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 “Betty and Me.” Audio and the chat transcript are below.
John Scalzi asks Jonathan Coulton about his song “Betty and Me.”
SCALZI: Hello, folks. John Scalzi for Tor.com. I’m talking with Jonathan Coulton about science fiction songs. Why Jonathan Coulton? Because he writes them. Duh, it makes perfect sense. And today we’re going to talk about one of the songs that’s maybe not as well-known as some of the other ones but always sort of functioned well for me. It’s a song called “Betty and Me,” which is again off of Where Tradition Meets Tomorrow. Which, frankly speaking, Jonathan, is almost all science fictional stuff. With the exception of “Mandelbrot Set.”
COULTON: Yeah, all five of the songs are extremely targeted, nerd-friendly songs. I don’t know if I did that—I think I probably did do that consciously. That was right around the time that I had discovered that there were nerds out there and they liked music and that they liked what I was doing all the time, anyway, and so why not do more of that?
COULTON: And “Betty and Me,” of all the songs it feels very much like a short story to me.
COULTON: Because it’s this character describing how he and his wife, Betty, have maybe had some problems, but they’re all solved now because they have decided to genetically engineer or create this child—
COULTON: —together, but it is revealed to the audience, but not to the character, as he speaks—
COULTON: —that Betty and the scientist who’s helping them are actually having an affair and probably producing the baby themselves in the traditional manner.
SCALZI: In the old-fashioned way. Yes.
COULTON: Yes. Spoiler alert, I should have said.
SCALZI: I suppose so. Well you know the thing is that for each of these we’re probably going to put up a video or a streaming song or something ahead of time so that people will not be surprised. They will listen to the song first and then will come to us.
COULTON: Oh, good. Good.
SCALZI: So that should probably work out. But I do think you’re correct. It is very much a short story form and you actually engage in a very literary conceit, which is dramatic irony, right?
SCALZI: Because, no offense to our hero, the narrator of the song, the dude’s an idiot.
COULTON: He does not know what’s going on. And it is pretty plainly there in front of his face and yet he does not see it.
COULTON: Which is the tragedy.
SCALZI: Yeah. I mean it’s funny for us—
SCALZI: —but for him it’s not such a good thing. But it’s actually not a bad thing for him either, right? This isn’t something that he’s going to be happy to find out. If someone explains it to him he’s not going to be pleased.
COULTON: No, of course. If he doesn’t know it by now, when is he going to know it?
SCALZI: Right, yes.
COULTON: I think it’s probably…the secrets are safe with this guy.
SCALZI: I don’t know, though. But because I will say that part of my reaction, part of the reason that I enjoy this song so much is that, one, I’m laughing at him, but I’m also laughing near him. In the sense of I’m also having this pity and you’ve created a character that I do want to take aside and kind of go, “You know, Bob. Let’s actually walk through this, okay?”
COULTON: “Dude, dude. Will you wake up? Listen, listen.”
SCALZI: Right, right.
COULTON: “Listen to yourself.”
SCALZI: Yeah. “Can you see the actual connections here?”
SCALZI: But also I think that says something as well. I do think among the nerd community we are aware of people who are objectively smart or they do pretty well out in the world in most of other things except dealing had humans.
COULTON: Right. Right yeah. It’s true. It’s easy to feel sympathetic to a character who has trouble in his relationships. That’s very familiar to most of us, I think.
SCALZI: Not you and I, of course. We have always been smooth operators.
COULTON: No, we’re very smooth. Especially with the ladies, so that’s no problem there. No problem at all there. But he’s such a chump. That’s the thing, he’s such a chump.
COULTON: But he’s so positive. He’s so positive about it. It’s not as sad as it could be, because he’s like, “Thumbs up. This is great.”
SCALZI: “This is fantastic. I can’t wait for the kid even though he won’t have a tail.”
COULTON: Right. I forgot. There’s that whole digression where they talk about options.
SCALZI: Yes, making friends with clowns and stuff like that. So. And, again, just as sort of the insight into the whole character. He’s just very enthusiastic about everything, which makes me wonder actually, and again, feel free to say, “I don’t know, that’s more than two questions deep,” but, how did Betty get with him anyway?
COULTON: Yeah, I don’t know. I don’t know why Betty would be with him. I think they were younger and, I don’t know, I think maybe she has changed and he has not. If I had to make a guess.
COULTON: And she now cannot stand him.
COULTON: And he sort of accepts that with a genial, “Oh, well.”
SCALZI: Yeah. “She’s still mine. I still love her.” But I think that’s—that’s also really kind of fun for me, is the idea of someone who’s like, “This is what I got and I’m going to stand pat. Everything is good where I am.”
COULTON: That’s right. Let it ride.
SCALZI: Now, do you have actually any sort of serious thoughts about genetically engineering your children at all? I mean aside from tails and, you know, monkey faces and stuff like that?
COULTON: Well, for my own personal children it was too late because they were already born.
COULTON: Tragically, yes. But I do think, I don’t know. Again, I’m a man of science. I tend to not fear science just on principle.
COULTON: And I think, well, sometimes there are complicated waters that we need to navigate in terms of ethics and morality. I think that we’ve done our best, and there’s no question in my mind that science has always meant a net gain for us on the whole. On average.
COULTON: With several certain important setbacks along the way. So, I think we’ll do it just because we can, and we’ll figure out what makes sense.
SCALZI: Yeah, no, I have to say. I mean, one, it’s one of those things. We had our child, and my daughter, Athena, and part of it is we look at her and it’s like, “She’s perfect. We’re going to stand.” It’s sort of like, we don’t want to roll that roulette again because who knows? The next one that pops out is going to be—because I had a sister and a brother and we were all just so very, very different from each other. It’s almost unbelievable that we come from the same parents, right? You just look at them going, “How did that happen?” And so part of me was just like—because genetics really is so often just a crap shoot and then the idea behind genetic engineering is someone who comes in and says we can totally load these dice for you. Which on one side sounds great, but the flip side of that is sort of metaphorically, it doesn’t usually benefit the person rolling the dice when they’re loaded dice. It usually benefits the house. And for me it’s sort of the idea of, yes you could probably do something genetically to make your kid have 20/10 vision, or so on and so forth, but the genome is so complex that what you’ll end of doing is, you know, there’ll be secondary things down the line that you haven’t quite figured out yet. And I think that that is one of the things, while I agree with you with the whole idea that science tends to be awesome, it’s not very good at—to go back to my thing about storytelling—it’s not very good at more than two questions deep. Do you know what I mean?
COULTON: That’s very true. And I think that all technologies involve making mistakes as you figure them out. I mean, there’s so many examples of long-term effects not being taken into account. So, yeah, of course. It’s completely counter to the spirit of DNA, which is, you know, the whole process is designed to inject quite of bit of randomness, specifically, well, I was going to say for the purpose of—but there’s, you know….
SCALZI: Yeah, yeah, yeah.
COULTON: Whether there’s a purpose behind it or not is above my pay grade, but certainly that’s the way evolution works is this random shuffling. So, when you stop doing that, you’re definitely sanding against the grain at that point.
SCALZI: Right. Well the way that I always explain it to people, DNA is you know, 2 billion years of sufficiency, right? Where you’re like, “This is good. We’re doing one specific thing here. And we’re doing it. We’re not going to try to improve it. This is good enough.” Because if you think—
SCALZI: —of the whole human thing of why you have a curved spine, it makes absolutely no sense. Why are so many people nearsighted? It’s all crazy stuff, so. But, at least it will work out well for this guy no matter what.
COULTON: Yeah. That’s right. Because his attitude is, “Thumbs up.”
SCALZI: Thumbs up. And on that note we’re going to leave “Betty and Me,” and tomorrow we’re going to talk about actually another kind of a deep cut again from Where Tradition Meets Tomorrow, “I Crush Everything.” So for Tor.com, this is John Scalzi. Jonathan Coulton and I will see you tomorrow.