An interview with ROBERT J. SAWYER

Why did you choose to set your novel FlashForward at CERN?

My novel began life as an outline I wrote in 1997; back then, the book had the working title Mosaic—a term that still figures prominently in the promos that have been airing for the TV adaptation. CERN was the setting right from the beginning, right back to that initial outline. I knew from reading the magazine Science News that you were building the Large Hadron Collider, and that it would come online around about 2009, and that it would be the most powerful particle accelerator in history.

And I also knew that human consciousness had to be instantiated physically somehow. For my plot, I was looking for a way to project consciousness forward in time, and for it to be something humans had caused, rather than a natural phenomenon—and the idea of this super-high-energy physics experiment at CERN seemed perfect.

Also, the physical setting of CERN is just so unbelievably cool—that wonderful 27-kilometre-circumference subterranean tunnel just cried out to have a chase scene set in it. I confess to being a bit disappointed when Dan Brown chose to set part of his later novel Angels and Demons at CERN, too—but I honestly think I made much better use of the facility.

Why do you like using real-life science institutions as settings?

I think it's a good way to anchor the reality of what I'm doing in my science-fiction novels. A lot of people confuse science fiction and fantasy, but SF is not just crazy made-up stuff; rather, it is rigorous extrapolation from what we actually do know into things that might plausibly happen.

Setting books at places like CERN, as I did with FlashForward, or at Canada's Sudbury Neutrino Observatory, as I did with my Hugo Award-winning Hominids and its sequels, or at the Human Genome Center at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California, as I did with my genetics thriller Frameshift, signals to the reader that the scientific speculations in the books are to be taken seriously.

And, to my delight, they are. I was the only writer invited by Canada's Federal Department of Justice to participate in its think tank about what Canada's laws related to genetic information and privacy should be; I recently gave an invited talk at the Center for Cognitive Neuroscience at the University of Pennsylvania related to the discussions of consciousness in my books, including FlashForward; and as we do this interview, I'm writer-in-residence—the first one ever, a position created specifically for me—at the Canadian Light Source, Canada's national synchrotron facility.

Does the TV adaptation of your novel also feature CERN?

The FlashForward TV series is being made by ABC Studios, and they're very secretive about precisely what's going to happen in the show, so I can't answer that. But I am creative consultant on the series, and I'm slated to write one of the first-season episodes myself, and David Goyer, who is leading the team adapting my novel, is a very scientifically literate person. I think it's a safe bet that whatever the series ends up doing will not leave people who are scientifically knowledgeable rolling their eyes.

What's the physics behind the flashforwards in your novel?

The high-energy collisions created by the Large Hadron Collider are responsible for the displacement of the moment collectively considered by humanity to be now; that is, they cause the consciousness of all of humanity to actually move forward inn time.

The novel postulates that the Pauli exclusion principle, which says that no two electrons or protons can simultaneously occupy the same quantum state, also applies to the concept of now—there can be no two simultaneous nows, and a displaced sense of consciousness can only occupy a currently unoccupied—consciousness-free—time. I thought that my extension of Pauli's principle was a pretty neat idea when I came up with it.

What do you hope or expect the LHC to actually discover? (Assuming it doesn't cause people to black out worldwide!)

I expect the Large Hadron Collider to isolate the Higgs boson, the particle that endows other particles with mass—which is precisely what the scientists in my novel FlashForward were trying to do, and ultimately succeed in doing in the novel, with the LHC.

FlashForward was first published in 1999, long before this nonsense started circulating about the LHC possibly creating a black hole or otherwise destroying the world. If I'd known that all of that was going to erupt in the media, I might have chosen another setting for my novel! On the other hand, for a time, more people were talking about particle physics and particle accelerators than at any previous moment in history, so I suppose that was good. Who'd have predicted that something as esoteric as the machine designed to find the Higgs boson would be front-page news around the world?

In your novel, it initially appears that every recording device on Earth failed during the blackouts. What was the physics rationale for that?

There seems to be a relationship between physics—especially quantum physics—and the phenomenon of consciousness. In some interpretations of quantum physics, the observer has a very special role, for it's only by observing events that all possible outcomes collapse into just one reality. So the recording devices actually aren't malfunctioning in my novel when there's a two-minute period during which no one on Earth is conscious; rather, they're faithfully recording what uncollapsed reality looks like. I think it's one of the coolest bits of business in the novel, actually.

Given the chance, would you want to see your own future?

Well, in my novel, people get a glimpse of their lives 21.5 years into the future, so the best way to answer your question is for me to go back to my own personal journal from 21.5 years ago, and see what I was doing then ...

Back then, I was making a pretty good living as a freelance nonfiction writer, doing magazine and newspaper articles, marketing materials and newsletters for corporate and government clients, and so on—and I was trying to work up the courage to start turning down work of that sort and concentrate on writing a novel. It seemed like a crazy dream back then—wanting to write science fiction for a living!

If I could have seen the future then—seen that by 2009, I'd have sold twenty novels, have won the top awards in the science-fiction field, that I'd be making a comfortable living from my fiction, and that, miracle of miracles, there'd be a TV series about to premiere on American television based on one of my novels—oh my goodness, yes, I'd have liked to have known that back then. It would have saved me an enormous amount of angst and self-doubt.

For me, the most personal of all the stories in my novel FlashForward is that of Theo Procopides's brother Dimitrios who, like me, had dreamed of becoming a writer—but poor Dimitrios saw that two decades down the road he will not have succeeded at his dream. That was a very difficult scene for me to write.

The novel deals with whether we have free will versus whether our futures are predestined. Which do you personally believe?

One of the arguments I make in the novel is that now—the moment we perceive as being the current one—is not in fact special; it's just where the cursor of consciousness happens to be resting. Or, to use one of the metaphors I employ in my book, time is like a motion-picture film. In any film that's being played, only one frame happens to be illuminated—only one frame is being experienced—right now. But not only are all the early frames already exposed and fixed, so are the ones that haven't unspooled yet. Even if you're watching, say, Citizen Kane for the very first time, the conclusion is already there, and nothing you can do will change it.

Is life actually like that? We just don't know. Certainly, it seems as though we have free will, and it's a comforting illusion—but that may be all that it is: an illusion.

You've said that you can't reveal any of the changes that have been made in adapting your novel, but some, is seems, are public knowledge. At least judging by what's been revealed in the promos, although most of the main characters in your novel are particle physicists or the people who work with them, the leads in the TV series seem to be FBI agents played by Joseph Fiennes and John Cho and medical doctors played by Sonya Walger and Zachary Knighton. Any thoughts on why the change was made?

I neither confirm nor deny any changes—you'll have to watch the series to see for yourself. But I will say this: a funny thing about television is that almost never are scientists portrayed as main characters. Even Mr. Spock was Mr. Spock, not Dr. Spock; the only academic qualification he ever cited was an A7 computer-expert classification (and, yes, I'm geek enough to know that!).

But scientists are like everybody else: they have the same human concerns about family and jobs and so forth, and I don't think what they do professionally is any more difficult to make dramatic and interesting than is the work of lawyers or doctors, and those professions are staples of television. Indeed, I've made my career out of portraying the human-interest stories—the successes and failures—of working scientists, and my readership is wide and varied.

As for particle physicists in particular, well, I think they're the brightest, wittiest, best-looking, and sexiest people on the planet. Don't you?

In his own words: Robert J. Sawyer on FlashForward

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