Prolific and exciting science fiction author Robert J. Sawyer, called "the dean of Canadian science fiction" by The Ottawa Citizen among other things, has won so many awards that I'd run out of disk space were I to list them all; awards that include the Nebula for his novel The Terminal Experiment, the Hugo for Hominids, and the Campbell, which he won in 2006 for his novel Mindscan. I'd better stop here, but you can see more for yourself. In addition, Rob's books can usually be found on various bestseller lists, and Rob gets frequently interviewed on TV and other media.
Now, awards are great high-profile things, and so is bestsellerdom, but here, that's not the point. The point is that Rob's work genuinely works on a number of levels and touches his readers. He has a masterful ability of picking universal philosophical themes and exploring them in a way that sucks you in and makes you think beyond the limits of what is considered real in our present day -- one of the best definitions, in my opinion, of true science fiction. His style is neither literary nor pretentious, but it cuts through and presents a clear and true story that burrows in and makes you cry, chortle, makes you feel.
And, I must admit, I have a very soft spot for works that make me cry. Laughing is easy, and although it is often said that humor is the hardest thing to write and the most individual response, it is something that happens often -- we are proud to show off our wit and sense of humor, and we even chuckle in the middle of the heaviest intense tragedy. But crying often comes with an unfortunate stigma of weakness when in fact it is a measure of personal strength, the ability to show personal vulnerability, and is not something all of us can do easily -- and for that, I bow to Mr. Sawyer.
Rob sent me a copy of his newest book, Rollback (Tor, April 2007). (See more info on the book here.) I was not planning to start reading it (was in the middle of my usual medical stuff related to my mother who was still in the hospital and I just got home for the evening, and still had plenty of work, etc). But there was the mail; I just barely opened the book, and started to scan the first page... and that was that, I was hooked. Fast forward.... I was done with the whole novel at around 3:00 AM, and yes, I've shed tears. No, don't think the story is in any way a tragedy or a contrived tear jerker, but somehow it had true and honest power to engage.
So, of course I had to write Rob and ask him to do an interview. And here are his responses.
"Sawyer, who has won Hugo and Nebula awards, may well win another major SF award with this superior effort."
Publishers Weekly (starred review)
1) If you were pitching Rollback to Hollywood for a major motion picture, what would you say?
The secret to making a successful movie is to attach a big-name actor to the project -- and how do you do that? One way is by promising a part so challenging that it might win the actor an Oscar if he or she pulls it off well: think of Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man or Tom Hanks in Forrest Gump or Charlize Theron in Monsters. Well, the lead roll in Rollback is a man who starts off as physically 87 and ends up as physically 25; it would take an actor of considerable skill to pull off both ages convincingly, and for a twenty-something hotshot, here's a part that could prove his acting chops, setting him up for an Academy Award nomination. Looking to put Harry Potter behind you, Daniel Radcliffe? :)
2) What one character quality about your protagonist makes him or her irresistible to the reader?
His attempts to make the most of a bad situation. He and his wife are both supposed to undergo biological rejuvenation; they both start the book as physically 87, and are supposed to both end up physically 25. But the process fails for her while succeeding for him -- and his attempts to do right by the woman he's loved for sixty years hopefully make him (and her!), as Analog said, "some of the most memorable people you'll ever meet."
3) Whatever in the world gave you the original idea for writing this book?
After I won the Hugo Award in 2003 for Hominids, people kept asking me what I was going to do for my next challenge. And I came to realize that there really wasn't a realistic challenge left in the SF field. I'd already won its top awards, I'd already hit number one on the Locus bestsellers' list.
Yes, there are mainstream awards -- but in the U.S., no one published with the words "Science Fiction" on the spine is going to win those, and, sure, there's the New York Times bestsellers' list, but, again, no category SF novel -- unless it's a media tie-in -- ever appears there, and I refuse to write those. And in Canada, where I live, and where the general public doesn't have the same level of prejudice against genre fiction, I have already won mainstream awards -- including, just recently the $2,500 Toronto Public Library Celebrates Reading Award, which is one of Canada's top literary honors, and went last year to Margaret Atwood; and I have hit the mainstream national top-ten bestseller's lists in Canada's newspaper of record, The Globe And Mail.
So, finally -- really, later than I should have! -- I decided to take on a personal instead of professional challenge. I've been lucky enough to make a living as a full-time freelance writer for 24 years now -- but that's a very sedentary job. And simply by adding a couple of pounds each year, after a quarter-century I was 50 pounds overweight. And so I decided to tackle that ... and succeeded, taking it all off. And you know what? Suddenly I felt twenty years younger -- it really was like rejuvenation. I suddenly had way more energy and strength and stamina. And, of course, in SF we make the metaphoric literal: Rollback grew out of taking the leap from just feeling younger to actually being younger.
I portray Don, the main character of the book, as having also lost weight, although he did it long before the story begins. His incentive was a minor heart attack when he was about the same age I am now; thankfully, I avoided that --- I think winning a Hugo is a nicer kick in the butt then having a coronary!
4) Pretend you are a reader reading your own book for the first time. What impression will you come away with?
That science fiction can be moving, as well as thought-provoking. Although Rollback is full of the kind of big-philosophical-ideas stuff that has become the trademark of my books, it's also very much a love story -- a scientific romance, I like to say, echoing the term H.G. Wells used for his books.
5) What comes next? Will there be a sequel?
I have a tendency, which my editors probably disapprove of, to shoot myself in the foot as far as sequels are concerned. That is, I wrap up the story in the final chapter -- and then I tack on an epilogue, which is essentially the sequel in miniature. I first did that in Foreigner, back in 1994, and I do it again here in Rollback. I'm really not a big fan of sequels or series, and I think Arthur C. Clarke had it exactly right when he said the best way to end a book is by opening up a new vista that lets the reader write the sequel in his or her own mind.
So, no, there probably will never be an actual sequel by me to Rollback, although a number of people have already told me they'd love to read one, which is gratifying. Instead, I'm working on something completely different: a trilogy about the World Wide Web gaining consciousness. If I meet my deadline for the first volume, which has the working title of Wake, it should be in bookstores by Christmas of next year.