If you’re a certain type of person — the kind who’s taken the JoCo Cruise or signed up for Nerdcon: Stories, say — you already know who John Scalzi is. “Within science fiction and fantasy literature, I’m an A-lister,” Scalzi says. “But this is almost exactly like being the best-known bluegrass artist in the country.”
So while he’s a bestselling author with a dynamic online presence and three Hollywood projects pending, this former president of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America is just not all that famous in the larger culture. But Scalzi and his metaphorical bluegrass banjo may be about to cross into the mainstream.
Last spring he signed an unprecedented book deal with publisher Tor: 10 years, 13 books, $3.4 million. In today’s publishing climate, the deal stands out both for its significant bottom line and long-term commitment. He’s best known for his “Old Man’s War” series, which continues this month with “The End of All Things” (Tor/Forge: 384 pp, $24.99). The series is based on the premise that old folks on Earth can get new young, super-strength bodies if they enlist in an interstellar fighting force, the Colonial Union.
Now on its sixth book, the series has grown from its original action-packed, battle-oriented science fiction to encompass multiple planets, races and strategic interests. The voices in “The End of All Things” include a pilot who’s no more than a brain in a box, a handful of troopers sent to quell unrest, and the leadership of a 400-planet alliance — notably, a level-headed diplomat who looks a lot like the terrifying monster in “Alien.”
Because of the series’ subgenre, military science fiction, some fans are disappointed to discover that Scalzi is an outspoken liberal. He makes no secret of that on his blog, which he launched in 1998, the pre-dawn Internet era. Back then, he was a former opinion columnist doing corporate consulting and writing movie reviews for the Fresno Bee.
For 17 years Scalzi has used his blog (whatever.scalzi.com) to tell personal stories, support other people’s books, share his political views and weigh in on debates within the science fiction and fantasy community.
“I want to be able to speak freely about things that are important to me, and the blog allows me to do that. I can talk about politics; I can talk about what’s going on in the science fiction-fantasy genre; I can talk about the social movements of our time,” he says.
Even though he began blogging before he’d published any fiction, the way he engages there — and via Twitter (@scalzi), where he has more than 85,000 followers — is a model for the kind of “platform” authors are urged to create to promote their work. But by speaking his mind, arguing in favor of same-sex marriage and feminism, advocating for making science fiction conferences and online gaming communities more hospitable to women, Scalzi has created vituperative online enemies.
They are a coterie of science fiction fans and online gamers who crusade against progressive ideas (one attacks Scalzi as “a PC-drenched eunuch nerd who refuses to acknowledge that races differ biologically”). This year, a few successfully manipulated the Hugo science fiction award nominations so that they were dominated by white, male contenders. “Some of the best science fiction and fantasy that’s being written is being written by people who aren’t like me, the straight, white dude,” he says. He points to award-winning writer N.K. Jemisin, an African American woman. “The idea that she is somehow a threat to science fiction and fantasy because of who she is as a person is INSANE.”
Scalzi has struck back, deconstructing the attacks on his blog; he and others including George R.R. Martin refer to the conservative activists with the mocking sobriquet “sad puppies.”
His outspokenness may have won him readers who wouldn’t ordinarily be tempted to pick up a pulpy science fiction novel with “war” in the title. And his new deal lets him expand his purview: It includes three YA books and four books set in an entirely different science fictional universe, the details of which are to be determined.
Generally, Scalzi lets his fiction exist separately from his politics. He imagines that the current issues of today would be immaterial in futures hundreds of years hence. But he wants to engage, even though he’s aware that to some he’s not an ideal messenger, given his position as a privileged white male.
And yet he hasn’t always had privilege. Scalzi grew up poor in the far-flung suburbs of Los Angeles: Covina, Azusa, Glendora, San Dimas. His mother, who had three children and didn’t finish high school, was in and out of relationships that didn’t stick.
“A lot of the time, she was a single mother in her early 20s trying to raise children,” Scalzi recalls. “She had to find jobs where she could; we were on government assistance quite a lot. I can still remember the food stamps and tins of government cheese. There were even times — briefly to be clear, but they did happen — when we were homeless. We were utterly reliant on other people putting us up so we would have a roof over our heads. That really does mark you for life.”
That childhood experience explains, in part, how a liberal geek came to write science fiction about military alliances and tactics. “I was a small kid and I was very bright, and I was always looking for who could be an ally. I spent a lot of time measuring up who were friends and who were foes, who can I count on to throw me that lifeline,” Scalzi says. “In retrospect, as a writer this was not a bad thing because I learned how to observe people, but living it was terrible.”
In 2001, Scalzi and his wife bought a house on 5 acres in Ohio to be closer to her family while raising their daughter. “Now I’ve come full circle; I have lived the American dream,” Scalzi says. “I have become someone who is wealthy, I am someone who is in the 1 percent.”
Maintaining that status by meeting the terms of his deal — writing 13 books in 10 years — seems a huge challenge, but the structure was actually his idea. He’s got a unique blend of focus and ambition and, he admits, “I really like writing novels.”
John Scalzi in Los Angeles
Where: The Last Bookstore, 453 S. Spring St., Los Angeles
When: 7:30 p.m. Aug. 25