Over at Galaxy’s Edge Magazine, issue #59 has been released this month. Here are some highlights:Continue reading “Galaxy’s Edge Magazine: Issue 59, November 2022 — Highlights”
We are beyond excited and honored to announce that award-winning author: Oghenechovwe Donald Ekpeki’s anthology collection of The Year’s Best African Speculative Fiction: Volume I (originally released 2021) won the World Fantasy Award for Best Anthology in 2022, and is being rereleased by Arc Manor Books in 2023!
Edited by Oghenechovwe Donald Ekpeki, The Year’s Best African Speculative Fiction collects twenty-nine stories by twenty-five writers, which the press describes as “some of the most exciting voices, old and new, from Africa and the diaspora, published in the 2020 year.”
The anthology includes stories from Somto O. Ihezue, Pemi Aguda, Russell Nichols, Tamara Jerée, Tlotlo Tsamaase, Sheree Renée Thomas, Tobias S. Buckell, Inegbenoise O. Osagie, Tobi Ogundiran, Chinelo Onwualu, Moustapha Mbacké Diop, Marian Denise Moore, Michelle Mellon, C.L. Clark, Eugen Bacon, Craig Laurence Gidney, Makena Onjerika, T.L. Huchu, Yvette Lisa Ndlovu, Derek Lubangakene, Suyi Davies Okungbowa, Shingai Njeri Kagunda, WC Dunlap, ZZ Claybourne, and Dilman Dila.
Don’t know who Oghenechovwe Donald Ekpeki is, yet? Well, you will. This week we revisit an interview that Signals From the Edge blogger, Isaac Payne, had with him earlier this year … and since so much has happened since then, head over to Oghenechovwe’s site and catch up on everything new!Continue reading “Arc Manor Spotlight: Oghenechovwe Donald Ekpeki & The Year’s Best African Speculative Fiction: Volume I”
An award-winning author, and a regular to the pages of Galaxy’s Edge Magazine, writer and editor Mica Scotti Kole gave us the chance to peal back the pages and get a glimpse inside the life of a dreamer, artist, and someone who has followed her dreams straight into a reality …Continue reading “Interview with Author Mica Scotti Kole”
We’re back with the second part of our interview with Alan Smale! His new book, Hot Moon, is rooted in an alternate 1979, where Soviet spacecraft meet NASA ships in space.
In this part, we continue our conversation about Hot Moon, as well as Smale’s future plans and writing process.
To read the first part of the interview, click here.
IP: What was it about the Apollo program specifically that sparked the idea for Hot Moon?
AS: One of the great things about the Apollo program was its ambitiousness. We went from zero-to-sixty in space very quickly, with the Mercury and Gemini programs leading up to it. All of which had the obvious aim of sending Americans to the Moon and back again.
And that goal caused a huge amount of technological innovation in a very short time. There were a lot of risks involved and a lot of hairy moments, especially with Apollo 13. There was a great deal of improvisation and ingenuity, on top of those aspects which were extremely well-planned. So I think it’s very fertile ground for fiction.
The Moon landings themselves were incredibly impactful, and it was just great fun to see people bouncing around on the Moon’s surface. In Hot Moon, I tried to bring out that excitement. I mean, the book is a thriller, but I think I managed to get quite a bit of the thrill over the space program in there as well.
Plus, there’s the conflict aspect of the story. In Hot Moon, we see the first space battle, between the Apollo spacecraft, the combined Command and Lunar Module, and the classic Soyuz Soviet craft. These spacecraft were frankly very clunky technologies, and I think those scenes are unlike anything people have seen in fiction before, or at least I haven’t read anything like it. Writing it was great fun, and it was exciting to extrapolate and think about how the technology could have been improved in the late 1970s and early 1980s, if the two superpower space programs had continued on with the same frenetic pace.
So I had a blast writing it and it’s getting good reactions from readers so far. I’m very happy with it.
IP: Had your timeline been a reality, and the US had continued at the same pace, what would your prediction for 2079 be, in terms of space exploration?
AS: When I was a kid, I was convinced that my future lay in space, that by the time I was the age I am now, I’d be living and working in space. In the 1960s, there was no particular reason for me to think that wouldn’t happen. People were talking about going to Mars by 2000, and if we’d kept up the investment in space and everything had gone well, we could possibly have done that.
Of course, there would have been factors that slowed down progress. There would have been a lot of the same societal pressures that happened in our existing timeline. Some people would have been concerned about the cost, and the value of going off-world.
But if we’d managed to keep up the momentum, I certainly think that we could have visited Mars, and had human flybys of Venus, among other things, in my lifetime.
2079? Whether we could have set up permanent colonies in space by that time, I’m not really sure. I guess if we’d pushed really hard, we might’ve gotten to it in one hundred years, but it’s very hard to extrapolate that far. There are so many factors that go into making space colonies or visiting Mars a reality. The politics, in particular, are challenging. Incoming administrations like to shape the space program in their own way and set new priorities. In our own history, the flow of money to NASA was a constant issue all the way through that period, and remains so today.
IP: Do you think privatized space operations like SpaceX or Blue Origin are improving our chances of getting to Mars and exploring farther?
AS: I think the energy that has come into the human space flight arena from the private sector is generally a good thing. There are obviously some personalities involved that can be a bit problematic, but I think in terms of increasing the pace of exploration, and pushing the envelope, the private space companies are a welcome addition to what NASA is doing.
And, to be honest, I wouldn’t be at all surprised if the first human to land on Mars got there as a result of a private space flight rather than a NASA mission.
IP: Is there any level of collaboration between NASA and these other privatized space programs?
AS: Oh yes, there certainly is. A lot of the flights to the ISS, the International Space Station, are being conducted by the private sector. There’s actually quite close collaboration between many of the private companies and NASA.
IP: Interesting! Jumping back to Hot Moon for a second, can you tell me a little more about the Apollo Rising series? Can we expect to see another 15 books or will it be a trilogy?
AS: I think it’s very unlikely that it will turn into 15 books. I don’t have the energy for that! I put quite a lot of effort into writing Hot Moon.
I originally conceived Hot Moon as a standalone, and that’s how I was marketing it and trying to sell it. My agent was considering it that way when she was sending it out to publishers, too.
But then, once CAEZIK bought Hot Moon, we got a lot of positive reactions and a number of nice blurbs from really high-powered authors. My publisher, Shahid Mahmud, had a lot of faith in the book, and so we started talking about a sequel. I admit, I didn’t immediately jump at the idea. I wanted to go back and think it through.
I took a couple of months to think about where the story would go. Surprisingly, I discovered in reading back through my notes that there were actually quite a few ideas that I hadn’t made the most of. Not loose ends, as such – Hot Moon is still complete in itself, and still reads well as a standalone. But there were characters that hadn’t really come to the foreground in the first book, people who could make a big mark in the second. The ideas started flowing, and I began to see all kinds of opportunities to continue the story, and came up with what I think is a very satisfying plot.
Just like Hot Moon, the second book – Radiant Sky – will stand up on its own, with its own story arc. We have the same lead character–my astronaut, Vivian Carter–and many of the other people from Hot Moon will be returning. There will also be a number of new characters, and the story will go in directions that I don’t think most readers will be expecting.
Whether there’ll be further books beyond Radiant Sky, I don’t know. I’m only contracted for the first two books, so we’ll have to wait and see. If they’re successful, if they find their audience, I’d hope there’s a good chance of a third book. I doubt that I’d want to go beyond three … but then again, in the beginning I thought Hot Moon would be a standalone. So I guess anything could happen. It’s kind of an evolving process, I’d say.
IP: Have you started writing the second book?
AS: Yes, I have. When I pitched it to CAEZIK I sent a very detailed outline – probably a lot more detailed than they were expecting. They’d asked for something relatively short, but what I sent was eighteen pages of fairly dense prose. In addition to describing the plot in detail, I really wanted to work through the politics in the background, and the new technology as well. I guess I was proving to myself as well as to my publisher and editor that I really had the goods to do this.
I think I must be one of the few authors who pitches books with a technical appendix!
As far as the writing goes, I have about 50,000 words of Radiant Sky written now, but they’re very, very rough draft words.
I still need to do quite a bit more editing on them before I can really show them to anybody, but I’m working through various scenes, fleshing out my ideas, and making sure everything hangs together. I’ve made decent progress, but I have a lot more work to do.
IP: In addition to the Hot Moon sequel, what other projects do you have in the works?
AS: I do have a number of new ideas rattling around, and I still have some activity going on with my first trilogy, Clash of Eagles, which came out from Del Rey. Those books are set in a completely different world, in which the Roman Empire survives into the 13th century in its classical form and is now moving into North America.
The Clash trilogy was published between 2015 and 2017, and even though the series is finished, there’s still quite a bit of interest in them. I still get interviews with people wanting to talk about those books. I might go back to that world in the future for some shorter fiction, and I still think about that a lot.
But I do like dotting around history and exploring various times and places. I have several pieces of short fiction fermenting in my mind, and when I get time I’ll start on those.
Also, Rick Wilber and I collaborated on a long novella, or maybe a short novel, called “The Wandering Warriors” which was originally published in Asimov’s, and then came out as a book from WordFire Press in 2020. Rick and I are very keen on this world that we made. It’s a time travel story that combines his passion for baseball and my interest in ancient Romans. So we’ve actually written a story about Roman baseball, and it was quite successful. And he and I are working together again, throwing ideas back and forth about how we might write a sequel to that. It’s a really open-ended concept that we could continue to have a lot of fun with.
So I have various projects going on in the background and a lot of ideas percolating, but promoting Hot Moon and writing Radiant Sky are really my main focuses right now.
IP: So this is kind of a different question. How do you manage keeping a balance between writing fiction and writing professionally for your job? Can you describe what that process looks like?
AS: Yes, certainly. If there are days when I’ve done a lot of technical writing for work, like writing a paper or a report, I would say it’s very difficult to write creatively after that.
But there are other days where I spend a lot of time in meetings, reading up on something, or talking to people. On those days I can really focus on writing in the evenings. For obvious reasons, I do most of my writing on evenings and weekends. I have a lot of very busy weekends where I’m trying to get down to as many words as possible and also do all the day-to-day life stuff that I have to do.
So, I’m not sure I have a process as such, but I do have to manage my time very carefully. And yes, it is sometimes hard to get my brain to do all the things I need it to do!
A big thanks goes out to Alan for having this chat! If you like the sounds of Hot Moon, it’s available for pre-order now from most major retailers.
The book is slated for release on July 26th, 2022.
To learn more about Alan’s writing, check out his website!
It’s not often that you see a hard science fiction novel crafted with such care and meticulous research as Hot Moon by Alan Smale.
Astrophysicist by day, award-winning author by night, Alan Smale’s newest book is about an alternate 1979 where the Soviets are bent on wresting the Moon from NASA’s hands. This sci fi novel features accurate details of orbital mechanics, daring feats of ingenuity, and a thrilling battle in space.
We sat down with Alan to discuss how he started writing, the inspiration for Hot Moon, and his future plans.
Isaac Payne: So Alan, I know that not only are you an award-winning author, you’re also an astrophysicist for NASA. Tell me, how did you decide to get into astrophysics?
Alan Smale: Sure. It really started when I was a kid. I was always interested in astronomy, and fascinated by the Apollo program as well. I used to go out in the backyard with my dad when I was young and look at the Moon and planets, the stars and galaxies. I stayed interested in astronomy for all of my formative years.
And then later on, I went to college to study physics at the University of Oxford, they had optional astrophysics courses in the first and third year, and so I took those and enjoyed them thoroughly.
After my bachelors degree, I was accepted for a doctoral program. It’s actually called DPhil in Oxford, Doctor of Philosophy, rather than a PhD, but it’s the same thing. I did optical and x-ray astronomy research there for three years or so while earning my doctorate. After that I did a post-doc at the Mullard Space Science Laboratory, part of University College London.
When my first post-doc ended, I moved to the States to take up a job at NASA, at the Goddard Space Flight Center. I’ve been with NASA ever since.
IP: What kind of research do you do at NASA?
AS: I study low mass x-ray binaries, which are binary star systems that are quite tightly bound, and one of those stars is a compact object, either a black hole or a neutron star. These are extremely dense objects. Material from the more normal companion star spirals into that compact object, and that’s where the x-rays come from. If we study those sources by looking at both the x-rays and the optical emission, we can learn a lot about them.
IP: So obviously you’ve been pretty ingrained with science and astronomy since you were young. Were you an avid science fiction reader, too?
AS: Oh, yeah, I cut my teeth on all of the old classics. When I was growing up, I read a lot of Isaac Asimov, Ursula Le Guin, Robert Heinlein, Arthur C. Clarke, Ray Bradbury, Larry Niven. All of this stuff was really prevalent in the atmosphere around me at the time.
I’ve been interested in science fiction all my life, as well as science and astronomy. In fact, all the sci-fi I read probably played a big role in my interest in the sciences. The space program, astrophysics, and science fiction have always coupled together quite tightly, for me.
IP: And when did you start writing science fiction? Did you start pretty early on with that as well?
AS: I started writing science fiction in a very juvenile kind of way. When I was a kid I used to write what now would be called Star Trek fan fiction. But I really started writing seriously for publication when I turned 30. I was already living in the States and working at the Goddard Space Flight Center by then. I’d finished my academic studies, and I was no longer a student at that point, so I had a little more free time. Then, pretty soon after that, I started having stories accepted.
IP: What was the name of your first publication?
AS: It was a short story called “The Breath of Princes” and it appeared in the A Wizard’s Dozen anthology from Harcourt Brace, edited by Michael Stearns.
It was actually a fantasy story, which is kind of funny looking back on it now. In fact, my first two or three published stories were fantasy, but over the past fifteen years, most of my writing has been alternate history or hard science fiction.
IP: What about the genre of historical fiction do you find fascinating?
AS: I’ve always been a history buff. Growing up in England, there was a lot of history around. My family used to go to Hadrian’s Wall for vacations, and to Bath, so I got to explore a lot of Roman ruins and remains there.
I’m not actually sure what the precipitating event was that made me focus on historical writing, but one thing about it is that it’s very different from my day job. I feel as though I’m using very different mental muscles when I’m writing history-based speculative fiction than when I’m doing academic research.
My most recent book, Hot Moon, is very technical, hard science fiction, but until I got to that book, most of my fiction writing was in a different head-space from the day-job work I was doing. Doing scientific research is very different from writing about history, so it was a complete break for my brain, the two sides didn’t bleed into each other.
It feels very refreshing, somehow, when I’m working hard at both science and writing. A change is as good as a rest!
Anyway: I’d always been fascinated by history, and by some of the older alternate history tales. Books like Lest Darkness Fall by Sprague de Camp, and The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick.
The past is a very fertile playground for fiction. And one of the things I like about alternate history is that it kind of holds up a mirror to the real history; I get the resonances of what really happened, underlying the tale that I’m telling, and they both reinforce each other and play off each other.
If you know the real historical events, then you’ll know that the events in a given story are different because of a different result in a war, or an election, and perhaps different people are in the foreground. And by doing that, it kind of makes you think about how history is made. Who the important people are. How history really works.
I just found myself gravitating more and more to that kind of writing over the last 10 or 15 years. Over that period, a lot of my reading has been historical non-fiction, and most of my writing output has been historically based.
IP: You mentioned that Hot Moon is hard science fiction, as well as being an alternate history. Can readers expect for Hot Moon to stay within the bounds of 1979 astrophysics, or does the book move into science fiction with more advanced technologies?
AS: I definitely stay within those bounds. There’s nothing in Hot Moon that wouldn’t have been possible with the technology that they had back then. I spent a lot of time researching the Apollo program, which was a real labor of love because as I mentioned before, I was really into it when I was a kid.
I spent a lot of time getting into the nuts and bolts of the technology, really getting deep into figuring out what was possible and what wasn’t. I obey the laws of physics throughout the book, which is actually a pain because orbital mechanics are quite complicated and it really constrains what my characters can do! They need large amounts of fuel for relatively small orbit changes, for example, and things like that.
So in the first book, there is nothing that wasn’t possible with the technology of the time. The Apollo and Soyuz spacecraft, the Lunar Rovers, and other hardware in the book either existed in the 1970s, or could have been in existence in that timeframe if the US and Soviet space programs had continued. There would have been no technical showstoppers with implementing any of the vehicles, machinery, or bases in Hot Moon.
In the second book we’ll certainly see more of the speculative technology that was suggested at the time. These are ideas that people had done a bit of experimentation with, some prototyping and technical development, but which never came to fruition. There were a lot of bright ideas around then, but a lot of those programs ended up being canceled, or not coming to fruition for other reasons.
So, overall, I’ve tried really hard to keep the science very close to reality. There’s a key political difference in how we get to the world of Hot Moon in 1979. And one of those differences is that the US involvement in Vietnam is much more limited, and of a shorter duration.
As a result, the US has quite a lot more money. In reality, the US couldn’t possibly have pursued the war in Vietnam and the Space Race simultaneously without making huge concessions elsewhere. So, a different Vietnam War, and a rather different Cold War, are central to the Hot Moon universe.
Make sure to check out the second part of our conversation with Alan Smale, right here on the Signals from the Edge blog on Thursday, July 14th!
In the meantime, check out another one of our interviews:
Our time and place in the cosmos is filled with unprecedented change and technological advancement, that much is for certain. But what else is changing beneath our very eyes?
In this interview with PJ Manney, professional futurist and author of the Philip K. Dick Award nominated Phoenix Horizon trilogy, we discuss the New Mythos and how that seeks to change the way we think about storytelling.
IP: One of the most intriguing things I’ve seen you write and talk about is The New Mythos. Can you explain for our readers what exactly the New Mythos is?
PM: The New Mythos refers to how in various periods throughout human history, we have reassessed our relationship to each other, our community, and whatever governing body we’re in, as well as our relationship with the cosmos. And this often happens at a turn in technology.
So, the first one that I often talk about is the Axial Age, where in the first millennia BCE, there was a huge shift in mythology, religion, and spiritual guidance because we had to learn how to live with each other. We’d been living in nomadic groups, and suddenly we were coming together in cities and we were getting specific jobs.
There were a lot of us that we didn’t know, and we were exceeding what they called Dunbar’s Number. And we had to learn how to live together. The rules that religions gave us were, at that point, quite practical rules of social engagement.
The next period was the Enlightenment, which also included the Industrial Revolution and the Scientific Method.
This was a whole new way of how people related to themselves, to each other, to their society, and to how they saw themselves on a planet and in the cosmos. We came up with a bunch of new rules and in the stories we told about them, myths evolved, and those myths are still with us today.
Interestingly, we didn’t necessarily lose the Axial Age myths, they just got laid over with a whole new mythos that applied to the Enlightenment.
What I see in this period is a huge shift of paradigm—a species-changing shift—in our relationship with new technology, chiefly the Internet, who we are, and how we communicate.
I don’t know if people are familiar with the idea of Teilhard de Chardin’s noosphere, where we’re creating a global rate of instantaneous communication that has never existed before. And we need new myths for this; we need new stories because the old stories aren’t hacking it.
In fact, the old stories are actually detrimental to our development as individuals, as societies, and as a species.
IP: In what kind of ways are older stories detrimental to our development?
PM: Well, a lot of these stories just aren’t practical anymore or are downright offensive. In old myths, people with power and money were seen as better than everyone else, and that we should just hand over our leadership to them by virtue of their power or money.
That went all the way from religion, through the divine right of kings, through sadly to our present era, with Donald Trump and Elon Musk.
We create our assumptions of who should lead based on things that may not be wisdom. These are not people who are wise; these are just people who have power, and that’s a big difference.
Another example is who gets to speak within a society? In the old societies, it was free white men of adult age.
What we’re discovering is, ironically, some of the greatest information we can get comes from marginalized communities. That’s everybody, from children to elders, from every race, religion, and gender. Inclusivity is an incredibly important value in the future and our old myths never covered that.
IP: How can writers start to think about stories in a new way and apply the idea of the New Mythos to their work?
PM: Well, I’m writing a book on the New Mythos, and I just taught my first class about it the other day at the Rambo Academy. I’ve been working with some really interesting philosophical ideas that can help us to understand the New Mythos. They’re very big and very gnarly, but when you deconstruct them, you start to realize, “well, yeah, that’s actually what our world is really about”.
So instead of thinking of utopias or dystopias–which is an extremely binary and limiting way of considering what kind of society to incorporate into your world building—try to come up with positive futures or a roadmap to what might be a way to live.
I teach about heterotopia, which is Michel Foucault’s idea of society. If utopia means “no place” and dystopia means “bad place,” then heterotopia means “the other place,” or “the different place”. And that’s actually the place where change happens.
Utopia’s induced hope reflects the idea that change is hard, which is why a lot of our dystopias end badly.
In terms of storytelling, a heterotopia is a way to free yourself from that binary thinking of “where I have to put my story” and then put your story someplace else. This allows you the freedom to come up with new ways of thinking.
That’s just one example. I work with everything from Timothy Morton’s ideas of hyperobjects and hyposubjects, to really just helping people deconstruct their assumptions.
That’s the biggest thing. We’re all swimming in the cultures we were raised in, and my goal is to help people deconstruct their assumptions about what a story is.
I also talk about Western story structure and the hero’s journey.
The hero’s journey isn’t really cutting it anymore because it’s all about a circular story that returns to the status quo. The hero might change, but why does society get to stay the same?
Superman goes out and slaps Hitler or stops the asteroid or saves Metropolis. But he comes back and, minus a building or two, has restored Metropolis to its status quo. That’s not cutting it because that’s not reality, and it doesn’t inspire people to make their own change.
I prefer the heroine’s journey. Gail Carriger has a wonderful book and class where she looks at the ancient heroine’s journey, which is really a story of someone being thrown out, gathering their new-found family, working together, and making a better place. This is a far more constructive story to tell and is more applicable in our time.
I encourage people to look at other cultures’ story structures, and learn from them. I don’t want you to appropriate them, but I want you to start breaking down the notion that this three-act structure Hollywood has imposed on us is the way to write a story.
IP: That’s very interesting. As a writer myself, I’ve always kind of struggled with the idea of breaking up the traditional hero’s journey.
So, you mentioned how the Internet and similar technologies are articles of big paradigm shifts. With all of these kinds of things happening in our world right now, like the Metaverse, NFTs, and cryptocurrency that are changing the ideas of finance and art, what’s your broad outlook on the future?
PM: As a futurist I look at multiple scenarios and ask the question “What are the possibilities based on the choices that get made?” Because that’s really what this is all about; it’s about choices. And I think people don’t look far enough down the path of their choices.
It’s very easy to look at something like NFTs and see the good things about them. As a creator myself, I see the desire for creators to get their stuff out there and not have the intermediary of distribution channels. Like, I get that having come from Hollywood and worked in publishing; I get that more than anybody.
There’s also the dark side of NFTs, and we’re already seeing this. It’s really like the Wild West with all the scams, the pump and dump schemes, and all the ways that the naive can be taken advantage of.
Same with the blockchain. The old belief was that the blockchain was immutable, it could not be corrupted. It wouldn’t be worth anyone’s time to try to break the blockchain. And now we know that’s just not true.
I was warning about this in my books and people were like, “you’re so negative,” to which I’d say, “look, here’s the article about it!”
I’m not a techno-pessimist or a techno-optimist; I’m a techno-realist in my science fiction. I see the good and the bad of all of these technologies, where they have very powerful, great ideas behind them, but there are bad actors in the world.
And those bad actors are going to find the loophole, the crack in the façade, and they’re going to exploit it. Exploitation has become something that’s actually being honored in our new society, which I find appalling. There’s a sense that everybody who creates something is the man and everybody who can exploit it, steal it, or hurt other people with it is somehow a good guy.
I think that upside down ethical quandary we found ourselves in is a really good indication of why we needed a New Mythos!
IP: It’s a kind of paradigm shift in itself, isn’t it?
I read somewhere that you actually threw out the draft for your book (CON)SCIENCE after Trump was elected. Can you talk a bit more about your approach to rewriting that book?
PM: I started this series back in the mid-2000s, and it was originally designed as a television series. But it didn’t get any interest from our production company, so I took it back in 2006 or 2007 and said, “you know what? I want to write a novel”, which I’d never done.
The series has always been about the rise of fascism and my fears of authoritarianism in the United States and around the world. I was already seeing signs because I grew up during Reagan and knew what I was looking at. So, none of this was really a surprise to me.
And so, I started writing these books thinking that when I got to (CON)SCIENCE, that I made the same mistake everybody else made: I thought I had four more years. As a futurist, I thought Hillary would get elected, she’d anger a lot of people, and she’d have a one term presidency. Then after that, we’d end up with some kind of authoritarian leader.
Obviously, that didn’t happen.
I was flying on election day and that night when I got home, I opened my phone and saw the news. I just broke down weeping. I was stunned, and I knew I had to throw my out my draft because my book would come out during his term.
This was 2018, and it also coincided with why the New Mythos was created. I was at Northwestcon on a panel called “Science Fiction in the Age of President Trump” with Nisi Shawl, Gordon Van Gelder, and Elsa Sunjenson—just an incredible group of people.
I literally had an actual epiphany while sitting on this panel and I just started speaking in tongues! You know, it just comes through your head and out your mouth. It was this realization that we had to start telling these stories that were fundamentally different than the stories we’ve been telling.
And that’s actually how I rewrote (CON)SCIENCE. I was leading into it with identity and I didn’t even notice that I was destroying the hero’s journey and identity as much as I was. (CON)SCIENCE goes full-on heroine’s journey. So, I have this evolution through the series about the faults or the hero’s journey, and it gets very meta.
Like, they’re talking about narrative in the narrative because it’s also talking about propaganda and how to convince people that what’s going on is bad. I discovered I was going in a whole new direction and realized it wasn’t just me; I was watching this in other writers as well.
The thing about the New Mythos is that I didn’t invent it and I’m not the only one doing it. You’ve got writers like Nisi Shaw, Kim Stanley Robinson, Cat Rambo, and a host of people who are already thinking in these terms and they’re all dancing around the edges of it.
And I just want to bring it together so that it’s not just all of us grappling with it by ourselves in the privacy of our little rooms. We are a group of writers—writing about the future, because that’s what we do—who can grapple with the stories that now need to be told.
IP: That’s awesome. I mean, it’s not awesome that you had to throw out your draft and start over to have this kind of epiphany. But I assume it was like a weight lifted off your shoulders when you had the realization of what you had to do.
PM: Not only was it a weight off my shoulders, it actually spun my goals into a whole new direction.
Because now I don’t only write science fiction, I am professional futurist and consultant, too. I got to talk at the United Nations Association a couple of weeks ago about women in technology, specifically in AI, and I started to bring the New Mythos into that conversation. And they were all like, “yes!”
So, it’s not just about us as writers. It’s about us as human beings in the world, and starting to tell the story of whatever it is we do. But in the context of, again, this diversity, inclusivity, and seeing us in the human story in a new way.
IP: You mentioned that you were teaching a class about the New Mythos. Is there a way that people can enroll for the class?
PM: They can ask Cat Rambo for me to teach it again! Or ask any of the writing groups. I’m friends with the people at Writing the Other, and Clarion West knows who I am. Any place where science fiction and fantasy writers meet, I’m happy to teach there.
If you’re on Facebook, there is a Facebook group about the New Mythos. Because of Facebook’s new rules about groups, you won’t find it by searching for it because it’s private right now. It’s about 350 writers, academics, and other creatives. We’ve got a number of a fine artists, designers and people who work in landscape design. I mean, it’s people in all kinds of fields who are looking at these ideas and thinking, “this really applies to me.”
I’m PJ Manny on Facebook, so if you message me and say, “look, I’m really interest in the New Mythos,” I can add you to the group. It’s a really safe place for a lot of people to discuss stuff that can be very advanced and they’re not excited to make this a public group.
So, if you’re a writer and you really want to learn about this stuff, I’m not the only person teaching it. This entire group has incredible things to say and their own experiences and perspectives. Just ask me.
IP: I’ll definitely shoot you a message because that sounds like a great group!
Well, to wrap it up, is there anything else you’d like the audience at Signals from the Edge to know?
PM: Just keep reading; read my stuff, read everybody’s stuff. I think there’s so much great, new science fiction out there that’s going down a lot of really fresh paths.
With my own work, I kind of played a trick on everybody. In the first book, you think you’re reading a mainstream, political techno-thriller with science fiction elements. But, in fact, I’m taking you by the hand and walking you through to a whole evolution. By the time you get to (CON)SCIENCE, it is so hardcore science fiction, with brains, memory, the death of empires, and politics.
And, I think just be open to new kinds of writing because that’s what’s going to happen with the New Mythos. We’re going to find people taking big chances in their writing, and it would be really nice if the audience was out there to support it.
Thanks to PJ for doing this interview, I learned a lot, and I hope you do too. If you’d like to learn more about PJ’s work in both science fiction and as a futurist, check out her website!
This is the second part of our exclusive interview with Cat Rambo and Jennifer Brozek, editors of the new anthology, The Reinvented Heart.
And if you’ve already read the first part, here’s where we left off…
IP: Here I have a few questions that get into the SFF conversation as a whole.
You’ve both been a part of the SFF community for many years, in multiple different capacities. How would you say the science-fiction and fantasy scene has changed since you first got involved with it?
JB: I think the scene has opened up drastically. For me, this is one of the most interesting times to be an SFF author. You have the opportunity to choose how you want to be published, where you want to be published, whether that’s self-pub, boutique press, small press, or the big five. Being a hybrid author is probably the most economically viable, because not everyone can be a Seanan McGuire or a Diana Gabaldon.
Plus, you’re able to choose your own voice and medium. It can be written work, it can be YouTube videos, you can choose serialized versus full-length, you can do a series of novels, you can do micro-text novels.
I have friends who do all of the above. You can teach, edit, write, or do a combination of all three.
CR: I agree with all of that, and also that sci-fi has become more international. With the Internet connecting us more I’ve read a lot more African, Chinese, and all sorts of different kinds of fiction from beyond American borders.
Clarkesworld is one of the magazines that’s really good about bringing in stuff from translation, and I know Neil has worked very hard at that.
But another thing that’s changed is that there are more psychic resources for writers outside the mainstream. You know there are occasions in our industry where I’ve felt that there’s been a sort of psychic toll that has to be paid. Think of it like “oh, here’s another elderly science fiction writer inviting me to sit in his lap” and I’m just supposed to laugh it off.
It’s kind of political here, I’m sorry, but I think younger writers don’t tolerate that as much as they used to, and I salute them for that.
JB: I think the problems that have always been around in every industry are starting to come to light. I used to be a QA engineer for 13 years, and the problems in that industry cross over into this one too.
Some of the predators are getting smarter, and they’re playing the “I’m woke, or I’m an ally” card.
You know, just thinking about how we’re still having women in gaming panels shows us that we have a long way to go. And it’s taking longer than a lot of people want.
CR: Yeah, that’s very true.
JB: It’s not a perfect transition. Just today I read something about the Harry Potter series involving Kreacher. It was about how people were so accepting of how Harry was literally a slave owner.
CR: Oh yeah, and Dobby too. And Hermione was mocked for standing up for the house elves! I can get quite indignant about this.
JB: As much as we want to get better, we all still have a lot of blind spots. But it’s being shown more often, called out more often. It’s very uncomfortable, but you have to be uncomfortable to change.
I loved that whole series whenever it came out, but the more you dig into it and all your other old favorites, the more you’re like “Oh, my God.”
CR: Yeah, there are a lot of problems. Jo Walton talks about the suck fairy. She says don’t go back to childhood classics lest you find the suck fairy has visited them.
IP: I was thinking about that the other day because I was watching The Wheel of Time on Amazon. And I was thinking about when I read the first couple of books, and as a high schooler, there’s a lot of stuff that I didn’t really pick up on.
Thinking about it now, I’m like, “Wow, that’s really old and outdated.”
CR: Well, it’s interesting to me how much gender attitudes have shifted in the last decade. I mean, when I was growing up, the word “trans” wasn’t something that anybody said.
And that’s one of the things I think is really interesting and lovely about our times is that people are aware of non-binary, ace, and all the different relationships that fall outside of the Dick and Jane model. That’s very much what The Reinvented Heart is about.
That’s one of the things science fiction does so well is social reflection, and I think that’s really cool. In the anthology, we have a non-binary story, and we have another story where the character has anxiety about meeting up with the other person in real life.
So, the character goes to the hotel and they knock on the door, but the other person never opens the door because they’re feeling so anxious. At the end of the story, the character gets an email from the other person apologizing, saying, you know “I transgressed, I tried to push you past your boundaries and that wasn’t cool.” And that’s such a different ending than that story has been told with in the past.
One of the modes that drives me particularly crazy with gender stuff, is the cliché that if guys are willing to just keep after her, standing out in the rain with a boombox, that she’ll come around. And that’s present in narratives about women, too, but not in the same way.
It’s one of the things that science fiction does well, is deconstructing that narrative and rewriting it in a more meaningful, respectful way.
IP: Gotcha, I 100% agree with you. I guess then as a follow up to that question, where do you think the SFF community is headed in the near future? Or what do you hope happens in the community in the future?
CR: I would hope that we address a couple of marginalizations that haven’t particularly been addressed before.
And those are disability, neurodiversity, and economic circumstance.
People forget that there is a significant portion of the population that doesn’t have Internet access, isn’t accessing Twitter and all that. I’d love to see science fiction keep pushing to make that a part of the conversation.
JB: This goes along with economics, but I’d like to see more non-American authors have a clear way of getting their stuff in front of American audiences. I lived outside the US during my childhood because my father was in the military, so I learned a lot about other cultures, and that informed me growing up. The world of storytelling is so vast and amazing, I’d like to see some of that reflected in science fiction.
I saw recently there was a Kickstarter for an RPG about if America had never been colonized, and just seeing that made me want to explore that idea more.
For example, Black Panther, the Marvel movie. The themes that they brought in for that particular movie were so different from what I’d seen before. The mindset is more about what do we owe each other and society instead of what can I do. It’s I vs. we.
I had a conversation last year with Maurice Broaddus, and we were talking about magic. I said that magic should cost you something, because that’s my point of view. And he said that magic should never cost you. You should never be punished for being who you are.
CR: Oh, yeah, that’s good.
JB: That’s one of those points of view that I’m still wrapping my head around.
IP: I think a lot of that goes back to the fact that America is a very capitalist society, and that pervades a lot of our ideas. For a magician, if using magic takes a physical toll on you or something, it’s a transactional relationship. You’re giving your energy for magic, and that’s a capitalist thing.
I guess it goes back to what Cat said about seeing more SFF stuff from a different economic sphere. What would our science fiction look like if our society’s ideals weren’t capitalist, but instead were socialist, or something else?
CR: That’s something I see a lot of writers grappling with today. Our mutual friend, PJ Manney, worked with a Facebook group called The New Mythos, where they were explicitly trying to talk about how to create new stories. How do you create these new narratives?
I just did a story that’s coming out next April where I tried to challenge the way I thought the story would traditionally go, and make it go in a different direction.
And that’s all from our chat with Cat Rambo and Jennifer Brozek. If you’d like to check out The Reinvented Heart anthology, you can purchase an ebook or preorder the hardcover on Amazon and Barnes & Noble.
Thanks to both of them for joining us here at Signals from the Edge!
SFF legends Cat Rambo and Jennifer Brozek have been hard at work on The Reinvented Heart, an anthology about sci-fi relationships.
We met up with them to discuss the new anthology, which is already out as an ebook, and will be released in hardcover May 31st, 2022.
Here’s what they had to say:
Isaac Payne: So I only have a couple of questions, and then we can open it up to a conversation afterwards. I guess starting out I want to ask about the The Reinvented Heart anthology. It’s been making some waves out there on the SFF frequencies, and I’m just curious about how you decided to break up the Anthology into three distinct sections. I’m familiar with only a few other anthos that do this, so what was the inspiration behind that idea?
Cat Rambo: I actually talked to Jane Yolan in an interview I did with her about that. You may have noticed the three sections are each prefaced by Jane. And in fact, she read them all on the interview, which was really cute.
Basically, we approached Jane and asked if she’d write something for us, and she said, how about poems? My response was, “sure, you’re Jane Yolan!” and I want something from you.
So, she sent in three poems and I said to Jen, you know, poetry is cheap, right? We’re paying by the line, and it’s not like a 5,000-word story.
We ended up organizing the book according to the three poems, breaking it into three sections—Hearts, Hands, and Mind.
And then as part of The Reinvented Detective, which is the anthology that’s coming out next year, we asked Jane to write us three poems again, this time about themes around detectives.
But the funny thing is that I just did this interview with Jane and she hadn’t known what we’d done with her poems until she got the PDF, and she was just delighted! No one had ever done anything like that with her poems before.
IP: That’s cool! You mentioned The Reinvented Detective which is coming up here next year. Is there anything that you’re going to change about this anthology based on what you learned from The Reinvented Heart?
Jennifer Brozek: Well, since we’re just now going through the hold stories and the on-spec stories, I think it might be a little bit too soon to answer that.
But based on the stories we’re getting, we might spread out the anthology to make it about more than just crime and justice.
We might organize it based on groups of stories, like Art Nouveau or the Old Classic. We got a lot of Poirot and Sherlock Holmes stories, as well as some pastiches.
I’m thinking that when we see all the stories, we’re going to end up breaking them out into groups rather than themes, but that may change.
We haven’t seen all the stories yet!
IP: Just out of curiosity, how many submissions did you receive for The Reinvented Heart? I edited the Triangulation: Extinction anthology and I’m always curious about the numbers for other anthologies.
CR: I want to say around 230?
JB: No, it was closer to 260, and that’s just slush. We had the on-spec stories too, so in total it’s more like 300.
IP: Gotcha, that’s pretty good, all things considered!
JB: Yeah. The Reinvented Heart is my 21st anthology, and The Reinvented Detective is my 22nd.
When I did 99 Tiny Terrors, I got 600 submissions in a month! Or when I do a closed anthology, like The Secret Guide to Fighting Elder Gods, I cherry-pick every author.
So, the number of submissions really depends on how much it pays and how many people feel they have a chance to get into the anthology. For 99 Tiny Terrors, a lot of new people were willing to send in their stories because it’s flash.
CR: Yeah, flash is fun. Fun and fast.
JB: But when I was working with Apex Magazine as a slush reader, I’d have to read five stories a day just to keep up!
IP: Yeah, for Triangulation: Extinction I think we had around 600 different submissions. That was over the span of four months, but when the submission window closed, I was still doing a lot of reading!
CR: Yeah. Well, I read completely differently than Jenn.
Jenn is very kind of slow and steady, reading five stories a day. Whereas what I will do is take a weekend to—and excuse my language—just f***ing slam through, sometimes at the rate of a hundred or so stories a day.
And I’m reading fast—fast and furious. But I’m making authors really have to prove themselves to me in the first half page or so.
IP: I guess it’s kind of hard as a writer when you don’t know whether or not you’ll be going through that gauntlet.
JB: When I teach and talk about being an editor, I tell everybody to write your stories like you’re going to be read by a slush reader who’s having a terrible day and all they have to do is get through your story so they can go home.
All your story has to do is turn a slush reader’s terrible day into something magical.
CR: Ah, that’s a nice one, that’s good. You know, one of the talking points of the book is that despite having set the word count at 5,000, there’s a novelette in there! I had solicited Justina Robeson for a story, and she kept mailing back saying that it was getting longer and longer.
And finally, we said, sure, send it in. And both Jenn and I read it and knew we had to put it in the anthology because it was so good!
IP: That’s great, it’s always nice to be surprised like that. So, what’s up next for The Reinvented series? After The Reinvented Detective, of course.
CR: We’re still arguing about that, haha. But we’re absolutely going to continue the series; we’d like to do one a year. I really want to do The Reinvented Coin, so my feeling is that if I’m patient and give Jenn her way for the next few, I’ll get to do that one.
JB: I like that one, but I’m interested in doing The Reinvented Fable. Like if you do a version of Little Red Riding Hood, but in the future, in space. We can do a contrast between old and new fables.
But I do like the idea of The Reinvented Coin, or Cat came up with a good one, The Reinvented Alice.
CR: Yeah, The Reinvented Alice or The Reinvented Oz.
JB: It’s Oz but all science fiction, where you pick a pastiche based on the original series.
IP: I do like those ideas. What does The Reinvented Coin entail?
CR: Economics, trade, bartering.
JB: Anything that fits under that broad category, really. You could be selling memories of loved ones, for example.
CR: But only one story about NFTs, tops.
IP: Have you read the book This Eden by Ed O’Loughlin? It’s like a science fiction noir, espionage story, but at the end the main villain is a cryptocurrency.
CR: Oh, I love that, I’ll have to find that book!
IP: That’s just what The Reinvented Coin reminded me of haha. So, here I have a few questions that get into the SFF conversation as a whole.
Watch out for the rest of our interview with Cat Rambo and Jennifer Brozek, where we talk about the SFF community as a whole, and the changes coming down the line for the genre.
If you liked this interview, consider checking out some of our other author interviews, linked below.
“O2 Arena”, a novelette by Oghenechovwe Donald Ekpeki, was published in Galaxy’s Edge Magazine in 2021 and is a finalist for the British Science Fiction Award.
We got a chance to talk with Oghenechovwe about “O2 Arena”, his ambitions as a writer and editor, as well as what he has planned for the future!
If you would like to read “O2 Arena”, you can do so here. Please also consider nominating it for the Nebula and Hugo Awards!
IP: The world of “O2 Arena” takes place in 2030, not so far off from our own time and place. Is this grim future a warning or a prediction for the next 10 years?
ODE: It’s both a warning and a prediction. “O2 Arena” is not exactly a wild sci fi story. There’s no terraforming on Mars, the elements in “O2 Arena” are things we live with daily.
There are people dying of all these illnesses because of capitalism and a lack of a system that cares for the people’s health. Instead, companies focus on how much money they can take from the African continent. There’s capitalism on toxic levels, and neo-colonizing loan firms that are offering money to the continent at rates that are exploitative.
70% of what’s in “O2 Arena” are already happening and 20% is on the same trajectory if we do nothing. The remaining 10% is a little out of the way, the hope that things can get better.
So “O2 Arena” is both a warning and a prediction of what will happen if we don’t move from current path. The underground O2 arena is where you have to fight for your right to breathe, taking that right from someone else. That’s the endgame of toxic capitalism.
It’s a very close reality that could actualize itself if we don’t do anything about it.
IP: I know that you’ve been working on a lot of projects as an editor, including the upcoming anthology Africa Risen. For you, how is being an editor different than being a writer, and which do you prefer doing more?
ODE: They serve different purposes, but I’ll say that writing is definitely my first love. I always wanted to be a writer and tell stories. It just so happens that editing is a part of writing that you cannot escape, especially when you come from certain demographics. When you come from an underrepresented group, writing without editing is like trying to have a child without a partner.
There’s not enough representation for black people, especially for Africans on the continent, that it becomes a necessity to embark on projects like editing and publishing. Editing is like an appendage. Both are like the seed and the flower, or flower and the branch; they depend on each other.
Like I said, writing is my first love, but editing is just as important to me. My writing might not have survived without my editing. For example, my biggest writing project, my novella Ife-Iyoku, Tale of Imadeyunuagbon, I had to publish it myself in an anthology that I co-edited.
IP: Did you start out as a writer and move into editing, or have those two things always lived together?
ODE: I definitely started out as a writer, but my writing was coming along really slowly. Editing was a way to fast-track that.
My first collaboration was the Dominion anthology, and Zelda Knight reached out to me asking if I wanted to contribute a piece or be a co-editor. I said I wanted to do both, because I saw the advantage of having both a writing credit and an editing credit.
From there, I leapt into many different projects in writing, editing, and publishing. Like I said, they all go together like seed and flower.
IP: Your work has gained a lot of attention, what with the Otherwise Award, BSFA, and others. For you as a writer, what was your biggest achievement?
ODE: People talk about achieving their dreams, but I think for me, the biggest flex is that a lot of the things I’ve done, I never dared to dream of. They aren’t things that I thought were feasible, or even possible.
You dream about getting a good job, buying a nice car and a house. You don’t dream about winning a Nebula award, you know?
But I guess for me, my biggest achievement is to be on the same platform with some of the people whose work I grew up reading. While other kids were out playing football, I was reading.
I’m not crazy about Michael Jackson or Halle Berry; I’m crazy about Patrick Rothfuss, GRRM, Brandon Sanderson. Those are people that I’ve gotten to be on the platform with, and I’ve gotten to interact with them on a personal level. I’ve been able to share my views on art, writing, editing, and craft with them and take part in an intellectual conversation with them.
I was on a panel with Patrick Rothfuss, and as far as I’m concerned, that’s the most impressive thing I’ve achieved. Rothfuss was one of the most important authors at a point in my life, and I spent a long time living off his writing—reading and dreaming.
And these people were so far away. They’re far away for the average American, so you can imagine how far away they are for somebody in Nigeria. For me, it was like meeting Michael Jackson.
IP: What happens next? You’ve achieved these things you never imagined were possible, so what’s next for you?
ODE: Well, now I’ve started dreaming, and I have some ambitions. I want to reinvent pop culture and center it around Black and African narratives. The world has suppressed Blackness and African-ness for a long time, while still using its resources to build and boost its own cultures.
I want to give us our rightful place in art and history. There was slavery, colonization, and we know that a lot of the resources from the continent have built things around the world. Our art is still hanging in museums in Germany and Britain. It’s only fair that we have a place in the current pop and entertainment structures.
African artists should have a place and a chance to benefit off the systems that were built using their blood and the resources of their ancestors.
That’s my dream.
IP: That’s very inspiring, I certainly hope it comes true. Speaking of the futures, what kind of projects are you working on currently?
ODE: I’m working on everything. I’m writing a novel. I’m pitching a novella and a novella series. I have editing projects currently underway. Africa Risen is coming out later this year, I have an editing project I’m working on with the editor of Galaxy’s Edge.
I have several awards, ceremonies, and events planned for this year. Plus, I have a publishing imprint in the works.
Oghenechovwe Donald Ekpeki’s novelette “O2 Arena” was nominated for the Nebula Awards this year. It is the first novelette by an African writer—diaspora or continental—to be nominated for the award. It’s also eligible for the Hugo Award for Best Novelette.
“O2 Arena” is also Galaxy’s Edge’s first nomination for a Nebula award in this category.
To learn more about Oghenechovwe Donald Ekpeki’s writing and editing projects, please visit his website!
A big thanks goes out to Oghenechovwe for sitting down for this chat!
In 2022’s first issue of Galaxy’s Edge, we’ve seen stories from new and old writers alike, book reviews by Robert Chwedyk, and, of course, an interview from Jean Marie Ward.
In this issue, she chats with John Scalzi, best-selling sci fi author and former president of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America.
From Rock Stars to Redshirts and Kaiju
At any moment in time, the number of cultural figures immediately recognizable by a single name can be numbered on a single hand. For over ten years, John Scalzi has been one of those rare few. His last name alone not only conjures images of fast-paced, witty, pop culture–infused science fiction, but also the attitudes and opinions that have made his long-running blog, Whatever, a must-read for fans and detractors alike. Despite over 15 best-selling books, numerous published novellas and short stories, produced scripts, and Hugo Awards, he retains the work ethic and crusading spirit of the journalist he used to be—and on occasion still is. His unprecedented three consecutive terms as president of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America focused on making SFWA a better advocate for writers in the marketplace. In the years since, he has continued to promote the genre and its writers. Catching up with Scalzi as he prepared for the March release of Kaiju Preservation Society, Galaxy’s Edge quizzed him about how to grow a writing career out of pop culture, a philosophy degree, and a lot of low-hanging fruit.
Galaxy’s Edge: When did you first realize you wanted to be a writer? Was it before or after you wanted to become a rock star?
John Scalzi: I think everybody wants to be a rock star from a very early age. I think the very first time I thought of being a rock star was in 1977 when, as an eight-year-old, I thought I had a more than passing resemblance to Shaun Cassidy. As it turns out, that resemblance no longer exists. Shaun Cassidy still has much more hair.
I figured out I wanted to be a writer was when I was 14, when I did an assignment for a class in high school. It was English composition class taught by John Hayes. He had everybody in the three sections that he taught do a story about a gift and the consequences of that gift. As someone who read a lot of science fiction and horror and mystery and stuff like that, my first thought was to write a sort of supernatural tale about a black cat that was cursed.
I couldn’t make it work. So, at the last—literally the last—minute, I stayed up all night to write a lightly fictionalized tale about my friends, Peter and Jennifer, who had started dating. The story was that their gift to each other was the love they had for each other. I typed it up overnight in a panic, turned it in, and I was the only person in those three sections that got an “A” on the thing. And I had, as we call in the industry, an epiphany, which was like: “Holy crap, I threw this together at the last minute and still somehow did better than everybody else. Also, everything else in school is really hard. So, I’m gonna be a writer, because this is easy, and everything else is hard.”
Now the irony is that writing became hard, because there’s a difference between what you can do in an English composition class when you’re a freshman and what you can actually publish and make a living out of. But by that point, it was too late. I was too far down the rabbit hole, and I was not qualified to do anything else.
So that’s when I became a writer. I would still not mind being a rock star, but I don’t think it’s gonna work out. There’s not much of a market for a 52-year-old rookie rock star. I’ll just have to content myself with collecting more guitars than any one person really needs.
Galaxy’s Edge: How did “Writing is easy!” translate into taking a philosophy major in college?
John Scalzi: The thing about it was… (And again, this helps establish the trend of I will do anything as long as it furthers my own laziness.) I was going into college to be a writer. I went immediately to the school newspaper and started writing there. As I tell people, regardless of what degree I would have ended up with, I majored in newspaper. But while I was writing for the newspaper, I still had to take classes, or they wouldn’t let me stay in school. Strange how that works out. So, I started taking the classes that looked interesting to me, and they ended up being philosophy courses.
At the end of my third year, I went to talk to my advisor, and my advisor said, “Look, if you were planning to get an English degree because you’re a writer, I regret to tell you, you haven’t taken enough English courses. It would take you five years. But if you took a philosophy degree, you could pretty much graduate now.”
And I’m like: “Well, I guess I’m a philosopher.” So, I kind of fell into it.
Having said that, a philosophy degree ends up being very useful for a writer, not in any practical sense, but in the overarching sense of learning how to think, learning how to reason, learning how to research, learning how to find things out for yourself, and also examining the consequences of what people do and how they do them. Now, additionally, my concentration within the philosophy degree (which is basically the equivalent of the minor) is in language arts. So, my full degree is philosophy with a concentration in philosophy of language.
Learning how people use language not only to communicate, but also to obfuscate, or to explain or to avoid or just how people make language work comes, oddly enough, in handy when one is a writer and one is trying to develop characters and have them use language in particularly interesting ways. So, for me, the philosophy degree, on one hand, has been completely useless. I only have a bachelor’s in it, not a master’s or a doctorate. But on the other hand, it has been extraordinarily useful to me in the sense of the things I learned in philosophy, I use every day, not only when I write fiction, but nonfiction as well.
Galaxy’s Edge: One of my college humanities courses was taught by a philosophy professor. His said you could tell a lot about a nation by the structure and the content of their language.
John Scalzi: That’s entirely possible. I think it’s certainly true that the way that language is being used today and how we communicate with each other has made a huge difference in the politics of the day. So much of our discourse right now is about making rhetorical points, not necessarily to the advantage of political unity or political cohesiveness. And it’s not unintentional. Of course, we are also talking about the fact that social media is often used to manipulate public opinion, not only just in the matter of people talking to each other, but by specific actors using rhetoric in a way that gets other people to share it and shapes the conversation for good or for ill. I think it’s very important that we understand how rhetoric is used, how discourse matters, how the language that we use in describing others dictates how we feel.
I’m a liberal who lives in a county that went 81 percent for Trump. I have a lot of very liberal friends who are like: “Oh, my God, how can you live there? These are awful people.” It’s difficult to say, “Well, their politics are awful from my point of view, but 90 percent of the time when I’m dealing with my neighbors, politics is not the thing that comes up.”
Now, there are lots of ways that that can be broken down. You can’t just ignore what they are voting for. You can’t just say, “Oh, they’re good neighbors,” and leave it at that. And there’s some truth to that, but it’s also a matter of 90 percent of what I have to do with my neighbors on a daily basis isn’t about politics.
The question is, isn’t there more that connects us than separates us? How do we build our discourse and our rhetoric so that becomes the case, so that we can learn to cooperate where we can cooperate? And where we can’t cooperate, how do we learn to make that an issue that is very focused, as opposed to just a general No, we can no longer get along with these folks? It’s a very difficult, particular moment that we’re in, and we’ll just see where it goes in the next several years.
Galaxy’s Edge: Your first paying jobs were all nonfiction gigs. How did your experiences writing nonfiction contribute to your fiction?
John Scalzi: In a number of ways. The most practical thing is I learned to hit deadlines. Mostly. That is really important for me as a fiction writer, because whether or not we want to admit it, most of the people who write fiction are commercial writers. You want to be reliable and able to say, “I’m going to do this, and I’m gonna hit this deadline.” That sort of stuff is really important. If your publisher realizes they can trust you to produce a book each year, every year, and have it be of reasonable quality, then all of a sudden you are more likely to get a three-book deal or a four-book deal, or in my case, it was a ridiculous 13-book deal because they’re like, “Yeah, we can trust that Scalzi’s gonna have something for us every year.”
So, deadlines were a huge thing, but also the idea that writing was a gig. Writing was a job. Writing was a thing that you did day in and day out, and you didn’t wait for the news. Because if I was as a newspaperman waiting for the news before I wrote my reviews and before I wrote my feature pieces for my newspaper column, the copy editor would have come over and strangled me. Because news, schmooze, you have a three p.m. deadline. Hit it. I think that that is really useful, particularly if you are a commercial writer and you want to be seen as reliable. So, having writing demystified, having it just be a job, having it be something where everything needed to be in by three p.m. every day, or your stuff didn’t show up, and then your editor had to talk to you—all of these things were really important.
But I also think that it [contributed] a bit of character in terms of what my prose is like. I am not a particularly ornate prose writer. If you look at my prose and then you find out that the first ten years of my writing life was as a working journalist, all of a sudden, it’s like: “Wow. That makes sense.” Because the prose does not generally call attention to itself in a way that [the prose of] someone who has gone through fiction writing and everything else first necessarily does. This isn’t a complaint. This isn’t me saying what I do is better. Some of my favorite writers have prose that is so beautiful that it almost doesn’t matter about the story they’re telling, because each sentence is its own reward. My sentences are not the reward. Generally speaking, the story is the reward. It’s just a different type of writing, but it is a type of writing that suits me as a person and as a reader in many ways. So as far as it goes, I’m happy that I had that experience writing nonfiction.
The final thing that was really useful—and piggybacking on the thing about philosophy teaching you how to write and how to research—is when you are writing nonfiction and writing as a freelancer, you are basically writing whatever you can get, because that’s how you pay your bills. You learn very quickly how to research, how to find things, how to communicate those ideas quickly and simply, as much as you can. I had a lot of experience as a freelance writer and as a journalist becoming sort of an instant expert on things, or if not an expert—because now I can hear all the actual experts clearing their throats—then at least someone able to learn enough to communicate the precis of a concept to people who know even less about it than I do. That becomes very useful, particularly in science fiction, when you have all these really weird concepts that you need to get across to people who are encountering them for the first time in your prose.
Now we can say that science fiction readers are used to super cool concepts and will take a flyer. But I don’t write just for the dyed-in-the-wool science fiction readers. I also write for people who want a good story but don’t necessarily know that they like science fiction, or who have always said, “Oh, there’s so much I have to take on board. I don’t know that I can read science fiction.” I want to be someone who makes science fiction that you can give to your dad, or you can give to your grandma, or you can give to your kid. That being the case, the idea of explaining abstruse stuff in a way that we’re like, “And now you have enough, let’s go on with the story,” comes really in handy. So, I’m super grateful that my first few years were as a journalist and then as a freelancer, because I think it’s made all the difference in terms of both how I write and, when I got lucky enough to be successful, being able to maintain that success.
Galaxy’s Edge: You read a lot of mystery in science fiction before flipping the coin that had you trying your hand at writing science fiction. In other interviews, you’ve talked a lot about the SF writers who influenced you, but who are your heroes in the mystery canon? (I have a bet with myself on that.)
John Scalzi: Well, now I need to know who it is you’re thinking of.
Galaxy’s Edge: Dashiell Hammett.
John Scalzi: That’s not a bad guess at all, because it’s not only him, but the second order of people and the people who were influenced by him. Particularly, I’m thinking of Carl Hiaasen. The big three for me, in terms of being really enjoyable, were Elmore Leonard, Carl Hiaasen and Gregory Mcdonald, who wrote the Fletch books—and the Fletch books, in particular. I think if you look at the way I use dialogue and the way Gregory Mcdonald used dialogue in the Fletch books, you will see a lot of similarities. Not necessarily the same words, not necessarily the same tone, but having so much of the story told through people talking is something I definitely got from him. I mean, with the Fletch novels, it was such a prominent part of the books that it was on the covers. The cover treatment for the Fletch books originally was snippets of dialogue, which nobody ever did. Nobody ever made that a selling point of their books, and yet Gregory Mcdonald absolutely did.
[The thing about] Carl Hiaasen, for me, was the absurdity, being able to put absurdity in his books and still have it grounded into the real world, because he wrote all his books in Florida, where everything was possible no matter how ridiculous. With Elmore Leonard, a lot of it was tone. I think that that happens with folks like Hammett, as well. The thing about Hammett and Elmore Leonard is the way they so economically communicated where they were, where you were, what the characters were like, what they were doing, and what the world was like. The world-building that mystery writers do so quickly and in such shorthand is a portable skill. It’s not only something you can use in mystery. You can use it in science fiction and other genres, as well. I find it becomes super handy in science fiction. When I want to make people very quickly aware of where we are, what we’re doing, all that sort of stuff, I fall back on the mystery writers that I love more than I fall back on the science fiction writers.
One of the things I would say—and this is not necessarily fair, and it’s not necessarily true now—but back in the golden age of these genres, science fiction writers had more of a monopoly on ideas that were really cool, and mystery writers had a better grip on human relationships. I think that’s a gross oversimplification, and I don’t think that that’s true now. Science fiction has expanded what it does and who does it and how they do it. But that shorthand of establishing characters was very much more of one genre than the other. That’s why when I started writing science fiction, I was like: “Well, I can use more in my toolbox to write science fiction than just what is in science fiction.”
And it wasn’t just mystery. It was journalism. It was also humor. There’s as much Nora Ephron in my writing as there is Robert Heinlein. I think that’s really important to say: Science fiction and fantasy writers can get influences from anywhere. It’s important to be well-read—not only within your genre, which is a thing that science fiction writers have always done, but outside of it as well.
Galaxy’s Edge: Much of your science fiction seems to be a deliberate engagement with classic SF novels and media properties—Old Man’s War, Redshirts, Fuzzy Nation…. What’s at work here? Is this marketing savvy or something more thematic?
John Scalzi: Absolutely pure cynical marketing. I’ve gone to where the kids are.
No. The answer is kind of complex. I wrote Redshirts in part because I’m a fan of Star Trek, and I really wanted to. It was a world that I liked, and a world that I was exposed to, and a world that I wanted to honor. At the same time, I was well aware that nobody had actually written a book about redshirts, and it was inexplicable to me that nobody had. The reason was because everybody in science fiction was so familiar with redshirts as a concept and redshirts as a five-minute joke, that they never thought to…I don’t want to say they never thought of it as more, but nobody had taken that extra step and written that novel. And I was like: “Really? This is super low-hanging fruit, this big ripe fruit almost to the ground. It’s so low-hanging, and nobody has plucked this particular fruit.” I think everybody just looked at it and went: “That’s too low-hanging.” And I’m like: “No, I’m gonna take this fruit, and I’m gonna make a pie.”
When you look at a lot of stuff that I write, a lot of it echoes a lot of media. Old Man’s War is very clearly, and acknowledged as such, a riff on Starship Troopers and that tradition of science fiction. Redshirts is obviously Star Trek. Kaiju Preservation Society, which is coming out in March, is clearly riffing off not only people’s knowledge of Godzilla and all the Japanese movies but all the second-order movies like Pacific Rim as well, and everybody gets the joke. Again, part of that is just me. I’m writing a kaiju book because I wanted to read a kaiju book. But also, I am not unaware that when I go into Tor and I say, “Hey, I have this book, and it’s called Kaiju Preservation Society,” that the marketing people go Bzing! because they know that everybody will get it. That is not a difficult concept to sell to booksellers or to readers.
The same thing happened with Redshirts. I told my editor, Patrick Nielsen Hayden, “Hey, I’m writing a book.” And he’s like: “Great. What’s it called?” I said, “It’s called “Redshirts.” And he’s like: “Ah!” He immediately got it. He went to the marketing people and said, “Scalzi’s writing a new book.” “What’s the book called?” “It’s called Redshirts.” And they went, “Ah!” Then the marketing people went to the booksellers and said, “Hey, booksellers, Scalzi’s got a new book out. It’s called Redshirts.” And all the booksellers were like: “Ah!” They were all so excited.
The only person who wasn’t 100 percent with the brief right at the beginning was the guy who did the cover, Peter Lutjen, who is fantastic. He did all these amazing cover art treatments that were so clever and were so awesome, and we all looked at them and said, “Why isn’t there a red shirt?” To be clear, Pete Lutjen is the best. He’s just the best. He’s done so many good covers for everything including Redshirts, but you could just hear him going: “It’s too on the nose.” And we were like: “No, make it a red shirt, because then you can see it all the way across the bookstore.”
So, it’s a combination. I am a pop culture guy. I don’t pretend that I am not a pop culture guy, but more to that point, I also have no problem acknowledging that I’m a pop culture guy. But also, pop culture is a great place for someone who writes like me and who has goals like mine. Why did I write Redshirts? Because I wanted to and once I did, I was like: “I am not gonna deny this is gonna be something that everybody gets.” And everybody did get it.
Now, not everybody liked it. Redshirts is the book that has the largest number of one-star reviews and five-star reviews. There’s almost nothing in the middle. You either love it or you hate it. I find that I’m often polarizing that way. Either people are totally in for the John Scalzi experience, or they’re like, “Why Scalzi? Why? What is it with him? Why…” And they make strangling motions and stuff like that. I totally get it. I mean, I don’t think that I’m that polarizing in the actual text of what I write, but I am polarizing in how I write it. I am additionally polarizing because I’m a very outspoken person on the internet, but that’s mostly an aside.
Learn about bestselling author John Scalzi’s writing process, his experiences as a scriptwriter for TV and streaming services, and the origin of his new novel, Kaiju Preservation Society, in the next issue of Galaxy’s Edge!
In the meantime, check out some of our other great interviews!