Robert Sawyer Talks About Science Fiction

Robert Sawyer said, “I care deeply and passionately about this genre [science fiction]” during a presentation I attended at the Ontario Library Association Conference. And it was obvious he does.

I was, however, more than a little surprised by the passion he exhibits to defend his vision for the SciFi genre–although I have to agree my favourite Scifi books reflect his view of science fiction as a social commentary.

SciFi graphic

Sawyer is a writer concerned that science fiction is losing its impact, and that it became diluted with those famous words from the Star Wars opening crawl, “A long time ago, in a galaxy far far away…”

According to Sawyer, the patterning of the Star Wars crawl after the standard “Once upon a time…” opening in fairy tales turned modern science fiction into fairy tales and escapism. And when it became a fairy tale, science fiction ceased to be social commentary.

To be honest, I’ve never even watched one of the Star Wars movies, so I guess I’m standing with at least a few toes in Sawyer’s camp even though I loved several of the Star Trek series.

Sawyer’s Perspective on the Growth of the Science Fiction Genre

According to Sawyer, science fiction was born nearly 200 years ago (March 11, 1818) when Mary Shelley’s novel, Frankenstein, was published. The defining features were that the main character was a scientist and he applied the scientific method.

If Mary Shelley is the mother of science fiction, then H.G. Wells and Jules Verne are its fathers writing on such things as colonialism and social justice–the haves and the have nots–through vividly imagined worlds and plots.

Fast forward to Canadian literary author, Margaret Atwood’s novels, The Handmaid’s Tale and Oryx and Crake, and you find a literary author fighting to have her fiction not labelled as science fiction, when obviously they’re both social commentaries with settings developed through scientific research.

Sawyer himself was able to participate in bringing one of his novels, Flashforward, to television in the series, Flash Forward. The series (which I loved!) was produced and aired through the 2009-2010 season, and even though Sawyer said it beat the ratings for Big Bang Theory, it was cancelled after its 24 episodes.

The series followed Sawyer’s phenomenal success as a science fiction writer. In fact, only one Canadian writer (and only seven in the world) has won all three of the top international awards for science fiction–Robert Sawyer. Want to read one?

  • 1995 Nebula Award for The Terminal Experiment
  • 2003 Hugo Award for Hominids
  • 2006 John W. Campbell Memorial Award for Mindscan.

The Market for Science Fiction Today

Regardless of whether you think the science fiction genre has been diluted or expanded by including more sub-genres, the good news is that it’s a good-selling genre for writers. Sawyer even indicated, “Science fiction exports well,” saying he’s been one of the best selling SF authors in China.

So how popular is science fiction with today’s readers? Very!

Science fiction as a genre is most often influenced by our contemporary society – its concerns, its worries about the future, its current fascinations, its technology. We’ve reached a point now where, stepping beyond the bleak future envisioned in movies from the 70’s and 80’s, sci-fi is pretty much real. — Alex Billington in A New Era of Sci-Fi is Upon Us – Looking Ahead to Worlds That Await (published at:

Science fiction authors have indeed been looking ahead to worlds that await in the past few years, with dystopian novels selling millions of copies. Who hasn’t read the Hunger Games or Divergent trilogies, or watched one of the movies? Something booksellers haven’t missed is that these dystopias are, for the greater part, written for the YA market but read by a crossover audience of teens and adults.

After dystopias, steampunk is the next “hot” sub-genre of science fiction and it has a number of sub-genres of its own. Steampunk, however, with its readily identified Victorian era setting, has inspired hundreds of conferences worldwide and even whole lines of clothing. Now that’s a genre making an impact on readers!

And if you’re an independent e-book author, the news is just as positive. These are 2014 survey statistics from the Author Earnings website:

Author Earnings by Genre
Author earnings by genre. Chart created and shared by a Creative Commons License from:

As you can see, while romance led the sales for e-books, science fiction and fantasy books sold approximately 4 novels for every 10 romances sold.

So, even though it may be difficult to separate the science fiction from the fantasy, readers don’t seem to mind if SF just stands for speculative fiction that contains what purists would call elements from both. And while you’ll probably never see any fantasy in Sawyer’s novels–or one of Atwood’s labelled SF at all–readers are enjoying having so many great options to choose from.

If you have an opinion on what kinds of stories should be labelled as science fiction please do let us know!

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