quinta-feira, 6 de agosto de 2009

Science at Heart: Interview with Robert J. Sawyer

The science-fiction writer Robert J. Sawyer was not published in Portuguese yet. Also, Clute & Nicholls Encyclopedia of Science Fiction is of no avail to learn more about this fine author. His entry is fairly small. For the bible was published in 1993, while Sawyer’s first novel and his only mention in it, Golden Fleece (told from the standpoint of a AI named JASON, who run a giant starship) was published in 1990. From 1992 on, this 43-year old Canadian author published fourteen novels and one collection of sf stories, Iterations.

The QUINTAGLIO ASCENSION trilogy was Sawyer’s first great success. Its first novel, Far-Seer (1992) was followed by Fossil Hunter (1993) and Foreigner (1994). The Quintaglio are intelligent biped dinosauroids who live in the habitable moon of a gas giant and have reached humanlike levels of civilization. Those three absorbing novels show the crucial scientific discoveries of the Quintaglio and of how those discoveries change their worldview, from a religious culture to a more science-oriented one. The author display considerable knowledge on the scientific method and history of science in those novels.

Sawyer insisted on dinosaurs (albeit not intelligent ones) in his next book, End of an Era (1994), an innovative time travel dinosaur novel cum aliens, cum alternative timelines and an Earth’s second moon.

In order to prove to himself he was not just a “dinosaur guy” kind of sf author, he wrote The Terminal Experiment (1995), a novel about the scientific proof of the existence of the human soul; but also a novel about marriage and relationships. This was the first of several novels where Sawyer proposes very serious metaphysical questions in witty and enjoying ways. The Terminal Experiment was included in the prestigious Easton Press series MASTERPIECES OF SCIENCE FICTION.

In Starplex (1996), a hard science fiction novel full of mind-bending ideas, Sawyer proposes artificial wormholes that open the Milky-Way to humanity. Then he wrote Illegal Alien (1997), his own crime-procedural-cum-alien-suspect novel.

Speaking of metaphysical questions, in his novel Flashforward (1999), the author uses a science experiment that accidentally launches the conscience of everyone on Earth to the future — people are "flashed forward" 21 years, experiencing several minutes of the future — to discuss the existence of free will. Also, in his excellent and controversial Calculating God (2000), an alien being arrives in Earth and says “Take me to your paleontologist!” In this novel, Sawyer discusses the very existence of God by contraposing the points of view of believing alien Hollus and atheistic human paleontologist Thomas Jericho. These two characters spend most of the novel debating whether God exists or not, in a very perceptive way, and were always trying to convince each other.

Sawyer’s most recent success is THE NEANDERTHAL PARALLAX trilogy [Hominids (2002); Humans (2003) and Hybrids (2003)]. In spite of being hard science fiction proper, these novels can be read also as alternative history (or, more correctly, alternative natural history), as they propose a point of divergence circa 40,000 BCE: the debatable quantum event that ignited self-consciousness inside Neanderthal brain, instead of in the human one. Thus these three novels can be found in Uchronia (www.uchronia.net), the alternative history world site. Hominids deservedly won the 2003 Hugo for best novel. Barast (civilized alternative Neanderthal) physicist Ponder Bobbit suffers an accident in a quantum computer and “falls” inside our timeline. In this first novel, Bobbit had to prove he is a bona fide Neanderthal, while in his own alternative timeline his partner Adikor Huld is accused of having murdered Bobbit. Sawyer created a Neanderthal world and timeline from scratch. He was extremely successful in proposing a very alien, albeit humanlike advanced society which is entirely atheistic (until the first contact with humans, Neanderthals lacked the very concept of God); ecologically correct, almost crime-free, and sexually unorthodox, to say the least. Sawyer proposes a very clever and original kind of marriage in the Neanderthal’s world society, implying both heterosexual and homoerotic unions in different times of the month. In Humans, Bobbit and human geneticist Mary Vaughan consumate their passion and love. Also, the Neanderthal physicist and ambassador begins to question his beloved’s religious beliefs. Hybrids shows the official sanction of Bobbit & Vaughan relationship and the problems of conjugal adaptation of a human female in a Neanderthal world, where a woman is supposed to be with his male partner only four days a month.


GERSON LODI-RIBEIRO – First you wrote QUINTAGLIO ASCENSION, a trilogy about intelligent saurians making scientific discoveries in their alien world. Then, you wrote End of an Era, a very original time travel dinosaur novel, and meanwhile you also wrote the short story "Just Like Old Times", about a serial killer who is sentenced to live his last hours inside the skull of a tyrannosaur. As you said in your Locus interview, there was a time, circa 1994, when you were in danger of becoming a sf writer specialized in dinosaurs. Even so, being a dinosaur lover myself, I must ask: is there any chance of another novel or short story on dinosaurs? Or, do you feel you had already exhausted this sf theme?

ROBERT J. SAWYERI still dearly love dinosaurs, and I'm sure I'll go back to writing more about them. My US publisher, Tor, is about to reissue the Quintaglio Ascension novels -- Far-Seer, Fossil Hunter, and Foreigner. If these do well in their new editions, I'll probably right more Quintaglio books; if not, I'll find some other way to explore dinosaurs through science fiction.

I'm very fortunate to have a couple of friends who are among the world's leading dinosaur experts: Phil Currie of Canada's Royal Tyrrell Museum of Paleontology and Mike Brett-Surman of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington. They both help keep me up-to-date on the latest discoveries, and I'm sure I'll find new stories to tell about dinosaurs as time goes by.

GERSON LODI-RIBEIRO & OCTAVIO ARAGÃO – Flashforward is about the existence of free will, while in other novels you discuss the existence of the human soul (The Terminal Experiment) and of God Himself (Calculating God). Even in your recent story published in the January/February 2004 issue of ANALOG, SCIENCE FICTION AND FACT, “Shed Skin”, you deal with the possibility of the existence of the soul inside an AI built over the mental pattern of a living human being. It seems that, as an author, you are deeply concerned with the existence of metaphysical entities that were always crucial to humankind, albeit invisible and only disputably real. What new metaphysical topics do you intend to grapple with in your next novels?

RJSAs a matter of fact, my next novel, ACTION POTENTIAL, is essentially an expansion to novel-length of the short story "Shed Skin." You're right that I am indeed truly fascinated by the metaphysical, by what constitutes reality, and what, if any, meaning there is to life. But I'm a scientist at heart: I want to answer these questions empirically, through experiment, and with replicable results. I'm firmly convinced that there's no question that can't be best answered by the scientific method.

These days, I'm particularly fascinated by consciousness. During much of the last century, "consciousness" was a dirty word in brain studies – we didn't know how to account for it, or even what it was, so we just ignored it and hoped it would go away. But attempts to explain it away – ranging from Daniel Dennett in CONSCIOUSNESS EXPLAINED to Francis Crick in THE ASTONISHING HYPOTHESIS – simply are not satisfying. They'd don't account for the subjective reality we all experience. Much more interesting to me are the theories of people like Susan Pockett (THE NATURE OF CONSCIOUSNESS: A HYPOTHESIS) and Roger Penrose (SHADOWS OF THE MIND). I'm trying to come up with my own synthesis of what consciousness really is. I don't say I'll succeed – but I'm having a great time trying!

My novel after ACTION POTENTIAL is WEBMIND, about the world wide web itself gaining consciousness; it'll be a first-contact novel, but between us and an emergent intelligence that we never planned to create as such.

Other SF writers are interested in consciousness, too: Greg Egan of Australia is fascinating. But the difference between Greg and me is simple: he writes for those who already know the latest cutting edge notions, and I write for those who don't, but want to learn about them in an entertaining way.

GLR – Speaking of Calculating God, this novel echoes a concern Carl Sagan displayed at the end of his novel Contact (1985), in proposing the scientific proof of the existence of God. However, like your main human character, Jericho, Sagan was himself an agnostic who died of bone marrow disease. On the other hand, preeminent paleontologist Stephen J. Gould was suffering from cancer at the time you wrote Calculating God, just like Jericho. Presuming Sagan and Gould were your sources of inspiration to build Jericho, should we consider this character a homage to these two scientists?

RJSYou're absolutely right that Gould and Sagan were my inspirations for the character of Tom Jericho, and yet "homage" may be the wrong word. Both Gould and Sagan were extraordinarily arrogant men. Sagan's TV series COSMOS has nothing but him in it -- instead of bringing on Frank Drake to explain the Drake equation, Sagan explains it. It's almost unbelievably hubristic. And Gould had a habit of using cheap rhetoric to push arguments, rather than thoughtful reflection. I was lucky enough to get to see them both lecture in person -- Sagan once, Gould several times. There's no doubt that they're fascinating people, and, of course, their arrogance probably provided much of the strength that helped them to face their terminal diseases. But would a lesser mortal -- someone like you or me -- remain so devoutly agnostic, if that's not an oxymoron, in the face of one's own impending death? I don't know -- but that's what I wanted to explore. So Tom Jericho isn't an amalgam of Sagan and Gould; rather, he's a more humble, less arrogant -- and, I think, more typically human -- person struggling with the same tragic fate that Gould and Sagan faced.

GLR – By the way, in his review to Skeptical Inquirer, Barry Seidman rose a controversy, when he claimed that Calculating God's intelligent design theme would be making an apology of Creationism. He even alleged you would support pseudoscientific ideas. As a skeptic and evolutionist yourself, how do you feel about that accusation and what's your viewpoint on the intelligent design thesis in the real life?

RJSBarry Seidman did the skeptical movement an enormous disservice with that review, but it was typical of so much of what passes for skeptical thinking these days. Rather than report honestly, Seidman deliberately misrepresented me and my work -- solely so that he could demonize me and make himself look clever. The skeptics have become as bad as the religious fundamentalists, and they are using the same techniques. We need a protestantism of skepticism, a reborn movement that goes back to what skepticism is supposed to be: looking with a critical eye, not a closed mind, at astonishing results.

My own take is simple. Do I believe that eventually we will be able to simulate reality so exactly that the simulation will be indistinguishable from the original? Of course; there's no scientific reason that we won't be able to do that. Do I believe that someday we might be able to create baby universes is the laboratory? Sure -- again, I believe in the great power of science. Given those two assumptions, can I categorically state that we don't live in a simulation created by some more advanced being than ourselves? Can I categorically state that we don't live in a baby universe created by some experimenter in a parent universe? No, I can't deny either of those possibilities. Do I think that we might be able to find proof that either of these is in fact the case? Yes, indeed, such proof might be uncovered via the tools of science. Intelligent design is the school of thought that most closely coincides with the above views: we might live in a designed universe, there are some scientific hints that this might be true, and they are worth exploring. What astonishes me is the vehemence -- the almost religious fervor -- with which the Barry Siedmans of the world feel compelled to assert that this cannot possibly be true.

GLR – North American editors use to state that nowadays is easier to sell a sf trilogy than a standalone novel. THE NEANDERTHAL PARALLAX you just concluded was your second trilogy (and the first one you wrote as a trilogy from the beginning). Any plans to write a new trilogy in the next few years? By the way, considering the huge success of this second trilogy, are you intending to write new fiction in that same fictional universe (that is, besides your short story "Black Reflection", already published in thematic anthology In the Shadow of the Wall, organized by Byron R. Tetrick)?

RJSThere's no doubt that I'll revisit the Neanderthals. With HOMINIDS winning the Hugo Award, it's clear there's an audience for these books. Just as Orson Scott Card finds himself drawn back to the universe of his Hugo-wining ENDER'S GAME, I'll be drawn back to the Neanderthal universe repeatedly over the rest of my career.

That said, I do want to take a break from the Neanderthals. I do think that, artistically, standalone novels are much more satisfying than series books, and I want to right several more before I go back to the world of Ponter Boddit and the rest of the Neanderthals. My publisher, Tor, has already asked me if I'd like to do more Neanderthal books, and my answer has been,
"Not right now."

Also, I'm sure I will develop another series or trilogy at some point. Although I take the art in what I do very seriously, I recognize that I am writing in a commercial-fiction category. Readers like series; I'd be a fool not to give my customers what they want.

GLR – In THE NEANDERTHAL PARALLAX, you propose a Barast technological civilization more sophisticated than ours, in spite of Barasts had never developed agriculture and lacked the very concept of God and they don't have any formal religious practices (lucky guys, indeed!). Of course, in your fine speculation Neanderthals are not exactly humans. According to your fictional hypothesis, Barast brains lack the very biological hardware that would allow us humans to feel religious experiences. However, considering that religion seems to be an universal in early human societies and that agriculture was already developed independently several times by humans, would you think that a real-life human technological civilization could rise to our level without any knowledge of religion or agriculture?

RJSActually, there's no good evidence for any Neanderthal religion. We started practicing religion 40,000 years ago; the Neanderthals went another 10,000 years at least, aware of us and our practices, without ever adopting religion of their own -- so I was simply extrapolating forward that archeological reality. That said, the job of science fiction isn't to write about the most likely thing; rather, it's to write about the most interesting thing that can't be disproved by contemporary science. Postulating a race without religion lets me comment on the effects religion has had on us; it's a thought experiment, and it lets us see ourselves in ways that would otherwise elude our perception. That's worth doing.

On agriculture, it's true that it may have been invented at least twice -- in the Fertile Crescent 10,500 years ago, and possibly in Meso-America, as well. But those are warm climates; Neanderthals were cold-adapted, Northern people. Today's northerners, including Canada's Inuit, have no agriculture, because it's impossible in their climate. But again, my goal is not to argue that agriculture wasn't likely to emerge; rather, it is to isolate and remove it from the thought experiment so that we can recognize what a decidedly mixed blessing it has been, giving rise to disease, class structures, slavery, the drug trade, and more. Again, it's an exercise worth doing -- and that's why I love being a science-fiction writer.

ROBERT J. SAWYER, Science Fiction Writer

Best Novel HUGO AWARD winner for HOMINIDS


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