Look, Here’s Me at This Year’s National Book Festival
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In this I talk about writing The Last Emperox, I read my short story “Automated Customer Service” and then I answer a whole bunch of questions. All told, about 45 minutes of me doing my thing. Enjoy.
Update: Also, I’m adding in the transcript of the main portion of my talk, just in case you don’t want to sit through the video. Enjoy.
Thank you everybody.
Before I begin, I just couldn’t notice that somebody that I know is actually in the audience, my friend, Joe, who I worked with at America Online when I lived in this area, about 20 years ago. And the thing to know about Joe is that I actually killed him not once but twice in my books [laughter]. The first time it was because he was my editor, and I’d said something to him, and he was snarking, and I was like, “that’s it! I’m going to murder you in a book.” [Laughter] And then the second book was happening at the same time, as that first book, so I had to kill him again. And you know, I think his reaction was like, “The first time it was funny, now I’m concerned [laughter].” So, Joe, I apologize for murdering you twice, please don’t kill me now.
I’m going to go ahead and start talking about my book, The Consuming Fire. Actually I’m going to talk about the series, which is the interdependency series, which includes The Collapsing Empire, which is the first book, The Consuming Fire, which is the second book, which is out now, and is the most recent book that I have that has come out, and then the third book, which I’m writing even as we speak. Not literally right this second, because I’m talking to you, but as far as my editor knows [laughter], I am writing it when I go back to my hotel room, which is called The Last Emperox.
And the thing about the Interdependency series, which is kind of funny, is I started thinking about this book in–or these books in about 2014, and the idea behind them is there is a galaxy spanning sort of faster than light highway, or a river, which is called the flow. And that’s how people get from one place to the next, and in the course of the books, the flow starts collapsing. So that’s the basis. And how people are responding to that is what drives the books.
But what’s been interesting to me is watching people respond to the books, specifically in many ways starting with the titles. The first book is called The Collapsing Empire, in which people were like, oh, so we’re writing about America now, are we? You know? [Laughter] Or The Consuming Fire, which is another one where they’re like that’s a little on the nose. And then people are like reading the books and are like, well these are clearly books that are about climate change denial. Or we’d like to know, no actually they’re books about Brexit, no, they’re actually books about Brexit?
No! There are actually books about bad governance, and you know, and so the, you know, listening to people talk about how they are seeing the events of today, being played out in the books that I’m writing. Being played out in the books that I’m writing, that they really believe that I’m writing these books about or commenting on the contemporary world, I’m just setting it in the future.
The irony of this for me is that for these books it really was not–the precipitating idea was not about climate change or Brexit or bad governance. I was, because I am a nerd, thinking about the golden age of European colonization from the 15th to 19th Centuries [laughter]. Particularly when I was thinking about it, was the colonization and exploitation of the Americas, notably by England, Spain and Portugal, and the way that happened was through the technology of the time, and the technology of the time were these wind-driven ships. Now, in the Atlantic ocean, there are, the tradewinds, and the ocean currents, and they basically formed this great gyre, or gyre, or however it’s pronounced, and the ships go one way, then they come back another way, and they come back around, and that’s how a lot of the American exploitation and colonialization happened, because those trade winds were there and the technology took advantage of that.
The Europeans benefited enormously from these natural phenomenon that they had absolutely no control over. And so what I thought about was, what would have happened if these trade winds and the ocean currents just stopped? Okay? Just stopped. Which kind of seems like a fantastical idea, but it’s really not. I mean it’s not impossible to disrupt the cycle of ocean currents, for example. Like, for example, if you heat up the planet and you melt a whole lot of the glaciers in Greenland, then all that cold water goes into the ocean, sinks to the bottom, where the engine of these currents happen, disrupts them entirely, all of a sudden, Europe is a popsicle, and they’re all screwed. Could happen [laughter]. Don’t know now.
But the whole point of that for me is that the course of history would have been changed, and it would have been changed because the technology of the time relied on, assumed a natural feature of the earth was eternal, which it may not have been, and may still not be. And so I took that idea, and because I was not writing historical fiction, because people will check your facts [laughter], I moved it to the future where nobody can tell if I’ve got it screwed up, because by the time it happens, it will be dead. So that was the precipitating idea, and I wrote in in 2014, long before anything that’s happening now was happening. So for me, when people are like, “It’s Brexit!” “It’s climate change denial”…I’m like, “No! It’s about colonialism!”
The other thing is that I also have a general philosophy of not bringing up specific political issues from today in the current–in the science fiction that I write in the very, very far future. The way that I explain this to people is that like taking something that’s going on today, in a very non-allegorical sense, and just bringing it 500 years in the future, or 400 years, or something like that, would be like somebody writing contemporary fiction today in a world where everyone, including everybody in this room is passionately, madly, and has immediately accessible opinions about the Alien and Sedition Acts. Right? I mean, this is Washington, D.C., you may actually have [laughter]…opinions about the Alien and Sedition Acts, and actually, let me have a show of hands, how many of you are Jeffersonians in this particular case [laughter]? And how many of you are Adams’s? You Adams’s can leave the room now [laughter], because he was wrong!
But this is my whole point. This is my whole point. It’s not–most of you know if you had a history class what the Alien and Sedition Acts are, but you otherwise don’t really particularly care. And most of the people 400 years from the future are concurrent, contrasts everything that we’re going through, they’ll be like: Well that was a thing that happened. Do I have to know it for the test [laughter]? And that’s how they’re going to relate to it. If you’re doing stuff like illusion to metaphor, and stuff like that, that’s fine too, but it’s otherwise, but even then you have to be really careful about, and now I’m on a soap box, because all of a sudden, you break the thing where the person is enveloped in your world, and they’re like, oh, he’s talking about Brexit, isn’t he? So…so these are things that generally speaking, when I’m writing in science fiction, I try to avoid.
I don’t try to make it just talking about things that are going on now, but for all of that, for all of that science fiction, all about science fiction being in the future. It is written in the current time, by people who are living in the current times. Hi, I’m John Scalzi. I was born in 1969. I am 50 years old. The only times I’ve ever known are the times we are in now. And the people who are alive today and who are reading, have the same circumstances as I do. Some of you are older, some of you are younger. As I go along, fewer of you will be older [laughter] and lost more of you will be younger. I am freaked out about the idea that there are two generations of adults who are older than me, and the fact that people who are 10 years younger than me are now middle aged, stop doing that [laughter], but that is kind of the way it is.
So, I’m a writer. I live today, and I cannot help but be influenced by current events, both positively and negatively. I thought of this idea for this Interdependency series in 2014, but I started writing it in 2016. So, and I’m currently writing the third book, as far as my editor knows. So, you know, there–the period of time in which I am writing these books encompasses basically what I call the current chaos, right?
And so it has an effect on me, just by existing.
Not only that, but my past as a writer is as a newspaper journalist and columnist, I find it really, really hard not to pay attention because this is my fundamental training of what’s going on today? What do I think about it? Let me tell you. I had my first job as a nationally syndicated columnist when I was 24. I was a professional mansplainer , right [laughter]? That’s–it’s hard to break that out. And so it’s very difficult for me to filter that all out, and not to be thinking about it. So I can’t help but be affected by what’s going on today.
Moreover, you as readers cannot help but be affected by what’s going on in the world today. When writers write a book, they know why they’re writing the book, sometimes, and they have an idea of why they write, and what they meant, and all that sort of stuff. But you are not us. You often do not know what we are thinking about our books. The way you come to the book, basically with what the words are, and your own interpretation of it, the book is only half about the author. The other half is about you as the reader. And it is what you bring into it. And what are you bringing into the books when you read them? You are bringing your own concerns, fears, apprehensions and connections.
So, the fact of the matter is, even if I didn’t intend to write about bad governance, and Brexit, and climate denial, people are still going to be making those connections because it’s what they see in the world right now, and it’s in the air of the times. We are all captive of the world that we live in. Some of us are responsible in greater or lesser ways from making those worlds, but a lot of us are just like, we’re here. This is what we’re dealing with.
And as a writer, I cannot tell people that they are wrong for finding the parallels in these books that I did not necessarily intend. I mean, I could say it, like, all of you are wrong, how dare you? You know? The voice of the author has spoken! But…by and large, again, the book is not just what I wrote. It’s what you bring to it as well. You are going to see parallels there. And I am going to be affected by the times. The world that we live in makes an effect on the world that I’ve built.
I’m currently writing the third book in the series. I am behind, because the world is distracting. Don’t tell my editor [laughter]. And I’m still not intentionally writing about climate denial or Brexit, or bad governance, even though I know so many people who have been reading the series are thinking about these things. But the fact of the matter is, the crisis in the universe I created, the people who are facing the crisis are reacting in a way that is not going to be dissimilar to the way that humans in the real world are reacting to the crises we are all facing today. We are all still the same human beings 1,500 years in the future, as we are today, as we were 30,000 years ago, when we were in the Savannah, and the only thing we had to worry about were jaguars and food.
And I’ll give you an example of this. One of the things that I talk about in the new book is I talk about the five-stages of crisis management, which are used by the people who have no desire to face up to the looming unavoidable, wrenching change that is coming, or for those for whom this looming change is inconvenient for the business plan. So these five stages of the–the five stages of crisis management are denial, denial, denial, [laughter] denial! And holy crap, everything is screwed, grab as much cash as you possibly can and run!
These five stages, I regret to say, are not exclusive to my universe [laughter]. Nor is greed and cupidity and short-sightedness, or the other dynamics, and the dynamics of the events that occur because of these qualities. People are going to see parallels in what I’m writing in this third book, to what is happening now, because the humans in my book are based on the humans that exist in the real world, and how they respond to the crises around them.
But I should also note that in my book, there are people who are fighting against the greed and the cupidity and the stupidity and every–the short-sightedness, and they are doing what they can to save the people who are affected by the change that is coming. That means everybody in that particular universe. And to prepare them for whatever comes next. And that, too, is because the people in my book are based on people in the real-world as well.
Now, in my books, I know what’s going to happen. And I write the fates of the people in them, and I make their choices for them, and I know whether their endings to the response, to the, you know, the extent that they’re in the books are happy or sad, or somewhere in between. In the real-world, we don’t know what’s going to happen, and I can’t write everyone’s fate. And so we all have to decide what sort of people we are going to choose to be. Whether we are going to be the short-sighted ones, or if we’re going to be another type of person entirely. You are the people who have to choose that.
And so I say to you. Choose wisely! The next generation of writers is out there. They are literally out here. And even if they write about the future as I do, they are going to be writing in the world that we leave them for the readers who follow us. And now is the time that we have to decide what it is they choose to say.
And that’s that.