There’s nary a mention of Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos or Bill Gates in “Starter Villain,” but science-fiction author John Scalzi’s wickedly funny novel finds ways to skewer the tech billionaires who rule our world without dropping names.
Scalzi lays out a scenario in which supervillains are basically the CEOs of companies that do dastardly deeds as a service.
“The point of the supervillainy is not to hide, but to offer products and services that offer value to your clients, who just happen to be, you know, the United States or China, or some major corporation — so that the supervillainy that you do is not seen as outside the pale of standard business practices,” he explains.
If that sounds like today’s billionaire tech disrupters, so be it.
“I will say that the bad behavior of billionaires in 2023 makes this book far more timely than it might otherwise have been,” Scalzi admits in the latest episode of the Fiction Science podcast. “I wrote this about 18 months ago, so we had no idea that several of the world’s biggest billionaires would just be like, ‘Mask off, I’m actually a terrible person!'”
Elon Musk is probably the guy who comes most quickly to mind, in part because he’s the world’s richest billionaire, and in part because of a newly published biography that delved into his decision to block Ukraine from using the Starlink satellite network (which Musk basically controls as SpaceX’s CEO) for attacks on Russian ships.
There’s also his takeover of the social media platform formerly known as Twitter, which was followed by controversial comments from Musk about billionaire philanthropist George Soros and the Anti-Defamation League. Studies say that the platform (now called X) has become more contentious and awash in hate speech under Musk’s watch.
This week, Musk has been talking about his business ventures — including X and Tesla —with the likes of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Meanwhile, another Musk venture called Neuralink announced that it was signing up patients for clinical trials of its brain-implant system.
All this may sound like supervillain stuff to some folks. But Musk, who has also been compared to Marvel superhero Iron Man, sees the story differently. “How did most of the legacy media go from superheroes of free speech to supervillains of speech suppression?” he asked this week in a post to X / Twitter.
A similar superhero-vs.-supervillain debate applies to Bezos and Gates. Both men built up business empires and sparked plenty of controversies along the way. Both have been through messy divorces. But both of those billionaires have also set up foundations (the Bezos Earth Fund and the Gates Foundation) that aim to save the world.
And then there’s Sam Bankman-Fried, the failed crypto investor who’s now in jail … Harlan Crow, the Dallas billionaire who became enmeshed in a controversy involving Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas … and Peter Thiel, who aims to create his own libertarian enclave somewhere in the Mediterranean.
Scalzi says becoming a billionaire doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll become a supervillain. But he insists that a billionaire’s view of the world is fundamentally different from that of virtually everyone else.
“Your particular set of concerns are so far removed from everyone else’s that it’s easy to lose touch with your humanity,” he says. “And it takes real effort for someone who has that much money to still be a decent human being.”
So what happens when a regular guy is thrust into the world of billionaire supervillains? That’s literally the way Scalzi describes the plot of his book. “The way that I’ve been describing it to people is pretty simple, which is, ‘Ordinary Joe inherits his mysterious uncle’s supervillainy business. High jinks ensue,'” he says.
Along the way, Scalzi has some fun with the standard set of supervillain technologies, including the volcano lair made famous in James Bond and Austin Powers movies.
“What is the practical purpose of having a volcano lair?” Scalzi asks. “When I’ve been talking about this book prior to it coming out, at conventions or book festivals, I’d be like, ‘You’re a villain. Why do you have a volcano lair?’ And some nerd would always raise their hand and go, ‘Oh, oh, geothermal power, right?’ And that’s exactly right. The really good reason to have a volcano lair is that you have this access to this immense amount of power that is just naturally occurring.”
Here are a few other supervillain tropes that came up in the book and in our podcast chat, with links to real-world parallels:
Secret locations? In the classic supervillain tales, the evil genius hangs out in a secret HQ. Scalzi says that strategy is out of date. “Being a supervillain now, here in 2023, is very different from being a James Bond supervillain in the 1960s,” he said. “The volcano lair that they have, it’s not like the U.S. or Russia or China doesn’t know it is there. They have satellites that cruise over it several times a day, so you can’t pretend that you’re hiding from anybody anymore.” In fact, the volcano lair in “Starter Villain” is a hand-me-down from the CIA that is publicly presented as a research-and-development center.
Intelligent animals? “Starter Villain” features gene-enhanced cats who call the shots, and smart-aleck dolphins who guard the volcano lair. In the real world, we don’t yet have cats that can type out orders on keyboards, but scientists have transplanted human brain organoids into lab rats. And the Russians reportedly have trained dolphins to fend off Ukrainian attacks on the Crimean port of Sevastopol. (The U.S. Navy tried something similar during the Gulf War.)
Nazi treasures? The supervillains in “Starter Villain” lust after a trove of treasures acquired by the Nazis during World War II — which comes straight out of the supervillain playbook for the Indiana Jones movies. The trope was inspired by the real-life story of Nazi-era treasure hunts, as documented in “The Monuments Men.” Ill-gotten Nazi riches are still the stuff of legends today.
Blood transfusions as a Fountain of Youth? This is one technology that Scalzi didn’t work into his story. But the idea of taking blood from the young and putting it into the bloodstreams of the old is actually a thing. Or is it? For what it’s worth, the Food and Drug Administration has tried to discourage the practice. Scalzi says the mere fact that tech tycoons have considered the idea shows that there’ll always be new supervillain technologies on the horizon.
“When people are like, ‘Don’t you realize that this makes you more than the metaphorical economic vampires that we always knew you were?’ — they just look at you like, ‘So? And?'” he says. “No, being a billionaire doesn’t make you bad. But if you are already bad, or already socially not clued in, there is no incentive for you to change your behavior at all.”
Cosmic Log Used Book Club
John Scalzi won science fiction’s Hugo Award in 2013 for an earlier novel titled “Redshirts,” about red-shirted starship security officers who are trying to make the best of their lot in life. This year, he’s up for another Hugo for “The Kaiju Preservation Society,” a novel that starts with the premise that Godzilla and its ilk actually exist.
Scalzi says he’s currently reading novels by his fellow Hugo finalists:
- The Daughter of Doctor Moreau, by Silvia Moreno-Garcia
- Legends & Lattes, by Travis Baldree
- Nona the Ninth, by Tamsyn Muir
- Nettle & Bone, by T. Kingfisher.
- The Spare Man, by Mary Robinette Kowal.
“I’m not expecting anything less than terrific books there,” Scalzi says. “Which is great, because when you’re a finalist, you want it to be a fight. You want the people who are voting to agonize over how they’re going to rank the books.”
That makes it worth adding all those books to the list for the Cosmic Log Used Book Club. For 21 years, the CLUB Club has been highlighting books with cosmic themes that have been around long enough to show up at your local library or secondhand book store.
For what it’s worth, Scalzi calls himself a “small-c, catholic reader.”
“I will read just about anything,” he says. “If you wanted to murder me, you would just put a bomb under a book.”
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