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April 17, 2006

Two (Well, Four) Reviews; also, Ambitions

Into the clippings file:

* A less-than-thrilled review of Old Man's War over at SFSite, which I find amusing, as SFSite also has an enthusiastic review of OMW from when the book originally came out, in which it was called a "clever, charming and joyously fun story." Needless to say, should Tor decide to pull a quote from SFSite, we know from which review they'll pull. As for the less-enthusastic review, there's not much to say other than, eh, you can't win them all.

* A nice review of The Ghost Brigades at Fractale Framboise; at least, I think it's a nice review, since it's in French and I have to pass it through Google Translate to read it. However, Google Translate says it says that TGB: "proves the initial success of Scalzi... is not an accident. Familiar without being repetitive, accessible without being condescending, The Ghost Brigades is an excellent example of commercial SF which can at the same time divert and make [one] reflect." Works for me.

Non-francophones who don't want to bother with the Frenchtastic stylings of Google Translate can read a review of the book in English by the same reviewer (Christian Sauve) here: "At a time where unputdownable is as overused as it's ungrammatical, Scalzi is the real deal: someone who can deliver a fast, fun SF story that remains accessible and doesn't take you for an idiot." That works for me, too.

In the latter review, Sauve asks: "When will Scalzi try his hand at a more ambitious project? As coldbloodedly professional as he appears to be in his approach to his career, I doubt that he will suddenly drop everything else to produce an insanely ambitious 500-page work of art ready to challenge, say, Ian McDonald's River of Gods. But I wonder."

(River of Gods, incidentally, which is finally out here in the US through the good graces of Pyr Books, and which I do in fact suggest people get, because it really is that good.)

But in response to Sauve's question: The direct answer to his question is "soon," although soon in publishing is not the same as "soon" in the real world, since the project I'm thinking of has yet to be written and won't see the light of the bookstore until late 2007 at the earliest. I'm not discussing this particular project with anyone in any more specific terms than I am doing now (which is to say, aggravatingly vaguely), but suffice to say I doubt that anyone will be able to say it's not ambitious at the outset. My job, of course, is to make it so that "ambitious" is not its only selling point; "ambitious" and "really, really readable" is the goal.

Tangentially, however, I wouldn't say that OMG and TGB aren't ambitious works; I think they both are. OMW is flatly ambitious in the sense it was written specifically to be salable to a publisher, even as a first time work from someone unknown in SF/F circles. In that sense, ambition accomplished. Now, part of the "price" for that, if you want to cast it that way, is that the books in the series have to dance with them what brung them -- which is to say that it would be inappropriate for The Ghost Brigades to have been wildly different from Old Man's War, either in themes or presentation. Now, I happen to think TGB is thematically a bit more ambitious than OMW, and I expect readers will find The Last Colony to be a bit more ambitious still. But it has to be part of a continuum and internally consistent. I don't have a problem with that; I like the universe and am happy to play by the rules I imposed on myself at the start.

Both books are also ambitious in these sense they aim to be accessible to people who don't regularly read science fiction as well as those who do (as does The Android's Dream, which is upcoming). The mechanics of such a task -- keeping the book open enough so that people who don't read SF can follow it, while not insulting the intelligence and expectations of those who do regularly read SF -- aren't exactly simple, even if the end result is a light, fast and fun read. I don't want to overstate the case, mind you; I'm not doing brain surgery, here. On the other hand, just because it looks simple doesn't mean it is. Finding the right balance to make both Cory Doctorow and my mother-in-law happy readers is a tricky thing.

I certainly have ambitions in terms of subject matter, and while it does seem unlikely I'll write something like River of Gods (Ian McDonald and I don't exactly have the same style or interests), it's not out of the question that I'll write something similarly ambitious. But I'm also ambitious in a less direct way. Baldly put, I think I have a personal writing style that's easy to grab onto no matter who you are, and I can plot in a fun and exciting way. I see these as tools to invite people into the genre of science fiction. One reason I want to do this is entirely self-serving, which is that even though I write science fiction, I want as many readers as possible, and I don't mind snagging them from outside the "SF/F community," by the truckloads if I can manage that.

Another reason, however, is less self-serving, and that is I want to share my genre, especially the writers who are working in the genre with me. You can try to convince me there's another era in SF/F that has had better writers per capita than the current era does, but you'll have to be pretty damn convincing, because I don't see it. This is a golden age of SF writing; I honestly believe it. I think my books can serve admirably as the jumping monkey that grabs the attention of the passers-by and leads them into the big tent of SF/F where Ian McDonald, Ken MaLeod, Charlie Stross, Robert Charles Wilson, China Mieville (to name but a few current and recent SF Hugo nominees) and lots of others are inside, cracking open universes to the delight of the audience. I understand it's not everybody's ambition to be the jumping monkey carnival barker of SF/F, but someone should do it, and why not me? So far, I seem to be pretty good at it. And I'm having fun. So there's that.

So, yes: Do expect more conventionally ambitious stuff out of me in the future. But also expect me to keep doing what I do, how I do it now. Both represent ambitious plans, just in different ways.

Posted by john at April 17, 2006 11:24 AM

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Lars | April 17, 2006 12:08 PM

"A bigger problem with Old Man's Army was the setting."

(Ahem, cough, wheeze)

Kelly Brown | April 17, 2006 12:33 PM

I'm not going to compare you and Ian MacDonald or anyone for else for that matter (that's the kind of religous war that's no fun) but I absolutely agree that you have an accessible style.

I do wish that was reflected on your book covers. I have the orignal HC of OMW. My sister who is published by Penguin and writes Can Lit to depress the masses noticed it on my shelf and picked it up and asked me why I couldn't read more books like this. I told her to look closer and then she noticed the rest of the cover and gave her usual "oh, it's more of that space shit". I showed her the cover to TGB and she said, "yeah I wouldn't even pick that up off the shelf". I'm not saying my sister is the definitive source on what will pull a mainstream reader in but the new covers for your books aren't exactly speaking to anyone outside the genre (IMHO - Do I really need to qualify that?).

Talk to your publisher and see if they agree and maybe you can get a version of the PP on the shelf with a cover that will draw a wider variety of crowd. Bring the old guy back for starters.

Oh and as long as I'm on the subject of wishes that will never be fulfilled. Get the artist who did the first HC of OMW to do new dust cover for TGB. I would happily pay real Canadian dollars for such a thing.

Brian Greenberg | April 17, 2006 12:36 PM

I feel the need to point out the irony that the bad (er...I mean, less-than-thrilled) reviewer's biggest plot issue with OMW - that the Earth was somehow left out of the advances the rest of the universe had acheived - is addressed explicitly in TGB.

Pre-emptively answering your critics is very efficient of you, John. Nice job...

John Scalzi | April 17, 2006 12:41 PM


I like both OMW covers (I own the hardcover artwork, actually), but I would agree that the trade pb cover is a rather more traditional SF cover, and intentionally so; Tor wanted to do some repositioning of the book (not just with audiences but with booksellers), and the new OMW cover was part of that. I think the John Harris covers are definitely SFnal but not offensively so (i.e., no huge-breasted women in with tight uniforms and big guns), and I think that's fine for this particular series of books.

I'm looking forward to the cover art for The Android's Dream. I've seen some early roughs of it and I liked what I saw; some definite SF elements along with a design I think would appeal to non-SFers.

Brian Greenberg:

"Pre-emptively answering your critics is very efficient of you, John."

Heh. Well, you know. People did bring it up in reviews that were more timely (as well as in private discussions with me), so addressing those questions was on my mind as I wrote up TGB.

I think this particular reviewer would have wished for me to answer all the questions in OMW, but as a matter of construction, I intentionally chose not to. Not because I had a sequel planned (when I wrote it, I didn't, although it did come in handy when I was asked to write one), but because I personally like not having everything neatly explained. Why is the Earth more or less like it is now, indeed? It's either because the author was being lazy, or because there's a reason for it (or some combination of the two).

I think some readers think it's fun to extrapolate on these sort of questions; others don't. I'm in the "it's fun to fill in the blanks" camp, myself.

Ronan O'Driscoll | April 17, 2006 01:00 PM

I agree with Brian above. Struck me as a lazy review that missed the fact that the earth was deliberately being kept a back water. The criticism of the senior citizen soldiers not being cantankerous enough also seems cursory. This is despite the fact that one of them is a biggot, etc. By all means be a barker for the current state of sci fi. As someone returning to it after a long absence, I am inclined to agree.

Don Yaschuk | April 17, 2006 01:44 PM

The review reminds me of the movie 'Amadeus' where they criticize Mozart for having 'too many notes' and he replies 'It has as many notes as I require'. I love Scalzi books and I also love Robert Sawyer. 300 or so pages gets a good story across. Whereas I hated the 750 pages of Peter Hamilton's 'Pandora's Star'. He needs an editor to cut it in half. Volume does not mean quality or ambition.

John Scalzi | April 17, 2006 01:50 PM

Nope, although I think in Suave's case he's responding to the fact that SF and particularly fantasy books have grown a lot larger recently. All of my books clock in within 10% of 100,000 words, but as someone recently said to me, "120,000 words is the new 70,000 words." To which I cringe, since I can't do 120k (at least, not yet).

cisko | April 17, 2006 02:19 PM

I finally found TGB at my local Borders' yesterday. Seems like Borders will carry one copy of your stuff at a time, and I caught the latest copy before someone else did. (Note to self: help local indie bookstore improve their SF section.)

I'm kinda surprised that both OMW and TGB are that long. I got about 60% through TGB yesterday afternoon; calling it a quick read is an understatement.

And so far, so good...

CoolBlue | April 17, 2006 02:53 PM

I just started reading Old Mans War. (Had to finish Thunder Run first) and I'm enjoying the story and the writing style immensely. Nice job John.

When I began reading through this thread though I had to put my fingers in my ears and chant "nananana" 'cause it seemd like there might be some spoiling going on.

Anyway, I'll get back to you with my review.

Michael G. Richard | April 17, 2006 03:15 PM

I love that we don't have to wait years between your books, John. I guess that's the benefit of being a full-time writer.

I mean, I blinked and Neal Asher had 4 new books. Kind of cool when you like him...

Elliot | April 17, 2006 03:37 PM

I loved Pandora's Star, different strokes for different folks I guess.

I had to laugh because when I went to Amazon to queue up River of Gods, it recommended I buy TGB. Small world!

John H | April 17, 2006 03:49 PM

'Volume does not mean quality or ambition.'

I was thinking along those lines as I slogged through The Hunchback of Notre Dame recently - talk about someone who needed an editor! At one point he spent 35 pages describing the layout of Paris, an exercise I hoped would give me some insight later in the book - no, he just wanted to throw in a travelogue in the middle of his novel.

I realize it was written 175 years ago and writing styles have changed since then, but give me a break...

joshua corning | April 17, 2006 04:39 PM

I have to say I agree with the bad review but the points he made seem to be critisisms of conventions John chose to use to tell a particualre kind of story...I didn't have a problem with alien races all being relatively close in terms of technology. I have the ability to imagine it otherwise as i am sure john has, but it seems the story he wrote required it. My belife was adiquitly suspended on this and on the other minor issues the reviewer raised.

Also I am pleased that John choose a story that was accessable to broader audiance. Sci Fi in recent years has been lacking in this area. I mean I love a good Greg Egan novel but that in no way should prevent one from enjoying old mans war, should it?

Will | April 17, 2006 05:34 PM


I don't understand the gripe about all species being equal. It was explained, pretty clearly as I recall, that the Consu were not on the same level as everyone else. For reasons of their own, they dumbed themselves down when they fought the lesser races. If they had found it useful they could however have cleared away the galaxy with a wave of their "Clark-ian magic wand". I'm just average joe reader and I can pick up on this, shouldn't a professional reviewer have at least the same reading comprehension as me for something as important as that rather large plot point?

joshua corning | April 17, 2006 06:59 PM

If they had found it useful they could however have cleared away the galaxy with a wave of their "Clark-ian magic wand".

I think what the reviewer was picking up on what foaming at the mouth hard sci-fan fans know as the "Fermi paradox". Which is given a few million years a dominate alian species would have long ago "conqured" the galaxy, and any discription of our universe without making at least some effort why this has not happened is by default "soft" sci-fi.

The reviewer was presuming that a good hard sci-fi story has to follow all and any presuptions that have been accepted by some unknown consensious within the sci-fi community...of course by that same assumption the reviewer might as well complain that "Old Man's War" does not have a sigularity.

By the way it is this sort of mind set that is killing sci-fi outside of die hard fans.

A similar problem occured with comic book when the dark night and the watchmen came out. Every comic book artist and writter and reviewer tried thier hardest to be the most ironic, hard core, real, or whatever and essentially left causual readers behind leaving the whole market to thirty year old virgins.

John needs to be comended for at least trying (and i think succeeding) to making sci-fi accessable again.

Christian Sauve | April 17, 2006 10:17 PM

John: Given that both Old Man's War and The Ghost Brigades worked for me, I'm glad that my reviews worked for you. As for the rest, well, let's just say that I'm now a big fan of the John Scalzi brand. I'll read whatever's next, no questions asked.

Q | April 18, 2006 07:23 AM

I'll just randomly note that I recently finished TGB as well, I enjoyed it as much if not more than OMW. Course, as the father of a 2 month old... lighter entertainment reading is exactly what I want in a novel.

Zach | April 29, 2006 01:02 AM

I thought Old Man's War and Agent to the Stars had lengths very appropriate to their plots. I thought Ghost Brigades was about 50% too short. At the length at which it clocked in, there was too high a burden of exposition, of the author telling you stuff you needed to know for the book to make sense but which wouldn't fit into the plot.

For what it's worth, in physics departments introductory physics is considered by far the most challenging course to take, and professors often have to be bargained, threatened, or cajoled into teaching it. Teaching graduate courses is considered more of a reward assignment. (Bear in mind that in order to be in a position to teach a graduate level course, you have to have done very well when you were taking the material yourself, so it's not like the subject matter is challenging to you.)

Zach | April 29, 2006 12:00 PM

D'oh! The most challenging course to teach.

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