Same Story with a 21st Century Sensibility: A Conversation with John Scalzi
In the opening scene of Fuzzy Nation, a dog named Carl steps on a detonator panel and sets off more than just the plot. The novel, as Scalzi says, is a "reimagining of the story and events in Little Fuzzy, the 1962 Hugo-nominated novel by H. Beam Piper." Scalzi borrows the story arc, character names, and other plot elements and re-tells the story with, as he explains below, a "Twenty-first century sensibility."
Furthermore, Fuzzy Nation is an example of what happens when an established writer takes creative risks—and has a lot of fun doing it. The novel is saturated with respect for Piper, affection for the source material, and an intellectual playfulness. It is charming without being trite; thought-provoking without being didactic.
Scalzi is the author of four The Old Man's War Novels and the standalones Agent to the Stars and The Android's Dream. His shorter fictional works include How I Proposed to My Wife: an Alien Sex and Judge Sn Goes Golfing. Scalzi has also written a variety of non-fiction books on topics such as money, the universe, and science fiction movies. The 2008 collection Your Hate Mail Will Be Graded: Selected Writing, 1998–2008 goes a long way toward mapping Scalzi's sharp-witted web presence.
I spoke with Scalzi last month, a few hours after he'd finished a new novel. He was still zinging and buzzing with the thrill of it. Below, we talk about Little Fuzzy and Fuzzy Nation, the writing process and a straight man named Carl.
Where did Fuzzy Nation start? At what point did you say, "I've got to do this"?
I was between projects. I'd had a project fall through and I had some free time. And I was thinking, "Well, now what do I want to do now that I don't have this big project anymore?" I had often thought about taking a book that existed before and seeing what it would be like to play with it a little.
I'd been thinking of Little Fuzzy by H. Beam Piper for a number of reasons. One because it was a really good book. It was one I enjoyed very much when I was growing up. It was one of my favorite science fiction books and I really admired Piper's style and his way of telling a story. In some ways, and this is true with a lot of the science fiction of the 50s and 60s, the future that Piper wrote has sort of become our "past". In some ways some ways there are little things about the book and the way its structured that seem anachronistic now. You'd read it and go, "Well, this was somebody's future, but not our future anymore." If you read the opening of Little Fuzzy, it has Jack Holloway there sucking on a pipe and pulling on his mustache and basically looking very much like 1950s or 60s man of the world. It's a good story and it's a lot of fun. There's nothing wrong with the original. You take it for what it was, but wouldn't it be kind of interesting to take that basic story and look at it again with a 21st century sensibility? How would it be different? How would you make the characters different? How would you do the story differently? Would it end up being the same story, would it unfold the same way, or would there be things that were different? This is something I thought about for years and years and years. So when I had that project fall through I just thought, "You know what? Why don't I do this and see what it's like?"
When I started writing I didn't have a plan to do anything with it. When you do something like this, you are messing with somebody's work. And when you do that the general rule of thumb is you don't do anything with it afterwards, because, generally speaking, people get upset when you do that. But in this particular case there were two things that worked to my advantage. Piper had passed on so he would not be hugely outraged. His fans might be, but not Piper himself. The other thing is, in this particular case Little Fuzzy, the novel itself, is in the public domain. So even if people were outraged, it would still be morally and legally okay to play with it.
So I went ahead and did it. And I had a fantastic time writing it. It was really nice to be able to do something that was... fun to do. It was really enjoyable. It was fun to play with the story and to basically have no pressure on it. I wasn't planning to sell it; wasn't planning to do anything with it. I was just doing it for the intellectual exercise of it.
When I was done, I called up my agent and said, "You know how I was supposed to be working on an actual novel that you could sell, right? Well, I haven't been doing that." And I explained this weird project to him. I said, "I re-wrote this book that is in the public domain. And I will show it to you but I don't think you can do anything with it. But I want you to see what I've been doing." So he says, "All right, fine, send it along."
So I sent it to him and I didn't really think about it much. I was thinking about what I was going to write next. And then he sends me an e-mail and he says, "I think I can do something with this. Do you mind if I try?" "Sure, go right ahead." Because why the hell not, right?
The Piper Estate had been sold to Ace Books back in the 1980s or something like that and is now owned by Penguin. My agent went to Penguin and said, "Look, we have this book that is based on H. Beam Piper. We know that you have the rights for Little Fuzzy. We want to publish [Fuzzy Nation]. What do we need to do to get your permission to do that? Thus began a months long process of negotiations with the rights holders so that we could get it completely cleared away.
At the end of the day they gave us permission. And so this project I had basically written just for the fun of it and for sort of getting into the habit of actually enjoying writing science fiction again turned out to be something I was actually able to sell.
Your affection for the source material really shines through, and so does the playfulness. It seems like you are really enjoying telling the story.
Piper wrote a great story. It's got everything. It's got questions of morality. It's got questions of consciousness and what makes us human. It's got issues of ecology, corporate responsibilities, and what is the role of government. It's got all this stuff and it's all shoved, when Piper did it, into a story that's like 51,000 words. Which, if you think about it, is kind of remarkable. Little Fuzzy has pretty much has everything. There was a lot to play with. I could pick and choose which things to tweak and which things to bring in entirely myself. And when the only reason that you're really doing it is because it's a fun exercise for you, then the pressure is off. It's like when I first wrote Agents to the Stars and Old Man's War. I didn't have to worry about having this deadline or doing these things. I didn't have people expecting this or that to happen in this particular book. When you have no pressure and there are no expectations and the only thing that you're doing is just enjoying yourself, you do enjoy yourself because who cares if you screw it up. Besides, if I'd screwed it up entirely, the only person who'd ever know would be me.
And, yes, I do have affection for Piper and for his work. I didn't come into this saying, "I can do what Piper did and I can do it better," because that's stupid and it would get me killed. People would come to me with pitchforks and torches. I like what Piper did and I wondered how it would be different if someone were writing it today as opposed to in 1960. And that's, basically, what the difference is. Same story, fifty years difference.
Some people will be morally opposed to Fuzzy Nation. "How dare you go and take this work somebody else did and appropriate it for yourself." And I can understand that. I have a library of my own intellectual property. I have my own titles. If someone came in and said, "I've written an Old Man's War book!" I'd be like, "The hell you say?" So I totally understand where [people opposed to Fuzzy Nation] are coming from, but I look at it this way. Right now I have my titles and I have my books and I have my universes and I want to be the one who is the primary author of them, because I wrote them. But eventually I'm going to shuffle off, eventually my work is either going to survive or it's not. Part of the way that works survive is that people keep coming to them again and again and they keep finding new things. A works speaks to them in new ways. Why is Shakespeare so successful while Christopher Marlowe, who is more or less contiguous in time, is much less so? Because people just keep coming again and again to Shakespeare's works and adapting them and changing them and finding new ways to bring the stories forward. It doesn't hurt Shakespeare at all to have West Side Story.
A lot of young readers under the age of 30 haven't read Piper. When I put up on my site that I'd written a book based on H. Beam Piper's Little Fuzzy, a bunch of my readers went out and checked out Little Fuzzy at Project Gutenberg or they downloaded it for the Kindle or the Nook. All of a sudden, there were more people reading Piper that day than there had been the day before. The object here is not to put a stake in Piper's body and say, "I am the Fuzzy master now!" That would be stupid. The original reason I wrote this book was for fun, but now that it's actually come out, it says to people, "This is a great story. Check out the guy who actually thought it up the first time. Check out his stuff because it's so good. Even if it's written with a 50s or 60s sensibility. There's lots of stuff that has a sensibility from earlier times that we still read. We still read the Brontes; we still read Jane Austen. It's not a crime to have that more distant sensibility, but it does lend itself to re-creation. If by bringing attention to the Fuzzy-verse with this book I get more people to read Piper, then everybody wins.
The trick for you, it seems, was getting the tone just right so there was no trace of anything that could be construed as arrogance or as you trying, as you say, to put a stake in Piper's body. The thing in the early chapters that got me, that put me completely and entirely into the story, was Carl. You must be a dog lover to have written Carl.
Carl is there for a couple of reasons. Partly, he humanizes Jack Holloway. My Jack Holloway, not to put too fine a point on it, is a bit of an asshole, right? He's arrogant. He breaks rules. He does what he wants to do. The first two chapters are basically Jack brow-beating his poor survey representative into doing what Jack wants him to do. Jack spouts legal cases at him. Jack goes, "Wow, you really screwed up, now you have to give me what I want." My Jack Holloway is basically a dick. The fact that he has a dog certainly helps because if your dog loves you that means that you might have some good in your soul.
The other thing with Carl is that, for me, I wanted to have someone there who was an observer of the situation that could be a fun participant, someone that isn't going to be judging things and still play a role. And Carl certainly does play a role. He's the guy who sets off the thing that puts the whole plot in motion.
I had a dog when I wrote Fuzzy Nation. I am a dog lover, so it was fun to put a dog in and have that dog have some of the qualities of my own dog. My cats are in there as well. It's not any coincidence that these Fuzzies have very distinct personalities, and those personalities, to some extent, are based on my pets.
We get pretty well attached to each of the Fuzzies, to Pinto and Baby and Papa, in a pretty short period of time. It seems, in some ways, that Carl is setting us up to be able to do that. Carl gives us one end of the continuum of sentience and he puts is in a state of mind that we're willing to accept the Fuzzies. Carl is doing a lot.
You make a good point. The point of the book is to set up the question, "Where on the line of intelligence do these creature [the Fuzzies] lie?" When the book starts, there's not necessarily an indication that these things are more than clever little animals. On one end of the scale, we have the humans who we know are clever and who can think and do all this other stuff. On the other end, we have someone like Carl who is a good "person" but he's a dog. He's got tricks, but you wouldn't have a deep philosophical conversation with Carl about Kantian principles. "I oughta have a bone!" [Laughing] Or something along those lines. It does help to have these two poles and to ask where we place the Fuzzies in between them.
Carl's also a straight man. He a straight man for Jack, because Jack's got things he wants to do and Carl's sort of an unwitting accomplice to a lot of them. Carl's also a straight man for the Fuzzies—the Fuzzies just totally railroad Carl. They're in there and they're like, "We're going to use you to get into the house. We're going to use you to do all this other stuff." And the dog is like, "Okay! I love you!" [Laughing] "I like you a lot!"
Also, again, because you know Carl likes Jack you hold out hope that Jack is not a complete asshole. If the dog is also okay with the Fuzzies that also creates a level of comfort there as well.
In the late-middle of the book, the dialogue starts to carry a lot more of the pacing. The dialogue starts to move much more of the freight. Ultimately, in the end, this becomes a book about whether or not people can talk and as we get closer to the question of whether or not the Fuzzies can talk the people are talking more and more. Or maybe this is just a craft decision to use dialogue to move the plot faster.
There are a couple of reasons. When you first start off with a book there is a lot of world-building that has to be done. You have to talk about what sunstones are or what the ecological practices of ZaraCorp are. You introduce particular people and so on and so forth. And you can't do that all in dialogue because it would sound very didactic and it would sound very—you know the problem in science fiction, exposition, the whole, "As you know, Bob..." thing? You want to avoid that. You strike a balance. Telling what the sunstones are, how they got there, about ZaraCorp and the way it does, some of that can be carried by dialogue, but a lot of it just has to be written up.
As you go along, you've established who ZaraCorp is, what the sunstones are and what they mean, so a lot of that explanation and exposition can fall away and what you have is the actual things that the characters are doing. That's why, in a craft sense, it becomes more dialogue-heavy at the end.
On the other hand, yes, this is a book about people communicating, and not just humans communicating, but Fuzzies, too. What can they say? Because of that, yes, absolutely, people talking to people matters.
Jack had a really hard time communicating with Isabel. It just wasn't working. And that's one of the reasons they broke up. They just weren't working on that particular level of communication. As the book goes along, Jack has to learn to actually communicate with humans, not just railroad them to get what he wants, but actually to start negotiating with them, to use his words in order to achieve results. So absolutely, we come to a part where the dialogue, where discussion, where talking becomes particularly important. And, of course, the last third of the book is courtroom scenes so you have to be talking, anyway.
Did you have to do much research—legal, biological, environmental?[Laughing] Tons! Tons!
No. [Laughing] No. I did a little bit. Obviously, you want to make sure whatever you're writing has the feeling of verisimilitude, that it seems reasonable to the average person that things would work that particular way. You use reality as a springboard for something that is plausible. There's a lot of law in Fuzzy Nation and a lot of the law in this particular book has no real world analog, because you're talking about issues of sentience and issues of planetary ecology on a planet that is not earth and what the corporate responsibilities are for that. Basically, what you do is you take a flyer and you ask yourself. What seems reasonable?" It helps to have a good, basic grounding in biology or in the law, so you can extrapolate from there. But I don't want to sound like I spent years and years and years at the law library looking at case law. A lot of it I relied on what I learn on a day-to-day basis and also what I learned when I was in college. I took classes in law when I was at college just because they interested me. A lot of that stuff still sticks with me.
You went to University of Chicago, right? I've noticed Chicago grads have a particular way of thinking — a distinctive depth and thoroughness.
My two top choices for college were University of Chicago and Bennington. Bennington was very arts-oriented and very cool. Creatively awesome. But the fact of the matter is I have absolutely no structure whatsoever. That's why I'm married to a woman who actually gets shit done. Even at 18, I knew I was not the world's most structured person. And here's the University of Chicago ... it had structure and I knew that having that structure imposed upon me would actually do me well.
Another way the University of Chicago was perfect for me is that it's also very egalitarian. It's one of the top ten universities, but it's also amazingly egalitarian. It's basically one of those places that says, "You said you can do this, do it. Don't tell us you can do it, just do it." When I got there I went to the college newspaper and I said, "I want to write a column, a humor column." And they were like, "Ah, get out of here. Go away." But I persisted. I came in the first week and said, "Here's my humor column." "Fine. We'll take it. Don't expect that we'll run the next one." Next week, I came in and said, "Here's my second column." They were like, "Fine. We'll run this one, but don't expect us to run the next one." The next week I didn't write anything. On Monday night — the thing comes out on Tuesday — Monday night, they give me a call, "Where the hell is your column?"
Ask a Chicago person how it's going and his response will be, "Relative to what?" That's just the way they are at Chicago.
Yes, at Chicago there's a rigorousness of thought. Someone starts making an argument and you immediately just go, "Let me pull out my Socratic tools and go to town on you." On one hand that makes us arrogant pricks, right? But on the other hand, you end up actually having some really interesting conversations and you attack problems from an interesting, methodical point of view. It's been really useful for me in a strange sort of way on my website. Part of the reason is I have civil comments as opposed to flame wars is because I basically apply my Chicago-bred rhetorical skills and tell people, "You're drifting off topic" or "What you said here makes absolutely no sense. You're using this argument very poorly; you need to restate it or I'm going to slam you with the mallet of loving moderation. Oh no, sorry, the mallet of loving correctness. And it works. We have good comments because people understand that if they come in and spew a bunch of crap, they're going to get slammed down.
So, yes, the University of Chicago has been very useful in terms of writing and on a day to day basis.
Backing up a little... I don't see any structural problems or looseness in your fiction.
That's because you don't see process, you see product. I may flail or go off on tangents or do any number of things, but if I'm paying attention and I'm editing myself reasonably well and my editors are watching my back, these things are not going to be problems that you the reader are going to see, right? We're going to correct them before they actually get out to you.
Also, part of that is an artifact of my writing style. I basically make this shit up as I go along. When I write something that seems at variance from what I've originally written, I change it. Like, if I write something in chapter eight that contradicts something that happened in chapter two but I like what's in chapter eight, I will go back and change chapter two so that it now makes sense.
You do that back and forth, back and forth while you're in the process of writing. Instead of writing a first draft and a second draft and then writing the third draft, you just go back and update it while you're writing and basically you end up with a finished product that you don't really have to do second and third drafts on, because you've already done a lot of the drafting in the actual production. And it looks really tight. It looks like everything is intentional and the reason it looks that way is because you've gone back and made those tweaks and adjustment as you've gone ahead. I think that is part of what you are seeing there. It's an artifact of my particular process, of making those changes when they happen.
The other things is that there's often times when I'm writing a book—not necessarily in the case of Fuzzy Nation because I was working from a template that already existed, but certainly with other books— part of the reason that I write them is to find out what happens next and when a variance pops up, I'm like, "Oh, here's how I can solve that problem and now it makes sense." I put in stuff earlier on that doesn't necessarily make sense to put in at the time but then later on I'll be like, "Ah, now I can use that!"
I just finished a novel today. Like two hours ago. At the very end of it I referenced something that happened in the very first chapter and I had no intention of doing that until I was there and I was like, "Wow, this would actually tie in very well." So when you read that two years from now when it actually comes out in book form, you'll look at it and go, "Wow! That really ties it together." And it will look intentional, like I meant to do that, but, in fact, it was just like, "Oh, I have this loose thread, here, let me pull that in."
A lot of what you're seeing as structural consistency looks, during the process, very messy indeed.
So having Piper's template there—I can't tell if that would be an intrusion or a relief.
In this case there was something else that was going on when I was writing Fuzzy Nation that it was very useful for me. Prior to writing Fuzzy Nation I would end up writing five- or six-thousand words in a day, but my brain would then turn into custard and I wouldn't be able to write again for pretty much three or four days because it was just so much writing, so much "where does this piece go, where does that piece go, how does this make it all work" and my brain would get tired. I eventually decided that was a really stupid thing to do. It wasn't a very efficient use of my time to do 6,000 words and then take a week off. It made no sense. Aside from wanting to have this relaxing project, I was doing the equivalent of what a golfer does when he changes his swing. I went and changed my writing process. I went from writing 6,000 words at one time then taking a week off to seeing if I could write a solid 2,000 words a day. 2,000 words is not difficult for me. Part of that has to do with having worked as a newspaper writer and having to write a lot of stuff very quickly and basically having to have lots of words at one time. 2,000 was enough that I felt like I was getting progress, but not so much writing that I felt exhausted. My brain felt like I still had some reserves left over to do other things. So, in this particular case, it was nice to have a template to work from so that I didn't actually have to do that part of the process. I knew where the book was going at all times so I could just focus on writing the particular story.
On the new novel that I just finished I was making it up as I went along and also doing the 2,000 words a day and that seemed to work just fine.
These are the things you do to make sure you don't end up shooting yourself in the foot in terms of getting stuff done. It's much easier for me now to do a regular 2,000 words than it was to do 6,000 words and then take a few days off. The hardest part for me of any project is not the writing of it. The writing's very simple. It's the starting of the project or the starting it up again after I've taken several days off. I just sit there and say, "I could write more or... I could read Gizmodo."
This was a good way for me to avoid continual procrastination.
Because you're writing spontaneously, do you have trouble keeping it all in your mind? After a week off, are you going back and re-reading the first 30,000 words before you write the next 2,000? Do you have to remind yourself of chapter one when you're working on chapter two or ten?
Generally speaking, I don't have that much of a problem keeping what I'm doing in the novel in the "buffer". This may sound arrogant, but keeping track of 100,000 words is not that difficult. Or at least it's not for me.
Now, I do read some of what I had just written the day before, so that it will be a start-in, a run-in to the same rhythm and so forth, but in terms of keeping track of plot points and such that's generally not too difficult. I know that what I've done in chapter one, chapter two, chapter three, I'll have to address in chapter 17 or chapter 18. I know things are coming up or that there are things that I'll need to go back and fix and so on and so forth. It's not too complicated in that regard.
Lastly, what do you enjoy about this whole process—the process of making a novel?
A lot of the times when I'm writing I don't know what I'm going to write next, so it's fun for me to discover what happens in the story. Basically, I get to be the first reader in that respect. I get to find out what comes out of my own brain. Sometimes it's not surprising; sometimes it's completely surprising. Every once in a while I'll go back and read one of my novels—Android's Dream is a perfect example—and I just look at it and I go, "I must've been so high. I must've been so high when I thought this shit up. I don't know where that came from, but... oh, my God!" If I'd read Android's Dream and they were like, "Want to meet the author?" "I don't know. He sounds kind of weird."
It's fun to pull at the nether regions of my creative brain and see what gets hauled up. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn't. For me, that's a lot of the fun of the creative process.
The other thing is that when you're writing, when you are into it, there's that concept Mihály Csíkszentmihályi talked about called Flow where everything is just going and you're not thinking about the fact that you're doing something, you're just doing it, and you become totally involved in the process and everything else falls away and you're focusing on this world that you're creating. The nice thing about being able to write fiction is that every day is an invitation to slip into this Flow, to slip into this entirely new world that only you can see at the moment but that you will soon be sharing with everybody else.
On the best days, it all just comes together and you're like, "I can't believe this is my job!" Now, there are days, of course, when it doesn't work and you're like, "I can't believe this is my job!" Happily, on balance, there have been more good days than bad ones.