Robert J. Sawyer on 'the recipe for baking up a universe'

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First aired on Fresh Air (07/04/13)

Bestselling science fiction author Robert J. Sawyer recently dropped by Fresh Air to talk about his latest novel, Red Planet Blues, and about a recent scientific discovery that he wrote about in a prescient earlier novel. FastForward was set at the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) in Switzerland. CERN has been in the news lately because, thanks to the use of the facility's Large Hadron Collider, scientists have been able to confirm the existence of the Higgs particle, or Higgs boson, considered the building block of the universe.


In Fast Forward, which was published in 1999, Sawyer's fictional researchers are on the hunt for the Higgs particle. Sawyer chose that subject for the book after looking into "unsolved problems in physics. This was one of the big ones," he said. "The Higgs particle, or the Higgs boson, are terms for this thing that endows other particles with mass. And mass is the thing that provides gravity...Fundamentally, this particle and the field that it generates is the thing that makes the universe bind together."

The discovery of the particle, which had been theorized for decades, is "huge," according to Sawyer. "We have confirmed that we're really accurate in understanding how the universe works. The standard model of particle physics says that the universe consists of a very small number of particles, 12, and a very small number of forces, four. If we're correct about those 12 particles and those four forces and understand how they interact, properly, we have the recipe for baking up a universe," he explained. "The missing link was what causes them to interact in terms of gravity and mass. Higgs was postulated as the mechanism of gravity, but hadn't been observed [until now]."

When asked what the discovery means for science fiction, Sawyer said that although some writers have liked to believe they could dream up "all kinds of things that physics doesn't allow for," the Higgs discovery makes it clear that there are rules that govern the way the universe works. "Science fiction becomes more plausible because it's more constrained to the real rules of the universe." Those rules, he added, make things like time travel implausible.

In Sawyer's view, "science fiction's power, if it has any, is that it gives us reasonable extrapolations, not wild and woolly stuff." He blames Star Wars, with its blasters and weird aliens, for the widespread public misconception about the nature of science fiction. "It is about really understanding science, and therefore nature, and trying to make practical and reasonable predictions about where we're going to be a year from now, a decade from now, a century from now, millennia from now," he said.

Sawyer is already well known to science fiction readers, but his new book is a bit of a departure. Red Planet Blues "is a hard-boiled detective noir novel set on Mars," he said. "It's my attempt to fuse those two genres." He pointed out that there's a bigger audience for mystery writing than for science fiction, and he wanted to try his hand at the conventions of noir fiction, with its "hard-boiled detective, snappy, sarcastic dialogue, [and] femme fatales." Sawyer said that his core audience has been enthusiastic about the book, but he's also hoping to attract readers who don't usually read science fiction.

He also expects that Red Planet Blues won't be his only foray into the hybrid genre. "I would love to write more about my hardboiled gumshoe on Mars, Alex Lomax," Sawyer said. "So there probably will be a sequel."

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