I’m used to getting criticized. Over the years, I’ve collected a rather large stack of rejection letters. I tell people that such rejections are important in the training of an author: they thicken the skin and prepare one to survive the onslaught of negative reviews and the occasional bit of hate mail.
What it turns out I was never prepared to endure are fans. I’m not talking about the kind that hang from my ceiling and blow the air around. I’m talking about the kind that read what you’ve written and decide that you’re the best thing since sliced bread. It’s the strangest thing.
Of course, I’ve only got three fans that I know of. Besides my mom. But I’ve received three emails from total strangers thanking me for my books. It is very odd for people to write to praise an author for something. After all, when I write a letter to the editor of a newspaper or magazine, it is only because I’m mad about something I read. I don’t think I’ve ever written to a newspaper to praise them for something.
It’s part of human nature, I believe. It is easier for us to criticize, to condemn, to find fault with our fellow human beings than to thank them for doing something well. Things going right is what we expect in life. We are inordinately shocked when something doesn’t go as it’s supposed to go. The water flows from the tap when I turn the faucet. When I get in my car and turn the key (or in newer cars, push the start button), the engine comes to life. It takes me where I want to go. The only things that irritate me are the red stop lights and the other drivers who refuse to drive the speed limit or won’t get out of my way fast enough. It is only what isn’t perfect that bugs me.
One of my favorite contemporary writers of science fiction is John Scalzi; he lives in the same state that my mom lives in, though in his slightly younger days he lived in California, which is where he went to college. He is about a decade younger than I am. His first published novel was Old Man’s War, which was released in 2005 and continues to sell very well. It tells the story of a 75 year old man named John Perry. With his wife dead and buried, and life nearly over, he takes the only logical course of action left him: he joins the army, specifically the Colonial Defense Force (CDF). Perry's service-of-choice has extended its reach into interstellar space to pave the way for human colonization of other planets while fending off marauding aliens. The CDF has a trick up its sleeve that makes enlistment especially enticing for seniors: the promise of restoring youth. After bonding with a group of fellow recruits, Perry finds himself in a new body crafted from his original DNA and upgraded for battle, including fast-clotting "smartblood" and a brain-implanted personal computer. All too quickly he winds up fighting for his life on various alien-infested battlegrounds.
John Scalzi has since written sequels to that novel, as well as some other, unrelated novels, such as Fuzzy Nation: the story of Jack Holloway who works as an independent contractor, prospecting and surveying at his own pace. He works alone for reasons he doesn’t care to talk about. Hundreds of miles from ZaraCorp’s headquarters on Zarathustra, a planet 178 light-years from the corporation’s headquarters on Earth, Jack discovers a seam of unimaginably valuable jewels. Jack pressures ZaraCorp into recognizing his claim, and cuts them in as partners to help extract the wealth.
But ZaraCorp’s entire legal right to exploit the resources of Zarathustra is based on having certified to the authorities there are no sentient species there.
Then a small furry biped—trusting, appealing, and ridiculously cute—shows up at Jack’s outback home. Followed by its family. As it dawns on Jack that despite their stature, these are people, he realizes that ZaraCorp’s claim to a planet’s worth of wealth is gone. But ZaraCorp will stop at nothing to eliminate the “fuzzys” before their existence becomes more widely known.
I am a fan of John Scalzi’s novels and have read them all. A few years ago I was inspired to write him a letter. My middle daughter had to read a science fiction novel for her literature class in high school. At the time, she didn’t like to read and especially didn’t like science fiction. But she knew I loved the genre, so she came to me and asked me for a suggestion on what book to read. She figured it would be “stupid” but she needed something. So I gave her my copy of Old Man’s War to read.
She loved it. And she read it faster than any book she’s ever read before. She was so enthusiastic that her teacher wanted to borrow the book when she was finished. And then—when I told her that Scalzi had written sequels to the book—she begged me to let her read them. So she read Ghost Brigades and The Last Colony after that and has continued with the sequels that have followed. Even though she didn’t have to read any of them for a school assignment. In a few weeks she’ll begin her freshman year at California State University, Northridge, where she will be majoring in micro-biology.
So that’s why I wrote John Scalzi. I wanted to let him know about my daughter’s reaction to his novel, and to thank him for finally opening the joys of reading and science fiction to her.
That’s one reason people write fan letters, I suppose. They’re actually just thank you notes.