Sawyer, Robert J

Tagged: Author

(1960-    ) Canadian author, one of the two or three most prominent Canadian sf writers, married to sf poet Carolyn Clink; though he publishes widely, with most of his books being released by New York firms, his work is notable for its frequent use of Canadian settings; it is a mark of twenty-first century Genre SF that Canada and Canadian settings are now perceived as non-exotic, a change for which Sawyer can share credit with a Mainstream Writer of SF like Margaret Atwood. He has won the Canadian Aurora Award on several occasions.

Sawyer began publishing sf with "If I'm Here, Imagine Where They Sent my Luggage" for The Village Voice on 14 January 1981, and has been moderately active as a short-story writer in the 1980s, though he has consistently focused on longer forms. His first novel, Golden Fleece (September 1988 Amazing; exp 1990), is set on a colony ship named Argo run by an AI named JASON, and perhaps slightly overcopiously engages to meld Greek myth and Hard SF in the story of a murder and its solution by a human protagonist so psychologically recessed that the AI cannot read his intentions. The Quintaglio Ascension sequence – comprising Far-Seer (1992), Fossil Hunter (1993) and Foreigner (1994) – is set on an unstable Moon orbiting a distant planet, and inhabited by intelligent Dinosaurs who were transported there from Earth by quasi-omniscient Alien Watchers aeons past so they may undergo Uplift in safety. True to the conventions of Hard SF, the young dinosaur protagonist who initiates the sequence both revolutionizes the sciences of his world, persuades its rulers that the theory of Evolution the Quintaglios to recognize their origin, and has copious adventures while doing so. Some of the detail work is luminously enjoyable; some of the premises – including the assumption that Quintaglios are doomed to excessive territoriality, especially when they are in rut – slide close to a fallacy endemic to Hard Sf in particular: the creation of niche species with high intelligence. It is, all in all, however, a thoroughly readable presentation. End of an Era (1994), which won the Seiun Award, is also about dinosaurs, but different ones: two contemporary Earth palaeontologists vie over explanations for the death of Dinosaurs on this planet, and use Time Travel to test their theses. In the end, an overly intricate explanation is offered; but again the journey is swift.

The Terminal Experiment (mid-December 1994-March 1995 Analog as "Hobson's Choice"; 1995), which won the Nebula award, is an sf mystery featuring the discovery that, at the instant of death, a form of energy escapes the human brain; there is some speculation about the moral pressures on Uploaded versions of human personas to the Internet as variously modified Avatars. The discovery of Wormholes in Starplex (July-September 1996 Analog; 1996), along with the Invention of Faster Than Light travel, has jolted Homo sapiens into First Contact with various races, and other expansive events. More ambitiously, Frameshift (1997), which won the Seiun Award, engages the fatally-ill protagonist, and his Telepath girlfriend, in a search (see Medicine) for a breakthrough cure, while at the same time a famous researcher is suspected of having been actively involved in the Final Solution. In Illegal Alien (1997), which also won the Seiun Award, Aliens visit Earth, establishing First Contact, but the possibilities inherent are darkened when one of them is put on trial for murder; Factoring Humanity (1998) recasts similar issues as a researcher picks up Extraterrestrial signals (see SETI), which enable her to gain access to the Homo sapiens overmind and hence gives her Telepathic powers, which she uses to solve a family romance crisis. In Flashforward (1999), a CERN search for the Higgs boson causes the entire human population to experience a couple of minutes of Precognition of their lives slightly over two decades hence, causing Disasters and revelations. The Physics is sophisticated, though the novel overstretches slightly when issues of racial Transcendence and Immortality enter the tale. The Television series Flashforward (2009-2010), which Sawyer developed, focuses on the early moments of awe and confusion.

Two series dominated the next decade of his career. The Neanderthal Parallax sequence – comprising Hominids (January-April 2002 Analog; 2002), which won a Hugo award, Humans (2003) and Hybrids (2003) – compares and contrasts the Evolution of "humans" on two closely similar Alternate Worlds: our Earth, dominated by Homo sapiens; a second earth, dominated by Homo neanderthalensis. Each world presents aspects of Utopia and Dystopia to the other, though the Neanderthals – despite a niche-species-like bondage to menstrual cycles – are generally presented as the more attractive, having sophisticated a basic Hunter-Gatherer culture into an advanced technological civilization; they are also genetically incapable of understanding Religion, and cannot therefore credit the Homo sapiens belief in a universe shaped around the human story. Again set in the Near Future, the WWW sequence, comprising WWW: Wake (2009), WWW: Watch (2010) and WWW: Wonder (2011), describes the coming to consciousness of the World Wide Web (see AI; Internet), as well as a parallel development in a chimpanzee-bonobo hybrid, who learns to paint (see Apes as Human); an interface between a blind human and the infant Webmind leads to radical improvements in healthcare and general well-being, though the American military, which may fear its obsolescence through the Singularity Webmind seems to predict, wishes to destroy the adolescent worldmind.

Of his later singletons, Mindscan (2005) – whose protagonists having worn out their human bodies find love after transplanting themselves into Android receptacles – won the John W Campbell Memorial Award; in Triggers (2012), a memory transfer accident (see Identity Transfer) involving the US President and others threatens the security of the Near Future USA. In the last decade or so Sawyer has been very active in the sf world as a teacher and advocate; he served as President of Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America in 2000. He has been an advocate of and for the genre; and for the rational strategies sf suggests for the future, so much so that much of his later work seems most effective when taken as a series of strongly argued Thought Experiments. In 2016 he was made a member of the Order of Canada (the country's highest civilian honour) for sf writing and mentoring and for contributions to Futures Studies. [JC]

see also: On Spec; Yinhe Award.

Robert James Sawyer

born Ottawa, Ontario: 29 April 1960




Quintaglio Ascension

Neanderthal Parallax

  • Hominids (New York: Tor, 2002) [first appeared January-April 2002 Analog: Neanderthal Parallax: hb/Donato Giancola]
  • Humans (New York: Tor, 2003) [Neanderthal Parallax: hb/Donato Giancola]
  • Hybrids (New York: Tor, 2003) [Neanderthal Parallax: hb/Donato Giancola]


  • WWW: Wake (New York: Ace Books, 2009) [first appeared November 2008-March 2009 Analog: WWW: hb/Steven Biver and John Lund]
  • WWW: Watch (New York: Ace Books, 2010) [WWW: hb/Tony Mauro]
  • WWW: Wonder (New York: Ace Books, 2011) [WWW: hb/Tony Mauro]

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