Friday, April 20, 2007

Robert J Sawyer

If you haven't figured out by now I am a fanboy. This would be a fanboy of the pale, skinny, goateed variety, not the obese, unshaven variety that you can ward off with a bar of soap.
I took half a day off work yesterday to go see Robert J. Sawyer speak at the Library of Congress. You don't seem impressed. Let me give you some idea how big a deal that was. Nearly every week there's a talk downtown, sometimes two or three, that I want to attend. It's at the Smithsonian or Library of Congress or somewhere like that and it's in the middle of the day. I've been to one other and that was only because government offices had been closed due to flooding or something. I should point out that I've been working in DC for five and a half years and this was the first time I've blown off work to go to one of these talks.

Robert J. Sawyer is a science fiction writer but he thinks of himself as more of a philosophical fiction writer. He lives in Canada and doesn't do the major book signing tours of the United States that other authors do. His last trip to DC was in 1998 and DC is a major tour site. This time he's going to Richmond, VA for a sci-fi convention and let the LOC know he was gonna be in the area. So they booked him for this talk. As a bonus he just had a new book come out so he'll be doing a signing on Sunday. Typically the signing would be enough. I'm a fan of Neil Gaiman but I'm happy with the little talk and Q&A before book signings. I wanted to hear what Sawyer planned to talk about.

The talk was on "Science Fiction as a Mirror for Reality" which was really an excuse for him to bash "Star Wars". Science fiction writers love to bash "Star Wars" and blame it for the decline of science fiction as a whole. Their reasons are good, too.

The first sci-fi book was "Frankenstein". Besides being the first story that really used a scientific idea as a basis for the story it also had a message to it. It's not just as simple as "don't play God". It's also studied from a feminist perspective. It's often said that when women can reproduce on their own they won't need men anymore. "Frankenstein" can also be said to say that when men can make life they won't need women anymore. Back in 1888 what power did women have other than having kids? The book sent the message that when men have the power to give life bad things will happen.

H.G Wells "Time Machine", "War of the Worlds", "The Invisible Man", "The Island of Doctor Moreau", and "The First Men in the Moon" are all prime examples of early sci-fi that lives on today. It's not the sci-fi that keeps them alive, but the reflection on the world that those stories give. The partitioning of society into upper and lower classes until they become just the worthless rich and the vicious poor. "War of the Worlds" is the tale of any conquering empire crushing another, but was based on the expanding British empire. Each story has something that makes it a commentary on modern society, often with a message that lasts.

Heinlein wrote about the folly of war. Asimov's robots were often about the nature of intelligence and when something goes from being a tool to being a slave. Most science fiction writers worked like that.
In the movies we had "2001", "Planet of the Apes", "The Day the Earth Stood Still" and others that tried to teach a lesson or make people think. "Star Trek" made social commentary that even an eight year old could comprehend.

Just as the genre was really starting to gain respect came "Star Wars". Six movies now and they all start with "Long, long ago in a galaxy far, far away...". The first thing the movie did was to say "do NOT take this seriously. There's nothing here to be learned."
The heroes of the movie are a drug runner, a farm boy introduced while buying and restraining slave labor, and a wise old man, the model of what's good and right, who doesn't even think of defending the droids when they're tossed out of Mos Eisley Cantina. By the end of the movie the heroes are all getting medals, even the mumbling carpet creature, but the droids stand aside and clap. Honestly, I always thought that the droids deserved medals but I never noticed the rest. Not even the fact that C3-PO always calls Luke "Master".

After that sci-fi just stopped being taken seriously even by itself. Oh, sure, there have always been sci-fi books and movies that didn't hold itself to the higher standard but you rarely hear about them except in "Mystery Science Theater 3000" reruns. But the last Trek series to try to have a message was "Next Generation". Sci-fi used to be a platform to give social commentary that you couldn't give in other genres without a religious or political group coming down on you. That's almost gone now. You get some in the new "Battlestar Galactica" but even that is mostly soap opera these days.

It was a great talk that I'm not giving justice to. If you get a chance to hear it then do.

See also a recent interview at

The first book of his to pick up is "Calculating God". I bought a new copy for him to sign because Mom still has my original copy. All of his books are thought provoking and good material for a good old fashioned philosophical discussion just like you had while hanging out at one in the morning back in high school or college.

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