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.


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.


Leviathan Wakes: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Read an excerpt. Visit Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck’s shared blog, Lizard Brain.

38 Comments on “The Big Idea: James S.A. Corey”

  1. That comment about Cryptonomicon is going to bug me all day. Which part? Why foaming? Neal Stephenson as a Fluffy Bunny?

    It’s too early. Now Neal Stephenson is taking Bruce Mcculloch’s place in the Fluffy Bunny sketch from The Kids in the Hall.

    Sorry, I’ll go drink my coffee now.

  2. 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.

    This. EXACTLY. This right here has just convinced me to get this book. :)

  3. I love the artwork on the cover. Fits very nicely with the old-school space opera theme. I have many paperback books with this style of cover and miss that is has gone out of style. Name of the artist?

    There is one artist I have in mind that is known for this kind of artwork but my coffee is apparently not working and his name evades me…

  4. @ #4: Chris Foss did come to mind but that is not who I was thinking of.

    Coffee must be working now… John Berkey is who I am thinking of. Loved the spaceships he made for us sci-fi geeks. This cover reminds me of that style and it just clicks for me. I should get a book based on the story but this cover will have me getting it for that reason alone and then I am sure the story will be all the better. Win win.

  5. thank you for the kind words on the cover art! Daniel Dociu is the artist. His work is so dynamic and amazing, it really brings so much action to the cover. And what I love most about his art is that it’s BRIGHT. So many space books are so dark…I think the brightness and colors really add to the excitement. The design of the type is Kirk Benshoff’s. the spine is the best part tho! (see here:

  6. What Angela Korra’ti said…

    Here, here.

    I want to care about those imaginary characters. Books/movies/TV shows that don’t have characters I care about or with whom I can empathize don’t work for me.

  7. Damn, I must have this book. Abraham is one of my favorite fantasy writers and I can’t wait to see what he can do in space opera (no offense to Ty who I have not read but I am sure is a nice person). And yes, we need to see the Stephenson rant. Pleeeeeeeze.

  8. I was thrilled to see that there’s an ebook edition and went to buy it, but alas I’m not allowed to since I don’t own a Kindle or a Nook. On top of that I’m Canadian, so I’m really out of luck. I dream of the day I may be permitted to give authors from major publishers money. In the meantime, since I won’t pirate, I won’t read it.

  9. The Big Ideas have been kind of fizzly for me lately — this is the first one in a while that made me want to go out and buy it.

    @Joel: Kobo books: Leviathan Wakes.

  10. I started reading this yesterday and I’m really enjoying it. So far, it’s a great read…everything I love about space opera with extra added grittiness.

  11. I loved this book – it’s a fantastic bit of fun, and I can’t wait for the next one in the series. Plus, I want that cover framed on my wall: it’s stunning.

  12. Hmm, the amazon listing says, “**Includes a copy of The Dragon’s Path by Daniel Abraham**”, but it doesn’t appear to do so after purchase. Guess I need to drop Amazon a note.

  13. I’d already had the book on my radar and reading Jeff VanderMeer’s SF/Fantasy for the Summer post put it on my “OK, really check this out” list, and I really like what was said here. What I don’t like is that there doesn’t appear to be an audiobook version. Who do we have to back the bacon pony glitter money truck up to in order to get that to happen?

  14. I take it back. It wasn’t there yesterday morning, honestly. But there it is, released yesterday at Audible. I wish it were easier to tell in advance whether Audible was going to carry an audiobook or not. My bad…

  15. Oh I so love the talk of joy and wonder. On reserve at the library now.

    I am so fed up with dour depressing stories of crushed people staggering from disaster to disaster.
    It’s even worse when they are brilliantly written.
    If I want to be depressed and bitter I’ll watch the news.

  16. Do you want to be a safe writer or a dangerous writer?

    A safe writer will tend way towards the ends of the spectrums of Fluffy Bunny or Solemnist. Very few readers will be offended since they won’t be required to think too much. The Fluffy Bunny end (sweetness and light) requires little involvement beyond thinking the characters are cute or lovable or whatever, and that the plot is acceptable.

    The Solemnist end will either agree or disagree, but probably not fanatically since everything is so logical. Not much hate mail there, my friends.

    However, if you’re a dangerous writer, you reader will get sucked in and be required to think. “Is that a proper ethical decision?” “Do we even know what ethics are?” “Abortion is sinful.” (Cider House Rules). They will get lots of powerful emotional experiences and you will get hate mail. Others will get lots of powerful emotional experiences and you’ll get lots of admiration mail.

    People (generality) will discuss (and argue about) a dangerous writer’s works and ideas. The Fluffy Bunny or Solemnist writer works will get “That one was okay.” at the best.

    Which would you rather be: safe or dangerous?

    Now go write something great.

  17. I grabbed the sample from Amazon and the story is definitely good enough to be called up to the majors. 1st Big Idea in awhile that I’ve bought and started reading the very same day.

  18. I just purchased and read the book this evening. I found it a quick and very engaging read. I’m not sure I’d call it Space Opera, but I highly recommend it. I was going through Amazon preordering ebooks and noticed that almost all the books I was preordering were fantasy. The last science fiction book I purchased was very good, but a bit derivative, almost like fan fiction that had been published ‘rebooting’ an earlier very good novel.

    This big idea sold me on Leviathan Wakes, and I’ve enjoyed the book.

  19. I’m still thinking about Tom Clancy literally meeting Dracula, I imagine the count would tear the pool fellow to pieces and wipe his gore splashed chin with that hat.

    But I will definitely be buying this book, best Big Idea I’ve read for a while (they’re all good but this one was particularly good, short, sweet and engaging).

  20. Skip: Usually it just shows up as more text at the end of the book rather than as a separate entry. Don’t know why they did it that way, but I assume it there was some very good reason for it.

    For the folks who were moved to pick up the book, thank you and I hope it works for you. We do our best.

    And for those of you who asked (and with some trepadation), here’s the rant.

  21. I read the ARC and loved every minute of it. Wonderful book that I can’t recommend enough. Thanks Daniel and Ty!

  22. Daniel, I had the same problem as Skip. The text
    For _The Dragon’s Path_ was not present in the file or as a separate download. Amazon said they’d look into it. I thought the book was worth buying without the free offer, however the free offer did encourage me to purchase the book.

    I did have one major problem with the novel. It made it so I didn’t get anything done last night and I stayed up too late.

  23. Great piece, glad to see this book getting as much exposure as possible. I reviewed it for SFFWorld and think it is one of the best 2 or 3 genre books of the year – an absolute blast of a book. Can’t wait for the second book.

  24. Fantastic guys. I loved loved loved what you had to say about sentimentality, and I loved your book. My only disappointment is now that it’s out I can’t keep lording my ARC over people.

  25. Thank goodness for The Big Idea. I got this book, am only like a fifth of the way through it, and it’s really hard to put down. Yay for characters I really am pulling for, even if the full scope of the problem hasn’t yet presented itself.

  26. Amazon has updated my copy to include The Dragon’s Path. In order for it to shoe up on my device I had to fill out a form on their site. If you have the kindle version and don’t see the second book contact customer service.

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