That Was Awesome! Writers on Writing

Pass the Pepper: James S.A. Corey’s The Expanse

For the past couple of years I’ve been loving The Expanse series by James S.A. Corey, (I know, me and every other Earther out there.) From its real-physics space battles to its use of tried-and-true tropes (like humans whose physiques have grown elongated after generations of low-grav living; blue-collar space truckers; et al), it pushes all the core buttons of my SF fandom. Now, said fandom comes with certain poor judgment, a willingness to let slide those failings of craft that don’t stand directly in the way of a story jingling my bells. I mean … space opera! Wooo!

But on a purely craft level, Corey (aka co-authors Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck) is among the best currently out there.

The world of The Expanse is based on one Franck put together for an RPG he was GMing. Forget for a moment its logical coherence—from the three factions vying for influence of the solar system to the deus ex whoa of the inciting alien thingy—and instead look for cracks in the story’s veneer, those places where world details strain credulity, or where the dialogue pushes around too much plot to feel naturalistic, or where the story bogs. You won’t find these flaws in The Expanse, because they aren’t there. The shit is seamless.

The Corey team makes it all look easy. And when it comes to fiction, if it looks easy, this means it probably wasn’t. Take the intrigue between the Earthers, Martians and Belters. The easy thing to do with something like this is let the big political players use soliloquy to lever around large chunks of story. But Abraham and Franck don’t do this. Instead, they do the hard work of building layered characters with hearts that really beat. Even a character like UN Undersecretary Avasarala breathes with emotional life. This, woven together with the authors’ unerring sense for realpolitik, imbues the story with a natural, unforced weight, tinged with the personal. World and story are revealed by characters having conversations that never swell in scope beyond the sorts of conversations we have about our world in real life, the way we all talk politics, the way we all talk shit.

Let’s not forget also the fact that, with the character of Miller, Abraham and Franck have managed to insert a hard-bitten detective story as a centerpiece of their space opera. So steeped is he in recycled Belter air and the prevailing politics of his world you almost don’t notice what Miller represents. But take a step back and there it is: straight up gumshoe noir. Set as it is within the Belt’s milieu of corporate corruption and populist revolt, it’s a perfect match.

I could go on. Everything Abraham and Franck do, they do well. There’s the rhythm of their storytelling. Almost every chapter ends with an implicit question, which the next chapter, even if it happens to be set on the other side of the solar system, picks up and works to answer. There’s the way they approach action—never gratuitous, but always incited by story, and always purposeful, an act of furthering story, and always with a real sense of danger. There is, scene after scene, the taut worry that someone you’ve come to care about might just die right now. The Expanse represents true craftsmanship.

But the theme of this post is, That Was Awesome. So, from the monument of awesomeness that is this series, I’ll pull my favorite scene.

Holden and Nagata have just gotten romantically involved. Their attempt to keep this a secret plays out as follows:

Naomi, on the other hand, thought they shouldn’t do anything to upset the fragile equilibrium they’d found, and Holden trusted her instincts. She had an insight into group dynamics that he often lacked. So, for now, he was following her lead.

Besides, it would have felt like boasting, and that would have been rude.

Keeping his voice neutral and professional, he said, “Naomi, can you pass the pepper?”

Amos’ head snapped up, and he dropped his fork on the table with a loud clatter.

“Holy shit, you guys are doing it!”

“Um,” Holden said. “What?”

“Something’s been screwy ever since we got back on the Roci, but I couldn’t figure. But that’s it! You guys are finally playing hide the weasel.”

Holden blinked twice at the big mechanic, unsure of what to say. He glanced at Naomi for support, but her head was down, and her hair completely covered her face. Her shoulders were shaking in silent laughter

[…]

“Look. Guys, it’s important that you know this doesn’t affect our—” Holden said, but Amos cut him off with a snort.

“Hey, Alex,” Amos said.

“Yo,” Alex replied.

“XO boning the captain going to make you a really shitty pilot?”

“Don’t believe it will,” Alex said with a grin, exaggerating his drawl.

“And, oddly enough, I don’t feel the need to be a lousy mechanic.”

Holden tried again. “I think it’s important that—”

“Cap’n?” Amos continued, ignoring him. “Consider that no one gives a f**k, it won’t stop us from doing our jobs, and just enjoy it, since we’ll probably all be dead in a few days anyway.”

It’s hilarious, right? But this simple, funny little scene does a great deal of work. For our friends of the Roci, it’s a watershed moment. It’s clear that as a crew they’re already intimate, in tune with each other, to the point where every behavior is a tell; among them, there can be no secrets. What’s also clear is they’ve fully accepted one another, foibles and all, as well as their respective roles on the ship. Tacitly, they’ve all taken on an ethos of competence, pragmatism and fatalism that defines life on the Roci. Us against the world—they have each others’ backs. From this scene on, they are more than simply crew. They’re family.

burning-lightRob Ziegler began writing science fiction in 2008. In November of that year, his story “Heirlooms” won the regional short fiction contest. That story proved to be fertile ground, serving as the point of departure for his debut novel, Seed, which was a finalist for the John W. Campbell Memorial Award. His Tor.com Publishing novella The Burning Light, co-authored with Bradley P. Beaulieu, is available now.

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