Books·My Life In Books

6 books that shaped sci-fi author Robert J. Sawyer

To celebrate his formal induction to the Order of Canada, the Red Planet Blues author shares some of the books that have influenced him over the course of his career.
Award winning Sci-Fi author Robert J. Sawyer is officially being appointed to the Order of Canada on Augutst 25. (Bernard Clark/sfwriter.com)

Robert J. Sawyer is a Hugo and Nebula Award-winning sci-fi novelist. He's published 23 books and his short stories have been featured in many notable anthologies. Known as Canada's "dean of science fiction," Sawyer is a self-proclaimed "proud Canadian patriot," who uses Canadian settings and characters whenever he can.

Sawyer was named to the Order of Canada in 2016, and with his formal induction on Aug. 25, 2017, we asked the Triggers and Red Planet Blues author to list some of the books that have influenced him over the course of his career.

Frankenstein by Mary Shelley 

The seminal work in the science fiction genre was first published in 1818. (Hulton Archive/Getty Images, HarperCollins)

"Mary Shelley's novel gave birth to the science-fiction genre; it's the first work of fiction ever about a scientist testing a hypothesis — could electricity be used to reanimate dead matter? Shelley gave the novel a subtitle, The Modern Prometheus, three words that define the genre she created: science giving us the powers of the gods — or nature — and having to deal with the consequences of that act. Next year is the 200th anniversary of the first publication of this wonderful novel, and, therefore, the 200th anniversary of science fiction; I'm throwing a party in honour of that bicentennial."

Gateway by Frederik Pohl

The multiple award-winning novel by famed sci-fi writer Frederik Pohl was first published in 1977. (Random House Publishing Group/Bob Farley/The Washington Post/Indigo.ca)

"I've been lucky enough to win the Hugo Award and the Nebula Award, the two top prizes in the science-fiction field, but I did it with two different novels (Hominids and The Terminal Experiment, respectively). Eighteen authors, though, have won both awards for the same title, and of that select list, Frederik Pohl's Gateway is my favourite; indeed, I think it's the finest science-fiction novel ever written. When I first read it, at age 18, it taught me two things. First, the best science fiction is not just about the grandly cosmic but also about the intimately human. And, second, despite all the writing advice out there to the contrary, it's not necessary that your protagonist by likable or even sympathetic, but rather that he or she simply be truthfully drawn, warts and all, with believable underlying psychology. Pohl, one of the giants of SF, was a high-school dropout, but late in his life I wrote to several U.S. universities in hopes of getting an honorary doctorate bestowed upon him; one of my great regrets is that I failed."

The Enormous Egg by Oliver Butterworth ​

Oliver Butterworth's most famous children's book was published in 1956. (Little, Brown Books for Young Readers)

"I first encountered The Enormous Egg when I was perhaps 10, and have re-read it with pleasure numerous times since. As a kid, you see it's a fun novel about a small-town boy whose hen lays an egg from which a Triceratops emerges, but as an adult you realize with delight that it's a pointed satire of academia, Madison Avenue, and small-town life. I'd wanted to be a paleontologist — and was even accepted to the University of Toronto to study that field — before I made a last-minute decision to give this science-fiction-writing thing a try instead, but even those who don't love dinosaurs will be charmed and amused by this witty classic."

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee ​

This Pulitzer Prize winning work is centred around racial tensions in the American south. (HarperCollins/AP/Indigo.ca)

"I firmly believe no matter how established a writer you are, you can always better your craft. So, earlier this year, I took a four-day intensive course offered by three famous U.S. writing gurus, agent Donald Maass, script doctor Chris Vogler, and thriller writer James Scott Bell. The fourth day was devoted to a structural analysis of Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird, which has been my favourite novel since I first read it 24 years ago, and it was both a pleasure and a horror to re-read it for this course: a pleasure because it's just so damn good, with lyrical language and wonderful characterization, and a horror because the racial injustice it describes is just as prevalent today as it was when the novel was published in 1960.

"I love To Kill a Mockingbird for all the same reasons I love good science fiction. It's not about what it appears to be about on the surface: although it masquerades as a kid's summertime series of adventures, it's really a poignant exploration of racism and injustice. And it pulls you into an alien world — small-town 1930s' Alabama — in a way that makes you question your own here-and-now."

The Time Traveler's Wife by Audrey Niffenegger ​

Audrey Niffenegger's debut novel is a blend of genres, including romance, science fiction and fantasy. (Knopf Canada/Penguin)

"Much science fiction is published without that label being attached to it. Some is great — Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale, for instance — but more often than not when an outsider tries his or her hand at SF, it's a disaster. But not so with Audrey Niffenegger's debut novel The Time Traveler's Wife. Not only is it extraordinarily well-written and moving, but her story of librarian Henry DeTamble, unstuck in time, popping in and out of the life of artist Clare Abshire, pays rigorous attention to the underlying scientific rationale for his temporal peregrinations and the attendant paradoxes.

"When people tell me they haven't read science fiction, I ask them if they've read the Atwood or Niffenegger titles I just mentioned, and often they'll reply, 'Oh, sure — but those aren't science fiction.' Wrong; they absolutely are."

The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett ​

This classic noir mystery novel was first published in 1929. (Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group/AP/Indigo.ca)

"My own science fiction explores inner space far more often than outer space; I'm interested in the science of consciousness more than I am in astrophysics. That shouldn't be surprising: we writers invented the concept of stream-of-consciousness narrative, after all, and the reason prose fiction endures in a world of $100-million films, binge-watched television, and, soon, immersive virtual reality is that it's the only art form that puts you inside another person's head, letting you hear the viewpoint character's thoughts — the inner monologue or dialogue that's held private from everyone else in real life.

"Still, in my latest novel, Quantum Night, I toy with the notion that some people might not have any inner life — that they might be what cognitive scientists call 'philosopher's zombies.' And my novel prior to that, Red Planet Blues, was a hard-boiled detective novel set on Mars. One of the great classics of crime fiction deeply influenced both those books: Dashiell Hammett's masterful The Maltese Falcon. Not only is it the best noir novel ever written, but Hammett pulls off a tour de force: none of his characters have inner lives; we never once are made privy to the thoughts of Sam Spade or Brigid O'Shaughnessy. Instead, Hammett describes every facial tic and hand gesture with cinematic precision; you've probably never read another book story told in this way, and you certainly will never forget this one after you do."

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