יום רביעי, 27 באוגוסט 2014

Point of (inter)view 2: James S.A Corey

James S.A Corey is the shared pseudonym of Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck, who chose the name when they started writing together. Abraham is a big hitter in the fantasy scene - his two big epic fantasies are critically acclaimed bestsellers. "The Long Price" he wrote to completion, and the fourth novel of "The Dagger and the Coin" was very recently published. Franck was less known, except perhaps for his editing work with George R. R. Martin. 

The two have recently exploded into the public eye with their collaborative series of space opera novels, "The Expense". The first book in the series captured readers with it's mix of fast paced space adventures, well written characters and dry humor. It was nominated for both the  Hugo and Locus awards for best novel in 2012. They are now writing book number 5 in the series, while SyFy channel is in the thick of making a TV show based on the books. 

Q: So, the official purpose of the interview is to introduce you to people in Israel who might never have heard of you. I guess a reasonable place to start would be to ask – how would you describe yourself, and the kind of books you're writing? Who should be interested in reading them?

Daniel: We are writing space opera. We are writing the kind of space opera that we were reading growing up in the seventies and early eighties, only with kind of a more contemporary world view in it. A lot of the stuff from the seventies and eighties was wonderful at the time, but it didn't all age very well and we kind of found ourselves missing it. They always say that you should write that stuff that you like to read, so... we are writing the kind of stuff we like to read.

The Expanse happens in the intermediate future - humanity has expended from Earth to settle the solar system. Mars is by far the biggest colony, and is undergoing humanity's largest project to date - a terraforming process. Further away from the sun, people lead a hard life in the asteroid belts and some of the moons of the uninhabitable planets in the outer rims of the system. The solar system of the books is a vast frontier for humanity to explore, and the people living in it are those who will need to lay down the foundations for further generation to live more prosperous life outside of Earth.

Q: One of the things I like the book is the setting - could you describe it the way you see it, maybe even tell us of how it came to be?

Ty: When I was about 11 I read a novel called "The stars my destination" by Alfred Bester. That book reprogrammed my brain in a variety of ways, but one of the things it did was to show me a fully populated solar system with people living in both of the inner planets and people living in a wide variety of settlements in the outer planets. There was a sort of a political tension between those two groups and that has always stuck with me.  Recently science fiction authors have shied away from that because there's no economic reason to settle the solar system - But I just decided to ignore that with the setting and pretend that there was a good reason, and try to come up with a list of things that each of the bodies in our solar system would be good for. Obviously there's a large number of valuable minerals in the asteroid belt, some of the moons have (we believe) large deposits of helium 3 which is important for fusion reactors, some of the moons of the outer planets have other things to cover them - Titan is rich in volatiles which is very valuable, Ganymede actually is one of the only major bodies in the solar system that has a magnetosphere which is good for protecting it from radiation... 
So I just sort of went through a bunch of books on the solar system, and when I got to each major body I said, "if humans were going to live here what would they be doing?", and that's where the setting came from.

Q: So, the setting is mostly your idea?

Daniel: The setting is all his idea. What attracted me to the project to begin with was that he's already done all the homework and all we needed to do was use it to write a book, and I knew how to do that so.... that was the original trade. Since then he's learned to write books, so I don't know what I bring to it anymore. But originally, all of the world building was Ty's.

Q: Yes, I was curious about that, because Daniel is a big hitter in the Fantasy genre, but this is your first science fiction novel

Daniel: It's my first novel project. I've done some science fiction short stories, but short stories are much more forgiving -

Ty: Well, you also did "Hunter's Run" before "Leviathan's Wake"...

Daniel: I did hunter's run, which was also a collaboration. So I had some experience in this kind of thing.

Q: Sort of a goofy question, but - had you lived in your books, where in the solar system would you want to live?

Ty: I would want to live on the Rocinante (The ship that some of the main characters in the story call home)

Daniel: I'd probably go for Mars. It's nice, they have all the best technology, they have coffee shops, it's got real estate... it's a nice place. It's maybe a little overly focused. I mean I'd like to have the option to do whatever I'd like to do, professionally, and I don't think you get that when you are in the middle of a generations long terraforming project. But for just real estate, I like Mars.

The story of  "Leviathan's Wake", the first novel in the series, closely follows two main characters. Holden is a worker on an ice hauler, a large spaceship performing the somewhat grey work of catching and dragging huge chunks of ice floating in space to human settlements. However, he quickly finds himself in the midst of a conspiracy of gigantic proportions that has him struggling to stay alive as he works out what is happening and why. Miller is a detective in a settlement built on a large rock in the asteroid belt, who becomes obsessed with a case of a missing woman as he realizes that he doesn't have much else to live for. The charismatic young hero and the cynical detective somehow find themselves working together to save countless lives from a horrifying threat.

Aside from the outside threat that the villains of the book are representing, most of the tension in the story comes from a political animosity between Earth, Mars and the "belters" (those who live in the asteroid belts). While issues like skin color or religion seemed to have faded into the pages of history (gender equality is not quite there, but much closer than in our time), new kinds of racism took their place. Belters are perhaps the most obvious example of this - due to living their entire lives in a very low gravity environment, their bodies are considerably longer and thinner than Earthers, which makes their head look disproportionately large and generally gives them a very different appearance, which of course becomes the focus of prejudice - both from Earthers to Belters and vice-versa. Humanity in "The Expanse" are an excitable lot, all too eager to shoot at each other because they look different and grew up in different environments.

Q: So you took all the old prejudices and threw them out the window, but replaced them with new ones - what are you doing with these new forms of racism? 

Ty: The thing that that lets you do is to talk about racism, without specifically talking about any particular racism. There are dangers in writing a book that is at least partly about racism and using any actual ethnicity from Earth. The dangers are: one - that you co-opt somebody else's ethnic story, and the other is that you get it wrong because you are not a member of the group that is being oppressed or you're not a member of the group that's doing the oppressing, and then you're going to get the details wrong. But when you create your own races you can have them do whatever you want them to do and nobody's going to get upset. Nobody on our planets is a Martian, nobody is a Belter. So nobody is going to read about Belter oppression and go, "oh, the co-opted my ethnic story and stolen my ethnic identity". So we can kinda do whatever we want because we are making it up.

Daniel: I can never figure out if what we've done with the racism in the books is really optimistic or really pessimistic. It's optimistic because we've  taken all the things we're dealing with now and kind of gotten over them, but it's pessimistic in that we just come up with new ones. I mean the idea that humans are going to be dividing each other and themselves no matter what and no matter how far we go - that's pretty deep in the DNA of the project.

Ty: What we are really talking about is resource distribution more than anything else. Some people have a lot, and some people don't have very much, and there's always a sense of entitlement  that comes with privilege and that is what causes the sense of anger that comes with want. And we're always going to have people who have more than others, and there's a dynamic that rises out of it that I don't know how we can prevent. 

Q: So, let's talk science fiction for a moment. You guys have been somewhat vocal saying that you think something has been a bit off with science fiction lately. Can you elaborate on what that is and how you try to fix it in your books?

Daniel: Well, I can tell you why I've stopped reading so much science fiction for a while. Our argument is that in the 80's, mostly, American science fiction wound up taking the path where it became a much more inward looking genre, a genre that was playing to the people who were already familiar with it and serving that core readership to the exclusion of being accessible to new crowds or folks that were not dedicated to that project enough to get turned on by all the ideas and comments and back references that were being prized. And, we didn't go into this thinking "we shall remake science fiction, haha!". We went into it saying, "this will be fun and maybe we'll get to make some money", and it worked really well. But what we wound up doing was writing something that was intentionally accessible, that you could just pick up and read and enjoy, and it has the plots and characters and the kind of stuff that you normally associate these days with epic fantasy - but with spaceships!

Ty: The key to Daniel's theory is that there was a stretch there where science fiction stopped being fun, and exactly what Daniel talked about happened - everybody went and read fantasy instead, because fantasy was fun. The fantasy writers were writing about interesting people doing interesting stuff in an interesting setting. You didn't have to understand the math to read them, you didn't have to slog through pages and pages and pages of technical details to understand what was going on. And the audience went there in droves. Fantasy used to be much smaller than science fiction, but now it's flipped and fantasy has a much larger audience, and I personally believe it's because of the fun. I mean, there are people who read to be challenged, and I think that's an audience who deserves to be served, but there are still a lot of people who read to relax. They want to seat on their couch with a cup of coffee and a book that takes them to another place or another life, and they don't want to be punished for wanting that. We are trying to serve that market in science fiction.

While Daniel and Ty are very accurate in their description of their books as "fun", and you certainly don't need an engineering degree to understand their stories, their writing is not quite as free from real science as they'd have you believe. In "The Expense" I found a delightfully convincing exploration of the importance of gravity (or lack thereof) in life in the outer space and outside of earth. On spaceship or space stations there is no magical artificial gravity - in space travel, the "gravity" you feel is the thrust of your ship, so accelerating quickly would increase the force you feel. In spaceship battles, the human combatants aboard the ships need to encase themselves in special crush couches that would prevent them being flung about or simply crushed by the force of strong and sudden shifts in acceleration as the ships maneuver. In space stations the "gravity" is an apparent force created by spinning the structure, so that rooms in the outward edge of the station are undesirable living quarters because of the strengthening of the Coriolis effect. People who lived all of their life in the Belt or on a small moon of the outer planets will never be able to land on Earth, because the sudden strong gravity will kill them. There are many other such small details in the books. Gravity is a constant companion and adversary of every space traveler, and it's relentless presence is a remainder of just how different things will be for someone who actually tries to live in or travel through the outer space.

Q: So, of all the things you could have chosen to make realistic, you chose gravity.

Ty: The thing with gravity is - and this came from my objections to certain science fiction tropes - is that one of the things you see in science fiction is somebody will have something like a gravity plate. All right, this ship has gravity plating and no matter how fast it's accelerating it's always the same. And they do have technical details, but what they never do is explore all of the other things that would change about the world, and I always found that frustrating. Like, in Star Trek they have gravity plating so that they could walk out of their spaceships - but why isn't the gravity plating everywhere, doing all sorts of things? there are a million different uses for that that never get explored because apparently the only use for that is so that you could walk around.  Daniel actually has this interesting theory that good stories come out of obstructions. for example keeping light waves realistic means there's no instantaneous communication. If you send the signal it will only go as fast as the speed of light so if something's sufficiently far away there will be minutes or even hours of delay before you get an answer back. You know, that's just basic science stuff, we are not doing anything extraordinary but what comes out of that is really great story stuff. For example if somebody desperately needs to talk to someone else to give them information, and they don't get to know if the person got the information or not. It actually becomes a plot point. That's really interesting stuff that comes out of taking basic science principles and treating them realistically. It's low level plausibility, but it gives us great moments in the stories.

So far only the first book  was mentioned to avoid spoilers. There is however an element of the next books that is spoiler free and worth mentioning - the new characters. With the second book, three new point of view characters were introduced to the story, giving it a bigger and more epic feel than the first one had. Every book since has introduced new point of view characters - but here's the catch - the new character introduced in each book were finished by the end of it. The new characters from the second book had went through an entire satisfying character arc, and by the time the third book started, new people were there to take the mantle of serving as point of view characters. This method allows the continued introduction of new characters to the story without bogging it down with the need to follow too many plot threads at once. 

And, as more and more POV characters were introduced, a pattern emerged. The characters are not the usual assortment of action heroes one would expect from a space opera. Rather, they are a collection of seemingly regular people with regular (if interesting, sometimes) lives - we have priests, soldiers, scientists, politicians, rich people and poor people, Earthers and Martians and Belters, men and women, young and old. 

Q: It sometimes feels like you are trying to show the setting through the eyes of as many different kinds of people as possible. Are you trying to collect them all?

Daniel: I don't think that we can collect all the different kinds of people, but that would be cool. One of the things that was an inspiration to our project is the movie "Alien", and the idea of a blue collar future - a place that has workers and truck drivers and not everybody is James Bond. And that was actually true in "The Stars My Destination", too. That's a through line you can draw between those two projects. Stars My Destination was very much about a working class bunch of folks, like Alien. And we wanted to have those guys too, we like those guy. There's a lot of stories to be told there, and that's a perspective that I think is in some ways easier for us to access - because I'm much closer to a guy who's cleaning out a reactor core with kind of iffy equipment than I am to a high level super spy.

Ty: And if you look at the way it works, even in our world - the first people to cross the Atlantic to the new world were generals, and explorers and all sorts of high level people. But the people who cross the Atlantic now, they are Merchant Marines. They are guys in huge container ships, they carry a tool-belt and wrenches and they make sure that the engine works . So the first wave is always the super spies, but the fourth wave is workers.  It's blue collar guys. And in our setting we are already past the first explorers, that happened hundreds of years ago. So the people making the journey now are the merchant marines - They are the guys who drive the boat and make sure it doesn't break down under them.

Q: So the characters come in, do their thing for a book, and by the end of it they're done. Is that a thing you're doing?

WARNING: THE ANSWER TO THE ABOVE QUESTIONS CONTAINS SPOILERS TO "CALIBAN'S WAR". Daniel: That is a thing we are doing. Some of them will be coming back because they aren't finished with the books they first appeared in. But Prax, for example, from the second book- he had his story, he had his whole story arc, he's complete. We probably won't go back to him because it would be an entire story about running botanical tests on Ganymede. That would be the entire story, and there will be very few space battles in it. But the idea of having a large stable of characters will help give a sense of how big the world is, and then you can draw them in when they are the most appropriate view point on whatever the action is that's going on in the system seemed like a good one. It seems to have worked out so far, though it's a little bit hard because people wind up with their favorite characters, and when their favorites don't come back right away they get cranky - but I do appreciate that they've bonded with the folk that we have made up. So yeah, I think you'll go right ahead introducing new people when we need them and bringing back old people when we need them, creating a cast of characters that's larger than any one book is able to support.

Q: What is the structure of the series? Is it going to remain episodic all the way to the end?

Daniel: For the most part. There are gonna be some when we leave you on a little bit of a cliff hanger. We did that with the second book, as people recall, and that kind of drew you into the third book, and we'll do that on occasion. But we would like to have it be something where every book, in addition to being a step along the larger path it also has a sense of completion. That's something you get to do when you have multiple view point characters. I mean, the James Holden story is the one that's going the whole arc and you're not going to get a sense of completion for him until the very end but for many other people along the way you could.  By having that mix of stories that end and stories that continue we are hoping to have our cake and eat it too.

Q: But how about the bigger picture? Let's say someone just finished reading the series. What kind of story have they just read?

Daniel: they will have read a massive story about human maturity and immaturity, and loss and hope and greed, and tribalism and compassion, and what it takes to take a well meaning, sort of naive guy and make him into someone who can do amazing and terrible things.

Ty: My one sentence version of this is that the story is about humanity graduating from middle school

Daniel: That's good too, I like that.

Ty: Humanity spreads into space and we are sort of going through the really really horrible teenage years, and then in the end we're going to be ready for something better. We're not telling you that story, but we're gonna leave humanity in a place where they are ready for that story.

Q: The books all have a similar name template, that involves the name of a mythological creature that has something to do with the plot of the book. Are you trying to tell us something with that?

Daniel: We're saying "Oh, shit, we have a template, now we have to fit all our titles into that!"

Ty: But we are stuck with that now.

Daniel: Yes. Leviathan's Wake was the first one and then Caliban's War was the second one, and then we had this entirely different title for the third one that we didn't get to use. Actually, when we were writing the fourth one we called it "Dave", because... well, we didn't know what the published was gonna call it anyway. So we just, you know, "Dave". But then the time came and we came up with something that fits the pattern, but at this point I think it's more of a shtick than a deep aesthetic choice on our part.

The transition from books to a screen adaptation with "The Expense" is a very swift one - about 4 years, as the SyFy series will hopefully see air at the start of 2015, four years after the publication of the first novel. This is the same amount of time it took to do a movie about the first Harry Potter book, for a frame of reference. Early signs show that the show has much promise, as is evident by the confidence of SyFy's president, and the talented ensemble that's been recruited to make it.

Q: Alright, the big one: what are you looking forward to with the TV show? what are you expecting?

Ty: There's not a lot we can talk about right now because we are actually in the middle of working on it. I'm actually sitting in the production studio in LA right now. Daniel had to come back to his family so that pulled him out of here but I've been able to stay. It's going to be interesting.

Daniel: I think we can say it's an amazingly talented group of people that  we are working with. The team that they've put together is such that if I would have picked I would not have known well enough to get these guys. Seeing them rework the story and knowing the constraints of television in a way that they do and I don't, has been an amazing treat and amazing education. If things go from here on out the way they have been going up till now, I think we are going to see something really really interesting.  I think it's gonna be a really fascinating show. I actually think it's going to be different than any other science fiction show I've seen on television.

Ty: Yes, that's what we are aiming for, different.

Daniel: Which is kind of interesting because with the book we've been talking back to the books of the 70's, and it turns out the books of the 70's have never been put on television. The science fiction show of the 70's were not actually related to the books of the time.

Q: If anyone wants to find out more, are there any official websties, twitter accounts, fan sites, anything of the sort?

Daniel: I would send them to talk to us and wee what we are up to. There's www.the-expense.com, that's our blog where we would write things that are really important. Then there's out twitter accounts, @JamesSACorey and @AbrahamHanover, the first Ty runs and the other I run. For more information about the expense, a guy put together a wiki about it, you can just google "the expense wiki". He has done more to lay that out than we have.

This brings to a wrap my interview with the duo. As always I hope the reading was both entertaining and interesting, and that some of those who read it will give the books a shot. James S. A. Corey actually mentioned that they were going to check out the option of a Hebrew translation to their books, so we just might see that happen too.

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