Exclusive Interview: “The Downloaded” Author Robert J. Sawyer


Don’t you hate it when you upload your consciousness to a quantum computer, only to find that you’re sharing hard drive space with some criminals, and that you all have to work together to save the Earth?

Yeah, me too. But that doesn’t mean I don’t like reading stories about it. Stories like Robert J. Sawyer’s science fiction novel The Downloaded (paperback, Kindle, audiobook).

In the following email interview, Sawyer discusses what inspired and influenced this sci-fi story.

Robert J. Sawyer The Downloaded

Photo Credit: Carolyn Clink


To start, what is The Downloaded about, and when and where is it set?

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.

Where did you get the idea for The Downloaded?

The Downloaded is my response to the COVID-19 crisis. During it, we all figuratively uploaded into a virtual realm. Rather than going to the office, we telecommuted; rather than going out to eat, we had food delivered; rather than seeing our friends in person, we chatted online.

But, of course, when that crisis ended, those of us who had survived had to metaphorically download back into the real world and learn to deal with flesh-and-blood human beings again.

In science fiction, we often take something that’s metaphoric and treat it as if it were literally true — and that’s precisely what I did with this novel.

So, is there a reason why you have the astronauts sharing hard drive space with murders as opposed to terrorists or sexual predators or some other kinds of criminals?

Actually, only two of the prisoners have their crimes specified in the novel: Roscoe Koudoulian and Jaxon David Fingerlee, both of whom were indeed murderers. But it’s quite clear that Clive Hornbeck was a sexual predator: his first act upon being revived from hibernation was to try to rape one of the few people still around, a teenaged Mennonite girl. Roscoe committing murder was a single moment he regretted for the rest of his life; he snapped. But Hornbeck was a monster. There’s no forgiving murder, of course, but you can sometimes understand it, but there is never any excuse or justification for sexual assault.

In a similar vein, is there a significance to the computer being in the city of Waterloo, Ontario, Canada, as opposed to a suburb or small town? Or, for that matter, a different city in Canada or some other country?

Waterloo really is one of the world’s leading centers — if not the leading center — for quantum-computing research. And, as I mentioned, the novel also features Old Order horse-and-buggy Mennonites. The setting, and that juxtaposition, came from a real-life incident that I recount in the novel: The high-tech industry that had grown up around here had started with the company that invented the first smartphone, the BlackBerry. The co-founder of that company, Mike Lazaridis, had once been asked whether he considered it ironic that his firm was surrounded by people who would never use its products. His response? “I love the Mennonites. They’re the backup plan for humanity.”

Mike is a friend of mine, and in fact I’m the one who asked him that very question fifteen years ago over dinner. That quip of his was, in many ways, the genesis for this novel.

And for the last of my questions of “Why…”, is there a reason you set The Downloaded in 2059 as opposed to 2159 or 12059 or some other time that’s more than 35 years in our future?

Science fiction is most interesting to the general public when it’s about things they might live to see. George Orwell wrote 1984 in 1948, which means he set it thirty-six years in the future. If he’d called it 2084, no one would have paid any attention to the warning bells he was sounding.

Likewise, Arthur C. Clarke and Stanley Kubrick released their film 2001: A Space Odyssey in 1968, which meant it was putatively depicting life just thirty-three years down the road. Quantum computing, cracking the scientific mystery of consciousness, cryogenic suspension, intelligent robots, and even slower-than-light interstellar travel — the things I portray in The Downloaded — are already here or so close to being here that a near future timeframe seemed absolutely appropriate, and I set my story the same number of years hence as Orwell set his.

The Downloaded sounds like it’s a cyberpunk sci-fi thriller…

Cyberpunk is not my genre; it’s now a weird branch of alternate history. The version of cyberspace that William Gibson and others painted in the mid-1980s with its seedy underground of cyberspace cowboys simply bears no resemblance to the world of today. Oh, our online reality is certainly dystopian in many ways, but there’s nothing punk about it.

But, yes, certainly, The Downloaded is science fiction, and in the sense that it’s got a propulsive narrative with lots of twists and turns, it’s a thriller. But I think of it as much more of a series of character studies and philosophical inquiries.

Now, The Downloaded is your twenty-fifty novel. Are there any writers, or stories, that were a big influence on The Downloaded but not on anything else you’ve written?

Yes. The brilliant Japanese short story writer Ryunosuke Akutagawa, who died in 1927 at just thirty-five years of age. The great Japanese director Akira Kurosawa adapted Akutagawa’s short stories “In A Grove” and “Rashomon” into his masterpiece movie Rashomon. The structure of The Downloaded, with a series of separate narrators giving their sometimes-contradictory first-person accounts of events to a judge, comes directly from Akutagawa.

How about non-literary influences; was The Downloaded influenced by any movies, TV shows, or games?

The initial setup of astronauts being frozen for five hundred years, only to wake up in a transformed world, of course hearkens back to the predicament of Buck Rogers; during the great science-fiction TV drought of the 1970s, I endured the risible TV series Buck Rogers.

Hibernation of astronauts also figure prominently in my two favorite science-fiction films, both, ironically, released the same year: the aforementioned 2001: A Space Odyssey and the original Planet Of The Apes.

Robert J. Sawyer The Downloaded

Now, one interesting thing about The Downloaded is that it was originally released six months ago as an Audible Original. Did you write it as an audio play and then rewrite it as a prose novel, or the other way around, and why was this the best approach to take for this story?

The version I submitted to Audible is verbatim the version just published in book form. I had retained the film, TV, eBook, and print rights to the story, and took great pains to craft a single tale that would work well in all those media.

And how high did you jump for joy when you heard that the Audible Original was going to be narrated by Brendan Fraser [The Whale]?

Actually, the director — Gregory J. Sinclair, who, tragically, just passed away — and I asked Audible for Brendan; he was our first choice. We were, of course, thrilled, when he said yes, but that goes to my earlier comment. Brendan would have had no interest, I imagine, in what you posited, “a cyberpunk sci-fi thriller,” but was delighted to voice a nuanced character study.

Sci-fi stories are sometimes stand-alone stories and sometimes they’re part of larger sagas. What is The Downloaded? Is it the first book in a series or a self-contained story?

I never intended The Downloaded to be part of a series. Although I’ve written three unconnected trilogies — The Quintaglio Ascension, about intelligent dinosaurs; The Neanderthal Parallax, about an alternate reality in which Neanderthals survived to the present day and we did not; and The WWW Trilogy, about the World Wide Web gaining consciousness — I am mostly a writer of stand-alone novels.

That said, the response to the Audible version has been amazing, and Audible recently asked me to submit a proposal for a sequel. I mulled over whether there was a second story worth telling about these characters and decided that there indeed was one, so I’ve just submitted the proposal for The Downloaded 2: Ghosts In The Machine.

Earlier I asked if The Downloaded had been influenced by any movies, TV shows, or games. But to flip things around, do you think The Downloaded could be adapted into as a movie, show, or game?

My Hollywood team has packaged my work successfully before; the ABC TV series FlashForward, starring Joseph Fiennes and John Cho, was based on my novel of the same.

But for this property, they and I (and, for that matter, the fine folks at Audible, not that they have any control over the film or TV rights) agree that this would make a great movie rather than a TV show. It’s a relatively short book, which would translate well to a two-hour motion picture; it has a complete story arc for each character; and it has a clear-cut beginning, middle, and end.

And if that happened, who would you want them to cast in the main roles?

You really couldn’t do better than the actors we had for the Audible Originals version. Academy Award-winner Brendan Fraser, Emmy Award-winner Luke Kirby, Dora Mavor Moore-Award winner Vanessa Sears, Canadian Screen Award-winners Colm Feore and Andrew Phung: each was absolutely perfect, and, although it wasn’t a prerequisite for the audio version, they also happen to look like the parts they played…well, except for Andrew, who is one of the stars of the sitcom Kim’s Convenience; he played a robot in The Downloaded.

I’m also a member of the scriptwriting unions Writers Guild of America and Writers Guild of Canada; I wrote for the FlashForward TV series; I’ve written two commissioned feature films; and I wrote the two-part series finale for the popular fan-film series Star Trek Continues. So, of course, I’d love to write the screenplay myself. David S. Goyer, who directed our FlashForward pilot would do a fabulous job with this material, as would Brannon Braga, who cowrote that pilot with Dave.

Robert J. Sawyer The Downloaded

Finally, if someone enjoys The Downloaded, and it’s the first novel of yours they’ve read, which of your other novels would you suggest they read next?

Science fiction is a laboratory for thought experiments about the human condition that would be impossible, impracticable, or unethical to conduct in real life. The Downloaded is very much in that vein, as is my novel Quantum Night, which in fact is about an experimental psychologist.

But The Downloaded is also a murder mystery, and if that’s the aspect that appealed most to you, then you might also enjoy my other science-fiction murder mysteries, including Golden Fleece, Illegal Alien, and Red Planet Blues.



One reply on “Exclusive Interview: “The Downloaded” Author Robert J. Sawyer”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *