Interview with John Scalzi

John Scalzi on fictional pandemics, space empires, and more.

Interview with John Scalzi


As noted in my last newsletter, one of the things that I’m going to start doing more of is interviews with authors and creators. Recently, I spoke with Eliot Peper about his upcoming novel Veil, and in this issue, I spoke with The Collapsing Empire / The Consuming Fire / The Last Emperox author John Scalzi. A regular issue of Reading List will hit your inboxes next week.

I’ve long been a fan of Scalzi’s work, and as the COVID-19 pandemic began to gather steam, I was reminded more than a little of one of his recent books: Unlocked, a novella written out as an oral history that explained the state of the world in his novel Lock In.

Lock-In and its sequel Head On takes place in a world drastically transformed by a viral pandemic that sweeps the globe, killing millions of people, and leaving a tiny subset “locked in” to their bodies. They’re interesting thrillers, which look at how the world rebuilds itself after a global traumatic event.

I spoke with Scalzi about how he’s looking back on Unlocked, Lock In, and The Last Emperox in light of the pandemic, and how his latest trilogy looks at systems dealing with existential threats.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Unlocked came out in 2014 as a setup to Lock In. Can you just walk me through the process that you use to construct the pandemic in that book?

I knew that I was going to create a pandemic, and that for Lock In and Head On, it was in the past and therefore wouldn't be dealt with directly. I wanted to do enough work that when people were describing the years and events that were going on, they actually knew a little bit about [pandemics], and readers would not look at me and say “I can tell you the lazy here.”

So I did a bit of simple epidemiological research about how highly infectious diseases spread, what they do, and what conditions are required in order for something that was really virulent to transmit wildly. You can create a virus that kills a whole bunch of people, but if you do it in such a way that people immediately start showing symptoms, then it's not gonna get very far in today's society. People will be like, “you're bleeding from the eyeballs, maybe you should not go out.”

Basically what that meant was looking into issues about latency, the difference in time between when you're first infected to the time where the symptoms start to show. So I did some research to craft a viral disease that would do what I needed it to do: something that would transmit wildly and widely before someone started showing symptoms. Then after that initial set of circumstances, I started doing more fanciful things like having a second stage that was more like meningitis, and then of course, the third stage that locks people in.

All you have to do is rely on what you should know about human nature

That's all that it took, and the funny thing is that, other than all that, all you have to do is rely on what you should know about human nature, which is that people are like, “well, I don't feel sick so I must not be sick.”

So for me, so for me when I was writing Unlocked, which was basically me showing off all the background and world building that I did that I couldn't put into Lock In. That was basically a “here's how this would happen; here's how it does happen.” And then, of course, now six years later, when the COVID-19 virus is basically replicating what I had the Hayden syndrome do, I'm not surprised because I was just basically relying on basic virology and basic human nature.

I'm guessing that you were also able to sort of draw on other recent pandemics like SARS in 2003 or N1H1 in 2009?

Yeah, and you also do the things that you don't want, like Ebola, which is highly contagious, [has a] high rate of mortality, but also the way that it particularly transmitted, which makes it — and I really want to emphasize the word “relatively” here — relatively easier to spot and contain. So you have these various ideas of, “here's the history of these viruses, here are these histories of how these contagion spread, and you do look at, not just stuff but recent stuff but also the stuff in between, like Legionnaires disease. That’s another perfect example: it’s disease that is named after the legionnaires convention in the 1970s. And the whole point of it was, they got it because they're all hanging out together.

The things that you learn about how pandemics is how they change the way people do things. It’s my understanding is prior to the influenza of 1918 and 1919, there was a thing that people used to do where they would have a communal drinking vessel at the table. People stopped doing that because one, it’s gross as fuck but, but the other thing is, they're like, “well, this is obviously how things gets transmitted this way.”

It's going to be very interesting to see what comes out of this [current pandemic], whether or not people who are really wanting to want to go back into huge sporting events or, Comic-Con, or events where there are thousands of people, where any one of them can infect you. I think in the short term, people are going to be worried about that.

There are a lot of fictional plagues where you see something like a 20% or 99% fatality rate that wipes out the human race. In Unlocked, the fatality rate of the Haden Syndrome was something like 1%, which is far more realistic. Given that COVID-19 ranges from somewhere between 3% and 5%, that 1% is a pretty scary number when you’re actually facing it.

It's never fun to actually lived the reality of a novel, because novels are always meant to be a heightened version of reality. The idea that you would have a novel that is just people like living the day to day life is sort of counterintuitive, because day-to-day life is thankfully, extraordinarily boring.

It’s awful to live in a world where there is such a thing going on because the restrictions that you have on it are no longer fictional and fun to think about

With respect to Haden Syndrome, I did want it to be realistic. I wanted it to be something that looked like it could happen in the real world. And so when the neurology of COVID-19 ends up having very similar infection rates — again, dependent on how people respond to it — it wasn't surprising to me, and it’s awful to actually have to live in a world where there is such a thing going on because the restrictions that you have on it are no longer fictional and fun to think about.

One of the funniest questions I get is often “Which of your universes would you like to live in?” And I'm like, “Are you insane? I don't want to live in any single one of them, because the whole point of the universes is to set them up to be exciting to read, and exciting to read means terrible to live in.”

In the case of the Interdependency trilogy, the universe is literally collapsing around them and they're going to be all they're all going to isolate and maybe die of starvation within three or four years. In Old Man's War, all these colonial planets get attacked by aliens and the aliens might eat you. All of these things are really cool to read, but they would be awful to live in. That’s why saying “we may live in interesting times” is kind of natural curse. “Interesting” is not a great way to live.

Now, if you were to rank these, where would your yogurt story fall in the preferability of living?

That irony is that “When the Yogurt Took Over” is kind of a best case scenario where, for its own purposes, it creates a utopia with for the people who live on the planet Earth. Quite frankly, if the worst case scenario is that the yogurt inherits the stars, but leaves us a planet that is extremely livable, that's pretty great. The only thing that we have, I guess this is a sort of overarching existential pain that we may never go to the stars, but I'm not gonna lie to you: that's kind of where we are anyway. We're hugely complicated meat machines and spaces is really antithetical to us. So as far as it goes, being led by fermented dairy is — in all the universes that I’ve created — literally the best case scenario. I don't know what that shows about me but there you have it, but there you have it.

Looking back on Unlocked and Lock In, what what are your thoughts on how the story has held up, especially given that we’re now living through something that seems on its surface kind of similar? Has anything surprised you about what was actually transpired as opposed to how you imagined it in fiction?

I hate to sound like a dick about it, but nothing about it surprises me. The whole point was to create a realistic disease, so the fact that it's unsurprising might be the most surprising thing about it.

You think, “wow, I thought that humans would actually do better.” But the issue has never been knowledge, right? We have known for years how a disease like COVID-19 would spread. We've known how to deal with it. But then we come up against people who don't want to hear, don't want to implement it, and don't believe that it's a thing that could happen or are so focused on their own point of view, and what's “good for them” that they’re not going to do anything about it.

The fact that we have a president and an administration that has to be flattered to order to do the correct things is terrible and has allowed for a much worst case scenario than what might have happened. So there's nothing about it that I find particularly surprising.

What’s going to happen is that this particular disease is either we will have flattened the curve enough that the number of people infected goes down and we’ll just have to manage hot spots, (which is a thing they do in the series), or we will get the vaccine and then we can continue forward from there.

The reason — in the case of the Lock In series — I place the novels of the series 25-30 years after the initial vector of infection was because I wanted to create the new normal where this plague had gone through and things had changed. We’ve going to get to an every day after the COVID-19, whether or not we find a vaccine or not. I also don't think that it requires me to make all that many changes for the inevitable third book in the series.

It will eventually get to a point where it is a global thing, but it will flare up in Wyoming, where these counties are immediately shut down for six months or whatever. And that will just be a thing that thing that happens, but it will be part of a new normal. It’ll be something that people will treat as “Oh, yeah, no, we can't, we can't take I-80, we have to take I-70, etc.” For someone who lived in the before times, it’ll be like “Holy shit, you realize that this is ridiculous,” but for everybody who's living in the after times, it'll be like, “what, do you want me to do get sick?”

Looking at the Interdependency trilogy, you're you've set up a world where they're facing an imminent, civilization-ending crisis. With the last book coming out as we're going through a crisis, how are you looking back on the trilogy?

At the moment, I just wish that the actual humanity that I live with was better than the humanity that I created that I, to be fair, modeled on the people that live today.

When I started writing the Interdependency series, the initial thing was not trying to lecture people about climate change, or, you know, the penalties of bad governance and all that sort of stuff. I literally had as its inspiration, the idea what would have happened to the European age of sail if the ocean currents had just stopped or disappeared, and they were no longer very easily able to get from Europe to the new world and back again, what would that be like? Now imagine it on a on a global scale.

I just wish that the actual humanity that I live with was better than the humanity that I created

So this was about as far away abstracted from current events as it could be. But then again, two things happened. One is that the ocean currents are a climate change issue, so it’s not surprising that you would find some climate change parallel there. The other thing is that I live in the real world and look at the news and see people affected by what's going on and I see where things are heading. Whether I intentionally put them into my writing or not, because the Interdependency is fairly abstracted away from current events, they're still going to show up just simply by me reacting in a subconscious way to events that are going on now.

So by the time that I get to The Last Emperox, which I finished in October, well before the COVID stuff, the fact that those parallels so comfortably fit what's going on right now is, to some extent, coincidental. But on the other hand is not all that surprising given that humans are the way humans are, and our software for running humans is now 30-40,000 years old, then it really hasn't changed all that much in in the interim. So in that respect, it's nice that people who are reading it can see these these sorts of parallels, and see in this particular case, what might happen if you had a government that was actually trying to help people.

In the first two installments of the trilogy, The Collapsing Empire and The Consuming Fire, we see the Interdependency waking up to the crisis that they’re about to lose the flow. How do we see this play out in The Last Emperox?

They have literally run out of time. In the first two books, people could still deny that things were happening or suggest that things weren't really that bad. In The Collapsing Empire, the only sort of stream that has cut out is the one that is coming from End to Hub, it would be months before anybody could confirm that something was going wrong. In The Consuming Fire, the Flow streams are starting to wink out, but people are still able to get from place to place because almost all systems are have multiple points of ingress and egress. So things are are beginning to get bad but they're not as bad as they could possibly be.

But as The Last Emperox begins, people now have to deal with it. The question then becomes, “how are we going to deal with it?”, “what are our priorities now that we can no longer pretend that this isn't happening?”, “can we expect science to be able to wrap up as quickly as we needed to?” Or “are we just going to have to accept inevitably there are going to be some losses and do what we can, as best we can with the resources that we have available?”

I don't think anyone but the most contentious at this point think that climate change is a fake issue anymore

We have reached basically the end game of this particular natural crisis. I think it's really interesting because there are absolutely parallels. I don't think anyone but the most contentious at this point think that climate change is a fake issue anymore. The goal-shifting fallback position that we’re currently at is “okay, there's climate change, but are we really responsible for that?”

These are the parallel questions that are going on in The Last Emperox. Now, the nice thing about the book is I can write the ending and future that I want to see for the people in this particular book, which is close very different from what happens in reality.

One of the things I struck me as I've been reading the books is that they're very much about how established systems deal with crises. In a lot of ways, it seems like that any system, whether it's the Interdependency or the US Congress, is geared towards fighting the last battle, and not towards new crises.

I think the idea that we're always fighting the last battle makes particularly good sense, because we have experience with it. Most battles are similar enough to previous battles, and you can take what you've learned from the last battle and apply it to the new one.

The issue then becomes, it's never going to be exactly the last battle. Do you have enough flexibility in your system to deal with the literally novel aspects of the new crisis? It’s not just about the systems: it's about the people that are using the systems and who are manipulating the systems. The US Congress is perfectly capable in the way that it runs to deal with the current crisis.

The issue is not whether the system in this particular case functions, it is the question of “do the people who are using the system, who are running the system, who are manipulating the system, want to use this system to mitigate a crisis or do they want to use the system manipulate the crisis to get what they want out of it?” In the particular case of the US Congress, we are in an era where the the system is being used to achieve goals that have nothing to do with a particular crisis: they are being used specifically to achieve unrelated ends. Not entirely — we do have the stimulus packages and the emergency packages and so on so forth — but people are using the system to leverage it. Same with the executive system: it’s perfectly capable within the state of a system to help people to manage the crisis and to ameliorate the crisis.

The system doesn't work because the people running the system are bad at it

But the simple fact of the matter is that the corrupt, incompetent people in the system, both at the head of it and then the people that that corrupt venal person has put into positions of power. The system doesn't work because the people running the system are bad at it.

But in the larger sense, there's also the issue of when you have people in power: what is their goal? Is it to further the continuance of people’s goals / desires / needs, or is it to further the either their own goals or the goals of a system which are obstructed away from what what people actually need. In the case of the crisis right now, we are seeing that the people who are in control are less interested in helping people than they are with what the system can do for them, and how they can use the system to achieve their own specific gains. This is fundamentally a people problem, not a systems problem, and one that we're having to deal with now. And not entirely coincidentally, it’s one that the people in the Interdependency series have to deal with as well.

Anytime I ask this question, authors will inevitably say that they just want people to be entertained, but what do you hope people will take away from this trilogy as a whole, beyond just sheer entertainment value?

I mean, sheer entertainment value, if that's all they get, then that’s more than enough. The thing that I would like for them to get out of this, particularly at this point, is the idea that it would be nice to have leaders, period. But more than that, it would be nice to have leaders who understand that what are needing to save is not a system, is not a belief system, is not an ideology or a dogma, but that the idea of that systems don't work without people. But also that fundamentally, we are only as good as we are when we think about others and their needs.

We are only as good as we are when we think about others and their needs

In the course of the three novels, you see the people who are like, “well, not everybody can be saved, and that’s just the way that the world is.” But then you also see the people who are like, “No, in fact, we're going to save that as many people as we can, and maybe it turns out that we can't save everyone, but the simple point of the matter is that as much as we can for as long as we can, we're going to keep as our goal, the saving of everybody.” Is the Interdependency its wealth or is it its people?

In the real world, we are seeing a lot of people are like, “it’s time for us to go back to work! Sure, grandma will die, but if I was grandma, I would absolutely be willing to die in order for my child to go back to work, blah blah blah.” They don't necessarily put it in the way that I just put it, but that's basically the message in there. And it's been appalling to a great number of people who go, “why do you want to sacrifice my grandmother for gains in the stock market?!”

The thing is that I want people who are reading the book to have the idea that leadership does not require grandma to be put on to the fire, that leadership is “we're going to save grandma, and it's going to be tough for everybody, and at the end of it, there's going to be things are going to be different, but you will still have your grandma and you will still have your family and friends and together you will be able to get through this.”

Don't get me wrong, you know, speaking as a card carrying member of the 1%, money’s nice; I like money. But if I had if I have to choose between my daughter and my index fund, which of those I'm going to pick is pretty much a non-brainer. The simple fact of the matter that there are any number of people who are like, “well, no, you should actually probably stick with picking your index funds rather than your daughter,” is something that we really need to be thinking about, about what we're doing with our world and our systems.