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Profile - Getting Respect
by Andrew Weiner

A SUNDAY in July. Robert J. Sawyer is signing copies of his just released novel, Far-Seer (Ace Books), at the Canadian Booksellers Association conference in Toronto. A passerby picks up the book and examines the cover, which shows what is unmistakably a dinosaur, standing on the deck of a sailing ship, gripping a telescope. It is an accurate, if somewhat lurid, representation of the book, which tells the story of the Quintaglios, a race of intelligent dinosaurs on a distant planet. "What age group is this for?" the passerby asks, with genuine interest.

For Sawyer, it is hard to imagine a more galling question.

Beneath Far-Seer's garish packaging - which is no more or less than standard-issue cover art for a paperback original science fiction novel - is a modem parable, told through the device of a dinosaur Galileo, about the conflict between science and religious faith. It is painstakingly researched, lucidly written, meticulously crafted, a vivid depiction of the scientific method and the scientific mind. But none of this, unfortunately, is readily evident.

"It's very discouraging," Sawyer says, "to be trying to do stuff that hopefully is significant and adult, and have people constantly saying 'Oh, I'll buy a copy to give to my 14-year-old son.' It's very disheartening to be thought of as producing juvenile literature, especially when that judgement is made by people who have never read science fiction."

Bad enough to be judged by one's own cover. But, as Sawyer well knows, it goes deeper than that. It is not only Far-Seer that this well-meaning passerby assumes to be kid's stuff. It is the entire field of science fiction.

"Maybe it's a grass-is-always-greener thing," Sawyer says. "But I can't help thinking that writers working in almost any other area are getting more respect. Certainly in Canada there's no doubt that mystery writers get more respect than science fiction writers. It's really very frustrating."

No respect. At times Sawyer seems about to slip into a Rodney Dangerfield routine. I can't get no respect.

In every other way, Sawyer's career is proceeding according to plan. At the age of 32, he has already sold five novels. His first book, Golden Fleece (Warner Books, 1990) was rated best science fiction novel of the year by the influential Connecticut-based Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction. FarSeer was Ace Books' lead science fiction title for June 1992, guaranteeing it pride of place in the paperback racks. Ace has contracted for two sequels about Sawyer's Quintaglios, as well as a fifth book, End of an Era.

This success has made it possible for Sawyer to become a full-time science fiction writer, a goal he has pursued single-mindedly for most of the past decade. It is, in many respects, his dream job. Writing science fiction, he has observed (in a quote picked up by John Robert Colombo for his Dictionary of Canadian Quotations), "gives you a huge canvas: all of space, all of time, all forms of life." It can also bring you acclaim within the science fiction field, along with a fair measure of commercial success.

But what it can't bring you, apparently, is respect.

ROBERT J. SAWYER was born in Ottawa in 1960, the second of three sons. His father was an economist, his mother a statistician. The family moved to Toronto before his first birthday, when his father took a teaching position at the University of Toronto, and Sawyer grew up in suburban Willowdale.

Where an earlier generation of science fiction writers discovered the field by reading the old pulp magazines, Sawyer's initial exposure was through television. He recalls watching the British-made puppet show "Fireball XL-5" at the age of three. It was love at first sight.

From children's shows, Sawyer moved on to reruns of "Star Trek" (he was too young to watch it on its prime-time debut), to juvenile SF, to the real thing: the novels and stories of Arthur C. Clarke, Isaac Asimov, and Frederik Pohl that would inform his own later work. By the age of 10, he was thinking about writing science fiction himself, "although I never thought that I would do it full time. It just didn't seem a reasonable and respectable way to make a living."

Instead, Sawyer expected to make a career out of his other great childhood love: dinosaurs. As a preschooler, he would make his father read him book after book about dinosaurs. Later he would go to the Royal Ontario Museum and "spend hours staring at the dinosaur skeletons, wondering about them. They were just so big, so ancient, so mysterious."

All the way through to his final year of high school, he planned to become a paleontologist. And then one day it hit him that "I didn't want to spend the next 10 years in school pursuing a Ph.D. so that I could make $17,000 a year sifting dirt. I wanted to do something exciting now." He enrolled in Toronto's Ryerson Polytechnical Institute to study radio and television arts instead, on a career path towards becoming a professional writer.

But he never really left the dinosaurs behind. They feature not only in his ongoing Ace Books trilogy, but also in End of an Era, in which two intrepid Canadian time-travellers seek the cause of the Great Extinction (the comet didn't do it). End of an Era was actually written before Far-Seer, but due to the vagaries of publishing will not appear until after the trilogy is complete.

In a sense, Sawyer says, his love of dinosaurs is very much akin to his love of science fiction. "Here was something that people knew almost nothing about, but there was an opportunity to think about what the dinosaurs might have been like just as science fiction allows us to think about the universe, and our own place in it."

The young Sawyer, sizing up the skeletons in the ROM, was already showing the same speculative qualities that would drive him to write science fiction. Later, in Far-Seer, he would bring together these two childhood loves to brilliant effect. Sawyer's Quintaglios are not just humans with tails and big teeth, but dinosaurs with big brains: slavering over raw meat

and violently defending their personal space even as they debate astronomy and theology, they are entirely believable, and entirely alien.

AFTER GRADUATING from Ryerson, Sawyer worked there for a year as a teaching assistant, then became a freelance writer in 1983. He wrote press releases and product brochures, articles for trade and business magazines, corporate newsletters and advertising supplements. His byline became well known in publications such as Report on Business magazine and the Financial Times. He made a good living. But it was not what he really wanted to do. What he wanted to do was write science fiction.

During these years, Sawyer wrote and sold a handful of short stories to publications such as the Village Voice, Leisure Ways, and Amazing Stories (the original science fiction pulp magazine, published continuously since 1926). And all the while he was saving money, against the time when he could write what he wanted.

"I've always been a believer in having money in the bank, because it gives me the freedom to do what I want to do," he says. "By mid1988, I had reached the point where if I didn't make any money for five years, I could still maintain my standard of living." It helped, too, that his wife was still working, and that they had no children. Sawyer's wife of eight years, Carolyn Clink, is a customer-service representative for the printing company Quebecor, and a poet whose work has appeared in Poetry Toronto, On Spec, and Northern Frights.

While his contemporaries were buying real estate, Sawyer invested in himself. He wrote Golden Fleece, and sent it to the New York literary agent Richard Curtis. Curtis, a leading agent in commercial science fiction, quickly sold the book to Warner Books.

Sawyer is one of just a handful of Canadian-born science fiction writers (his major predecessors being A. E. Van Vogt, Phyllis Gotlieb, and Terence M. Green). He is also someone who describes himself as "a proud Canadian patriot" who uses Canadian settings and characters in his work wherever possible. Why, then, would he seek a New York agent and publisher?

"There was no significant domestic science fiction publishing," Sawyer explains. "And there didn't seem to be any downside to publishing in New York, because the books would still be distributed in Canada. Later, it became clear to me that the Canadian literary establishment would rather embrace the author of a book with a thousand-copy print run from a small local press than the author of a lead title from an American mass-market publisher. Writing is just about the only field where if you make it in New York, you don't necessarily gain acceptance in Canada. Instead, you're looked on as someone who's done something tawdry and disreputable."

Or again: no respect.

A MURDER mystery set on a starship, Golden Fleece is a very accomplished first novel, skilfully blending hard scientific speculation about interstellar travel and artificial intelligence with interesting and effective characterization.

Sawyer has always been a great believer in anchoring his speculations in scientific fact, "so that you are writing about things that could really happen." When he first started writing, he believed that scientific speculation alone was enough to carry a story. He credits the Toronto SF author Terence M. Green for pointing out his need to work on characterization and thematic development. Golden Fleece demonstrated that he had learned those lessons well.

Most authors, having written and sold their books, are content to leave the rest to the publisher. Not Sawyer. He knew that as a first novel from an unknown writer, Golden Fleece would get minimal promotion from Warner. As a result, it would almost certainly get swamped beneath the thousands of other science fiction titles competing for attention on the paperback racks.

And so Sawyer set out to promote the book himself. Having written press releases for corporate clients, he now wrote them for himself. Knowing that Warner had no intention of sending out advance galleys of the book, he printed up 75 copies at his own expense and sent them out to reviewers.

Some writers might raise their eyebrows at such flagrant self-promotion. But Sawyer is unapologetic. "Writing is a business. Publishers, booksellers, and trade magazines all think of it as a business. It would be stupid and self-destructive for me to ignore the business aspects." In any case, he points out, "I'm not forcing anyone to buy my books. All I can do is draw attention to the work. I have no control over what reviewers will say about it."

In the case of Golden Fleece, this strategy paid dividends. From his galleys, Sawyer received dozens of reviews, including a rave in the Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction. Armed with these reviews, Sawyer's agent was able to sell Far-Seer and End of an Era by auction, with Ace Books making the winning bid.

"Those galleys cost me $500," Sawyer says. "It's the best money I ever spent. I figure they helped advance my career by two or three years."

ROBERT J. SAWYER is a rising star of science fiction. "If Robert J. Sawyer were a corporation," the Vancouver SF writer Spider Robinson has said, "I would buy stock in him."

So why can't Sawyer get any respect? The answer is to be found not in his own work, which by the standards of contemporary science fiction is exemplary, but in the nature of the field in which he has chosen to work: a field that is widely held in ridicule, and not without good reason.

Science fiction, of course, has always been held in ridicule by the literary mainstream. But at one time, at least, serious science fiction readers could convince themselves that the mainstream critics were wrong. True, a lot of science fiction was dreadful. But there was plenty of good stuff, too.

Thus the SF writer Theodore Sturgeon, responding to accusations that 90 per cent of science fiction is "crap, could observe that "90 per cent of everything is crap." It was that saving 10 per cent - the Alfred Besters, the J. G. Ballards, the Philip K. Dicks - that gave the lie to science fiction's critics.

But that was before Star Wars and "Star Trek," before science fiction became a highly commercial publishing proposition, before today's massive formularization and commodification. Most science fiction published today is truly awful: poorly written, badly characterized, repetitive and, yes, juvenile. It is assembly-line stuff, a form of packaged goods churned out by huge publishing conglomerates like so many cans of baked beans. It is indefensible. It deserves to be held in ridicule. And Sawyer knows it.

"There was a time when I was younger when I was really an evangelist for science fiction," he says. "I thought that people simply needed to be given a work of science fiction and they would have this experience that would change them forever. I don't believe that any more. The sad truth is that almost all science fiction is crap, and the percentage of crap in science fiction is probably higher than in any other form of contemporary literature. Rather than simply sending someone to the bookstore, I would now carefully choose a book for them."

Why, then, does Sawyer bother? Why does he struggle to produce quality work in a field that for the most part no longer knows, or cares about, the difference? Why does he write science fiction at all? Because he still believes in the potential of science fiction. indeed, he says, science fiction is more important today than ever.

"We're living in a world in which people are undergoing experiences that our parents never dreamed of, a world of biotechnology and surrogate children, of global communications nets and virtual reality, of whole new realms of human interaction. In a world that's changing so incredibly rapidly, people really need to spend a little time saying 'gee, where are these trends taking us?' Science fiction helps us think about ourselves and our world, about what it means to be human."

So Sawyer remains a true believer in science fiction. But at the same time, he knows that his best efforts will for the most part go unappreciated within the genre, and virtually unnoticed outside of it. And no matter how many books he sells within the science fiction field, he will never get any respect outside of it.

And so he thinks of escape. Perhaps he will write a mystery, or a mainstream novel. Or perhaps the mainstream will come to him. "I would be very happy," he says, "to not be published as a 'science fiction' writer. I think that's the ideal, to have a publisher say that a book is a quality work on its own terms and not have it shackled by some genre label."

In this context, Sawyer was encouraged to see McClelland & Stewart recently publish Terence M. Green's novel of time travel, Children of the Rainbow, "essentially as mainstream fiction. I'd like to believe that the future for people like me is here in Canada, with Canadian publishers. Publishing genres are an American invention. In Canada we don't have so many works of fiction produced every year that we need to subdivide them.

"Frankly, I would rather have five mainstream readers than five genre readers, because there's no point in preaching to the converted - and science fiction is just too important to be left to science fiction readers."

Given the track record of major Canadian publishers in handling -or not handling - science fiction, this might seem more a pious hope than a viable career goal. But if determination and single-mindedness count for anything, Robert J. Sawyer may indeed pull it off. He may go boldly where almost no science fiction writer has gone before, into the strange alien galaxy of the Canadian literary mainstream. And he may, in the end, get some respect.


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