Robert J. Sawyer, author of “The Shoulders of Giants”

What’s was the genesis of the story–what was the inspiration for it, or what prompted you to write it?

“The Shoulders of Giants” was originally commissioned in 1999 for a theme anthology; the working title was Space Colonies, but it got changed to Star Colonies, which I guess meant all of us were thinking bigger than just cities on the Moon and so forth. John Helfers and Martin Harry Greenberg were the editors and DAW was the publisher. I liked doing work for theme anthologies, because it forced me to write stories that I’d never have otherwise written. My novels had moved to being all near future or present day on Earth, so getting a chance to write far future off in space was most welcome.

My wife Carolyn and I rented a cottage shortly after I got the commission, and in that rustic, wooded setting, I found myself thinking about pioneers and recalling previous trips to cottages as a teenager, during which I’d read much classic SF.

The germ for this story came from Marshall T. Savage’s fascinating nonfiction book The Millennial Project, in which he said only a fool would set out for a long space voyage on a generation ship.

During the same cottage trip, I wrote the outline for my Neanderthal Parallax trilogy of novels.

Was this story a particularly challenging one to write? If so, how?

Those who’ve read my recent novels have seen that I don’t have much interest in antagonists; I think the idea that all fiction is fundamentally about conflict, and you need a good guy and a bad guy is simply not true; my latest novel Rollback has no antagonist, for instance, and I don’t really think there’s one in my upcoming Wake, either. Well, I wrote “The Shoulders of Giants” in 1999, when I was experimenting with making exciting fiction that only had good guys in it; that was a challenge, but I like to think I pulled it off.

Also, I’ve long felt that theme anthologies were getting short shrift; reviewers routinely ignored them, and most readers seemed to forget about them come awards time. But I always tried to do first-rate work for them, and many of my most-successful stories were written for them: “Just Like Old Times,” which has been reprinted all over the world and won me both Canada’s top SF award and its top mystery award, was from Dinosaur Fantastic [Mike Resnick and Martin Harry Greenberg, eds.]; “Identity Theft” won Spain’s top SF award and was a Hugo finalist, and it came from Down These Dark Spaceways [Mike Resnick, ed.]; I got France’s top SF award for “You See But You Do Not Observe” from Sherlock Holmes in Orbit [Resnick and Greenberg again]; and my Bram Stoker Award nomination was for my piece from Strange Attraction [Edward E. Kramer, ed.].

“Shoulders of Giants” is one of my very best stories, I think, and although it didn’t win any awards, it was nominated for the Aurora — Canada’s top SF award — and optioned for a film. Again, the notion that original anthologies mostly contained second-rate work was a canard, and I simply wanted to do my part, with each story, to make it clear that it wasn’t true.

Most authors say all their stories are personal. If that’s true for you, in what way was this story personal to you?

The story of the colonists aboard the Pioneer Spirit is my attempt to capture the sense of wonder that drew me into our genre in the first place. The title, of course, is a tip of the hat to Asimov, Clarke, Clement, Herbert, Niven, and all the others upon whose shoulders the SF writers of my generation are fortunate enough to stand.

What kind of research did you have to do for the story?

Oh, the usual: number-crunching to make sure I got the relativistic math right; this is a hard-SF story, but it doesn’t actually have a lot of hard science in it, even though if you took out the central hard-SF notion of relativistic time dilation, there’d be no story at all.

What is the appeal of this type of fiction–stories that take place in interstellar societies? Why do so many writers–or you yourself–write about it? Why do readers and film viewers love it so much?

H.G. Wells taught us long ago that science fiction is always about the present day, but in disguise. His Eloi and Morlocks are the British leisure and working classes; his striding Martian invaders were British colonial forces. By hiding what you’re really talking about, you can get past people’s prejudices and make profound points with SF — and one of the best ways to hide it is by setting it off Earth, with other species or on other worlds.

What are some of your favorite examples of interstellar SF, and what makes them your favorites?

Well, let’s come clean: we’re talking about a story being reprinted in an anthology craftily called Federations that’s scheduled to appear around the time of the new Star Trek film. For me, and lots of other people, our favorite interstellar SF is Star Trek, and I won’t be coy about it. Beyond that, I love the Known Space novels and short stories of Larry Niven — but even those have a Trek connection for me, because I first discovered Larry’s work when he wrote an episode of the animated Star Trek featuring the Kzinti called “The Slaver Weapon.” I loved Larry’s world-building and the complex mosaic the stories make, each one revealing a piece of a greater whole. I suppose in the end what draws us to interstellar federations is their scope — the vastness is, quite literally, awe-inspiring.

To learn more about Rob, visit his website.