The man called "the dean of Canadian science fiction" has been named "the most popular foreign author of the year" at the Chengdu International Science Fiction and Fantasy Festival, the largest such event ever held in China.
Mississauga's Robert J. Sawyer, 47, attended the festival on Sunday in Chengdu to receive the non-monetary, fan-voted Galaxy Prize, which recognizes a body of work rather than a specific novel or collection of short stories.
Sawyer is known for his well-researched, "non-geeky" writing; his most recent novel, Calculating God pondered the notion of intelligent design.
Chinese translations of six of Sawyer's 17 novels have been published by Science Fiction World publishers, headquartered in Chengdu, while several of his short stories have appeared in Science Fiction World Magazine, which, with an estimated readership of more than one million, has become the world's most popular sci-fi periodical. An estimated 4,000 Chinese fans attended the four-day fest, organized, in part, by Yang Xiao, editor of Science Fiction World and the daughter of a major Communist official.
In his acceptance speech, Sawyer - who won the prestigious 1993 Hugo Award from the World Science Fiction Society for his novel Hominids - described how "sad" he was in 2001 when it was announced that Beijing, not Toronto, would host the 2008 summer Olympics. "I was on a committee to help decide arts and cultural programs that would be held in conjunction with the Olympics, should they be awarded to Toronto.
"But I forgive you now!" he joked. "I don't know how many of my countrymen and countrywomen will bring home medals next year, but I feel like I've just won a gold ..."
China is infamous for not being a signatory to international copyright accords, with the country being flooded with pirated translations of books by Western authors, including writers of science-fiction. However, in a brief interview yesterday from China, Sawyer said his "intellectual property rights have absolutely been respected" by SF World. "My books are available here in fully legal, licensed editions for which I am being well paid." The magazine-publisher also covered all his expenses and those of his wife, poet Carolyn Clink, "to come to China.... We're being treated like royalty." In fact, said Sawyer, of the 14 or 15 translations of his works worldwide, "the Chinese editions are easily the most beautiful, with the nicest covers, best graphic design and most appealing interior layout."
According to London-based science-fiction scholar Lavie Tidhar, China has experienced a rise in the production of, and interest in, science fiction since the late 1980s. Mao Zedong and his supporters encouraged science fiction as a "literature of development" in the 1950s as China embarked on a program of industrialization. However, the idiom went into decline during the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), only to undergo a revival with the rise of Chairman Deng Xiaoping. Before his death in 1997, Deng proclaimed "science and technology is the number one productive force" and science fiction as a way to spark the scientific imagination.
This practical aesthetic continues to this day, according to Sawyer. "Chinese readers prefer hard science-fiction, with real science rigorously extrapolated," he observed, and "and they're partial to optimistic views of the future." In fact, "the domestic science-fiction is very much at the stage science-fiction was in the 1950s in the United States - lots of spaceships, robots and aliens." Moreover, when it comes to foreign authors, whatever courses taught on science-fiction in Chinese universities tend to focus on "old-guard" authors such as Arthur C. Clarke, Isaac Asimov and Robert Heinlein, instead of Philip K. Dick, Roger Zelazny and Harlan Ellison. Perhaps unsurprisingly, homosexuality, AIDS, drugs, religious practices and positive references to Taiwan are avoided as topics or, if addressed at all, are presented as "a foreign problem," according to Tidhar.
Still, the situation is ripe for change, Sawyer noted. William Gibson's pioneering cyberpunk novel Neuromancer was authorized for official publication in China in 1999 - 15 years after its debut in North America - and it's spawned a host of Chinese emulators. Moreover, "with its tools of disguise and metaphor - setting stories in the future or with alien civilizations - the genre allows discussion of issues that might not be otherwise openly broached," Sawyer said.