Welcome to Journey to Planet JoCo, an interview series where science fiction and sometimes fantasy author John Scalzi talks to musician Jonathan Coulton about science fiction and science fiction songs.
Every morning at 9 AM, for the next two weeks, John will talk to Jonathan about one of JoCo’s songs, getting in-depth—and possibly out of his depth—about the inspiration and construction behind them. Which ones? You’ll have to come back every morning to see!
There’s more, but we’ll let John and Jonathan themselves further introduce the concept, the details, and the sparkly prize at the bottom of this particular cereal box.
A quick note before we begin: Thank you to artist Faith Erin Hicks for putting together a banner for the series! You can check out her original comic strips here, which are frequently touching and hilarious at the same time.
John Scalzi talks to Jonathan Coulton about the project, science fiction, and mwa-ha-ha-ingly more.
SCALZI: Hello, Tor.com. This is John Scalzi. I’m the author of the upcoming novel Redshirts, and today, and for the next couple of weeks, I’m going to be talking with Jonathan Coulton about science fiction and science fiction songs. As many of you know, Jonathan Coulton is a musician who’s hugely popular with the science-fiction-and-nerd set, and justly so. So I thought it would make a lot of sense for a science fiction author to talk to a science fiction musician, so to speak. So, Jonathan, how are you doing?
COULTON: I’m fine. How are you?
SCALZI: I’m doing very well, as a matter of fact. I want you to know that in honor of actually interviewing you, I am wearing, right now, one of my T-shirts that I got from my Artificial Heart super-mega-expensive, hundred-dollar pack.
COULTON: Yes, which one are you wearing?
SCALZI: Interestingly enough, I’m wearing the red one.
COULTON: That is interesting. You are wearing a red shirt.
SCALZI: I am wearing a red shirt. Oddly enough, did you know I have a novel coming out that’s called Redshirts?
COULTON: I think I did know that.
SCALZI: It’s a strange coincidence, but we’ll table that for now.
SCALZI: So, for the three people who frequent Tor.com who have no absolutely no idea who you are, tell us who you are.
COULTON: I’m a musician and singer/songwriter. I used to be a software designer, but in 2005 I left my day job to do music full time. I write songs, and record them, and play them in front of people.
SCALZI: But not just any songs. You write songs that are sort of on the geeky side of things.
COULTON: I have many songs that are on the geeky side of things. Some of the hits people may have heard of: “Code Monkey.” That’s pretty nerdy. That’s about a sad software developer. I have a song about zombies called “Re: Your Brains,” and perhaps am most well-known for the song I wrote for the game Portal and also the game Portal 2.
SCALZI: That’s right. We will actually be discussing three out of the four of those songs. We won’t be talking about “Code Monkey” specifically because “Code Monkey,” while it’s very, very nerdy, is not science fiction. We have a science fiction remit at the moment.
“Code Monkey,” which we are not discussing.
SCALZI: Now, let me ask you this, because one of the things is that you write songs. I write science fiction novels and I also write science fiction short stories, and one of the things that strikes me is that in many ways a song is very much like a short story, where you’re trying to get across a certain sort of subject in a very short amount of time and you kind of have to hit certain notes. Is this a parallel that’s occurred to you before?
COULTON: It has, yes, and I think the interesting thing about the form of a song is that you have many more options regarding how you’re going to approach telling that story. So I think certainly they’re similar, but with songs I feel like you have a little more leeway to be slightly less direct about things than maybe you would be if you were writing a short story. But, yes, certainly. I’m most excited by ideas and songs that are about characters.
COULTON: The thing that I find most compelling when I’m working on something, is trying to figure out who a character is, and I’m trying to give life to that character.
SCALZI: Well I think that’s certainly true with a lot of the songs of yours that I really like. To actually go back to “Code Monkey,” which we’re not going to talk about any other time but now, one of the things that’s so great about the “Code Monkey” song is that it’s a very specific person that, if you are someone who has ever done programming or knows anybody who’s ever done programming, you know that guy.
COULTON: Right. Well that’s always the thing, isn’t it, with the character, you want to write somebody that feels original but also is somebody that everyone will already know in some way.
SCALZI: Exactly. And it’s a challenge because you are sometimes—I mean, speaking as a science fiction writer, one of the things that you think about is, what’s come before? Is this too much like someone else has written? Is it too much like something else that I have written? And you always have to achieve that balance in order to make the character both fresh and still something that people can get immersed in.
COULTON: Exactly. It’s a constant struggle to be old and new at the same time. It’s terrible.
SCALZI: Wow. Now let me ask you from the science fiction angle of things. Have you always been—and it’s okay to come out here on Tor.com about this particular subject—have you always been a science fiction kind of guy?
COULTON: I certainly have. I’ve always gravitated towards those kinds of stories, and I think for the same reasons that a lot of people do. When you’re thinking about humans and who humans are, I think one of the most exciting ways to illustrate who humans are is to look at that question through the lens of something sci-fi related: the future as it reflects on the present, that sort of thing. “What would happen to us if” tells us a lot about how we are now. This isn’t an original way of thinking about science fiction, but it’s certainly the thing that I have always loved about it. And, yes, when I was a kid I always liked the future and technology, I had a subscription to Omni magazine. And spent a lot of time in the Continuum section, which was this little section printed on nearly unreadable silver paper in the middle of the magazine. It was all about—
SCALZI: Silver paper, and if I recall correctly, white text, so they didn’t make it easy for you.
COULTON: It was very hard to read, and there were all these little, little articles about UFOs and out-there technology and stuff like that. I remember that I kept that stack of Omni magazines, even though at the time of my subscription I was too young to appreciate the fiction that was in there, and sometime years later went back to that stack of magazines and discovered there was a fantastic science fiction short story in the middle of each one, and worked my way through them again.
SCALZI: I’m actually right there with you. I remember I actually had a copy of the very first Omni magazine. I can still see it in my brain. It was the cover where there were like headlights way in the distance, and it was blue, and I remember reading this and it made me feel like I was smart because I was reading Omni. What it really did was it signaled, not that I was smart, but that I was nerdy. And there fortunately was a correlation between the two but—I walked around proudly with the Omni magazine, going, “See, see, look, look. See how smart I am.”
COULTON: “I’m ahead of all of you.”
SCALZI: Right, exactly. It didn’t work quite the way that I had expected it to, I have to admit to you.
COULTON: No? It didn’t impress people the way you thought it might?
SCALZI: It’s really sort of a tragedy. But I’ve had my revenge on all of them, all of them now.
Now, going back to your science fictional songs and to talk a little bit more about characters. One of the things that I think you made a very good point about was character being instrumental for song writing and also for short story telling. Ironically, historically speaking, one of the dings against science fiction has been that it’s very good with cool ideas but not necessarily so much with characters. But you seem to be saying that that’s actually not been the case with your own writing, that character has been something that’s been very easy to look at through the prism of science fiction.
COULTON: Well, yes. I think so. For me, that’s the thing that I’m always in search of when I’m writing, is an interesting character. It’s the thing that makes me want to finish the song, is wanting to know more about this character that I’m writing about; and yes, I think that’s true that in science fiction it’s easy to rely a little too much on the premise and not worry so much about the characters, but there’s certainly plenty of exceptions to that. The beauty of it is—the whole point of it is—that humans are the same. Whether it’s now or five hundred years from now. I think that’s mostly what people end up writing about, and so I personally feel like I’m frequently writing about the same kind of character over and over again, which I’m sure many people would say is me.
COULTON: And I may or may not agree, depending on the song.
SCALZI: That character in “The Future Soon,” that’s a Jonathan Coulton Mary Sue.
COULTON: It is. Absolutely. The anecdote at the beginning of that song is actually based on a personal event.
SCALZI: Well, hold that thought because we’ll get to that song very, very soon; and, in fact, this is actually a good place for us to stop for today. We’ve been talking for about ten minutes straight, and when you tune in tomorrow we’ll start going through a list of science fiction songs that Jonathan Coulton has written. We’re going to get his observations about each of them, and as a special gift to all of you at the very end of this whole thing, on May 29th, we’re going to debut a brand-new Jonathan Coulton science fiction song that has never been heard by anyone else before. We’re not going to tell you anything else about it, except that it exists and that it’s coming and that—I think this is not too much of a stretch to say—that it is awesome —
SCALZI: —because I’ve heard it. Part of the privileges of membership, so to speak, is that I’ve heard this song and I think it’s fantastic, so all of you stick around for that. Again, May 29th, brand new Jonathan Coulton song. You’re going to love it. And for now I’m going to break and we’ll see you tomorrow, and tomorrow we’ll actually talk about “The Future Soon.”