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An Interview with Sci-Fi Legend J. Michael Straczynski

The legendary author of the forthcoming fast-paced thriller “The Glass Box” shares some eclectic book recommendations
Tertulia staff •
Dec 28th, 2023

If a Marvel movie were made based on J. Michael Straczynski’s career, he might well be cast as a shape shifter, morphing from journalist to playwright to true crime screenwriter to comic book writer to sci-fi producer to memoirist and more.

Cameos might include Clint Eastwood, who produced his 2008 screenplay Changeling (Angelina Jolie and John Malkovich) and World War Z author and collaborator Max Brooks, who has called Straczynski one of the "greatest science fiction minds of our time - without question."

This coming year marks the 30th anniversary of his master creation Babylon 5, a paradigm-shifting sci-fi TV series, which attracted collaborators like Neil Gaiman and Harlan Ellison. He has penned comic books for Marvel and DC that have sold more than 13 million copies.

Straczynski's latest creation, The Glass Box, is a fast-paced, speculative novel set in a dystopic society in which noncompliant actors are sent for re-education to institutions resembling psychiatric facilities. Perhaps what's most disturbing is that the conditions in The Glass Box do not seem so far from plausible. "Echoes of One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest reverberate through this cinematic tale," wrote Publishers Weekly. "Readers looking for an adrenaline-inducing resistance plot will find this worth their time."

On the eve of the release of The Glass Box, we caught up with JMS, as some of Straczynski’s fans call him, to get some eclectic book recommendations.

What classic space opera books were most influential to you that you can still recommend today?

I'm kind of a mutt in terms of my reading habits...I like to graze and pick up textures and possibilities and themes that may align with each other or be contradictory, because both of those are useful to a writer. As much as I loved E.E. "Doc" Smith's Lensman books, Frank Herbert's Dune, and Asimov's Foundation books in the space opera genre, what served best to give me the tools I needed to tackle something like Babylon 5 were books like Orwell's 1984, Huxley's Brave New World, Shelley's Frankenstein (whose influence plays deeply into The Glass Box), and novels that dealt more with the aspects of our character that make us truly human. 

Space opera, especially from the fifties, tends to be ships in space in a long story that's more about the tech and the politics than the people. There's a certain sterility to them, which is exactly why I wrote B5: to break through that sterility with more character-oriented stories.

What about contemporary space operas?

I'd suggest just about anything by Adrian Tchaikovsky, he's truly opening up new frontiers in the SF genre.   

Already a big fan of Tchaikovsky and already read the Children of Time series? HIs latest work, a companion novel to his City of Last Chances, has been announced and is coming out in March.

You are the steward of author Harlan Ellison’s estate. What book would you recommend starting with?

Though the voice running through Harlan's work is always uniquely Harlan, the thing about Harlan's work is that what constitutes a favorite collection (they're all short story anthologies) is that it varies depending on where he was, and where you are, the first time you read them. 

You can see his growth and progression across those stories as he tried to wrestle increasingly different issues to the ground. So asked at different times which I'd recommend, I would almost certainly give different answers. 

All of his anthologies have at least one or two stories that will just blow the back of your head off, so you can't go wrong with any of them. 

You are also the author of three horror books. Which horror book stands out as the scariest you have ever read — and one that you would recommend, why? 

The three horror novels I wrote were my first efforts at telling a story at length, as opposed to short-stories and novelettes, and...well, that lack of familiarity with the form comes rocketing through in ways that make me feel remorse for the trees that were pulped to produce them. It's not just that they're inept, they're barely even ept. 

But in terms of books by writers who actually know how to write horror, probably the scariest to me growing up was and is Richard Matheson's Hell House, adapted by him to the film 'The Legend of Hell House.' It just gets under your skin in ways so few (other than Stephen King) know how to do.   

What book are you most excited to read in the new year?

I've always admired the work of Gabriel García Márquez in the arena of magic realism, and hearing that they'd recently rediscovered his book Until August definitely got my attention. So I'm very much looking to picking that up when it finally comes out in March.

Which book do you return to re-reading for inspiration over and over again? Why? 

This will likely be the oddest answer of the bunch...because having read and reread the Lord of the Rings trilogy more times than I will admit to in a public forum, the one book that I turn to for inspiration and just sheer enjoyment is Lawrence Ferlinghetti's book of poems, A Coney Island of the Mind. 

I'm terrible at poetry, I write doggerel at best, but Ferlinghetti could do things with language and poetry that after forty-plus years I'm still trying to understand. "I am Waiting" and "Christ Climbed Down" are two of my favorites in terms of modern poetry. But that said...I always nod my head in respect when Gandalf comes through town...

Through the book's publication date on January 9, you can purchase The Glass Box at 20% off with code GLASS.

And for all JMS fans who are intrigued to learn more about his fascinating life and shape-shifting career, read his acclaimed memoir, Becoming Superman, which NPR called "simultaneously painful and inspiring, infuriating and full of hope, humorous and depressing. It is everything good storytelling should be, regardless of medium."

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