Interview: John Scalzi on his new novel, politics, and the winner of the Star Wars/Star Trek debate
It’s hard not to have an opinion about best-selling science fiction author John Scalzi. Perhaps you admire him for bringing us some of the most compelling sci-fi novels in the last decade with his popular Old Man’s War series and his Hugo award-winning novel, Redshirts. Or perhaps you take issue with his musings on politics, culture, and…whatever on his widely read and aptly named blog, whatever.scalzi.com. One thing is for certain, Scalzi is not someone who is afraid to speak his mind.
In 2015, Tor Books helped ensure that the world would continue to get their Scalzi fix for the next decade when they announced an agreement with Scalzi for him to write 13 new books over the next 10 years. Scalzi’s first book of the new deal, The Collapsing Empire, comes out on March 21st. The book is set in a completely new universe, where people travel across the stars via a naturally occurring extra-dimensional transit system known as The Flow. But what happens when The Flow begins to shift course? We spoke with Scalzi ahead of the release of his latest book, where he talked to us about his books, his writing process, politics, and his allegiance in the never-ending Star Wars vs. Star Trek debate.
You made headlines in 2015 with your 10-year book deal with Tor Books. How has your writing process changed with the signing of this landmark deal?
The process itself hasn’t changed very much. It’s just a matter of getting your ass in your seat and typing until the books get done. The one thing I don’t have to worry about until 2027 is whether the book I’m currently writing is going to sell. In that sense, it’s a very positive thing.
Writers, generally speaking, don’t have a lot in the way of [financial] security. I know that for an entire decade, everything is sold, and all I have to do is make them worth reading.
You mentioned in your blog that The Collapsing Empire is not a subtle nod to the current era that we live in. Yet there’s no doubt you’ve been an outspoken detractor of our current President, both before and after the election. How do you think the election and more broadly, the current state of the world will inform any book ideas you have going forward?
I thought of the title The Collapsing Empire back in 2014, long before the election cycle or when President Trump came into the White House. And yet every single time I mention the title, there’s always somebody saying something like, “Wow, I guess you’re writing nonfiction now.”
I try, generally speaking, not to make direct analogies with my science fiction to what is going on in the current world, simply because when I’m creating these universes, the dynamics don’t map one to one with the real world. But I’m aware that the things I’m thinking about and concerned about are going to find their way into the books regardless. For me, it is a matter of making sure that consciously, I’m not getting up on a soapbox to argue about the current president because there is no place for that in the universe that I’m creating. But at the same time, if some of my thoughts or anxieties about the current political situation transmute themselves appropriately into the universe, then that’s going to be just a thing that happens.
Your blog posts occasionally spark some pretty intense debate in the comment threads. But inevitably, these sorts of posts bring trolls out as well. Do you have a preferred strategy for responding to online trolls?
One of the things I have on the website is a comment policy, and I always tell people to go ahead and read that because it’s going to apply to you. If someone comes in and starts being a troll, racist, sexist or homophobic, I get out the mallet of loving correction and get rid of that comment. There are times when I’ll pull a particular comment and say, look if you can actually say what you wanted to say in a non-bigoted sort of way, you can come back and try again. You have to run a tight ship. If you let the trolls in, they will chase out quality. There’s a community of really intelligent people who actually comment there and there a lot of people whose political orientations are different from mine. What’s important is that they all treat each other politely and the points that they make are based in reality as opposed to anything else.
You consistently engage with your fans on your blog. You talk about your political leanings, the writing process, and even your family. Was it a conscious decision to be such an “open book” to the world? Does that sort of openness just come naturally to you?
I’m a well-socialized introvert. Before I was a novelist, I was a newspaper critic and an opinion columnist. I was writing about politics long before I ever started writing novels. I’m used to having that sort of dialog with an audience. If you’re writing about politics, social ideas, and commentary in general, there’s an assumption that people are going to argue with you about it.
That sort of dynamic with my readers is something that I did from the very first moment I became a writer. So for me, that’s not something that’s difficult for me at all. I did assume there would always be that sort of dynamic. The novels came around later and there was no reason to stop doing what I was already doing. There was no strategy to have a novel. There was always a strategy to be a writer who is expressing opinions and have people yelling back at him.
There are a certain group of people who read my books and don’t care about the blog. And there are other people who only know me through my blog or Twitter, and don’t know about my books at all. I’ve had people who read Old Man’s War, assume I’m conservative and read my blog and think, “Oh my God, he’s a godless liberal,” and write me letters saying, “I will never read you again!” And I have other people who tell me, “I read your novels because I read your blog and you seem like a decent human being and I want to support that.”
For me, the whole online dynamic is not a problem, even when there are people who are yelling at me. My wife used to be concerned about the emotional toll of it, but at some point, she realized this was basically entertainment for me. Now as I get older, I get much less tolerance arguing with stupid people online. There’s only so much time in the day, and there are a lot of stupid people online.
I have this other rule called the Scamperbeasts rule. I have two cats that have a Twitter account because they’re cute. My cats have nine thousand followers. So if you’re coming into my Twitter space to troll me and you have fewer follower than my cats, you’re going to be muted.
You got your writing start as a film reviewer for the Fresno Bee and are now a critic at large for the Los Angeles Times. What do you think are the attributes that make a good critic versus being a novel writer?
You have to be a lot shorter for one thing. Particularly in newspaper, you have eight column inches to write a review and you have to write in that space. Being able to do things quickly or fitting them into an exact space was really useful.
Now what I did find is that a lot of the skills that I learned being a critic and a columnist actually transferred over into book writing very well. I can write two thousand words a day without really hurting my brain, which is a thing that I learned to do when I was writing for newspaper and had 8 articles a week to write. All these things came in handy in book writing. One of the reasons I have that contract with Tor is because I am reliable. They know that every year, I can produce a book and I can hit deadlines. On average, the skills that I learned in newspapers were a lot more advantageous than I think people suspect they might be.
You’ve talked about how when you’re worldbuilding, you like to make sure your worlds are “at least two questions deep.” Meaning they hold up to scrutiny under one question and a follow-up. When creating a new world like you did for The Collapsing Empire, do you spend a lot of time fleshing out the world first, or do you focus on the core elements of the book and add additional “world-building” elements around it?
A lot of my world building [for The Collapsing Empire] comes from going back 3 or 4 years when I was first thinking about this idea. The first idea I had was about the faster-than-light system of The Flow. It is a thing that allows people to can travel quickly but it’s not something they’re in control of. It’s something you get carried by like a river or an ocean current. I just thought about that for a couple of years and how it would work, and how the universe will build around that. And eventually, I thought about what sort of crisis you put into this fiction. Just like a river will change its course sometimes, I had The Flow do that and think about what that means for the universe. And then you start writing it, and you realize that this world you thought was bulletproof actually isn’t. Because once you start writing, you realize all the plot holes and inconsistencies that your brain didn’t tell you about. So when you actually drill down, you think, “Now I have to explain that.”
This is not going to be a new question, but it still must be asked. Old Man’s War has been optioned by Syfy to be a TV series, and I know it’s currently in development. Any new updates you can share with us on that front?
Nope. It’s still under option. They’re still working on it. One thing I’ve learned about Hollywood is that things either take a long time, or no time at all. Things get immediately fast-tracked or people fiddle with it a long time. And they’ve been fiddling with it a long time.
If you were the casting director, do you have any actors and actresses that would be your top choices to play John Perry and Jane Sagan? Who do you envision in your mind in these roles?
No, because the thing is, when the characters are actual soldiers, they are meant to look really young like 22, 23 years old. So literally, the actors who would be great for that would be actors who probably haven’t made it yet. This should be their big break as opposed to someone who is already a star. You couldn’t put The Rock in it. Or Jake Gyllenhaal or Ryan Gosling. It would have to be people you could cast as newbies.
The only exception to that would be the very beginning where you cast the 75-year-old John Perry. Back when it was being developed as a movie, I told them to spend all their money getting someone like Clint Eastwood or Tommy Lee Jones because when you make him young again, everyone will think of him as young Clint or Tommy for the rest of movie. But I tend not to play the casting game until we actually get the point when we’re casting.
You’re likely going to be busy with your novels for the next 10 years, but do you have any plans or hopes to do work in other artistic mediums?
I’ve worked on a couple video games, Midnight Star and Midnight Star: Renegade, and I’m helping out with another one called Exiles of Embermark. I have a lot of stuff that’s currently under consideration in LA. If any of that stuff moves forward, those things will be keeping me busy as well. The nice thing about the Tor contract is that it does leave me with time to do other things as well. If anything looks interesting, that’s when I have to see where can I fit in in the schedule.
Your book, Redshirts, is of course a satire of the nameless extras that get killed Star Trek. In the never-ending holy war between Star Trek fans and Star War fans on which universe is superior, what side do you land on?
This is a complicated question. I intellectually much more lean towards the Star Trek universe because it’s the future and things work rationally. But in terms of the world with things that I want…I want a lightsaber, I want an R2-D2, I want a speeder bike.
But I’m more critical of the Star Trek universe than the Star Wars universe. The way that I think about the Star Wars universe is that we are basically being told a mythology. And that’s set up right at the beginning with “A long time ago in a galaxy far far away.” That is the equivalent of “Once upon a time.” We are literally getting fairy tales, so I am much more forgiving of all the lapses of actual science. Whereas with Star Trek, it is meant to be in the future. It is meant to be scientific, so when you get things like [expletive] “red matter,” that just makes me want to burn the entire place down.
Are there any books, movies, or video games that really gets you excited as a fan these days?
I’ve been playing a lot of Dishonored 2 and a lot of that has to do with the fact when you’re playing as Emily Kaldwin. You have this power to yank people to you. So I’ll basically do that to all the guards. It’s so much fun and I know that if you want the happy ending, you need to sneak around and not kill anybody. But I’m honestly of the opinion that if you didn’t want me to magically yank people to me and stab me in the neck, then why did you let me do it?
In terms of reading, there’s so much that’s good out right now, it’s hard for me to recommend one thing over the other. One book I’ve liked enough to blurb is The Stars are Legion by Kameron Hurley which I think people should definitely be checking out. In terms of movies, I just rewatched Moana and it makes me cry every single time.
What makes your shortlist of desert island books?
I would probably take Winter’s Tale by Mark Helprin which is just beautifully written, a collection of essays by H.L. Mencken, I would cheat and take an encyclopedia, and I would probably take a Fletch book by Gregory Mcdonald.
Who are your early favorites for President in 2020?
Oh my God, I’m not even there yet. The problem is that if Trump continues on the path he’s going, I’d be willing to vote for a hedgehog. If the Democrats put up someone worse than Trump which I can’t imagine is possible, you’d have the question of would you rather have your arm ripped off by a bear or a tiger. My assumption is that we will get someone Cory Booker on the ticket, but honestly, who’s to say. Honestly I don’t know, I just know I’m not voting for Trump.
You’ve said that Beauty and the Beast was one of your favorite musical films of all time. So how excited or apprehensive are you about the upcoming live action remake?
I’m not apprehensive about it at all. I know how it’s going to be. It’s going to be a perfectly competent live-action version of a much better animated film because that’s what all of these films have been. The Jungle Book was cute. Cinderella was pretty but it was not the actual Cinderella. I won’t have opposition to going to see it, but I do not have any anticipation of it surmounting the original Beauty and the Beast in my brain. The original is probably just about the most perfectly done animated musical of all time.
Can you give us your own “book blurb for The Collapsing Empire”?
The thing that I would say to people is: “You’re lucky you get to meet Kiva Lagos.” She is one of the primary characters in the book and she is probably in the top 3 of my all-time favorite characters I’ve ever written.
Not only are you a prolific author of science fiction, but you are also a big fan of the genre. So as a fan, what in your mind separates good sci-fi from bad sci-fi?
Purely on a technical level, you need a universe that is consistent with its own rules. Sci-fi is not science. You have a lot of space for speculation. But if you are going to set up particular rules for the universe, if you as an author don’t stick with those, you’re undermining everything you’re doing. Internal consistency is important. On an artistic side, my own biases are for memorable characters. We have authors who really understand people. So when they are writing, you get characters that are memorable, doing important things that are consistent with the world that stay with you.
The thing that I tell people, if you are alive now reading sci-fi and fantasy, you’re lucky because it’s absolutely one of the best eras to read it. We have so many good writers, and so many good writers that aren’t just out of the same mold. There’s so much out there that accessible to anyone and everyone and as a reader and fan of the genre, I could not be happier than where we are at right now.
This interview has been lightly edited for content and clarity