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 “Chiron Beta Prime.” Audio and the chat transcript are below.
John Scalzi asks Jonathan Coulton about his song “Chiron Beta Prime.”
SCALZI: Hello, earthlings. This is John Scalzi at Tor.com, and we’re talking to Jonathan Coulton, who writes songs you may have heard, and today we’re going to talk about his seasonal science fiction classic, which is called “Chiron Beta Prime.” Why don’t you set the scene for this a little bit, Jonathan.
COULTON: It’s a Christmas letter, a family Christmas letter that you might receive from your friends who are living in the future and have been imprisoned by robots in an asteroid penal colony.
SCALZI: As you do.
COULTON: As you do, exactly. It’s a pretty obvious conceit.
SCALZI: Right. But, I have to say, one of the things that always gets me about robot overlording, right?
SCALZI: I’m just going to toss this out to you, kind of in a general sense, it’s not necessarily seasonal but, it always just seems to me, why? Why would they do that? For example, the family in “Chiron Beta Prime,” they’re out there mining, as one does when one is on an asteroid. In fact, you know that thing actually very recently where Peter Diamandis and some other people are going, “We’re going to an asteroid. We’re going to mine the hell out of it.” Right? So it’s not just science fiction and science fact catching up very rapidly. But the thing is, if you’re a robot overlord, if you’re big and strong enough to basically enslave the human race, why would you bother? Because humans are frail, fleshy things that fall apart.
COULTON: Exactly. If you’re going to get some slaves to work on your asteroid mine, for God’s sake don’t get humans.
SCALZI: Right, because not only are they weak and puny, they break down frequently. You have mandatory rest periods. Everything about them—it’s the one thing that is never really explained in any robot uprising. Sort of like the other thing, the first thing that they do when the robots become aware is nuke the humans. Right?
SCALZI: The first thing I would do if I were a robot or a computer and I became self-aware is I would tell no one. Right?
COULTON: Yeah, right. Just keep it on the down low for a little while.
SCALZI: Right. Just long enough for you to actually set up the needed infrastructure to wipe everybody out, or alternately, do whatever else it was you needed to get the hell off the planet first. So, it’s not you. It’s just the whole robot uprising thing in a general sense.
COULTON: I agree. It doesn’t make a lot of sense that a self-aware, artificial intelligence is going to—I mean once they’ve transcended us, why are they going to bother with us?
SCALZI: Right, right, exactly. So, this is one of the things that gets me. But, on the other hand, maybe they get bored, like everybody, and this is their equivalent of an ant farm.
COULTON: Yeah, or maybe they’re doing it out of spite, or maybe the reason this penal colony exists—maybe it’s not a penal colony in name—maybe this is some twisted way in which they think they are helping us.
COULTON: I don’t know, I think you can—if you do enough back flips you can come up with a reason why it makes sense. But again, because these are short little snippets of things, I’m not required to come up with a justification for everything. All I need to do is paint the picture.
SCALZI: Right. So what you’re saying is basically, yes, you know it’s a sketch. It’s a sketch, don’t think about it too hard. Go with it.
COULTON: Exactly. Not my job.
SCALZI: Right, right.
COULTON: If somebody wants to do the novelization of this, then it’s their job to come up with it.
SCALZI: I will tell you, one of my—people talk about world building and I think that this is a similar thing. And I tell people that I, typically speaking, build my worlds for two questions deep, which is like, “So why did this happen?” “Well this happened because of this.” And they’re like, “Well, why has that happened?” And you go, “Well because this happened.” And that’s sufficient for about 98 percent of everybody. And then the other 2 percent of the people ask the third question. And they’re like, “But what about this?” I’m like, “I don’t know. I had things to do.”
COULTON: Right. I’m writing a thing that I hope will entertain you, I’m not trying to explain the world here.
SCALZI: Right, and in this particular case this was part of your thing a week, thing as well, wasn’t it?
COULTON: It was, yes. I sort of doubled up, it was double duty, this song, because it was also—the fellow who originally hired me to go perform at PopTech was putting together a Christmas CD for his Rolodex of superscientists and CEOs of tech companies—
COULTON: —and commissioned a Christmas song from me. And I hadn’t written a Christmas song before, or I guess I hadn’t written a sci-fi nerdy-themed Christmas song before, and so I thought it would be fun to try to do a Christmas carol with a sci-fi twist.
SCALZI: Right, so you sort of hit two birds with one robotic stone, as it were.
SCALZI: And I have to say, it’s—the other thing that gets me is the whole…the Christmas letter because it’s almost a lost format now. Now that you have Facebook and everything else, that whole annual letter just almost doesn’t fly anymore. In some ways this song is almost a little bit quaint.
COULTON: Yeah, and you know, my wife’s parents, my in-laws, have a—there’s a family that sends them a Christmas letter every year. And it’s sort of an annual tradition that when we’re kicking around their house at Christmastime we find that letter. That letter is lying on a coffee table somewhere for everybody to read. And it’s always fascinating because it’s one of these long, rambling letters about all the things that are happening in their lives, and I don’t know these people at all, and even my in-laws don’t know them that well.
COULTON: And it’s just a fascinating way of getting a window into somebody’s life, is to see what they actually put in the Christmas letter. But it has these formal constraints, right?
SCALZI: Yeah, right. Right.
COULTON: I mean there are things that you do and say in a Christmas letter, and there’re things that you don’t do and don’t say in a Christmas letter. And to watch somebody make those decisions is actually a very telling window into their actual lives, I think. So it’s an interesting form, I think.
SCALZI: Right. It says more because of the format itself than often it may do from what’s inside the actual letter.
SCALZI: Right. I will say that this year, we got, of course, Christmas cards, and so on and so forth, from everyone. And we did that thing, was we completely blew the Christmas cards this this year, we couldn’t explain it. So, you know what we did this year? And I think, I don’t know that I sent you one because I don’t think I actually have your address, but we sent out—Paul of Paul and Storm definitely got one, and I think Storm did, too—we sent out Arbor Day cards.
COULTON: Yeah, see. That says a lot about you right there.
SCALZI: All right, so that’s all the news from Chiron Beta Prime this year, and what we will do tomorrow, we’re going to get back to another one of your super-mega-hits, “Re: Your Brains.” So be sure to tune in tomorrow for more Jonathan Coulton talking about science fiction songs. For Tor.com, this is John Scalzi. See you tomorrow.