Killing Gravity by Corey J. White follows Mars Xi as she makes her way through life. And through space. Mars is a fiercely competent, brutally efficient woman who can kill you with her mind. But whether she knows it or not, Mars is about to get the last thing she expected: help. And she’s going to need it, because the past is far from done with her or her newfound friends…
It’s a great novella: character- and idea-heavy, but action-packed and light on its feet. I talked to Corey about Killing Gravity, how he writes, and the future.
Alasdair Stuart: The obvious warm-up, I know, but let’s embrace it: how did you get started as a writer?
Corey J White: As a kid, and all throughout my school years I loved writing stories, and I loved science fiction, but then, by the time I got to university that sort of got side-tracked. It feels like the publishing industry and creative writing studies in Australia are really focused on literary fiction, so I spent my twenties writing literary fiction, cut-up poetry, gonzo journalism, and stressing about needing (but not wanting) a ‘proper’ career. Then, in the lead up to my 30th birthday I was experiencing a serious existential crisis and my solution was to move interstate, start working part-time instead of full-time, treat my writing as a second part-time job, and focus on science fiction as that had always been my passion.
After I made those changes, it was about two and a half years before I sold Killing Gravity to Tor.com Publishing, which is probably really fast in the grand scheme of things, and says something for putting aside your doubts and distractions and focusing on what’s important to you. At the same time though, I see how privileged I was to be able to overhaul my whole life like that, and I know that a lot of people are unable to do the same.
AS: So will we see any of that literary fiction at some point? And did you bring anything from that period of your work forward to now?
CJW: Well, you won’t see any of that old literary fiction, but I hope to write something in the weird-lit vein one day, or even a genre/literary cross-over like Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven, Samuel Delaney’s Dhalgren, or the work of Jane Rawson.
It’s hard to say what I brought forward from that period. I’m sure my prose would be very different, because literary fiction has a very different feel to genre fiction, but I couldn’t tell you exactly how it would differ. The main thing though is probably my range of influences and inspirations—like, one of the books I’m outlining at the moment owes just as much to Burroughs’ Naked Lunch as it does to Gibson’s Neuromancer.
AS: When you did step back into science fiction, was Killing Gravity the first project you completed or are there more?
CJW: Killing Gravity was the first long-form work I completed, but in the preceding 18 months I’d written about 30 short stories of varying genre and quality, and one awful Nanowrimo novel.
AS: What attracted you to the novella format?
CJW: As a reader I love the format because where a novel might take weeks or months to get through, I can finish a novella in a night and get a complete story, a discrete chunk of distilled creativity.
As a writer, it’s hard to say. I kind of have an innate sense of a project’s length when I’m in the planning stages—with Killing Gravity I knew it would be a 30,000 word story, and the first draft came to 30,012 words. I also think it’s a good form to hone your skills on, though, because it’s long enough that you can still tell a big story, but it needs to be simpler than a novel so there are fewer threads that you need to keep in mind.
AS: One of the things I love about the novella is how much the world clearly spills over the edges. How much worldbuilding did you do?
CJW: With Killing Gravity, my idea was always to explore the characters on the edge of the galaxy, who are completely disconnected from the larger political situation, so from that point of view, I sort of cheated because I was able to ignore a lot of the usual worldbuilding questions. The stories I want to tell aren’t about the emperor, the imperial government, a galactic war/rebellion, or interstellar trade practices, so I didn’t waste time thinking about all that. But at the same time I did need to think about how interstellar travel and communication work, weaponry, space piracy, and a few other bits and pieces, so they’re all in there.
AS: Did anything not make the final cut?
CJW: I had some notes about how the Nova’s crew might function politically, based on the surprisingly democratic way pirate ships were run in the 1700s, and a few ideas about the nature of the empire, but otherwise not really—I was lucky in that everything in my notes came together as something necessary to the plot.
AS: The “misfit crew have adventures” format is especially prevalent in SF. Did you feel the long shadow of Firefly and The Expanse?
CJW: Even with the original Star Wars trilogy, any time the films aren’t focusing on Luke Skywalker they fall back into the “misfit crew” dynamic. Funnily enough, I didn’t even see the Firefly link, but when I explained the basic plot to my partner, the first thing she said was “You mean like Firefly?” to which I replied, “Ummm, I can see what you mean, but not really.” And with The Expanse, I was keen to watch it, but then I saw that the first episode was called “Dulcinea,” which is the name of one of the planets in Killing Gravity. I can’t even remember where I got the name from, but it seemed like maybe I was sharing some of the same ideaspace with the Expanse authors, so I decided to avoid the books and the show until after I’ve got this series wrapped up.
So, no, I didn’t really feel the shadow of those shows—if anything it’s good to have these other cultural touchstones that I can refer to when I’m talking to people who might love SF film and TV, but not necessarily read much. Like, if I say it’s a “space opera,” that might not mean anything to them, but if I say “it’s like Firefly/Star Wars/whatever” then instantly they know what I’m talking about.
More generally though, I’m really drawn to the idea of the “found family.” I could go into the reasons for that, but hey, you’re not my psychologist.
AS: I love your point about “found family.” That’s exactly what this is and it’s an idea that as you say runs surprisingly deep in SF at the moment. Do you think there’s a reason for that?
CJW: If I wanted to be cynical I’d say it’s because having different and clashing personalities in a story is a easy way to create tension and conflict, but I wasn’t thinking in such mercenary terms when I wrote Killing Gravity, and I think most other writers wouldn’t either. I think we come up with characters that we love and want to explore, and it’s way more interesting to explore them by putting them in the way of another character rather than having them monologue for a few pages.
Beyond that, I think the notion of a “found family” just makes sense today. In earlier times you’d find your friends and lovers in your immediate vicinity, and you’d probably work alongside your parents or siblings. Now though, we understand how small the world can be, and we interact with people from all over—we don’t need to befriend our neighbours, we don’t need to fit in with the people in our school, workplace, or suburb because we can find our people wherever they might be.
AS: I love how you mix, if not genres, then the perception of genres here, especially with phrases like “space witch”—what led to that?
CJW: I was in the early stages of putting together the ideas that would eventually become Killing Gravity—I knew the protagonist would be a woman with powerful telekinetic abilities, and I knew she’d have a pet cat—and I was talking to a friend about an idea she was working on. Her idea is actual witches in space, using witchcraft to power their ships, space stations, etc, so when she said “witches in space,” I immediately blurted out, “Space witches,” and a whole bunch of connections were made in my head. Straight away I knew it would be a vaguely derogatory term in the world, and that the space witches would be thought of as an urban legend, and of course, if she’s a space witch then her cat is her familiar. And then there are the connections to witch hunts in the real world, the fear and hatred of women that led to so many being killed, which ties into misogyny today being behind various toxic groups that have emerged in the past few years.
So when the term “space witch” came along it encapsulated so much of what I was trying to do with Killing Gravity. Though of course I’ve seen “space witch” in a few places since finishing the book, and the term goes back decades, at least if the (fantastic) 70s Sci-Fi Art blog is anything to go by. (See here and here, for example…)
AS: That 70s Sci Fi Art tumblr is going to be an epic time sink. Thanks so much for that. And I’d missed completely that she has a familiar, that’s brilliant. That actually speaks to a larger point. What sort of aesthetic do these books have in your head? Is everything high tech and advanced, or we talking crunchy switches and Logan’s Run? I get a little of everything.
CJW: Aesthetically I see it sort of like a cyberpunk Firefly. One of the things that Firefly did really well was to make the ship feel lived in, but in general the world of Killing Gravity is more high-tech and not quite as dusty as Firefly. And then there are transhumanist elements to Killing Gravity in the way people alter their bodies, which is something I’m really interested in, both in fiction and in the real world.
In terms of interfaces and the question of clunky vs. advanced tech, it’s definitely varied within the world, depending on a character’s personal preference, the level of tech they can afford, and environmental factors. I kind of think of it in terms of mobile phones—back in the day I could walk down the street, tapping out a text message on physical buttons without looking at the screen and the message would come out perfect, but if you try the same thing today with a smart phone, you either end up with a gibberish message, or you end up walking into someone/something. So as much as people want the Minority Report-style holographic interface, for certain people and/or at certain times, you need physicality. After all, in Minority Report, the fancy display is useless without the wooden balls laser-etched with premonitions.
AS: Do you have more stories in this world planned?
CJW: Well, I’ve just finished the first round of edits on the Killing Gravity sequel (haven’t entirely settled on a name, so I can’t share that yet), and I’m hoping Tor.com Publishing like it enough to want a third book. I’m actually planning to write a prequel story for one of the side characters as a sort of pre-order incentive, but I need to make sure I’ve got a story I’m happy with before I make it official (and I’m running out of time, so we’ll see what happens). Beyond that, I just planned out a full-length, stand-alone spin-off for some characters I introduce in Book Two, which would be slightly more of the “traditional” space opera—one that does look at the larger galactic/political situation.
AS: What’s next for you?
CJW: I’m slowly piecing together ideas for the third book in the Voidwitch Saga, I have two novel ideas I’m building on, and I’m in the process of querying agents about a gonzo spy-thriller novel I wrote with a friend. I’m also hoping to find some more people to collaborate with, because I find collaborating is a good way of getting back to the joyful act of creation, where writing solo you can get stuck inside your own head, get slowed down by self-doubt and anxiety.
Mostly though, I’m just going to keep doing the work, keep grinding.
AS: I’m really pleased there’ll be more in this universe and I’m delighted you’re looking at possible spin-offs. It really does feel like a richly detailed and vibrant world with lots of possible shifts in focus. The spy thriller sounds great fun, too; is there anything you can tell us about that?
CJW: The main idea behind the spy novel was to deconstruct the James Bond style of thriller, looking specifically at some of the tropes and problematic elements, but doing it with a lot of laughs and a lot of weirdness. It also gave us a chance to write a protagonist who is charismatic, capable, and a whole lot of fun to read about, but who is also objectively reprehensible. With writing it and editing it, I’ve probably gone over the whole manuscript ten or more times, and I still laugh out loud at some of the gags.
AS: Your fondness for collaboration is really interesting. Do you have regular writing partners or does it change project by project?
CJW: The spy novel was written with a friend who’s the closest thing I have to a regular writing partner, but when you’re talking about two people with jobs, lives, and solo writing projects, “regular” is very irregular. We’ve already started planning the next thing (a black metal, black comedy, portal fantasy), but no idea when we’ll actually get to it.
I’ve mentioned potential collaborations to other friends, but a lot of the time they seem reticent about the idea, like, “how would that work?” I don’t know how it might work, and maybe it wouldn’t, but half the fun is trying to figure it out, meeting in the middle and seeing what happens when you put your heads together.
Alasdair Stuart is a freelancer writer, RPG writer and podcaster. He owns Escape Artists, who publish the short fiction podcasts Escape Pod, Pseudopod, Podcastle, Cast of Wonders, and the magazine Mothership Zeta. He blogs enthusiastically about pop culture, cooking and exercise at Alasdairstuart.com, and tweets @AlasdairStuart.