The Big Idea: James S.A. Corey
As you read today’s Big Idea, don’t be concerned when James S.A. Corey starts discussing himself in first person plural. He’s neither royalty nor confused; “he” is actually two people: Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck, who have joined forces to create Leviathan Wakes, an old-school space opera that’s got the reviewers happy (“strong characterization and excellent world-building will have readers jonesing for the planned sequels” — Publishers Weekly). How did these two authors make their collaboration — and their novel — work? The answer is surprising.
JAMES S.A. COREY:
The thing that will sink a collaborative project the fastest – and I mean damn – is having different projects. And I’m using projects in its high-brow “creation-of-personal-meaning” drag here. When we sat down to write the book that turned into Leviathan Wakes, we spent a long time talking about what the book was not in the sense of should we write a horror novel or a scifi novel, but as in why write? Why read? What are we doing here? What’s the point?
We got lucky. We weren’t in a place where one of us wanted to write a postmodern reflection on the futility of all human endeavor interspersed with passages from Faust when the other guy was thinking more Tom Clancy Meets Dracula. And in fact for two folks with wildly different life experiences, we found that we were, project-wise, in pretty much the same place.
So here it goes. Big idea? Embrace sentimentality.
Writing is an undignified sport. Writers take their personal lives and experiences – including the romantic failures and family hang-ups and fears and insecurities – and turn them into entertainment for other people. We hold some part of ourselves up for the casual judgment of the world, and there’s not even an objective scale to tell us how we’re doing. If you went into a government lab to design a program to instill anxiety and neurosis, you couldn’t do much better. Different writers build different ways to deal with that.
One common defense – the one we both were reacting against – is to pretend we didn’t really mean it in the first place. “Oh look,” the narrator seems to say, “it’s a science fiction adventure. But I don’t take it seriously. I mean what kind of person would take this seriously? We’re all in on the joke here, right?”
There are, it seems to us, two ways this preemptive irony presents. Call them the Fluffy Bunny and the Solemnist.
Connie Willis told Daniel something once in relation to a different project. She said that in a romantic comedy, you could make fun of everything except the love the two main characters have for each other. Once you start making fun of that, you’ve gutted the story. The Fluffy Bunny writes light, arch stories that remind you at every turn that you aren’t really supposed to care. These characters are just characters in a story, and not really even a particularly believable story. God knows the author would never take these people seriously. Lighten up! Be in on the joke.
(At this point, Daniel goes on a foaming-at-the-mouth rant about that one part of Cryptonomicon despite the fact that it’s in many ways a fine book and his friends assure him that Neal Stephenson is a perfectly decent human being.)
The Solemnist is the same problem in different drag. Where the Fluffy Bunny points out that everything’s a joke, the Solemnist makes a point that everything in the story is very serious and ripe with scientific accuracy and allegorical and psychological meaning. The books are idea books, and if you criticize them it’s because you weren’t smart enough to get the idea. The story is still a joke, but now instead of the punchline asking for laughter, it asks for a knowing nod.
Either way, the story becomes safe for the writer. The writer beats the critic to the punch by leaving out the sentimentality.
Us? We’ll take the hits. We’re sentimentalists. We care whether the soul-crushed cop finds redemption. We care whether the quixotic holy fool of a captain overcomes his own failings in time to get the girl. And we expect you to care too. The risk we take is that you might not, and if you don’t, there’s no defense against the failure on our part. But you know what? We think it’s worth it anyway.
Writing genre fiction is undignified. Reading genre fiction is undignified. If we’re going to do this, it should be joyful. We should create a little literary pocket universe where we can shuck off the irony and defensiveness and care about these imaginary people, and weep for them, feel awe when they’re awed, triumph with them when they win, and grieve with them when they fail. If there is any sense of wonder to be had, it’s there. Wonder is what we come here for.
Our project, and the reason we can work together, is that we both respect and honor the opera half of space opera and all the tragedy and awe and romance and fear that comes with it.