Q&A with John Scalzi

I have a new long read up on The Verge. Back in February, I flew down to New York City, where I got to check out our new offices, get some face time with some of my co-workers, and got to sit down with science fiction author John Scalzi.

I’ve met him a couple of times over the years, and interviewed him one other time for The Verge. This was a formalish interview that lasted for quite a while, and ended up with a nice, in-depth profile of him. It was a fun chat, one that hangs on the fact that his new novel, The Collapsing Empire, just hit bookstores. It’s a fun read (the interview and the book), and I recommend checking it out.

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Don’t ignore the flyover Hugo categories

It’s that time of the year: fans from around science fiction fandom are submitting their nominations (deadline is the 17th of March, I think) for this year’s Hugo Awards. While I’m filling mine out, I’m reminded of a critical thing: don’t ignore the ‘flyover’ categories.

The Hugos, if  you’re not aware, are one of the genre’s biggest awards: the Academy Awards of science fiction / fantasy fandom, except that regular readers who attend (or pay for a supporting membership), can vote in them. The biggest share of the votes goes to the best novel and shorter fiction categories, but there’s sections for film, television, fan writers and related works.

The past couple of years have seen some controversy over who’s being nominated: a handful of factions of conservative to very conservative readers (read: Alt-Right) successfully gamed the system by bloc voting their own nominees and managed to cause an uproar from shocked liberalish fans who were asleep at the wheel. They were really only able to do this for the same reason that the US political primaries attract terrible candidates: nobody cares about the nominations process, and don’t show up. When they do, they tend to ignore a whole swath of categories, like Fan Writer, Fanzine, Best Related Work, and so forth. These are pretty specific categories: your typical, casual bookstore patron won’t know, if they know about the Hugos in the first place.

It’s a shame, because these are areas where there’s a lot of interesting things going on: internal genre commentary, fan work, or looks at genre history and production.

Best Related Work is one area that I particularly watch, because I tend to produce it. I write a column on genre history for Kirkus Reviews, write reviews and general commentary for places like Lightspeed Magazine and The Verge. There’s a lot of good work out there. Last year alone, there were fantastic biographies for George Lucas, Bram Stoker, Octavia Butler, and Shirley Jackson, really intriguing histories on the book and the word processor’s impact on writing, paper, and commentaries on women in the genre. That’s all just by looking at my bookshelf next to my desk. There’s numerous other works on blogs and fanzines as well. “Safe Space as Rape Room”, SJWs Always Lie: Taking Down the Thought Police, and Transhuman and Subhuman: Essays on Science Fiction and Awful Truth are just a couple of examples: Alt-Right authors with an ax to grind about the world who think that getting an award will validate their shitty view of the world.

It’s frustrating, because there’s plenty of solid books and works out there that *almost* made the ballot (and not necessarily liberal works, either). I’m thinking of books like Robert A. Heinlein: In Dialogue with his Century by William Patterson Jr., Masters of Modern Science Fiction: Greg Egan, by Karen Burnham (or any of the other books in that series!), or the numerous articles or essays that critically dissect the genre.

The real problem here is that not a lot of people tend to read the things in these categories. Who goes out of their way to read a novella? I think the fiction categories are beginning to change a bit with what places like Tor.com and others are publishing, which is a positive step. It’s also an easy thing to fix: look around at the various categories that are out there and see what you’re missing. There’s a lot of good stuff out there that’s well worth the time and energy to pick up.

As you’re taking the time to fill out a ballot, don’t skip those categories. Look around at what people have been producing, and take the time to read that novella that someone recommended, or that biography of that author.

Proxima Centauri b reality check

Artist's_impression_of_the_planet_orbiting_Proxima_Centauri

Proxima Centauri b: Very, very cool news, but not because it’s a planet the size of Earth that’s not too far away. What’s really neat about this is that it’s a planet that’s orbiting a Red Dwarf. Red dwarfs are small and cooler than our sun, but they’re the most common stars in the universe.

We now know that planets appear to be a pretty common feature around the universe, and this indicates that there could be unimaginable numbers of similar planets in existence. That’s pretty exciting stuff right there: out of those numbers, there’s going to be other Earth-sized planets right smack in the sweet spot where water can exist.

That’s a pretty good starting point for assuming that there’s life out there in the universe. Anyone who reads science fiction has probably assumed that we’re not alone in the universe. When you consider the sheer number of stars out there, even a small fraction containing water-bearing planets would be an unimaginably high number. A small fraction of that containing life would be the same.

It’s exciting news, but there’s something interesting with how it’s portrayed.

Here’s a collection of headlines that have popped up throughout the day this week:

This Planet Just Outside Our Solar System Is ‘Potentially Habitable’ (NPR)

Discovery of potentially Earth-like planet Proxima b raises hopes for life (Guardian)

Possibly habitable planet found orbiting nearest star (CBS)

A planet orbits around the closest star to our Solar System — and it may be habitable (The Verge)

New neighbor: Scientists discover closest habitable exoplanet (Fox News)

You can see the common point in all of these: Proxima Centauri b does appear to be in the habitable zone of its host star, but that’s not to say that Proxima Centauri b is Earth-like, habitable and ready for us to move in.What scientists discovered was a planet that appears to be about the size of Earth, in the habitable zone. But, there’s a lot that actually makes a planet habitable. Venus is a planet that’s almost exactly the same size as Earth. It’s a bit too close to our sun, but it’s the atmosphere that really makes it a nasty place to live. It’s thick, has lots of pressure and acid. Every spacecraft we’ve dropped to the surface have melted in a matter of minutes. (We could live in the atmosphere, if we wanted to try some floating cities).

My friend Andria Schwortz pointed out that even if it’s Earth-sized, it doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s a rocky planet like Earth: we literally only know the planet’s mass and orbit. It could be a gas planet. It could be a rocky planet without an atmosphere. It could also be an Earth-like planet with an atmosphere and liquid water.

Atmospheres are important, because they help regulate temperatures on the surface, whether or not there’s liquid water, and so forth. Earth-sized doesn’t necessarily equal habitable for humans. There’s a long distance from the right size all the way up to habitable. The atmosphere needs to be right (which means nitrogen, oxygen, carbon dioxide, etc), the right pressure, the right temperatures, and so forth.

Our environment is the product of billions of years of life and some external factors. There’s also Earth’s plate tectonics and its moon, which could have aided life. There’s also Earth’s magnetic field, which helps protect the surface from radiation from our Sun. Life is complicated. Our Moon and some of the outer planets are responsible from shielding Earth from devastating asteroid impacts. There were lots of points along the way that made our existence pretty spectacular. The sheer number of planets make the difficulty of life coming through certainly possible.

Also, we’re probably not going to set people down here. It’s four light years away, which means it would take just under two hundred thousand years to reach this system with our conventional technology, or about the same length of time humanity has existed. These are unimaginably large distances. If we can boost our way up to a sizable fraction of lightspeed, we’re still talking about hundreds of years in transit.

My Approach to Book Reviewing


I’ve been asked a couple of times from various people about reviewing books and my approach to the types of articles that I’ve written in recent years.

It seems like there’s a couple of general forms for these questions / requests:

  • How do you go about picking books to review?
  • Can I please give you a copy of my book? You don’t have to review it, just read it!
  • How do I get you a review copy? / How do I get the attention of a reviewer?

Let me preface this by saying that this is my approach, and that generally, reviewing books is a side exercise to most of the reporting that I do and have done. There’s not a whole lot of demand for it across the internet, and the loss of genre-specific publications such as SF Signal, A Dribble of Ink, and others tightens up that market considerably.

Because I’ve been doing this for a little while and because I’ve written for places that get decent traffic, I’m on the mailing lists for a bunch of publishers, who want me to take a look at what they have. (For a good look into how the publicists work, listen to SF Signal Podcast #275)

What that means is that I’m getting to know my postman and UPS guys pretty well. They stop by my house 2-4 times a week. If you follow me on Twitter or Facebook, you’ll probably see that I post up pictures every couple of days of what I get in. Those books pile up fast, and there’s no humanly way possible for me to even read a fraction of what comes through the door. Getting the books is fine: I read over most of what I take in, to see if I’m interested: I come across some interesting books that way that I might not have otherwise found.

This is where the triage comes in. The books that don’t make that first cut go into a couple of piles:

  • 2-3 stacks, for the books that are coming out in the next couple of months. These aren’t ones that I’m planning on reading, but they look sufficiently interesting to hang on to, so that I make sure they end up on New Adventures for The Verge.
  • Discard pile: these are books that have a) either come out already, b) I have a copy already, or c) it’s not a book that I can/want to include on the list for any number of reasons. I’ve been bringing these piles to my monthly book club for people to take – they’ll whittle down the pile, and I’ll hand off the copies to family members, friends, etc. If I have a lingering pile by the time I hit a convention, I’ll usually drop that off on the free pile. Others will get donated to a library.

If I get a book that I’m interested in, I’ll haul it up to my office, where it gets stuck into another chronological pile by release date. This is something I want to review. It looks interesting, and it’s essentially my to-get-to pile. There’s some books that immediately come to the top as a high priority to read, while there are some others that I’ll pick up if I can get to them. Some books, even high-priority books, get dropped off because I miss the release date, or because I get a couple of chapters in and didn’t like it.

There’s a second pile that I’ve got going up here – books that I’m planning on reading, but which the release date has passed. I might still post up a review, or I might just read it because I like the author, what the book is about, or the cover art. I tend to keep my eyes open for what others are saying about it. There’s some people who’s judgement I trust, and if they’ve liked it, that’s helpful to know. (But, it’s not failsafe – I’ve despised some well-regarded books, and loved some books that people hated).

Review dates are important here, for a couple of reasons. Publishers and authors are working to get the word out, and potential buyers, fans and interested readers are looking. This is the best time for a review to go up, because you have a certain amount of attention that’s looking to be steered towards a review or commentary on the book. However, how much traffic a book will generate isn’t the first consideration that goes through my head when I pick up something to read. In all the time that I’ve been reviewing (with SF Signal, io9, Lightspeed, Verge, etc), I’ve never been asked to review a book because it’ll generate traffic, or because there’s some sort of deal in place at the site.

Finally, I pick up the book and read it! Some books get dropped halfway through so that I can cut my loses and move onto the next one. The pile for the rest of the year? ~20 books, with an additional four that I’m reading now. I tend to read 4-6 books at any given time. I’ll take a stack with me and read a couple of chapters at a time between a couple to see what breaks out for me, and when one does, I’ll finish that up. There’s times when I’ll also pick up an audiobook, particularly a book that’s taking me a long time to get through, to listen to when I’m driving, which helps move the pace along a bit.

When I’m done with the book, I’ll jot down a rough outline and get it written up while it’s fresh in my mind. I don’t usually take notes or anything like that, but I’ll go back and read up on a passage or chapter if I need to. Then, the review gets posted in the appropriate venue (currently, either this blog, Verge or Lightspeed), and I move onto the next entry in the pile.

With that in mind, here’s a couple of questions that I’ve gotten:

Can I please give you a copy of my book? You don’t have to review it, just read it!

Erm, no. I’ve seen this question pop up more than once, particularly along self-published authors, and I’m not sure why it’s only in that small subset (I could be wrong, but I’ve never had a traditionally published author ask me that).

The problem with this question is that most of my reading is tied up with professional commitments. I have a finite amount of time in the day to read, and there’s already a waiting list. If you’re doing the digital equivalent of shoving a book in my face with a demand to read it, you’re demanding my time, which is finite.

The books that I’m reading for review are ones that I deem interesting and worthy for the outlets I write for, and that’s judgement that I’ve honed as a reviewer, and a quality that my editors seem to like. For my own pleasure, I’m picking up books that interest me the most.

How do I get you a review copy?

I’ve got a ton of books already, and adding more to the pile means that the mailman / UPS guys have to make another trip over. If you’re a regularly published author (I.E., not self-published) with a publicity department, feel free to have your publicist get in touch. If you’re self-published, free free to send me a link / blurb. If I like what I see, I’ll let you know. If I don’t, I’m not really interested in having a book that I have to get rid of – it’s not a good use of resources for you or me.

Why do you hate self-published books?!

I’ve been accused of this. The short answer is, I don’t. I don’t pick them up all that often, but there’s reasons for that: there’s a whole publicity apparatus set up by the major publishers, and it’s hard to get the word out in the flood of other books. I’ve read and reviewed self-published books — I recently picked up Cumulus by Eliot Peper and reviewed it for io9. A mutual friend recommended the book, and he queried me about how I he could get me a copy.

Most of the time, I’ll pass on a book if I’m queried – remember, there’s a whole system of piles – because it’s something I’m simply not interested in. (I reject a ton of traditionally published books, too!)

How can I stand out to reviewers?

Book publicity is hard, tiring and discouraging. I’ve been there: I had to market War Stories: New Military Science Fiction when that came out a couple of years ago, and it was an exhausting process to get people to look at the book. Some colleagues in the reviewing world picked it up and some didn’t.

The best way to stand out to reviews is to have an outstanding book. That might sound glib, but I’m being serious. Every author thinks that their book is the best out there. Some things do help: professional messaging, like a press package (blurb, cover art, a handful of review excerpts, etc) goes a long way.

Packaging your book helps too. While I primarily go by the blurb on the back of the book to decide whether or not I read it, the cover does make an impression. It doesn’t always factor in, but seriously, don’t half-ass it with Microsoft Paint.

Obviously, there’s exceptions to every rule: there’s plenty of great books with terrible covers out there (Just look at all the modern covers for Ringworld), and there’s plenty of great covers with terrible books (just look at Ernie Cline’s Armada).

What should I do if you tell me you’re not interested in my book?

Move on to the next reviewer. Seriously, move on.

Your book might not have worked for a number of reasons: I might not like that type of book; I might have reviewed something like it already; I might have too many books on my plate as it is.

If you decide to argue the point, I’m just going to delete your e-mail. If you tell me that I’m biased or that I hate authors/self-publishing/Fantasy/whatever, I’ve lost interest. I’ve already decided that I’m not interested in your book: what makes you think that I’m interested in your argument about it? Being rude isn’t going to help you.

 

The long and short of it comes down to resource and time management. I’d like to read everything, but I have to be selective. I try and make sure that everything that comes through the door at least gets publicized with a picture, and that I review the stuff that I like and that I think other people will like. The main criteria that I have for a review? I liked a book enough to tell people that I think that they should read it. Everything up to that point is finding the right book. I don’t find all of them, but I do try.

Anyway, that’s my approach.

So Long, and Thanks For All The Trilobites

I regret to announce — this is The End. I am going now. I bid you all a very fond farewell.

So, yesterday was my last day at io9. I’ve spent the last year as their Weekend Editor, running the site on Saturday / Sunday, filling in and generally holding down the fort on the slow part of the week. I’ve been there even longer as a contributor. Now, it’s time to move on.

It’s been a hell of a ride.

I started writing for io9 back in 2008, after I answered a call for interns. I think I skipped pass the intern phase and became the site’s ‘research fellow’. I had written for a couple of places like SF Signal, but this was a whole new thing. Under Annalee Newitz, I had the chance to write about a whole new mix of things – Trilobites, Stormtroopers, spaceflight, books that should be movies (three of which have become or will be TV shows!), and scored a big hit with a rant on Military Science Fiction.

My term was up after 6 months, but I kept contributing the occasional book review or commentary. io9 opened a whole lot of doors for me, professionally. It helped me become a better writer and thinker – the range of articles that Annalee Newitz, Charlie Jane Anders, Meredith Woerner, Lauren Davis, James Whitbrook, Germain Lusslier, and many others put together shaped how I looked at science fiction, writing, science, current events, and so much more. It’s helped me get regular writing gigs, such as with Kirkus Reviews and Barnes and Noble, and to travel to places like the Launch Pad Astronomy Workshop.

In June 2015, I figured out that I didn’t want to stay at my day job anymore, and was able to join up regularly as io9’s Weekend Editor. The new gig allowed me to write about a ton of things that I loved writing about.

All of that is coming to a close. I’m jumping over to The Verge at the end of this month, something that’s exciting, but also slightly scary. It’s time for a bit of a change, and it’s the next step.

It’s hard to encapsulate everything I’m proud of with io9 – the list above is only a fraction of what I’ve done. io9 is genuinely an online home, and while I won’t be adding to it anymore, I’ll be keeping my eyes on the place.

Destination: Venus

I have a new nonfiction article up on Clarkesworld Magazine, Destination: Venus, a followup to Destination: Mars from last year.

Like the last post, it covers a topic that I’ve been getting more and more interested in: how did we discover the Solar System, and how did we interpret those findings? Science Fiction is the ideal medium for making sense of the potential for life elsewhere in the galaxy or solar system, and what I’m finding most interesting is how seemingly at ease people were with the idea of life on other planets just a century ago.

It’s interesting: Venus is so much different from Mars, and our stories about it are quite a bit different, yet the same. There’s more about Mars as a potential second Earth, even though it’s smaller and colder.

Like Mars, though, as we learned more about Venus, the stories changed. We couldn’t live on Venus and nothing could, but SF has the enthusiastic optimism about the world: maybe we can terraform it, live in floating cities, or merely study it.

 

Read Destination Venus over on Clarkesworld Magazine.

These Are The Best Things I Wrote In 2015

 

2015 was a really great year in a lot of ways. I began working at io9/Gizmodo as their weekend editor, as well as Barnes and Noble’s SciFi and Fantasy blog.

Over the course of the year, I had the chance to write some pieces that I’m really pleased with, and I rounded them up here.

Word broke that the first standalone Star Wars film would be called Rogue One, which got me excited, because hey! Rogue Squadron! The film isn’t the about Rogue Squadron, but it’s fun to dream. I wrote up a short history for Barnes and Noble. Before Star Wars: Rogue One Takes Off, a History of the X-Wing Series

The Expanse have been some of my favorite books, and when the television show went into production, I began writing about how the entire story came together. This piece had me interviewing a bunch of people, and visiting the set of the show up in Toronto. Evolution of a Space Epic: James S.A. Corey’s The Expanse

In March, I was a guest at Vericon, where Ken Liu was discussing translations and that got me thinking about the history of Chinese science fiction. I began researching, and it turned into a fantastic history. Narratives of Modernization: China’s History of Science Fiction

I’ve been a long-time Star Wars EU fan, eating up the books throughout high school. As the new films were coming up, I decided that I wanted to look a bit deeper into the history behind the SWEU, how it formed and where it headed. This turned into a five part series that I’m very, very proud of.

I’ve also wanted to write for Clarkesworld, and when the opportunity came up to write some nonfiction for them, I looked into the history of Mars and science fiction in Destination: Mars.

I’ve been writing for io9 and Gizmodo now for years, but as their Weekend Editor, I’ve been working for them directly now. It’s a very fun job, and I’ve gotten to write up a bunch of high-profile reviews and features for them.

In particular, I got to write up a couple of detailed histories on two highly visible (thanks to NASA) points in the Solar System, Ceres and Pluto. These were a ton of fun to research and write:

Finally, for Kirkus Reviews, I’ve been continuing my column on the history of science fiction. This has been a fun year, but the post that stands out the most for me is about Kim Stanley Robinson, and his Mars trilogy: Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars.

In other places, Fragmented was recorded as a podcast, I tore a book to shreds and got to interview one of my favorite authors at one of my favorite bookstores. Oh, and met Colin Trevorrow, who’ll be directing Star Wars: Episode 9.

Now, I’ve left work at Norwich to do this full time. I’ve got a bunch of projects in the works, and I’m excited to see just what comes up in the next 12 months.

Building A Galaxy Far Far Away: The Story Behind The Star Wars Expanded Universe

splinter

So, I’ve got a major series of articles going up on Barnes and Noble this week: Building A Galaxy Far Far Away: The History of the Star Wars Expanded Universe.

heir

I’m very excited for this series. It started out as something that I thought would be a fairly short article. As I researched more, there was more to the story, and it grew.

shadows

I want to thank the following individuals for their cooperation, time and interviews:

  • Alan Dean Foster
  • Barbara Hambley
  • Martha Wells
  • Steve Perry
  • Troy Denning
  • Kevin J. Anderson
  • Daniel Abraham
  • Lou Aronica
  • Kristine Kathryn Rusch
  • Matthew Stover
  • Bill Slavicsek
  • Betsy Mitchell
  • Lucy Wilson
  • Kathy Tyers
  • David J. Williams
  • David Wolverton
  • Elaine Cunningham

neworder

I also need to thank two other people: Elizabeth Templeton, who’s been diligently proofreading my work before I submit it, and Joel Cunningham, who’s been editing the entire thing. Without them, this series wouldn’t nearly be as good.

All in all, this comes to about 35 pages of material, or 16,000 words. It’s a labor of love, and I have to say, I really want to go back and burn my way through the EU like I used to in High School.

Here’s the entire series:

There were a bunch of books that were instrumental in having this come together. Interviews and other sources that I didn’t conduct have been linked to in the piece itself:

  • Star Wars: The Essential Readers’ Guide, Pablo Hidalgo
  • The Secret History of Star Wars, Michael Kaminski
  • The Making of Star Wars / Empire Strikes Back, J.W. Rinzler
  • How Star Wars Conquered the Universe, by Chris Taylor
  • The Secrets of Star Wars: Shadows of the Empire, Mark Cotta Vaz

 

Narratives of Modernization: China’s History Of Science Fiction

china

I have a new feature article up on Barnes and Noble’s Science Fiction and Fantasy blog titled Narratives of Modernization: China’s History Of Science Fiction.

This particular article was a long time coming: earlier this year, I attended Vericon as a guest. Ken Liu was the Guest of Honor, and had a lot of things to say about translating science fiction, and had a presentation called Heroic Translators, which was a really interesting talk.

He spoke about how translation worked, and how Chinese translators really had to play with language to get science fiction ported over from western languages to their own.

Along the way, I realized that I didn’t know anything about Chinese history, other than the fantastic novel that Ken had just translated: Liu Cixin’s Three Body Problem.

This led to a bit of an exploration on my part, and what turned into an incredibly difficult article to write. I had taken courses in Chinese Military history while taking my Master’s, and I struggled with what was really an unfamiliar tradition. While researching this article, I also had to brush up on the last century of Chinese history, in order to provide the proper context for how this strain of science fiction emerged. What I thought would be a fairly straight forward article turned out to be a much more complicated and interesting one – the best sort of stories.

I used a bunch of sources and interviews for this, all of which are linked in the article, but I would be remiss if I didn’t thank Ken for answering a bunch of my questions over the last couple of months, and for providing some of the inspiration for this piece in the first place.

Evolution of a Space Epic: James S.A. Corey’s The Expanse

Over on Barnes and Noble’s SciFi & Fantasy blog, I’ve got one of the biggest articles I’ve ever written: the Evolution of James S.A. Corey’s series, The Expanse. This has been in the works for several months now, and it’s really exciting to see it hit the light of day.

This article covers the entire background of where The Expanse came from. It started as an MMO pitch, became an RPG, then a book, then a series, and now, a television show. In March, I visited the television set, and since then, I’ve been researching, interviewing and writing.

This was a helluva lot of fun to write about, and I’m looking forward to the television show. After all of this, I’m convinced that the show will be a big one, and one that’ll be returning SyFy to its roots in a grand way.

Read the entire article here. It’s a long read: 10k+ words.

Sources.

I’m not going to annotate these sources, but here’s the list of interviews and articles I drew quotes from. In the article, where an interview isn’t linked, it’s one that I conducted myself.

2007:

2008:

2009:

2010:

2011:

2012:

2013:

2014:

2015:

  • Syfy orders ‘The Expanse’ series based on ‘Leviathan Wakes’ (think ‘Game of Thrones’ in space):
  • http://www.ew.com/article/2014/04/11/syfy-the-expanse
  • Interview with Ben Cook
  • Interview with Steven Strait
  • Interview with Ty Franck and Daniel Abraham
  • Interview with Mark Fergus and Hawk Otsby
  • Interview with Liza Williams
  • Interview with Raja Doake
  • Interview with Daniel Docui

There’s a ton of people to thank for their help here. In no particular order, the following people were instrumental in making this come to life:

  • Ty Franck and Daniel Abraham
  • Mark Fergus and Hawk Otsby
  • Ben Cook
  • Steven Strait
  • Maureen Granados
  • Liza Williams
  • Raja Doake
  • Joel Cunningham
  • Karen Tyrell
  • Daniel Docui
  • Ellen Wright, Will Hinton, and Alex Lencicki.