A Review in the Chicago Maroon!

Oooh, I’m excited about this: A review of Old Man’s War in the Chicago Maroon, which is the student newspaper of the University of Chicago. I myself was editor-in-chief of the Maroon in the 89-90 school year, so what can I say, I was hoping they’d get around to it. And the reviewer liked it, which is even better, although I get dinged for the sex scenes. I can live with that — indeed, I propose more research in that area. Lots of research. And vitamin E.

The review does bring up one interesting thing, in discussing the name of the main character:

I couldn’t help but wonder if naming the hero “John Perry” (which bears a suspicious resemblance to the moniker of 2004’s presidential runner-up, everyone’s favorite junior senator from Massachusetts) was simply coincidence or, rather, some form of subliminal propaganda. After a thorough investigation (read: Google search) I found Scalzi’s blog, http://www.scalzi.com/whatever, which revealed him to be a liberal. I decided to forgive him, though, because Old Man’s War is a charming, engaging novel, and I imagine that Scalzi will eventually come around.

The fiction writers in the audience will know why it’s highly unlikely that this would be the genesis of John Perry’s name, but for everyone else, a little explanation is in order. Fact is, publishing fiction is almost always a painfully slow process — it takes years for books to go from inception to publication. In the case of Old Man’s War, it was begun in April of 2001 and completed in October of that year, long before John Kerry was the candidate, and long before I was thinking about him in any political capacity. So it’s merely coincidence that Perry and Kerry’s name sound alike.

If you want to know where the John Perry name comes from in fact, it comes from the first name of the keyboardist of Journey, and the last name of the vocalist. Further proof of the Old Man’s War-Journey connection can be found on page 10, where there’s a character named Steve Cain, which is the first name of the vocalist and the last name of the keyboardist. They are not named through a desire to immortalize Journey members so much as I am really bad with names and therefore tend to grab books, magazines and CDs and create names from the names I find in them. Looking for meaning in the names of my characters is likely to lead to error. The only character who is intentionally named something specific in the book is Jane Sagan, because I am a Carl Sagan fanboy.

The lack of knowledge about the incredibly slow pace of fiction publishing has popped up before in reference to Old Man’s War; I’ve seen commentary about the book, for example, which has suggested that it was a book that could only have been written in a post-9/11 environment. While I would agree that book is indeed well suited for the current time, the vast majority of the book — about 90% — was written prior to 9/11, and the post 9/11 mindset had not quite jelled by the time I had finished the book in October. It’s possible 9/11 affected the last couple of chapters, but by that time, the plot was already done and all that was needed was the typing, so whatever direct influence it had was minimal. If there is a post-9/11 sensibility to the book (and there may well be), it’s a sensibility which I personally had before the event — and the world, rather unfortunately, was compelled to catch up with my point of view.

It’s rather more likely that a true post-9/11 sensibility will inform The Ghost Brigades, which I have yet to write (and which, in violation of the normally slow pace of publishing, will be published fairly quickly after I’ve written it — although in being published quickly, it bumps the publication date of The Android’s Dream back a year or so, which re-validates the point). But to what extent the 9/11 events and attitudes will affect Ghost Brigades I can’t say. I don’t really go out of my way to make parallels between what goes on in the books and what’s going on in the real world. I figure my readers would prefer I not preach in their general direction. If they want to hear me rant and rave about contemporary politics, there’s always this place.

Which is not to say I don’t enjoy hearing these interpretations. As I think I’ve said before, I like hearing what people get out of the books, because sometimes it’s vastly different to what I’ve put into it on my end. Nor do I think these interpretations are wrong, outside of specific naming and temporal issues noted above. Every reader comes to a book with their own point of view, so naturally everyone’s going to take away something different. As a writer, I like the idea that no one reads my book in exactly the same way.

(Oh, and before I forget — a ringing endorsement of OMW in the Library Journal: “A good choice for most libraries.” Well, and it is.)

22 Comments on “A Review in the Chicago Maroon!”

  1. I have had several authors tell me that the hardest thing about writing a character is picking their name. I would have thought, you know, realistic dialogue, or a well rounded background, but no, I guess it’s names.

    Anyway, so long as your main character doesn’t have a huge nose, an awful mullet, and a maudlin whine, I guess you can be forgiven… and this is coming from a guy who LIKES journey.

    Because some day, love will find you, break those chains that bind you.

    I always love to see Journey, Boston, ELO, Grand Funk, REO speedwagon etc… at the top (or would it be bottom?) of music critics worst band of all time lists.

  2. “I always love to see Journey, Boston, ELO, Grand Funk, REO speedwagon etc… at the top (or would it be bottom?) of music critics worst band of all time lists.”

    None of them are bad bands, they are merely bands of no great consequence — i.e., they were successful but not influential. Journey in particular is less than the sum of its parts: It has (or has had) an incredible guitarist (Neal Schon), an incredibly talented drummer (Steve Smith) and of course Steve Perry, who has a great white soul voice. And none of it was particularly well-applied (in a musical sense) during the band’s most successful years. Mind you, I love Journey — I have all their albums! — but I don’t labor under the illusion they’re a great band. They were, however, supremely competent, which automatically disqualifies them from being the worst band ever.

  3. I assumed that the protagonist of the novel was an idealized version of yourself.

    He’s a writer who lives in a small town in Ohio. So are you.

    The names are phonetically pretty similar.

    The connection between names John Perry and John Kerry did not occur to me until this minute.

  4. Nor I. And the reviewer must have missed the scene where the former politican attempts to negotiate with the alien species, and ends up [spoiler removed].

    “The only character who is intentionally named something specific in the book is Jane Sagan, because I am a Carl Sagan fanboy.”

    I’m away from the book, but isn’t there a character named Gaiman in there somewhere? Maybe that was just a coincidence.

  5. Bill: Yeah, there’s a Gaiman and a McKean — I put them in as placeholder names (there was a Sandman comic on my desk at the time) and meant to swap them out but never got around to it.

    Mitch: It is true that John Perry will have lived (future perfect!) in my home town and indeed pretty much where my house is today, and that he will have been a writer (albeit an ad writer). And his first name is my own. However, despite all this, I didn’t intend for him to be autobiographical in any meaningful sense — which is to say that I see him as his own character rather than as an extension of my own.

  6. –And the reviewer must have missed the scene where the former politican attempts to negotiate with the alien species, and ends up [spoiler removed].–

    John, you should know you have awakened a new dream in at least one of your readers. As soon as I finished the section of the book mentioned above, I immediately developed an overwhelming desire to find a way – some how, some day – to be that “extra ensign” or other dispensible character in a movie that dies in a truly horrific and yet interesting manner. The extended disembowelment of the jerky boyfriend in Shaun of the Dead comes to mind as an example.

    Zombies would be good, aliens would be better. Since I’ll be moving back to NC in the next year or so, and they shoot a lot of movies there for reasons of great scenery, I’ll be keeping my eyes peeled and my ears open (which sounds pretty gruesome all by itself, now that I think about it) for opportunities to audition for the “Second Engineer” part who gets flayed alive, vaporised hideously or (dare I think it…sigh) snacked to death by vicious vorpal Ewoks.

    I have a dream…

  7. Hi Mr. Scalzi, I am as far as page 180, and enjoying your book very much. I think it can fairly be compared to _Starship Troopers_ and _Forever War_. I live in Mason, Ohio, and I think I am much farther right than you in terms of politics, but a good read like yours transcends politics. You made an interesting point about names in fiction. I was wondering if you had taken Perry’s name from John Perry Barlow, but clearly not. I look forward to finishing OMW tomorrow, and I await the next installment.

  8. John Cunningham writes:

    “I think I am much farther right than you in terms of politics, but a good read like yours transcends politics.”

    Indeed — or, possibly, the politics of this world are largely irrelevant to the fictional world, which I think is the case here. As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, trying to get a bead on my politics from OMW is going to be unsatisfying, because I set up a specific fictional universe, whose “politics” are specific to it and not necessarily transferable (and vice versa).

  9. Mitch,

    By Grapthar’s hammer . . . what a savings.

    Somewhere deep in my pile of science fiction books I have an otherwise mediocre hardcover from the late 50’s or early 60’s that listed “Armstrong” as the first man on the moon! I’m sure it was a lucky accident, but very spooky.

  10. And yet another plug (8:02 pm Sunday) on Instapundit (what’s this make, three? four?) OMW is all over the blogosphere. Congratulations.

    Uh, but shouldn’t you be busy writing Ghost Brigades — there are those of us who are eagerly waiting for it to show up on amazon.com.

    Is it out yet? Huh? Huh? Is it out yet?

  11. So here’s a question, John —

    If OMW and its sequels are a smashing success, and you earn all the money you’ll ever need from them, would you be content to do just that? You seem to be very happy with your variety of writing projects, but if you had your druthers, would you just be doing SF and nothing more?

  12. Wasn’t it a little strange writing a character with the same first name as you? I know I would notice every time I used the name “Diane.”

  13. Dave Munger asks:

    “If OMW and its sequels are a smashing success, and you earn all the money you’ll ever need from them, would you be content to do just that?”

    Let’s begin with the following qualification: The chances of OMW and the sequels becoming successful enough to take care of me financially — forever — are so vanishingly small that you might as well ask me what I plan to do if I win the lottery.

    To put it another way: The amount of money I’ve made so far on all four of the novels I’ve written don’t add up to the amount of money I’ve made from either “Book of the Dumb” book. That’s just *one* of the BotD books, not both. What I’m saying here is that I’m entertaining this notion purely as a speculative matter.

    The answer: No. I enjoy SF, quite obviously, but I don’t wish to write only SF. I like writing non-fiction, for one thing, and I’d like to try my hand at writing other genres of fiction as well.

    I think what being unfathomably rich would do for me is simply make me less worried about whether what I’m writing is going to make me money — i.e., I’d write without too much worry regarding commercial consideration. To some extent I already do that with my fiction because it’s relatively unrenumerative in relation to my other work, and, after all, I posted “Agent” and “OMW” to the site, and I wouldn’t have done that if I wasn’t ready to accept the possibility that it was the end of the commercial road for them. However, with unfathomable riches, I imagine I’d be even less inclined to worry about whether I got paid.

    Whether this would make the writing better or worse is another matter entirely. On one hand, writing purely to pay the mortgage is not an optimal condition; on the other hand, writing to pay the mortgage does focus the mind.

    I think the writing that becoming immensely successful would most affect would be my business writing. I enjoy doing corporate work because it’s intellectually challenging in its way, but if I didn’t *have* to do it, I probably wouldn’t.

  14. Diane asks:

    “Wasn’t it a little strange writing a character with the same first name as you?”

    Nah. “John” is an incredibly common name, enough so that it’s easy to disassociate myself from it. Also, given that within five minutes of knowing me everyone calls me “Scalzi,” I very rarely hear anyone call me “John.” Krissy is just about the only person who calls me that with any regularity.

  15. “The amount of money I’ve made so far on all four of the novels I’ve written don’t add up to the amount of money I’ve made from either “Book of the Dumb” book.”

    Erm, that’s Agent, OMW, The Ghost Brigades, and- did I miss something?

  16. Scalzi – Interesting. I always refer to you as “Scalzi” when I link to you on my blog, and I was not conscious of following anyone’s lead. Even knowing you only virtually, as I do … I dunno, you just seem like a Scalzi to me. Rather than a John.

  17. Nothing quite like local boy does good stories. Last year I sent a copy of both of my books to my high school. Not really expecting anything; just had some books left from my author copies. The school newspaper ended up doing a story on me. Kind of fun. When my two books due out this year become available, I’ll probably send copies of both of them as well.

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