It's . . . Complicated: A Conversation with James S.A. Corey
Daniel Abraham’s first publication was “Mixing Rebecca” in 1996 (in Ann VanderMeer’s The Silver Web magazine). That same year he graduated from the University of New Mexico with a degree in biology. He worked for a decade in tech support but continued to write and sell stories. “Veritas” came out in Warren Lapine’s Absolute Magnitude in 1998, Gardner Dozois published “Jaycee” in Asimov’s Science Fiction in 1999, and the trend continued from there. Gordon Van Gelder published “Flat Diane” in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction in 2004, which won an International Horror Guild Award. Abraham’s debut novel, A Shadow in Summer, came out in 2006 with Tor.
Ty Franck’s earliest stories were generated by his enthusiasm for role-playing games. His science fiction influences included Isaac Asimov, Alfred Bester, Ray Bradbury, Harlan Ellison, Robert A. Heinlein, and Roger Zelazny. He developed the world of The Expanse as the setting for a role-playing game, even drafting a version for a friend’s MMORPG project. He then met Abraham at SFF convention Bubonicon in Albuquerque, New Mexico.
In 2006, Franck published short story “Audience” in Orson Scott Card’s Intergalactic Medicine Show and joined the same writing group that Abraham participated in: Critical Mass. Franck then moved to New Mexico, coincidentally to a place near Abraham, and ended up running a role-playing campaign for Abraham using the setting. From all of this, a fantastic collaboration was born.
The pseudonym James S.A. Corey is the combination of Abraham’s and Franck’s middle names, and the middle initials are those of Abraham’s daughter. The core of The Expanse series comprises nine novels, beginning with Leviathan Wakes (published by Orbit in 2011). There are also several shorter pieces of fiction that tie into the series, some of which are featured in upcoming anthology Memory’s Legion. The final novel in the series, Leviathan Falls, came out from Orbit in November 2021.
Leviathan Wakes, book one of series The Expanse came out in 2011—a decade ago. With science fiction in particular, real-life advances can shift the way authors see some science fictional concepts. If you were just starting this series today, are there things you would do differently in terms of story, characters, or ideas?
Daniel Abraham: There are a couple of things that aged quickly from the books. When we wrote Leviathan Wakes, the Dawn probe hadn’t gone to Ceres yet, and the reigning model still said that it was primarily rocky. The vast amounts of ice had to be explained away in the show, and it was too late for the book. And Melba’s scheme in Abaddon’s Gate happened when deep fakes were still theoretical. That’s pretty normal for science fiction, though. There’s always that drift as technology and discovery catch up to the places where you were speculating.
Ty Franck: Things like technology changing or new discoveries invalidating old plot points don’t bother me. That’s par for the course. Historically speaking, SF writers have a terrible track record of actually predicting the future. The things that bother me looking back are structural issues. I find myself really interested in what we could have done with Avasarala in the first book, adding that third viewpoint from Earth to the events unfolding in the solar system.
Are there important ways in which your vision for the story or its characters changed along the way?
DA: Not really. Or at least not recently. We wrote Leviathan Wakes originally with the expectation that it would be a stand-alone novel. We didn’t outline the first trilogy as a trilogy until we were putting it together as a “if you want more we could” section in the pitch to Orbit. So, in that sense, the idea of a massive, nine-novel sequence wasn’t in the cards at the start. But when Leviathan Wakes did as well as it did and Orbit expressed interest in a longer series, we sat down—this would have been while we were writing Caliban’s War—and outlined the series complete with final scene and last lines. We’ve kept pretty close to that.
TF: It’s actually sort of surprising how closely the major plot and character arcs have stuck to that initial idea.
You spoke recently about dragging characters out of their comfortable places. Why is this an important element of the narrative?
DA: When you talk about narrative arcs, there are really just two kinds. You can have a character that changes in the course of a story, or you can have a situation that changes, or both. That strategy of moving a character from a place of comfort into a space where they’re forced to deal with situations, or sides of themselves they otherwise wouldn’t, is pretty much how you make that character change.
TF: And it gets boring if awesome guy is always awesome in every situation. You want to put the characters in a place where they can legitimately feel fear about the outcome. Bobbie Draper has no fear of losing a fistfight, so we force her to play politics instead. Then we understand why she’s unsure, and we can sympathize with her fear and uncertainty in a way we probably won’t if some guy challenges her to a bar fight.
Are there character arcs that are closer for you, more personal, or more relatable, than others?
DA: It’s really hard to judge that. I mean, all of these characters are going through the things they go through because we as writers are putting them there. All of them were immediate and compelling when we were writing them because that’s just the job.
TF: I joke that Amos is my Id, but the reality is all the characters have to have some small piece of your DNA in them or you can’t write them.
The books take on multicultural perspectives, as well as creating fusion cultures from elements of real cultures. How do you approach writing these characters and cultures, how do you bring them into the narrative, make them feel real and relevant, while also making sure they don’t fall into stereotypes or end up being relegated to sidekick status?
DA: It seems to me like there are two ways to write intentionally inclusive fiction. One of those is to be careful to have people present who are from different cultural and genetic backgrounds, and then treat them all as individuals who exist in the story without using them as a way to typify or represent anything beyond the fact that there are a lot of different kinds of folks in the world. That’s what we leaned into.
The other way is to use the story to reimagine the genre through the lens of a particular cultural experience—Navajo science fiction, for instance—in a way that brings those idiosyncrasies and authenticity into the way that the science fiction itself is made. That strategy isn’t something we really had access to. That’s a project for people who can speak from inside those cultures and subcultures.
TF: Daniel is one hundred percent spot on. Write everyone as a fully fleshed out character, regardless of background, and people usually come along for the ride.
Do you have favorite interesting bits of research or cool science fictional ideas that, for one reason or another, never made it into the books?
DA: Probably? We didn’t really research for the books so much as take the things we already grooved on and had learned about and mined them for the story. So, things like Dresden’s argument against animal testing or the idea of good moves in design space driving parallel evolution on different planets was all stuff I had from studying biology before there was any intention of writing this particular project.
There was a parallel between irrational numbers and the “holes in the spectrum” we refer to in the last book that we never made explicit, but that was because it wouldn’t have helped for clarity. And we had a half-page discussion about light being a membrane phenomenon on the surface of time that we cut because it was funnier without it.
TF: I have my half-assed explanation of how the Epstein Drive works that I never put into the books and goes to my grave with me. I don’t need to be publicly that wrong.
What have been some of the biggest challenges for writing the last couple of books; and are they similar or very different from the challenges back when you were writing book one?
DA: At the beginning, we were really finding our way into the project. I was trying to get the rhythm of the story and understand the worldbuilding that Ty had done. By the time we got even got to books five and six, I’d internalized a lot of that. The real challenge at the end is always to make the resolution seem shocking but also inevitable. With a million plus words already laid down, that’s a tall order.
TF: Our friend Robin Veith calls it “surprising inevitability,” and that’s a great descriptor. But as Daniel says, we’ve been hinting at where the story is going for eight long books now, so trying to find a few surprises to mix in with our inevitability was a challenge.
What, are you most proud of, or happiest with, about the book series?
DA: We’ve had several people tell us about how the story gave them some comfort in rough times or helped them make a connection with someone they cared about. I like to think we gave folks some things to think about, but more than that I hope we were able to give come comfort and distraction to people who needed a little comfort and distraction.
TF: Agreed with all of that, but for me, I’m really happy we actually finished the damn thing. Writing a long series has some challenges no one tells you about when you start. Let’s just say I am deeply sympathetic with the writers who struggle to finish theirs.
Many people have reviewed and analyzed and compared these books with other stories. What, for you, is the heart of this series?
DA: I’ve always liked the line from Camus, “There are more things to admire in humanity than to despise.” We weren’t reaching for a utopia or a dystopia, but that kind of mix of human failure and cruelty and pettiness balanced by all the things that are lovely about us.
TF: Yeah, that sort of hopefulness in all the madness, maybe? We’ve been screwing things up for a long time, and we probably won’t stop anytime soon, but we’re still here and sometimes we have a moment of grace, so yay us?
When you started the series, were you writing in conversation with other works of science fiction? And did that conversation continue through the series?
DA: Could hardly help being. We grew up reading the SF of the 1970s. Clarke and Asimov and Bester and Niven and Harrison. The whole crew. Those books formed our sense of the genre, and we riffed on them in our way. Now that we’re done, hopefully there will be some folks who riff on our stuff moving forward. That’s how the game gets played.
TF: Well, the last three books are my weird love letter to Ursula K. Le Guin, so no, that conversation never really stopped.
What kinds of things have you learned from writing these particular books that you will bring to other literary projects?
DA: I don’t know. This was a hell of a decade to work in, and we did a hell of a lot of work. I’m not sure I could even tell you what I learned along the way. I don’t remember learning particular things, though I’m sure I did. It’s like looking back and trying to remember the first time someone told you what “blue” was. It must have happened, but the event itself is gone.
TF: I learned how to write novels and screenplays in the same ten-year span, so now I know how to do those things. That seems like a big deal to me.
You have the Memory’s Legion anthology coming up soon. How does your process change when working on shorter fiction? Are there different sets of challenges when writing shorter fiction? And how do you deal with those challenges?
DA: The arc of the story has to be tighter, of course. Most of the novellas we wrote were about as long as seven chapters, so it had to go from setup to conclusion pretty damn quick compared to the books. But also, the stories had a relationship to the larger arc of the novels. They couldn’t be something that you had to know for the books—nothing could happen in them that you couldn’t skip—and they also had to support and inform the main story. That was tricky.
TF: Honestly, Daniel has mastered the short-form fiction in a way I still struggle with. It really is a very different skill set from novel-length work. I’m still trying to figure it out.
What can you tell readers about the novella, The Sins of Our Fathers? Where does the story go?
DA: It’s the last story. It’s sort of a summation of the whole thing, and sort of a grace note to play at the end. Hopefully it’s one last chance to make the argument that people are complicated.
TF: Yeah, people are complicated. That’s the whole damn series summation right there. And this story too.
The books and the show are both huge successes. What kind of impact does this have on your creative processes, or on your approach to other projects?
DA: From a purely career management perspective, it opens a lot of doors for future projects, but it also sets a bar. We had the final book of a decade-long series come out within two weeks of the final season of the show based on it premiering. That’s not a trick we can pull off twice.
TF: I imagine it’s a bit like an ice skater landing their first triple axel. First thought is, “Holy shit, I did it!” second thought is, “Holy shit, will I ever be able to do that again?!”
What else are you working on, either separately or together? What do you have coming up that you’d like readers to know about?
DA: I have a new fantasy series coming out called The Kithamar Trilogy that I signed up for during the two weeks between when Syfy canceled the show and when Amazon picked it up. The first one of those, Age of Ash, is out in February. James S.A. Corey is doing another space opera trilogy unrelated to The Expanse.
TF: We hope to have a few more announcements soon, but as with all of these things, we’ll have to wait and see if the gods are kind.
Arley Sorg is co-Editor-in-Chief at Fantasy Magazine and a 2021 World Fantasy Award Finalist. He is also a finalist for two 2022 Ignyte Awards, for his work as a critic as well as for his creative nonfiction. Arley is senior editor at Locus Magazine, associate editor at both Lightspeed & Nightmare, and a columnist for The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. He takes on multiple roles, including slush reader, movie reviewer, and book reviewer, and conducts interviews for multiple venues, including Clarkesworld Magazine and his own site: arleysorg.com. He has taught classes and run workshops for Clarion West, Augur Magazine, and more, and has been a guest speaker at a range of events. Arley grew up in England, Hawaii, and Colorado, and studied Asian Religions at Pitzer College. He lives in the SF Bay Area and writes in local coffee shops when he can. Arley is a 2014 Odyssey Writing Workshop graduate.