John Scalzi’s Old Man’s War took me by surprise. I picked up the book because I’d heard a lot of good things about him and decided I’d give it a one-page tryout. Either he’d grip me right away or I’d drop it. Twenty pages later I realized I hadn’t moved from the spot. OK, John. Grip achieved.
The story begins: “I did two things on my seventy-fifth birthday. I visited my wife’s grave. Then I joined the army.” As beginnings go, that’s pretty damn splendid. It’s concise. It’s human. It’s informative and it remains relevant throughout the series. It didn’t start off with an explosion or a physics lecture. He puts the emphasis immediately on the protagonist, right where the emphasis belongs.
As I read the series, several points of curiosity arose. I had the good fortune to discuss those points with the (recently Hugo-nominated) author himself.
Jason Henninger: The New York Times wrote that Old Man’s War avoided the clichés of military science fiction. What are those clichés, and how did you avoid them?
John Scalzi: Well, understand that what I think the biggest clichés of military science fiction aren’t necessarily what the New York Times think they are, but they probably mean choosing action more than characterization, the shoot-em up and aliens getting it in the gut.
And that’s fine, but sometimes you actually want the people you’re spending time with to also be people you can believe in. Old Man’s War is in many ways a character piece, the development and journey of John Perry in this whole new world. You go along with him, dealing with his reactions to being thrown into the deep end of the universe.
Very often, military science fiction is like the big, loud, summer popcorn action/adventure films that we all go to see and enjoy because, dude, there’s explosions. And dude, there are great stunts, and all that. You don’t necessarily go to see them to get a life-affirming statement about humanity. You know what you’re getting in a film like that. To some extent, military science fiction is the same way.
I’m not saying what I’m doing is great and what everyone else is doing is bad. That would be arrogant and stupid and wrong. What it means is that there are some of the strictures of military science fiction that I use but I also decided to put in a lot of characterization about this person. I actually put in a love story, which you almost never get in military science fiction. I put in a lot of humor, which is also something you don’t see a lot of.
Henninger: You have three books told in first person and one in third. Why is that?
Scalzi: When I started Old Man’s War I wasn’t assuming there’d be any sequels. But when it started selling and Tor came to me about a sequel, I was like, what do I do? I didn’t want to do “Older Man’s War.” Not just another John Perry adventure. I’d already covered that ground, and as a writer I was looking for other challenges. I knew I could handle first person very well; I’d done it twice, once in Old Man’s War and again in Agent to the Stars. But third person was something I wanted to work on.
Also, Patrick Nielsen Hayden, the editor, and I talked about how the book showed life from the perspective of someone who was 75 years old. But there’s another group, one with very short lives: the Special Forces. But if you’ve got someone who essentially has no personality, someone whose entire life has been waking up and going to war, that person is—I don’t want to say boring—extremely difficult to do in a first person sense. They’re blank. They don’t have the reactions and emotional responses that we do. They’re born adults.
The Ghost Brigades were thrust into functionality without any sort of emotional training. They come across similar to people with Asperger’s. They’re very abrupt. They don’t have much in the way of social graces. And while it’s fascinating to consider how that works, it isn’t easy to put myself in that person’s head. I didn’t know if, as a writer, I was quite there.
Henninger: Would you consider writing a story from the perspective of General Gau?
Scalzi: I would, and it would be interesting but I’d be writing the same story as The Last Colony and Zoe’s Tale. You can get away with that twice; doing it three times and people would begin to get pissed. And rightly so. I think General Gau is a fascinating character, though, and that’s one of the reasons why I had him so prominently in both The Last Colony and Zoe’s Tale. Here’s a character who is in fact responsible for destroying entire colonies and sees it as necessary, but at the same time does what he can to avoid it. He’s a complex character and spent a lot of time thinking about him. I wanted to make sure people got as much time with him as I had.
Henninger: You refer to the Ghost Brigade birthing process as decanting. That word stuck with me. What’s behind that word choice?
Scalzi: The Special Forces were basically grown in vats. When they were finally ready to be taken out, they weren’t birthed. That’s a very specific process, one living being pushing another living being out of themselves. It’s a natural, animalistic process, and decanting is definitely not. It’s a very mechanistic, cold, antiseptic process. You don’t want, from a word usage point of view, to use messy, organic words or the process, because that’s not what it is. Decanting made perfect sense to me because they’re in these vats filled with fluids, someone pulls the plug, pulls them out, dries them up and pops them out. There’s no pain or joy in the delivery.
Henninger: After John Perry gets his new, shiny green body he gets an “owners manual” of sorts, in which he reads that religious and psychological counselors are available for support. Casting yourself as one of those counselors, what would you say to a new recruit who was freaking out?*
Scalzi: I think what I would tell them, you know, who they are. The essential part of them, call it the soul or consciousness or whatever it is, still remains. The container has changed; the person remains the same. Who you are morally, who you are in memory, who you are in continuity, still exists. All the rules still apply. You have a new body and a new lease on life but that doesn’t mean you’ve cheated God or fate.
From a moral or teleological point of view, it’s no different from a heart or a liver transplant. Those would also extend your life and give you new opportunities. But you’re still obligated to follow the moral strictures of your god or your conscious and make sure you don’t treat the gift of life-extension as a “get out of jail free” card. It’s not a chance to abandon morality. It’s a chance to reaffirm it.
Henninger: The Obin (a nonhuman race given intelligence by the Consu, a technologically superior race) have intelligence but no consciousness. Are the soul, consciousness and memory all the same thing?
Scalzi: I don’t think that from a religious perspective, that conscious is necessarily the same as the soul. A person in a coma, for example, still has a soul, although they don’t have consciousness. I don’t know that the Obin themselves are overly concerned with matters of the soul. They aren’t terribly religious people. They understand precisely how they came to be. They were created by an alien race that had godlike abilities, but who were not gods. The Obin don’t trouble themselves with questions of god or the afterlife or whether they have souls. For them, the matter of consciousness was the big one. Their whole racial conundrum is “Can we gain consciousness?”
Does memory equal consciousness? No, I don’t think that’s the case, because with the Obin they are entirely functional in recall but they don’t do it on an individually conscious level. We are positing that there is a gestalt understanding in there, working on a group level but not an individual level. They all know they lack consciousness but they’re not necessarily conscious of the fact that they’re not conscious.
Henninger: How does one perceive the lack of consciousness? Does that perception not imply consciousness?
Scalzi: Let me put it this way; when we’re in crowds, in groups, we’re different than we are as individuals. Me listening to music by myself is an entirely different experience than me going to a concert, being pressed around by all these people shouting the lyrics with me. Me having a strong political opinion in my room is different than me at a political rally being whipped up. To some extent what the Obin do is the same thing. Individually, they don’t have the consciousness but get them all together and they have an awareness; their perception changes. It doesn’t mean that on an individual level they’re conscious. On a larger level they perceive things that the individual cannot. It’s not a one-to-one analogy with humans and Obin, but you see where I’m going.
Henninger: A few years ago you said that you avoided specifying a character’s ethnicity unless germane to the story. This decision was criticized, and people said that you’d just created characters who were Caucasian by default. Then you responded by saying, hang on, that’s the reader’s bias. And it’s gone back and forth. You’ve recently asked writers of color to post about race on your website. Has this dialogue changed the way you see race in your work?
Scalzi: There’s been a big debate going on lately in Livejournal and in other blogs, about race and science fiction. In general I avoided it because I was traveling a lot, but also, to be quite honest, as a privileged white guy I didn’t think I was going to be able to add to that conversation. Then someone came on to my site and used it for nefarious purposes tangentially related to the topic. I got pissed and I wrote what I thought about the topic while pissed, which isn’t the smartest way to handle it. I said this entire discussion has been completely damned useless. All this stuff you people are talking about doesn’t matter. Fie on you.
This annoyed the people who were actually making valuable contributions to the conversation. My friends were like, dude, you completely humped the bunk on this one. You basically just said to a bunch of your readers “this is all shit,” and the only way they know about this discussion at all is through you. What my friends actually said was, “Dude, you showed your ass there.” Fair enough, I did show my ass. I apologized for it. But apologies are easy. So, I wanted to bring in some people who were in a better position to discuss the subject.
In terms of character, I still find myself not giving much of a description of ethnicity and so forth simply because I don’t want to write anything that isn’t essential. This isn’t just with human characters. With the Obin I almost never described what they looked like. I don’t say what most of the races look like.
Henninger: I imagined the Rraey looking like Rachel Ray.
Scalzi: Ha! And why not? That aside, there is a correct point, here. Particularly in science fiction there is the assumption that if you don’t describe someone, they’re probably white because science fiction readers are largely white. So I’ve been trying to do things that don’t put me in the position of having to awkwardly put in that “such and such a character is a strapping Asian man” simply to say that there is an Asian character. That’s inauthentic. Using ethnicity to check off a list doesn’t work. But I try to make reference to people’s ethnicities by pointing out that someone has a Nigerian last name or something, and building out the character from there in some way that’s true to that ethnicity.
I’m new to all this, so I’ll certainly hear from folks if I pulled it off or not. This goes back to one of the essays on my site. Mary Anne Mohanraj said if you feel like doing it, do it. You’ll probably get it wrong and we’ll probably tell you you’re wrong and that’s cool.
Henninger: I liked her post. It encourages boldness in the writer.
Scalzi: It’s OK to screw up if you’re trying to get things right. And it’s important to remember that while you’re doing this stuff you’re still telling a story and trying to entertain people. We all know that writers, if they have a strong view about religion or politics or whatever, can stop and pull what I call a John Galt Maneuver. All the sudden they stop the story and deliver a 20-page screed about whatever the author cares passionately about. And when you do that as a writer I think you fail miserably. This is a similar situation. You don’t want to destroy the narrative or introduce hitches in order to, like I say, check off a quota or say “Look, aren’t I being p.c.” If it’s going to happen, it’s got to serve the story that you’re telling.
If it works in the story, it’s worth discussing and worth trying to implement. I’m not necessarily going to say that I’m doing a spectacular job getting it right, but I am at least listening and trying to incorporate what people have said.
Henninger: Do you plan on continuing the Old Man’s War stories? Or is that something you can even tell me?
Scalzi: I can tell you, but I’d have to kill you. Actually, the answer is probably, but not immediately. If I were to sell the movie rights, I might make a fifth book to coincide with the movie release because this would sell a ton of books and make Tor very happy. And I wouldn’t mind. But unless that happens, the next book would be in a new era and new arc.
In the short run I have other projects I want to do and I think it would be good to step away from the Old Man’s War universe for a while and let it lie fallow. I’ve taken this particular arc as far as it goes. If I come back to the Old Man’s War universe, it’ll have to be a different time/space, like fifty years in the future. Different characters and situations instead of covering the same ground over and over.
This is one of the tensions of writing a series. People like the series. They like the characters and want to find out more about them. But you have to be careful not to just grind it out. “Oh, it’s just another Old Man’s War series.” Right?
One of the things I’ve been happy about is that each of the books stands alone. Each of the books I tried to do something new. Like in Zoe’s Tale. The major innovation is me trying to write like a 16-year-old girl. Which was incredibly damn hard. You can write some bad, snarky 16-year-old thing and say it’s a girl, or you can try to get in the brainspace of the age. It broke my skull trying to be that person. I was 38 years old when I wrote that. I was a guy. I still am a guy! But my experience as a teenager was very different from the experience I had her going through. So, to do that with anything approaching authenticity was really difficult. The first time I did it, I sent it off to a friend saying “Hey, isn’t this clever? Aren’t I doing a great job?” and she wrote back saying no, you’re doing a terrible job. My wife agreed that it was bad.
At first, I’d figured, Zoe is clever and I’m clever so I could just do some hand waving and tweaking and make it an authentic character. And this goes back to the previous discussion of character ethnicity. You can try, but if you are lazy about it, your readers will know it. You have to put the work in, and if you’re not willing to do the work, you have to ask if it’s right for you to do it at all.
One of John Scalzi’s bits of advice for writers is “Be nice to everyone.” I could tell from the conversation that he follows his own advice. And so, being a nice guy in return, I’ll end by saying thanks to him for his time and I wish him best of luck with the Hugo.
*I’m curious to know how the diverse and talented tor.com readers would answer this same question.