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Saturday, August 30th, 2003, was certainly a good day for Robert J. Sawyer. On the afternoon of that Saturday, he won the Aurora Award (Canada's award for SF&F authors) for best short story, shortly before I met up with him for the following chat at TorCon III (the 61st World Science Fiction Convention). That evening Sawyer was presented with a Japanese Seiun award by three bowing delegates in kimonos for his novel Illegal Alien -- a current hit in Japanese translation, but long out of print in North America. Finally, Sawyer was presented with the coveted Best Novel Hugo Award for Hominids, the first book in his trilogy about an alternate Earth where Neanderthals, not Homo sapiens, run the world.

Flushed with victory, Sawyer credited science fiction fandom with giving him his career, his best friends, his wife (SF poet Carolyn Clink) and now the Hugo -- what he called the greatest honour of his life. Sawyer joins a group of only 16 SF authors, including Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke and Frank Herbert, who have won both the Hugo and the Nebula Award for best novel (and who knows who among those 16 have ever won a Seiun).

Later on that night Sawyer could be found leading a sake toast at the room party for a Tokyo WorldCon in 2007.

Back to Saturday afternoon, however: Robert J. Sawyer, fresh from collecting an Aurora for his short story "Ineluctable," was sitting down with me and my shoebox tape recorder for a longish chat about his world-famous interest in the future. As a futurist, Sawyer has written scores of essays, made over 150 television appearances, and served on government panels.

Unlike many in his field (or outside of it), Sawyer believes the future will -- after some rough patches -- end up wonderfully for the human race.

Stephen Humphrey: There's a lot of alarmism about the future, which may or may not be justified. Famously in the last few years it was Bill Joy from Sun Microsystems, with his essay, "The Future Doesn't Need Us."

Robert J. Sawyer: Absolutely.

SH: Who you actually--

RS: Rebutted.

SH: Well, kindly rebutted.

RS: I'm a Canadian. I'm polite. And Margaret Atwood, most recently, who I rebutted to some degree in MacLean's [Canadian news magazine] and in the Ottawa Citizen.

SH: She's always dystopic, isn't she?

RS: She is. And I am not. As you'd see from the title of that essay for CBC [Canada's national radio and television broadcaster] -- it was actually a commentary on CBC radio, "The Age of Miracle and Wonder." Of course, it's a line from a Paul Simon song, but I firmly believe that, the world becomes a better place, perhaps not every week or every month, but every year it does, incrementally. And if you compare this decade to the previous decade, or this century to the previous century, we're way better off, always -- and this is almost always attributable to advances in science and technology. I don't see any reason to think that that's going to change.

It's very easy to be the guy that's crying disaster, because everybody wants to hear about disaster. It's harder to be the guy who is saying the world is getting better, and that we're going to cure disease and cure hunger and cure poverty and cure intolerance -- but we will. I'm confident that we will, and as I get a little bit of a platform to say these things directly -- in my fiction, and also when places like the CBC and MacLean's give me an opportunity to expound on them, that's the message I've got.

I'm an optimist in a field that has some of its most famous voices being pessimistic.

SH: In one of your essays you framed it with the famous Captain Kirk speech--

RS: Yes. "Risk is our business. That's what this starship is all about. That's why we're aboard her." Yes. I still get tingly about that one.

SH: You're saying that there are positive advances every year. Is your mindset, "Okay, that was a plus, that was a minus, that was a plus. . .", or are you looking at every year saying, "Oh, that was a great achievement."

RS: I'm not blind to the negatives. William Gibson says the job of the science fiction writer is to be profoundly ambivalent about changes in science and technology.

SH: He just thinks it's chaos, right?

RS: He thinks it's chaotic, but he also says when something new comes down the pike we should look at it with a jaundiced eye, and I don't think he's wrong about that. I just think the reality is that on balance, the pluses outweigh the minuses, but I'm not unaware of the minuses. One of my favourite plays and movies is Inherit the Wind, and Spencer Tracy in the movie version gives a great speech: "Yes, you can have the airplane, but the clouds will stink of gasoline." There always is a trade-off, but on balance, even though the airplane was the weapon of mass destruction on September 11th, nonetheless the world is a better place because we're able to travel and see things, and airlift in supplies, and have air ambulances and all those things. As we celebrate this year, the 100th anniversary of powered flight, only a true ideologue with a fringe agenda could possibly construe flight as an ultimately negative thing.

To go back to Captain Kirk's speech, it starts with, "They used to say, 'If man were meant to fly, he'd have wings.'"

SH: One of the funniest things is that there were people writing essays saying man cannot fly, after the Kitty Hawk flight. For years after there were people, in the face of this--

RS: A friend of mine named Michael Rennick is in pre-production for a TV series for Discovery Channel, with the working title of "Bullshit," which is why people continue in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary, to believe incorrect things. His pilot episode example is the people who still believe the moon landing is a hoax. You talk about Kitty Hawk -- there are people today, more than thirty years after the moon landing, who say it never really happened.

SH: Here's a question -- one of the three hot-button things you hit on -- everybody hits on, actually. There's artificial intelligence, which you're worried about; there's nanotechnology; and there's biotechnology. You're confident that these things can eradicate -- well, death--

RS: Yes! Death is the ultimate disease. Death is not something that's inevitable, and not necessarily something that's even beneficial in the long term for even species survival. There's an argument that you need to churn the populace periodically to get new ideas, but the alternative argument is that we gain perspective and wisdom. And we live in a world where our acts have consequences that last for decades, centuries and millennia.

As I said on a panel here at the convention yesterday: if we die today, archeologists a thousand years from now will be digging up our toilets, because porcelain is one of the most durable materials we've ever developed.

We need a long-term perspective that a one-century or less lifespan simply doesn't confer. If we're going to exist for millennia or millions of years, or hopefully billions of years, as a species in the future, we can't do it by allowing wisdom to only accumulate for a handful of decades before it's snuffed out on the individual scale.

So yes, I believe that we're going to -- not only be able to, but we will have the evolutionary imperative that will require us to eliminate the shortness of the human lifespan. Nanotechnology will allow that by going into our arteries and veins and clearing out the plaque and fixing blood clots in our brains, and undoing the damage that causes Alzheimer's. Biotechnology will do that by making our diseases disappear.

These are very positive technologies. Granted, we have to be leery of unbridled and profit-oriented exploitation of any new technology. But we can't all be Michael Crichton saying, "Here's a new technology and if anything can go wrong it will."

SH: A lot of what you're saying is quite utopian. One thing is that you seem to be pretty confident of your immortality and my immortality--

RS: Actually I'm not.

SH: If we can make it another twenty years.

RS: That's right. My brother-in-law's wife is pregnant right now. I'm confident that she -- and through other miracles of modern science we know it's going to be a she in advance of the birth, think of that -- that she is going to live for at least 200 years. I'm confident of that.

Sadly, I'm a guy who's 43 years old, and there's already been a lot of damage to my system and my heart and so forth. Whenever you talk about engineering deadlines: for me, the deadline for curing death is 40 years, plus or minus twenty -- I might make it sixty years, I might be dead in twenty. Okay. Things slip, projects go bad. It is one of the sad ironies of my life as a futurist that I may live in one of the last generations that will know an early death.

SH: I've been trying to rifle through a few sci-fi books I haven't read in advance of this convention. One of them is The Eyes of Heisenberg by Frank Herbert. That has a future where biotechnology is miraculous, but the politics that have evolved through that have created an immortal upper class and an ignorant, short-lived underclass. It's a society in which the darker power relationships of human beings have derailed what could have been a shared miracle for everybody.

What if [the only ones] who have access to the nanotechnology are large corporations, powerful entities, people that amass a large amount of wealth and power for themselves. How do you react to these things, which are the possible--

RS: Well, remember the Herbert novel you cite is an old novel.

SH: '66, yeah. . . .

RS: And Frank Herbert is, sadly, dead. But if you read Frank Herbert's oeuvre you see that he was very much a believer in hierarchies and upper and lower classes. It's in the Dune trilogy, it's in everything that he writes. I don't. I'm a product of a different generation -- a younger generation, a more egalitarian generation than I think Herbert grew up in. We're all products of our time. And I think that the tendency has always been toward the elimination of class distinctions. Certainly in Canada -- it's one of our great goals, is to have a classless, just society.

Everybody hates Bill Gates because he's an aberration, because he's one of a handful of guys out of 6 billion who is stinking, stinking rich, who is so far off the bell curve from the rest of us in terms of his accumulation of personal wealth, that he doesn't belong in the world that we've created.

I think that by the end of the 21st century we will have eliminated [need and want].

Need and want and the acquisition of wealth are all based on economies of scarcity, which we have been stuck with to this point. We are reaching the point where, whether it will be cold fusion or another technology, we will have limitless energy by the end of this century, Whether it will be nanotechnology or another technology, we will have the ability to produce any material good in any quantity we want for virtually no cost by the end of this century. At that point the issue of rich vs. poor, of haves and have-nots disappears.

In terms of nanotechnology, which is the specific example you cited, we have leaks going on in corporations all the time. There's always some guy. I just came back from Europe, where the biggest story was David Kelly, the British scientist who killed himself after being the mole who leaked the intelligence about [the British government] having "sexed up" -- to use the British phrase -- the dossier on Iraq. Nobody can keep secrets anymore, including the secrets of nanotechnology.

The beauty of strong nanotechnology of the purest form, is that it's the idea of taking any raw material, which is just protons, neutrons and electrons, and rearranging it into any other desired good, no matter what that good is. Whether it's diamonds, a bucket of Kentucky Fried Chicken or Claudia Schiffer, it's still just protons, neutrons and electrons. The beauty of the thing that does that -- which is called, in nanotechnological circles, an assembler, is that assemblers can make other assemblers. Once you have one, you can make as many as you want. The idea that somebody -- whether it's IBM or Bill Gates or the Sultan of Brunei -- is going to be able to hold onto the assemblers and keep them from anybody else, presupposes the idea that somebody isn't going to be able to get one of them out into the general public and make a billion of them out of the nearest mountain, which is also just protons, neutrons and electrons. It is a technology that, by its nature, is egalitarian. It has to become universally deployed, and almost instantaneously.

SH: I'm trying all the devil's advocate stuff out. I forget who said it but there's the famous grey mass or something like that--

RS: The grey goo.

SH: The grey goo! That's it. Where you could accidentally have nano-assemblers making the world into whipped cream before you can stop them.

RS: We are going to have nano-assemblers, if they are physically possible -- and there is some debate. You mentioned Heisenberg earlier on. He's one of the culprits in some of the debates. When you get down to really fine-level atomic level processes there is an inherent uncertainty, and that puts a cap on what you can actually do in terms of fine manipulation, but assuming that we've solved the physical problems, yes, the grey goo scenario is something to watch out for. On the other hand, the anti-grey goo scenario. . .You know, there's the old hole in the bucket song: "There's a hole in the bucket, dear Liza, dear Liza; Well, fix it dear Henry, dear Henry". . . We may go through a period of a century or more where we're playing this game of, ooh, we turned everything into grey goo; well, we'd better turn it all into green goo; well, we'd better turn the green goo into red goo; well, we'd better turn the red goo into edible plants; well, we'd better do this, we'd better do that, we'd better do the other thing. We're going to have endless numbers of that sort of thing going on. Yes, there are going to be early mistakes.

We thought we couldn't possibly live past the adolescence of the nuclear era; well, we did. We thought we couldn't possibly live past the adolescence of the genetic engineering era; well, we are right now, and we'll live past the adolescence of the nanotechnology era.

SH: It seems like an important race -- and this is, I guess, one you're confident will be won, one way or the other -- is whether society will gain new perspectives, as you're saying, or egalitarian perspectives, in time to use the technology that it develops. I understand that the two go hand in hand. A really good example is from the Apollo program, when people got a picture of the Earth.

RS: Apollo 8 -- Christmas, 1968, was the first time any human beings ever got far enough away from this planet to see it as a sphere, and that changed the world's consciousness enormously. There's no photographic image, nothing that changed human consciousness, the gestalt, human thought, more, than that picture that was taken in 1968 from Apollo 8.

SH: And that's an example of technology changing consciousness. I guess the problem, which leads to actual dystopic things, like the Nazis, is when consciousness does not keep pace with technology, when people are malicious, or they're reactionary, but they have all these gadgets that can do things. . .

RS: It was technology that ended World War II. World War II ended with the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It wasn't technology that let Adolf Hitler come to power. I don't think you can lay WW II on the doorstep of science and technology. I reject the premise that Nazism is a personification of science.

SH: Oh, no, it's not really a personification of science. I was only trying to find an example--

RS: Find a better one.

SH: --of a situation where a reactionary consciousness has technological advancement. I guess that's what I'm positing, that there is the danger that -- and how would you respond to that -- that people who do not have the best of intentions would have enormous technological power.

RS: Yes, that certainly is a scary thing, which is why we have to concentrate on the uplifting of consciousness, and on ethical and moral teachings and concerns. That said, there was not one cent spent during the Manhattan project on the social and moral ramifications of building an atomic bomb. It was just done.

Now, it doesn't sound like a lot, but -- I think 3% of the budget for the Human Genome Project was for the social and ethical ramifications of genetic research. It was part of the process. We do, in fact, spend money, now, noodling around with these ideas, and we understand that unbridled science is a bad thing. Unbridled anything is a bad thing.

The beauty of science fiction is that it lets us for a very small investment of money -- believe me -- hire people who are going to spend an awful lot of time doing a lot of high-level thinking about the consequences of our science and technology. And we have a literature that is 20-30 years ahead of the reality in thinking about the moral and ethical ramifications of nanotechnology, artificial intelligence, and genetic engineering. Nobody who reads science fiction was the least bit flustered when Dolly was cloned.

SH: One of the interesting things about genetic engineering which is different, is that people are constantly looking at the moral implications of it. One of the things people always say on the news, or in these discussions, when they're talking about genetic engineering, is "like a science fiction novel." They actually reference science fiction in discussions about cloning.

RS: The Federal Department of Justice flew me to Ottawa earlier this year -- a science fiction writer for a think thank with jurists, with geneticists, with people from industry and people from the church, to talk about what Canada's laws for genetics should be. Absolutely science fiction is a vigorous part of the dialogue, and this is being recognized as being so in industry, in government, and by regular human beings.

 

Copyright © 2003 Stephen Humphrey

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Stephen Humphrey is a freelance writer and poet living in Toronto, Canada. His poetry cycle, "Blue Angels," is expected to be released in the spring, assuming the angels are actually on his side.



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