John Scalzi has been a science fiction reader since he was a kid. He’s also a two-time Hugo Award winner, the recipient of the John W. Campbell Best New Writer award, and president since July 2010 of the Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America.
He knows his way around the genre, is all I’m saying.
Scalzi’s newest book comes out May 10 and manages to look simultaneously in both directions along science fiction’s literary timeline: Fuzzy Nation is a reboot of H. Beam Piper’s 1962 novel Little Fuzzy, which spawned two Piper sequels and two works written by other authors after his death.
I’m a fan of both Scalzi and his writing, so it was an awful lot of fun interviewing him about things like Fuzzy Nation, creativity, and geek parenting.
We started by revisiting Scalzi’s own discovery of the original Little Fuzzy, spotted on a friend’s bookshelf when he was around 14 years old:
John Scalzi: I saw the cover and I picked it up and started reading it. Immediately, two things jumped out at me: One, this was easy to read; and second of all, the author – whoever he was – had a writing style that actually spoke to me. He’s very clean in his prose, he does dialogue pretty well, and he gets you into the story without drawing attention to himself. He’s more interested in telling the story than in amazing you with the complexity of his prose. I’m much more in tune with the storytelling than the sentence-making aspect of writing, and even as I was reading it, some part of my brain was taking notes. Piper was one of those folks like Heinlein who I very much studied and emulated when it came time to do my own writing. That clear and transparent way to get people into the story is valuable.
GeekDad: Science fiction fandom, even in its niches, can be a possessive and protective arena. Talk a little bit about reworking a book that many fans have a longtime connection to, even while you’re introducing Piper to new audiences.
JS: I was talking to my agent Ethan Ellenberg about it and I said, “If we do something with it, there’s a good chance that about half of science fiction fandom will come and stab me in the night.” It’s one thing for Paramount to reboot Star Trek – Paramount owns Star Trek. Or for Marvel to reboot Spider-Man, or DC to reboot Batman. These things are expected. It’s a little bit heretical for an author to look at an older work – this book (Little Fuzzy) is 40 years old – and say, “I wonder what I can do with that?” It is beloved by fans, but it is beloved by fans of a certain age, and there is a cutoff: most science fiction fans over the age of 40 are aware of Little Fuzzy; under 40, most of them don’t know about it.
For me, one of the interesting things about science fiction is that it is a community. And it is a community that has a lot of elder respect: most people do try to read the classics; they do try to get engaged with it in one aspect or another. The reason Paramount reboots is partly to keep Star Trek in the eye of the public – H. Beam Piper is not around to do that. He’s not releasing books and most of his work is out of print or in the public domain.
(I saw this) in much the same way that musicians will try to cover their favorite tunes from other musicians. Like the (Jennifer Warnes’) Famous Blue Raincoat tribute to Leonard Cohen: it did well enough that it sort of launched him into a new spotlight.
Again, there’s a lot of hubris with me saying it, but I’m in the fortunate position right now that by releasing this book … if one of the side effects of this is to get people to look at the Piper books and other types of works, that’s part of the deal, and that’s something I would be extraordinarily proud to do.
There are certainly people who are going to go, “You’re saying the politically correct things to keep people from coming to your house at night and stabbing you in the eyeballs.” I have absolutely no interest in trying to say, “I’m coming in to save Piper.” I’m coming in to appreciate him and remind people that this is part of a shared communal past. The story itself is rich enough and robust enough that you can have different takes on the tale. As much as I do like the original, there are things about it that are dated. Part of the interest for me was, “Can I take the same basic story and write it so that the characters are interesting and approachable to readers of the 21st century, just as Piper’s were approachable to readers of the 20th century?”
GD: Had you ever tried anything like this before, whether it was with a project you ultimately finished or not?
JS: No. It is something I had thought about for awhile in the casual sense, the academic sense. The Golden Age of science fiction is at the heart of the science fiction genre … but these are all “past futures.” If you read Heinlein, he’s still readable, but he’s closer in sort of “where the future is going now” to Jules Verne than he is to Vernor Vinge. And the further we come along, the more that’s going to be so. His is a future history that is past: He was writing for mid-century 20th century America, and mid-century 20th century America is not 2010. There are some assumptions that Heinlein and Asimov and Piper and everyone back in those days had that don’t fly anymore. They were all writing for “now.”
In some sort of way, I was always thinking about, “If you could, what would you update?” Is it sacrilege, or is it doing what you do with Shakespeare, like West Side Story, and now they’re doing Gnomeo and Juliet. These stories are durable, and they survive various retellings.
That general thought was one I’d been thinking for a long time. What makes it academic is, by and large, the classics of the genre that are not Verne or H.G. Wells … are all under copyright. In this particular case, there are two things going on. One, the issue of the original property being in the public domain meant that it was something that could be approached. Second of all, there was the understanding of why I was doing it: It wasn’t because I looked at Piper and said, “I could do better,” it was that I really like this story and it would be a shame if this story lapsed into the background simply because it’s not readily available.
I needed a project and I wanted it to be fun.
Scalzi has made a career of expanding his creative horizons, having worked as a journalist, movie critic and non-fiction author before breaking into the science fiction novel market in 2005. Zoe’s Tale marked his first foray into Young Adult writing, and in 2009, he gave dark fantasy a whirl with his novella The God Engines. He was also creative consultant on Stargate: Universe.
JS: If you only do what you know you’re good at – and this is something I tell my daughter, so I have to walk the walk – then you will only ever be able to do what you’re good at. But if you do pull it off, those are more tools in your toolbox.
While Little Fuzzy itself is in the public domain – Piper died in 1964 and the book’s copyright was not renewed – Penguin subsidiary Ace Books acquired the rest of the Piper estate copyrights, so Scalzi sought their approval once he’d finished writing Fuzzy Nation.
JS: We immediately contacted the folks who own the Piper estate and said, “We’ve done this thing. Tell us what we have to do to make this work.” The reason we’re doing it is, in part, to draw attention to Piper. It was something I felt was sort of morally and ethically necessary, even if it wasn’t legally necessary.
It also meant that when we went to publishers and said, “There’s this thing we’re shopping,” they didn’t have to worry about … the Piper estate – which is Penguin, this multi-national corporation.
GD: Talk about the tone of Fuzzy Nation. It’s definitely in your voice and style, though you’ve kept it open to a wider readership by keeping swearing and violence to a minimum, kind of like you did with Zoe’s Tale.
JS: The original book … didn’t have a lot of profanity, and it’s sort of been retconned into the Young Adult canon because of that and the Fuzzy creatures. To some extent, you have to say, “Does modernizing something mean you have to go vulgar?” But it wasn’t necessary: It’s not Little Fuzzy meets The Hangover, because it doesn’t need to be. The story that’s being told doesn’t need to have that particular edge to it. The core of the story is (Jack) Holloway’s journey as a human and whether he gets better or not, and his relationship with the Fuzzies.
GD: Did you refer back to Little Fuzzy as you wrote?
JS: No. And the reason for that is that when I decided to do this, I hadn’t read it in a very long time, and part of it was that I was going by what I remembered of it as opposed to very specific details. And part of it was intentional: I didn’t want to fall into the traps of being slavish to Piper and doing something because Piper did it. I don’t want to have the same exact story beats. If somebody who has read Little Fuzzy comes to it, I want them to have the capability to be surprised at what happens next. It’s not the same story, it’s a similar story with a similar narrative arc, but the road from Point A to Point Z goes in several different places than the road Piper took. That was a conscious choice, because if you make it too much like the original, you do set yourself up for the question of, “Why did you do this exercise at all?”
Once it was done, I went and reread Little Fuzzy and it was kind of, “Wow, I don’t remember that part at all,” so I could legitimately say there certainly are variances.
Scalzi is also a geek dad, and regularly mentions his daughter Athena on his blog, where it’s clear that he has encouraged her writing and video-gaming and movie-watching – Portal and Blade II come to mind – so we talked a bit about other geek stuff they enjoy.
JS: She’s gone to a few (science fiction conventions). The first one she went to was WorldCon in 2006 when Old Man’s War was up for the Hugo and I was up for the Campbell. Generally speaking, she’s intrigued by the science fiction community, but mostly the travel opportunity affords her the chance to go places, and she gets excited about the travel aspect.
She really does have geek tendencies: My wife and I were talking about whether it’s Geek by Nature or Geek by Nurture, because my wife is definitely non-geek.
In terms of games and TV shows and stuff like that … one of the things you eventually learn about your kids is that they’re part you and part your spouse, but they’re mostly them. And that’s kind of cool.
My daughter is very definitely my kid. When she was seven years old, we said It Was Time, and we showed her the original Star Wars. And she watched it and had a great time. Then it was bedtime, and she asked for ice cream, and I said, “No way. It’s bedtime – you never get ice cream at bedtime,” and then she looks at me and does the Jedi hand wave and says, “You WILL give me ice cream.” And I said, “Ohhhh, yes, Just. This. Once.”
We talked for a few minutes about this idea of sharing popular culture across generations, and how the current generation has far greater access to the movies and music and books of the past than its parents and grandparents did. Scalzi tied the discussion to his current project:
JS: We live in a time where basically every era of the last 100 years is in the present, and this goes back to Little Fuzzy: just because everything is present doesn’t mean things are equally present. There are some things that are lost, some things that go down the memory hole, things that people skip over.
The tone of Little Fuzzy and Fuzzy Nation also brought us around again to Zoe’s Tale, which Scalzi specifically wrote as a Young Adult entry in his Old Man’s War series. In part, he said the project was about looking ahead to “when my daughter decided she was ready to read me, and having a book that was closer to her own life experience.”
GD: Realizing that the character of Zoe Perry is significantly older than Athena – even more so at the time you were writing the book – talk about how being a dad shaped your approach.
JS: It would have been totally different to write that book without having a child. (Old Man’s War sequel) The Ghost Brigades put the idea of family and a child into the equation, and in The Last Colony … it comes from being married and having a family. In Zoe’s Tale – even though she (Athena) is not the direct role model for Zoe, I was thinking about what it would be like to experience those things from a parental point of view.
At the time of this conversation, Fuzzy Nation had not yet been widely read, though the book had just received a starred review in Publishers Weekly.
JS: The folks who I’ve sent it to who are my friends all came back with positive reviews, but that’s not too surprising. It was kind of a relief that Publishers Weekly basically said I leaped over that (reboot) bar and that this is a good story. I didn’t know how stressed I was about it until I actually saw that review. Because nobody has done this before, outside of the fan fiction environment, taking a Hugo-nominated work and recasting it. It’s just not done. In some ways, it’s very much like a debut novel, and there’s that same sort of nervousness.
I have no illusions that some people are going to read this and say this is an entirely unnecessary book, and I’m sort of expecting that. But that’s on one level, and there’s the other level of “Is this a good story and will you enjoy reading this book?” At the end of the day, that’s where every book has to live.
Scalzi’s doing a book tour promoting Fuzzy Nation next month, and if you’re anywhere near one of the stops, I highly recommend attending. His readings and question-and-answer sessions are usually very entertaining and engaging.
Update: A GeekDad review of Fuzzy Nation is here.