The Scribbler is pleased to do a series of guest appearances in conjunction with Creative Edge Publicity of Saskatchewan, Canada. (See below for more of Creative Edge)
Robert J. Sawyer has an impressive list of awards recognizing the excellence in his writing, both for novels and short stories. Of note is his winning of the world’s most prestigious prizes for science fiction, the Hugo, the Nebula and the John W. Campbell award. The Canadian Science Fiction & Fantasy Association has honored him with thirteen Auroras and a Lifetime Achievement award. And the list goes on.
The Scribbler is most fortunate to have Robert as our guest this week. He has kindly agreed to a 4Q Interview and is offering an excerpt from The Oppenheimer Alternative.
Robert J. Sawyer has won the best-novel Hugo Award (for Hominids), the best-novel Nebula Award (for The Terminal Experiment), and the John W. Campbell Memorial Award (for Mindscan), plus over 50 other writing awards. The ABC TV series FlashForward was based on his novel of the same name, and his 24th novel, The Oppenheimer Alternative, came out on June 2, 2020. Rob holds honorary doctorates from the University of Winnipeg and Laurentian University, was one of the initial inductees into the Canadian Science Fiction and Fantasy Hall of Fame, and is a Member of the Order of Canada, his country's highest honor.
4Q: You have a remarkable bibliography of compelling stories. Before we discuss your newest novel, imagine I’m a new reader to your work. Where would I start? Which of your stories would you recommend I begin with? And why?
RJS: I’d say my novel Quantum Night: it was my twenty-third novel, and came out in 2016. At the time I wrote it, I thought it would be the last novel I ever wrote, and so it was supposed to sum up everything I’d been trying to say for my career. It’s set in the present day, and deals with an experimental psychologist coming to grips with his own dark past. The premise is bleak, but, like all my work, it’s ultimately an uplifting book; I’m an optimist at heart. And it’s incredibly timely, I have to say. Let’s just say it predicted not only the Trump presidency but also the reasons for it and the current rioting.
4Q: According to my sources, your newest novel is The Oppenheimer Alternative. Please tell us about this.
RJS: The scientists from the Manhattan Project stay together after World War II to try to save the world. How’s that for an elevator pitch? Every character in the novel is a real and famous historical figure: J. Robert Oppenheimer, Albert Einstein, Richard Feynman, Edward Teller, Leo Szilard, Enrico Fermi, Hans Bethe, and Wernher von Braun, and people are telling me that this, my 24th book, is the best thing I’ve ever written, and assessment I tend to agree with.
4Q: Please share a childhood memory and/or anecdote.
RJS: When I was young, the Royal Ontario Museum had a contest for children interested in dinosaurs. The winner would get all sorts of paleontology-related prizes. If it had been a dinosaur trivia contest or if it had required kids to identify fossils, I would have won, I'm sure. But it wasn’t. It was a contest to make the best dinosaur marionette! I knew which dinosaur it had to be: Parasaurolophus, the ROM’s signature mount. I tried building one out of Plasticine and Styrofoam and wooden dowels. It was a disaster. I did learn one valuable lesson, though: I learned that you can't choose the ways in which you'll be tested.
4Q: As mentioned in the introduction above, you are the recipient of many awards for your writing. Which do you cherish the most?
RJS: The World Science Fiction Society’s Hugo Award for Best Novel of the Year. It was presented to me by George R.R. Martin at the World Science Fiction Convention and as George himself said, it’s “the big one.” The Hugos are the most significant awards in the SF world and the Best Novel award is the most significant of the Hugos. Plus the trophy is gorgeous, and, since mine was given in the 50th year of the Hugos, mine is plated with real gold!
4Q: I am most intrigued by your short story – Just Like Old Times – which not only won the Prix Aurora but won Canada’s top mystery/fiction Arthur Ellis Award. Certainly, a highlight in your career. Please tell us about the story.
RJS: Thank you! It’s about a serial killer who can’t be executed under Canadian law, but can opt for something called “chronotransference,” where his consciousness will be displaced through time. He’s sent back to the age of dinosaurs where there aren’t any humans yet for him to kill, but he turns out to find the nature-red-in-tooth-and-claw world of that time very appealing to him. It was an early story for me — it came out over a quarter of a century ago — but many of my other works are also mystery/science-fiction crossovers, most notably my novels Illegal Alien, which is a courtroom drama with an extraterrestrial defendant, and Red Planet Blues, which is a hardboiled detective novel set on Mars.
4Q: You are a Member of the Order of Canada, as well as a Member of the Order of Ontario. Both respected accomplishments. How thrilling this must be. Can you share your thought on this?
RJS: Thank you! The Order of Canada is the highest honour given by the Canadian government — the closest thing Canada has to a knighthood and the counterpart of the US Presidential Medal of Freedom — and I was the first person ever to get it for work in the science-fiction field. And the Order of Ontario is the highest honour given by my home province. I was blown away to get them. Of course, I’m proud personally but I honestly also think my being inducted into those two Orders did something significant for the respectability of science fiction in Canada, and I’m delighted about that.
4Q: Besides your writing skills, you are involved in television and film, editing and scholarly work, teaching (University of Toronto, Ryerson, Humber College and the Banff Centre) and public speaking. How do you fit this all in with your writing? Can you share a bit about these activities?
RJS: Both my parents were educators — they taught economics and statistics at the University of Toronto — so teaching is in my genes. I find so much writing teaching is really teaching how to teach writing, if you can parse that sentence! That is, it’s people with MFA degrees who are marginally published or not published at all teaching other people who are trying to get MFA degrees. There was a need for working writers who actually were widely published to share how one really goes about creating publishable prose, not what some academic is guesses is required to do that.
As for the film and TV stuff, my bachelor’s degree is in Radio and Television Arts from Ryerson. It was my first love, and it’s still something I enjoy doing. And, of course, it’s lucrative: a great pay rate for a story to a major US science-fiction magazine is six cents a word; union minimum for a script sale in the US works out to about six dollars a word.
I’ve enjoyed editing books and anthologies, but I don’t do either anymore. There are just so many hours in a day!
4Q: What are you working on now?
RJS: Research! And I’m not sure where it will lead me — but that’s the kind of writer I am. I dig into topics until I’m expert in them, and only then decide what I want to say about those topics. Frankly, it’s a good strategy for life, too: look into something before you spout off about it!
4Q: Anything else you’d like to tell us about?
RJS: I’d like to tell you I’m a gourmet cook, can run a four-minute mile, and am a great singer — but I can’t, because none of those things are true. Although we’ve touched on a lot of different aspects of my career, to become a really good writer is the same as becoming a really good athlete or musician: it’s all-consuming. It’s what I do — and it’s who I am.
An Excerpt from The Oppenheimer Alternative
(Copyright is held by the author. Used with permission)
I wanted to live and to give and I got paralyzed somehow. I think I would have been a liability all my life—at least I could take away the burden of a paralyzed soul from a fighting world.
“Can I have a moment, Doctor?”
Oppie prided himself on being able to recognize anyone he knew by their voice, and the one belonging to this speaker, deep, a tad oleaginous, made his stomach tighten. He swiveled his desk chair around. “Certainly, Captain de Silva.”
Peer de Silva had the distinction of being the only West Point graduate stationed at Los Alamos; he’d earned the enmity of the scientists not just by censoring their mail but by confiscating their personal cameras, too. In his mid-twenties but with the brittle demeanor of a cynic a half-century older, de Silva was one of those prickly souls who took offense at everything. He’d once burst into a group-leaders’ meeting to complain that a young engineer had had the effrontery to perch on the edge of his desk. Oppie probably shouldn’t have used the tone he had—the one he normally saved for the thickest of undergraduates, the benighted fools who proved there were indeed such things as stupid questions—when he’d snapped back, “In this lab, anybody may sit on anyone’s desk—yours, mine, anyone’s.”
As he beheld de Silva now, Oppie noted something odd in the man’s bearing. His face—handsome enough but always lifeless, like a Roman statue—was cocked at a strange angle, and his hands were apparently clasped behind his back as if he were willing himself to appear at ease. “I have ... news,” he said, and Oppie noted the small gap where an adjective—good, bad?—had disappeared under a mental stroke of the captain’s thick black marker.
“And if you share it,” Oppenheimer offered, trying for lightness, “then we’ll both have news.”
“It’s about your—” The younger man aborted that run and started again. “It concerns Miss Tatlock.”
Oppie felt his heart begin to race. He knew that the security people were aware of his relationship with Jean; knew that they knew she was, or had been, a member of the Communist Party; and—yes—knew that seven months ago, when he’d taken that unauthorized trip to San Francisco, he’d spent the night with her. A lot of poker was played here on the mesa, but Robert rarely joined in; still, he was conscious that he was being scrutinized for tells. “Yes?” he said as nonchalantly as he could.
“I figured you’d want to know,” de Silva said. “I’m sorry, sir, but she’s dead.”
Oppie’s first thought was that this was some ruse, a test, to see if ... if what? He would flout security again? Surely Jean couldn’t be gone. He’d have expected to hear through mutual friends—the Serbers, perhaps—or directly from her father John, now an emeritus professor.
“Word just came in,” de Silva said as if he’d read the suspicion in Robert’s eyes. “Honestly, sir, it’s true.”
That it was de Silva breaking the news meant it was the fruit of surveillance. Had her phone been bugged? And, if so, had that jackass Pash ordered it because of Robert’s last visit—his last visit ever, he realized now—to her back in June? Oppie sagged in his chair. Jean was just twenty-nine and had been in good physical health. That meant something like an automobile collision or—
Good physical health ...
“Did she k—was it an accident?”
“I’m sorry, sir, but she took her own life.”
Both legs and arms went numb, and the world blurred in front of him. “Tell me ... tell me the details,” Oppie said, fishing a Chesterfield from a crushed pack and lighting it.
“Apparently, she’d agreed to phone her father last night but failed to do so. He went by this morning to check on her and had to break in through a window. He found her body in the bathtub.”
Robert exhaled smoke and watched it rise toward the ceiling. Thoughts—some inchoate, some in words—percolated through his mind. Last year, he had paid his fifteen cents to see a recent flick called Casablanca in the base theater; he knew full well that the problems of two little people didn’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world. But, still, he’d all but abandoned her, except for that one furtive night, since his move to Los Alamos. Had his desertion—his dereliction of duty—led to that complicated, conflicted woman, the only woman he had ever truly loved, taking her life?
His heart felt like a crumpled-up kraft-paper bag, each expansion of it scratching his innards. He couldn’t talk to Kitty about this, but he had to talk to someone. “Are you as good at keeping secrets as you are at discovering them, Captain?” De Silva opened his mouth to reply, but Oppie raised the hand holding his cigarette. “No, I don’t expect you to answer that. But let me tell you, Miss Tatlock—Jean—is a remarkable girl. In years gone by, we were close to marriage two times, but ...” Oppie trailed off, surprised by the way his throat caught—more than his usual smoker’s cough; a constriction as if his very core were loath to let out the words. “But both times she ... she took a step back.”
That much he’d say, but no more—not about her ... or about him. She’d retreat each time she realized she was also attracted to women. And yet they shared so much: tastes, interests. And he could hardly fault someone else for being indeterminate, for being uncertain, for being both simultaneously this and that.
“I’m sorry,” de Silva said, and Oppie chose to accept the words as sincere.
“She’d wanted to see me before I came here,” Oppie continued, “but I couldn’t, not then. It was three months before I ...”
“Yes,” said de Silva softly. “I know.”
“Of course you do.” Oppie nodded curtly. “I am deeply devoted to her. And, yes, as you also surely know, even after my marriage to Kitty, she and I have maintained ...” He stopped, drew a breath. “... did maintain an ... intimate association.”
Such measured words, Oppie thought. Why couldn’t he just say it, loudly and clearly? He loved Jean, loved her supple mind, loved her passionate convictions, loved her gentle, artistic spirit, loved—
The wetness on his cheek surprised him, and Oppie lifted his empty hand to wipe the tear away. But another replaced it, joined soon by many more. “Forgive me.”
De Silva’s voice was gentle. “There’s nothing to forgive.”
But there was. He had failed her. He’d known all about her bouts of depression. They had discussed them often, and he had talked her back from the brink more than once, even at last sharing the one time he’d contemplated taking his own life, in the summer of 1926, whisked to Brittany by his parents after what had seemed to his twenty-two-year-old self a disastrous year socially and scientifically at Cambridge’s Cavendish Laboratory. And still, despite his candor, despite his support, despite his love, Jean was gone.
She had introduced him to the poetry of John Donne, reciting it often from memory. Batter my heart, three-person’d God, she’d say, and now he knew what that truly meant, the trinity he didn’t believe in inflicting a sorrow he was sure would never pass.
“Well,” said de Silva—a man’s man, a soldier unused to emotional displays—“I should leave you to your work. Again, doctor, my condolences.”
“Thank you,” Oppie said. De Silva left, gently closing the naked wooden door behind him.
The tears were coming freely now. He rarely paid much heed to his chronic cough, but the combination of sniffling and hacking was ghastly, and his hand wasn’t steady enough to operate his silver lighter; it kept spitting flame near but not near enough to the tip of his next cigarette. He swiveled his chair to look out the window, but the view of the mesa was as blurry as it was during a thunderstorm, even though it was a cloudless day.
There was a rap on his inner office door. He didn’t want to see anyone and so he remained quiet. But the door swung open anyway, revealing Bob Serber. “Have you heard ...?” Serber trailed off as Robert swung around and he took in his face, doubtless red and puffy. Bob was silent for a moment, swimming in Oppie’s vision, then: “Can I get you anything? A drink, maybe?”
Robert snorted, pulling mucous back up his nose. He shook his head. “It’s just awful, isn’t it?” Serber said. “She was so ...” But no single word could encapsulate Jean, and he settled on “sweet,” Oppie’s own favorite description for an irresistible problem in science. Robert nodded, and, after a moment more and with a wan smile, Serber withdrew.
Oppie sat for a while—it felt like an hour, although his wall clock said it was only fifteen minutes—then got up. His secretary Vera had returned from wherever she’d been when de Silva and Serber had visited, and she, too, could see that he was distraught, but when she asked what was wrong, he simply said he was going for a walk.
He headed outside and immediately ran into William “Deak” Parsons, the forty-two-year-old head of the ordnance division and second in command here at Los Alamos. “Hey, Oppie,” Deak began, but he, too, clearly saw the pain on Robert’s face. A good Navy man, conservative and tradition-bound, Parsons was often at loggerheads with the freewheeling civilian George Kistiakowsky, who was spearheading a revolutionary implosion-bomb approach. Oppie, hardly in the mood to hear another plea for arbitration, held up a hand before Deak could speak further. “If it’s about explosive lenses, Kisty wins; if it’s anything else, you win.”
He continued walking and, even with his splayed-foot gate, he felt unsteady on his feet. There was a crème brûlée crust of snow over the frozen mud, and now that he’d finally managed to light up again, the clouds emerging from his mouth were equal parts smoke and condensation. Ashley Pond was frozen, a giant cataract-covered eye staring heavenward.
He made his way toward the stables, left over from the Los Alamos Ranch School. There were horses for rent here, but Oppie and Kitty, both accomplished riders, each owned their own. He saddled up Chico, his sleek fourteen-year-old chestnut. On a Sunday, when he had hours to kill, Oppie would take the gelding from the east end of Santa Fe west toward the mountain trails. But he didn’t want to bother with off-site security today. Instead, he rode Chico around the perimeter of the mesa, just inside the barbed-wire fence. Getting out to the edge took care, but Oppie was deft, playing Chico like a musical instrument, bringing each hoof down individually in the perfect sequence to negotiate even the roughest terrain.
They trotted at first as the horse warmed up, then cantered, then, at last, galloped, faster and faster, and faster still, circumnavigating the facility, an electron in an outermost orbit—no, no, a proton hurtling in a cyclotron: building up speed with each lap, wind whipping Chico’s mane, slapping Oppie’s cheeks, flinging tears from his face and wails from his lungs. He urged his mount to even greater velocities, the horse responding with grim conviction, skeletal poplars racing by them as if one could outrun pain, outrun guilt, outrun love.
Thank you, Robert, for being our featured guest this week. Wishing you continued success in your writing journey.
For you readers wanting to discover more about this talented author and his stories, please follow these links:
* Website: https://sfwriter.com
* Patreon: https://www.patreon.com/robertjsawyer
* Facebook: https://facebook.com/robertjsawyer* Twitter: https://twitter.com/robertjsawyer (@RobertJSawyer)