John Scalzi is a household name for most contemporary sci-fi fans. He is the Hugh Award-winning author of Redshirts, a sort of Star Trek parody that examines the lives of the ill-fated crew members that work on ships such as the Enterprise. But you’ll also recognize him from his long-running series of novels, Old Man’s War, which now consists of six books. The latest entry in the series, The End of All Things, is out today from Tor Books.
As an aspiring genre writer, I’m a bit jealous of Scalzi, who is a jack of all trades. He is as comfortable with exposition, dialogue, and description as he is with high-octane action sequences. His conversations are witty and his space battles are epic. And then he really gets you with some gross-out weird science that might remind you of David Cronenberg.
The End of All Things is actually made up of four novellas that tell a larger tale. Several protagonists fight to maintain the galactic peace between three factions that are constantly at each other’s throats. While the Earth, Colonial Union, and Conclave play dirty with each other, there is a terrorist shadow organization that wants to distabilize all of these governments and spark an all-out war.
I had the privilege of talking with Scalzi about The End of All Things, his future projects, Star Wars, and much more. Since this is a pretty in-depth interview about the new book, BE WARNED: there are spoilers beyond this point for all things Old Man’s War and other Scalzi projects!
You can also find an excerpt from Audible’s audiobook version of The End of All Things below:
What was your process for this particular book? Did you write it with novellas in mind or did you approach the book as a whole? Do you find one easier over the other?
John Scalzi: After The Human Division was done, we knew there was going to be a second book because the way that the story arc happened in THD, I ended up having two arcs happening. One was contained within the Human Division itself ,which was the change of diplomatic team from the B team to being the A team of Colonial diplomacy. But then there was the whole larger who was trying to sabotage the Colonial Union and the Conclave. We knew there would have to be a second book to address that.
So Human Division came out and the episodic thing was pretty successful for us. Tor wanted to try to do another thing episodically, but they didn’t just want to do another thing where we had 13 short stories. They wanted to try it in a slightly different kind of format. We decided to do it as novellas and see how people responded to that.
One thing to know about The End of All Things and The Human Division is that, in addition to being novels and in addition to being these episodic things, they are also basically research projects for Tor. Because we live in an age where you can do things electronically, we wanted to see where the market was for serialization. For short stories. For novellas. And so one of the things that we decided for The End of All Things, rather than doing 13 short stories, which is what we did the last time, we would do four novellas. Same amount of words and same basic price structure that if you added up all the four novellas together it’d be the same cost as a book, but in a slightly different format. Would people be more interested or less interested in buying novellas as opposed to short stories?
So to some extent when we went in we knew we would have novellas there, which worked just fine because I had developed these four stories that I wanted to tell and I thought that writing them as novellas was going to be better for those particular stories anyway. So when Tor said “Can you do novellas?” My answer was “ Why, yes. In fact that’s what I was kind of hoping you would say.”
Did they start as novellas and then you just added the connective tissue?
The four novellas are the four novellas, and when you put them together in the book, they’re each novellas in and of themselves. So there is not much in the way of connective tissue. Each of them plays off the others as well, so they are connected definitely.
I have to ask you about the brain transplant in the first novella. How much research goes into writing the science of the books?
A little bit, but not too much because the science of it takes place a hundred years in the future, which means that to some extent, me extrapolating the science of whatever year this is would be like somebody from 1700 trying to extrapolate the science of 2015. So I didn’t worry about that too much.
The one thing that I did worry about, which I always worry about, is if it’s a logical extrapolation from what we know today. I get what we know today more or less correct because it’s one thing to say, “Hey, this is science fiction” and you make things up, but you try to make it plausible so that people that are actually into neurobiology or into physics, when you say something their automatic response isn’t “No, that would never work and here’s why!” They would be like “ Huh, I guess maybe that could work? How would that work?” And then they go off and think about it in their own brains.
My general plan when it comes to science is get the science that we know right, make future science interesting, and don’t over explain it, because the more you try to explain it the more opportunities you have to show that you don’t actually know what you are talking about. And I don’t want people to know that I don’t know what I am talking about, even if I don’t know what I am talking about.
I want them to think, “That’s a really cool idea!” Like in the original Old Man’s War, I talk about artificial blood and how it’s done. Now artificial blood is a real thing that is going on in the world, and every time some one mentions artificial blood, I get a whole bunch of emails with a link like “You got it right!” In fact, I didn’t get it right. I just said, “Artificial blood in the future!” But everybody thinks, because they’ve been thinking about it in their own brains, that these guys must be picking off of what John Scalzi said, when in fact that’s nowhere near what actually happened.
One of the things that stood out to me about the novellas were the very different narrative voices in each section. For example, Rafe is more colloquial than Councilor Hafte and Harry Wilson. Do you have a process for getting into these characters’ voices?
You do ask yourself before you begin, “Who are these characters?” And it helps that with Hafte and Wilson, they were characters I had worked with before. Wilson obviously the most. They were characters in The Human Division, so I had developed their characters a bit, and then it was just expansion.
With Rafe, in “The Life of the Mind,” that was the only one I had to really come up with, and I basically was like, “This is a guy who is late twenties/early thirties. What sort of voice would someone like that have?” And I didn’t get the sense that he was a particularly formal person. Also, the fact was that I was going to make you spend time literally inside his brain, so I wanted someone who would be conversational and approachable even in a completely bizarre situation.
Rafe is someone literally trapped in his own brain. and if he had been super formal or conservative in the way of expressing himself, it would be very difficult to actually feel that connection with him. So I wanted him to feel like somebody that you could sit down and have a conversation with. And also the simple fact that he is essentially, as he is writing this, dictating it as opposed to typing it, because it’s literally coming out of his brain. That has an informality with it as well.
Branching off of that, why did you decide to put some of your Old Man’s War main characters, especially Harry Wilson, in the periphery until the last section of the book?
I wanted the four novellas to be distinct. The great thing about the format I got to play with was that you don’t have to do a novel like a novel. You don’t have to stick with the same characters. You have the opportunity to do different things. Just like in The Human Division, half the stories were about the diplomatic team and then half of them were kind of one-offs. The analogy I use is The X-Files. Half the X-Files episodes were about the mythology of The X-Files. And the other half were monster-of-the-week episodes. You can sort of ship them off. For me, when I was approaching this, I didn’t have to have Harry and the diplomatic team directly upfront all the time. Instead of just telling the story of one crew of people, you tell the story of the universe.
[AGAIN, SPOILERS AHEAD.]
You spend a lot of time teasing the General’s death. Why did you ultimately decide to have him die by his own hand? And if you felt that martyrdom would ultimately save the Conclave?
It’s all in the story. My feeling about is, quite honestly, what he has always been about is uniting as many of the races out there as possible so that they all benefit as opposed to all get locked in this horrible cycle of death and destruction and rapaciousness. At a certain point, he recognizes that he has done everything that he can do as a politician, and so there is something else that has to be done. He needs to move off the stage and let people who are better suited for the next phase do it. Will he be allowed to walk away gracefully? And the short answer is not necessarily, so he has to figure out how best to get that done.
Do you feel that you have more stories to tell in the Old Man’s War universe? Can you tease anything?
Since I am actually contractually obliged to write at least one more novel in the universe, I certainly hope so. At the moment, this book will come out and it completes the narrative I started in The Human Division.
The first four books [in the series] are one narrative arc. These two books [The Human Division and The End of All Things] have their own narrative arc. And at the end of each of these narrative arcs, things change enough that in order to continue I have to think about “Well, what does this mean for the universe? How does the universe change?” The short answer is, and I have already told people this when the book deal that I [signed with Tor] was announced, that I am going to be writing another Old Man’s War book, but it will probably be a few years down the line. And probably part of the reason for that is simply to give the universe time to rest and give my brain time to think about what all the changes now mean for this universe and for the humans as well and everything else. The short answer is, I don’t know. And if I don’t know, then its hard for me to write it.
It might be another five years or six years before I come back to the Old Man’s War universe again. I will come back to it. But I will not come back to it until I have a good story to tell, and that’s basically, I think, the right way to approach it.
You mentioned The X-Files and how the episodes were broken up and the influence that has on these projects. Are there any other television shows that you look towards when you are writing this kind of form?
Pertaining to The Human Division, we had 13 episodes. We called them episodes because we were thinking of them in a TV metaphor as opposed to the usual serialized thing where every episode ends on a cliff hanger. Each of our episodes were meant to be sort of stand-alone, self-contained entertainment. I used X-Files as an example of the metaphor, but in just a general sense, the TV season metaphor was kind of what we were aiming for with this. So not any one thing in particular.
To some extent the novella thing in The End of All Things is something more like Sherlock, right? Where Sherlock, instead of having 13 episodes or 10 episodes or 20 episodes, it has three episodes a year, and those episodes are one and a half to two hours long. You still get a very satisfying experience, even though you only get three episodes. But you get three long episodes. There’s a lot of meat in them and you get a lot of time with the characters. In terms of The End of All Things, that would be the TV metaphor that we would go with this particular time.
I am talking about the TV metaphor, but I am using that primarily to make it understandable to people who aren’t familiar with it. But in some ways, this isn’t about TV. It’s about the simple fact that where publishing is in the middle of the second decade of the 21st century is that you don’t have to just do novels anymore. You have the opportunity to do novellas. To make novellas work. You have the opportunity to do a series of short stories that are all connected in a narrative arc. And these are things that you literally had no ability to do before. Or if they were able to be done would have been very difficult. Back in the 90s Stephen King did The Green Mile in serialization. But the reason he was able to do that was because he is Stephen King. They knew that Stephen King’s audience would put up with it.
Right. I think he wrote one of the first eBooks, too.
Exactly. He’s always been an experimenter and innovator in form, and that’s really cool. But the thing is, part of that is because he’s Stephen King. In some ways, it’s a lot of risk mitigation there because people are going to try it and see what they think. He was able to impose that because he had the juice. But what we are finding now is that the average way of putting a book out (which was writing a 100,000 word science fiction novel, write more if it’s a fantasy novel) put them on a bookshelf because those are sizes that sell in a bookstore. Writers don’t have to do that anymore. You can put out a novella, and if you price it appropriately, people will buy it. And they know going in that it’s going to be shorter than the novel, but they don’t care because they are reading it on a Kindle or tablet. You have a lot more flexibility. You don’t have to make something novel length in order to sell it anymore.
It’s a very exciting time to be publishing, but you have to dive in and be willing to take advantage of it, and you have to be willing to experiment, and you have to be willing to fail. Each of these things that we are doing, there is an opportunity to fail. Maybe the people don’t want novellas? Maybe the people want novellas, but they don’t want to pay more than a particular price point? We are finding that out right now with all the data that is coming in.
Can you give me any updates on the Old Man’s War TV series that’s being developed at SyFy?
It’s still in process. [Syfy] had a script that needs some tweaks to it, so they are bringing in some other folks to try a different approach. I always have people ask what going on with that or Redshirts or Lock In,which are also in development. Basically, what I can tell people is in fact they are still under option and still being developed. There is still a possibility that they will hit the screen, but the best thing to do is to not get too excited until you actually hear that a) they’ve been green lit or b) that they have a specific release date and have actually wrapped production.
It can be very frustrating for folks because they want it to be on the screen, and I sympathize because I want it to be on the screen too, but Hollywood takes time. It took them 30 years to get Dune onto the screen. Took them 40 years to get Starship Troopers on the screen. And some people would argue that, in both of those cases, they should have taken more time. Would you rather have it up on screen now or would you rather have it up on screen right? And some of these things take time.
Redshirts has often been considered a play on the Star Trek universe. Would you ever consider doing the same with Star Wars?
There’s a meme where it’s a picture of a Redshirt and a Stormtrooper, and it goes “The Stormtrooper shoots the Red Shirt. The Stormtrooper misses. The Red Shirt dies anyway.” And so if you were going to do something like that, you’d probably do it from a Stormtrooper’s point of view.
Actually, a few years ago, I was approached by LucasArts to write a Stormtrooper book. It would be interesting to do that. I passed on it, simply because there are a myriad of writers who have written in the Star Wars and Star Trek universes, and I think one of the stupidest things people do is rundown people who do media tie-in stuff, because media tie-in stuff is very hard to do right. It’s just not something I had a particular interest in.
I really didn’t want to spend time in the Star Wars universe when I could be spending time in my own. So I passed on that. I have a series, so I have sequels, but what I don’t like doing is repeating the same trick every single time. You always try to do something new. So I am not interested in doing Redshirts 2 or Redshirts in a Star Wars-like universe. If there was something like a space opera Star Warsy-like universe, then I might consider it. But off the top of my head, I can’t think of anything, so I’m not in a huge rush to do it.
I definitely want to do more stuff with humor. I think one of the great things about Redshirts is it absolutely proves that humor is something that people are willing to accept in science fiction. It was very difficult, for a long time, to make publishers believe that people actually liked humor in science fiction. I definitely want to come back and do that, but we’ll see what form that takes.
You’re doing a novella for Audible right now. Can you tell me more about that?
It’s something they asked me to do. Audible is my audiobook publisher, and I’ve been extraordinarily happy with the way they’ve been doing stuff. They’re doing the same sort of thing that Tor has been doing with The End of All Things and The Human Division, which is basically they came to me and said, “We want to experiment, see what happens when we do this. Would you be willing to do this with us?” And I said, “Yeah, absolutely!”
So I am writing something that is meant to be audio rather than read directly. I am a big fan of dialogue tags. And when you are reading it, these are fine because your brain eventually knows that they are there, but doesn’t really read them. But when you’re doing it in audio, you can hear every single “He said, she said,” and it can be weary. So I am writing this particular novella for audio, and I am cutting out a lot of dialogue tags and keeping descriptions as short and as tight as possible. And there is a lot of dialogue, so we can have some back-and-forth and make it interesting that sort of way. It’s writing to a format.
I will actually be reading the first chapter of this novella when I am on tour. So people who want hear it should come to the tour stops because I am not going to be presenting it anywhere else. It’s a thing that I do with each of my tours. When I go out on tour, I don’t read from the current book because I feel most people have the current book and have either read it or are in the process of reading it, so what I do is I read from the next thing as a way to say thank you to people for actually coming to see me. I have the same paranoid thing that every writer does, “Oh my God, nobody is going to come to my event.” So I’m bribing people. If you come to my event you will hear this thing before anyone else, and the only way you can hear this or see this is to come to the event.
You have a well-known internet presence thanks to your blog, do you find that blogging helps your writing?
I write the blog because it’s something I enjoy doing. That’s simply the reason I do it. There are other aspects, of course. It’s not bad for my career, and when I don’t have something new out, people can go look at that or look at twitter or whatever and see what I’m up to.
I was doing the blog long before I was a novelist. I started writing the blog in ’98, my first novel came out in 2005. The blog itself is an extension of when I used to be a newspaper columnist, starting back in college and then for an actual newspaper in the 90s. So I am used to that format of expressing myself, and I wanted to continue being able to do that. I would be doing it regardless of whether I was writing novels. Actually, if my novels crater and no one is buying my stuff anymore, I’d still do the blog because that’s something I enjoy. It’s something I do for myself as opposed to doing it for the career or to kickstart other sorts of writing. It’s in and of itself its one reward.
Can you tell me anything about the new epic space opera series, YA books, or Lock In sequel you teased as a part of the new book deal with Tor?
The epic space opera thing will be the novel I write next presumably. I am still thinking about how I want to do it. Basically, it’s going to have a different structure than Old Man’s War. It’s going to be, in how the universe is constructed, different enough that people who read it will definitely go, “This is not Old Man’s War.” Which will be kind of fun.
The YAs don’t necessarily have to be science fiction or fantasy. At least one of the YAs will take place in contemporary time and wont have fantasy or science fiction tropes in it. That will be kind of fun to do because YA is a completely different market, so it will be an opportunity to try something new without straying from what I do in the adult science fiction and fantasy market. So I am really excited about that.
You were creative consultant on Stargate Universe. Would you like to work on another TV series in the future? Or have you ever considered developing your own show?
We do have the three things that are in progress right now. I am executive producer on each of those. I will be actively involved, and have been actively involved in the development of each of them. Some more than others. But each of them, I am in the loop, so yeah that would be great if we could do that. Again, we will see what happens.
I had a fantastic time on Stargate Universe. Brad Wright and Joseph Mallozzi were wonderful people to work with. The scripts were all very smart. The actors were great. Everything about it was just a genuinely positive experience for me. I have nothing but positive associations with television and with Hollywood. It’s a long slog and all that sort of stuff, but there’s no reason that I wouldn’t do it if I could.
In many of your novels, they tend to deal with paranoia over an impending doom of some kind. Why do you keep returning to that theme in your work?
Because it’s fun. You like to have the stakes be important for somebody. For the reader, they need to feel that the things going on matter. So in some ways, it’s to let people know you are not wasting your time reading the story. Heavy stuff is really going on here! Not everything has to be life or death, and not everything has to be the end of the universe. There are definitely some of my books where it’s not the end of the universe, but it’s just a fun thing to think about.
If everything goes completely wrong, we’re all doomed! Let’s hope that not everything goes wrong here!
Thank you, John Scalzi! The End of All Things, the sixth book in the Old Man’s War series, is out today from Tor Books.