My Favorite Bit: Robert J. Sawyer talks about THE DOWNLOADED

Robert J. Sawyer is joining us today to talk about his novel, The Downloaded. Here’s the publisher’s description:

In 2059 two very different groups have their minds uploaded into a quantum computer in Waterloo, Ontario. One group consists of astronauts preparing for Earth’s first interstellar voyage. The other? Convicted murderers, serving their sentences in a virtual-reality prison. But when disaster strikes, the astronauts and the prisoners must download back into physical reality and find a way to work together to save Earth from destruction.

What’s Robert’s favorite bit?

My favorite bit is the part that’s getting me all the bad reviews for The Downloaded—and I’m not used to getting bad reviews. Oh, sure, every author gets some one-star bombs now and again, but after thirty-four years as a published novelist, and with twenty-five novels out, science-fiction readers know Robert J. Sawyer is that bleeding-heart left-wing liberal Canadian . . . and they either buy my books because they like that, or they don’t buy them because that’s not to their taste. All of which is perfectly fine.

But The Downloaded, which just came out this week in print and ebook forms, started life six months ago as an Audible Original—and Audible simply gave the audiobook away for free to anyone who had an Audible account. Audible was absolutely terrific to work with, and when they asked me who I wanted to voice the main character, I said Brendan Fraser—and, holy crap, they got him. The Academy Award-winning, Mummy-starring, Encino Man himself, Brendan Fraser. Of course, my own fans snapped up the audiobook (and most of them loved it, agreeing with me and Publishers Weekly that it’s one of the best things I’ve ever written). But far, far more Brendan Fraser fans grabbed it, and because it was given away, lots of non-habitual science-fiction readers listened to it, too: people who had no idea that this Sawyer fellow considers being called “woke” a badge of honor, not an insult.

My fiction has always been about inclusivity and diversity (one reviewer derided my 1995 Nebula Award-winner The Terminal Experiment as “a veritable parade of ethnics”), but tens of thousands of people listened to The Downloaded with no idea of what they were going to get—and it turns out a sizable chunk of the world at large dislikes the notion of an African American female starship captain. And, oh my God, I was stunned to see that lots of them really, really dislike transgender people.

I’m not trans myself, but I’ve long been privileged to have family members and friends who are. The Downloaded, as the blurb above says, is about people who upload their consciousness for years into private virtual-reality silos, and then are forced unexpectedly back into their physical bodies. One of my characters—an astronaut—transitions from male to female during her uploaded existence and takes the first name Valentina, in honor of Valentina Tereshkova, the first woman in space. She then finds herself, very uncomfortably, back in her male body.

And that brings us to my favorite bit. Roscoe, the character Brendan Fraser had voiced, is an ex-convict who had been serving his sentence with his consciousness uploaded into a virtual-reality prison; he, too, has returned to his original body and goes for a walk with Valentina, who is pointing out to him the wonders visible in the night sky:


“Look!” she said. “You can see the Andromeda galaxy!”

“Where?” I asked.

“You see the W of Cassiopeia? Look to the left of it until you find a little smudge of white.”

I tried, but there were so many stars, picking out any pattern was hard. “I’m not finding it.”

“Here,” she said, and she took my hand in hers—and, yes, her voice had been male all this time, but it still startled me to feel a man’s hand touching mine. She maneuvered my arm until I was pointing at the right spot, and I saw it.

“That light left there two and a half million years ago,” Valentina said, “before the birth of genus Homo. It’s the farthest object we can see with the naked eye and the only thing in the northern sky that isn’t part of our own galaxy.”

She let go of my hand and I was, to tell the truth, simultaneously relieved and disappointed.


This leads them to a conversation about simulation theory. It’s a heady, intellectual discussion (another hallmark of a Sawyer novel) interspersed with pop-culture references (likewise a Sawyer motif)—but it’s also where Roscoe begins to fall in love with Valentina:


“Hmm,” I [Roscoe] said. “Have you seen any of the classic Disney films? Cinderella? Snow White?”


“There’s one called Song of the South. Disney pretends it never existed, because it’s based on a—what did you call it?—a paradigm nobody believes any longer, that slaves were happy. We just don’t tell stories like that anymore.”

“Right,” she said. “Or stories about Earth being only 6,000 years old, or ruled by multiple gods, or whatever. Some ideas just get discarded, and if the idea that the past could have been different gets discarded, too, it’s unlikely anyone will contemplate millions of alternative variations of it.”

We were passing the remains of an office tower, making a rectangular blackness against the stars. “So your friend Jameela must be wrong,” I said. “We aren’t in a simulation.”

“Exactly,” said Valentina, and, as we continued along, her hand found its way into mine again. I squeezed it and I knew. This was real, as real as it gets.


That was my favorite bit of The Downloaded, and getting to celebrate, as Gene Roddenberry put it all those years ago, infinite diversity in infinite combinations, is my favorite bit about being a science-fiction writer.


Book Link







Robert J. Sawyer is a science-fiction writer based in Toronto. He won the best-novel Hugo Award for his novel Hominids and has eleven other Hugo nominations to his credit, including seven more for best novel. The ABC TV series FlashForward was based on his Aurora Award-winning novel of the same name, and he wrote the two-part finale for the popular fan-film series Star Trek Continues.

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