Magazine Extra: More Questions For John Scalzi

The cover of Lock In by John ScalziIn our September 2014 issue, I was lucky enough to catch up with celebrated science fiction author John Scalzi, who is a particular favorite of the RT staff. We chatted a bit about his September release Lock In, which centers on a chilling pandemic called Haden's Syndrome — a disease that leaves one percent of the population completely physically paralyzed, but still fully conscious and aware. As nearly 4.5 million people are "locked in" to their own bodies, a global crisis emerges, one that reshapes the world politically, economically and socially. Scalzi came up with some ingenious options for the "locked in" to move about: 1) remote-controlled androids known as Threeps, operated by signals sent by the brain and 2) Integrators — able-bodied folks whose brains allow the Haden's-afflicted to take over their bodies. We were curious to hear a bit more about Scalzi's take on the latter, as well as the background that informed this tense near-future murder mystery.


Regina Small: Lock In centers on a murder mystery. One of the complications is that there’s a question as to whether someone used an Integrator to commit murder. So we have to ask: If you were locked in and were able to integrate with another human, what horrible or wonderful deeds would you commit?

John Scalzi: See, I honestly believe that the first thing people would want to do when they have integrated is go get a bacon cheeseburger or go do something physical that they would no longer be able to do. I think the very first thing that you would do if you had an Integrator is do all the things that you love to do. In my case, I would go get an In-N-Out double double ‘cause I’m an In-N-Out double double fan. I would eat my way through thousands of hours, and I think that’s probably what most people would do. The psychology of having a body that you’re not ultimately responsible for is kind of an interesting thing. So I do think that maybe the second or third or fourth time [they integrate], they would start doing things like rock climbing or skydiving or explore a cave or go snorkeling — stuff they had always wanted to do — which makes me think that Integrators have to be a) really fit and b) totally not afraid.

RS: Yeah, they’d have to be very trusting people I guess. I was hoping for some more "ring of Gyges," the "one ring" thing going on. But...

JS: Ring of Gyges?

RS: Yeah, the myth of Gyges in Plato, which is the ring that makes you invisible and you can do anything … 

JS: OH! Yes! But I really do think that most people would do the things that they haven’t been able to do for years. I mean, I think that’s the first thing. Then after that, I do think that it would be interesting for somebody to do something where nobody knows that, you know, you’re Bob and nobody knows you’re Bob and you go to a party where there are people who know Bob. And you ask people about Bob and you find out what they really think. In that case it’s really like going to your own funeral. You get to find out what people really think of you. But honestly, I don’t know if most people would really want to know what people think of them.

RS: I do not. I never want to know. Never, never. So another thing that I wanted to address was aside from it being a future thriller slash murder mystery, much of Lock In is concerned with politics and some of those affected by Haden's rely on the government to subsidize their care and their Threeps and the subsidies are about to be eliminated. Is there anything specific or any specific political issue — if you feel comfortable addressing it — that drove you to explore this kind of conflict?

JS: Well, to begin, I wanted to clear this up: there’s not anything that’s one-to-one in our real world about this, so I’m not using the Abrams-Kettering Act in Lock In as a stand-in for Obamacare or anything like that. But what is absolutely true is that you can’t just sort of develop this world where all of a sudden 1 out 100 people have been locked in without doing at least a little bit of research of how you would do this, how would you make it work. And you also have to know a little bit about how politics in the United States work and how it would function. 

The idea here is basically, if you’re 25 years on from a massive event, whether it’s World War II or it’s 9/11, or whatever, there’s going to be drift from what people originally thought and how they originally responded to it. Because it is 25 years ago, time has passed, people have moved on with their lives and things have changed, including the way that people felt about how we were going to address this massive medical issue of  Haden's Syndrome by throwing everything we could at it to solve it. Twenty five years on they’re going to be like: "You know, it's only one out of 100 people; we’re spending all this money on one percent of our population and we have so many other problems," or, alternately, "We’re spending so much of this money that is the taxpayers' and it belongs in their pockets, not in the government’s." And so I wanted to reflect that time has passed, and the national unity eventually frays and people eventually start looking beyond the crisis. And this was a good way to do it, because we live in a world where enough time has passed that all of these technological miracles don’t really look like miracles anymore. Just like your cellphone doesn’t look like any magical piece of technology that lets you have the entire sum of human knowledge in your hand — it’s just your phone, right? So how are they going to respond?

And it was also a great way to create a setting in which even when [the heroes] were not dealing with the murder mystery specifically, there was always something going on. Because that’s also just part of fiction; you just have to keep things moving along. So it worked out both in the sense of realistic world building and serving my interests as a writer and making sure my readers were amused every chapter.

RS: Web director Elisa Verna is reviewing this book for our issue and she’s from the D.C. area  — she says you did a much better job mapping D.C. than The X Files did. Let just me assure you: I’ve confirmed with her that she’s not damning you with faint praise. But she was like, "He’s definitely done some research." How much research did you do about D.C.?

JS: About D.C.? Well I lived in the D.C. area for 4 years. I lived in Sterling [Virginia]. So one of the reasons that I used D.C., actually, is that I do that is I know the area. I also set The Android's Dream there and most of the stuff that's going on in The Human Division, when it goes on on Earth, is in the D.C. area. The three areas of the United States that I know very well, aside from where I live right now, would be Los Angeles, which is where I grew up; Chicago, which is where I went to college, and D.C. where I lived for four years. So those three cities end up showing up quite a lot in my fiction, which is great because they’re very big important cities in the grand scheme of things and nobody has to sit and wonder what it’s like to imagine Chicago, or Los Angeles or D.C. in their brain — it makes it very easy for them to create that setting in their own minds.

RS: How did you end up in Ohio?

JS: My wife, her family is from here and after our daughter was born she wanted to be close to the family. And I was like “Why would I want to live in Ohio?" So for two years, she basically flew out to Ohio to visit a family once a month, and I called that the "Ohio tax." But then when our daughter turned two, she said "No, we’re gonna live out there.” And I thought I would be clever and I said "All right, we'll move, but I want five acres." Because I grew up in L.A. and I was currently living in D.C. — there's no way I could afford 5 acres. But apparently in Ohio you can buy five acres of land for pocket lint. So now I have exactly five acres of land; the deed is 5.001 acres and I live in Ohio.

RS: For me, you could say a million billion acres, because I’ve grown up in New York City and I don’t understand space. I don’t know what I would do with that much space.

JS: Since you grew up in New York, you’ll appreciate this. The dimensions of my plot of land are the exact dimensions of a New York City block. So imagine three people, three cats and a dog living on a New York City block. And that’s my house.

RS: You really need to invite more people to live on your land because it just doesn’t make much sense to me. I don’t understand.

JS: We have considered doing a thing where we invite people over to pitch a tent and basically just camp out on the lawn.

RS: Final question: What are you working on right now?

I'm writing a follow-up to The Human Division. And that will be out I think next year, April or May. But don’t hold me to those dates.

RS: Do you have a title for it yet?

I have a working title that I don’t want to talk about … because I’m likely to change it. The inside joke is that we're calling it The Human Division 2: The Divisionining.

RS: Division Harder?

JS: Yeah, Division Harder! Division 2: Electric Boogaloo!

You can read the full interview in the September 2014 issue of RT. Look for Lock In, available digitally and in print August 26. For more genre news and coverage visit our Everything Science Fiction & Fantasy page.