John Scalzi On Gender, Sports, and Representation in Sci-Fi

We talked to Hugo Award-winning author John Scalzi about his new science fiction thriller Head On & his role in the sci-fi community.

John Scalzi is a creator who lives and breathes science fiction.

The former president of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, a Hugo Award winner for his 2013 novel Red Shirts, and a former creative consultant on Stargate Universe, Scalzi has probably influenced some of the science fiction you’ve consumed in the last decade, even if you’re not actively a fan.

Scalzi just released Head On, the second standalone novel in the same universe as his science fiction thriller Lock In. Both novels are set in a world that has been forever changed by something called the Haden’s syndrome, a pandemic that left one percent of the surviving population locked inside of their own bodies. These people, known as Hadens, interact with the world using android bodies known as threeps.

Head On follows FBI agent Chris Shane, a Haden tasked with solving the Haden-related murder of a Hilketa player. Hilketa is a violent, football-like sport in which threeps try to rip the head off of one of the opposing team’s players. 

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Lock In and Head On are great reads that explore issues of gender and disability through a thrilling science fiction lens. Den of Geek was lucky enough to talk to Scalzi about the world he has created for Head On, how his own online interactions shape the digital landscapes within the novels, and how he sees his role in the larger science fiction community.

Den of Geek: Just to start, I’d love for you to give just a brief overview of what Head On is about, maybe, for those who haven’t read Lock In, or who aren’t familiar with the world.

John: Okay. Well, Head On is a sequel to Lock In, although it’s written as a stand-alone, which means that you don’t have to have read the first book to follow it. In this world, 1% of the population has been afflicted with a syndrome called Haden Syndrome, which locks them into their body, although their brains are still functioning perfectly fine. There’s been a technological drive to help them communicate with the world, which has led to things like neural nets inside of their brains and a special online universe called the agora, where they can congregate and live their lives, and also to develop into threeps, which are android bodies that the folks with Hadens drive around in the world.

When you talk about it, the first time you think about it, it’s kind of amazing and would be like, oh my gosh, Bob is an android body now. Then, 25 years later, which is when all this takes place, nobody cares because they’re just so used to threeps being part of the world.

Now, when you are building a world that has 1% of the population walking around in android bodies, there’s going to be some subtle changes and some ways that the threeps are incorporated into everyday life. One of them is a sport called hilketa, which is a Basque word, which means murder. The idea of hilketa, basically, is a sport team like football, but instead of a football, what happens is one team runs across the field, tries to rip the head off of an opposing team player and then carry it back towards the goal.

Now, obviously, you could never have this happen with folks who are not afflicted with Hadens because ripping somebody’s head off would kill them, but because the Hadens are playing the game with threep bodies, they are not affected. It’s a modestly violent game, where people get heads ripped off and they attack each other with swords and hammers.

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It’s all good fun and nobody gets hurt until, of course, somebody does and a player dies because of actions on the field. That’s when our main characters, Chris Shane and Leslie Vann, who are FBI agents, and Chris is also a Haden. Dig in to find out what’s really going on.

Did you always know that you were going to tell another story in this world, or that you wanted to? Or, after you finished the first book, were still inspired by this world?

Well, no, what happened was that the first one sold really well so I wrote a sequel. It sounds really cold and bloodless when you put it like that, but one of the things that’s absolutely true, particularly about science fiction and fantasy, is we are a market-driven genre, so things that are successful, they want more of.

Now, the thing that made me happy was that there was enough, in terms of sales and interest and people responding to it, that there was space for a sequel. When you develop a near future world like this, you actually have to do a lot of work to make it seem realistic. I spent a huge amount of time doing world building so that it made sense.

I spent all this time creating aspects of the universe that never made it into the first book. That included this game, hilketa. I had created it just simply as I was building out the rest of the world. Like, what would a game that only had Haden players and threeps be like? I was like, “Well, they’d rip each other’s head off because they could.” It was really cool. I had developed this whole sport and there was no place in the first book to put it. It just was … there was no space because I had to do a murder mystery.

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I had this really cool sport and this really cool idea among a whole bunch of other stuff I’d built just for my own information. When they said, “We’d like to have a sequel,” I was like, “Cool, because I have just the thing.” The short answer was, I wasn’t planning to write the sequel when the first book came out but when they said there would be a sequel, I was ready to go.

Yeah, and it seems like there could be some parallels drawn between this sport this discussion we’re having right now about football and head injuries. Is that a leap, or is that something that influenced where this was coming from?

It’s not a one-to-one, to be sure, but it is often the case where when you have a sport and you are talking about athletes and you are talking about the wear and tear that they put on their bodies, even in this particular case, where the athletes are humans that are not actually on the field, they’re just driving machines that are on the field. Nevertheless, the mental exertion, and the acuity, and all that stuff, there’s a lot of stress to it. There are going to be parallels between what’s going on in the real world in talking about damage and talking about injury and talking about players doing whatever they can to keep playing. That definitely plays a role.

It’s not a one to one but it’s very definitely evocative, which is what you want to do because science fiction works pretty much to the extent that a person who is reading it can kind of put themselves in that situation. Someone who is reading about hilketa is going to imagine what’s going on in the sports world today. They’re going to see the parallels and they’re going to make their understanding kind of fit into what they already know. Like I said, it’s the responsible extrapolation forward. Definitely issues that affect the sports world, not just football, baseball, basketball, all these popular sports, are going to be things that get touched on with the sport of hilketa in Head On.

One of the things I really wanted to talk about was your device of not identifying specifically Chris Shane’s gender in either novel. Can you talk about where that decision came from?

It came from when I was first imagining the world, and I was thinking about who the protagonist would be and who they would be and what they would be like. It came to me that in this particular case I would not have to choose between male or female because the main character was going to present to the world, basically, through a threep, through a machine. The machine doesn’t have to be gendered one way or the other. If a threep comes up to you, unless by design it shows that the person driving it is male or female, or whatever, you’re just not going to know. You’re going to approach them in a different way than you would if you 100% knew what their gender was.

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Knowing that as a fact of the world, I just decided the main character, I’m not going to find out what their gender is, which is not to say Chris might not have a gender. Chris may be a he, Chris may be she, Chris may decide that gender doesn’t apply, or could be gender fluid and somewhere on the spectrum. The point is that I, as the writer, don’t know because I haven’t asked Chris and Chris hasn’t volunteered that particular information to me. Having done that, it’s like, okay, now how do we build that into the world and how do we make it fly without being super… I would think the best way to put it, how to do it without making it completely in somebody’s face?

That’s the whole point, the gender issue isn’t in somebody’s face unless they decide to make it so. When I was writing it, I just wrote it with that presumption. When I sent it off, Lock In, I sent it off to the editor and I hadn’t told the editor that that was going to be the case. My editor got back to me after he read the manuscript and I said, “What do you think of Chris?” He was like, “[inaudible 00:10:40]. I like the way that he has banter back and forth with Leslie Vann,” and blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. I was like, “Why do you think Chris is a he?” He was silent for a minute and he’s like, “You bastard.”

That’s the point, which is for the first book. The only person who knew prior to the book coming out that Chris was not gendered were the folks at Audible because I specifically told Steve over at Audible that this one should probably have two narrators, which they did and which they’re doing for Head On, with Wil Wheaton and Amber Benson. I explained why. He was literally the only person who knew. When we sent it out for reviewers, we didn’t tell the reviewers. When we published it, we didn’t say anything about it. We let people find it for themselves. Once they did find it for themselves, then there was a whole lot of discussion about what we did and what it meant, and all that sort of stuff.

For the second book, we’re talking about it more openly because it’s, obviously, you can’t do the same trick twice, so to speak. It’s been interesting to see what the response is because, again, Head On is written as a stand-alone so there will be, even though we’re talking about it now, there will still be people who come to it not knowing that Chris isn’t gendered. They will come in with their own default setting of who Chris is. I think that’s fascinating.

Yeah, me too. It was your idea to have two separate narrators for the first audio book?

Well, I suggested it to Audible and then it was up to Audible to decide whether or not it made sense for them. One of the things that I do like about working with Audible has been to date when I come to them with kind of a wacky idea like this, they don’t immediately shut it down. They’re like, “Well, let’s look at this, let’s see if it works.” When I told Steve about how I thought they should consider doing two narrators for it, his response was, “That’s interesting.” Can it be done? Can it be done in a way that makes sense? Can it be done in a way that doesn’t make folks feel like they’re being kind of like yanked around?

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It’s cool to have two narrators but you also want to make sure that, from a commercial point of view, that whichever narrator that you get, one, you get a satisfying experience, which we obviously took care of because both Wil and Amber are fabulous narrators. The other thing is that not only that but if they then look the other narrator, if they’ve listened to Wil and then decide to listen to Amber, or vice versa, that there’s enough distinction in the delivery that it makes it worthwhile to hear basically the same story twice told through a different perspective.

Like I said, as a writer, just the fact that we get to do this, and that Wil and Amber have been onboard with it and have their own interpretations, and that they just both nailed it, is really kind of a great thing.

Digging into that a little bit more, voice performance and audio book narration is not something that people necessarily talk a lot about but, obviously, it is a performance. Different actors bring different things to their presentation. What do Wil and Amber bring? What are their, I don’t want to say strengths or weaknesses, but what are their individual, yeah, quirks that kind of add to their individual performances?

One of the things, and this is a highly personal thing with relation to Wil, Wil and I are about the same age. He’s a couple years younger. We both grew up in the same area. We both grew up in southern California and we both know each other. If you ever listen to the two of us in conversation—he and I are going to be doing a presentation at the LA Times Festival of Books on the 22nd, I think, of April, we’re just going to have a conversation between the two of us—if you listen to the two of us, you realize that our cadence and the way that we express ourselves is extraordinarily similar.

In that sort of case, with Wil, Wil is as close to me narrating my own book as it’s going to get. He’s better, because he’s a professional actor and I am just this mush-mouthed guy who happens to write books. In that sort of sense, what I really like about Wil is that so many of his choices, because we have so many similarities in both age and outlook and perspective, and love of science fiction, for example, so many of his choices would be the choices that I would make. For me, in many ways, Wil is very close to what’s actually in my head.

Now, that said, it’s not to say that what’s in my head is always the best or most interesting choice. That’s one of the reasons that I love Amber. Amber is equally trained and precision an actor as Wil is, but her choices are different. Her perspective on who Chris is and who the other characters in that world are is sufficiently different from what I have in my own head that when I listen to her, I feel like she’s revealing parts of my own universe that I hadn’t seen before. That is, for me, what some of the best audio narration can do. The actor, or the narrator, just adds something else that you weren’t anticipating.

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It’s happened before. I have been very fortunate with my narrators. I had William Dufris for the Old Man’s War book, Tavia Gilbert, who did Zoe’s Tale. That’s another perfect example. Tavia Gilbert did Zoe’s Tale, which was written from the perspective of a 16-year-old girl. Her performance of it really deepened my love of my own character. Now, whenever I hear Zoe Boutin Perry, the main character of Zoe’s Tale, in my head, I hear Tavia Gilbert’s voice, which is kind of an accomplishment.

That’s what I love about Amber, is she takes my work and she gives me new perspective. Wil validates the perspective I already had. Amber gives me new perspective. Both of those are very important for me as a writer, and someone who is listening to somebody’s take on his own material.

Has Lock In been translated into other languages?

We’ve got German, I think we’ve got Japanese, we’ve got French … It’s in five or six languages now and it keeps picking up on additional ones as we go on.

Was that process of translating it, because of the non-gender thing, did that add some complications, or clarifications that you had to make because different languages have different constructions, especially when it comes to gender?

Oh yeah, absolutely. The thing that’s really interesting is that a lot of it depends on who’s translating. There are some translators who ask for a lot of information, and then there are others who don’t.

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The thing is that you’re working within, as you know, the matrix of a language and what is grammatically correct and what’s not, and what can be achieved and what can’t. Now, one of the things is, obviously, when we sold the books in different languages, we let them know Chris’ gender is not revealed in the book. A lot of times you kind of ended at that. We’d be like, “This is a fact, have fun.” Occasionally someone would get back to us and say, “Well, what does that mean? How do you want us to handle it?”

I think that it makes for a challenge for folks who are translating because translation, as I understand it, is not just about recreating word for word whatever it is that the original writer did because so often idiom doesn’t translate, or whatever. It’s also about recreating the feel of it, as much as anything else. They have to make a lot of choices on their own and you, as the writer, have to trust that they made good decisions. Now, Lock In‘s been well received in other languages so far so, as far as it goes, I think that they’re generally making the right decisions.

Cool. You already mentioned that in this world the Hadens interact with one another through this online community or world. I’m curious, as someone who’s been active on the internet for a while, how your own experiences online informed the writing of that part of your fictional world?

Oh, absolutely. The thing is that I think the Haden approach is different in many ways from the non-Haden approach. The non-Haden approach, which I would base on the approach that most of us have, is that the internet is still kind of a third place. It’s not quote, unquote real. What happens is, the relationships that people have there are affected by the fact that it’s in that other medium. That’s why, for example, people get into arguments so much more easily on the internet than they do in real life, quote, unquote real life. There’s a dis-inhibition because you don’t have that person directly in front of you.

Whereas, for a Haden, the agora, the online life, is 100% as real, if not more so, than what we would call our real world, or neat space, however you want to define it. Their initial connection to other Hadens is through this highly advanced online world. The dynamic there for them is going to be a lot different and, in fact, might even, to a great extent, be reversed from the dynamic that non-Hadens would have. I think that’s really interesting. The thing is that in the course of the time that I’ve been online, which of course is more than 20 years now, it has gone from being this sort of nerd outpost where people with technical skill or just obsessiveness spend there time in kind of a disreputable fashion to the place where, literally, everybody is on.

My aunts, who are 80 or 90 years old, are on the internet now. I keep track of everybody I went to high school with in the ’80s through Facebook. I live out in the middle of nowhere in a small rural town in Ohio and a lot of the day-to-day conversation I have with my peer group is through Twitter. The blending of real world with online world has been significant, and gets more so every year. Enough now, obviously, that now we are beginning to confront the realities of it.

We had an election that was directly influenced by actors on the internet. We have people who have developed friendships and relationships of lasting significance never having met face to face. The lines are getting blurrier and blurrier and will continue to do so. Obviously, I extrapolate from that for what’s going on in the world of Lock In and Head On, which takes place 30, 40 years in the future.

Not totally unrelated to your online presence and the role that plays in the science fiction community, you’re someone who has a certain amount of pull and privilege in the science fiction writing world, and who I think of as using that power to support underrepresented voices. I’m just curious, in a general sense, how you see your role in the science fiction community, and if that’s changed over the course of your career so far.

Well, I wasn’t always me, which is kind of an indelicate way of putting it. One of the things that’s been interesting is I came into the science fiction community actually around 2005, so it wasn’t as long as I think a lot of people think. I don’t know, my thoughts about representation in science fiction and fantasy kind of mirror my feelings about representation in a general sense, which is more is better and there’s no reason why the table can’t be expanded.

Now, what’s been interesting is that so much of my learning has been on the job, so to speak. I am not the same personal writer, in terms of awareness of issues surrounding representation as I was in 2005. A dozen years ago I knew relatively less about the science fiction fantasy community and what its concerns were. Also, the number of people I knew as writers, much less writers of color or writers in marginalized communities, was much lower. I was intellectually all for, yay, go representation but the actual real world application of that and what it meant is something that I’ve had to learn as I go along.

The only reason that I think I’ve actually managed to do that without showing my ass on a regular basis is that one of the things that I figured out is that one’s ego should not be centered on being right all the time. Instead, one’s ego should be centered on correct action and correct understanding. Which means that when I’m wrong, which turns out happens frequently, the question is not how do I manage to make this look like I was right the entire time, which I think is a traditional response for a lot of people in my position, but how do I incorporate this new information so that I don’t make the same mistakes going forward.

A shorter version of that is I don’t want to screw up the same way twice. That’s been important for me. The other thing is, quite frankly, the longer I’ve been going along, not just in science fiction and fantasy but life in general, the more I see and the more I recognize that I get a lot of breaks and that they’re unearned breaks, because I am white, because I am straight, because I am male. Now, I have a lot of money. I look at the, as you say, I look at the privilege that I have and part of me is, of course that’s great, it’s great for me, it makes my life a whole lot easier. The question then becomes, what can I do to make sure that the breaks and privileges, and everything else that I’ve gotten, are accessible to other people?

This is where I think a lot of white, straight males, and people with a lot of privilege in the first place, tend to freak out a bit. When they look at privilege, or they look at opportunity, they look at any of that sort of stuff, they see it as kind of a zero sum game, which is: some people have it, some people don’t. If you give it to other people, then you have to have less of it and then you’ll be eaten by the wolves. I think that’s really the way that a lot of people see it. It’s like there has to be winners and there has to be losers. It sucks for other people that I’m in the winner class but, by god, I don’t want to be a loser so thump, thump, thump, thump. Sometimes, not intentionally, but sometimes quite intentionally, they work to preserve their place.

I don’t think it’s a zero sum game. I do not think I will lose anything by working so that other people have opportunities like I’ve had opportunities, that have advancement the way that I’ve had advancement, that have the opportunity for luck, for example, that I have. I’ve been extraordinarily lucky. I also recognize that part of the luck that I’ve had is based on the fact of who I am and what I am in this particular society.

It’s one of those things where that just make sense to me. I am not threatened by the idea of other people with different experiences and different lives and different perspectives having the same level of opportunity and success that I have. It’s not going to injure me. Yeah, that’s part of my gig, is to try to, on a daily basis, exemplify that ethos that is in my head and I know is something that is morally correct. That is, to get back to that, centered on correct action.

I don’t want to make is sound like, “Here’s John Scalzi, he’s doing what he can.” Quite honestly, you can do a lot with very little effort. This is the thing that gets me. It’s like, link to people who are saying important things. Support the people who are speaking out. Stand with, not in front of.

You can follow John Scalzi via Twitter or his blog Whatever. Head On is now available to buy as a hardcover book or as an Audible book.