do, which is research.
The research takes the form of absolutely tons of online work, going and attending scientific conferences, and having a network of experts that I interface with on a regular basis — real scientists.
I look at being a science fiction writer in some ways as similar to being a sports reporter. You don’t have to be an athlete to be a sports reporter. Many of the best sports reporters aren’t athletic at all, but they understand the game. And that’s me. As a science fiction writer, I am a spectator to science. I know who all the players are. I know what’s at stake. I marshal as much research as I can to whatever area I’m writing about. And I’m looking for the things, of course, that will make good, dramatic storytelling.
Was that your process on Hominids and the rest of the Neanderthal Parallax series?
Absolutely. I’ve always been interested in ancient life. I wanted to be a paleontologist, and I had kind of a sidecar interest in paleo-anthropology. I knew what any intelligent person knew about Neanderthals at that time.
But I spent months and months reading everything there was and going on a bit of tour to interview practically every Neanderthal expert in the world. Out of that (research) came my vision of the Neanderthals, which was what made those works fascinating.
The general consensus is that Neanderthals never had any religion or belief in an afterlife. Male and female Neanderthals may have lived largely separate lives. So the gender exploration in my Neanderthal books and the religious exploration came directly out of the research. These are really plausible interpretations of what Neanderthal culture might have been like. And it let me do two of the hottest topics, religion and gender.
Those topics and Hominids itself are so relevant today. Have you seen a renewed interest in the series as a result?
Yes! Tor just reissued Hominids (first published in 2002) in mass market paperback in March 2017. The book is very much resonating with the zeitgeist right now. And I just came back from two weeks in Hollywood where I was talking to studios and producers about Hominids. And although we haven’t closed a deal yet, and who knows, maybe never will, there certainly is real interest and it’s very much in terms of the gender exploration in those novels.
Much of the content on Recursor.TV is short videos, such as proof of concept pieces. There’s an idea that this is a viable way to find a viral audience. What are your thoughts on this approach to video?
What self-publishing has done for books, we’re finally at the point we can do with TV productions, which is bypass the intermediary. It used to be you needed a publisher, a distributor, a studio. You don’t anymore, especially with the kind of special effects that used to make science fiction rarely done in film because it was so expensive. Now, anybody can do it at home on their PC.
I’m involved with a web series — Star Trek Continues. I wrote their series finale, which will premiere this fall, and had a blast being involved in that. That was done entirely through web distribution on YouTube and Vimeo and crowd-sourced funding. We can’t make any money off it because the intellectual property belongs to CBS and Paramount, but we’ve found a gigantic audience for it and that’s very, very exciting.
What are you working on right now?
Right now, I have a commission with one of Canada’s major networks to develop a television series. I’m enjoying the process. Of course, at any point up until the cameras start rolling, someone can say no. You have to get through literally a hundred yeses for the cameras to roll. It’s been enormously gratifying work.