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Sci-fi author John Scalzi on digital publishing, feminism and the Cubs

2013-05-16T09:30:00Z Sci-fi author John Scalzi on digital publishing, feminism and the CubsROB THOMAS | The Capital Times | rthomas@madison.com | @robt77 madison.com

John Scalzi's science-fiction novel "The Human Division" features characters in genetically engineered green super-bodies who jet around the galaxy, meeting aliens both friendly and not.

But for many, that isn't the most unbelievable part of the book. The hard-to-swallow part is that, hundreds of years in the future, the Cubs finally win another World Series.

In a phone interview from his home in Ohio, Scalzi admitted he's playing with fire there. Having a championship brought home to Wrigley Field might upset the balance of the universe somehow.

"The Cubs have a huge existential responsibility to not only Chicago, but basically the world, to be effectively the losers," Scalzi said. "We need to have a team that has the courage and fortitude not to win, to be the people who are an example of striving and reaching and going and failing, but still continuing to do it."

Scalzi will be at A Room of One's Own on Thursday, May 23, at 4 p.m. to read from "The Human Division." As one might be able to tell, Scalzi brings a healthy dose of wit to his science fiction; his last book, "Redshirts," was a tongue-in-cheek look at life in a "Star Trek"-like universe from the perspective of one of the show's endless supply of disposable security guards.

"The Human Division" is the fifth novel in Scalzi's "Old Man's War" series. The first novel, 2004's "Old Man's War," posited a nifty solution to the aging crisis in America. Senior citizens can sign up to get their minds transferred into powerful, young genetically engineered bodies, joining an interstellar army that defends human colonists across the galaxy.

"Human Division" follows one of those geriatric Supermen, the irascible Harry Wilson, assigned to a low-level diplomatic ship. As the ship heads from one adventure to another, Wilson discovers some clandestine force is trying to cause a rift between humans on Earth and those in outer space.

Just as interesting as what is in "Human Division" is the way it was released. Scalzi and Tor Books originally released the 13 chapters in the book digitally as separate, stand-alone short stories for download. It was an experimental foray into digital publishing that seemed to pay off.

"I believe the budget for 'The Human Division' came out of MacMillan's (Tor's parent company) research and development budget, because it is literally an experiment," Scalzi said. "The good news is that we hit at exactly the right time. A year earlier, the critical mass for electronic distribution would not have been there. A year down the line, somebody would have beaten us to it."

The format allowed Scalzi to tinker with his usual storytelling style. Instead of following one or two characters throughout the book, the chapters shift from one perspective to another, from a main character like Harry to a secondary character. The episodes also vary in tone; one is a self-contained murder mystery, another is a laugh-out-loud farce about a dog who is anointed king of an alien race.

"In a conventional novel, it would have been very hard to pull off in any sort of coherent way," Scalzi said. "Because we have this medium and we had this structure, everybody went along with it. It's like 'The X Files.' Some of them were episodes that served the narrative arc, and others were like 'Oh, here's a monster.'"

Scalzi said he's already committed to doing a sequel that will likely also be released episodically. A busy blogger (whatever.scalzi.com) and Tweeter (@scalzi), Scalzi credits his prodigious output in part to his early career in journalism, as a film critic for the Fresno Bee in the 1990s.

"What that meant was that I would review 5 to 7 movies a week, and they would all have to be done by Wednesday 5 o'clock to make the Friday paper. What happens is that you learn how to write quickly, you learn how to organize your thoughts and structure everything on the fly, and you learn how to get it right on the first draft so the copy editors don't come over and strangle you."

Scalzi will be in Madison just before the start of WisCon, the feminist-oriented science fiction convention. Conflicting dates on his 20-city book tour prevent him from staying for the convention, but he's gone several times before and said he's had a great time.

He's also, without drawing much attention to it, made sure that the universe has plenty of strong female characters, both heroes and villains.

"With 'The Human Division,' I made a lot of my characters in positions of powers be women, simply because that's how I assumed it would be," he said. "I honestly believe in the future a lot of the crap that we're living through right now about male-female parity is going to be a settled issue, especially in a universe where everybody is genetically engineered.

"The second thing is of course, we will still live in a world where people make assumptions about what women can or can't do. And as part of the 'be the change you want to see in the world' I made sure that my universe reflects what I think we ought to be."

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(5) Comments

  1. Rob Thomas Staff
    Report Abuse
    Rob Thomas - May 17, 2013 9:55 am
    @Bender Oof. Should be fixed now. Thank you for pointing that out.
    @GRhess. Thanks, Hess!
  2. Rob Thomas Staff
    Report Abuse
    Rob Thomas - May 16, 2013 1:34 pm
    @Gretchening Thank you for pointing that out -- I've added it to the text as well. Should be a great event!
  3. Bender
    Report Abuse
    Bender - May 16, 2013 12:42 pm
    jetison
    Verb
    Throw or drop (something) from an aircraft or ship


    So, they were throwing their trash all over the universe?

    Perhaps they could genetically engineer an editor.
  4. George Hesselberg Staff
    Report Abuse
    George Hesselberg - May 16, 2013 12:35 pm
    Nice read, Rob!
  5. Gretchening
    Report Abuse
    Gretchening - May 16, 2013 11:19 am
    Just a note for those interested, John Scalzi will be giving a free, public reading at A Room of One's Own Bookstore on Thursday May 23rd at 4pm!
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