Science fiction author Robert Sawyer holds his book Calculating God in 2000. His next book will feature themes about China. ((Canadian Press))

Canadian author Robert J. Sawyer says science fiction is giving the Chinese people a means of openly debating social issues that might otherwise be taboo.

Sawyer was speaking from Chengdu, where he was feted at the China International Science Fiction and Fantasy Festival and Conference.

"Science fiction has always used metaphors and disguises, talking about alien civilizations or the future," he said in an interview with Q's Jian Ghomeshi.

"It has always been a way to talk about issues without ever blatantly saying the name of the accused."

At the conference, Sawyer was presented with a Galaxy Award naming him the most popular science fiction writer as chosen by readers, and found himself mobbed by fans.

"It was unbelievable. I'm published in 13 languages around the globe and I have never been mobbed. I was literally mobbed like a rock star," he said.

The conference itself was sponsored by the ministry in charge of science and technologybecause itunderstands that young people are often drawn to careers in technology by reading science fiction, Sawyer said.

It was a curious twist for the popular writer of 17 novels and more than 40 short stories, who says genre fiction often gets short shrift from Canadian cultural agencies.

"A lot of people forget that the origin of science fiction in the U.S. was in the post-First World War period when there was a real interest to get people into technical careers," Sawyer said.

"What's happening now in China is very much the same thing."

People seem optimistic and joyful and believe technology will improve their lives,with a faith that seems to have been lost in the West, he said.

"And the reason is that every single year, demonstrably, their life is better thanit was the year before and they see science and technology as very much a part of that," he said.

Sawyer believes that optimism accounts, in part, for his big following in China.

"There's no doubt that they are delighted with positive visions of the future. … I am known for an upbeat, almost transcendent note in my books and that's very much been embraced here," he said.

China's own science fiction writers are still writing about robots and spaceships in books similar to those created in the West about 30 years ago.

"They're ripe for a transition to a much more interesting sociology and social impact in the softer sciences," he said.

That kind of writing will also allow them to write about subjects that might otherwise be too sensitive in a civilization that doesn't allow open discussion, he said.

Sawyer says his next book, which he is writing in Dawson City as a writer in residence, will look more closely at China.

"The book I'm working on now has major themes set in China and deals with the future of the Communist party and the future of the Chinese people," he said.