To be sure, the science-fiction saga about our future fractious solar system has been very, very good to Abraham and his co-author for the book series, Ty Franck.
Writing under the pen name of James S.A. Corey, Abraham and Franck are just finishing up the eighth book in the series, “Tiamat’s Wrath,” and getting ready to start the ninth and final volume. (Abraham says he already knows the title, but is bound by Orbit Books to keep it secret for now.)
Then there’s the TV show: The third season of “The Expanse” is wrapping up on the Syfy cable channel, and a month ago, Amazon picked up the show in dramatic fashion for a fourth season.
That announcement was made at a space conference by none other than Amazon’s billionaire founder, Jeff Bezos, with the cast of “The Expanse” sitting out in the audience.
Abraham has compared the writing business to a casino, and says that “writers are, among other things, professional gamblers.” If that’s so, he’s hit the jackpot with “The Expanse” alone.
But that’s not his only play: He uses a different pen name, M.L.N. Hanover, for a long-running wizards-and-demons book series known as “The Black Sun’s Daughter.” Under his own name, Abraham writes fantasy novels (and has contributed to the “Wild Cards” graphic novel series).
Abraham, who lives in New Mexico with his wife and daughter, wore yet another hat this week: He served as an instructor for the Clarion West Summer Workshop, which brings a select few writers to Seattle’s University District to sharpen their skills in speculative fiction.
It was in that capacity that he gave a reading at University Book Store, and sat down in the store’s coffee shop before the reading for a Q&A with yours truly. Here’s an edited transcript of the talk, which started out with the revival of “The Expanse” TV series and ended up with a wide-angle look at politics in the Donald Trump era.
GeekWire: Right now, “The Expanse” is the big thing, so let’s start with that, and of course, the experience of going from Syfy to Amazon …
Daniel Abraham: That was weird! We were all very much under the impression that we were done, and we’d had a good run, and we were all coming to peace with it — and then we had to lurch back into gear and kick all the graveyard dust off our shoes. And now we’re back in the room and moving forward.
Q: In terms of how you work with the show as a producer, are you doing writing chores, or are you standing back and saying, “That sounds right,” or “That needs some work”?
A: Ty and I have been able to be more involved in this project than anybody could have asked. We have been in the writers’ room as writers from the first day of season one. Ty has been on set all of season one, a great chunk of season two, and all of season three. We’ve written a bunch of the scripts.
We started off as producers, and then we moved up to supervising producers, and then co-executive producers. We’re now executive producers on the show, and we are slated to write several of the episodes this time out. I was spending a week in the writing room before I came up here. I’m going to spend a week in the writing room when I get back. Ty is there the whole time. They have let us be part of the writing team in ways that I don’t even know are well-advised, really.
I think we actually do bring something really valuable to the process. Being a novelist is such a different skill set from writing screenplays. If we had gone in there thinking that we were going to do the thing and save the show, and show them how it’s done, I think it would have been terrible. But we both went in there very clear that we were there to learn how to work in a new medium, and very interested in figuring out how the story shifts to fit the new constraints. It’s been an education you couldn’t pay for.
Q: Without getting too spoilery, is there an example of something that’s significantly changed in the shift from the books to the show?
A: Well, the big thing is that we wind up pulling things forward and combining characters. The example of that one is Drummer. She’s a character we pulled forward from book five [“Nemesis Games”] into some of the action in book one [“Leviathan Wakes”] because there were some things that we could do with her as a character, and some things that we could have her carry, that paid off.
She’s not somebody we used in the book until pretty late in the game. She was a major character later. By pulling her into earlier action, we were able to get rid of some other characters and fold their stories in with hers, so that we didn’t have a cast of thousands you have to keep track of.
I think it’s worked out really well. It’s changed some of the pacing of the plot, especially as we come to the end of season three. I love the way we told it in the books … and I love the way we told it in the show. They’re very different, but they both worked for the arc.
Q: Do you think the arc of the show is going in basically the same direction as the arc of the books?
A: We’re doing what we need to do to tell the story we meant to tell.
Q: What was it like to hear that Jeff Bezos was picking up the show?
A: Mostly I found out about it when Cas Anvar and Wes Chatham [two of the show’s stars] started sending me things. My phone blew up with them going, OH MY GOD, OH MY GOD! I heard the story told and retold and retold in the room. Everybody was blown away. I mean, it was one of those moments that doesn’t happen, and they were all there with it happening.
— Cas Anvar (@Casanvar) May 26, 2018
If we didn’t love the show, it wouldn’t be a big deal. I’d be like, “Oh, we have a job,” and that would have been great. But this was a central labor of love for everyone involved. It was such a disappointment that we weren’t going to be working with each other anymore. To then see it come back to life, and come back to life so dramatically … it was amazing.
Q: Is there more pressure now, because, you know, Jeff Bezos has said great things about the show and may expect to continue to see great things?
A: I don’t know if there’s more pressure. We weren’t half-assing it up till now, either. So it’s like, “Well, OK, keep going, keep pushing.”
Working for Syfy, working for basic cable was a challenge. The distribution channel that they’re working with is more and more difficult, and more and more restrictive. Going to a place where there’s a completely different set of expectations and constraints and delivery distribution, that’s weird. On the other hand, what we were doing before is telling the story absolutely the best way we could figure out how, and that’s still what we’re doing. So I feel like it should feel more different than it does.
We’re following up on conversations we had last year when we were at Syfy, and it’s not really shifted much. The idea of how we want to approach the story is still how we want to approach the story. It’s still kind of the way it was before. I hope Jeff likes it.
Q: The author of “Game of Thrones,” George R.R. Martin, took a lot of inspiration from historical accounts of the Wars of the Roses. Are there historical influences on “The Expanse”?
A: Absolutely. Ty has been a student of history his whole life, and I’m catching up a little bit. The things we see in “The Expanse” are things that we keep pulling from one place or another, and the patterns that you see happening over and over and over and over throughout history.
For example, what happens when a new technology or a new discovery changes the balance of power? That’s happened a lot. It happened when we found the New World. It happened when we invented refrigerated cargo ships, and all of a sudden, land-based nobility in Europe collapsed because you can get all of your food cheaper from South America.
There are patterns that are really consistent throughout human history, and yeah, we’ve been borrowing and reimagining those patterns. Because of that, we wind up looking weirdly prescient.
We’ve talked about what happens with refugees in the aftermath of war, because that’s an evergreen problem. It looks like we’re talking about what’s going on today, even though we wrote it eight years ago, because it’s something that humanity revisits and revisits.
We pull a lot from ancient history. Ty and I talk a lot about the Persian empire and the fall of Babylon, and what the pattern of that was in the ancient world. And then we relate that to what we’re looking at in this imaginary world with spaceships and stargates.
So much of the point of the books is that humans are humans, and the things we did before, we’re going to keep doing wherever we go. The way that we fumbled along before is the way we will fumble along in the future. We’ve gotten pretty far, and we’ve done some amazing stuff, and we’ll keep going and we’ll probably keep doing amazing stuff. And it will be undignified, in the future as it was in the past.
Q: Looking beyond “The Expanse,” are there things in the current-day world that inspire your imagination for future stories?
A: Sure. I think that we’re at a fascinating time in American history. We’re really in an unprecedented kind of place, at least in my lifetime. And you can’t be living through that kind of history without it affecting you. Anything that we write is a reflection of our experience and the sense we make of the world. And I’m struggling to make sense of the world right now, same as everybody.
I can’t imagine that the stuff that’s going on now won’t shape what I’m going to be writing, what I’m going to be imagining, what I’m going to be putting out in the next few years. For better or worse.
Q: I wanted to ask about the Twitter account that you have for James S.A. Corey … who deals with that?
A: In a sense, it’s Ty, because I have my own — I have @AbrahamHanover, which is the one I use personally. It’s Ty saying his opinions, but James also has developed his own voice.
Ty does not have a social-media footprint. If we get to a place where we’re done with James S.A. Corey as a project, Ty is just going to hand that over to a personal assistant, and he’s not going to go back on. So I don’t actually know how much of that Twitter account is Ty, and how much of it is Jimmy Corey.
Q: It’s interesting, because the account gets very political.
A: We are very political.
Q: I think there was a point where James S.A. Corey was saying, “We write books, but that doesn’t mean we don’t have our own opinions.”
A: There is that thread of “shut up and sing” right now — in which artists, by being artists, should cease to be citizens and become these weird, allegedly apolitical objects. As if what we do isn’t political. As if writing and making music, and making art, can happen outside the political context.
That’s a weird idea. It tends to be a way to end a conversation. It tends to be the way to say, “You, who have the microphone, shouldn’t be speaking.” And it’s a really dumb argument to make. It’s stupid, because of course we are still citizens. Of course we are still members of our nation. Of course we are still patriots. Of course we still think that the people who are f—ing up perhaps ought not. And also, we have a microphone. Fighting with the guy who has the microphone, practically, is just not a good idea.
Guys, no I'm not going to shut up. Something terrible is happening in this country and every patriot should be speaking out. I don't care what your profession is, you're allowed to have a voice. Does it make you angry? Good. I'm angry too. And when you tell me to shut up anyway? pic.twitter.com/eyRsclV0xR
— James S.A. Corey (@JamesSACorey) June 10, 2018
Q: And that microphone comes with some responsibility. That goes against the idea that “we don’t want to hear about anything except the pretty stories that you’re telling us.”
A: As if the pretty stories that I’m telling aren’t about women in color in positions of power, about gay and lesbian and bisexual people being part of society, as if all of that wasn’t already deep in the fabric of what we’re writing.
It breaks my head a little bit. And also the idea that because I am an executive producer on a TV show, I should be OK with taking kids away from their families. I just don’t understand.
The only way I think we’re going to get through this phase is if we find ways to talk to each other without shouting at each other. I hope that we can come to a place where there is a drive to de-escalate the rhetoric, and calm people’s fears, and get back to our better selves as a nation and as a culture. I think it’s possible.
I think a lot of what’s going on right now is going on because we are being whipped into a frenzy, and I think a lot of the terrible things that are going on right now are … they’re fear biting.
Q: Fear biting?
A: Fear biting. Like a dog. A dog gets too scared and lashes out, not because it’s under threat, but because it thinks it is. I think a lot of people are doing some things that, if they were calm, if they felt safe, they would not do. I think people are justifying atrocities because of stories they’ve been told that aren’t true.
Q: Are there lessons that people can get from “The Expanse”?
A: I think the argument I’ve always made is that “The Expanse” is a long argument that there’s more to admire in humanity than to despise. Despite all the evidence, I still think that’s true.
I don’t think a future is possible in which we stop being the kinds of animals that we are. I don’t think there’s a possible future that doesn’t rhyme with history. But there’s beautiful stuff in history, and there are moments of real grace and hope in history.
As we look at all of the terrible things, all the tragedies and all of the refugees and all of the wars, there’s also all of the peace accords and all of the art. And all of the bakers who get up in the morning and make bread and sell it to people who don’t look like them or believe what they believe — and still pass them the butter.
That’s the future I’m reaching for. That’s what I want.
The final two episodes of season three of “The Expanse” premiere on the Syfy channel on Wednesday, June 27. Earlier episodes are available for streaming via Syfy and Amazon Video. And while you’re here, check out our story on the science of “The Expanse.”