It is difficult to find an author who is more prolific than John Scalzi. More prolific on Twitter, that is. At the time of writing, there are close to 60,000 tweets in his feed. Tweeted since March 2008. Which is, roughly, the equivalent of ten decent-sized novels. In that time frame alone, he has also released four full-length novels, blog posts that probably amount to several novels (as a matter of fact, there are two books with selected blog posts from his website) and a plethora of other writing. And he was the president of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America between 2010 and 2013. Add to this the fact that the New York Times bestselling and multi-award-winning author is also a husband and a father and you have to wonder just where exactly he takes all that time from?
► Off the top of your head, do you know how many books – fiction and non-fiction – you have published to date?
Twenty-one. Maybe 22?
► By my counting, that’s spot on. Twenty-two books in 15 years. That is not counting your short stories, your novellas, your extensive blogging or the tweeting. I guess what I’m trying to ask: John Scalzi, are you not just a science fiction
writer but actually a time traveller?
► Seriously, how do you fit that amount of writing into fifteen years?
I was a journalist for a long time, and journalists get used to writing on deadline. As a movie critic I sometimes would have to write a review in about fifteen minutes after seeing the movie in order to get it into the newspaper the next day. So you learn to write quickly and fairly cleanly – basically at high speed. This is really coming together for me these days, because a good clip for me when I’m writing a novel is about 2,000 words a day. Most my novels are around 100,000 words, so you can do the math. And if one novel takes me a couple of months to do, you have enough time for everything else.
► The latest novel is Lock In. If you’d had the same basic idea, say, in ’97, when you first started writing novels, would you have been able to write the same novel or is Lock In a result of you experiencing the evolution of technology of the last 15 years?
I would probably have ended up writing a different novel because a lot of it is based on taking the technology that exists today and moving it forward in a reasonable sense. Naturally, today’s technology is far more advanced than what was around 15 or 20 years ago. If my starting point – the existing technology – had been at a slightly lower level, the technological jumps forward in the novel might have been a bit different. Having a murder mystery probably would have stayed the same as a tool to evolve the plot. So there would have been a murder mystery, there would have been brain prothesis or something like it, only the details would have played out somewhat differently. Also, at least in terms of fiction, I am a better writer now then I was 15 years ago.
► Correct me if I’m wrong, Lock In is your first near future fiction novel?
It depends whether you think Agent To The Stars is near future or taking place in contemporary time. My feeling is that Agent To The Stars was taking place today when I wrote it, so 1997. That would make Lock In the first one, you’re right.
► I have a theory: Near future fiction is one of the most, if not the most difficult to write, not just among the science fiction genres but among almost all genres. Now that you have written a near future novel, what is you opinion on that?
The thing about near future is that it has a much higher rate of obvious failure, which is to say, if you write something that takes place ten years from now, you will know fairly quickly whether or not that future becomes reality or was at least a reasonable guess. That is why a lot of people might be afraid of putting a date on events in their near future fiction. Because if you say “This happens in 2040” and the year 2040 rolls around, some nerd at a science fiction convention is bound to tell you that you were wrong. The other thing is that technology and science moves in chaotic ways. I think Charlie Stross was talking about this when he was writing up the Halting State series and other books, where he wrote something that he thought was going to be super cool near future stuff, and by the time he had finished the book, technology of the day had overtaken it and he had to go back and rewrite it. So there is the opportunity to be overtaken by technology and the opportunity for people to see that you failed to accurately predict the future. You can’t do much about the first, except to go back and rewrite.
Toward the second, you have to accept that you are not writing accurate futures, you are writing possible futures. And that the failure rate of science fiction in general is fairly high. Look at the golden age of science fiction and the futures they all created – almost none of those have come to pass. Almost all of them thought we would have moon bases and completely missed the internet. The reason is that they were concerned about what they could see in front of them, what they were interested in, what they thought their audiences were interested in. And what they thought they could sell. In the golden age of science fiction, you had a limited amount of people you could sell your book to. So if you wanted to sell to John Campbell, you wrote the science fiction you knew John Campbell would buy. The impact of the market on the world building of science fiction has probably been under appreciated for many years.
I think you should not worry too much about whether or not you’ll lose a small part of the audience. What you have to worry about is whether you write a good book or not.
► But doesn’t it start much sooner than when we reach a predicted future and see that it didn’t come true? If you talk about the year 3000, about hyperdrives and aliens, people either buy into it or they don’t in general. If you talk about a future that is only 20 years away, a lot more people are likely to go “I don’t buy it, I don’t think this is how it is going to be”…
That’s possible, but it’s part of the game. The thing is, it doesn’t matter what genre you write. If you write romance, you automatically lose 60 percent of your readers, because they just don’t read romance. If you write science fiction, you’ve already lost an even larger part, because science fiction is a much thinner slice than the romance genre. At the end of the day, I think you should not worry too much about whether or not you’ll lose a small part of the audience. What you have to worry about is whether you write a good book or not. Also, it’s not one fixed market. Every time I put out a new book I gain some people and I lose some. What you hope is that the overall amount of people you reach is the same or growing. That’s how I see it. I mean, there is a point at which you can overthink it. I know I’m writing science fiction. I know there are some things I need to have in there, in order for it to be recognised as science fiction – and that’s fine – but beyond that, I’m not going to sit there and worry about which of these tiny slices of genre I’m violating or getting into. I’m just going to write what I write, put it out – and then people will argue what kind of science fiction it is, one way or another.