My Giddy Fanboy Moment, Courtesy of the Internet
As the title suggests, I'm having a giddy fanboy moment. You may wish to avert your eyes.
Still looking? Okay, fine, it's your funeral...
In his first published novel, Old Man's War, author John Scalzi put an interesting twist on a venerable science-fiction trope -- the recruitment, training, and early missions of a futuristic soldier at war with alien lifeforms -- by imagining a military force populated entirely by the elderly, their bodies rejuvenated and vastly improved through bioengineering and nanotechnology. That book was a fast-paced, highly enjoyable read that balanced action, humor, and just enough philosophizing to prevent it from floating away like a soap bubble. And while OMW treads highly familiar ground -- John's always been perfectly up front on his blog about how much his book owes to Heinlein's Starship Troopers (the novel, not the ridiculous film) and Haldeman's Forever War -- it never feels like a pastiche or retread. It is exactly the sort of novel I love to devour on mellow summer afternoons but which seem so very hard to find these days: fun but not superficial, thoughtful without veering into dreary self-importance.
And the sequel is even better.
The Ghost Brigades expands and deepens the OMW universe by focusing on a sub-group that was only glimpsed in the first book, the insular Special Forces units that are rumored to be composed of, ahem, dead people. Actually, as the reader learns, the Special Forces troops are cloned from elderly recruits who passed away before they could enter into the regular military described in Old Man's War; born into mature bodies but without the lifetime of experience that comes from growing up in the usual fashion, these child/adult characters allow Scalzi to explore some interesting ideas about consciousness and identity that were only hinted at in OMW. TGB also introduces some shades of gray into what had seemed like a pretty black-and-white scenario in the first book, and it elegantly lays the groundwork for a third volume set in this universe, while standing perfectly well on its own for people who haven't read OMW. And while the protagonist of OMW, John Perry, doesn't appear in TGB, we do get some news about him and a conclusion that lets his fans know where he'll likely end up. It was an eminently satisfying novel.
However, I must admit that there is a certain element of weirdness and possibly even bias involved in reading a novel written by a guy I feel like I know. Scalzi's Whatever was one of the first blogs I ever encountered; I've been reading it for years, and it's usually the first stop on my daily tour through the blogosphere. Through it, I feel like I have a pretty good sense of John Scalzi as a person (or at least as a persona, since you can never tell how accurate someone's online representation of themself may be), so there's a tendency when I encounter a particular idea in one of his novels to say, "Oh, here's where John's opinion about intelligent design works its way into the story," or "Oh, here's a character that resembles John's daughter, Athena." Without disparaging John's work in any way -- he is a mature, professional author with a strong voice -- the effect is kind of like reading something written by one of your high-school classmates. You find yourself wanting to like it because you know the guy. To be fair, I think I would've liked The Ghost Brigades and its predecessor just fine even if I'd never even heard of weblogs, but John's online presence has definitely established a sense of personal connection to both him and his work that I don't feel for, say, Clive Cussler. (There's no comparison between Scalzi's smooth, polished style and Cussler's rather clunky prose; I just use him as an example because he's another author whose work I enjoy but who has no real presence in my mind. I have no sense of him as a person. He's just a name and a photo on the cover.)
And this brings me, at long last, to the fanboy moment I mentioned earlier. Because I enjoyed TGB and because Scalzi seems like someone I actually know, I felt compelled to do something I've never done before: I wrote a fan letter. Well, a fan e-mail, but the principle is the same. Here's what I sent:
Long-time reader and (very) occasional commenter of The Whatever. I just finished The Ghost Brigades on my lunch hour today and wanted to say something to you about it:
Bad, Scalzi, bad! How dare you make me cry while I'm sitting in a public space!
Seriously, I enjoyed Old Man's War but found The Ghost Brigades downright moving in a way the earlier book didn't quite manage for me. Jared's sacrifice raised a lump in my throat (swiftly followed by a rousing "yeah!" as he pulled his final trick with the SmartBlood), I started sniffling when Cainen declared his intentions, and the final scene on Phoenix... well, you've gone too far, mister. I actually shed a tear and other people saw it. Just thought you'd like
Looking forward to the next one. Keep up the fine work,
And to my great surprise, John actually replied, and only a few hours later:
You know, as I was writing "The Ghost Brigades", the question which guided me was: Will this make Jason Bennion cry in a public place? So I'm glad it fulfilled its destiny.
Seriously, however, I'm glad the book worked for you as well as it did. I also think it has a bit more depth than Old Man's War, so it makes me happy that you picked up on that too.
And that, my friends, is the brush with semi-fame that's got me feeling all warm and school-girly this afternoon. John Scalzi actually sent an e-mail to little old me! Cooooooooooolllll.
Okay, I'm over it now.
All joking aside, I think it's fascinating that the Internet has enabled this level of contact between writers and their readers. It would've been unimaginable only ten or fifteen years ago that a reader could share any kind of real intimacy with a favorite novelist, unless they happened to live in the same small town or something. I don't have any illusions that John and I are buddies -- obviously, John Scalzi doesn't know me from Adam, nor do I really know him, no matter how much it sometimes feels otherwise -- but how cool is it that I can send him a message and hear back from him the very same afternoon? Or that I followed the creation and publication of the book I just enjoyed through his blog?
Because of this marvelous technology that we've all come to take for granted so soon after its creation, John can receive near-instantaneous feedback on his work, and I, as a reader, can receive the validation of a brief moment of attention from someone whose work I admire. In addition, the wide-open, no-rules atmosphere of the 'net encourages a far less formal exchange than we likely would've had in the days of physical letter-writing. I'm referring to the joking between us; I can't imagine being such a smart-aleck in an actual letter but I didn't think twice about doing it in e-mail, in part because that sort of thing is so much the default setting of John's blog. For me, that lightweight tone made our exchange feel more like a face-to-face contact between friends than a business transaction with a fan club employee.
Now, granted, John's readership is still relatively small, so it's easy to get his attention. It simply wouldn't be practical for someone like Stephen King to answer his own e-mail, because I imagine there's just too damn much of it. But still, just the idea that there is the potential for personal correspondence like this amazes me.
I love the Internet...