Relativity, Robert J. Sawyer

ISFIC Press, 2004, 304 pages, US$25.00 hc, ISBN 0-9759156-0-6

You may not have heard about ISFIC Press before, but don’t feel bad about it: Robert J. Sawyer’s Relativity is their first title. Following in the footsteps left by the venerable Boston-based NESFA Press, the ISFIC (Illinois Science Fiction in Chicago) fan association has decided to publish anthologies of material from their WindyCon Guests of Honor. Whether this represents another encouraging sign about small-press genre publishing will be a question best left to other pundits; what is certain is that the quality of Relativity promises much for the publisher’s next projects.

Naturally, Relativity is aimed at fans and collector of Robert J. Sawyer’s work. Few of the material included here is original. Half of the short stories have appeared in Sawyer’s fiction anthology Iterations, and almost all of the non-fiction content is already available on Sawyer’s web site.

But as even e-book enthusiasts will admit, there is something nice about well-designed paper copies of on-line material. There is something even nicer in bringing together a bunch of material in a carefully-crafted package. I may have already read more than three-quarter of Relativity over the years, but that didn’t stop me from re-reading it almost cover to cover: Sawyer’s prose may sometimes be clunky, but it’s seldom any less than compelling.

The biggest strength of Relativity compared to Iterations is that it reprints mostly non-fiction and has carefully selected which stories to reprint. (Not all of Sawyer’s short fiction is worth re-reading twice; the man’s a natural novelist and he doesn’t cope well with the constraints of the short form).

In the fiction category, Relativity deservedly re-prints a number of Sawyer’s best stories, including “Just Like Old Times”, “The Shoulders of Giants”, “The Hand You’re Dealt” and “Star Light, Star Bright”. To those, it adds a number of stories published since Iterations‘ release: “Immortality”, “The Stanley Cup Caper” (Ergh said the critic), “Relativity” and the Hugo-Nominated “Ineluctable.”

The decision to focus the rest of the book on non-fiction is for the best: Sawyer’s non-fiction work is a model of clear writing and even those who can’t read his fiction without wishing for a red pen will be a lot more enthusiastic about his essays. The real meat of the book comes after the stories, with essays, columns, articles, speeches and a lengthy autobiography. As mentioned before, most (if not all?) of that material is available on Sawyer’s web site. But that doesn’t make it any less interesting.

For instance, I have heard “The Future is Already Here” once and read it another time (vehemently disagreeing with parts of it both times), but I couldn’t help but read it another time here. Also included in the speeches section are short gems like Sawyer’s 2003 Hugo Awards acceptance speech, a reference-studded speech about AI in SF and an off-the-cuff speech about SF’s relationship with social change. Whoever has seen Sawyer at conventions knows that he’s a capable public speaker, and part of his success depends on his well-written source material.

Relativity continues with a series of shorter pieces on subjects as diverse as Canadian SF; SF conventions; Judith Merrill; God and SF; why write trilogies; why privacy may not such a good idea; three pieces about the future and two more articles on Margaret Atwood. While many of Sawyer’s references will be familiar to genre readers, those pieces were usually destined to a more general audience, and despite some repetitious content, they’re still well-worth reading.

The next fifty pages bring together twelve short columns about the craft of writing, columns originally published in On Spec magazine. Here Sawyer reveals a few tricks of the trade in his usual lucid fashion. People interested in the nuts-and-bolts of Sawyer’s technique may learn much here: not just about writing, but also about the way would-be professional authors should act when confronted with the cold realities of the marketplace.

Relativity ends with a lengthy but highly informative autobiographical essay, as well as a complete bibliography. Another end-piece by Valerie Broege is billed as a “critical essay”, but it’s far more laudatory than critical, not to mention repetitive after the previous 300 pages of material: Sawyer simply does a better job at speaking about himself. Mike Resnick’s introduction is much more interesting. Oddly enough, a crossword completes the book.

People who already like Sawyer’s work won’t need to be told twice about this book, though its limited availability may mean that they’ll have to wait until the next convention dealer’s room to find a copy, or simply order it on-line. Even those who are skeptical about Sawyer’s short stories may want to give a look to the non-fiction material –although it must be said once again that most of it is available on-line. In the end, Sawyer fans and collectors will know whether they want the book or not: As it stands, it’s a beautiful collection of material, worth reading or re-reading.

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