Author spins yarns of future

Last Byte | A conversation with John Scalzi

"Whenever there's a change in technology, people, especially young people, grab on to it and run as far as they can." John Scalzi

John Scalzi's novel "Old Man's War" [TOR Books, 2005] is a tale of a future where 75-year-old men are recruited into military service - fighting in younger bodies to which their consciousness is transferred. Critics compared the debut effort favorably to Robert Heinlein's "Starship Troopers" and Joe Haldeman's "The Forever War," both science fiction classics.

Scalzi has since published two more novels loosely connected to "Old Man's War," along with other science fiction novels and shorter works. He's also published nonfiction, including three entries in the Rough Guides series of how-to books.

Scalzi's novels chart the way changing technologies affect human interaction. In "Old Man's War," scientists can clone human beings and engineer them into supersoldiers. In a universe populated by aliens vying for scarce resources, humans are constantly at war. To provide troops, the elderly are given the opportunity to become young again ? if they fight.

Scalzi recently spoke with Washington Technology Associate Editor Michael Hardy about today's technology and tomorrow's society.

Q: Science fiction at its best blends themes of human drive and passion with science and technology. How do you think ongoing technological advances are changing the ways people think, behave and interact?

Scalzi: If you go out to the mall or to schools, you'll see kids standing right next to each other exercising their thumbs sending text messages. Whenever there's a change in technology, people, especially young people, grab on to it and run as far as they can. At the end of the day, we still need that face-to-face interaction, but we certainly like to take advantage of the new ways we can interact with each other. One of the frequent complaints we hear about technology is that technology is isolating. I would argue the opposite. We are so connected now sometimes it's hard to get away from each other.

Q: "Old Man's War" and its two sequels are concerned with war of the future and the way technology shapes strategies and tactics. What have you observed about the way technology has changed the way we fight, and what do you think the near future may bring?

Scalzi: On a practical level, it makes it easier to avoid things like friendly fire ? if we have real-time updating of where our people are and we can tie it into something like Google Maps. The problem is, just as they say generals are always fighting the last war, people in the technology industry are always fighting the next war. The things being worked on now may not benefit people in the field now but will 10 or 15 years down the line.

Q: Your books also touch on biotechnology. In your distant future, you imagine using the DNA of the dead to engineer supersoldiers. But if you look at the state of the science and its cultural barriers today, what do you foresee for the near future?

Scalzi: One of the things that has been very interesting about the biotech field is that a lot of it is going against roadblocks that have been put up politically. If embryonic stem cell research was not being blocked by the current administration, there would not be as much interest in [alternatives].

Q: Can you give an example?

Scalzi: [Scientists] recently took skin cells from mice and engineered them into [the equivalent of embryonic stem cells]. That's a really interesting bioengineering achievement that would have been unnecessary had there not been ethical concerns about embryonic stem cells. We can argue whether that's taking six steps sideways to take one step forward, but if they can take skin cells from me and make me a new liver, that's a real advance.

Q:In your nonfiction, you've written about money management, astronomy and other topics. If you were drawing on what you know to write a book about business management, what are the key points you'd make?

Scalzi: If you want a business that will be competitive, you need to lay a table. You need to get the best people, you need to convince them to stay, and you need to convince them to innovate beyond what your immediate goals are. Google's staff devotes 20 percent of their work time to personal research and development ? just things they think are cool.

Q: Where should we be cautious in adopting innovations?

Scalzi: You have to ask what is the benefit of using a particular technological thing. One thing we do know is that when you use technology, you change behavior to accommodate the technology. Technology is complicated enough that it's easier to change human behavior, because humans are much more malleable, than it is to change the technology. You are basically changing the ways people work.

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