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 “I’m Your Moon.” Audio and the chat transcript are below.
John Scalzi asks Jonathan Coulton about his song “I’m Your Moon.”
SCALZI: Hello, everybody. This is John Scalzi for Tor.com, and you’re in the middle of a nonstop Jonathan Coulton lovefest, where we are talking about his songs that are science fictional in nature. And today we’re doing another of what I would call “deep cuts,” one that has a lot of personal meaning for me, frankly. It’s called “I’m Your Moon.” It’s told from the point of view of an actual moon, if this is correct. Right?
COULTON: That is correct. It’s Charon, Pluto’s moon.
COULTON: And the story is—well, people will remember when Pluto was demoted from planet status to dwarf planet status and how emotionally injured many people were when that happened. The conceit of the song is that Charon and Pluto are relatively similar in size. They also revolve around one another. These are both kind of unique things in our solar system when it comes to planets and moons. In fact, those things were part of the problem and part of the reason they decided to move Pluto out of that category of planet. And so this is Charon singing to Pluto saying, “Cheer up. I’m still here.”
SCALZI: No matter what happens.
COULTON: That’s right. That’s right.
SCALZI: Ironically, one of the short stories that I wrote was—you read Esquire, right?
COULTON: I have not in a while. I used to.
SCALZI: They have those things that are, “things I’ve learned,” “told to by,” “famous person has various quotes,” and so on and so forth. So [inspired by that] I wrote “Pluto Tells All,” Pluto talking about having been demoted and all these other sorts of things. Then—I think not too long after, frankly—I heard “I’m Your Moon.” So in my brain they’re kind of paired up in that way. I have a short story that’s from Pluto’s point of view and you have a much more poetic, sort of supporting-spouse sort of thing, from Charon’s point of view.
COULTON: I don’t think I knew that. I didn’t know you wrote a story about that.
SCALZI: When this goes up I’ll put a link in to it so that you can see it. But it’s one of those things that people feel very, very…sort of emotional about. I remember a got into a little bit of an online thing with an author named Scott Westerfeld. Scott Westerfeld was very definitely on the, “it should not be a planet” camp of things, and he explained all the reasons: You got this moon, they orbit each other, it’s undifferentiated, there’s not a core, and all these other sorts of things. And I tend to be on the pro side because, frankly, if you’re spherical, it’s all good. Right?
COULTON: That’s what I keep telling myself.
SCALZI: Right, exactly. And I remember telling this to my daughter, and she’s, like, seven, and I said, Scott Westerfeld, who she knew, believes that Pluto’s not actually a planet. And this was the first time I really heard her get exercised. She’s like, “That’s crap, Daddy. That’s crap.” So we did this video where it was her speaking directly to Scott Westerfeld, going, “What’s wrong with you? Why don’t you like Pluto? Is it too small? Is it too cold?” And then she holds up a little doll that’s supposed to be Scott and is like, “I’m Scott Westerfeld, and I hate Pluto.” And then she pops up a Cthulhu doll, and is like, “Well I live on Pluto and now I’m going to eat you.” And that went a little bit viral at the time, so that when I took her to the WorldCon that year, people would walk up to her and go, “You’re Pluto Girl! Rock on, Pluto Girl!”
COULTON: That’s awesome.
SCALZI: Now, I have to ask you, which side of the Pluto controversy are you on?
COULTON: Well, you know, the thing is, I understand the problem. If you say that Pluto is a planet then there are a lot of other objects that you have to consider as planets; and, as things get farther out and less well defined, and smaller and colder, and blah, blah, blah. At some point you’re going to need to draw a line. You can’t say that everything in space is a planet that revolves around the sun. And so I understand. The thing is, I am a man of science, John.
COULTON: For the most part I trust that when a bunch of scientists get together and think very hard about something, and talk a lot about something, and run numbers, and make charts and graphs, and come to a decision, I tend to trust that decision. So, I may not know—I do not know all of the ins and outs of why that decision was made. I know the sort-of pop-science version, so I’m not prepared to second-guess that group of scientists. But emotionally, it’s weird for me to suddenly lose a planet in that way.
SCALZI: Right. It almost feels like the Death Star wandered by.
COULTON: Exactly, we had it for a while and then it’s gone.
SCALZI: It’s gone. It’s gone. I will say, I’m on two sides of this thing. One, I kind of agree with you that the International Astronomical Union basically said, “Look, we’ve run the numbers and it’s just not going to work out.” You kind of have to go, “All right. You do all have degrees. You have been thinking about this for a while.” All that sort of stuff. But there’s that other part of me which thinks that one night while he was at a party, deeply stoned, Neil DeGrasse Tyson said, “Watch this, I’m gonna—I’m gonna do some—I’m gonna make it so Pluto’s not a planet.” And all the other astrophysicists are like, “You can’t do that, Neil. You can’t do that.” And he’s like, “Watch!” And then he goes to the Rose Astronomical Center there in New York and demotes Pluto, cause he was one the first. He was like, “It’s the king of the trans-Neptunian objects.” And I’m like, “What sort of crap is that?” So part of me feels like it was a setup. It’s like in Trading Places at the end. Neil DeGrasse Tyson goes to, like, Stephen Hawking, and Stephen Hawking gives him a dollar.
COULTON: Right. Right.
SCALZI: And I realize that’s wrong, but there’s part of my brain that’s still there with that.
COULTON: No, I get it. I totally get it. That’s the thing about science. You don’t always like what you come up with when you run the numbers. But you gotta go with the numbers, man. You gotta go with the numbers.
SCALZI: You gotta go with the numbers. All right, on that one we’re going to call it for Pluto. And tomorrow we’re actually going to come to, I think, one of your first kind of pretty big early hits, “Skullcrusher Mountain.” So for Tor.com, this is John Scalzi. We’ll see you tomorrow.