Whenever John Scalzi comes through Seattle on book tour, I love spending time with him. I can always count on him to not only make me laugh, but to make me think. He’s the author of many science fiction books, including Red Shirts, the Old Man’s War series, and now the completed trilogy of The Interdependency.
Unfortunately, book tours have been canceled this spring due to the onslaught of COVID-19. But I jumped on a video call with him to talk about his most recent novel, The Last Emperox, and the conversation was just as fun and as enlightening as I hoped it would be. Here’s a portion of the call:
Adrian Liang, Amazon Book Review: Before we talk about your newest book, The Last Emperox, I want to check in on how you, your family, and your cats are doing right now in Ohio.
John Scalzi: Oh, we’re doing fine. I continually tell people that as a writer, social distancing is what I do. When I’m at home, I mostly only see Krissy, my wife; my daughter; and then also our pets. So on a day-to-day basis, it’s kind of like what I usually do. But that said, there’s a difference between staying home and not seeing anybody by choice, and staying home and not seeing anybody because: disease. One of the things that I’m definitely getting out of this is when this is all done and we’re allowed to see people again, I’m going to hug so many people.
Not the elbow bump or the foot shake that’s becoming popular?
I was on a cruise just before all the shutdown happened—which was a whole story in and of itself; people are like, Why would you go on a cruise? But it was fine. But the one thing that we did have to ask ourselves was, How are we going to all greet each other when hugs and handshakes are not the order of the day anymore? And we did decide on the elbow thing partly because it was quirky and quirky is kind of what this cruise was.
So you were supposed to be on book tour for The Last Emperox right now, but instead you’re at home, you’re hunkering down like so many of us are. How are you feeling about missing the book tour?
I’m sad that I’m missing the book tour. I mean, today [April 20] I was going to be in Seattle, and seeing friends, seeing folks there at Amazon, and so I’m missing that. I really do feed off a live audience when I’m doing my readings and doing all the goofy stuff that we do in the events. Usually someone will bring a ukulele and make me perform very poorly on ukulele, which is amusing for everybody else and humiliating for me. But that’s why you do it. That is something that I’m missing. What I’ve been finding is that the virtual events have their own sort of rhythm and they have their own sort of magic and they have their own way of being. And that hasn’t been bad. I mean, it’s been different, and it is something that takes a little bit getting used to….
But one thing I’m really appreciative of is that people do seem to be interested in these events. And also everybody gets that I’m not hiding in my house. It is literally not safe for me to see you or for you to see me. So we make do with what we have…. And also the fact that previously I was going be on tour on my wife’s birthday, which was this last Saturday [in mid-April], and I got to spend my wife’s birthday with her. So that was actually pretty great. That part I’m very happy about.
You had mentioned on your blog at the end of March that it took you and your wife two weeks to find toilet paper in your neighborhood. I’m actually going to tie this question into your book! This situation of being cut off from necessary supplies is one of the core problems facing people in your Interdependency trilogy. So can you give us all the elevator pitch for your Interdependency books?
Sure. And you make a good point. The Interdependency is a galaxies-spanning human civilization, and the reason it’s called the Interdependency is every system is dependent on all the other systems for common things.... The Interdependency is at a time where the natural transportation system called the Flow is breaking apart. Nobody knows why, nobody knows how, but it is. And so all these systems that are interdependent now have to deal with the idea that they’re going to be isolated and alone…and there are a lot of things that people are going to not be able to get. All of a sudden that becomes a crisis. Here in the real world, once people realized that we were under lockdown, they’re like, “Oh, my God, let’s go get all the toilet paper because who knows when we’ll get toilet paper again?” And then it was yeast and then it was milk, and all of these sorts of things, with the panic buying straining the distribution system.
It’s not exactly 100% the same, but it echoes substantially. And I did find some irony releasing a book that is about interdependency and the idea that these systems are so interconnected in the teeth of a global pandemic that is stretching our own distribution systems so widely. But I didn’t purposely time it this way. And if I had timed it purposely, then you could all punish me for it.
So you’re behind coronavirus! That is really what’s going on, right?
It was all planned to promote my book. I’m so sorry. [Laughs]
The whole idea of it is really weird because so many things in the book actually have real-world relevance right now. And I’ve had people say, “Are you a prophet? Did you know the future?” And I was like, "If I knew the future, I would not be a science fiction author; I would be playing the stock market."
And also, if I knew that this future was coming, I would have done what I could to warn you all.
Again, I’m sorry. I should have done more.
Yeah, it’s something I was thinking about when I was reading The Last Emperox, knowing that you had written it before this global pandemic.
Quite honestly, I had no idea. I mean, I finished writing in October , when obviously the coronavirus was not something that was on most people’s radar, and so having it fit in, in this particular sense, is coincidence. But at the same time, I was basing my issues on human nature, and human nature runs the same no matter what simulation you put it through. Whether it’s climate change or whether it is a global pandemic or whether it is “insert global world changing event here,” people are gonna do what people do. And so there’s going to be a lot of echoes simply because human nature is what it is. And I hope that I’m giving a good, reasonable approximation of what humans would actually do in these situations. So again, it’s not that I’m a prophet, but it’s just that people are predictable.
One of the things you talk about, as the billions of people in the Interdependency are facing this doom of being cut off from everybody else and perishing because they don’t have the resources in on their own systems to keep them alive… I’m going to quote you here [from the book]: “Everyone knew what was coming. Some even prepared and planned. But at the end of it, everyone assumed that something or someone would come along to save the civilization that they lived in and could not conceive of actually disappearing. Something or someone would come along to save them.” So they’re fairly complacent about it. Maybe I’m reading too much into it, but that seemed to be a point of frustration for you.
I think that the thing about it is that the complacency is not necessarily about “what can we do?” but more of the realization that the issue is so big and the issue is so complex and the issue is so dependent on things, that they can’t do that much about that. It’s almost a rational reaction to be like, “Well, we do have grown-ups who are supposed to be in charge of this thing. Let’s hope that they go on do the grown-up thing.”
And I think that that’s also the case of what happens in the real world as well, which is when you have a global incident or something that is completely world changing, you look around in your own environment and say, “What can I do about it?” And everybody wants to do something, and some things you can do are actually really helpful. You can make the masks; you can do the thing where you look out for your neighbors. You can do all the things that on a small scale will make an immediate difference on how the world is where you live.
But the larger issues are generally beyond the scope of the average person. So the complacency is not even so much complacency as a faith that the systems that they have built up over all this time won’t in fact fail them.
You know the problem with systems is, no matter how good your system is, it is dependent on the people that are in charge of its operation. And if you have good people, reasonable people, people who understand that the moment is not about them or about their particular interests, then the system is going to do probably okay. If you have people who are on top of the system who are like, “Now, wait a minute. This is a perfect time to settle scores and to grab all the money and run as quickly as possible” or whatever, then the system’s not going work as well.
In the book, that’s what the tension is…. The fundamental tension, actually, is what you believe. Is the system a system for protecting humans, keeping as many people alive as humanly possible? Or is the system [there to] protect itself; and if people die, well, you don’t make an omelet without breaking eggs?
And in the book, at least, those divisions are fairly clear. In the real world, things are…
You know, let’s hope people remember that people are important.
One of the characters who is in the middle ground between “Let’s save all the people” and “I want it to all be about me” is Kiva Lagos. She acknowledges that she is very selfish, but as she gains more and more power, she’s starting to realize that she can’t be all that selfish, or she has to convince other people not to be a selfish as they want to be… which I found interesting.
The thing about selfishness is as you go into crisis, there is less and less tolerance in any system for people being fundamentally selfish. At a certain point, the system can only tolerate a certain number of people. And when times were good, lots of people could be selfish. But when things are really nose to the grindstone, if you are a fundamentally selfish person, you want everybody else’s nose on the grindstone instead of yours. And Kiva has, early on in the book, that discussion with herself. She doesn’t want to have to change, because everything has been going great for her. Over the course of the stories, she’s advancing in her position. She’s found people that she likes. Why should she change what she has to do?
But she also recognizes that the number of people who can be [selfish] like her is much smaller than it used to be. And if she wants to be able to continue her practice of selfishness, then she has to either convince or compel others to be less selfish and… Uh, without getting into [the details], because I do actually want people to read the book and discover it for themselves, I don’t think things go exactly to plan for Kiva. But the point that she’s making is that very good one: that there’s only so many selfish people that a society can handle in moments of crisis.
The important thing is, even the people who are selfish people—who do things for self-interested reasons—can do good things. At the end of the day, what’s really going to be important is what you do rather than who you are. If a terrible, terrible person does good things, you have to give them credit for it. “Well, you’re a terrible person, and you’re awful in every single respect, but you did do this one good thing. So you’re not completely terrible.” I’m kind of hoping in the real world that a lot of the people [for whom] selfishness has worked for so far will look around and be like, “I guess this is the point where I actually do have to be a less than entirely selfish person, and I may hate it, but it’s got to be done.” We’ll see what happens with that.
The last time you and I talked, which was last year on your last book tour, you’d said two things that I keep thinking about. One of which was that Kiva Lagos was maybe one of your favorite characters ever. What do you love so much about her?
I love the fact that she is an absolutely-doesn’t-care-what-you-think-about-her sort of person. And I think that as someone to write, it is absolutely refreshing to be able to have that person be like, “Okay, let’s not beat around the bush. Here’s this thing that I absolutely think and I’m gonna say.” She’s fun to write.
Does this mean that she would be a fun person to experience in real life? I don’t know. I’ve said this before: She is the person that when she calls you on the phone, your phone rings and you look and it’s Kiva Lagos calling. And you’re like, “Do I have to take this call? But I need to take this call. Do I really want to talk to her now? I kind of don’t, I don’t think.” And then she’ll immediately text, “I know you’re there. Pick up the damn phone.” Right? She is a friend that is absolutely a good friend to have met, will absolutely have your back, and will absolutely drive you nuts all the rest of the time….
I don’t know that I want to hang out with her, but I’m really glad that people enjoy her to the extent that they do, and I certainly enjoy the hell out of writing her. She’s fun to experience. She’s a lot of people’s favorite character, including my wife’s.
[When I was writing the third book,] people were like, “You better not let anything happen to Kiva.” You know, the absolute worst thing you can do to a character is to demand the author doesn’t do anything bad to that character, because now the author will have an oppositional attitude and be like, “You can’t tell me what I can do with my own character. Maybe bad things should happen to that character.” I’m not going to say what happens to the character in the course of the book, but I will say bad things happen to her. All the people who told me that I couldn’t have bad things happen to her, that’s on you. I didn’t want to do it, but you made me do it.
Another thing we talked about last year was, you said that there are a lot of really good writers in science fiction right now, and you added, “I can’t just cruise. I have to be at the top of my game.” So what are you doing to keep yourself at the top of your game?
One of the things that I’m doing is I’m reading a lot. Right now I’m in between books. When I’m writing a novel, I don’t read a lot of fiction because otherwise it will just seep into my fingers and out it will come, and that’s not a good thing. But right now, in between [writing] books, I’m reading a lot of really good stuff. People are doing stuff with characters, people are doing are stuff with situations… They’re looking at the barrier of “what is science fiction?,” “what is fantasy?,” and “what is horror?” and just decided that the barriers don’t count anymore, and they’re just rampaging back and forth between them.
All these people are playing with the forms so much that the readers who are coming into the genre now will see that as their baseline. They’re not going to be like, “Oh, this is science fiction, and this is fantasy, and they’re two completely different things.” No, we’re going to have a lot of back-and-forth. If you read Gideon the Ninth (this past year it’s been nominated for Hugo and Nebula [awards]), you recognize all of a sudden you can’t just say what is science fiction or what is fantasy anymore. You know, if you are reading The City We Became by Nora [N. K.] Jemisin, you recognize that, again, the form is completely shifted, and she’s doing things that people weren’t doing before….
I’m not intimidated by the absolutely amazing writers who are out there right now. I am super-thrilled that they’re out there.… If you’re looking at all the other writers as competition, then yes, absolutely, you should be worried. But if you’re looking at them as your peer group, these are the people that you get to play with the format with. In 20 or 30 years, when someone writes the history of science fiction and fantasy, this is the group that you get to hang out with, and that’s really cool. You want to be part of the conversation. You want to have your work stand with the really cool work that’s coming out now.
And so, no, I absolutely cannot slack off. I can’t be lazy and have to bring my A game. But it’s not a pressure I feel. I think it’s kind of a relief, kind of a celebration, that we get to play in ways that we didn’t get to play with before. And that’s great for us.
Human behavior during crisis, the great state of sci-fi writing today, and the odd parallels between "The Last Emperox" and the coronovirus pandemic are among the marvelous topics we tackle with John Scalzi.
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