Robert J. Sawyer is a Canadian science-fiction writer who has authored dozens of novels. His novel, FlashForward, was adapted into the ABC show of the same name, and he has earned Hugo and Nebula awards. I was able to interview Sawyer in 2018 about his novel, Quantum Night. Since then he has written and published an amazing alternate history scifi novel titled The Oppenheimer Alternative with Red Deer Press and Arc Manor’s CAEZIK imprint. Sawyer allowed me to interview him about life since Quantum Night, his thoughts on non-creative business side of writing, and The Oppenheimer Alternative.
Nicholas Yanes: I last interviewed you in 2018 about Quantum Night. How has life been for you since? Are you still plotting on taking over Canada?
Robert J. Sawyer: As with everyone else, my 2020 is radically different from my 2019. Last year was a typical year for me with lots of international travel, including two trips to China, where my books are very popular, and attending many science-fiction conventions, which have been the backbone of my social life since I was a teenager.
This year, of course, will always be remembered for the COVID-19 pandemic. I am fortunate in that it hasn’t really impacted me economically: what I’ve lost in physical books sales, because of the closure of bookstores, I’ve mostly made up for in extra ebook and audiobook sales, as people look for ways to occupy their time during this disaster, plus I have a nice cushion from my supporters on Patreon.
That said, this disaster has me reflecting on what things really matter to me. There are indeed people I miss seeing, but, after months of isolation, I realize it’s a much smaller number of individuals than I would’ve thought. There have been years in the past in which I spent as many as six months away from home. I now realize how much I do enjoy actually just being in my own place. Unlike some, I’m not binge-watching TV shows but I am thoroughly enjoying catching up on reading for pleasure, instead of the kind of research-oriented reading that I normally do to write my novels.
Yanes: Given how many years you’ve been professionally writing, how do you think you’ve grown in regards to the business side of being an author? For example, do you now take marketing more seriously?
Sawyer: Prior to becoming a novelist, I was a freelance writer, and I did a lot of corporate and government communications materials, so I’ve always had a good sense of how important marketing is, and how to do it effectively. It’s no coincidence that I was the first science-fiction writer in the world to have a website devoted to his or her SF writing; it’s just about to celebrate its twenty-fifth birthday — I saw a new marketing opportunity and dived in before anyone else had. Honestly, most publishers are absolutely clueless about how to market genre fiction, and so they do almost no marketing at all. They just count on people going of their own volition to the appropriate section of bookstores.
But I’ve always firmly believed that my novels have out-of-genre appeal, and many of my readers have told me I’m the only fiction writer they read; everything else they read is nonfiction. So it requires very targeted marketing to make sure that those who are interested in, say, the science-versus-religion debates find my Calculating God; those interested in moral psychology — a number that’s grown hugely since the debut of the TV show The Good Place, which I adored — find my Quantum Night; and those interested in the Manhattan Project and the history of physics find my latest novel, The Oppenheimer Alternative.
One of the most effective ways to do this is by having ancillary content on my website, which is massive: over 800 documents and over one million words, at SFWRITER.COM. If someone is searching online for the topics I mentioned above, they will find my books — even if it never would have occurred to them that they might find something interesting in the science-fiction section of a bookstore.
Yanes: In your opinion, what has been the biggest change in publishing since you became an author?
When I started, self-publishing was, quite rightly, dismissed as “vanity press.” It was also a sure path to financial ruin: you’d spend a fortune printing copies of your book, and they’d almost all still be cluttering up your basement years later. Electronic publication has changed that: although the truly successful are still outliers, those outliers are making far more than most traditionally published authors. How could they not? They get seventy percent of the money the customer pays for the book, with Amazon, Apple, or whoever taking the other thirty percent, whereas traditionally published authors get a measly seventeen-and-a-half percent of the price paid.
This sea change hugely guided my business practices: I was very aggressive about only narrowly licensing rights to The Oppenheimer Alternative to anyone else. I did want to have the book in traditional brick-and-mortar bookstores, as those will always be near and dear to my heart; I used to work in one, Toronto’s Bakka-Phoenix, the world’s oldest extant science-fiction specialty bookstore. That meant having some sort of arrangement with a traditional print publisher, since that’s the only way to economically get books into bookstore chains.
But the big-five traditional publishers have long insisted on getting ebook rights for no additional advance, and, in the four years since my last novel, Quantum Night, came out, they’ve taken to demanding audiobook rights, as well, again for no additional advance. So, instead, I sought out smaller publishers who were willing to bargain on those points for the sake of, if I may, having a name author on their lists.
I went with CAEZIK, the new imprint of Arc Manor, in the US; they’ve got full bookstore distribution, and just launched their first title, the “found” Robert A. Heinlein novel, The Pursuit of the Pankera. In Canada, I chose Red Deer Press, a very respected, long-established house. And in both cases, I kept, and am exploiting myself, the ebook and audiobook rights.
Yanes: Robert Oppenheimer was a key member of the Manhattan Project. Though the Manhattan Project only existed from 1942 to 1946 it still has a prominent place in popular culture. Why do you think Manhattan Project still resonates with so many entertainment creators?
Sawyer: First, because the characters involved were larger than life. Not just Oppie, but Albert Einstein, Leo Szilard, Edward Teller, General Leslie Groves — the whole gang. They are irresistible to write about, or portray on screen. Oh, and for the record: by far the best portrayal of them all is in Day One, the 1989 Emmy Award-winning made-for-TV movie with David Strathairn as Oppie, Brian Dennehy as Groves, and Michael Tucker, in the role he was born to play, as Szilard.
Second, because what they did marked one of the key turning points in human history: the unleashing of the atom. If we were to decide to start renumbering our calendar, since counting years from the birth of Jesus (a) is all screwed up anyway, since he was born during Herod’s reign, which ended with Herod’s death in 4 B.C., and (b) culturally chauvinistic, it would be even money whether 1945, with the Trinity test, should be the new Year One, or 1969, with the first time humans travelled to another world.
Third, because it’s such a tale of the search for redemption. With the exception of General Groves and Edward Teller, nearly every major figure associated with the Manhattan Project team came to have severe doubts about or ultimately repudiated their involvement with creating the atomic bomb. They’d erroneously thought that Germany might beat them to it, when in fact, under Werner Heisenberg, Germany had no real A-bomb program, and then, after Hitler put an end to the war in Europe with a much simpler weapon — a bullet to his own head — they still persisted in building the bomb even though they knew that Japan would have been defeated soon anyway by conventional weapons.
Yanes: Oppenheimer felt that scientists should be able to control the fruits of their research. As a result, do you see him as a tragic figure? If so, how did this impact how you crafted him in your novel, The Oppenheimer Alternative?
Sawyer: It’s interesting to wonder what Oppenheimer would have thought had he known of the titles of the nonfiction books that would be written about him after he was dead. Among the most famous are American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer by Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin; Oppenheimer: The Tragic Intellect by Charles Thorpe; The Ruin of J. Robert Oppenheimer by Priscilla J. McMillan; and, of course, the one he did live to see: The Matter of J. Robert Oppenheimer: Transcript of Hearing Before Personnel Security Board.
So, yes, absolutely history has judged him as a tragic figure, and there’s little doubt that he was his own worst enemy in everything from the childish need to publicly humiliate Lewis L. Strauss, the chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission, which led directly to Oppie’s security-board hearing, to the chain smoking that rotted his teeth and killed him most miserably at just sixty-two years of age.
The other major Manhattan Project figures all wrote autobiographies, but not Oppie. So I had the challenge, and the novelist’s joy, of trying to capture the hitherto private thoughts of this remarkable man, who once described his childhood self as “an unctuous, repulsively good little boy” — a persona that in some ways he never outgrew.
By the way, there were many thrills in writing The Oppenheimer Alternative but none more so than getting a cover blurb from Martin J. Sherwin, co-author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning American Prometheus, the first book I mentioned above.
Yanes: On this note, your latest book is The Oppenheimer Alternative. What was the inspiration for this story?
Sawyer: A very good friend of mine, Liz Cano, is a playwright in Montreal, and she said to me back in 2015 that she’d seen Jem Rolls’s one-man show “The Inventor of All Things, about Leo Szilard, at the Fringe Festival there, and that I just had to see it.
I started digging into Szilard, who was the first person to envision the atomic chain reaction that made nuclear fission possible, and who ghostwrote the letter Einstein signed to President Roosevelt urging the establishment of what became known as the Manhattan Project. From Szilard I found my way to Oppenheimer and I realized that Oppie was the perfect main character for my kind of science fiction, which deals with the ethics and morality of science and technology. And in the end it came full circle with Jem Rolls providing a great blurb for my novel.
Yanes: You did a ton of research for The Oppenheimer Alternative. While researching the real-world figures you use in the book, did you learn anything new that took you by surprise?
Sawyer: To me, the biggest revelation was that Japan had been making back-channel overtures to surrender for a year before the United States dropped the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
If the United States had simply agreed to let Japan retain its emperor in the post-war world, the war could have been over much earlier — but Franklin Delano Roosevelt, going off-script from what he and Winston Churchill had agreed to, publicly insisted on unconditional surrender, even though asking the Japanese to give up their divine emperor would be like asking the United States to renounce Jesus as a condition of surrender. And, of course, in the end of course, Hirohito did retain his throne — there had to be a functioning post-war government in Japan — for another forty-four years, until his death in 1989.
That the atomic-bomb effort was really aimed at showing the Soviets who was going to be boss in the post-war world, rather than about saving American lives, was shocking to me. That fact only plays a small part in my novel, but I’ve put some of the research I came across related to it on my website: https://sfwriter.com/suoa.htm
Yanes: Between outlining this book to writing it, was there a character or subplot that took on a life of its own?
Sawyer: Oh, absolutely. I live in Toronto but my writers’ group is IFWA, the Imaginative Fiction Writers Association, in Calgary, some 2,500 kilometres away. There’s a writer in that group, Alisha Souillet, who very kindly and very incisively read my first draft of each chapter as it came out of my computer.
And when I had the book finished — I thought! — she said, no, no, no, you’re missing the obvious. This is really a story of the tragic love between Oppenheimer and Jean Tatlock, and I thought, my God, she’s right, and that became the infrastructure upon which the rest of the plot hangs in the final draft. I dedicated the book to Alisha; it wouldn’t have been half as good without her input.
Yanes: When people finish reading The Oppenheimer Alternative, what do you hope they take away from it?
Sawyer: The title has the word “alternative” in it for several reasons. Obviously, it’s a bit of a wink to the subcategory of fiction the book belongs to, alternative history. But it also invokes the notion of choices. Oppie made some personally devastating ones and also some intellectually brilliant ones: he was the first to describe what we now call black holes, for instance. And the geopolitics of the past seventy-five years has come directly out of the choices to build the atomic bomb, to keep developing it after the Nazis were defeated, to silence dissent among physicists, including Szilard, who wanted it to be peacefully demonstrated in a remote area, and to push ahead and drop it not once but twice on civilian targets.
History is the sum of the choices we, and our leaders, make. And the future will be made by our personal and professional choices — what we ourselves do and who we vote for, what atrocities we deal with and which others we pretend not to see. I’m hoping that readers will come away thinking about how small things ultimately lead to big things: one stupid statement made on the spur of the moment by FDR greatly prolonged the war; one stupid statement made on the spur of the moment brought about not just Oppie’s downfall but that of his best friend, Haakon Chevalier. Let’s learn from the past to make a better choices — and a better future.
Yanes: Finally, what else are you working on that people can look forward to?
Sawyer: Not that the security consciousness and paranoia of the Manhattan Project has carried over into my own life, but it’s a secret! My agent is wrapping up negotiations for a major new work by me, something that, as always, combines the intimately human and the grandly cosmic, but I can’t say more just yet. But the next time we talk, I’ll have stories to tell you!