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Science Friction: In the Close-Knit World of Sci-Fi, Author John Scalzi Goes His Own Way 

Tuesday, Sep 2 2014
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If you're looking for a barometer of the state of science fiction in the U.S., consider the career of John Scalzi.

A California native now living in Ohio, Scalzi is the author of 10 novels, including Redshirts, last year's Hugo-award-winning satirical gloss on Star Trek. He launched his fiction career through his blog, served three terms as president of the Science Fiction Writers of America, and has become a go-to guy for quotes regarding publishing issues ranging from sexual harassment at conventions to the Amazon/Hachette contract dispute.

Now Scalzi is on tour to promote his new novel, Lock In, a near-future thriller about the aftermath of a viral plague that has left one percent of the human population with "Hayden Syndrome," a state in which their bodies are paralyzed but their minds remain conscious. Thanks to inhabitable mechanical bodies known as "threeps" and human Integrators willing to rent their bodies for a time, Haydens can maneuver through the physical world, and perhaps even commit murder.

Reached at home by phone, Scalzi talks with the ease and volubility of someone accustomed to being in the spotlight, whether giving a Google Talk, presiding at SFWA functions, or working the room at a convention.

"I've always been interested in doing an apocalypse story that didn't have an apocalypse in it." Scalzi says about Lock In. "I wanted to do a murder mystery, simply because I really like mysteries, and this was a way to combine the two into one particular novel."

In conjunction with Tor, his primary publisher, Scalzi works hard to market his work beyond its expected audience. For Lock In, he commissioned a theme song, available on YouTube and written and performed by William Beckett, formerly of the Chicago-based band The Academy Is.

"With writing and selling Lock In, we are looking to a larger market," Scalzi said. "Not disrespecting the science fiction and fantasy market, obviously, but to open it up and bring in new readers."

Even while he concentrates on Lock In, Scalzi has his eye on other, high-profile projects. Midnight Star, a first-person shooter video game he wrote for Industrial Toys, is expected to be released at the end of this year. His novel Redshirts has been optioned for a limited television series on FX, and Ghost Brigade is in development at Syfy.

High visibility comes with challenges as well as perks. Scalzi's June 2011 to July 2013 tenure as SFWA president ran fairly smoothly — until its final month. The decision to feature a buxom, scantily clad, redheaded warrior on the cover of the SFWA Bulletin ignited a firestorm of controversy.

"There was a strong generational divide on that issue," Scalzi says. "There were a lot of older authors who were like, 'I don't see the problem with that. It's a strong feminist symbol.' And there were a lot of younger authors who were like, 'You're kidding me. You don't see the problem here?'"

Scalzi was traveling on the last day of his 2013 book tour when the controversy came to a head. "I was literally on the plane, watching it all go up on Twitter," he says. "I was coming into my last month as president but I was like, 'Fuck, I've got to deal with this.'"

Having approved the cover without thinking through all of its implications, Scalzi apologized to the membership for his "screw-up." SFWA put procedures in place that allowed the organization to weather that storm and others, including the expulsion of Theodore Beale, aka Vox Day, who used a promotional SFWA Twitter feed to link to inflammatory remarks on his blog (where he called another author "half-savage" and an editor a "fat frog"). Day was subsequently removed from SFWA a month after Scalzi's tenure.

In his personal online feud with Day, Scalzi and his supporters also ended up raising funds for charities benefiting women, gays, and minorities. By pledging $5 every time Day used Scalzi's name or used a derogatory nickname for anyone else in a post, the group raised $50,000 in pledges. (Scalzi capped his contribution at $1,000, and his readers did the rest.)

Scalzi continues to do his part to encourage diverse voices in the genre, and he is outspoken regarding issues that affect science fiction writers and their fans. He has a standard policy not to attend conventions that do not have useful guidelines for defining and dealing with harassment, which can range from inappropriate comments to up-skirt photos of costumed fans and outright assault. Feeling that the policies of this year's San Diego Comic-Con were not adequate, he chose to hold his signings at a venue unaffiliated with the conference.

"When I made that anti-harassment policy it was not because I was a super-enlightened guy who had always believed that this was the way it should be," he says. "It was because I had had it beaten into my head by people I know and care about that the positive experience I had had in science fiction and fandom is not what everybody gets to have."

Positive change is definitely happening in the genre. With more women, gays, and people of color as nominees, the list of this year's Nebula and Hugo award winners better reflects the diversity of its audience.

"It's not that science fiction and fantasy as a collective is trying to be more inclusive," Scalzi says. "I think what is happening is that all the disparate groups that love science fiction and fantasy have decided that they don't need to put up with shit just because they love science fiction and fantasy."

About The Author

Michael Berry

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