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John Scalzi's Guest of Honor interview: ArmadilloCon 2008

John Scalzi's interview took a different format than the usual Guest of Honor interview. There was no interviewer; Scalzi paced back and forth, shooting the breeze with the audience. He probably didn't say anything one wouldn't find on his blog. It's how he said those things that made him so entertaining. He acted out various stories from his life as little skits, from a Hugo winner's attitude to getting to know 16-year-old girls. He also commented on Neal Stephenson, openly admitted to stealing from other authors, and talked about why he could not afford to be as polemical in "Old Man's War" as Heinlein was in "Starship Troopers". Finally, he revealed an unexpected fact about himself.

The pictures from ArmadilloCon 2008 can be found in my photo gallery.

At the time of ArmadilloCon, which took place a week after WorldCon, John Scalzi was all stoked up about winning a Hugo (for the best fan writer). After you win a Hugo, you get only a week to be flaunt it, he said, and he did a skit of a person who mentions his Hugo award in every other sentence. After a week is over, he said, you're supposed to be blase about it -- yeah, I won a Hugo, it's no big deal.

Then there was a rich vein of humor in his attempts to find out what it's like to be a 16-year-old girl. He had to do that in order to get the "Zoe's Tale" protagonist's voice right. "Hard as it may be to believe, I've never been a 16-year-old girl," Scalzi said. He also never understood girls in high school. "You can ask people I went to high school with. They'll say, "no, John. Noooo."" So what were his options? Hang out with teenage girls at the mall? He illustrated this dilemma with another skit, that began with his sidling up to a girl in the mall, and ended with a restraining order.

And so the interview continued in this spirit. While creating Zoe's character, his wife turned out to be his greatest resource. After all, she was a 16-year-old girl once. It took a lot of tries to get Zoe right, but eventually he succeeded, and became proud of Zoe as one of the finest characters he ever created. He also told this story at the writers' workshop to illustrate his point that writers should venture out into unfamiliar territory and not be afraid to fail. In Scalzi-speak that's called "the power of suck".

Apropos female characters, Scalzi notes that we live in a very good age for empowered female characters in science fiction, but ther's also a danger inherent in that. There's a risk of turning your protagonist into a faux Buffy, who kicks ass while checking her nails. It's just as easy a stereotype to fall into as a helpless maiden. We need to have characters that don't always know what they are doing.

John Scalzi at his Guest of Honor interview

John Scalzi at his Guest of Honor interview at the ArmadilloCon 2008. More pictures from ArmadilloCon 2008 can be found in my photo gallery.

Somebody asked what is he reading now. He happens to be reading Anathem by Neal Stephenson. Scalzi says Stephenson is hilarious, because he thinks Baroque Cycle was a weeding process. It weeded out all people who weren't converted to Stephenson's way of life (I guess that means having time and dedication to puzzle out his 900-pages-long ouevres). For the first 200 pages of Anathem, Scalzi says, you're working and working at it. There are parts that are medieval, and there are parts with malls and porn shops -- your brain is doing a tetris.

He's also reading Steven Pinker's "The Stuff of Thought: Language as a Window Into Human Nature". Pinker overturns the idea that language defines thought. Scalzi says he too never believed that how you say things defines how you think about them.

Scalzi says it's hard for him to read a lot of SF while writing, because then he'll just steal from the books he's reading. Sometimes he does that anyway, and then he puts it in the acknowledgement section of the book that he stole this stuff from so-and-so. The authors he "steals" from usually say that's OK.

And this brings us to the issue of the similarities between Scalzi and Heinlein -- after all, Scalzi's first novel "Old Man's War" has been called "Heinlein with serial numbers filed off." (I myself think it's much funnier than anything of Heinlein that I've read, and has more interesting characters, too. -- E.) "Heinlein wanted to do some social engineering with Starship Troopers," says John Scalzi, "but I just wanted to sell a book." That's not the only reason "Old Man's War" is a much more lighthearted book than "Starship Troopers". Another reason is that a heavily political first novel would have been impossible to sell. "Most polemicism that happens in SF these days, is mostly right wing, which is neither good nor bad," Scalzi says, "but it's also very blatant and obvious. It's Ayn Randian: now we stop the book for a 75-page radio address!" Scalzi thinks he's not nearly in the position where Heinlein was when he wrote Starship troopers, to stop the action and lecture the reader. A first-time writer can't do that. Besides, Scalzi has his blog, and when he wants to get political, that's where he goes. A funny thing is that while Scalzi is fairly left-winged, a big part of the "Old Man's War" core audience is on the right. So they come to Scalzi's blog thinking they found a fellow soul, and they go, what the hell? This has resulted in some fireworks in the comment threads.

Finally, here is one unexpected tidbit John Scalzi revealed about himself: he can't read out loud from "Sagan Diary" without crying. At one time at a con he had Mary Robinette Kowal read it, and still he was crying while she read.