When People Start Thinking About My Books

UK Journalist and SF notable Mark McGrath writes a long and detailed (and spoiler-filled) piece on his blog about the Old Man’s War trilogy (which he called the Green Solider Trilogy, which is a name I actually like), and comes to some interesting conclusions, particularly regarding the politics of the universe. So if you want a substantive textual look at the trilogy, it’s well worth a read.

Personally speaking, I like it for its opening graph:

 A while ago, just after I finished Old Man’s War, I threatened to come back to the blog and give a scathing account of why John Scalzi’s fantastically entertaining space opera was the single most wrongheaded book I had ever read. It was, I was going to tell you, a filthy piece of right-wing shittism of the kind that I thought even the sci-fi reactionaries had left behind. I was going to set Mr Scalzi straight on a few things, I can tell you.

Fortunately, wiser heads prevailed.

Stupid wiser heads!

Personally speaking, I’m not going to make an argument against Old Man’s War in particular being read as having “right-wing” politics; it certainly can be, and it certainly has been, and I don’t have a problem with that interpretation. Let people think as they will; I’m glad they’re thinking seriously about the book at all. My major argument has been against the thinking that goes “Old Man’s War is right-wing in its politics; therefore John Scalzi is right-wing in his politics.” Many is the right-wing reader who has come here after reading OMW to find this particular supposition rather quickly disproved. Most seem to be able to handle it, for which I am grateful; occasionally one will really freak out about it. C’est la vie, as they say where I am at the moment.  And anyway, I occasionally freak out lefties, too. It all works out in the wash.

By John Scalzi

I enjoy pie.

27 replies on “When People Start Thinking About My Books”

There’s a lovely para about this in this month’s Ansible:

J.K. ROWLING surprised a Carnegie Hall audience with the news that her Hogwarts headmaster was gay, and had been in love with his rival Grindelwald. Fans tried hard not to remember the comment by JKR’s character Rita Skeeter about Dumbledore and his legendary duel of magic with that rival: ‘After they’ve read my book, people may be forced to conclude that Grindelwald simply conjured a white handkerchief from the end of his wand and came quietly.’

Yup, one of those right-wingers here! (And like many, I found out about Scalzi and OMW by way of Instapundit.)

I don’t have a chance to read that full article yet (though it looks interesting, and I’ll come back to it). But just in passing, I think I’ll say a couple of things, which may be “well, duh” observations to everyone, but I’ll say ’em anyway.

* The CDF/CU were clearly *not* crazy wamongers in OMW to view our local region as a constant war of all against all. Warmongers, yes, but not crazy. OrenThen in TLC says that the thing that convinced him to support the Conclave was that he couldn’t imagine what it would be like not to fight everyone all the time–literally couldn’t imagine it. For whatever reason, *every* species is locked in that constant-war frame of mind, and given that, nobody wants to be the first to beat his sword into plowshares. Boutin’s (emphatically unreliable) viewpoint is wrong–it isn’t something uniquely bad about the CU.

* We have no idea yet whether the Conclave is going to work out. I could think of all kinds of interesting ways it could go really really badly. Every one of those new Conclave colonies–settled by lots of different species, and supposedly loyal to the Conclave alone and not to any of the home races–is a recipe for civil war. The Conclave could be filling the local galaxy with brand new Yugoslavias and Rwandas.

So the peaceniks might not want to get *too* comfortable with the happy I’d-like-to-buy-known-space-a-Coke ending of TLC…

Fans tried hard not to remember the comment by JKR’s character Rita Skeeter about Dumbledore and his legendary duel of magic with that rival: ‘After they’ve read my book, people may be forced to conclude that Grindelwald simply conjured a white handkerchief from the end of his wand and came quietly.’

…or they remembered that Rowling wrote Rita Skeeter as a lying crank. Whether Dumbledore’s gay or straight (or it just doesn’t matter), I wouldn’t take Skeeter as a reliable in-universe source.

(Hey, Bilbo was a jewelry thief like Gollum said, and Desdemona was a cheating slut like Iago claimed! Who knew?)

O.K., now I feel stupid. It never occurred to me that John might be a right-winger from reading OMW. It also never occurred to me that I should take the CU or CDF at face value. I thought that came through pretty clearly from early in the book.

Stupid me.

“It never occurred to me that John might be a right-winger from reading OMW”

Nathan–If I may hazard a guess, you probably unconsciously thought, “Scalzi is an intelligent and thoughtful man. Therefore, absent evidence to the contrary, I will assume his politics are much like mine.”

I think that’s what I and other right-wingers did. Then we came to the Whatever, and we found that evidence to the contrary after all…

AndrewS., You lost me…not least because I’m so far left I need training wheels to keep from tipping over.

I just thought it was pretty clear that the audience didn’t have enough facts about the CU and CDF at the end of the first book and that when/if John chose to fill us in, it might not be pretty. I saw something implicit in the novel that it was NOT an endorsement of the politics being written about. There was always something NOT QUITE RIGHT about the CU.

Sorry for the caps, I was too lazy to do all that HTML stuff.

JS’s original post reminds me somewhat (though it’s not a perfect analog) of the Horowitz/Kramer-inspired squabbles that occur in academia, to wit: Professor X wrote an op-ed stating Y, so she must teach a Y view of the conflict between Widgetstan and Azaria, therefore her classes must be avoided… Rhetoric instead of conversation.

Admit it Scalzi, you’re one of Lord Rove’s sleeper agents. I have my tin-foil hat on, so I can see right through your books. Like those special sunglasses in that ’80s flick. I think it was called “They Live”.

(all of the above is a joke and in no way reflects my actual views on Scalzi or tin-foil hats.)

I enjoyed OMW and TGB immensely but have not yet read TLC. So, to avoid spoilage, I’ve not yet read the article in question. But on a general note I think the books I have read run down a rather nice middle road.

On the one hand you have wild lefty things like rampant and nearly universal promiscuity not leading to discipline problems in the armed forces and a massive bureaucratic nanny state being fairly efficient. On the other you have a firmly pragmatic approach to warfare with other races, given their intentions, as well as the sense that, although Scalzi portrays nearly all his characters as having a nearly identical set of moral ideals, differences in that sphere would not meet with the intolerance or the hatred we see running rampant today.

In short his universe, in my eyes at least, was complex, occasionally contradictory, and varied like a real universe would be. The artificial blacks and whites proclaimed by the various political ideologies today were really not to be found.

Well done, sir.

I don’t read fiction for the political content, and usually don’t even notice it (except for Robert Heinlein and Ayn Rand, where the mallet pounding my skull can’t be ignored). So, as usual, I just took these 3 books as a depiction of one way the local universe might turn out. Is it realistic? Almost certainly not.

Is the Green Soldier Trilogy right or left wing? Only to those who view everything through politically-tinted glasses.

Is the GST fun? Oh, my yes. That’s what I read it for. Those three books (and Android’s Dream) were entertaining. Very much so.

In my mind, that’s all that counts.

Mike @ 9
“I’m guessing that the thinly veiled smut implied by above quote was missed.”

I got it, Mike, and appreciated it. We of the dirty minds must band together, it seems, in a sea of unfortunate decency. ;)

I know I read the CDF&CU as, at best, well meaning military dictators.An organization that started as simply wanting to keep the human race in one piece but can see the universe out of just one, very narrow, viewpoint- and thus is doing all kinds of stuff wrong.I think it’s because the name resonated with the IDF(I’m Israeli) which has a lot of good people in it, but has a very narrow POV so I wouldn’t want them running the country.

Having not read TLC yet (and so avoiding the link for the time being), OMW did read as right-wing politics in a few passages for me — which was surprising at the time, given that I’d been reading the Whatever for several years. I think there’s a tendency, at least for me, to read politics in sci-fi as allegorical to modern-day events, at least to a degree. And certainly moreso when the political arena is as heated and contentious as it has been these past few years. My brain wanted to make connections between some of the more extreme opinions and events in OMW and the political realities of today, and I occasionally had to remind myself that a) stories don’t have to be direct extensions of the author’s worldview, and b) OMW was written before 9/11 and all that followed.

Even so, I thought of OMW as the introduction to this world and a detailed look at John Perry’s near-octagenarian “formative years” than a closer examination of many of its more interesting ideas and worldviews, which is what I ultimately got with The Ghost Brigades. The morality behind the CDF recruiting process, the implications of BrainPAL technology, and the effect constant war has had on human society and politics (the teasers about the Conclave and human colonization being extremely aggressive especially) were what I was really hoping to see develop, and OMW at times seems content to accept its own rhetoric rather than really dig at these ideas. I was waiting for a lot of the opinions and accepted realities of its world to start being subverted and given more layers, and I think I was left waiting until the second book. Until I realized that it was more about John’s first afterlife and the beginning of planning for his second one, I had the sense that the book didn’t really work as a standalone. The universe is just too damn cool to not explore after that, so I’m glad you had the opportunity to do so.

I prefer to not read short-term political considerations into fiction books, especially as they are generally written for the long term. Obviously, there are exceptions: Staship Troopers, for example, was written in a very short period of time and is, in essence, a long rant on why conscription armies are a bad idea.

I’ve seen analyses of British novels based on the American political scene and frothy “proofs” that a writer was drawing a direct analogy to current events… when the novel in question was written decades ago. Basically, I chuck it— I don’t care what the author’s politics are unless they make the book preachy. I care if the book is good.

Ideological purity tests are a way to severely restrict one’s reading. And they’re stupid. I don’t care if you’re left-wing, or right-wing, or no wings at all and flopping around on the ground as long as you write well and I like the story.

Generally I assume that fiction doesn’t indicate the author’s viewpoint on a topic, but does point out the topics they’re interested in. So if I’d come to OMW blind I’d assume Scalzi was interested in right-wing politics, but even more interested in nanotechnology, conciousness, photosynthesis and blowing things up.

It seems to me that OMW/TGB/TLC should be viewed as a universe in which people are constantly contending with one of the fundamentals of ecology — it’s all about occupying and holding niche space. The way the CU/CDF approaches things is to just live with it and expand Human niche space as much as possible. The Conclave approach is to equitably and efficiently distribute niche space to everybody.

I don’t hold out much hope for the Conclave — too much power in one place begs to be undermined, regardless of advertised intentions. Just because some readers don’t agree with CU/CDF politics doesn’t mean the CU/CDF is wrong to oppose the Conclave. Hegemons are more trouble than they’re worth, in the long run.

Having said that, the CU/CDF has the same problem that the Conclave does — just on a smaller scale — because nobody likes opportunistic bullies. I think it would be extremely interesting to explore whether any group of races could fine tune a workable solution between the two extremes.

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