Science fiction as philosophical fiction
“It’s the dream that makes artists go on.”
With this line from his novel Flashforward, renowned Canadian author Robert J. Sawyer addressed a crowd of faculty, Trekkies, undergraduates and library staff in Faculty Club’s Great Hall on Nov. 25.
Sawyer was recently awarded his twelfth Canadian Science Fiction ‘Aurora’ award for his novel Watch. He is also the only Canadian ever to win all three of the most prestigious awards for science fiction writing – the Hugo, Nebula and Campbell awards.
Yet, he doesn’t even like the term science fiction.
“I actually like to say that I’m writing philosophical fiction,” said Sawyer, adding, to assorted chuckles, that the moniker Phi-Fi doesn’t seem to be catching on.
Describing science fiction as a literature of ideas, Sawyer stressed that his writings and those of his “intellectual grandfathers” Jules Verne and H.G. Wells should not be dismissed as fantasy.
Instead, they are biting social commentaries, distorted by the lens of science and futurism.
Using the 1969 Planet of the Apes movie as an example, he spoke of science fiction’s ability to draw people into considering ideas like colonialism and race relations without preaching or becoming disengaging.
Speaking out against the ease with which the public dismisses science fiction, Sawyer discussed the freedom to grapple with powerful ideas – fate and determinism, the truth of religion and more – that writing science fiction allows.
Part of his love of the genre, he claimed, came from the ease with which one can “ask big questions” and create imaginative, but realistic scenarios to test possible answers.
His book Flashforward, adapted into an ABC television series in 2009, poked at determinism by describing a world where all people momentarily caught a glimpse of themselves twenty years in the future.
Sawyer concluded his lecture with a reading of an excerpt from Flashforward. He described aspiring creative types – artists, writers, actors – who had glimpsed a future in which their dreams for fame were not realized.
Accepting future mediocrity and normality, they gave up their quest to be different. The reading tied together the themes of Sawyer’s lecture.
The “dream” his character refers to, the ideas that keep painters painting and writers writing, match well to the philosophical ideas that science fiction presents and explores, and are meant to provide visions of the future that encourage readers to question their current lives and world.
Sawyer’s own imaginative world will soon take residence at McMaster. His visit to campus was spurred in part by his decision to donate his archives to the University.
“McMaster has a history of collecting the archives of Canada’s great writers – people like Farley Mowat and Pierre Berton,” said Jeffrey Trecziak, McMaster’s University Librarian, when asked why he had approached Sawyer with this request. “It’s only fitting that Canada’s great science fiction writer takes his place among them.”
The archives will be compiled and transported to McMaster in several instalments over the next few months and is expected to be available by March 2012.