The Last Colony
by John Scalzi
Published by Tor Books
320 pages, 2007
There’s a certain amount of baggage associated with science fiction. Detractors think its fans are lifeless geeks obsessed with scientific or political minutiae. Adherents tend to think of it as literature for smart people, believing that others just don’t get it.
The same could be said of any genre, of course. Just listen to a crime writer complain about not being taken seriously, or a literary author decrying the shortage of modern-day Great Gatsbys.
Then along comes John Scalzi, a 38-year-old, self-professed geek who majored in philosophy at the University of Chicago, because it was far more interesting than the usual college majors adopted by wannabe writers -- English and journalism. Scalzi wanted to be a writer from the word go, and he readily admits he wasn’t a very good one in the beginning. He didn’t have to be. Writers get good by writing more and more, not by taking classes. So Scalzi took philosophy because that interested him. It also let him sign up for whatever electives he wanted.
After college, Scalzi returned to his native California to work at The Fresno Bee, for which he served as a movie critic for several years. It was in Fresno that he met his wife, Krissy. The couple moved to the Washington, D.C., area shortly thereafter, when, in 1996, Scalzi was employed as an in-house writer and editor for America Online.
But then AOL downsized, and it gave Scalzi the chance to do what he’d long wanted to do: become a freelance writer. This being the Internet era, when writers can work anywhere there’s Internet service available, Scalzi’s freedom also gave Krissy a chance to do what she wanted. And she wanted to live near her family.
Scalzi balked, and having lived in the rural areas of Ohio, my own home state, I can certainly sympathize. However, Scalzi soon discovered the Midwest’s amazing secret: land is cheap here. For the price of a basement flat in Brooklyn, Scalzi could buy a large house on a lot the size of an entire New York City block. With a daughter on the way, those cows and Amish suddenly looked like good neighbors.
In 1998, Scalzi became one of the earliest practitioners of Web logging, before it became “blogging” as we know it today. The first incarnation of his site, The Whatever, went live. Since that time, its readership has grown to nearly 25,000.
That’s nearly 25,000 a day.
Originally started as a sort of self-published newspaper-style column, The Whatever allows Scalzi to write about ... well, whatever, usually on the spur of the moment. It was actually through this blog that Scalzi first came to the public’s attention. Some of his posts, such as the essay “Being Poor,” written in the wake of Hurricane Katrina devastation, have been picked up for syndication by various newspapers. His single most popular post, though, was the September 13, 2006, entry about “bacon cat.” Faced with a deadline and feeling snarky, Scalzi apologized to his readers and gave a to-do list to explain why he wouldn’t be posting that day. As a throwaway comment, he put “Tape bacon to the cat” on the list. The readers dared him, and, after a tolerant Krissy gave her blessing, Scalzi took the dare. It became the most looked-at post on Technorati by that day’s end.
Yet The Whatever is more than a platform for Scalzi’s conscience or a vehicle to humiliate household pets. It was also the birthplace of his first two novels, Agent to the Stars and Old Man’s War. Although both are works of science fiction, the former is more a scathing satire of show business. The second is an homage to renowned 20th-century SF novelist Robert Heinlein (Stranger in a Strange Land, The Cat Who Walks Through Walls). Think of OMW as Starship Troopers with old people rather than kids. Scalzi had no intention of submitting either for publication, and instead offered them online.
But he soon found a fan in Tor Books’ Patrick Nielsen Hayden, who bought Old Man’s War. During the run-up to OMW’s launch in 2005 as an honest-to-God print novel, small science-fiction press Subterranean bought the rights to Agent. OMW spawned three sequels: the Tor novels The Ghost Brigades (2006) and his latest book, The Last Colony; as well as the Subterranean novella The Sagan Diary, released earlier this year. His most recent standalone novel is the Hiaasenesque SF caper, The Android’s Dream, which takes a minor reference to Philip K. Dick to the extreme.
Scalzi’s a busy guy, though, embarking on his first-ever book tour for The Last Colony. In addition to that, he maintains not one, not two, but three blogs, the latter two for former employer AOL. In between the novels, the blogging and the traveling, he found time to answer my e-mailed questions about the Hugo Awards, his accidental career as a novelist and “gateway science fiction.”
James R. Winter: Last year, you won the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer. This year, you’re up for a Hugo Award for Best Fan Writer. We always hear it’s an honor to be nominated, but does the attention ever get overwhelming?
John Scalzi: Not generally. Fame in a literary genre is not comparable to actual, genuine fame, the sort where you can’t go to the grocery store without people staring. In order to get any sort of attention, I have to go somewhere where science-fiction fans hang out, like a convention. I get a couple of days of people being happy I’m around, and then I go back home. It’s single-serving-size fame, basically. I think that’s doable; I’m not sure I’d want to be any more “famous” than that.
Old Man’s War and your “practice novel,” Agent to the Stars, began life online. While you’ve said that you had no intention of selling Agent, how surprising was OMW’s leap to print?
Somewhat surprising, since the reason I put it online was because I didn’t want to bother submitting it to publishers. I was fortunate that Patrick Nielsen Hayden found the novel and wanted to have Tor publish it anyway, despite the fact it had been up online. I don’t recommend this path to others, incidentally; submitting a novel the old-fashioned way is still the best way to go about it. I’ve always been very careful to acknowledge the fact that sheer luck saved my novel from my own attempts to sabotage its chances of ever getting published.
Did Tor originally want a trilogy from Old Man’s War?
Not that I’m aware of, which was fine, but I didn’t have a trilogy in mind when I wrote the book. I think writing books with the idea that they’re just the first book in a series isn’t a particularly good idea anyway; I’m a big believer in giving the reader a complete experience in every book. If you can’t do that, you’re not likely to get to a second book in a series. That said, once OMW was out and selling reasonably well, a second and then a third book seemed like a good idea; in each case, I tried to write the book so that if you hadn’t gotten to the other ones you could still follow what was going on in that volume.
I just finished The Android’s Dream, which I have to tell you is the funniest book I’ve read all year. It read more like a caper than a dystopian future epic. Were you going for Carl Hiaasen instead of Heinlein this time out?
I was. Science fiction has a lot of humor in it, but it tends toward the Douglas Adams model of absurdist humor; I thought it would be fun to try a different style. I’m a big fan of books from Hiassen and Elmore Leonard; you don’t see that style of contextual humor in SF. So that’s the direction I went.
Would you consider The Android’s Dream to be “gateway SF?”
Sure, particularly for people who like crime or caper books. The big rap on written science fiction is that you have to be in on the joke -- you have to have been following written science fiction for a while to make sense of any of it. I don’t think that’s the case with TAD; when I wrote it, I wrote it to some extent with non-science-fiction readers in mind. I love science fiction and I want to make science-fiction fans happy; I also want to get readers beyond the core science-fiction market.
You’ve mentioned possible further adventures for Harry Creek, your protagonist in The Android’s Dream. Is that novel to become part of a series? And if so, would it be open-ended, or do you have a plan to bow out after a certain point?
Well, I’m writing The High Castle, which features Harry Creek, so it’s safe to say I’m continuing on in that universe. The two things that will dictate whether I keep going in that universe are reader sales and author interest, really. As long as people enjoy reading the adventures and I’m having fun writing them, there’s no reason not to keep doing them.
This is one of the tensions of having a successful book series, of course. On the one hand, if you’re not paying attention to the fact you’ve generated a universe that popular with readers, then you’re kind of dumb. On the other hand, if your response to that is simply to hack out increasingly lame books in that universe, you’re also kind of dumb. You’ve got to walk a path between these -- keep a series fresh, keep the readers interested, keep yourself interested. If the readers stop being interested, you’ll stop selling books and then you’re done. Much more difficult is realizing when you as the writer are no longer interested. I think when that happens you have to be willing to walk away, or succumb to hackdom.
The Old Man’s War trilogy, on the other hand, is clearly finished. You’ve said you don’t plan to write anymore in that universe. Is that firm, or will you stay away only until the muse nudges you back?
Heh. If by “the muse” you mean “my publisher, begging for another book in the universe and plying me with cash,” then yes, I’m open to the muse. I like the universe and I think it’s possible there are other places to explore in it.
That said, as I said at the end of The Last Colony, we’ve reached the end of the stories with John Perry and Jane Sagan, who are the main characters of the three books. If I do write additional novels in the universe, those two are not going to be front and center. I think their story arc is done and I personally don’t feel I have really anything more to add to it. Again, you have to be willing to walk away from some things; I’m walking away from these two and letting them have their lives (so to speak) without me detailing their every move.
Let’s talk about The Last Colony for a minute. Of the three OMW books, it’s probably the most complex, and yet it seems to be the most personal.
I’m glad you think so; I’m not sure I agree myself. I think each of the three books have their moments of being very personal, mostly in the way the books approach relationships and obligations. It may feel more personal because it features a family, and a family dynamic feels more intimate (and because, superficially, the family unit resembles my own).
Actually, of all the stories in the OMW universe, probably the most personal is The Sagan Diary ... That entire novelette takes place in the brain of Jane Sagan; it’s hard to get more personal than that.
I also noticed you manage to slip little snatches of philosophy in there without the characters getting preachy -- or at least, the preachiness is a plot point rather than a soapbox.
I think having characters have a philosophical point of view is a good thing, because most people have philosophical points of view, and I want my characters to seem realistic. Now, whether these philosophical points of view are consonant to my own, or have an analogue here in the real world is another question entirely. One of the things I’m careful to point out to folks who read commentary about the real world into my books, is that the OMW universe really isn’t like our real world at all -- there are fundamental things different about it. So there’s not a one-to-one relationship going on. I’m not sure people believe me when I say this, but this isn’t necessarily my problem.
Between all five of your novels, you write about an Earth that is still familiar in spite of the changes.
Sure. Two reasons for that: One, I think it gives readers -- particularly folks new to science fiction -- something to get a grip on before I fling the aliens at them. Two, I’m lazy.
On the other hand, you do seem to revel in certain themes: unfortunate odors, humans as part of someone else’s diet, interstellar intrigue that makes present-day geopolitics look like 10-year-olds playing Risk.
These are the things that spice up any novel, no? Hey, people are paying a not-insignificant amount for the books. They want to have a ride. I think they should get one. | August 2007
James R. Winter is a writer and reviewer from Cincinnati, Ohio, where he does tech support for an insurance company. A regular contributor to Crimespree Magazine and an occasional contributor to The Rap Sheet, his short stories have also appeared in ThugLit, Crime Scene Scotland and the late, lamented Plots With Guns. Check out his blog, Northcoast Exile. And potential employers should look over his contributions to Tales from the Cube Farm.