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Robert J. Sawyer

Robert J. Sawyer is one of the best known sci-fi authors of today. Nick DiChario talks to him about the philosophical ideas embedded in his books.

Robert J. Sawyer is one of the most popular and successful science fiction authors in the world today. His work has been translated into 17 languages and published widely throughout North America, Europe, and Asia, and he is a highly sought-after futurist, keynote speaker, and television personality. Sawyer was born in Ottawa in 1960 and now lives in Mississauga, Canada. He is one of only seven people to have won all three of science fiction’s major honours for best novel of the year: the Nebula, Hugo, and John W. Campbell Memorial awards.

Sawyer is best known for his big ideas and interesting science fiction (SF) themes. He has written about the nature of consciousness, the ethics of robotics, the search for extraterrestrial life, and, most recently, in his WWW trilogy, the Internet’s awakening to consciousness. ABC turned his 1999 novel FlashForward into a television series, a story that tackles the compelling issue of what would happen to us if we could see – just for a moment, a brief two-minute flash in time – what our futures hold.

But Sawyer’s books aren’t just about exploring big SF ideas. He is also known for his love of philosophy. His novels are taught in university philosophy courses worldwide. Entertainment Weekly said of his novel Mindscan (2005), “Sawyer lucidly explores fascinating philosophical conundrums.” The Toronto Star called his Calculating God (2000) a “highly philosophical, theological and ethical story.” The Sacramento News & Review says, “Sawyer commingles hard science with cultural and philosophical observations in the sort of brain-teasing, curiosity-piquing fashion that I adore.” And the American Library Association’s Booklist says, “Sawyer not only has an irresistibly engaging narrative voice but also a gift for confronting thorny philosophical conundrums. At every opportunity, he forces his readers to think while holding their attention with ingenious premises and superlative craftsmanship.”

Sawyer’s website is at sfwriter.com. This interview explores how philosophy often merges with science in his work.

ND: What is it about philosophy that you find important to you personally as a novelist and to the genre of science fiction?

RJS: I’ve long held that the science-fiction field is misnamed. It isn’t fiction about science; rather, it’s the literature of ideas – philosophical fiction. That is, it’s not sci-fi, but phi-fi! I find myself frankly bored by most mainstream novels and films, because they rarely have anything new to say. We get endless reiterations of Romeo and Juliet. But science fiction at its philosophical best lets us say fundamentally new things about the human condition.

Susan Schneider, in her book Science Fiction and Philosophy (2009), writes, “if you read science fiction writers like Stanislaw Lem, Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke and Robert Sawyer, you are already aware that some of the best science fiction tales are in fact long versions of philosophical thought experiments.” 1) Would you agree with her? 2) Do you think there is a ‘philosophy movement’ in science fiction, and if so, who are the authors to look for and what are some of your favourite works?

Yes, absolutely, Schneider is right. Much of the best science fiction is about proposing tests of the human condition that would be either unethical or impossible to conduct in real life. I make this quite overt in my 2005 novel Mindscan, in which a scientist makes multiple copies of one individual’s mind, and then subjects them to different conditions. My character says, “Psychologists have been unable to test their theories, except in the most marginal ways. I’m elevating psychology from the quagmire of the soft sciences into the realm of the exact – giving it the same beautiful precision that particle physics has.” Of course, part of what makes science fiction important is that someday some of these thought experiments may indeed become practical, and it’s well worth thinking about the ethical ramifications of performing them before they do.

As for whether there is a philosophical movement in science fiction, well, a literary movement is a coordinated activity; I don’t think those of us who are doing philosophically rich stuff are often talking amongst ourselves. But I’m always impressed by the work of James Morrow, who is best known for Towing Jehovah, and Robert Charles Wilson, who grapples with a lot of interesting questions in novels such as Blind Lake, and I think Peter Watts had an interesting, if bleak, take on consciousness in his novel Blindsight.

ND: Ray Kurzweil has made popular the notion that an accelerated pace of technology could lead to machines improving their own designs and out-thinking humans. SF writer Vernor Vinge first called this theory ‘the Singularity’. How do you feel about the future of our relationship to machines as our computers become capable of making the same value judgments as we do? Can we live together, or is the human race doomed to become slaves to our own robots as many popular SF books and films forewarn?

RJS: This is precisely what I’m exploring in my current trilogy of Wake, Watch, and Wonder, which deal with the World Wide Web gaining consciousness as an emergent property of the complex system of systems that it’s composed of. One of the jobs of science fiction is to provide a smorgasbord of possible futures, but I really think it has largely failed us on this particular question. Current visions, such as the new Battlestar Galactica and the Terminator and Matrix movies, and older ones such as D.F. Jones’s Colossus (filmed in 1970 as The Forbin Project), all portray us as being doomed, suggesting that humanity can’t survive the advent of superior intelligence. What little SF that does have us surviving that advent has us doing so by fundamentally altering who we are, either by uploading our consciousness – thereby giving up physicality, and, indeed, in many cases giving up individuality, too – or by becoming fusions of biology and cybernetics.

Well, the notion that super-intelligent machines would want to subjugate us is questionable, especially if consciousness can be an emergent property. A machine that spontaneously gains self-awareness isn’t the product of millions of generations of survival of the fittest; it doesn’t have that Darwinian engine driving it. And most of our nastiness comes from that; all the philosophical arguments that reduce human altruism to nothing more than reciprocal cooperation underscore that – our selfish genes make us incapable of actually wanting others to do well without a hoped-for benefit for ourselves, or so the theory goes. Consciousness separated from biological history and the drive to reproduce might indeed embody actual altruism. It’s an argument that I try to flesh out in the 300,000 words of my new trilogy, in which I try to portray a way in which we can survive the coming of superintelligence with our essential humanity and dignity intact. I don’t say we will, but we might – and I want to help provide a roadmap to that future.

ND: Many of your novels deal with the question of immortality. The Terminal Experiment (1995), Starplex (1996), Flashforward(1999), Calculating God (2000), Mindscan (2005), and Rollback (2007) all do. The belief in souls that will survive after we die is found in most of the world’s religions, but your books deal with several ways in which science might provide something like everlasting life, including uploading our brain patterns into computers and biomedical enhancements to our physical bodies. Do you believe that science holds the map to Ponce de León’s Fountain of Youth, and if so, how close are we to discovering it?

RJS: The answer is absolutely yes; there’s no question that defeating aging and death are tractable medical problems. They won’t be easy to solve, but they are, in principle, solvable. In my novel Rollback, I suggest that the technology for practical immortality is about 40 years off, which is further than some others, such as Ray Kurzweil, think, but I suspect it’s about the right timeframe. In 40 years I’ll be almost 90, if I’m alive at all; I’m not clutching at this the way some others are, as their own personal hope for immortality. But I do think there are children alive today who will live to see not just the Twenty-second Century, but the Twenty-third and beyond.

As for recording consciousness and backing it up or uploading it: again, yes, I think that’s a tractable problem. I don’t think there’s anything mystical or supernatural about consciousness, although I do confess a fondness for Roger Penrose and Stuart Hameroff’s contention that consciousness is quantum-mechanical in nature, an idea I explore in my novels Factoring Humanity, Mindscan, Hominids, and Wake.

Mindscan contains what I think is one of my best contributions to the philosophy of this issue, with a lawyer cross-examining a philosophy professor on the question of whether the soul, if such a thing does exist, could be transferred to a new body along with the physical brain scan. My argument is that it could indeed, based on the theological notion that souls have to have free will and therefore could go wherever they please.

ND: You’re definitely not afraid of controversy. Your novel Calculating God asks whether our universe was created by a ‘Supreme Designer’, a question which is becoming increasingly polarizing. Do you think that science and religion will ever agree on the origin of the universe?

No, I don’t, but I do hold out hope that science will ultimately trump the religious point-of-view on this in most people’s minds. I wish Richard Dawkins hadn’t sneered quite so much when he outlined his arguments in The God Delusion, but I do in fact agree with him: almost everyone who holds a religious belief holds it irrationally. If Homo sapiens is going to survive, we do need to shuck off irrational thinking. My sharpest comment on this point is probably in a little short story that was published in the journal Nature (6 July 2000) called ‘The Abdication of Pope Mary III’, in which the Pope six hundred years from now quits because science has so conclusively proven that her belief system is wrong. Then the Cardinals charged with choosing her replacement throw in the towel, too; they’d gone into the Vatican Palace in their robes to choose her successor, but soon come marching out wearing street clothes. Of course, that begs the question of whether we could actually survive another 600 years without getting over religion.

That said, do I think there could have been a designer for the current universe? Sure, why not? I can imagine that our reality, with its fundamental parameters apparently carefully tweaked to give rise to complex biochemistry, is the product of some vastly advanced experiment. If the designer did exist though, he was a scientist, pure and simple.

ND: I’d like to ask you a question about your creative process. Before you begin writing a novel, do you have a philosophical concept in mind that you want to address, or is the philosophy a byproduct of the science, the characters, or the story itself?

RJS: It’s absolutely the philosophy that comes first. I work out what I want to say thematically, what my arguments are going to be, and then discover the characters and the plot twists that support that while I’m actually writing the book.

ND: Are there any philosophers or specific works of philosophy that have inspired you as a writer or served as a genesis for any of your own work?

RJS: Immanuel Kant is probably the biggest influence on me; the name of the alien T’kna in my novel Calculating God is an anagram for ‘Kant’. As you know, Kant claimed that the three fundamental problems of metaphysics are: “Is the soul immortal?”; “Does God exist?” and “Do we have free will?”

I ended up basing a novel on each of those questions. The Terminal Experiment has a biomedical engineer discovering scientific proof for the existence of the human soul. Calculating God has an alien scientist coming to Earth seeking to prove the existence of a designer for the universe. And my novel Flashforward and the television series of the same name explore free will versus determinism, examining whether, even with foreknowledge of the future, we could change our fates.

And, of course, in writing my current WWW trilogy, starting with Wake, I couldn’t help but be influenced by the French philosopher Pierre Teilhard de Chardin and his notion of the noösphere. [Teilhard’s noösphere is the sphere of thought constituted by the interaction of human minds, which he sees as growing ever more integrated and united as it is drawn towards a historical endpoint he called the Omega point.]

ND: What’s in the future for Robert J. Sawyer?

RJS: I’m currently writing Wonder, the final volume of my WWW trilogy, trying to tie together all the themes of game theory and altruism and consciousness studies and information theory and primate language studies that I’ve seeded in the previous two books. I’m also working on the research for the novel I will write after that. It has the working title Greener Grass, and will be a juxtaposition of philosophers’ zombies with the many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics. I’m having a blast.

• Nick DiChario is the author of two John W. Campbell Memorial award nominated science fiction novels, A Small and Remarkable Life (2006) and Valley of Day-Glo (2008).

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