The Authors@Goodreads Interview with Cory Doctorow & John Scalzi

Posted by Goodreads on May 22, 2017
Cory Doctorow We were thrilled to have not just one but two great science fiction authors grace our hallways in San Francisco for a recent authors@goodreads event: John Scalzi and Cory Doctorow came to talk about their new books—Scalzi’s The Collapsing Empire and Doctorow's Walkaway—and answer a few questions from both readers and employees.


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Goodreads: Tell us about your new books.

SCALZI: The basic concept of The Collapsing Empire is that there is this empire…and it collapses. I know right? Spoiler alert! It kind of gives it away right there in the title.

The reason it’s collapsing is there is this feature of the universe that’s called the Flow, which is how I get around faster than light travel, which I don’t think you can do because I think the speed of light is not only a good idea, it’s the law. But the Flow allows you to go outside of the universe where you don’t have to follow the universe’s laws and get carried away by what is effectively a current and end up somewhere else in our universe.

Like many natural features of the universe and the world, humans assume it’s going to be there forever because it’s always been there forever as much as their short span of time in the universe exists. But the universe doesn’t care about you and doesn’t care whether you think something is going to last forever or not, and this Flow to get around the universe is going away.

Unfortunately that’s not great for the Empire that has constructed itself around the Flow. We’re joining the story just as people realize it’s coming to an end and we get to see the denial, bargaining, acceptance, all the stages of the Kübler-Ross across this entire civilization and it starts with this particular book.


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DOCTOROW: Walkaway is an optimistic disaster novel. Disasters are things you get whether you’re an optimistic or pessimist. Doesn’t matter how Pollyanna your outlook is or how well ordered your society is, it’s going to be subject to exogenous shots. You’re going to have belligerent asshole neighbors, or earthquakes, or tsunamis, or mutating microbes, or meteor strikes. What really matters is not whether you have disasters but what happens after them. Does the disaster become a catastrophe? Do people take it as a signal to unleash their bestial nature? Or is it the moment where people rise to the occasion, to see how they can help?

Walkaway is a novel in which the disaster that’s befallen us is a combination of an economic catastrophe, which is that the very wealthy have realized they don’t need the rest of us and have started making things monotonically less pleasant for those of us who insist stubbornly on not going away, and also the climate is withdrawing its services from us.

Against that backdrop a group of people decide that there’s enough of them that they don’t need to hang around anymore. There’s a lot of ground, blighted land that they can just go squat. And given there’s all this exhaust from post-industrial society kicking around, various kinds of waste, and given that we can use software and tools to turn that waste into a fully automated luxury communist utopia where instead of squatting in yurts we build elaborate Dr. Seussian saunas and automated restaurants where we can just hang out and have a café society, they just walk away. And that turns out to be a really good strategy. When someone comes along and says that’s my dirt! They just walk away from it rather than fighting with them.

Things are going relatively well, the represent a happy escape valve for the people who are surplus of the requirements of masters of the universe, right up until the moment that scientists who are working on practical immortality for the very rich decide that they can’t be complicit in the speciation of humanity into infinitely prolonged lords of the universe, and the rest of us, who just become mayflies, a blip on the radar of these very wealthy and godlike people who are created with this technology.

They steal the technology of the Gods and bring it to the rest of us and whereupon the super rich realize they are now going to have to live with all of us for eternity and that triggers all out war.

Scalzi: Like you do!

GR: Goodreads member Ale asks, "Has the current political climate (both in U.S. and globally), influenced or inspired any writing?"

SCALZI: This is actually an example of author being completely clueless to the rest of the world while following up on a weird interest of his own. I was thinking about the age of sail and empire from the 15th to 18th century and how it would have been drastically different if, for example, the jet stream and the major Atlantic Ocean currents had just gone away and what that would mean for Portugal and Spain and the UK.

In the course of the writing there do seem to be a lot of parallels to what’s going on in the world today. People will come up to me at an event and be like, “I just read your book. It’s clearly about oil.” And you’re just like, “OK!” Because after a certain point once the book is out, it’s not just a book you brought up in your own head, it’s a book that exists in a space between your brain and the brain of the reader. What the reader reads into it is not invalid even if it’s not something you were directly on point to.

For me it was just, what happens when you have this natural feature of the world or universe that everyone relies on: It could be a river, it could be the forest, and everyone just assumes it going to be there. But then the forest goes away because the climate changes or the river changes it riverbed because it does—the Mississippi does it all the time. What happens then and what happens to those people who think that feature is always going to be there? It wasn’t about modern times, but of course I live in the world and the modern world is going to get into it no matter what.

DOCTOROW: We assume books are about things and that authors know what those things are, and both of those statements are contestable.

Ray Bradbury went to his grave swearing Fahrenheit 451 was not a novel about censorship, but that it was about the evils of television. And if someone that much smarter than me can be that sure about something that is so manifestly wrong… [laughter]

But that said, I drew my inspiration from a lot of places. The most proximate cause was reading a San Francisco writer, Rebecca Solnit. Her book, A Paradise Built in Hell, is about how kind people are in disasters, how noble and wonderful people are in disasters, and how completely certain the people who hold the reigns of power are that in times of disaster the poor are coming to eat them, and what they do preemptively to stop that from happening and how that gets in the way.

Also, Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century. It's a wonderful book. I think it’s unfortunate that he took 700 pages to say what he could have said in 100 pages because it intimidated a lot of people. Just read the first 100 pages you’re good! His seminal work on wealth and equality was very, very influential on me.

And then there’s a writer named Bruce Sterling, a science fiction writer and now media critic. He created this movement in the late 90s called the Viridian Greens, the answer to the Austere Greens or the Green Left. Bruce said what you need is a luxurious green, a leisure green, a green that is about the celebration of the material culture. The superiority of material culture that is designed to be beautiful and wonderfully made and to bring you pleasure, but is also designed to gracefully decompose back into the material stream when it’s done.

GR: Goodreads member Lissa says, "When I read the description of Walkaway, I was wondering 'Will he have written the book we need to wake us up and get us to pay attention, or the book we need to prepare us for what he thinks might be coming?'"

DOCTOROW: I think…we overestimate the likelihood of things we can vividly imagine and spend a lot of time worrying about our kids getting snatched by strangers and not nearly enough time worried about them getting killed by food poisoning or car accidents. We have this giant war on terror but no war on listeria despite the fact that inadequate refrigeration kills a lot more Americans than terrorism does. It has to do with how vividly we can imagine those things.

There’s a lazy or at least convenient form of story telling. Where it’s this old salve that there are only two stories: ‘man against man’ or ‘man against nature.’ And there’s this version of that where it’s like, Why not have both? Where you have a disaster that’s chased by a catastrophe by people’s bad actions, so the lights go out and your neighbors come over to eat you. Now you have two problems and another story to tell.

The rock solid belief of many people that when disaster strikes that other people around them are a problem and not the solution. That rock solid certainty is a problem. One of the things that I hope Walkaway will do is give people an easily imaginable future where, as Mr. Rogers says, “When disaster strikes look for the helpers.”

The thing that defines heroism isn’t taking to the hills with your go-bag and defending yourself against the bad people who will come and try to take your salted beef, but rather running into the middle of town and seeing who needs help, dragging them out of the rubble and finding someone else who needs help, and keep going until nobody needs help anymore.

GR: Are the worlds you create the kind of worlds you want to live in?

SCALZI: No! I write terrible universes where horrible things are happening, I like where I’m living now. Some years are better than others, but altogether I’m OK with who I am and where I am in the world.

GR: What books are you reading right now?


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SCALZI: I did read Walkaway just before I came on tour, which is very good. The book immediately prior to that was The Obelisk Gate by N.K. Jemisin, who I think is a tremendous, tremendous, tremendous (how many more times can I say tremendous?) writer who I think everyone should read. The first book in that series is The Fifth Season and won the Hugo Award last year. If you haven’t picked it up yet your life is incomplete and you will be sad until you do.

DOCTOROW: I have not yet cracked the cover, but the second I get a second to myself on this tour I will read Cecil Castellucci’s Soupy Leaves Home. Cecil is a multiple threat, a librettist-ex-punk-rockstar-graphic-novel-YA-adult novel writer. This is her hobo graphic novel published by the fine people at Darkhorse and I am really strongly looking forward to it because, boy, is she awesome.



Interviewed by Cynthia Shannon, Author Marketing Specialist at Goodreads. This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity. Learn more about Cynthia and follow what she's reading.

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