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 from now to May 29, 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!
Today John talks to Jon about “The Future Soon.” Audio and the chat transcript are below.
John Scalzi asks Jonathan Coulton about his song “The Future Soon.”
SCALZI: Hello, everybody. It’s John Scalzi for Tor.com, and we’re in Day Two of our Jonathan Coulton marathon. Two weeks of Jonathan Coulton, you can’t beat that. Today we’re going to start talking about some science-fictional songs that Coulton has written. Some of them will be his big hits. Some of them, I think, are what the industry calls “deep cuts,” so we’ll get a little bit of both. Today’s first one is a song that you open your concerts with, so I thought it was sort of appropriate to have it as the first song we discuss: “The Future Soon.”
That’s your cue.
COULTON: Yes, “The Future Soon.” Yes, I do frequently open shows with this, don’t I.
SCALZI: Yeah, you do. Well it’s a good opener song because I think it does a lot of things that establish who Jonathan Coulton is as both a song writer in the sort of genre that you do, and so on and so forth. I mean, one, to pump you up a little bit, it’s actually very clever, it’s right in the nerd sweet spot in terms of what it’s talking about, it’s science fictional, and it’s kind of still upbeat and fun to listen to. So it sort of hits those sort of four quadrants, if you will, of nerd rock.
COULTON: Thank you. Yeah, I agree. It’s a good place to start. A gateway drug.
SCALZI: Now, yesterday when we were talking about this song, you mentioned that the main character, although it is not you, the very first verse is sort of based on an incident that happened to you?
COULTON: That’s true, yeah. So in the song we start with this character explaining how he’s in love with this girl and he left her an anonymous note—
COULTON: —and she knew that it was him and she told everybody that it was him.
SCALZI: Right. Anonymous notes never work in, what was that, like fifth or sixth grade? Just never, never ever work.
COULTON: It was—boy, what grade was it? It was—it may have been fourth grade. Yeah, it was somewhere around there, fourth, fifth grade. No, anonymous notes—the thing is, if you sit next to a girl and you like her a lot and you’re always kind of flirting with her in that fourth-grade way, chances are she already knows you like her. And if you put a note in her desk that is in your handwriting, which she looks all the time cause she sits next to you, she’s probably going to figure out it’s you.
SCALZI: Those subtle clues are always there. They may be easy to miss if you’re not observant, but yes.
COULTON: Well, woman’s intuition, too, that’s the thing you learn very quickly not to overlook when you’re in fourth grade.
SCALZI: My daughter is now in seventh grade, and I remember fourth grade and fifth grade being particularly fraught with relationship drama, of the sort that you’re discoursing about.
COULTON: It’s a terrible time because you don’t—it’s so confusing the way in which you start to like someone. It just makes you nuts. It makes you into a crazy person, and you do all sorts of stupid—you feel uncomfortable and awkward and…It’s a very confusing time. Nobody navigates it successfully.
SCALZI: No, the worst part is that it goes to about age 28.
COULTON: I was going to say. I don’t feel too much better now, and I’m forty…two?
COULTON: I don’t even know how old I am.
SCALZI: But the great news is that eventually someone takes you off the market, probably out of pity. You know, that happened to me. My wife came up to me basically at one point and was like, “You, you’re mine.” And I was like, “Thank you.”
COULTON: “Thank you. I don’t have to do this anymore.”
SCALZI: Now, the kid in the story, though, what’s one of the fun things about that is that he goes from there. It’s like, “Yes, I’m a big nerd now. No, nobody’s skating with me. But in the future I will have my revenge. I will be doing all these fantastic things—in space.”
COULTON: Exactly, yeah. And he’s imagining his revenge through this fantasy of transformation via future technologies. We were talking about Omni magazine last time, and that is exactly what I was thinking about and exactly how I read that magazine. And I think the character mentions a platform in space at some point, and I think I remember some cover of Omni magazine that was a bunch of platforms in space.
COULTON: And the thing I love about his take on it is that it was the same—I feel Omni and the whole futurist thing that was happening then treated the future with a kind of charming naiveté when we look back now. We say, “Well yeah, we’ll all be living on platforms in space.” But it’s kind of like, “Well why? Why would we…?”
SCALZI: Why would we want to live on a platform in space, we’ve got lots of space down here.
COULTON: Yeah, I know it looks cool and everything, but why are we on a platform in space? That’s strange.
SCALZI: But the other thing that I really like about the song is that it is very perfectly the sort of preadolescent, “this is how I’ll have my revenge and get the girl.” Because when you’re ten or eleven and you’re a superhyper precocious nerd, it makes perfect sense that the way that you would get the girl is through a robot uprising.
COULTON: That’s true. It’s the only thing that makes any sense—
SCALZI: Right, exactly.
COULTON: —in your preadolescent.
SCALZI: You know, when in doubt, have a robot uprising.
COULTON: Exactly. Who would question you then? Nobody.
SCALZI: Exactly. Did you do your homework? No, I’m sorry, I forgot because of the robot uprising.
COULTON: Exactly. Saved by robots.
SCALZI: So to speak. Now, one of the things that actually is—this song is actually, aside from being a song you often do as an opener and being in many ways a sort of quintessential Jonathan Coulton science fiction song, it kind of had a big effect on your career, did it not? I mean back in like 2003 you were invited to sing this song at the Pop Matters convention, or something?
COULTON: That’s right, yeah. PopTech it’s called, and I was actually doing an event with John Hodgman in Brooklyn that was themed “The Future.” The theme of it was, “What will happen in the future?”
COULTON: And my friend John Hodgman, author/comedian/actor, had this reading series where he would invite people to speak to a particular theme, and I wrote that song for that show. And sitting in the audience was a guy named Andrew Zolli, who is the curator of this kind of TED-like get together in Maine once a year called PopTech, and he invited me to come and perform for a bunch of futurists and superscientists and CEOs of tech companies. And that was sort of the beginning of my connection to that community. It was sort of when I realized there was literally an audience of nerds.
SCALZI: That you were not alone.
COULTON: Yeah, I knew there were nerds, but I guess I hadn’t really tapped into something that was so nerd focused as this event was. And when Andrew asked me to play that song at this thing, I said, “Well, you understand that it’s about a kid who fantasizes about creating a robot uprising, right?” and he said, “Yeah, yeah, I totally get it. And everybody’s going to love it.”
COULTON: And I had my doubts but, of course, I feel it spoke directly to 90 percent of the people in the audience because it was exactly their fantasy.
SCALZI: Yeah, they were all that kid in the fourth grade passing the note to the girl they sat next to.
COULTON: Yeah. Exactly, exactly.
“The Future Soon,” enacted by World of Warcraft characters.
SCALZI: All right. We’re going to close on “The Future Soon” right now, and tomorrow, actually, we’re going to go for a little bit of a deep cut: “Space Doggity.”
COULTON: Oh, yeah.
SCALZI: Oh, yeah. So for everybody listening, this is John Scalzi at Tor.com. See you tomorrow!