Writing About Later, Now: Harder Than It Used to Be

I have a piece in the Los Angeles Times today about the difficulty of writing science fiction in today’s world, and no, it’s not just because one has to wonder if the world is going to be here tomorrow. Here’s the link. Enjoy!

55 Comments on “Writing About Later, Now: Harder Than It Used to Be”

  1. PS: Please don’t kvetch here about ads and/or firewalls. I know the LA Times has them. It has to make money. Assume I’ve heard your specific complaint about them before. Also, if you’re tempted to tell me you’re not going to read the piece because ads/firewalls/etc., assume I’ve heard that before too, and it’s not necessary for me to be told it again.

  2. Imagine what the writers of “House Of Cards” are dealing with !
    Used to be it was pretty far fetched but now it seems positively pedestrian to whats actually going on in the White House.

  3. “To have characters in far-flung times prattling on about issues clearly specific to our time would be like writing a novel where people in 2017 are having knock-down, drag-out fights about the Alien and Sedition Acts or the Boer War.”

    Or… the Civil War? I think Americans in 2500 will be fighting about it.

  4. Interesting read. It is hard to focus on anything, even writing Swedish language textbooks, because of the lurch between nuclear war on one day to white supremicists on the next. Nothing is normal any longer. In these times, it is hard enough to stay sane and kind. Not to mention funny, which is your talent, in a time where nothing seems funny any more.

  5. Just think of the opportunity. Fallout style story lines with real live research going into it. Power armor and mini-nukes for everyone!

  6. John, I thought the best part was the juxtaposition of the final sentence and the little author bio/plug at the end:

    “Then I could get back to writing work that’s minimally allegorical and not, intentionally or otherwise, something that looks like straight-up reportage.

    Scalzi, a critic at large, is a Hugo Award-winning novelist. His most recent book is “The Collapsing Empire.””

    Oh, the irony.

    Just sayin’…

  7. I am trying with minimal success to learn my part in the Bach B Minor Mass that I will singing on Saturday. Very difficult to do when I have to compulsively check my Twitter feed.

  8. What if I tell you I’m going to read the piece BECAUSE there are ads and a pay firewall?? Have you heard that one before? Probably not, but anything goes in the USA now! ;)

  9. Thanks for writing this and sharing it for us to see. In the article, you ask a question about how science fiction writers can build dystopias with finesse in the current times.

    My answer: If they can’t, maybe the time has come to try something different.

    Speculative work has focused on downsides, with apocalyptic and dystopian elements taking the lead over much of the last decade, like the disasters escaping from Pandora’s box.

    Let’s take a look at what legendarily follows that. Hope.

    I’m not even remotely close to being the first person to point this out recently, but we need the pendulum swinging in a more utopian direction. Instead of focusing our imaginations on the worst-case, let’s drag them away from the train wreck and dream something we want to see in the future.

    If the world will catch up with science fiction, let’s give it something positive up ahead in the distance.

  10. I read all the “Advise and Consent” books when I was in grade school. All this reminds me of “Come Nineveh, Come Tyre”, except it turns out Drury got it exactly wrong. It’s the conservatives who are ending the world in blood and fire by colliding with the Russians.

  11. Like William Gibson reportedly said, “The future is already here — it’s just not very evenly distributed.” Still awaiting powered armor.

  12. Maybe take inspiration from Sinclair Lewis? “It Can’t Happen Here” is a classic for a reason.

    Or write something about a superhero who punches out Nazis? That’s what I’ve been doing these past few months. Just writing fanfic about Supergirl punching Nazis in their filthy faces.

  13. One of the strange things about spending time in hospital is that it’s a different world; I came home on Monday, having spent 39 days in that different world, and it’s already becoming unreal. This is a popular SF/F theme which I have no problems in accepting, for obvious reasons, since I’ve been going in and out of hospitals since I was a small child, thanks to the NHS which provides care to those who need it, rather than only to those who can pay for it.

    John’s problems as a writer when that different world no longer looks different strike a chord; I know that the different world exists, but most people don’t. It’s possible, of course, to write a book that transcends the world it obviously sprang from, but still has qualities which draw you back long after that world has changed.

    For me, Zelazny’s ‘Damnation Alley’ is so compelling that I spend time with its antihero every year or so. On the other hand, it’s bloody hard to write a book that good, and Zelazny was writing at a time when the status quo had been the status quo for quite some time. That isn’t the case today.

    By the way, that looks like Zeus in the Twitter side bar. He’s looking good…

  14. The accuracy of your observations aside (I’ve seen my productivity plummet since November), you certainly didn’t pull any punches regarding how you feel about the papaya potus.

  15. Could I possibly just admit my weakness and retreat into the past instead, if only to watch all of West Wing again.
    I know, I know, ostrich head in the sand but some days I just can’t take it any more.

  16. Ray C–I think you and might be some of the few left who remember those Alex Drury books!

    Stevie–I saw the movie version of “Damnation Alley” before I joined the USAF. I ended up in a missile Launch Control Center with my very own set of keys to hose off a squadron of Minuteman III ICBMs if so ordered. Turned out the opening scene in the movie was filmed in one of the Missile Procedure Trainers (completely representative, real-life appearing trainers where we practiced all of our procedures) using the actual launch sequence for our base. It was as real in appearance as it gets.

  17. Not a rant about paywalls, but rather a segue into copyright issues: As a name-brand author, John, have you ever considered insisting on retaining copyright to your newspaper pieces? That would let you republish them on your own site, making them available in perpetuity and sidestepping the whole issue of paywalls, which are a significant issue for some readers.

    That suggestion isn’t as far-fetched as you might think. About 15 years ago, when I was a member of the Society for Technical Communication (STC), I decided it was both ironic and inappropriate that STC required authors to surrender copyright to their (unpaid) contributions to the magazine and newsletter. After all, isn’t an organization composed primarily of writers supposed to be protecting the rights of writers? With the help of a Board member, I proposed that STC amend all its publications policies to let authors retain copyright to their works and grant STC only the rights they needed to safely publish our contributions. After much sturm and drang, they accepted, and authors now have the right to reuse their own writing howsoever they wish. STC retains print and online rights to the articles I contribute, and can anthologize them should they wish, but I have full rights to do whatever I want with the text after giving them 1 month of exclusivity. As a general rule, I no longer accept an offer to publish something I’ve written if I can’t republish the work on my site a month later. This kind of attitude spreads — when authors stick up for their rights.

    So paywall or no paywall, see if you can’t put a little pressure on your publishers to make things better for all authors. For the privilege of publishing a Scalzi original, most publishers should be willing to let you republish it a month later on your own site.

  18. I don’t mind paywalls like that one, where you can try it first to see if you like it. I would have even subscribed if they took PayPal.

  19. You wouldn’t be old enough to have had the experience of reading Doonesbury during the Watergate hearings, when cartoonist Garry Trudeau found it practically impossible to think up wilder stuff than was coming out in the daily news.

    But, as an artist, you’re living in comparable times.

  20. But think of all of the wonderful opening lines there will be when and if this is over. Four years of being on the spin cycle might end up giving even more vertigo when it stops though. At least I am not John Kelly, that poor guy’s sense of duty must be epic.

  21. In some cases science fiction tries to paint humanity into a future that is bright and filled with love and compassion. The appeal of Star Trek is just that. It presents a future where humans have put aside petty racial arguments and have moved on to explore space on a peace keeping mission. The universe that Roddenberry created is a utopian fantasy. We hope that in the future we are advanced enough to realize we all live on this one blue marble in a vast universe. Once we destroy this planet we cannot buy one at the big box or online retailer of the universe. I am an African American, a race that has been decimated by slavery, Jim Crow, drugs, and mass incarceration. I always knew what he was. He couldn’t hide. His comments didn’t push us into a bright future but moved his into the past. It seems like science fiction about the past.(Oxymoron of sorts) Its seems as if the United States jumped into a time machine and returned to the days of “A Birth of a Nation”. John I see your predicament and understand how can it can be a task you write science fiction when it seems you are living it. As always well written and thought out. You inspire me to keep plugging away at my word processor.

  22. Hell, I’m old enough to have watched the Army-McCarthy hearings on black-and-white TV (progressive school; they let us out to watch, supervised by teachers). And I’ve never been as fearful about our country’s future as I am today.

  23. John, you are the Energizer Bunny of SF writing. How you do all this is an absolute wonder to me. Good editorial, by the way.

  24. I KNOW I KNOW.

    I lived through Watergate.

    This is worse.

    I’ve got my seatbelts fastened and I’m just praying for the better world my kids hopefully will inherit, while doing what I can, as a Red State liberal, to help that world come into being.

    The Obama years seem like a dream now. Holy shit.

  25. ‘The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.’

    And maybe has a speed bump or two. I certainly wouldnt have guessed we would be watching nazis run around america, in daylight, with no masks or hood on, in such numbers. Or to hear so many nazi defenders argue that counter protesters are just as bad as followers of a genocidal madman. Didnt the entire nation organize to fight these bastards? And now some nitwits want to celebrate him?

    Certainly never thought i would see that.



  26. Great article. It seems these last two weeks have been even more difficult to endure, mainly because it’s been 7 months of so much of this crap and it’s only getting worse no matter how badly Trump is failing, and how many people who used to support him aren’t anymore because he’s an arrant liar.

  27. Seriously thinking of taking up recreational alcoholism and I quit drinking years ago. Lol. It is probably a good thing I DON’T drink anymore because I may not want to get sober again. With everything that is going on I’d probably want to stay drunk.

  28. Born to wealth. Swears and bullies to get their own way. Is sexually promiscuous and expects prospective partners to want it. And has risen to a position of power.

    Hmmm. Who could that be?

    Donald Trump or Kiva Lagos from the Collapsing Empire? Did the first inspire the second?

  29. A friend has pointed out for months one of the few (infinitesimally few) good things about the Trump administration – it has totally destroyed the audience for the Kardashians and other so-called “reality” shows. We’re living – unfortunately – through a reality show of our own that makes them look like Romper Room.

    *Hops on the geezer bus with others who remember Allen Drury*

  30. Interesting article, but holy man, the comments under it. Do these bigots not realise that we can fact check their assertions? Sheesh.

  31. @Scalzi: With few exceptions (such as the present forum), your statement could end immediately before the word “on”.

    If I ever get one of those vanity heraldic coats-of-arms, my motto is going to be “Numquam legite annotatio”. (Those of you who actually know how to conjugate Latin, feel free to correct my grammar.)

  32. “Donald Trump or Kiva Lagos from the Collapsing Empire? ”

    I found Kiva an interesting and fun character. Not the case with Trump. I’m not saying Kiva is a good person, but I’d rather have her than Trump.

  33. Just because the president says “Alt Left” does not mean anyone should repeat it, because no matter how cleverly you try appropriate it (Nice D Day meme, BTW), you’re still bouncing to his rhetorical game, normalizing his preferred term for the violent leftwingers, which isn’t currently as well known to the general public as is the term Alt Right. But which is clearly designed to trap the aggrieved Left in a rough kind of moral equivalency with the Nazis and the KKK.

    You’re also setting yourself up for a narrative shellacking when the next Left Wing Maniac (someone like Hodgkinson) explodes with violence. And when that happens, as it inevitably will, the first words out of President Trump’s mouth will be: “As I previously told you so about the Alt Left, they are just as bad, if not worse, than the neo-Nazis and the KKK . . . “

  34. (Before reading the article.) I have a bunch of ideas, scenes, and chapters for various science fiction and other stories, squirreled away on disk. Some of these involve a particular set of dystopian future occurrences. Before the election, I was thinking, oh, come on, would this or that in my ideas ever really happen? Is it too far-fetched or too pessimistic about how things would likely go? But more and more, it’s looking like what I had in mind could be mild compared to what’s going on or what we may be headed for. At very least, it’s far more possible my world-building exercise is readily possible. I’m not sure I’m too pleased about that. I’d rather have a brighter future ahead. So, I will be rethinking what to keep, what to refine, what to throw out, what to put in new. I still think having a very imperfect world and imperfect people to tell stories with is more true-to-life. It’s just a matter of figuring out what I think is likely, what is going too far, and what would make the most interesting backdrop to tell stories in. The thing is, I now think much of it was a good idea from a world-building / storytelling point of view after all. But dang…when current events get crazier and darker than what you thought was likely to be? Yeah, I can see how that would make it rough to write stories for even the best pro writers in the genres out there.

    Also, hey, I was a little kid in elementary school when Watergate was going on, and have dim early memories of, say, Barbara Jordan speaking then. It’s been very odd for me the past few years how it feels like we’re sort of cycling back through a 60’s/70’s war era, counter-culture, repeat. So much is similar and only updated. I grew up in a pretty conservative and religious home, but luckily, my mom was an artist (painter) and English major, and my dad was a farm boy turned engineer who grew up loving history, so I did have some rescue there. So although I grew up a little bookworm, I was sort of aware of some of the outside world (and sort of not, too, very sheltered and restricted) — So it’s funny that as I get older, I’m turning more liberal and seeing there was some value in some of those counter-culture ideas; they just didn’t find a way that was workable enough with modern, mainstream society. But because of growing up how I did, I now am glad I did see both sides (the square and the alternative). — One thing: My parents were conservative, but they were *not* at all in favor of McCarthy or such things, or the Nazis, neo-Nazis, or KKK. They were very pointedly in favor of equality of religion and race/ethnic groups, including making sure I knew there were Native Americans back in my ancestry, not just white folks. I am *very* certain, given what they said on such things when I was growing up, they’d be disgusted with what’s going on currently. For this, I’m very glad.

    (Now to read the article. Expecting good food for thought as usual.) (Thank goodness at least some people still have good sense!)

  35. This is the time when satire is dead. Every time we try to satirize Trump, he outdoes the satire.


    Or… the Civil War? I think Americans in 2500 will be fighting about it.

    I think it’s extremely unlikely there will BE Americans (as we understand the term) in 2500.

  36. Camus wrote “The Stranger”, “The Plague”, and “The Myth of Sisyphus” in occupied France during World War Two. He was also editor of “Combat” a newspaper put out by the resistance group of the same name of which could have resulted in his death.
    “The Crucible, ” by Arthur Miller also directly addresses the events of his own time of which he was very directly involved while speaking to a wider more timeless audience.

    I am not so sure that writing closely to one’s time is a negative quality, or that to do so reduces the effect.

    I’m not saying that it is easier to write. I think that depends greatly on the author. Some feed off the energy of the moment other are more debilitated by it. John’s experience is valid to him, and probably valid to many. His work might suffer by the association, same as others. I just think that the generality doesn’t hold.

  37. @Matt McIrvin
    @Xopher Halftongue

    I’m (at least half seriously) starting to think that the American Civil War is one of those things like the Hundred Years War where historians have to re-contextualize it well after the fact and tag on a new end date.

  38. Morgan, I’ve already seen historians saying that dividing WWI from WWII was a mistake, that there was a Great European War that had a cessation of hostilities for a while, and a ruinous treaty which soon gave rise to new hostilities with slightly different actors, and expanding to the Pacific.

  39. For the record, Trump did not invent the expression “alt-left”. It was used last year by Clinton supporters as a way to suggest the Bernie bros and others were as radical and unfit to govern as the alt-right. See the Molly Roberts article in the Washington Post on the history of the term.

  40. For the Civil War, I’m going to suggest something controversial. I think that white Dixie is a separate nation for all things considered. This is the same way that Catalonia is in Spain, and Scotland is in the UK. How long did it take for the Scottish to stop talking about William Wallace? Catalonia’s flag is based on a story from the failed 17th century rebellion.

    For better or worse, a lot of white southerners see themselves as a separate nation. The thing is, I grew up in the South. I have seen people either whose parents moved there or who moved there very young. A lot of them adopted Confederate nationalism. To be fair, all of them were white.

    So I have to ask, if white Confederates see themselves as a separate nation, what do we do about it? I realize that demographics are changing, but

    1. They’re not changing in all states. Right now, it’s FL, GA, TX, NC, SC, and VA. That still leaves LA, MS, AL, TN, AK, MS, and KY

    2. There’s a possibility that Confederate nationalism may be spreading in the plain states?

  41. Comments here are getting wierd.

    Those confederate-sympathizers? They’re losing.

    That’s why they’re angry. They’re angry because they are losers who are losing, and they know it.

    The tide of history really has been, is, and will be moving against them, and nothing they can do will stop it. Progress is slow, and it’s painful, and it takes brave people like Heather Heyer to make it happen. But every day lots of people do lots of little and big things that mean that the racists are, slowly, inexorably, losing.

  42. Maybe it’s just me, but I’m starting to feel the US is living in an alternate-ending version of The Dead Zone. The one where Greg Stillson got elected even after using the child as a human shield.

  43. Thank you for writing this piece. I have recently become a news junkie and my productivity is way down. I check CNN, Huffpo, Politico, Washpo, NYtimes, Foxnews and sometimes Breitbart to see what that side is saying in the comments. Scary stuff. Then I return to CNN again and start the process all over. The sad thing is that’s what Trump probably wants us to do. Last year I was happy with my gadget blog type sites like Newatlas. I hope the IT department is not monitoring my internet use too closely.
    My anxiety is up as well. My doctor says lots of his patients are experiencing this.

  44. Yes we can blame Drumpf for a lot of things but he is only playing to his base in flyover country. The Nazis were triggered when a statue of a white supremacist was going to be taken down, and they were not going to stand for that. We have to deal with that fact if we are going to get rid of he who must not be named.

  45. Thank you for linking to the article.
    While I agree with all the general points about (writing) SF you made, I wasn’t convinced by this:

    ” after the spectacle of Confederate flags and Nazi flags being carried side by side in Charlottesville, Va., and hundreds of angry white manboys glorying in their racism, does HBO really need “Confederate,” a show that posits a world in which the South won the Civil War? What we’ve got going on right now is hard to top.”

    I have no idea if “Confederate” will work but consider this:
    (After………) does Hulu really need “The handmaid’s tale”, a show that…………..

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