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Portrait of the Author As a Component of a “Punk-Or-Core” Formulation

Scalzipunk!

From time to time, people who wish to comment on science fiction and fantasy will choose to typify the current state of the genre in a way that suits their rhetorical needs, often creating a new-and-possibly-not-especially-cogent subgenre of it by offering up some noun with the suffixes “-punk” or “-core” attached. On occasion, in course of explaining their new spin on where science fiction is at the moment, I or a specific work of mine will be offered up as an example, or as a cautionary tale, if their diagnosis of the current state of science fiction is particularly dire.

I generally find these post hoc attachments of me or my work to newly-minted punk-or-core movements intriguing. Both because it’s fun to see what things of mine get used as examples, and because it’s nice to be thought notable enough that dropping in one of my works is seen either as bolstering the existence of the thing, or damning the thing as an abomination. Hey, I’m still in the mix, you know? An easy-to-make reference point that most people who follow the field will get without too much Googling. It’s gratifying to be ubiquitous. Good for me.

I also think these attachments are usually incorrect to some degree or another. I think there are some distinct thematic streams in the flow of current science fiction, and some of them might even be rivers, but I’m not sure that I’m sailing along in any of them specifically. It’s not that I’m too special and precious and exist only in my own pond. I think it’s more that the waterway I mostly traffic in is not a stream or a river, but a canal — you know, those artificial waterways people create, usually for commercial purposes. This canal may intersect or run parallel to these other streams or rivers (and here the analogy might break down, honestly I don’t know the hydrological mechanics of canals when they encounter other bodies of water, but just work with me here, okay, thanks), and where this happens, there’s going to be commonality. But after that short confluence, every one goes on their merry way.

My canal, as it turns out, runs across a lot of thematic ground, and does a fair amount of intersecting. Some of that is by design, since I am easily bored, as a human and a writer, and like to splash around in new places. Some of that is just following the lay of the land. At the end of the day, however, it means that depending one’s inclinations and rhetorical needs, and contingent on examples, I can be grouped in with the gun-humping dudes who write military science fiction, or the woke SJW scolds who are currently ruining the Hugos, or pretty much wherever else you need me to go to make your point.

And at least superficially you won’t be wrong. I mean, I did write that story that you’re pointing to, and it does exist in that sphere, and I’m not sorry I wrote that thing, and may write a thing like it again, if I have a mind to. But I suspect on a deeper level — the level that actually makes your point something more than a facile, half-baked thesis to burble out onto a blog post or podcast because content content content — using me as an example is not hugely useful.

In furtherance of my point, it might be useful for me to note the things that I think my fiction writing tends to be, and what it tends not to be. Bear in mind as I note these that I am the author, and my view of my work is filtered through my ego and the limitations of my understanding of my own self. Got it?

Okay, then, here are the things I think my work tends to be:

Commercial. As in, I write my fiction with the intent to sell it, and I pay attention to the market. I famously wrote Old Man’s War because I went into a bookstore to see what was selling in science fiction and said to myself, huh, I see a lot of military science fiction here, maybe I should write that. I don’t do that anymore because I don’t have to, but I am still resolutely and unapologetically writing in the mode of I want to sell a kajillion of this. Overlapping this:

Accessible. And no, “commercial” and “accessible” are not the same thing. If you have a specific audience that’s large enough, you can create work commercial to that audience specifically, and not worry about whether anyone outside that group can latch onto it without doing homework first. I don’t write only for the crowd that’s already there, I write so that people who are curious can get in. Related:

Middlebrow. I play with cool and abstruse concepts but I don’t typically dwell on them in the text beyond what is useful for the telling of the story. This is the reason the one subgenre I am almost never lumped into is “hard science fiction.” I give just enough of a concept that readers feel smart for getting it, and not enough they feel stupid for not getting it.

Nostalgic. Old Man’s War reads (very intentionally) like a Heinlein novel; Redshirts explicitly plays on original series Star Trek tropes. Fuzzy Nation is an actual reboot of an H. Beam Piper novel. Generally speaking my work can easily be placed on a line with already-existing “classic” books within the genre. They also tend to play to existing themes and tropes in science fiction, either to explore them or to invert or subvert them.

Humorous. Humor is story lubricant — it helps get readers comfortable and gets them to move along with the plot. Also humor remains a differentiator for me in the field; it’s surprisingly difficult to do well in a general sense (for any genre, not just SF/F), and science fiction has not generally valued it beyond its most broad applications.

All of the above combine to make my work one overarching thing:

Familiar. Basically, if you’ve read science fiction at any point since roughly 1950 then you can hook into what I’m doing, in terms of style, tropes and themes, whether I am doing space opera, near-future science fiction, or anything else. Now, allow me to suggest I am also doing other things beyond merely and cynically rehashing what’s come before. I flatter myself that I have added to the field and not just restated it. But for better or worse, what I have added largely exists within the boundaries of the current design of the field. That design, for reasons both positive and deeply negative, was almost perfectly constructed for a writer like me to enter into it when I did.

Now, what things is my work not?

Innovative. As noted above, I don’t tend to be a fiction writer to break molds; I tend to be a writer who looks at the mold and figures out how best to use it as it is, or leave it alone if it’s not something I find useful or interesting. That’s fine, but that’s not everyone, and it shouldn’t be. Other writers, for whom the field has not been constructed so congenially, either for their taste or for who they are (or both) are currently taking a sledgehammer to parts of it and/or are building on previously unused land. This is useful and absolutely necessary work, and I applaud it and celebrate it, and work to be part of making room for it within the genre. I also recognize that the nexus of the most significant innovation in the field is happening away from what I am doing.

Didactic. There’s nothing inherently wrong with didactic literature, incidentally. It can be really useful, and obviously science fiction is filled with books, classic or otherwise, written didactically and/or absolutely read didactically by their fans. But I don’t tend to fill my books with explicit exhortations about what is best in life. I mean, I have a blog for that. There is irony here in that many of my detractors will tell you my fiction work is didactic as fuck; I do suggest that they have generally taken their dislike for my personal social/political positions and overlaid those onto my fiction. Which, fine, but I generally disagree, and anyway expression of opinion is not necessarily didactic in itself (on that note, I should say that as my upcoming book The Kaiju Preservation Society takes place in 2020, there is some real-world opinion leakage there, because how could there not be).

Ornate. Either in construction – my plots and stories tend to be straightforward in their composition and linear in their telling – or on the level of language use and sentence construction. Very few people come to my work for the sheer poetry of the text, or for the mirror maze design of the stories.

Exclusive. Some very excellent work has been created with no audience, or a very small audience, intended other than the creator themselves. Other very excellent work was created without a concern for finding an audience for it (even if the audience for it turned out later to be huge). And then there are the people really who do just write for themselves, for pleasure or compulsion or a little of both, and are surprised that anyone else might care. I can respect all of those, but that is so not me. For reasons of ego and income, I have never written fiction without the idea of others reading it. That has implications for both what I write and how.

Influential. This is a tricky one so hear me out: Inasmuch as I write well within the existing lines of the genre and my work generally can be plotted out on a line with other more foundational authors and works, the chance that my writing in itself will be influential for itself is low. It doesn’t mean that PR people don’t use the line “For fans of Scalzi” in the marketing materials, or that people haven’t been inspired by me or my work to write their own stuff. But the mode of my writing is well-established. If you write like me, you write like a lot of people do.

(Having laid these out, let me stress that I think each of these rubrics is value-neutral and that each them can be performed positively or negatively, or indifferently. You can write a stone-cold classic that is essentially familiar; you can be innovative as hell and make a complete textual mess. And vice-versa.)

(And while we’re at it, let me additionally stress that I am not running myself down here. Folks, I’m really fucking good at what I do, and bluntly, right at the moment, I’m not sure anyone else does what I do in the genre better than I do it. I also think what I do is desired, appreciated and useful in the field, both in an artistic and commercial sense. Don’t cry for me. I am fine. But let’s all not pretend about what I am and am not, relating to the current field of science fiction literature.)

Now, what you might notice for all of the above is that none of it is really about theme or subject or (with the exception of the bit about ornamentation) style, which are the things that are at the heart of most punk-or-core formulations, and of subgenres as a whole. Cyberpunk and steampunk, as two well-understood examples, were largely about theme: Technology and how it makes (and remakes) society. Some writers do tend to stick to a particular theme, or at least are known for it due to their most famous works. William Gibson is the father of cyberpunk; China Mieville is forever associated with “New Weird.”

There is nothing wrong with that! Gibson and Mieville are not exactly hurting in terms of notability and influence. But also, it’s not what I do. As noted before, my commercial path intersects a lot of subgenres, and there is no consistency, in terms of sales or critical response, to which subgenre I write in and what gets noticed.

Which I consider a feature, not bug, to my career. I like my commercial/critical reputation not being tied into a single theme/subgenre/series. I would be (mildly) sad if my career were defined as, say, the Old Man’s War series and then just “everything else.” I love the Old Man’s War series! I’m going to write another one in it (eventually)! Also, part of the reason I love that series is that I don’t resent it for being the only thing of mine anyone wants to read (and the OMW series doesn’t confine itself to a single subgenre in any event, so).

For these reasons, I generally find being lumped into a “punk-and-core” formulation with regard to me and my work superficially accurate at best, and inaccurately reductive beyond that – I hop between themes a lot, and my time in any one subgenre tends to be transitory rather than rooted. I mean, don’t let me stop you if you think you can make a reasonable argument otherwise; as I said, my own view of this is rooted in my own ego and self-regard, and I don’t claim to be a perfect arbiter of me.

I will say, however, I am likely to continue to do things as I have done them, because it works for me and I’m having fun doing it this way. This may or may not do damage to your punk-and-core argument somewhere along the line. I’m fine with that. You should be, too.

— JS

By John Scalzi

I enjoy pie.

51 replies on “Portrait of the Author As a Component of a “Punk-Or-Core” Formulation”

I’m going to have to re-read this to unpack it all, but I love that you’ve analyzed your craft so well. Motivates me to at least attempt to do it for mine. Mostly I’ve had others do it, but I think doing it internally would be useful.

humor…it’s surprisingly difficult to do well in a general sense

Edwardian actor Edmund Kean, on his deathbed: “Death is easy, comedy is hard.” (May be apocryphal.)

re didacticism, I really recommend this podcast about how the CIA infiltrated MFA programs, literary mags (including the hallowed Paris Review), with an explicit mission to produce pro-individualist, “nonpolitical” work: https://citationsneeded.medium.com/episode-144-how-the-cold-war-shaped-first-person-journalism-and-literary-conventionss-42bf68ccaef

“More Hemingway, less Dos Passos” was the directive. Hence, the locating of the premier MFA program in Iowa, far from all those pernicious urban / “ethnic” / Jewish / immigrant influences. And hence the fixation on “show not tell,” instrospection / naval gazing, and non-didacticism.

Of course waterways can cross each other or intersect with each other: a waterway intersection (“Wasserstraßenkreuz”, as we use to say in our impeccable word-building). And as we’re not only building words but also waterways, I present to you the “Kanalkreuz Datteln” https://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kanalkreuz_Datteln (two canals with equipotential surface), the Minden Aqueduct (“Wassertraßenkreuz Minden”) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Minden_Aqueduct where the Mittelland Canal crosses over the Weser river; and the Magdeburg Water Bridge (“Kanalbrücke Magdeburg”) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Magdeburg_Water_Bridge where the Mittelland Canal crosses the Elbe river and becomes the Elbe-Havel Canal (that’s the largest constuction of it’s kind in Europe).

There’s also a strand of postwar modernist music where there was government influence.

I have a friend who is very clear that she is a commercial writer in a specific genre for a particular audience. She is so successful that she was able to quit technical writing, which is a pretty lucrative profession in the Bay Area. I hugely admire her.

John, I get what you’re saying and it all makes sense. Huge props for your self-awareness. If you decide to write something less commercial/more arty/different from your past work, hey, I will read that too.

I’m kind of surprised you left out the thing that jumps up and hollers “I’M HEEEERE! ME!! ME! MEE!!” about your work to my experience of it. And, I think, others:

Storytelling.

Maybe that’s rolled into “accessible” and possibly even “middlebrow” but I think there’s a more encompassing reality to good storytelling. Even people who don’t love science fiction in general have told me they thought one of your books they read was a great read.

You don’t build worlds in the classic sense but you do render the worlds in which you set your stories, to make them worth visiting and revisiting.

Your characters combine “trope” and “role” with enough detail to make them recognizable as people rather than archetypes. Even as they transparently do their job in pushing the narrative in a particular direction, they are interesting as much for who they are as what they are doing.

The fact that you’ve chosen speculative fiction as the “canal” for your stories is nice for those of us who also love the “what if?” aspects of speculative fiction. But I suspect that if you had reason, you could also tell a great story in a straight-up historical romance genre, cozy mystery genre, noir thriller genre, etc. Even if you had to work a little to keep the speculative fiction from seeping in.

The basic ingredients of good storytelling can be flavored in any genre, or even (as you’ve demonstrated) be a “fusion” of seasonings from multiple genres.

But good storytelling remains good storytelling regardless of genre or sub-genre, and it’s a craft you have mastered. For which I’m grateful.

Joyfully anticipating “Kaiju”!

I think we should just do -Scalzi to annoy a subclass of such folks (you know who I mean).

So, cyberScalzi, punkcoreScalzi, steamScalzi (though please don’t).

What stands out for me about your work (and kept me coming back) is the humor and the dialogue. So much more fun to read your work than most others.

Canals have to have rivers or streams near them, or crossing them, otherwise they don’t fill up with water in the first place. They also need them for when there’s too much water and need to overflow.
I suppose both aspects could relate to your metafor, without sci-fi where would you start from? Others take inspiration from your canal and that’s the outflow? Maybe? Stretching too far?

I love your books! Own most of them, plan to buy the rest sometime soon.

But you’re probably the least revolutionary writer in SF who got as big as you did. I wouldn’t call you non-didactic. You don’t go into long political rants in the middle of an otherwise entertaining novel like Heinlein does… But you take a “Show, don’t tell” approach a lot of times.

Sex positivity for the female characters in the Interdependancy series. The genderless protagonist in the Lock-In series…

In genre spaces, it can be easy for “mainstream” work to get abuse from both sides – from snobs who reflexively think “genre” means “lesser” and from people inside the genre who want to do different things and think they have to attack the main line to do it.
But so much of this has nothing to do with quality, which is a different metric of its own.

I agree with what John has said about his work, much of which reflects on the things I enjoy about reading his work.

I’m not quite sure what to make of John saying his work isn’t innovative… my mind immediately went to the codas in Redshirts as well as what Giel M pointed out r.e. the protagonist of the Lock-In series. Maybe “innovative” isn’t the right word for these things?

I like it that different SF authors take different tacks within the parameters you’re describing. Each author has their own individual flavor, and I like having that even though some of the flavors are not to my taste.
You mention that Old Man’s War was consciously modeled on Heinlein. The Interdependency books reminded me strongly of the original Foundation series, and I wonder if any of that was conscious.

DB:

A lot of people see a connection there but no. I read the first Foundation book in junior high and I can’t say I connected with it or indeed remember much of it, and don’t really remember if I read further in the series. Of Asimov’s stuff, the robot books made a bigger impression.

Robert Thornton:

From a storytelling point of view, the “Baen Books” folks (not all of them published by Baen, and not all Baen-published authors fitting the rubric) do what they do perfectly well, and a few of them are well-compensated for it. Their enmity largely stems from personal animus. Which is their karmic burden, not mine.

I don’t get the connection to Asimov either. Big scope, lots of dialog, plenty of politics, sure, but that all seems like a common Doc Smith inheritance and just provides a very loose framework. Neither of those authors strikes me as at all droll, or particularly good at dialog or characterization. Asimov does have a touch of humor, and as I recall his robots have somewhat richer personalities than his people.

I would fuss a bit about the way the labels “influential” and “middlebrow” are used here but that wouldn’t really affect the analysis under those headings … There is an obvious objection relating to options and social media, for starters, but evidently this is not what is being addressed.

What Terry says: It’s the storytelling. I’m too damn old for exercises in worldbuilding or whatever that don’t tell a story and tell it well. [This explains why I finally cancelled the Grand Old Man, emphasis man, of SF magazines–the latest male editor seemed to have forgotten that stories should be stories–and am, after a few issues, delighted with the new F&SF editor: the stories may be challenging, but they’re STORIES. Asimov’s never forgot that.]

I believe the author that it’s coincidental, but the manner of telling and a lot of the content are quite close to Foundation, much more specifically so than the generalities offered by glc. Note particularly how the all-human interstellar empire with the medieval/Renaissance hierarchy is threatened with collapse and a lone scientist warns of the danger. The machinations are primarily political, not military, with a maximum of clever outwitting. That’s identical to Foundation; did Doc Smith write a story quite like that? And the first book ends exactly the way the first Foundation story ends, with the protagonist having a clever brainstorm that isn’t revealed to the reader at that point, but which wraps up enough else that it doesn’t feel like a cliffhanger.

I’ve always found that labels benefit the labeler more than the labeled any way. I label books (and writers) as ‘interesting’ or ‘not my cuppa joe.’ Works for me.

One thing that always blows my mind about your writing, whether it’s a novel or a blog post. It’s always some of the easiest and most impactful stuff I take in during the constant content grazing of life. Maybe that’s an aspect of knowing your audience, or maybe that’s some weird artifact of a parallel evolutionary zeitgeist, but I am not going to kick the tires on it to find out if it’s a long-con lemon. Thanks for the brain dump. It’s only marginally depressing to witness the apparent ease in which you do it.

I write for me and about 6,000 friends that I haven’t met yet.

I had a short story that could have been published, but they were cheap and wanted the rights for more than forever. Instead I sent it to some friends, who sent it some, and so on.

I moved to Sci-fi, because my heart lies there. I also find it easier to make my readers laugh, cry, and have to think about things for a while.

Thanks for taking your time to consider this, you did it well.

Somewhat off topic, perhaps, but sparked by one of your observations re: “classics”…

Have you ever thought about doing something in the Lensman universe? I’d love to see the Scalzi take on that never-written sequel/continuation :).

Is: Commercial, Accessible, Middlebrow, Nostalgic, Humorous, Familiar — CAMNHF

Is not: Innovative, Didactic, Ornate, Exclusive, Influential — IDOEI

These do not seem to be words.

A remarkably clear headed summary of what you do and, from my perspective as a reader, absolutely spot on. I read the Interdepency series almost immediately after the Broken Earth trilogy. Jemison’s work is absolutely f-ing brilliant. But it was also an exhausting read. There are plenty of times when we just want a good story! Keep them coming

I suppose it’s nice to know that one is relevant in a critical discussion. Sad, however, that the discussions I’ve encountered about Redshirts seem to feature people who plainly haven’t read it, using it to sharpen the axes they’re grinding.

a minor quibble, “the OMW series” ought be “the OMW saga” since unlike a lot of book series there’s significant changes over the course of the various titles and you offer up multiple POVS… and there’s the scope: “fate of 431 intelligent species hangs in the balance”

(birds gotta fly, nerds gotta quibble)

as to the matter of core vs punk vs steam… I vote we collectively mashup a new sub-sub-genre wherein arguments over the brewing of freshly-grated ginger tea, detailed accounting of complexities of assembling premier dumplings (and burritos and turnovers) and frozen fruit smoothies are the basis of religious conflicts & starcrossed lovers & duels at dawn

while I long for the planetary smashing of EE Doc Smith as was written two hundred years ago — it feels that far lost in mists of yonder — there is something gained in depth of characterization and social complexities;

I do wish for a better grasp of what to be reading next rather than re-reading classics, what I really wish for are those authors I track most closely — Lois McMaster Bujold, Charles Stross, Bruce Sterling, S. M. Stirling, et al, and yes John Scalzi — would consent to being cloned tenfold in order to produce a sufficiency of quality literature

I like what you write.

More importantly, if your family enjoys beautiful countrysides and think boats can be fun, I highly recommend a week on the canal du midi in a “canal barge” (aka small live-aboard power boat). No skill required, though useful.

I personally would favor “canalpunk” or “canalcore” as a new genre. John, if you want to go down in SF history as the inventor of a new genre, get to it.

You could cite Martha Wells’ Wheel of the Infinite, and to a lesser but nonetheless present extent Eric Flint’s (w/ Misty Lackey and D. Freer) Heirs of Alexandria series, as inspiring predecessors and go whole hog with ripping tales of the lusty interstellar or planet-bound canallers (all genders, of course) singing their lungs out as they repel thieves and make sure their cargoes (including spies and Important People) reach their destinations on time.

Huh, now that I put it that way, it sounds a little Heinlein-ian.

You missed one. Joy.

There’s a playful joy in your books. I have fun reading because it feels like you’re having fun. Oh, there’s a tonne of craft and hard work, I’m sure, but it feels like connecting with a huge fan of the genre- the kind of person who would go to Cons even without being on panels. The kind of writer who boosts up other writers. Now, if writing is actually akin to neverending oral surgery for you, don’t tell me!

Who is trying to put down the Hugo Awards now? I knew about the Sad Puppies (our puppies when there’s freezing rain outside!) but this doesn’t sound like them. I thought they failed totally and have been hiding in shame ever since!

I like Scalzi-Punk fiction, you should keep that stuff up forever !!!

I am impressed by your understanding of your strengths and your limitations. I think I have read most of your published books and have enjoyed all of them. I can rely on your novels been consistently enjoyable.

There is one of your fellow novelists who you referred to in the Last Colony whose best books really sing to me, but who is less consistent overall. Always interesting ideas, but sometimes without the characters working.

I would like to believe that some of your critics are reacting with some envy as to how good you are balancing your objectives.

I am a curious mixture of being a Brust and Modesitt fan and the element of how far you are able to balance the snark/character building aspects of the former and doing enough of the world building of the latter makes it very easy for me to go along for the ride.

Interesting essay. Seems enough to say you enjoy what you do, your audience does as well, and you can make an actual living at it, for you and yours – which is better than (SWAG) 90% of your peers?

I enjoy your work, and you obviously do as well. Redshirts, for example, struck me – along with being a fun project to write, and write well – definitely something of an “exercise” in terms of the shifting perspectives and points of view.

JR in WV: The discussion started with Camestros Felapton commenting on a couple of recent RiteGud podcasts (one of which was about the Puppies in 2015) that were arguing that “SqueeCore” is a dominant mode in current SFF: https://camestrosfelapton.wordpress.com/2022/01/15/is-there-a-dominant-mode-of-current-science-fiction/ , to which Simon McNeill offered some contrasting thoughts: https://simonmcneil.com/2022/01/15/notes-on-squeecore/ . I think those are the primary sources prompting this discussion.

I think you’re innovative within your genres. I read a lot of books that are just retreads of books that have already been written. Then there are books that have a new idea. Each of your series has a new idea, and each series is different from other series.

Like there’s NK Jemisin or Ann Leckie levels of innovation, but there’s also what would a world without murder look like or a world where people trapped in their bodies have avatars and let’s put that in a mystery genre. And older people as super soldiers and redshirts (insert spoilers here) and so on. Even the first book, agent to the stars is innovative in the Hollywood fantasy genre, which usually has cultists instead of aliens.

@Giel M:

“Sex positivity for the female characters in the Interdependancy series. The genderless protagonist in the Lock-In series…”

What would you say is “didactic” in having “sex-positive” female and genderless protagonists?

@Bryce Woolcombe:

“I have fun reading because it feels like you’re having fun.”

Seconded. It is exactly that joy that has breathed new interest into a genre moribund with flat characters, weak plots, and atrocious writing. For me, and by all evidence for many others as well.

Military sci-fi in particular is fundamentally absurd. Yet with the Scalzi treatment, plenty of snark and tongue-in-cheek-ing at the very tropes that have rendered it absurd, a MilSF story becomes compelling and readable.

I tend to agree with the high level theme and thrust. That said, “The God Engines” is the work that tends to linger for me. Maybe that’s the exception that proves the rule? While it’s definitely an outlier in the Scalzi Canon, I wouldn’t mind reading more like it.

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