Robert J. Sawyer has made a career of popularizing some of Canada’s most exciting science facilities—from Sudbury’s SNOLAB in his book Hominids to TRIUMF in End of an Era to the Royal Ontario Museum in Calculating God—by setting them in the high adventure of science fiction. With a keen interest in providing accurate depictions of these labs and their work, the Hugo Award-winning author often tours such institutions and talks with the people who are creating the breakthroughs that inspire the “what-if” scenarios in his books.
In June, Sawyer will become the first writer-in-residence at Saskatoon’s Canadian Light Source (CLS), spending two months around the stadium-sized synchrotron, a high-powered accelerator that gathers unprecedented detail of the structural and chemical properties of materials at the molecular level. InnovationCanada.ca (IC) sat down among the starship models and dinosaur skeletons in Sawyer’s Mississauga, Ont., home to find out how he plans to approach his latest excursion into the realm where science fiction meets real-life research.
IC: Your books seem to be a series of love letters to some of Canada’s most prominent science institutions. Did you purposely set out to feature these places?
RS: I actually wanted to work in a world-class science institution but realized the job prospects for making a living as a writer were better than making a living in the area of science I wanted to write about. I love the entree that being a science fiction writer gives me to these institutions. One of the most exciting days of my life was touring the Sudbury Neutrino Observatory. Beforehand, I called the chief scientist and said, “I’m writing a novel and want to set it in part at SNOLAB.”
He said, “We’ve had people ask about this before, and we always turn them down.” But I started to convince him. I knew my stuff. I understood what a neutrino observatory was. I understood what a solar neutrino was, which was the area they were working in. I could hear him turning around.
At the end of the conversation, I said, just as an aside, “In the opening of the book, I want to destroy the observatory.” I thought he was either going to slam the phone down or open the door wide.
He said, “Oh, well, you know how you could do that?” And he gave me the idea I used in the book.
IC: What is the draw to the CLS?
RS: We need more world-class science in this country. We need it to keep our world-class minds. We need to have institutes like Perimeter [Institute for Theoretical Physics, Waterloo, Ont.], the Royal Tyrrell Museum [ Drumheller, Alta.] and SNOLAB [Sudbury, Ont.] in this country if we want to keep our brightest innovators by giving them meaningful jobs. I’m the poster boy for that. In 1979, I was looking for such an opportunity and couldn’t find one. My choices were to leave for the U.S. to become a paleontologist or become a science fiction writer. Canadians who want to be world class in their field should be able to do it in Canada. The Canadian Light Source is a great example of that in action.
IC: How did you score your upcoming residency?
RS: I was on a cross-Canada book tour in 2005. In Saskatoon, the publisher asked if there was anything I wanted to see. I’d been reading about this particle-accelerator facility in the Prairies. It turned out that the director of industrial science there was a big science fiction fan. He knew my work and gave us a personal tour, and we ended up going out to a local pub afterwards. While we were there, a Daily Planet episode in which I was being interviewed was on the TV. So here I was talking to these guys from the Canadian Light Source, and it just kind of dropped out of the air: “Would you come to be writer-in-residence?” They’d never had the position before. They’d had a visual artist-in-residence, and it went quite well.
IC: So how does the residency work?
RS: It’s divided into two parts. First, I’ll be immersed in the ambience of the labs, down where the actual accelerator is, looking at the facility and its people and soaking that in. Pretty much just being left alone to take things in and write. The second half is structured so that I can meet with people from the CLS, the scientific community, the support staff, the administration and anyone who’s got a hankering to write better fiction or non-fiction. One of the important things the CLS gets is that if you’re going to be this oddball, high-tech, think-tank institution, you can’t be foreign to the community. So I will be there meeting with the general public too. Within the constraints of the residency, I’ll make one-hour appointments with anyone in the community who wants advice, encouragement or feedback.
IC: How likely is it that the CLS will find its way into an upcoming novel?
RS: ABC is making a TV pilot out of my novel Flash Forward, which takes place at CERN [the Swiss-based particle-physics lab]. Let’s just say that as we’re mapping out how the series will go, other particle-accelerator facilities become involved with the overall story arc. I will be writing more about particle physics—in part for the TV series but certainly for other novels.
IC: So we’re at CERN, and then, “Meanwhile, in Canada …”?
RS: You’re just going to have to wait and see.
IC: What else is on your radar for story inspiration?
RS: I just got invited to MIT’s artificial intelligence lab, where Marvin Minsky, the father of AI, gave me a personal tour. What more could you ask? In Canada, I’d love to go to TRIUMF [Canada’s National Laboratory for Particle and Nuclear Physics, in Vancouver]—so send me an invite guys!