Sci-fi writer Robert Sawyer imagines the future of Canadian science

Robert J. Sawyer makes the Vulcan salute to an off-camera audience

Sci-fi writer Robert Sawyer imagines the future of Canadian science

This country’s extraordinary real-life research facilities provide a wondrous backdrop for Sawyer’s imagined futures, proving you don’t have to stray far from home to be inspired by leading-edge science
February 25, 2019

Award-winning author Robert Sawyer dreamed of a career in science, but was discouraged by the state of Canadian research in the 1970s. So he decided to write science fiction instead. These days, he often sets his novels in Canada’s remarkable research labs, including the Canadian Light Source (where he was writer-in-residence) and SNOLAB (where part of his Hugo Award-winning novel Hominids is set). Speaking to a room full of researchers at a workshop for the country’s national research facilities in November 2018, he surveyed the state of Canadian science institutions from the time he was entering university in 1979 through to the world-class installations we have today. Prime Minister Sir Wilfrid Laurier said the 20th century would belong to Canada; Sawyer tells us why, as far as science is concerned and thanks to the CFI, he was off by a hundred years.

[SAWYER] I started out to be a scientist in this country in the 1970s. I was graduating from high school in 1979, and I wanted to be a dinosaurian paleontologist.

[NARRATOR] This is Robert J. Sawyer, award-winning Canadian science fiction writer. He has written more than twenty novels, and his books can be read in over two dozen languages. Here he speaks to a room of about 85 Canadian researchers at a workshop hosted by the Canada Foundation for Innovation in Ottawa in November 2018.

[SAWYER] My father taught economics at the University of Toronto, and he said, “Whatever you want to do, do a little research. Find out what the job opportunities are before you invest.” Because if you’re gonna become a scientist, you’re talking ten years to get your PhD. You’re going to invest a lot of time. So I started looking around, and at that time, 1979, there were precisely three dinosaurian palaeontologists in Canada. There are only 24 full-timers in the entire world. And so what I thought was a crazy dream, which was being an internationally successful science fiction writer, based in Toronto, based in Canada, actually turned out to be more practicable as a career choice than choosing science in this country in the 1970s. 

[NARRATOR] After he wrote his first novel in 1988, Sawyer was still troubled about not having become a scientist. He quotes David Suzuki, who was also reflecting on the state of Canadian science at the time.

[SAWYER] He had said this in ’87. So, again, just to give us some perspective here, this was 31 years ago — “I was soon to see the difference between Canada and the United States. My American peers, starting out as assistant professors like me, could expect their first grants in the 30- to 40 thousand dollar range. I was told that National Research Council of Canada grants start at about 25 hundred dollars.”

So there’s no question that, at the time I was thinking of becoming a scientist, and indeed in the early days of science in this country, we were undervaluing it. We didn’t have a lot of people who were making full-time careers in science. We were underfunding our institutions. We were depreciative of the great intellectual base we were producing here in Canada. 

Times change though. And I've been privileged as a science fiction writer to watch those changes. In 2002, a novel of mine came out called Hominids, which is set in large part at what was then called the Sudbury Neutrino Observatory, and is now — because it has widened its mandate — SNOLAB.

[NARRATOR] SNOLAB is a unique underground research facility in Sudbury, Ontario. Located in a nickel mine two kilometers underground, the lab specializes in neutrino and dark matter physics. In 2015, Canadian astrophysicist, Arthur McDonald, and his research partner won the Nobel Prize in Physics for their discovery that subatomic particles known as neutrinos have mass. 

[SAWYER] And I remember, very vividly, calling up Art McDonald, and I said, “You know, I want to write a novel set …” And he said, “Oh man, we had a mystery writer come here. We weren’t really happy with what they did, I don’t know.” And he said, “What do you want to do?” And I said, “Well, in the first chapter, I want to destroy the neutrino detector.” And he said, “You know how you can do that?” [SAWYER AND AUDIENCE LAUGH]

And I actually used his scenario. So he immediately got engaged. And I loved the fact that, when I was writing this novel, I was able to … I was looking for a facility that was world-class, and unlike when I started writing in the late 80s, by the early 2000s, I could look around and have my pick of them to write and set novels at. But I started with the Sudbury Neutrino Observatory, as really, it’s a wonderful, amazing, facility. If you get the chance to go, go down. Have a look.

I learned that SNOLAB, has the world’s deepest flushed toilets in the world. And I felt bad because you have to go down for four hours. That’s the only … so, I held it. I didn’t know. I should have used the toilet because then I would have been part of that record, right? I would have said, “Oh, wow! I used it.” It’s like going to the Louvre and not seeing the Mona Lisa, right? You’re missing out on the whole point of the trip, in some ways.

[NARRATOR] Setting his novels in world-class research facilities is an idea Sawyer has returned to again and again in his fiction. By his twenty-third novel, Quantum Night, he found inspiration in the Canadian Light Source, Canada’s national synchrotron facility in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. 

[SAWYER] It was such a natural to set it there. I’ll just read you a paragraph from the novel. [READING] “Kayla and I made it to the Canadian Light Source a little after 9 a.m. I was amused to note that its street address, on the University of Saskatchewan campus, was …”

What is it? [AUDIENCE MEMBER RESPONDS, SAWYER REPEATS] 44 Innovation Boulevard!

[CONTINUES READING] “I suspect the other occupants of that street were hard-pressed to match the sort of things Kayla described as she gave me a tour. “A synchrotron,” she said, as we walked along, “is an amazingly versatile tool; it’s the Swiss Army knife of particle accelerators. You can tune its output to do almost anything, adjusting energy range, wavelength, resolution, photon brightness, and beam size. The researchers here do work in fundamental physics, archaeology, geology, botany, new fuel sources, materials science — you name it.”

It’s incredible how much world-class, first-rate science is going on here. And that purpose-built machines — in a way that the synchrotron was, in the way that SNOLAB was — expand their mandate as time goes on. Who would have thought, when they were building the synchrotron, that one of its key areas of research would be archaeology? So incredible, once you have the infrastructure in place, what can be accomplished.

[NARRATOR] Sawyer has drawn on powerhouse science facilities for his novels both internationally — including CERN, a particle physics lab in Switzerland — and across Canada, like the paleontology department at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto and the TRIUMF particle accelerator in Vancouver. He is committed to using his fiction to put a spotlight on Canadian science facilities. 

[SAWYER] I never want to look beyond Canada’s borders, unless I can’t fulfil my fictional need in Canada. For instance, I have a novel called Illegal Alien. Illegal Alien is a courtroom drama with an extraterrestrial defendant. The defendant is charged with murder. In the United States, that means the defendant can be facing the death penalty. In Canada, the defendant would be facing a stern talking-to. So I had to set it in the United States to have the dramatic stakes. But in every other circumstance, I look for the Canadian answer. And it has not failed me this century. 

[NARRATOR] Sawyer’s enthusiasm for Canadian science stems from his vantage point of aspiring-scientist-turned-writer. He has witnessed a transformation in research in this country over the decades. He talks about that in an interview after his presentation.

[SAWYER] I think we’re at the best we’ve ever been, but that doesn’t mean we’re going to be the best we’ll ever be, in terms of Canadian science research. I think we’ve got real momentum moving forward, here. We had a Nobel Laureate in physics in 2018. We had a Nobel Laureate in physics three years prior to that. I suspect we’re going to see more and more Nobel medals coming to Canada in the sciences, and we’re also going to see more and more generations in Canadian science students staying here because there’s nowhere better to go.

Because the best place in the world to do fundamental particle research is SNOLAB. The best place in the world to do all the variety of things that you can do with a synchrotron is the Canadian Light Source. The best place in the world to do Arctic research is aboard our icebreaker Amundsen. We have, not only now the best trained minds, but also the best facilities. And what we’re going to see come out of that is a recognition on the world stage. 

[NARRATOR] Sawyer’s optimistic view of where Canadian science is headed carries through to his approach to writing fiction. He sees science fiction as instrumental to influencing how we envision our future, and the role of research in shaping it. 

[SAWYER] I’m passionate about science fiction, not because, as is often erroneously thought, it predicts the future, because that’s not our job. Our job is to predict the multiplicity of possible futures, the smorgasbords of tomorrows, so that we can look and say, “Well that’s terrible! Everybody’s under surveillance all the time, there’s no privacy, there’s no freedom. We don’t want that!” You know, George Orwell reminded us of that. Or, if we start, “Okay, a lot of new technologies in reproduction, but if we just let men control them …” Well, Margaret Atwood gave us a science fiction novel about that — The Handmaid’s Tale, right?

The problem with science fiction generally is those are the easy ones to write. The dystopian — “If this goes on, it’s going to go horribly wrong.” And I felt, what I’m passionate about, is finding the place on that smorgasbord of possibilities, where there hasn’t been a really appetizing one put out. I want to say if we do artificial intelligence right, we can have this world, where everybody is better off. If we do genomics and genetic research and the sharing of genetic information in a socialized medicine context, we can have better, longer, healthier lives for everybody.

I think that when science fiction turns its speculative knack to positive futures, we can energize … it’s all well-and-good that I energize my readers. That’s incidental. I make my living doing that, but it’s incidental. What’s important is when those readers turn around and energize their representatives in government and say, “We want that! Give us that! Give us successful, safe A.I. Give us longer lifespans that are healthy. Give us a way to grow more crops than we ever grew before. Give us this future. Don’t give us the one where the robots take over. Don’t give us the one where we have no reproductive freedom. Don’t give us the one where we have no privacy. Choose those ones …”

And I’m passionate about being the advocate for the positive futures that I know … Because we’ve had 150 years, now 151 years, of doing it in this country, of making positive futures come true. And we try to do it for everybody! And no other country on the globe has our track record of doing it.

[NARRATOR] At the end of Sawyer’s presentation, he reminds the researchers in the room of their part in deciding the future of research in Canada.

[SAWYER] My favorite science fiction writer, Arthur C. Clark, once said, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” I don’t actually think that’s true. I think if you get too far into magic, you’re violating known physical law. But the spirit of it. That the more advanced science becomes … And look at how advanced we are, here in the second decade of the 21st century. Imagine how advanced we’ll be by the fifth decade, or the ninth decade, of this century. The more advanced science becomes, the more miraculous it will seem to the general public. The things that we’re able to do. You guys are getting the funding. You guys have a great custodian agency that you’re responsible to in CFI. You also have a great responsibility to your fellow men and women, to make sure you make the right decisions, as we move ahead into a wonderful future in which I, even I, could have been a scientist, had I been born today.