This week we ran an interview with author John Scalzi. The print piece largely focused on his latest novel, Fuzzy Nation, a book that Scalzi described on his blog as "a reboot of the Hugo-nominated 1962 science-fiction novel Little Fuzzy, by H. Beam Piper." Like Little Fuzzy, the smart, fun Fuzzy Nation follows a prospector, Jack Holloway, who discovers a new alien species—small, furry creatures he dubs "Fuzzies." Not only are the Fuzzies super cute, but they also might be sentient. Naturally, this causes all sorts of problems.
The shorter, print version of the interview is here, but for those of you who like Scalzi's work—which also includes the popular Old Man's War series, as well as Agent to the Stars, The Android's Dream, and filmcritic.com's column John Scalzi on Scifi—here's more or less our entire conversation.
MERCURY: I first read Little Fuzzy when you announced Fuzzy Nation on your blog. I really enjoyed it, but that also meant I don't have a lot of ties to it, or sentimentality about it. I'm imagining you do.
JOHN SCALZI: I first read it when I was about 14. I had a friend who had the book along with a whole other stack of science-fiction books, and of course me, being a young nerd, was like, "OoOoooooOOo! You have some science-fiction books! Do you mind if I look at them?!" And so I pawed my way through them, and I found Little Fuzzy and immediately went out and bought the next couple of books. Ironically—it was actually kind of funny—this same friend of mine borrowed the sequel to Fuzzy, from me, I think about 20 years ago, Fuzzy Sapiens. This year I saw him when I went out to California, and he goes, "Oh, look! Look what I found in my books!" And he gave me my copy of Fuzzy Sapiens.
What was it about it that made you like it so much? Were you just devouring anything that was sci-fi at that age, or was there specific stuff about this that stuck with you?
The answer to that is "yes." One, that was around the age where I was really developing sort of my science-fiction repertoire. So yes, if something was science fiction, I was very much, "Ah, okay, I will try that." But the other thing was, 14 was right around the same age that I started to realize that this whole writing thing might work out for me. Writing seemed like it was fairly easy for me to do, and everything else was really difficult. So, it seemed to me, "Well, I should probably work on this writing thing." As it turns out, writing eventually does become more difficult. But at that time, you're completely useless to do anything else, so you have to stick with it.
So what happened was, while I'm reading [Little Fuzzy], I'm enjoying the story and all that sort of stuff, but my writer brain is also looking at it and picking it apart and taking a look at how H. Beam Piper is doing things. And one of the things that I noticed is that he writes in a style that is very easy to take in, and is very easy to tell a story in. It's not prose that gets in its own way. There's basically two types of ways most people write: They either write in a very transparent style, that is, "I have a story, and the words are the vehicle in which the story is being told." Or, they are, "I have this beautiful language I wish to share with you, and also, as a bonus, there may be a story in here as well."
Both are fine. Both are good. I think, as a reader, you want both for a complete diet. But, for me, the clear, transparent prose is more of what I do naturally. And so I was very attentive to how Piper and [Robert] Heinlein and other folks were doing it—doing things like dialogue, like describing these weird concepts and so on. So it was basically the right place, right writer, [and the] right time in terms of getting my brain really interested in it Now, Piper is not—I wouldn't put him in my "Holy Triumvirate of Writers," so to speak. But he's definitely up there. I definitely learned a lot from him as a writer, and I definitely enjoyed him very much as a reader.
Were there times when writing Fuzzy Nation when you wanted to emulate Piper's tone or voice, or was that something that you were trying to stay away from?
I wasn't either trying for or against it. I mean, there are some points of similarity anyway. Like I said, because we both write in this sort of clear, transparent style. I tend to call that, when it relates to science fiction, I call it a Campbellian style, after John W. Campbell, who was the editor at, I believe, Analog. He preferred a very workman-like, very straightforward, transparent prose. So there's a whole generation of science-fiction writers from the '40s, '50s, and '60s who write in that way. And it got to a point that eventually there was a reaction to it, and then you had the new wave of science fiction that came out of Britain, which was a lot more literary minded.
But [Piper] and I share a lot of commonalities to begin with. So I didn't actually have to think, "How would H. Beam Piper do this particular thing?" And, indeed, one of the things that I wanted to do was—even though I was basically retelling the story—I wanted to make sure that the folks who knew, there were a lot of people who would come to this story not necessarily because they're Piper fans, but because they're John Scalzi fans. And for those John Scalzi fans, I wanted to make sure that they got what they was coming for. So it's a balancing act: You want to be able to tell a story that [will make] the people who are dyed-in-the-wool Piper fans go, "Okay, well, this is a credible new take on this particular story," while at the same time, the folks who don't have a history with Piper can look at it and just enjoy the story for the story.
Plot-wise, Fuzzy Nation holds true to a lot of what happens in Little Fuzzy, but it also throws some of those ideas into completely new territory. Were there things you felt like you had to keep in there? Any, I guess, sacred cows you couldn't slay? Were there things you thought you had to change in order for you to be happy with it?
I don't think that story-wise there was anything that I said, "Oh, that absolutely has to go." I do think that one of the major changes is sensibility—sensibility both in the characters themselves and just in the approach. One of the things I'm fond of saying is that science-fiction writers write about the future, but they write in the present.... The fact of the matter is, I'm writing in a contemporary time. Little Fuzzy is a great story. One of the things—like so many really good stories of the '50s and '60s—is you read it, and it has a definite sensibility of being of its time, you know? The first thing you get is Jack Holloway, suckin' on his pipe and twiddling his mustache. And, you know, he was the very model of a modern science-fiction character in the 1960s. But today, [that's] a style and a convention of writing that's something today's readers will look at it and go, "Wow, the world has changed."
So for me, the issue was the sensibility of, "Now we have the chance to look at Jack Holloway. What would he be like today, in a way that today's readers would be willing to accept him on his own terms?" Is he going to be the same Jack Holloway of H. Beam Piper? Probably not. You start asking, "What do we expect from our main characters today? What do we want out of our protagonists?" Those are the things that I would be asking myself, as opposed to individual, particular story plots. The overall arc of the story, you'll notice, is pretty much the same in both books. The way that I look at it is, here's the opening part of the book, here's the end part of the book. Both books inhabit a sort of plot field. And the way that both of the stories wander through that plot field is markedly different.
Occasionally they intersect, occasionally they're as far apart as they can be from each other—but eventually, they end up at the same place. I tend to think about it that way, as opposed to "What things do I need to leave in? What things do I need to leave out?" When I sat down to write it, I basically knew where the story was beginning, I knew how the story had to end. I knew that there were things that probably needed to be hit—what happens to some of the Fuzzies, and so on and so forth—because, again, that's something that works in both books. But generally speaking, I didn't worry too much about whether it was completely parallel to what had come before. As much as the story is in many ways a tribute to Piper, you also don't want to be a slave to what has been done before. You have to remember that as much as you want to honor the book that came before, you also have to deal with the fact that this, for many people, will be the first time that they meet a "Fuzzy," so to speak.
Right. Now, you mentioned sitting down to write it, and thinking, "Okay, it begins here. Ends here. What can I do in the middle?" But tell me about the process leading right up to when you sat down at your computer to write it. What was the moment when you decided, "All right. I'm, gonna do this." 'Cause the reboot thing doesn't happen a lot in literature. It happens more in film and TV.
Part of the reason was because, as you just noted, it doesn't happen very often in literature. There's a reason for that, which is in TV and movies and comic books and all that sort of stuff, the stories and the characters and everything else are owned by corporate entities, and the corporate entities make their living off of those particular stories, and so they recycle them again and again and again. You know, the question wasn't "Will we ever see another Star Trek again?" before the most recent Star Trek came out. The real question was, how much time is Paramount going to let Star Trek rest before it brings it up again? It's always coming back, it will always come back. We are going to be having Star Trek in our lives for the rest of our lives. But, with literature, the copyrights are not owned, generally speaking, by corporations—they're owned by individuals.
So that makes it very difficult to just casually reboot things, unless they're in the public domain. And I think that that's actually perfectly fine—if someone came to me and said, "I wrote an Old Man's War novel! And now I'm going to put it on the market!" I'd be like, "And now I want you to meet my lawyers."
Now, in this particular case, there were two things going on which was that the original Little Fuzzy, although not the sequels, is in the public domain. The sequels are still in the copyright owned by the Piper estate. So it was fair game in that regard. But for another reason, I just thought, because it hasn't been done, that it would be kind of interesting to do. It's sort of like people have said, "Oh god, now you've done it. If this is successful, then we're going to get a new version of Stranger in a Strange Land, or a new version of Dune." I don't really think that's going to be in the offing, because I don't think that most copyright holders are interested in doing something like that. But [I was interested] just for the fact that it was something that hadn't been done, particularly at this level. I mean, Little Fuzzy was nominated for a Hugo. It is a classic of the 1960s. It is not an insignificant piece of work. So part of that was just part of the appeal. And like I said earlier, you look at it and you go, "This is a great story." But it's also a story that's trapped in amber in many ways.
So you were almost doing this as a personal challenge—looking at this and trying something that hadn't been tried before to see how it would work.
Oh, absolutely. I get as bored as the next person! When I talk about things I want to do with writing, the things to ask are (A) is this something that I've never done before? And (B) Is this something that would be interesting in and of itself to attempt?
Certainly I've never tried to work in somebody else's universe before. I hadn't done any media work, or anything along that line. The other thing was also, as far as I was aware—outside of fan faction, which is an entirely different sphere—something like this hadn't been attempted before. And that sort of made it interesting. Now, it's something that I'd thought about for a long time, but hadn't really moved forward with. Then a couple years ago, I was in the middle of some contract negotiations about a book series, and those contract negotiations fell through. It was kind of a long, drawn-out, entirely irritating process, and then it just fell apart at the very end. I was sort of aggravated, and I was sort of annoyed, and I was like, "You know what? I need to do something that I'm going to actually enjoy doing, and have fun doing, that's not related to business. That is not related to selling something. That is just a writing exercise, for me, for fun, to do. That's when my brain was like, "Well, you've always thought about doing this thing with Little Fuzzy, why don't you do it now?" And the other part of my brain said, "What a really good idea, other part of my brain! I think I will do that!" And that's what I did.
Now, when I started writing it, and up until the time when it was completely finished, I had no intent to sell it. Because, even though it was in the public domain, which meant that I could play with it, it was still something where if I had just came out and said, "Hey, look what I've done with Little Fuzzy!" then the fans would come at me, in the night, with knives, to stab me through the eyeball. So there was really no commercial intent. It was more of an intent of, "I want to try this, it'll be fun for me to write. I will have a good time doing it, and when I'm done with it, I will actually enjoy being a writer again, instead of being pissed off at this business deal which fell through."
And it worked! I wrote it very quickly. I had a really good time writing it, and when I was done with it, I looked at it and was like, "This is cool!" And then my agent called me and he says, "What have you been doing?" And I was like, "Well... I'm working on this novel that, uh, probably won't be able to sell, and, ah, that's completely working over something else that someone did, and if the fans find out, they will set me on fire and throw me into a pit. But... you can take a look at it if you want."
I bet he totally jumped on that.
Yeah. He was like, "Why don't you let me see it." Because he's my agent—this is his job, right? And he looks at it and he goes, "You know what? I think I can work with this." And I was like, "Are you... are you serious?" He was like, "Yeah, definitely! Let me go." And so we went to—the Piper estate is currently owned by Penguin, which I think is part of the reason that this worked at all.
I had assumed the estate was Piper's family or something.
What happened was, back in the early '80s, whoever it was that owned the Piper estate sold it to Ace, which was a science-fiction imprint. And then Ace either was at the time, or is now, part of Penguin, so it all sort of devolved into Penguin. So we called up Ace and we worked our way through the channels, and eventually we got to Penguin's rights permissions people, and they're like, "Oh yeah, Fuzzy! Okay, well, let's take a look at it." And then just came months and months and months and months and months... it took longer to negotiate the right to actually do this than it actually took me to write it. Which is... you know, welcome to corporate America!
How long was that negotiation process, and how long did it take you to write the book?
I wrote it in, like, six weeks.
Well, I wrote 2,000 words a day.
And here was another reason to write it, because previously I would write 6,000 words in one day, and then my brain would collapse. It would be like, "Me brain no more do can." And then I would have to spend a week letting my brain recover. And as I get older, unfortunately, my brain is not nearly as elastic as it used to be. I mean, I was up until 2 am the other day, and I was useless for two days afterward. Because I am old.
So what happened then was that I said, "Okay, well, I've basically gotta change my swing." So the other reason to write Fuzzy Nation was to try something where I was writing 2,000 words a day. Which is a good level for me, because it's a lot of wordage—it's enough that when you get done, you get that sense of accomplishment. But my brain doesn't feel like it's completely collapsed afterward, so that I can start thinking about the next thing.
That was also because I wasn't writing on deadline. I wasn't writing it for anybody. It was a good, low-pressure way to check to see if I could actually do that, and in fact it worked just fine. I just finished a novel, and that one I also did on the 2,000-words-a-day sort of diet, if you will.
You mentioned that on the blog. You cranked that one out pretty quickly, too.
Yeah, once I sat down and wrote it! I'm the master of procrastination before I sit down and start the thing. I'd be sitting there going, "I could write a novel. Or! I could kill zombies!"
I'm sorry. I completely lost track of where I was.
So that was about six weeks. And then how long was the negotiation period?
It was at least six months. And a lot of it was just making sure that everyone was in sync, and trying to explain what we wanted to do. And since we had no original plan to sell it, we thought maybe we could do something with it where we release it electronically as a charity thing or something like that. Basically what it came down to is, Penguin said, "If you want to do this, this is great. We're not so sure about releasing this electronically." They were looking at this as, "This is our property. We want to actually have a process that we're familiar with." So we ended up just selling it like a regular book.
Now, plot-wise and concept-wise, you were off in the wild, on your own while you were writing this thing. And then you had the finished product, and took it to somebody and were all, "Look what I did!" Did they have any problems with anything you'd done?
No, no. Penguin was actually very cool with it. And, like I said, the original book is in the public domain. So technically speaking, we didn't need to [go through them]. But again, it comes down to two things: One, it's a matter of why would you do this in the first place? And part of the reason to do it is to introduce people to this great story and the person who originally wrote this great story. When I announced it on my website, one of the first things I did was, "It's Little Fuzzy, by H. Beam Piper, and that's really good. You should go read that."
I wasn't trying to hide or trying to suggest that I improved it—it was more of just bringing attention to someone who I think was appreciated in his time, but is beginning to flip back a little bit into the myths of time. Just like everybody does after 40 or 50 years.
But if you're gonna make the claim that you're doing something like that—as I just did, to you, a reporter—then you have to walk the walk as well as talk the talk. And what that meant was going to the people who actually controlled the rights to the Fuzzy books. Beyond the first book, the additional four books in the series are still under the copyright and everything else. And more to the point, as a matter of respect, it was a matter of, "I've done this in the universe you control. Here it is. If you say you hate it, then I will take it away and nothing will ever happen with it." Which was cool with me, because I wrote it for my own benefit, not for anything else. "But if you do like it, tell us what we need to do in order to sell this."
Something that really struck me, in reading the original and reading this one, is that a lot of the story's themes—particularly the environmental and corporate ones—seem incredibly relevant now, and I have to imagine more so than when the original book was written. Like Little Fuzzy, Fuzzy Nation is a fun read, but there's also some serious stuff in it. The tone could easily be darker. Considering how those themes have changed in the real world, was the book's tone tricky to balance?
It wasn't that tricky. If you read my novels, generally speaking—with the exception of The God Engines, which was intentionally written like, "Here's Darky Darkness and there will be much darkness and everybody will die with the darkness"—
That was your original title for that book, right?
Yes! The Darky Darkness That Everybody Dies In. [I wrote that] just to prove I could do it. People didn't think I could do that. Like, "Surprise! I can be as moody a bastard as any of you!" But I, generally speaking, do have a very light and conversational sort of reading style, which is very easy to get through. But, if you look at The Ghost Brigades, for example—[it's] not a particularly dark book, but it covers a lot of ground in terms of the responsibility of individuals, the development of the self. Talking about whether we are the sum of our genetics, or are we the sum of the choices that we make. With Old Man's War, it's a boy's adventure, but it's actually a love story at the heart of it. Zoe's Tale [is] the year in the life of a teenage girl, but it is also a story of identity and becoming the person who you are meant to be. I think—to be totally egotistical, I am an artist here—I write books so that if you just want to have several fun hours of reading, you can do that. But if you actually want to think about stuff, there's that stuff in there too.
And that's always been the case. I think that's part of what makes the books successful is that there's a bunch of crunchy action, and explosions, and lasers, and people being snarky. But then, if you want it, there's also some chewy philosophy that you can gnaw on after the books are done. I don't want to go too deep into it—I'm not going to pretend that I am the most amazing deep thinker ever when it comes to these books, because I do write them to be accessible to everybody. But these are themes that interest me as well, as a person, so of course I'm going to put them into the books.
With Fuzzy Nation, just like Little Fuzzy, you have questions about, "What're you doing with the environment? What are you doing with these people that may be people, may be animals? Does it really matter if they may be animals or if they are people? What is the role of someone who discovers these creatures? Should they be concerned about their well-being, or is it sufficient to be a person who is like, 'I have done enough and now I can move on'?" All that stuff is there. But you know that old saying: "If you want to send a message, use Western Union."
The mechanics of that don't work anymore. When was the last time anyone sent a telegram to anyone? But the idea is the same! If you, all of a sudden, go, "AND NOW I HAVE A MESSAGE WITH A CAPTIAL M," people just look at the book and go, "Oh, Christ. It's the message." And you don't want them to do that. You want them to have a good time, you want them to go straight through reading it, and then, when they're doing reading it, they're like, "Yeah, it was really cool. And he actually touched on some really good points about environments." Or whatever. If you can do that, then I think you've won.
When I was working on Stargate Universe—I was the creative consultant for that—one of the things I did with that was, I looked at the science of that show so that the science of the show was good enough to get people through the entire show before they started thinking about it, so they could get sucked into the flow of the drama and the story, and emerge out the other side. And then when they come through the other side, they go, "Wow, there was actually a lot of stuff going on in that thing." But they didn't break their attention... they were just sucked into the story. I tend to think, speaking as a writer of fiction, that that's a really good way to do things. You grab people and you just go, "Let's suck you through this as fast as we can, get you dazzled and enjoyed," and when you come through the other side, you sit down and go, "Wow that was a really cool ride. And there was some cool stuff in there too." I think that's what you want to do. I mean, I have my website to do all my polemical stuff.
Yeah, you've got an outlet for that already.
Yeah. It's like, "LET ME TELL YOU WHAT I THINK ABOUT MODERN POLITICS." The idea that modern politics would be mirrored [in science fiction], 200 or 300 years in the future? That would be like us talking about the Alien and Sedition Acts and their vital impact on current politics. I love me some Alien and Sedition Acts, don't get me wrong. But we're not sitting here going, "This fucking Adams, man!" We're not still burning effigies of Adams.
You aren't, maybe. That's my weekend.
I was about to say, "What did I do with my weekend? Well, me and some other Jeffersonians..."
"...went out in our agrarian splendor...."
You know, they keep saying we'll get over it. But I'm still really upset.
I feel your pain man. I feel your pain.
In the author's note, you say something like, "Think of Fuzzy Nation as a kind of like J.J. Abrams Star Trek reboot, but with—"
Hopefully better science.
How important is getting science right to you? As you mentioned with Stargate Universe, how hard do you work to, if not get science entirely right, at least believable enough to roll with?
Well, science fiction has two parts to it: science and fiction. And I think you pay attention to both as much as you can. I think there can be an over-fetishism of getting science exactly right. I don't worry about that too much, because it's meant to be speculative. It's meant to go, "Let's take what knowledge we have and cast forward," and go, "Wow, this could be cool." You get it wrong, because [while some] science-fiction writers are physicists and astronomers and engineers, a lot of us aren't, so we will occasionally fall on our faces in how we predict things. But at the same time, speculating on future science is one thing, getting science that we actually know wrong is another thing. To go back to the J.J. Abrams Star Trek—which, by the way, I really enjoy, and I think it was actually the Star Trek movie that needed to be made.
It totally was! They had to get people back on board going, "I looove the Enterprise! OH MY—and SPOCK! He's got pointy ears!" They needed to do that, right? Even saying that, while I think that it's by and large a success, and well done J.J. Abrams and Paramount, there is that section where Spock does the mind-meld with Kirk and explains why Nero is angry with him. It starts off: "A star exploded. Threatening the entire galaxy!" And then, already, my brain is going, "FUCK." Already there's a [factual] problem. And then it's like, before they can go and fix the problem, the shockwave from the supernova destroyed Romulus? And I'm like, "They didn't see that coming? You can usually see these things coming from, like, light years away. Here it comes! You've got 80 years to fix that problem before it hits you!"
And the other thing: "And then we got sucked into a black hole and went back." And I was like, "Fuck you! Fucking... fucking [Alex] Kurtzman and [Roberto] Orci." And I wanted to say, "Your dialogue is great, and now I'm gonna kick you in the balls for your science." Literally, every time it comes on cable, when it gets to that part, my wife actually pauses the DVR and goes, "Honey, you leave the room. Now." 'Cause she knows if I watch it I'll just sit there and go, "Errpherrrawr."
But if you skip over that five minutes, you're totally fine?
If you skip over those five minutes, there are other science problems with it! There are lots. It takes them 15 minutes to go from Earth to fucking Vulcan! But, again, whatever. Let it go. But, the idea that Spock, SPOCK—he's the fucking science officer!—gets all this basic science that we know in the real world, wrong. Wrong! And so. Yes. As you can tell, I'm sort of bitter about that.
It doesn't seem like it at all!
I can has a soapbox? Thank you. I will take that soapbox.
So the point for me would be, it's okay to speculate. It's okay to get stuff wrong if you find out stuff in the future is completely out to lunch. But you do actually have an obligation to get stuff that is basically known—and that anybody with a brain should know—right.
For example, in most of my books, we don't actually have faster-than-light drives. Because I believe that the speed of light isn't just a good idea, it's actually the law. You can't go faster than that. And you wouldn't want to anyway because [if] you're going that close to the speed of light [and] you get hit by something, like a tiny little micro-mediate particle? It all basically transfers into energy at that one time and it blows your ship apart. The way that I've swathed it [in the Old Man's War books] is through switching universes and having all these sort of fantastical drives that approximate lightspeed, because you need something like that. You gotta get around the universe somehow. But I'm not gonna say it's a faster-than-light drive. I'm sorry—I very strongly believe that Einstein settled that particular one. We need to find some other way to get us from point A to point B. But once you speculate—like in the skip drives in the Old Man's War series—I could be horribly, horribly wrong about that at one point or another. I will be dead when they figure it out.
Like you care at that point.
Yeah. I'll be sitting up there in heaven going, "Ehh, that was bad on me!"
Those sort of anachronisms are something that I notice a lot with old sci-fi, actually. Like in Little Fuzzy, there's always smoking, and when they're shooting video of the Fuzzies, they need to replace the film canisters. As a science-fiction writer, do you make an effort to future-proof your stories, or is that just a fool's errand since there's no way to predict that stuff?
Every science-fiction author is destined to fail on the technology front. You just have to accept that you are basically going to get the future wrong. I mean, shit. All those people writing in the '50s and '60s, talking about how we would have space stations and all these sorts of things, and they completely missed the internet and iPods? Well done.
But you can't blame them! That's where our brains were at: We were in the middle of a space race. It was us or the damn Ruskies that were going to get in space first. We had to conquer that new frontier. [So] that's where culture was, that's where everybody's brain was, and so that's where they went. I try to do things that, science-wise, or technology-wise, seem to make sense to me now. But I guarantee you, in 40 years—if I should still be alive, an 82-year-old John Scalzi—and they go, "What were you thinkin' when you did this?" And I'll be like, "I was thinkin' it was 2008, you asshole! I had to sell a book!"
So, yeah—you want to get it as right and as plausible as you can, but if you go in knowing that eventually you're gonna have failures, it's fine. Oddly enough, people still read 1984, even though it's 2010, right? People still read Frankenstein—or still refer to Frankenstein—even though clearly the science of that was wrong, because it was written in, what, 1810? But, nobody cares that the technology of it is wrong, because the idea and the characters are so important. We don't talk about how Orwell's implementation of an all-seeing government is technically incorrect. We get the fact that he called it—if you go over to England, they've got more CCTV cameras than they've got children in schools. So he got that right. He messed up the details, but that's because he was writing it in 1946.
So it's more of a spirit of the law rather than a letter of the law.
Right, exactly. If these people had gotten it absolutely correct, then basically we'd be yelling at them, "Why are you so stupid that you were writing science fiction instead of investing? You could be a billionaire!"
"You could be doing much better for yourself!"
Right! Exactly! "You could have done so much better." 'Cause, god love science-fiction writers, we're not exactly on the top of the income heap.
We spoke about Little Fuzzy spawning a few sequels of its own. Is that something that you've got in mind for Fuzzy Nation?
We shall have to see. A lot of it depends on how people respond to it. If people like it, and it sells a lot, I imagine [the publisher] will come to me and say, "Hey. You know that Fuzzy book? Could you think of another one?" And then I probably will. I mean, I have an idea for what the next title will be, and I will tell you, but you can't print it.
Okay! Tell me, and I'll redact it in the transcript!
Oh, it's totally [REDACTED]. I mean, how can you—
Ha! How could you resist?
How can you not have that? I have some ideas for it, certainly, but a lot of it all depends on what happens next. The way that the writing works, is that I have a stack of things that I would like to do; it just becomes a question of when does it make sense to write them. For example, the Fuzzy Nation book—or, the book that eventually became Fuzzy Nation—didn't make sense to write until I got to a point where I was like, "Fuck, I need to write something just to learn to enjoy writing again, instead of thinking about it as a business all the time." That's when it was the right time to do that.
People often ask me, "When will there be another Old Man's War novel?" And my suspicion, to be entirely, grossly, bluntly commercial about it, is that the fifth Old Man's War will likely come out pretty much the same time the movie—if it ever actually gets made—gets on the screen.
Right. Well, how can you not?
Yeah, because it'd be like, "Duh." My most popular series, being turned into a movie... when should I release the next installment of that? That makes sense to do it then. The next book that I will have coming out is already written. I can't talk about it, because even just saying the title is a massive spoiler for it. But it's a lot of fun. After that, I have another book that I'm planning to write next, which is unrelated to the Old Man's War universe, or to any other universes. But that's cool because new stuff is good. If you just keep writing the same stuff over and over again, people just get bored and everyone will hate you.
It sounds like you're getting a kick out of doing some new stuff.
Well, yeah. Creative people are creative people. We have the struggle against—particularly if you've had a particular piece of success—[because] part of that is, "Now I've found something that works! Let's do that over and over and over again, so I can get my shiny new car made out of gold!"
But then you also have people following you around, yelling, "Jump monkey, jump!"
Right, exactly. So, there's a temptation to just do that... but I eventually get bored. One of the reasons that the Old Man's War series stopped when it did was because I was like, "Now I've said everything I actually had wanted to say with this particular series, and if I come back to it I really, actually have to think about what I'm going do next. Because I just don't want it to be, "Annnd, here's Old Man's War number five, called Old Man Grinds it Out."
You should make that book the movie tie-in. You can call it Old Man's War: The Movie Tie-In.
I want the novelization of Old Man's War. You know they did that with Planet of the Apes, right?
Yes. Isn't that awesome?
It was awesome. And I know the guy who did the novelization, it was W.T. Quick. I have nothing bad to say about the novelization, the novelization was cool. But it was like, "Really?" What's Pierre Boule think about... eh, well, he's dead!" There was also a novelization for Little Women when that movie came out about 15 years ago. I was just like, "You've gotta be kidding!" You know? At least you could've made it a graphic novel or something.
The novelization of the Dante's Inferno videogame, in some bookstore, is sitting right next to Dante's actual Inferno.
They could've just thrown in the actual Inferno, right? They could've just given you a URL inside the book and be like, "By the way..."
Pretty sure that's public domain at this point.
Right, exactly. Just go over to Guttenberg and take care of that. And that videogame—how best to put it?—was a very loose adaptation. You see some classics people with their Xbox controllers going, "I have real problems with this!"
I think the obligatory question that I have to ask—and the one you're gonna be asked by a million people over the next couple of years—is, how excited you are about the possibility of the Old Man's War movie actually happening?
Aw, fuck, man. And you can quote me there: "Aw, fuck, man!" I've been very excited, but it's kind of funny, because the whole behind-the-scenes process of it is very interesting. I've known for a couple years that the option has been taken, but they were like, "Okay, we've taken this option, but don't tell anybody! Because we still have some things to nail down." Eventually, time goes by, and I'm like, "Can I tell people now?" and they're like, "No not yet." And then: "Can I tell people now? Ahhh! I NEED TO TELL THEM!" Because people keep coming up to you and going, "So, Old Man's War. You think they'll ever make a movie about it?" And I'm like, "Er...."
Eventually, it just drives you crazy, because if it goes on for too long, you tell your friends. And it's like, "Oh, the movie, how's it coming along?" And it's like, "Well it's comin' along. Yeah. Uh-huh." And they're like, "Yeah, you keep saying it's coming along, and yet it's just imaginary in your brain."
When I first got into science fiction—because I wasn't born into it, my very first convention was in 2003—Tor [had] bought the book Old Man's War, but they hadn't released it yet. It was only in 2005 when they finally released it, but by that time, I had been in the science-fiction community for two years. So, people would see me and they'd be like, "When's that book coming out?" and I would say, "Soon! I swear," and it was finally a relief when I could say, "See? See? See! I really am a really real science-fiction author."
"I told you!"
"I told you! You thought it was all despicable lies!" So for the year and a half or whatever that I knew about [the movie] and could tell my friends but no one else about it, it was kind of frustrating, because they would be like, "What's going on?" and it's like, "Well... they're still negotiating." So when they finally were able to say, "Okay, everything's lined up, we're going to announce it." I was just like, "Ah, thank Christ."
Now that I'm able to talk about it, I'm very pleased. I'm very pleased just because it's always cool to have an option, but I really am pleased by the people who are working on it. You can't really gainsay. Like [director] Wolfgang Petersen—he's not a bad director! Scott Stuber was the head of production at Universal before he became the producer, so he's kinda plugged in. And David Self is a good screenwriter. So all the elements are there. The people who are working at Paramount who I've met, they've all been really good and they've been engaged, and they have an idea of what the book's about. [But] you never know until the moment when you sit down at the seat at the movie theater, and the lights go down, and the Paramount logo goes up. That will be when I'm like, "Shit, it's really happening." And until then, you just go, "Well, it'll be nice if it happens." And it doesn't. But, that being the case, all the setup doesn't look too shabby so far. And they're paying me, so it's good.
Do you know the depth to which you'll be involved in it?
The way that I've talked to the folks who are putting it together was basically this: I am available to answer any questions that they want. I am willing to be as involved as they want me to be involved, but I also understand—I've been a movie critic for the last 20 years, right? I've been following the movie industry in a professional sense all that time, and, as a writer, I know where my skills and limitations are. I know enough to know about the movie industry and the way that it puts stuff together, that I would trust me to tell them how to put together a movie about as much as I would trust a painter to tell me how to put together one of my novels.
It's not that I don't have good ideas, and that I don't have something to contribute—it is, after all, my book. But it's the understanding that what they're doing with the book is not actually making the book. What they are doing is taking the book and making an adaptation. If you go in knowing that you are having an adaptation rather than the book being turned into a movie, than that really helps. The first time I talked to the person who they assigned to hold my hand through the process, she was like, "We love it! Everybody loves it! We're all very excited." [She was] just doing the thing that they do, where they're telling you how everybody loves it and, "If we all pull together a team, it'll be huge," all that sort of stuff. And then she pauses, and she goes, "You know... we'll probably have to make a few changes." My response to her was, "Well, yes. Specifically, here are the things that you will probably have to absolutely change." And I ran down the list. When I was done with my little list, she was quiet for about 10 seconds, and she goes, "Ah, thank god. I can actually talk to you about this."
So, you know, it's the understanding that these adaptations have to be made, and that the movie—and this is the very first thing that I said about it on my website—will be an adaptation. They will change things. Things are going to be completely turned around. Some things will be new; some things that you love will not be in it; because it's a movie. The sooner we are all on the same page on this, the happier we'll all be. I'll get the emails going, "Congratulations! I hope they don't fuck it up." And the answer is, they can't do anything to the book. The book exists. I own the book. The book will not be changed. As far as the book is concerned, there is absolutely nothing they can do to fuck it up. They can fuck up the movie—I hope they don't, I don't expect that they will, I think they will do a good job—but, if they fuck up the movie, the book is still the book.
Yeah. That's on them. That's their deal, not yours.
Exactly, and I want them to do a really good job with it. I want them to be incredibly successful. Because then we go into sequels, and then I don't have to work anymore. I can just have my feet massaged.