EXCLUSIVE: The Expanse's James SA Corey talk TV adaptation, state of sci-fi

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Jan 25, 2016, 1:51 PM EST (Updated)

Ty Franck and Daniel Abraham have been busy. When we connect via email and try to make plans to talk, the duo, who together make up the pen name James SA Corey, are on their way to Los Angeles to start breaking ideas for a potential Season 2 of The Expanse. But even before that, they’ve been busy.

They've released a new book every year since their debut novel, 2011’s Hugo Award-nominated Leviathan Wakes. Their fifth installment in the series, Nemesis Games, debuted on June 2 of this year. Almost immediately after Syfy won the bidding war to bring The Expanse to TV in April 2014, they, along with Iron Man scribes Mark Fergus and Hawk Ostby, got to work writing The Expanse’s first season. Sometime between, they took time out from their own space opera to visit another galaxy far, far away when they penned Honor Among Thieves about everyone’s favorite nerfherder.

And it seems like things will only take off from there. Syfy’s making The Expanse’s presence known at San Diego Comic Con, where panel attendees will get an exclusive preview of the first episode and The Hard Rock Cafe has been transformed into all things The Expanse.

I had the chance to talk to both Ty and Daniel while they were in Los Angeles about what’s next for their acclaimed series, adapting The Expanse to TV, Star Wars, and what inspires them as writers. 

The Expanse was something of a hot property in terms of bringing it to TV. What was it about Syfy’s pitch that sold you that they were the ones to bring it to the screen?

Daniel: They committed the most money. Nothing speaks to sincerity like being willing to open your wallet.

Ty: It sounds mercenary but it’s absolutely true. This is a big epic story, and having a network partner that was willing to step up and commit the resources necessary to tell it is pretty amazing. Plus, making the biggest science fiction show in TV history and not putting it on the Syfy channel? It just doesn’t make any sense.

The series has its roots as a pen-and-paper game setting. Any plans, if the show is successful, to branch back out into gaming? What kind of video game experience would they most want to see in an Expanse title?

Daniel: Any plans for that would be Alcon Entertainment’s plans. They got those rights when the exercised their option. For me — Ty may have a different take — I’d enjoy seeing an open world RPG, or series of them, along the lines of Assassin’s Creed. It would be cool to have the scope to do huge, long-form stories like that and still not have to play in an MMO setting. I don’t like playing with other people. Gaming is where I go to get away from the world.

Ty: I think it would be hilarious if The Expanse came full circle and became an MMO. I’d love a full fleshed paper and dice RPG setting created by experts for the expanse too. But as Daniel says, at this point that will be something Alcon licenses.

What’s been the biggest surprise for both of you in the process of adapting the show for TV? The biggest challenge? The easiest thing?

Daniel: The biggest surprise for me is the way that the storytelling toolbox for writing and television is totally different but also functionally really similar. Just for one example, people always talk about how in TV you can’t get into a character’s head the way you can in prose, and in a way that’s true. You can’t just flat out say what the character is thinking. But it turns out you can totally say what a character is feeling, because you have the musical score. Those kind of parallels are really cool. The biggest challenge for me has been the amount of time I’ve spent away from home and family. And the easiest thing? I don’t know that. The best thing has been watching a bunch of smart, dedicated people put vast skill sets I don’t have into making something cool. It’s been a privilege and a joy to watch that happen.

Ty: Turning all of our big space stuff into a doable TV budget is not easy. We make a lot big expensive stuff that then blows up spectacularly. This gives visual effects supervisors nightmares.

"Turning all of our big space stuff into a doable TV budget is not easy". -Ty

Given that Ty formerly worked for George R.R. Martin, some similarities between the Expanse and ASoIaF (human political squabbling while mysterious alien threat looms plot, point-of-view chapter structure), and the fact that the TV pitch that was bouncing around was “Game of Thrones in space,” is there any concern in terms of being too closely associated with Martin?

Daniel: To be fair, Ty’s only half the problem. I collaborated on a novel with George and Gardner Dozois, I’ve adapted his work into graphic novels, and I’ve been active in his Wildcards universe. I’m not particularly worried about being too much identified with him, though. The project we’re working on is different at its root than George’s stuff. If folks come in the door expecting Game of Thrones, some may go away disappointed, but some will also stay for something a little different.

Ty: Yeah, it’s terrible being associated with the best selling author in the world. :) But no, it’s not a thing we worry about too much. We both like George a lot, and he’s been a great mentor to us both in a lot of ways.

One of the things that characterized The Expanse early on was how grounded it was, but as the series progresses, we’re seeing more alien tech, warp gates, new planets, etc. Has this been the plan all along? How are you planning to continue on this trajectory while still maintaining the character of the series?

Daniel: This was part of the plan all along. Ty pointed out very early in the process that we’ve seen a lot of near future science fiction and a lot of vast, galaxy spanning far future science fiction, but you don’t tend to see stuff in the bridge time between the two. As to the underlying character of the story, I don’t think that’ll change much. The basic argument we’re making about humanity is going to hold true whether the imaginary tech is a super-efficient fusion drive or a wormhole gate.

Ty: It’s fun to start feeding in all of those high concept SF ideas but have your characters still mentally living in the low tech setting. We want our characters to remain relatable in a way that I find far future high concept SF often loses.

You nod to some classic literature and Greek mythology in your series with some of the names of characters & places. What are some other non-genre works that inspire you as writers?

Daniel: I’m still kind of an omnivore when it comes to reading. I think Mary Roach is doing some great popular science work these days. The Passion by Jeanette Winterson is for my money one of the most beautifully written books on a sentence-by-sentence level I’ve ever read. And Tim Parks’ book-length essay Medici Money was cool enough I read it over and over and based an epic fantasy series at least partly on it.

Ty: I love mythology, so those influences show up in a lot of our work. I also spent a long stretch of my teen years reading everything Shakespeare ever did, and it probably altered how I view storytelling.

One of the things I notice with all your books is though it takes place in the future, a lot of the themes and issues are pretty comparable to the world we presently live in. Nemesis Games, for example, talks about terrorist attacks and the crumbling and weakened government/s. Is that intentional? Are you at all influenced by current news when writing?

Daniel: There’s the old saw about books being written about the time they’re being written in. I think that’s just truth. The Expanse series isn’t really an attempt to make a hard-science speculation on what the future of space travel will look like. It’s a science fiction story that’s supposed to speak to people reading it now. I don’t think we’re ever tearing things from the headlines, but we’re alive now and this world is the water we swim in. The argument about transparency and information control in Leviathan Wakes was written before Edward Snowden was in the news, but it reads like a commentary on him anyway.

Ty: You can’t escape the fact that we’re living in a post 9/11 world. The question of why a person or group would commit atrocities and feel justified is one that we’re all grappling with right now. There’s no way to keep that from creeping into the work.

What sci-fi are you into right now? Books/comics/shows, etc.

Daniel: I’m actually going through a bunch of old crime novels right now. Night of the Jabberwock, Friends of Eddie Coyle, old Cornell Woolrich novels. Stuff like that. For comics, I always pick up Astro City collections when they come out, and I’ve been kind of blown away by a webcomic called Strong Female Protagonist.

Ty: I just did a reread of Cherie Priest’s Maplecroft. I adore that book. Also recently finished Vandermeer’s Southern Reach trilogy.

Which had more influence on your series: Star Wars or Star Trek?

D: Star Wars. It’s grungier.

Ty: Empire Strikes Back era Star Wars.

So you must have loved that i09 called Nemesis Games your Empire Strikes Back. Do you see any parallel between the two? If so, how?

Daniel: I read that as io9 feeling like the book was really emotionally engaging and also totally a set-up for what comes next. That seems accurate.

Ty:A middle chapter that actually matters to people? Yeah, I’ll take that.

Speaking of Star Wars, you guys wrote Honor Among Thieves, which you got a lot of fanboy praise for nailing Han Solo’s “voice” and writing a story that felt like original trilogy. How is writing a book for a preexisting story different from writing your own?

Daniel: Well, there’s a lot of source material that you get to hang out with and absorb, so that’s kind of a leg up. But there’s also a huge number of constraints that fence you in and threaten to knock people out of the story when — inevitably — you get something wrong.

Ty: It’s not a trivial problem to make sure you don’t bump into something else and knock it over. The Star Wars canon is so huge and sprawling and filled with so many details that it’s a big like guiding a bull through a china shop.

Who, for each of you, is your favorite Rocinante crew member, and why?

Daniel: I have a soft spot for Alex. He’s the glue that holds the place together, and he’s the most recognizably human of all of them.

Ty: Amos is my Id.

Is there an endgame for you guys? How many books are you planning to write in this main Expanse story arc?

Daniel: We’re under contract for nine books, and along with the book that collects the short stories and novellas, I think that’ll be the end of the story we started in Leviathan Wakes.

Ty: The story we want to tell will take nine books. And once we’ve told it, it’s done. There might be other stories to tell, but that’s a maybe.

Daniel: Nemesis Games (and Babylon’s Ashes — the sixth book) are kind of the hinge point of the series.

Ty: We feel lucky that we’ve been able to layer in these plot points from the very beginning. Give Orbit credit for being to committed to this project from the start.,hopefully in ways that are surprising when they happen and inevitable in retrospect.