by / with Ernest Lilley
SFRevu Interview ISBN/ITEM#: 0512JS
Date: January 1, 2005 / Show Official Info /
SFR: Great job on Old Man's War. I liked it so much I'm afraid to read the next book. There is a next book, right?
JS: I totally get the hesitancy about the next book, since I do that myself -- I read a great book or see a great movie and I think to myself "God, I hope the inevitable sequel doesn't screw this one up for me." It's absolutely true that a bad follow-up can damage the original's reputation: A good example of that from the movie world is The Matrix, which rocked when it was a standalone, but then came those damn turgid sequels.
What can I do about it? My plan is to follow the same principle which guided the writing of Old Man's War, which was: write a book you'd want to read.
It's a simple idea; the execution, of course, is the tricky part. But, you know: If I'm reading something I'm writing and I'm not enjoying it, what possible excuse do I have in inflicting it upon others? So that's the standard I write toward. It's worked so far, so let's hope it keep working from here on out.
We did just hammer out the contract for The Ghost Brigades, so yes, it's on its way, and from what I understand it'll be out in about a year (i.e., just in time for the paperback release of OMW). As to what you can expect -- well, aside from the fact that it'll be focused on the Colonial Special Forces, you got me. I make these things up as I go along. I'm not just saying that to be cute; I really do. It's more fun that way, except when it's truly panic inducing. I haven't started writing it yet; I'll probably begin with the typing in early February.
The one thing I can say about Ghost Brigades is it will function as a standalone read; you won't have to have read Old Man's War to follow what's going on. This is only common sense, since there's no guarantee the bookshelf that has Ghost Brigades on it will have Old Man's War as well, and why make it difficult for new readers to read me? People who have read Old Man?s War will almost certainly notice familiar things, but those that haven't will still be able to pick it up, read it and (hopefully) enjoy it for its own sake.
SFR: Instead of doing actual research, I just read the book and surfed your website and your blog. But I was impressed by the number of books you've written - mostly serious, or at least factual. Tell us about your humble beginnings as an author, and how the "Rough Guide to the Universe" came about.
JS: As with many authors, the road to success was paved with the bricks of interminable failure, and painted with the bright yellow divider line of dumb luck. I'd had an agent for non-fiction since about 1995, and we kept throwing out book ideas that continually got batted down (every author knows that pain). Then in 1999, my agent was chatting with the publisher of Rough Guides (to whom he'd sold a few books), and the publisher mentioned they wanted a book about doing finances online, to complement RG's very popular Internet book. Well, at the time I was doing corporate writing for both AOL and various financial institutions, so my agent threw my name out there and Rough Guides went along. So after years of trying, I got my first non-fiction book handed to me through no effort on my part but because my agent simply had his eye on the ball.
The resulting book (The Rough Guide To Money Online) was well received by the Rough Guide folks, but had the misfortune of coming out in November of 2000, when the Internet bubble was collapsing and the news hole-sucking US election torpedoed RG's carefully planned publicity push. So it was basically a failure. But Rough Guide liked me, and so when we pitched the Universe book, they were happy to listen and gave me the go ahead. The lesson here is that even a writer's failures can be stepping-stones.
The Rough Guide To The Universe is the book I would consider a "dream book," since I've been a nut for astronomy from a very early age, and I've always wanted to write a book that could get across the idea that about 80% of the really cool things about the universe are understandable to just about anyone. I would have written the book for free, although I didn't tell Rough Guide that at the time. And I've been pleased and gratified that particular book was well received. I'm not an astronomer (math is hard), so I was paranoid I'd write something unforgivably wrong. Fortunately I did not.
SFR: Did I mention I loved the book? I've only got one little tiny problem with it though. It's only an "old man's war" for a handful of pages. Then it's a young man's war again. I liked your basic premise; too bad you flinched.
JS: Ah ha ha! Well, my response here, of course, is "says you." I think the experiences of the main characters and others are indeed informed by their age and previous experience. The main character's actions in the penultimate chapter, indeed, are directly on point to his experience back on earth and a particular relationship there. It is true that people's professional experiences don't come much into play (and when they do, they have less than pleasant results), but I was more interested in the emotional aspects of the characters' life experience. Whether I succeed with this, of course, is up to the reader to determine.
To tackle it in another direction, I also think it's fun to posit the tension between what older people have experienced in their lives on Earth, and what they experience in what is basically a second and far more violent youth. I think the common wisdom would be that most people would combine the wisdom of their age with the vitality of their new youth (and indeed, that's one ostensible reason for recruiting old people), but I think it's also equally likely that some people would simply revisit their earlier mistakes, albeit this time with fatal results. "Age" and "Wisdom" aren't always a package deal, and I thought it would be interesting (and fun!) to have that idea pop up.
SFR: The other thing (did I say only one?) I couldn't help but wonder is why you'd need volunteers at all. Haven't you ever heard of "the Clone Wars"?
JS:Heh heh heh heh. You're joking, right?
There are many reasons not to have a clone army, some that exist within the context of the Old Man's War universe (and which I'm currently banging out in my head for service in The Ghost Brigades), not all of which directly relate to the obvious needs of the military. And then there are some that exist in our universe as well.
One fairly good reason, which I suspect applies to militaries today, is that while all militaries as a matter of training do enforce a certain level of conformity, the fact that the individual members are heterogeneous is a distinct advantage. The military is called upon to do many things, and a group comprised of individuals with differing strengths is more capable than one where each individual has the same baseline capability. Also, there's the issue that if your enemy knows that each member of your fighting force is precisely the same, you're handing that enemy a distinct strategic advantage to exploit.
Outside of generating uniform special effects in certain movies which will go unnamed, I don't see any inherent advantage to cloning a fighting force, and quite a few disadvantages.
SFR: Reading your bio, blog and whatnot, I don't see any military record, just a lot of journalistic hooey. What made you want to write Mil-SF, or don't you think of this as Mil-SF, and how'd you get so good?
JS: It's pretty clearly military science fiction, given the setting and the events that transpire. It's about its main characters' journey into a new life, and how he interacts with the people who are there, but all that takes place in a military milieu. So, yeah. Military science fiction, no bones about it.
What made me want to write military science fiction is that I wanted to sell a novel to a science fiction publisher, and a trip down to the local bookstore to see what was stocked lent the distinct impression that I should probably consider something in the vein of military science fiction. So that aspect was a fairly dispassionate economic decision on my part. This may or may not rub people the wrong way, but look: I'm a professional writer. Aside from the personal and soulful benefits writing provides, it's how I pay my mortgage. It seemed to me that this would be the way to get my foot in the door, and as it turns out, that was a correct assessment.
Tempering that "I'm doing this for the money" aspect here are a couple of things. One, a military setting of any sort is inherently interesting: It's an extreme situation for characters and requires action and resolution (i.e., it's exciting). Also, it's a crucible for morality, duty and other compelling human qualities. I picked military fiction for its commercial potential, but I can't say I was displeased to see it was popular. I'd much rather be writing military fiction than attempting, say, yet another story about elves or something like that.
Two, many of the writers I admire have written classic war novels, ranging from Starship Troopers to Mark Helprin's Soldier Of A Great War. I do not presume to suggest I am in their ranks quality-wise, but the fact that they've written about people in war, and written about them so well, motivated me to try not to screw up my own effort.
I have never been in the military, so the extent that my writing has a ring of truth about military life comes from lots and lots and lots of research, which is what writers are supposed to do (it helps that many family members have been in the military) and also a bone-deep respect for the people who affirmatively decide to spend part of their life defending the rest of us, and who often die for their decision. The latter here motivates the former.
SFR: How hard was it to get Old Man's War to print? How did you get on with your editor at Tor?
JS: It was easy, although it probably shouldn't have been. Even though I wrote Old Man's War with commercial intent, once I was done, the thought of it dragging through the slush piles for a number of years was really depressing, so in the end I just said "To hell with this; I'm going to put it up on my Web site." And I did, and that's where Patrick Nielsen Hayden saw it and made an offer for it. This is the science fiction novel equivalent of Lana Turner being discovered sipping at Schwab's, with the note that Lana Turner is far sexier than I. I've had other people ask me if they should do the same thing, and as a basic rule I suggest to them that they at least first try the old-fashioned way of selling their novel, since the odds of this sort of thing happening again are pretty damn small, and no matter what I think of the quality of my book, I also recognize that by all rights, the book should still be on my Web site instead of between hard covers. I have the humility to know I was lucky, lucky, lucky.
Patrick took on the editing, and Teresa Nielsen Hayden also provided insight, and without getting too gushy about it, I think the two of them are really excellent at what they do. As a general rule I've been impressed with the Tor crew who have been working on the book, which includes Irene Gallo (who got the book the fabulous Donato cover), and Fiona Lee, who is handling publicity. As first novel experiences go, this has been pretty damn good.
SFR: Do you read? SF? Fantasy? What do you like, and given your penchant for opinion?what don't you like at all?
JS: The pat response -- which also happens to be true -- is that I read everything I can get my hands on; it's been remarked that if someone wanted to kill me, all they would have to do is put a bomb underneath a book, because there are very few books I won't pick up. Having said that, I generally prefer science fiction to fantasy, primarily because I'm damned sick of the basic post-Roman, pre-medieval European mish-mash/Tolkien hand-me-downs that fantasy so frequently is, and also because, excepting Terry Pratchett and Steven Brust, the dialogue often doesn't sound right to my internal ear. Having said that, I'm in love (writing-wise) with China Mieville, Neil Gaiman's Sandman series was the best fantasy work in the last double-decade, and I like a lot of fantasy work that takes place in contemporary settings, particularly in the YA market. In all those cases, I'm seeing stuff I haven't been spoon-fed before, and I like that. I don't think it would hurt to have the fantasy genre radically exploded, although I don't know what would be required to do that, or what the resulting fantasy works would be like. But then again, that would be the point of blowing fantasy up, wouldn't it.
Science Fiction is no less guilty of rehashing the same themes over and over -- and clearly, since I am myself reheating Heinlein, I cannot note the speck in others' eyes without first pulling out the big goddamn plank in my own. But I think right now is a terribly exciting time in science fiction, because you've got people like Cory Doctorow and Charlie Stross doing wild extrapolations from current time to events that are chronologically near future but structurally as wild as things previously imagined taking place many millennia out. I'm wary of "The Singularity" turning into an easy way for lazy writers to get themselves out of the corners they've written themselves into ("And then suddenly The Singularity happened, and everyone lived happily ever after in a completely non-comprehensible way. The End"), but we're not quite at that problem yet. In the meantime, the mind-stretchings are cool.
What I don't like at all: Media tie-ins. Yes, they're comfort food. Fine. On the other hand, look what Viacom and George Lucas have done with all the money you give them. Could not that money have been better spent? By a goat?
SFR: Are you a social author? Do you hang with other writers? Is Ohio a hotbed of writing talent? Do you travel thousands of miles to attend SF Conventions so you feel less alone in the world? Feel free to drop names. As herd creatures we like pretending we know somebody who knows somebody famous.
JS: Well, I'm a social human, so as a subset of that I'm a social author. To go further than this, I should preface by noting I am a recent transplant to Ohio (I grew up in LA, went to school in Chicago and most recently lived in DC) and I live in a tiny rural town. So even before getting to know authors, I would frequently travel to see friends because none of them live near me (we moved here to be close to my wife's family, who are, I should note, excellent people).
In the last couple of years I've met and/or befriended a number of science fiction and fantasy authors, and as it turns out attending science fiction conventions is a fine way to spend time with them, since they often happen to be there. But my interactions with them are as people first and authors second; I hang around with people because I enjoy their company and couldn't give a squirt whether they're famous or not (I was a movie critic for many years and interviewed hundreds of incredibly famous people. Famous in itself doesn't do anything for me anymore). I've been known to travel to visit some of them without the attendant science fiction convention.
I should note that, socially, I'm not of the SF community; My first convention was Torcon 3, followed by Noreascon 4, and at the moment that's the extent of my con experience. I plan to add a few more to my tally in the next year because, hey, I have a book out now. But in a very real sense, it's all new to me, and I suspect that if longtime fen have citizenship in this world, I have something like a freshly-minted green card. I'm still feeling my way around.
Ohio writers: I am ashamed to say I know very few SF writers in Ohio, a side effect of being a transplant here. I understand Mike Resnick lives somewhere within a 100-mile radius of me, as does Tobias Buckell, whose first novel, Crystal Rain, gets published in July. Other than that, you got me.
SFR: You've written five or six non-novels, and now you've started in on fiction. Why the change? As a child, did you like making up stories or reading them?
JS: Well, the first book-length work I did was fiction; my novel Agent To The Stars, which I've had posted on my Web site since 1999. I don't think it's so much that I wrote non-fiction first and made a switch to fiction rather than it just happened that I was published in non-fiction first and in fiction later. I write both fiction and non-fiction because both are interesting to me, and in an ideal world, I'd like to continue writing both.
As a child I was definitely the kid making up stories. One of the high points was in high school, in which I wrote a serial in which all the teachers were getting knocked off in ways appropriate to their personality. These days if a kid did that, he'd probably get expelled for being an unstable menace or something, but back in the day, the teachers thought it was amusing to find out how they'd been offed.
SFR: Who do you write for? Yourself, some ideal reader. Or do you write because the characters are begging you to tell their stories, and if so, have you sought help?
JS: As I noted earlier, I write for myself first. I'm an ideal reader for myself because as a reader I like the style of writing in which I am proficient, and also because I'm a bit of a bastard as a reader, and easily bored, which requires me to work decently hard if I'm going to keep myself amused. It also helps that at this point, thirteen years into my writing career, I've written so much stuff that it's impossible to like all of it without giving over to an over-weaning egomania that would cause my wife to murder me straightaway. I'm well aware I can write crap, so I try really hard not to.
SFR: Who says you're too lazy to fail, and why? Is that a bad thing? I'm pretty energy conservative myself, and I think of it as a feature, not a bug.
JS: I'm not the laziest man alive -- I am a man too lazy to fail. Or so says my wife. There's a subtle difference. I'm pretty sure she means that I engineer things so I do most of what I want to do with the least amount of apparent effort. I suspect it's true, at least to outside observers. From the inside, it seems like I do a lot of work. I also think of it as a feature, not a bug, since I generally enjoy my life.
Heinlein readers will of course remember Heinlein's tale of the man too lazy to fail in Time Enough For Love; I'll note in my wife's defense that she hadn't read that book before she made the comment, although I did show her the story later.
SFR: Wait a minute. It says on your site that you blog for pay. You can do that? How did you break into this racket?
JS: You can indeed blog for pay. My particular gig is for America Online; I act sort of as the mayor of its AOL Journals community, where I provide blogging tips, act as an intermediary between the community and AOL, and provide a whole bunch of activities and links. The light, happy style of my AOL blog is very different from my personal blog, in which I write long and often snippy essays about anything that passes through my brain; readers of one site often have a hard time with the other, suggesting one is the "real" me and the other is something else. In fact they're both me. It's just a fact that the entirety of one's personality is not going to be captured in one Web site, any more than an author's entire personality is going to be in a single book.
I broke into this racket simply by having done it for a long time (the Whatever, my personal site, has been up since 1998), and by having contacts at AOL through the various work I've done for them over the years. They wanted someone who had both experience blogging and working with AOL; I fit the bill. Score one for having a multifaceted writing career.
SFR: Is the future dead? As far as classic Science Fiction goes, you've spent your entire life living in the future, which I propose began when Apollo 11 landed on the moon. Any thoughts on the Present v "Golden Age Future" and where we go from here?
JS: Certainly a mechanistic 1950s hard-SF type of future is as dead as Marley's Ghost, if for no other reason than its expiration date is four years gone, thank you very much, Arthur C. Clarke. It's not a future, it's merely a failed past. But as many others have pointed out, in the world of 2005, you don't have a rocket car to the moon, but you have 15,000 songs on an iPod and the ability to call up a fair share of all of human knowledge on an Internet-enabled PDA, and it doesn't seem all that many science fiction writers pegged those. John Lennon famously commented, "life is what happens when you're busy making other plans"; for science fiction writers, the future is what sneaks by you while you're busy telling other people what the future will be.
Where we go from here is where Heinlein and all his golden-age buddies went during their time. We spin stories and speculation based on what we know and what we suspect will happen based on what we see around us. We'll end up being as wrong on the details as Heinlein, who posited galaxy-crossing starships navigated by engineers reading log charts in books. But in the meantime we'll be having fun, and a few of us may be lucky enough to write stories good enough that the technical details simply won't matter. After all, when one reads Mary Shelley today, one focuses on the story of a man's hubris in the face of creation. No one complains that her science is all wrong.
SFR: What's the role of religion in society? Is social relativism a workable framework for civilization?
JS: As to what the role religion has in society: Well, what have you got? Religion is opportunistic -- and usually quite successfully so -- and will expand to fill any niche it can. This is neither good not bad in itself; it's simply the nature of religion, which seeks to organize, codify and impose order. Its secret weapon is that it generally offers answers and answers provide comfort; uncertainty bugs the hell out of people, and existential uncertainty is the proverbial itch you can't scratch. People like it when the big questions are settled so they can focus on mowing the lawn.
Is social relativism workable? Not really, because most people won't play along. Someone is always going to be huffy that other people won't play by his rules; henceforth comes the suffering. Also, social relativism is inherently a weaker position than social absolutism, since almost by definition it's harder to rally people to defend it, whereas absolutists always show up on time and with the metaphysical sticks with the metaphysical nails in them, the better to kick some moral relativist ass.
This is ironically why the US Constitution is legitimately one of the greatest intellectual documents in human history -- it encodes a great deal of social relativism into a mostly absolute structure, so that a great number of people have a great amount of freedom... and to change that, you have to follow some very rigid rules and clear some very high hurdles (as the ACLU is there to remind us, to come around full circle). Them founding father dudes had the mad smart skillz, yo.
SFR: Do you have a dog?
JS: It's more accurate to say the dog has us. On a day-to-day basis, it pretty much works out to the same thing.