Thoughts On My Trump-Era Novels
Posted on November 20, 2016 Posted by John Scalzi 56 Comments
I had someone ask me to what extent Trump et al is going to have an impact on my creative life, specifically my novels. It’s a question with no particularly easy answer, but let me try to tackle it.
First and foremost, I can’t truly know because I don’t know what will happen in the next four years. There are some things you can guess — we will have a hard right government which feels no shame about its various bigotries, and is headed up by an incompetent and corrupt political naif, so I see some very probable scenarios emerging from that — but at the end of the day the future is still unwritten, and because it is I don’t know how it will have an effect on the nation and me. I don’t know what impact it will make, if any, on my writing, or how it sells once it’s out in the world. So, to a very great extent I simply can’t say with any certainty.
The other thing to consider is that I don’t generally intentionally put contemporary political themes in my science fiction, particularly the fiction that’s meant to represent a time hundreds or even thousands of years in the future. My go-to explanation of this is that having future characters model contemporary political tussles is like us today having passionate arguments about the Alien and Sedition Acts specifically, and our world divided up into brawls between Jeffersonians and Adamsians. As a fiction writer, I don’t generally create my universes to exactly mirror events or controversies that happen in the real world, so the political tensions and arguments don’t track one for one with what’s going on here. Also, bluntly, I have outlets for my real world thoughts on any particular political or social event I want to write about (hello!), so I don’t feel the need to larder my fiction with those thoughts.
With that said, it would be obtuse of me to suggest that as a thinking human living through historical events, I don’t soak up the world around me, and that how I think of it doesn’t come out of my fingertips and down onto the page. I am certain the Bush years affected the first four books of the Old Man’s War series and also The Android’s Dream; I’m likewise certain Obama’s America had an impact on Fuzzy Nation, Redshirts, Lock In and the later two books in the OMW series. I’m pretty sure the interminable election season of 2016 made its mark on The Collapsing Empire.
But it’s not always that direct. To make the point that the times make a mark on one’s career in ways one doesn’t anticipate — or that track directly to the day-to-day events in the real world, let me offer you an example. In 2008, I was meant to write a five-book YA series for Tor Books; we had discussed it, I plotted it out, everyone was enthusiastic and all that was left was contract negotiations… and then the mortgage crisis threatened to take down the entire global economy, we entered a recession and publishing was smacked pretty hard in a way that had a direct impact on that proposed series. You might notice there is a not a five-book YA series from me on the shelves. You might also notice there is a three-year gap between the release of Zoe’s Tale and the release of Fuzzy Nation, with no novels from me during that period. These are related events, stemming back, improbably, to the mortgage crisis.
If the mortgage crisis hadn’t happened — or even if the major economic collapse it precipitated had been delayed by just a month — my career would have been very different. If I had written that YA series, I almost certainly would not have written Fuzzy Nation, or Redshirts or, probably, Lock In (I probably would have written more OMW books, although if they would have been like The Human Division or The End of All Things is up in the air).
Would that alternate career have been better or worse? It’s hard to say (although I do suspect it would mean that at this point I would not have a Best Novel Hugo, so there’s that). What is easy to say is that I couldn’t have predicted how other people’s mortgages — and the governmental policies which had an impact on them — would make a difference to which novels I published, and when.
During the Trump administration, assuming he makes it through four years, I’m supposed to write four novels: the follow-ups to Lock In and The Collapsing Empire, and also two other novels. The times will find their way into those books whether I plot them to correspond directly to real world events or not (spoiler: I don’t plan to). How they will is at this point a mystery to me, as a) per above, I don’t know with any certainty where life is taking me or the nation, b) I haven’t written the books yet. We will see.
All I can say is that barring personal issues that impact my ability to write, or the collapse of the world as we know it, new novels will come out in the next four years. They’re already contracted for, for one thing. For another thing, I still like writing, and I still like making up universes for characters to romp about in (and expanding the universes I already built, in the case of sequels). I like my job. This new administration is not likely to stop me from doing it. And if it does, it’s because we all have bigger problems than whether I write a novel on time or not.
1. This is not a thread for general Trump-kvetching, please. This is about if and to what extent I think the Trump years will have an effect on my creative output. I’ll Mallet out comments that are largely unrelated.
2. I do occasionally get asked if I will write any novels set in the real world, without science fiction elements, in which case writing directly about contemporary politics would make sense. My answer at the moment is: Folks, I have 12 more books in a contract that’s meant to run a decade. I’m kind of busy enough. Plus, again, if you want my thoughts on current political stuff, you’re already in the place for that.
[Deleted because it looks suspiciously like advertising. Mr. Blechman, save this for a couple of weeks from now, which I run my annual gift guide and encourage people to post their wares here — JS]
Two things I love about this post. First, youacknowledge we don’t live in a vacuum, and the outside world DOES impact us, even if we don’t want it to, or don’t believe it has. We so easily become incidental sponges, absorbing some of what is going on without intent to do so. I laugh at myself when I notice something I said was done in the exact manner a friend of mine would say it, so just being with them initiated a personal bleed-over. Second, many stories are never overtly meant to reflect the times we live in; they are just stories (fave example is Mark Twain’s reaction to society’s reaction to Huck Finn; he was aghast!). Often, the impact from the world is an accident of timing. Writing takes time; and times change dramatically. The overlap is usually a fortuitous karma. Thanks for the great post!
I for one appreciate this because, while there are authors whose novels I look to for contemporary topical commentary, with you I’m glad to be able to turn to your blog or Twitter for that, and your novels for well-written escapism.
That said, have you ever entertained writing a longer subtler satirical piece of fiction? Your A Fan Letter to Certain Conservative Politicians piece certainly had a Swiftian vibe to it, but I’m talking more of a Voltaire-length send-up of our national nightmare.
You know, in your copious free time ;-)
Which is to ask, is it something that would even interest you if you did have the time?
I want to know how the Cubs winning a world series will impact your future novels? That has to have ramifications across the sporting landscape.
I must admit that Lock In certainly felt it had future-echoes of the Trump win baked into already, I don’t think that his actually winning will affect the sequels to it too much. Maybe you just captured the way things were going without meaning to.
Who the f knows what the future holds. Or what the future would have been with Hillary as prez.
@CrypticMirror: Maybe people will move on to referencing the Maple Leafs now :D
[Deleted for being off-topic. Dude, come on. – JS]
I started thinking about Greg Stillson and I see that it wouldn’t work now. Then I saw a squirrel so all ok
I suppose the question I have is: How do you imagine a Trump presidency will influence the amount of female, colored, Jewish, Muslim, and/or QUILTBAG characters you introduce into your works, if at all?
I LOVE that you already have a category name, so that in the future when English professors are teaching your books they’ll be able to say things like, “You may notice a change in tone between Scalzi’s pre-Trump-era books and his Trump-era works.” Good work thinking ahead.
My books are already pretty intentionally diverse at this point (an exception being Redshirts, which has mostly white main characters, for the specific reason that the TV show in the book is meant to be clueless), so I’m not entirely sure it will make a difference.
As a fiction writer I think you can count on one thing: the appetite for genre and take-me-away-from-it-all reading is going to be very strong if not actually burgeoning. That will affect you, I believe.
John said: “I am certain the Bush years affected the first four books of the Old Man’s War series . . .”
I definitely came away from the Last Colony thinking the OMW series was an extended parable about the risks inherent in waging an aggressive, militarized foreign policy. And yes, I also thought that this parable was inspired to some extent by the Bush era Global War on Terror. . .
Turns out Trump believes code duello should be updated to include open-carry flamethrowers and other weaponized civilian drones. After the theatrical affront to Mike Pence, Trump wants dueling legitimized in “Stand Your Ground”-type statutes nation-wide. And, as part of a gruesome dawn ritual involving glove-slaps on live goats, he practices daily.
(Anyway, that’s what I read on Facebook.)
Science fiction has a long tradition of dystopias, but I don’t think Trump’s America will be dystopic _enough_. If you want serious dystopias, you need Somalia or even better (worse?) North Korea. No sane writer could dream up North Korea. There have been nativist politicians in the USA before (I’ve always liked the name Know-Nothings for such idiots), and I don’t think they could be much of an inspiration. Really there isn’t any answer except write and see.
C W Rose
I’m still trying to establish myself in the field. Ashamed of my selfishness, I have to admit that on Election Night, amidst melting horror and with a brick of ice in my gut, I still had time to worry about how this nightmare would affect my (mostly still imaginary) career.
As someone who’s enjoyed science fiction for half a century now, I’m wondering what choice words Isaac Asimov would have had for our witless president-elect.
And as a fan, I’m wondering if that group of crybaby MRA/racist writers who did their best to hijack the Hugo (I honestly forget what they call themselves) will feel emboldened now.
I don’t know if this is off topic, but why do you say ‘if he makes through 4 years?’
I sometimes think that people do such weird things that writers are positively spoiled for choice; for example, consider what happened in Albania following the fall of the Soviet Union.
Up until then the country had received substantial funds from China, but the funding went, since China no longer needed Albania. So that small and impoverished country spent what little money it had on building thousands of bunkers for the population to defend themselves against the hordes who would want to take the fabulous wealth of Albania from them. It was completely delusional; there were no such riches, and unsurprisingly no hordes turned up…
middle aged male, I can’t answer for Scalzi, but for myself, I routinely make that kind of statement about any president or president-elect when discussing the possibilities of that person’s term in office. There is no way to know whether any president will serve out the entire term, for any number of reasons. It doesn’t have to be a veiled reference to some dire event or a political circumstance. That’s all I read into Scalzi’s comment, but of course I could be entirely wrong.
Yes, that mortgage crises was rough. While I know that I should call a certain time-period The 2008 World Recession, like everybody else does, sometimes in my thoughts I still call it the Wall Street Meltdown.
Thanks for bringing this up. I had a possible Nanowrimo topic that would’ve been a “what if” story that predicted Trump’s win and the fallout, but I stood back and realized events were changing so dang fast it’d be pointless to continue beyond the outline. With the speed of disseminated information these days (and of questionable factual worth at that), it would be damned difficult to actually try to write something following recent events as fiction and it NOT automatically be dated. Its true that we’re products of the times we’re in, and sometimes our writing reflects that more than we want, but I’m a historian at heart, and it’s difficult to get the whole mural when you’re only 5 inches away from the surface, let alone a story paralleling current events that may be disproven in a week. I was wrestling with the idea, and now I know why it was so hard to try. You’re right that some of today may bleed in, but planning it that way…ugh, I don’t even want to know how that story would’ve come out had I continued. I’ll let it simmer and play the what if game later (thanks for the insight!)
middle aged male: He may simply get bored with the job and quit, now that it’s served the purpose of pumping up the value of his brand. Wouldn’t put it past him.
I agree with Magda that the world is going to need plenty of take-me-away-from-all-this goods on hand to read, so as long as you keep writing I am fine. :-)
To answer middle aged male’s question (as a guess to what John was thinking): impeachment.
Trump has already used his status as president-elect for financial gain. If the Republicans think he’s getting out of hand, I’m pretty sure they’ll impeach him as soon as it’s convenient for them to do so. I’m sure most of them would rather have to deal with Pence (who’s demonstrated in the whole Hamilton foofaraw that he has a thicker skin than Trump).
Also, the dude is 70 and not in the greatest of physical shape. He may simply kick the bucket at some point.
For a week after the election, I found I couldn’t enjoy horror movies or relevant dramas. I think now I understand why so many movies from the Great Depression are screwball comedies, fantasy musicals, or exotic adventures. My guess is, there’ll be a big demand for escapist entertainment.
The Trump presidency has pretty much destroyed my faith in humanity. I always knew there were bigots, and I knew that one in twenty people is a sociopath, but I always convinced myself that they were at this point a marginalized, tiny fraction of the overall population. I believed they were dying out. And then half the country embraced a bigotted fascist.
At this point, any fiction that I read that attempts to channel an overarching faith in humanity is going to come across to me as unbearably naive.
One of my favorite quotes of all time was ‘The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.’ But now it just seems like wishful thinking.
Since the 70’s, works like Star Trek showed mankind overcoming our shortsightedness, our prejudices, and living in a post scarcity society.
And now, half the country basically said, Nah, fuck Star Trek, we’d rather live with Immorten Joe, because we think we’d be in the Citidel with him.
Any fiction that ignores the desire of so many people to tear down this country, to embrace bigotry, fear, and scarcity, is going to come across as a fairy tale.
So there’s at least a possibility that not all of your future books will be about living in a paranoid and fascist surveillance state? Though I suppose Orwell already wrote that book.
I predominately read as an escape mechanism. I don’t know what I will read if the world really does fall apart in the next four years. I have doubts that it will be as dystopian as most sci-fi of the type is written but it might be close.
I was too young to make much sense of the Cold War but I see a strong chance of it happening again. I see Mother Russia chuckling as she set the chess pieces on the board. I also see the grins on the faces of the drug gangs.
I have hopes for a brighter tomorrow but it seems winter is coming. Dress warmly and write anyway. It will probably be safer than our own streets will be for some time.
Shouldn’t even *try* to write novels that are aloof from current political considerations — it’s such political/cultural thoughts that attach the writing to the minds of the readers. What science fiction writers should avoid is too much reference to future tech. I picked up a Greg Bear novel today because it had a shiny new cover and I’d never heard of it before, but when I started reading it the tech started getting retro-weird, so I looked at the original publication date and found it was 1985. I like Greg Bear novels but he was not good (is anybody?) at predicting technological developments. But the Seven Deadly Sins, plus racism, sexism, totalitarianism, etc., are the old reliables — they’ll be sticking up their ugly heads a thousand years from now, and are always worth reading about.
[[ I don’t know if this is off topic, but why do you say ‘if he makes through 4 years?’ ]]
Are you trolling?
Have you not followed the election?
Trump has failed at every endeavor. There is no way that trump can focus for 4 years straight, at a job that he has zero experience at. He will quit after the midterm election. Unless he is indicted first.
Now I am hopelessly curious about the topic for your five volume YA series. Is it safe to assume you would have mentioned in the post what they would have been about if you intended to disclose it?
Theophylact, if it didn’t mean a Pence presidency I’d get the popcorn ready for a Trump meltdown when he finds out he can’t do _____ (fill in the blank, he made a lot of promises he can’t legally carry out) and threatens a ragequit unless Congress/the courts/the country goes along with him. There’s enough GOPers who can’t stand the guy to get a bipartisan “acceptance of his resignation” through Congress before he can retract.
(Pence scares me more, because he’s got Trump’s attitudes about anyone lacking a penis and a couple million in the trust fund, but sufficient brainpower to get his bigotry into law.)
Just this morning I was wondering what I could say I was Thankful for, this Thursday.
What I came up with was, I’m extremely thankful for writers who can take me out of the Real World for a time.
So I’m thinking your writing will be selling just fine in the Trump Era.
Some folks are beginning to wander into a general discussion of Trump. Please reel it in.
Not going to go into detail about it at the moment, mostly because I might reuse the idea one way or another. But it was cooooool.
Agreed, but with one critical exception: I don’t think Pence is likely to get us into the Final War through thin-skinned pique, ignorance, or inadvertence.
You say you don’t want we relitigate the Alien and Sedition Acts in print, but that is a really fascinating political period in the country that might be worth reading about for inspiration as a sci fi writer.
The Civil War of 1812 by Alan Taylor (I’m not Taylor, I swear) has a lot of great history of the politics of the period that is a.) fascinating and b.) not as well known in the U.S. He does a great job at writing about the era’s political issues not as foregone conclusions, but as choices people were making, and does a great job of showing off the trans-Atlantic and cross-border perspectives.
The U.S. and Canada were both creating new nations in various senses and the Indians were trying to preserve theirs. Ontario, for instance, was being founded at the time by a British officer who’d led some pretty brutal Loyalist militias around NYC during the Revolution and was sure Americans missed the king so much. He was however savy enough to get a bunch of Americans to move to the frontier north of Lake Erie in exchange for no taxes, but also no political rights to speak of. Plus, Irish Jacobins were a big issue, with When it came to the war, the Madison Administration basically tried to fight the closest thing I’m aware of to a war conducted as if the world worked how libertarians will tell you it works.
I personally think your novels would be slightly better if more people stayed up at night burning candles damning John Jay, but that’s probably a minority taste.
Greg, regarding despair and your fiction, sf writer (and member of the Order of Canada) Robert Sawyer’s latest novel, Quantum Night, explores the idea (as sf) that sociopaths are among us in greater numbers than society knows. It’s a good read.
My silver lining is that poor whites in the flyover states, both bigots and non-bigots, are still hopeful enough to vote. They may not believe in Bush and Obama, thinking them to both be elite, they may prefer Trump and Sanders, but at least they still believe in voting. My fear is that they will despair of anyone giving a care about them, and give up.
How to give a care? When, say, Michael Moore exposes the government as helping business to move jobs outside the country, let’s investigate before we simply reply Moore is looney tunes.The poor will notice.
Greg, take comfort (or not) in this statistic: 58% of eligible voters actually voted in the general election that just passed. That means only 29% of the population is perhaps racist and all those other things you mentioned. The 42% who didn’t vote were for various reasons, including apathy, feeling it doesn’t really matter, and a healthy bunch who really don’t like voting for the lesser of two weevils. (Pun intended.) So, things aren’t as dire in our society as you might think. Cheer up, there really are more who are with you than are not.
Sean, thanks for the book recommendation, but that story doesnt sound like it would help my feeling of disconnect with humanity.
At this point, about all I can manage is spongebob squarepants.
You’re wise to write mostly far-future fiction. Poor Charlie Stross noted on his blog that RL events have overtaken his Laundry series, to the point (I think) that one novel had to be extensively rewritten.
I think current events inform fiction to the extent that they teach us (or re-teach us) just how vulnerable the institutions we rely on are, and what happens when we ignore signs they’re crumbling. That shapes the assumptions, particularly the unspoken assumptions, on which we base our characters and their milieus.
In her book about the pre-WWI world (“The Proud Tower”) and WWI (“The Guns of August”) Barbara Tuchman pointed out that increased global trade, development of international communications, and the rise of egalitarian movements convinced people there could be no more wars because we were “too connected.” That fantasy lasted less than 30 years.
We’ve been living in a similar fantasy. The EU “proved” that economic interdependence provided stability and prosperity for all. The Internet “would” make us as socially interconnected as global trade pacts made us economically. The arc of history is long, but it always bends toward justice. And so on.
The next few years will show whether any of that is true, or whether it’s a fantasy based on an anomalous 50 year period that was mostly-stable and mostly-peaceful, where our institutions generally worked pretty well… until we forgot that institutions need to be maintained, and defended from people whose financial and political agendas require they be defunded and discredited.
The next few years may show that the arc of the universe is long, and bends toward entropy, and entropy can manifest locally.
As an avid reader I’ve been polling people for years on their reading tastes, and whether they read at all. Before I retired a few years ago I worked in a science lab with about 200 other people, and of those about 75% read frequently, with about 10% of those being fans of science fiction. I found through my informal polling that the numbers for the general public aren’t quite as high (perhaps because my coworkers and I were nearly all college graduates).
Although I’d never previously inquired about political affiliation in my reader poll, when it became clear that Trump would become the Republican nominee I started asking about that out of curiosity. And I found that a large majority of the Trump supporters I encountered rarely read books, if at all. So from my entirely unscientific survey I can tell you that it is unlikely you or any other writer in any genre will see falling sales because of Trump. Perhaps the numbers will even increase as people find a need for new avenues of escape from reality.
Anyway you can do a blog post on your 3 year gap without a novel? I didnt know who you were in 2008. Id bet I am not alone in that. So the publisher pulled the YA novels off the table due to the slow economy and less book contracts? Isnt this when John published the God Engine?
I’ve read some books that have pretty much ripped off a historical event/period and used that as the basis for a book set in the future. But there is also the opportunity to use a character only.
John, you may bring out a book and your readers all go “Oh look, he’s based that character on Steve Bannon, the evil counsellor to the Head of State”. To which you reply that the character was based on Rasputin. But Bannon may have subconsciously prompted you to look at Rasputin.
History recycles itself and the evil ministers trope is an oldie but a goody.
For some reason this title made me think of a passage from God Emperor of Dune (quote found online somewhere):
…look at the arts of my time. The arts are barbaric. The favorite poetry? The Epic. The popular dramatic ideal? Heroism. Dances? Wildly abandoned. From Moneo’s viewpoint, he is correct in describing this as dangerous. It stimulates the imagination. It makes people feel the lack of that which I have taken from them. What did I take from them? The right to participate in history.
Several years ago, composer Philip Glass commented that when social/political situations become dire then the art that society produces becomes really interesting. (Note: he did not say it was necessarily good, just that it would be interesting.) I think it will be virtually impossible for artists in the next four years to produce any type of creative endeavor that is not somehow filtered through the tempo of the times. We’re already seeing that things as seemingly unconnected as seeing (or not) a popular Broadway musical or purchasing (or not) a coffee at Starbucks are being imbued with a political significance they did not possess a mere 15 days ago. I suspect that many heretofore “non-political” acts (especially of a creative nature) will soon be designated (by outside forces if not by their creators) as having political import. I don’t think anyone will be able to avoid it.
Fantasy spongebob is good.
On my last day-trip, on a little farm highway, all I played on my CD player were soundtracks from fantasy cartoon movies.
If things go further south, will you please tell me OMW stories when we try to cry ourselves to sleep in the Trump work camps for Democrats?
With all due and sincere respect to Mr. Glass, I’d like him to program an evening of music produced in the Third Reich itself by composers who weren’t exiled, silenced or dead. I promise you it will be neither interesting nor good. As for Stalinist Russia? One Shostakovich is the (debatable) exception that proves the rule.
I would sincerely love that to be true, but there have always been self-appointed culture warriors being infinitely tiresome – and sometimes distastefully effective. I’m sure the Banned Books Week Coalition (est. 1982) would love to declare mission accomplished and wind itself up. Ditto for the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund (celebrating its 30th anniversary and well worth your support). But I don’t see that happening any time soon.
But as for the political nature and responsibility of the artist? As far as I’m concerned, it’s what it has always been. The Artist’s responsibility is to keep asking questions when ideologues of all stripes pretend they have the answers, and make sure the only answer is that the world is bigger, messier and more complicated than any politician dares admit.
Thanks for the insight into your thought/writing process.
I had earlier questioned whether it is harder to write a genre like science fiction when you are trouble by reality.
Science fiction/fantasy has always seemed to be hopeful about the future/humanity (even dystopian lit has heroes). I recognize that you are likely very disciplined when it comes to writing, but inspiration can’t be controlled. This wasn’t so much about incorporating our current situation as much as wondering IF it affects your ability to imagine new worlds and characters.
Entering my 40s, I find it harder to be swept away by reading science fiction/fantasy as easily as I could when younger, let alone when I’m troubled by current events. Escaping isn’t as it used to be.
Or maybe I just shouldn’t have given up coffee this month :)
Is science fiction and fantasy the literature of hope and change? Maybe I just think so.
(Also, I forgot that you have a child. Of course, you can still hold a sense of optimism for her. Duh. I miss coffee.)
This got me thinking of old stories that Trump puts me in the mood for. I cant remember the name, but there was a story about some earthlings who land on a planet. The children are short/squat. The adults are long/skiny. The earthlings learn there is a “stretching” ceremony for individual when they come of age. The captain tries to save one of the initiates from the ceremony, only to have him turn into a plant because of the captains actions. The story ends with the captain horrified at what he’s done, something i doubt trump is capable of. But the idea of totally fucking someone over through a combination of hubris, ignorance, and good intentions, seems an apt story for the trump administration.
Anyone recognize this story? I cant remember the title or anything that google spits out a name.
Greg wrote: “I can’t remember the name, but there was a story about some earthlings who land on a planet.” From the description which follows, this is Katherine MacLean’s “Unhuman Sacrifice” (March 1958 Astounding SF).
@Craig Michael Ranapia
You’re not responding to the point that Glass actually made. The original quote didn’t exclude artists who were exiled, silenced, or dead. I guess it hinges on how you define “society”. Bottom line is that I agree both with Glass and with you.
A bit of art produced during the Third Reich that is both interesting and good is Metamorphosen by Richard Strauss. This is shattering music, music that is beyond despair. But Strauss was very much out of favor with the Nazis at that point, so it supports your point too.
Shostakovich is an interesting case. His expressly ‘socialist realism’ works were tripe designed to keep him alive, but he still produced vital music after he was denounced in 1948 (examples: Fourth String Quartet (1949), Preludes and Fugues for Piano, Op 87 (1951)). There has been so much written about Shostakovich’s true motivations that I don’t know what to think anymore. Just listen to the music.
Fair counterpoints well put there, Rick. Things are complicated when they’re complicated. Who’d have thunk it?
You can get an amen to that, and here’s some extras for later.