An Interview With James S.A. Corey on LEVIATHAN WAKES
Leviathan Wakes is the first book in a larger series called The Expanse. What kind of story are you telling in this series?
There’s a lot of science fiction that talks about the near future. There’s a lot about great galaxy spanning empires of the distant future. But there’s not much that talks about the part in between. The Expanse is playing on that bridge. Whatever drives us off Earth to the rest of the solar system or from there to the stars, the problems we have are the ones we bring with us. What I want to do is write good old fashioned space opera centered around human stories, but with an increasingly large backdrop.
It seems like Leviathan Wakes is a science fiction book, but it borrows from a lot of other genres as well, including horror and noir. Did you intend to blend those genres? What kind of book do you feel this is?
It’s definitely science fiction of the old school space opera variety. That’s the story I wanted to tell. But half of the story was a detective story, and as soon as Detective Miller hit the page, he told me in a loud voice that he was a classic noir character. It was in his voice and the way he talked about things, you know? As for the horror feel, that’s just the way I roll. I’ve never written anything in my life that didn’t at least blur the line into horror. If I wrote greeting cards, they’d probably have a squick factor.
Leviathan Wakes has two protagonists with very different worldviews that are often in conflict. Can you describe those views, and why you chose that particular conflict?
You know how they say science fiction is about the future you’re writing about, but it’s also about the time you’re writing in? Holden and Miller have got two different views on the ethical use of information. That’s very much a current argument. Holden’s my holy fool. He’s an idealist, a man who faces things with this very optimistic view of humanity. He believes that if you give people all of the information, they’ll do the right thing with it because people are naturally good. Miller is a cynic and a nihilist. He looks at the dissemination of information as a game you play. He doesn’t have faith in anyone else’s moral judgment. Control of information is how you get people to do what you want, and he doesn’t trust anyone else to make that call. I picked those two characters because they’re both right, and they’re both wrong. By having them in the same story, I can have them talk to each other. And that central disagreement is sort of underneath everything else that happens.
Leviathan Wakes has a gritty and realistic feel. How much research did you do on the technology side of things, and how important was it to you that they be realistic and accurate?
Okay, so what you’re really asking me there is if this is hard science fiction. The answer is an emphatic no. I have nothing but respect for well written hard science fiction, and I wanted everything in the book to be plausible enough that it doesn’t get in the way. But the rigorous how-to with the math shown? It’s not that story. This is working man’s science fiction. It’s like in Alien, we meet the crew of the Nostromo doing their jobs in this very blue collar environment. They’re truckers, right? Why is there a room in the Nostromo where water leaks down off of chains suspended from the ceiling? Because it looks cool and makes the world feel a little messy. It gives you the feel of the world. Ridley Scott doesn’t explain why that room exists, and when most people watch the film, it never even occurs to them to ask. What kind of drive does the Nostromo use? I bet no one walked out of the film asking that question. I wanted to tell a story about humans living and working in a well populated solar system. I wanted to convey a feeling for what that would be like, and then tell a story about the people who live there.
So how does the Epstein drive work?
Very well. Efficient.
In your acknowledgments you thank the New Mexico Critical Mass writers group. What affect did having that workshop environment have on your work?
Well, Critical Mass is a lot more than a workshop or critical group. It’s more like a writer’s mafia. Just about anything you might need, someone in the group can get it for you. Walter Jon Williams, who wrote the brilliant Dread Empire’s Fall space opera series, was there to give important tips about writing in that genre. S.M. Stirling and Victor Milan write some of best action in the business, and there were a lot of action for them to critique. Ian Tregillis is an actual astrophysicist, and made himself available for technical questions. Melinda Snodgrass is pretty much the Yoda of letting you know when you’ve wandered too far away from your plot. And the entire group, including Emily Mah, Terry England, and George R.R. Martin, was there to read and critique the early drafts of the book and a lot of changes were made based on their advice.
You’ve worked with George R.R. Martin a lot in the past. What kind of advice did he have for this project?
Yes, I’ve done a number of projects with him in one incarnation or another. In this case, he was mostly just encouraging. He likes old fashioned space opera, and he followed my progress on the book with great interest. He was also the first to read the final version. He was very complimentary. He said at one point that it was the best book about vomit zombies he’d ever read. That was nice.
Where do you see The Expanse series going from here?
Well, I’m contracted with Orbit for at least two more books. They are titled Caliban’s War and Dandelion Sky. I hope to keep exploring the idea of human expansion into the solar system and beyond, and balancing the very real threats that the galaxy poses for the fledgling human diaspora against the threats that those same humans will bring with them. For up to date information on what I’m up to and where the project is headed, people can visit www.the-expanse.com and get the latest.