Episode 151: Robert J. Sawyer – The Downloaded

A chat with Hugo and Nebula Award-winning author Robert J. Sawyer about his latest novel, The Downloaded, now available as an Audible original audiobook and coming in print from Shadowpaw Press on May 7, 2024.


Amazon links

Publisher’s book page

Robert J. Sawyer’s Amazon Page

About the Book

The new novel by Canada’s top Science Fiction writer

In 2059 two very different groups have their minds uploaded into a quantum computer in Waterloo, Ontario.

One group consists of astronauts preparing for Earth’s first interstellar voyage. The other? Convicted murderers, serving their sentences in a virtual-reality prison.

But when disaster strikes, the astronauts and the prisoners must download back into physical reality and find a way to work together to save Earth from destruction.

The Downloaded debuted in a six-month exclusive window as an Audible Original narrated by Academy Award-winner Brendan Fraser promoted by national TV and radio ad campaigns. This print edition is coming out immediately after Audible’s exclusivity ends and is being supported by a six-city cross-Canada author book tour.

“The Downloaded absolutely sizzles with fascinating ideas. You want space travel, a ruined Earth, virtual worlds, a cast of relatable characters, and a glimpse into the labyrinth of human destiny? Look no further: this book has all that and more.” —Robert Charles Wilson, Hugo Award-winning author of Spin

“The Downloaded is a wonderful demonstration of Sawyer’s deep understanding of — and compassion for — people, regardless who or what they are, or even what they have done. It’s a rare and potent humanity that elevates his work high above the rest.” —Julie E. Czerneda, Aurora Award-winning author of To Each This World

“In The Downloaded, Sawyer proves he’s not just a master at using science fiction to address social issues but also a master at portraying diverse characters.” —James Alan Gardner, Theodore Sturgeon Award-winning author of Commitment Hour

“The Downloaded is a wicked-smart thrill ride from start to finish. I loved it.” —Sylvain Neuvel, bestselling author of A History of What Comes Next

“One of the best SF novels I’ve read in years.” —Allen Steele, Hugo Award-winning author of Coyote

About Robert J. Sawyer

Photo by Carolyn Clink

Robert J. Sawyer–“the dean of Canadian science fiction,” according to the CBC, and a Globe and Mail and Maclean’sbestseller–is the only Canadian to have won all three of the world’s top awards for best science-fiction novel of the year: the Hugo, the Nebula, and the John W. Campbell Memorial Award. A member of both The Order of Canada and The Order of Ontario, Rob has won more Canadian Science Fiction and Fantasy Awards (“Auroras”) than anyone else in history. The ABC TV series FlashForward was based on his novel of the same name; The Downloaded is his twenty-fifth novel.

A popular TEDx and keynote speaker with over 700 radio and TV interviews under his belt, Rob physically lives in Mississauga, and in cyberspace, he’s at sfwriter.com.

Episode 2: Tanya Huff

The second episode of The Worldshapers features the talented and popular author Tanya Huff, with a special focus on her Aurora-Award-winning novel The Silvered.

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/tanya.huff.5

Twitter: @TanyaHuff

Tanya Huff’s Amazon page

The Introduction:

Born in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Tanya grew up in Kingston, Ontario, and made her first professional writing sale to The Picton Gazette when she was ten. They paid her a dollar for every year of her life, for two poems.

Tanya joined the Canadian Naval Reserve in 1975 as a cook, serving for four years, then attended Ryerson Polytechnical Institute in Toronto, obtaining a Bachelor of Applied Arts in Radio and Television Arts alongside Robert J. Sawyer—my very first guest on this podcast.

In the early 1980s she worked at a game store in downtown Toronto, and from 1984 to 1992 she worked at the science fiction bookstore Bakka. All the time she was writing—seven novels and nine short stories, many of which were subsequently published. Here second professional sale was to George Scithers, then editing Amazing Stories, in 1985: “Third Time Lucky.” Presumably, he paid her more than a dollar per year of life.

In 1992 she moved from downtown Toronto to rural Ontario, where she continues to live with her wife, Fiona Patton, also a fantasy writer, along with many pets.

Her diverse array of fantasies range from the highly popular “Blood” books, which mix vampires, fantasy ,and romance and were the basis of the TV series Blood Ties, to the Torin Kerr military SF novels, and the humorous fantasies of The Keeper Chronicles. Her publisher is DAW Books, and in the US alone, according to her agent, more than 1,200,000 copies of her work are in print.

The Show:

Although we’ll be discussing her book The Silvered, we actually start with a discussion of her (and my) interest in theatre.

Then we move on to a discussion of her early writing. Although her first published poems were “ten-year-old angst,” she says she was interested in fantasy from the beginning of her reading career.

The first two books she remembers checking out of the library were Greek Gods and Goddesses, “which was almost as big as I was,” and The Water-Babies, “a weird Victorian choice” about a boy who runs away to join the water sprites that live in the pond at the bottom of the garden. “Cleanliness is next to fantasy, apparently.” It also featured a heavy dose of morality.

Even earlier than the 10-year-old-angst poems, Tanya (at age three) dictated a letter to her grandmother to send to her father, then at sea in the Navy, featuring a story about a spider who lived in the garden. Tanya also did the illustration, without notable success: the spider looked more like a pom-pom, eight legs apparently being too challenging for her three-year-old hand.

One summer when her cousin had an operation for scoliosis and spent weeks in a cast, she told her stories to help her pass the time. As well, Tanya says, “At recess, I was always the one who directed the games.”

She says she stumbled over science fiction by accident. She had run out of things to read in the children’s section of her local library (the upstairs) and was deemed too young to be sent into the adult section (downstairs). But when she started in the As and began reading everything in order, they decided maybe she could go downstairs. There she discovered little yellow stickers with rocket ships on them, the marker for science fiction novels. “I picked up everything with a rocket ship on it,” she says.

Her Grade 7/8 school library had all of the Robert A. Heinlein “juveniles,” plus the books for young people by Andre Norton and Isaac Asimov. “I just ploughed through all of those.” The first Andre Norton book she read was Year of the Unicorn, and it made such an impression that a few years ago she bought a first-edition copy of it.

Tanya says the first complete fiction she wrote was when she met a girl in Grade 9 who was writing pastiches of Zenna Henderson. “It was the first time it occurred to me that people wrote books. (I have no idea where I thought they came from before that.) I thought, well, if people write books, I’m a people, I can write books.” So in short order she wrote a western, a spy novel, a science fiction novel called Light Years, and  a book called: Richard the Lionhearted Was an Overmuscled Thug, or the Facts Behind Robin’s Merry Men. She says she also illustrated them, albeit with little more success than she had illustrating the spider story when she was three. Illustrated them.

Her friend Karen and she created the Insult Your Intelligence Book Club. They wrote the books on paper with carbon paper underneath it, to create two copies.

Despite her interest in writing, it didn’t occur to her it could be a career. Tanya notes she comes from a working-class family: she was the first person in her family to graduate from high school and the only person who had ever gone to university.  “Writing books was not something one saw as a career,” she says, and notes her grandmother was much more thrilled the summer she got a job as a Teamster, a good strong union.

After her four years in the military, she went to Los Angeles to become a TV writer, but, she says, she was “too Canadian”: when she ran out of money (in about four months) she packed up her typewriter and came home instead of getting an illegal job, even though she had an in with the company producing the TV series Operation Petticoat. “If I had had half a brain I’d be running the CW right now.”

Instead she decided to go to Ryerson, because she’d discovered “there’s a hell of a lot of money in television programming, and I wanted some of it.”

At Ryerson she had three years of scriptwriting. She notes she’s always been a visual writer, so she had less trouble writing scripts than some text-based writers. “Rob Sawyer and I did our third-year project together. In retrospect, it might have been better if instead of two writers we had pulled one of the tech guys in.” She also had a creative writing class with Rob, although she was writing science fiction and “the teacher absolutely did not get it. I had to explain everything to her.”

She actually started writing Child of the Grove in her TV tech class, “which could possibly explain my mark in my TV tech class,” but she started writing seriously at novel length “with intent to be published” while working part-time at Bakka books: the part-time job gave her time to write. Her first short story sale came at about the same time DAW Books was looking at Child of the Grove; editor Sheila E. Gilbert asked if she had anything published previously, and she was able to say she’d just gotten a letter from George Scithers.

She’s been at DAW her entire career, and sees no reason to leave. “They’re wonderful people. I’ve always said if Sheila retires, I retire, too.”

The Silvered was pitched as “the Napoleonic Werewolf Book.” It deals with the transition point between the manners and mores of Regency England and the Victorian era, with its greater emphasis on technology. “Werewolf culture is essentially Regency England, the opposing culture is essentially Napoleonic.”

But ultimately, “like all of my books, it’s a story not so much about, ‘Who am I?’, but ‘Who do I decide to be?'”

Tanya says the The Silvered “was one of those books you have kicking around in your head for a long time,” one with a “long gestational period,” and partlly arose from the fact that she loves Georgette Heyer, like many fantasy writers do, “probably because she pretty much wrote a fantasy version of the Regency,”

It wasn’t a book with “one big solid idea” that can be encapsulated in an elevator pitch, but more a lot of little things building up over the years. Tanya says in a lot of her books (like the Blood Books) each book deals with one idea thread. In The Silvered, she was dealing with many little things, and not just one big heavy thing–but she figures she did it well because “it’s the only book of mine that’s ever won an award” (the Aurora Award for Best Novel).

When she writes, Tanya says, she knows where she’s going but she doesn’t always know how she’s going to get there. “I have the beginning, and then the end, then I travel my characters through it. I try to look at characters to build them up like you would meeting a person for the first time. You observe what they are like, over the course of the book.”

She notes that for The Silvered she put the characters into groups. There was the redemption character, the young hero, the old hero, the young heroine, the old heroine. The complexity of the multiple characters and situations mean she created more story structure than she usually does: she says she’s usually much more of a “pantser” than she was with this book.

While she can outline if she has to (she did a work-for-hire book in the Ravenloft series for TSR that had to be very strictly outlined), one of the advantages of having done 32 books with one editor is that she doesn’t have to outline anymore to sell a book.

For The Silvered she spent a full month doing nothing but research notes, handwriting them, because she finds when she handwrites things, they stay in their head, whereas if she types them, “it’s just typing.” Since she knew where the story was located, she had pages of notes on the geography, botany, climate, and more. While writing, she sometimes looks for specific things like how long it takes a person to walk twenty-five miles, although she notes you have to beware the “Wikipedia rabbit hole,” where “suddenly you find yourself researching cornbread in Central America.”

She had to spend a lot of time thinking about werewolf society, things like clothing (which has to be easy to get out of), the lack of a nudity taboo or body modesty, the fact furniture is chewed up (“because, puppies”), and more.

Tanya says she’s very much a “one thing at a time” writer: if she’s doing a short story she has to stop working on her latest novel, because otherwise “they would both sound exactly the same.”

Speaking of voice, for The Silvered she pulled out all of the sections from each POV character so she could keep their voices consistant.

Humour is always a part of Tanya’s book, although she notes that the Keeper Chronicles, which are meant to be funny, were the hardest thing to write.

We spent some time talking about an apparently minor incident involving a rabbit, which proves in fact to be major foreshadowing of something much more significant later on. Tanya said as soon as she got to the rabbit she realized how what happened to it could resolve the greater issue later on. (Those who have read the book will understand these vague references.)

Tanya says her first draft is probably 80 to 85 percent of what is actually published, then she layers it up from there. She compares this to contractors, who build a house layer by layer. There are other writers, she notes, who are more masons building a wall: pull out one brick at the bottom and the whole thing collapses.

For Tanys, Sheila Gilbert’s feedback is usually to add more detail. She thinks this may relate to the fact that her actual writing training is in television, where details are put in “by the other 75 people who work on the property.” She says she’s worked so long with Sheila she can hear her voice in her head when she’s writing.

Tanya claims to be terrible with titles: The Silvered took a two-hour discussion with Sheila to settle on.

If she ever stops writing fantasy and science fiction (maybe because Sheila has retired) she has an idea for a series of cozy mysteries set more or less in rural Ontario, where she lives. The first book would be called Strawberry Fields. She’d also like to do “a lesbian Regency romance,” which she figures has bounced around in her head long enough she could probably write right now.

Why write science fiction and fantasy? “The cynical version is it’s the main income coming into the house and I’d like to make a living… the other answer is because you write what you love.”

She says SF and fantasy allow writers to look at the “heart topics.” In Touch Magic Jane Yolen has a list of these: things like sacrifice, duty, honour, love. She notes it’s not odd that those are at the heart of so much SF and fantasy, because when you put people in extreme conditions, it exposes what’s at their core. “Any genre is just telling stories about people to other people. It’s how you do it that is the difference.”

Tanya feels her work has touched a lot of readers. She notes that she hasn’t been at a convention in the past twenty years without someone, usually a young woman, coming up to her in tears, saying things like they had read the Quarter books in high school, and it was the first time they had seen themselves in fiction, the first time they had seen a bisexual character.

The chairman of WindyCon in 2016 told her that her Keeper books got him through his Master’s degree program when he was “falling apart in every other way,” she adds.

“That kind of  response is better than an award. (Which is not to say I wouldn’t take  a Hugo if someone offered it to me.)…I get so much emotional response back from people who have read my books that I feel very nourished by my readers.”

Episode 1: Robert J. Sawyer

Welcome to the very first episode of The Worldshapers: Conversations with science fiction and fantasy authors about the creative process. After a brief discussion of why this podcast exists, and who your genial host is (that would be Edward Willett), we plunge into the meat of the episode: a conversation with Robert J. Sawyer.

Website: www.sfwriter.com

Twitter: @RobertJSawyer

Robert J. Sawyer’s Amazon page

The Introduction:

Robert James Sawyer is a Canadian science fiction writer, born in Ottawa and now living in Mississauga. He’s the author of twenty-three novels and innumerable short stories (well, not literally, obviously they’re numerable, but it’s a large number), and is the most-awarded science fiction writer of all time, said awards including the Hugo, the Nebula, and the John W. Campbell awards: he’s the only Canadian author to have won all three. His books regularly appear on the major bestsellers’ lists in Canada, and have been translated into numerable (as opposed to innumerable) languages. Rob is a graduate of Ryerson University (where one of his classmates was Tanya Huff, guest on Episode 2 of The Worldshapers) which presented him with its Alumni Award of Distinction in 2002, and in 2007 received an honorary doctorate from Laurentian University in Sudbury, Ontario. In 2016 he was named to the Order of Canada, the highest civilian honour bestowed by the Canadian government.

He’s also a popular keynote speaker for conferences of all kinds, and an excellent writing teacher, as I have reason to know, since I twice attended week-long Writing With Style writing classes taught by Rob at the Banff Centre, out of the second of which came my own Aurora Award-winning novel, Marseguro.


The Show:








Since we’ll be discussing The Neanderthal Parallax trilogy in detail, we start with a discussion of “Neanderthal, or Neandertal?”

Quote:  “Fads come and go. That was a meme of the early 21st century.”

We move on to a discussion of Rob’s impetus for writing science fiction:

“I’m the first generation fo science fiction writers who came into the field through media as opposed through the pulps…I was hooked by Gerry Anderson’s Supermarionation series.” Rob goes on to note the first Star Trek episode he saw, “The Devil in the Dark,” at age six, hooked him on theshow, to this day his favourite science fiction media series. As well, he points out, in the 1960s and early 1970s, there was an actual space race!

He recalls going to see 2001: A Space Odyssey with his father, and reflecting that all the visions of the future he was seeing would come true by the time he was the age his father was then.

His first piece of fiction: Lost in Space fan fiction when he was ten years old. A couple of years later he read Trouble on Titan by Alan E. Nourse, who wrote in his intro about the joys of being a science fiction writer and said “you could do this too.” Rob notes that he never met Nourse, but in a very real sense he owes his career to him.

We go on to discuss Rob’s writing process. “I write science fiction to fund my research hobby,” he says. Since he sold the Neanderthal Parallax as a trilogy, he was able to spend an entire year researching it.

“Being a writer is like being a grad student who gets to change his thesis topic and even his field of endeavour as often as he or she wishes,” Rob says.

He talks about how the trilogy began with a conversation with Tom Doherty at Tor Books about writing licensed properties. Rob was interested in classic Planet of the Apes; the property that was finally offered to him by Tor was Earth: Final Conflict; he decided that wasn’t a good fit but wanted to do something that would let him do everything Planet of the Apes did for him: social commentary on the human condition from a slightly skewed angle, i.e., a parallax.

Research included lots of reading and attending scientific meetings to talk to every major expert on Neanderthals, asking, “If they hadn’t died out, what would they be like?”

He came up with three pillars of such a society, all based on solid scientific research: no religion, males and females led largely separate lives, and Neanderthals were so much stronger than homo sapiens that any physical altercation could prove fatal: any Neanderthal could kill another with his or her bare hands. “I wanted to explore the interpersonal relations, the society that would grow out of having to eschew violence.”

The alibi archive, based on implanted devices that record every bit of a person’s life, was an extrapolation of that. If everyone is strong enough to kill anyone, then how do you ensure a peaceful society?

Experts’ reaction? “Lovely.” Rob notes that the first book is taught at Johns Hopkins in an anthropology course.

In an aside, Rob notes that he told Eastman Kodak twenty years ago that they could save their business by developing life logging, based on the idea that you don’t recognize “Kodak moments” until it’s too late. It’s definitely coming, but Kodak didn’t do it, any more than IBM developed tablet technology–even though it appeared, with their name on it, in 2001: A Space Odyssey.  Rob says, “Almost never does an old company transfer to a new technology. ”

Rob says story development for him is very much top-down, staring with the big idea that in an alternate world, Neanderthals survive to the present day and we don’t–and a portal opens between the two. “I wanted to do social commentary,” he says, and soon realized he was writing about masculinity. To those who complain the books are anti-male, he points out that that’s specified in the opening quote, from Richard Wrangham and Dale Peterson’s Demonic Males: Apes and the Origins of Human ViolenceRob’s thesis: we don’t have to be this way. What would it be like if manhood wasn’t measured by how mean, nasty, and selfish you were?

Another influential source: a book that made the case there must have been some natural selection toward sexual violence: A Natural History of Rape: Biological Bases of Sexual Coercion, by biologist Randy Thornhill and anthropologist Craig T. Palmer.

This led to his main characters: a woman, his main female character, recovering from a rape, and a male universe that had eschewed all masculine violence. “I wanted to write about that kind of sexual politics, and the politics of masculinity, how we could be better men.”

Ponter Boddit, his main Neanderthal character, is his platonic ideal: caring, compassionate, empathetic, non-competitive, and yet clearly male through and through.

The result is what some call “The most unusual romance story you’re ever going to read.”

Plotting: the alibi archive is a kind of “miracle technology,” so how could it fail? Deep underground…like in the Sudbury Neutrino Observatory, which in Ponter’s world is a quantum computing research facility. A portal opens, Ponter comes through, and almost drowns in the heavy water tank.

Rob’s process of plotting was summarized by Theodore Sturgeon: “Ask the next question.”

Rob does a lot of plotting on the fly. “I’m a big advocate of detailed outlining, but I’m not not a big practicer of what I preach.”

Rob notes he has never belonged to a writer’s group, which he calls an unintended outgrowth of cheap laser printing.  “Most truly successful SF & fantasy writers over the last twenty-five years…when writers’ groups became common…never have and never would contemplate belonging to one.”

He contrasts a typical writers’ group with the writers’ room of a television series, like Flash Forward, based on his book of the same name, where there is a constant back and forth, question and answer–a constant interrogation. In a good writer’s room, “the best idea wins.”

Rob’s a huge believer in rewriting–he calls his first pass, in a phrase he thinks he got from Edo van Belkom, “the vomit pass,” adding, “it’s an unpleasant process getting it out but you actually do feel better.” He does many drafts, but when he hands it in to his editor, his goal is to have it to the point where the editor has a single word of response: “Great.” He adds that most of his books have been published with no editorial changes whatsoever.

The exception was when he was working with the late David Hartwell at Tor, whom he says in a number of cases “materially harmed” his novels. “I’m not averse to editors but David, I do believe,felt to some degree he was co-author of the piece.” You can read more about this in his latest column for Galaxy’s Edge.

Rob hopes his books will have an influence on society, but it’s difficult to quantify. “This is the observer effect in quantum mechanics. You cannot observe a situation without changing a situation.” He points out that 1984 was not like the 1984 in George Orwell’s book of the same name, but that doesn’t mean he was a failure: it was thanks to his book it took us all the way to 2018 to end up in a a 1984 situation. “George Orwell predicted in essence state-run propaganda news agencies; he did not predict people would tune into them willingly.” The book still informs our understanding of totalitarianism.

Similarly, Margaret Atwood hoped to derail further inroads into women’s reproductive rights when she wrote The Handmaid’s Tale, although they remain under threat. Rob says he sometimes think SF only manages to, at best, forestall bad situations for a few decades.

In his own work, Rob is proud of having had two novels in the trilogy nominated for the Gaylactic Spectrum Awards at the dawn of the millennium, and of the ethnic diversity he portrayed in his work that exactly mirrors what he sees when he looks around Toronto today. “I do feel I’ve been a small part of a movement, a literary and social movement that has helped shape our reality.”

Rob thinks the concept of worldbuilding is the most arrogant notion in the field, whether you’re a theist or atheist. He says the task of making a world seem believable in science fiction is more like theatre set decoration:  “What two, three, four, five pieces of setting and prop can I put on the stage that will suggest a real world?”

He agrees that the worlds of “literary” fiction are just as much make-believe as those of science fiction. Mystery fiction would have you believe most crimes are solved; romantic fiction would have you believe true love triumphs. In fact, most crimes remain unsolved and half of all marriages end in divorce. “There is no correlation between what we take as the cornerstones of our so-called mimetic mainstream fiction and reality.” A lot of literary fiction takes place in  “A world in which the self-indulgent minutiae of our day-to-day lives is important.”

To wrap up: Rob’s next book is an alternate history of the Manhattan Project, The Oppenheimer Alternative. “For the first time in history, science and policy intertwined, world events turned on scientists. Many came to have regrets on both sides. My big theme is the moral obligations of scientists ot the new world their inventions create.”