Scalzi and audiobook narrators Wil Wheaton and Amber Benson chat about their innovative recording process

By David Canfield
April 17, 2018 at 02:00 PM EDT
Athena Scalzi; Tor Books

With his new sci-fi book Head On, John Scalzi set about doing something a little differently: His narrator is gender-nonspecific.

Head On is the stand-alone follow-up to his acclaimed novel Lock In, this time set in the futuristic world of sports. It explores Hilketa, a frenetic and violent pastime in which players attack each other with swords and hammers. The main goal of the game: obtain your opponent’s head and carry it through the goalposts… only all the players are “threeps,” robot-like bodies controlled by people with Haden’s Syndrome (which is similar to the real-life illness locked-in syndrome), so anything goes. No one gets hurt, but the brutality is real, and the crowds love it. That is, until a star athlete drops dead on the playing field. The book was released Tuesday, and its snappy dialogue and imaginative world-building is sure to please Scalzi’s many fans.

The book’s gender nonconforming narrator made for a fascinating audiobook experiment. There are two editions available: One read by Wil Wheaton, the actor whose credits range from Stand by Me to The Big Bang Theory, and one by Amber Benson, known for writing the book Among the Ghosts and appearing as Tara Maclay on Buffy the Vampire Slayer. The pair, who returned to record Head On, caught up with Scalzi to discuss this innovative recording process, exclusively for EW. Read on below, and purchase the hardcover here and the Audible version here.

Courtesy of Wil Wheaton; Lindsey Byrnes

JOHN SCALZI: What was it like to return to the mic to return to the world in Head On after recording Lock In?

WIL WHEATON: It was a lot of fun to revisit the characters I already loved from Lock In and to inhabit Chris’ consciousness for a few days. One of the things John did so well was match the tone and pace and characterizations of Lock In, so someone who just closed that book could pick up Head On and not feel jarred by the time that passed between reading them, so I worked very hard to ensure that my narration did the same thing.

AMBER BENSON: I had a blast returning to the series. There’s a lot of humor in the books…plus, they both have cracking good mysteries.

How do you balance what the book originally intended with your interpretation?

WHEATON: I’m lucky to be close friends with John, so when I have any questions about my understanding of his material, I can just pick up the phone and get answers directly from him. Like I said before, I don’t make an effort to interpret the material in my own way; I do my very best to convey to the listener what John’s intentions were when he wrote the book. I guess I work hard to bring John’s story to life while keeping my own ideas out of the way.

BENSON: It’s a collaboration — so you just hope you do justice to the brilliance of the material. You do make a lot of choices that are wholly your own, but based hopefully on what you have gleaned (about the author’s intention) from the prose.

Did anything in Head On surprise you? Make you laugh out loud?

WHEATON: I won’t spoil anything, but there were a couple of moments when I thought I’d gotten ahead of John and solved parts of the case, only to find out that I was totally wrong.

BENSON: I don’t want to give anything away, but the cat was my favorite! There was some cat-related stuff that made me giggle…and the cat ended up being more of a player in the book than I would’ve expected.

What about the near-future world of Head On seems prescient? Would you want to live your life in a Threep/in the virtual world?

WHEATON: The best thing about Threeps is that the misery of air travel is eliminated. I’ll trade my stupid meat-sack body for that right now.

BENSON: We live in an increasingly genderfluid society, and I think these books have found an interesting way to unpack that conversation. The idea that the gender of the protagonist is never specified is brilliant. And it gives each reader the chance to look at their own preconceptions about gender: It is very elucidating to read a book and see what choices you (the reader) make about a character’s gender based on how the character thinks, what career the character has, who the character’s parents are, etc.

Living in a Threep would be fascinating…I have a hard time really imagining what it would be like to live in a virtual world, but I would be game to try!

How do you read a first-person book differently than others? Do you feel more freedom to make the character your own?

WHEATON: When I read a third-person book, there’s a subtle but important difference between the narrator’s voice, and the primary point-of-view character’s voice. In a first-person book, that distinction is erased, so everything in the manuscript is in point-of-view, which allows me to remain in the character’s voice the entire time. It may be a difference that is only apparent to me, but it isn’t so much about making the character my own as it is about staying with a single, consistent voice and POV.

It’s an interesting question about making the character my own. When I’m narrating an audiobook, I’m less focused on making a role my own (like I would on camera) than I am on faithfully voicing the author’s intent.

BENSON: You definitely get into the head of the character when you’re reading a first-person narrative versus an omniscient narrator — where you are always on the outside, never stepping into the character’s inner monologue or digging into their stream of consciousness. For me, reading a first-person narrative is a lot more emotional, which makes it more enjoyable.

Did the genderless protagonist influence the way you narrated the Audible book?

WHEATON: Not really. Because I’m a guy and Amber is a woman, we’re going to bring things to our narratives that we are entirely oblivious to, since we live in our bodies and genders all the time. For Chris, I just didn’t think of them as male, even though I am. I thought of them as Chris, and I did my best to get myself out of the way.

BENSON: I just made the character my own. I didn’t think about gender. I just went for what I thought suited the character’s personality.

Was there a specific line while reading Lock In that influenced your narration of Head On?

Wil: It would be a great story if I could say yes, but the truth is, it’s been so many years since I read Lock In, I didn’t really think back to specific lines or beats, but thought about the point of view Chris had about themselves, and the world they live in. If I were acting with my whole body for this, there would be things like how they walk, how they sit down, how they move their body, and other physical choices that I’d have to look back on and keep consistent. I did all of that, but using only my voice and memory of Chris’ attitude about themselves and their world from Lock In.

BENSON: I think we found a really good vibe when we read Lock In — and I just tried to keep the vibe going in Head On.

What is your favorite thing about these two books?

WHEATON: I just adore Leslie Vann.

BENSON: I love that the books are talking about gender in a thoughtful and provocative way. Making readers think about what it means to live in a world where gender is treated as a binary concept, when, really, gender would be better thought of as a beautiful spectrum with lots of unique variables.

Are there any lingering questions you have?

WHEATON: How many times did you have to punch holes in the logic of Haden’s, and then modify the condition and its treatments so that it held up under scrutiny?

I did a whole lot of thinking for/research relevant to Haden’s before Lock In, so I was ready to go when I wrote the book (much of that background is covered in the related novella called Unlocked: An Oral History of Haden’s Syndrome).

BENSON: Uhm, will there be more cat in the next book? Pleeeeease!

I can’t guarantee the cat will be in the next novel, but if there’s enough interest, maybe I’ll write a short story with the cat as the main character.