Waking the Leviathan
The story of how James S.A. Corey’s The Expanse went from game concept to blockbuster TV series
This piece was originally published back in May 2015 on the B&N Sci-Fi & Fantasy Blog, before Syfy debuted its adaptation of the series in December. I’m reprinting it now with some minor edits.
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It’s March 2015, and I am standing on the bridge of a starship. The crew work stations look worn, the walls are covered with warning signs, and the grated floor looks like something designed to be functional. If I didn’t know better, I’d think that I was standing on a real ship, hurtling through space. Instead, I am on the set of a new television series, a location that, until now, only existed in words on a page.
“Do you want to see a shitty Belter ship?” Ty Franck asked our small group, leading us off of one set and pointing to an adjacent one. “Let’s go over there, that’s one of our shitty Belter ships.”
Rewind a couple of years. In 2011, I received an advance copy of a book by a new author, James S.A. Corey, Leviathan Wakes. Its vibrant blue cover is a work of art, depicting a starship approaching an asteroid and it immediately captivated me.
Leviathan Wakes is the start of an epic space opera series known as The Expanse, a series that has exploded in popularity since that talked-about debut. Critics have hailed it as a new form of classic space opera, complete with a well-built world, a rotating cast of interesting characters, and a killer story. There is plenty of action, and a deep exploration of how humans will act when we leave our own world for new ones. But more than that, it was selected by the Syfy network as the flagship of a new programming lineup designed to win over the same crowd that pushed the reimagined Battlestar Galactica to new-classic status.
How The Expanse evolved from inception to the present day is a fascinating tale, one as improbable as it is exciting. Originating as the concept for an epic multiplayer video game, it became a roleplaying game, a novel — then three, six, and finally nine books — and finally as a TV show, the series has taken a most unconventional route from concept to publication.
Standing on the bridge of the Rocinante set, I was struck by how vividly the world had come to life.
Ty Franck can’t remember when he first became a science fiction fan.
“An aunt of mine bought me an anthology of science fiction stories from a garage sale, and it had a bunch of stories, including The Stars My Destination.” Franck was just a kid at the time—10 or 11, and he picked up and re-read the anthology many times throughout his childhood. The book was A Treasury of Great Science Fiction, Volume Two, edited by Anthony Boucher, originally released in 1959, and just one of many genre anthologies published at the time. Among its contents were stories from Poul Anderson, Judith Merril, Arthur C. Clarke, Robert Heinlein, Henry Kuttner and C.L. Moore, and Bester’s novel. “I don’t remember any of the other stories in there, and I read that book a dozen times. The only story that sticks out in my mind is The Stars My Destination.”
In the middle of the 20th century, most science fiction stories were the products of genre magazines. Dozens existed in the market, and a growing class of writers and fans purchased them each month to escape to new worlds. Science fiction was a small world: a dedicated reader could tear through every magazine and novel published in a month, and know the entire field.
Bester had been one such fan. Born in 1913, he discovered Hugo Gernsback’s magazine Amazing Stories, and later became a writer, publishing his first story, “The Broken Axiom,” in the April 1939 issue of Thrilling Wonder Stories.
Bester worked numerous jobs in the following years: he wrote for some of D.C. Comics’ iconic characters, and as a screenwriter for television. He took time to hone his craft before writing a science fiction novel, The Demolished Man, inspired by a magazine article about a cook abandoned at sea during WWII. In 1953, it won the first ever Hugo Award for best novel.
His second novel, The Stars My Destination, is considered one of the most influential in science fiction canon: William Gibson noted that “It was built on bones pilfered from Dumas and Dickens (steal only the best),” and it has been cited as a predecessor of cyberpunk. It follows a spacer named Gully Foyle, marooned in space amidst an interplanetary war between inner and outer planets. He becomes consumed by an unthinking rage that motivates him to survive and teleport himself across the solar system in a desperate race for revenge.
Years after he first read it, the story stuck in Franck’s head. In 2001, he’d begun to build his own science fictional world, one heavily influenced by Bester’s vision for a future, inhabited solar system.
The same year, Ty moved to Portland, Oregon. He’d already enjoyed a successful career: he created one business, managed and took two companies public, and remained interested in gaming and science fiction all the while. Now, he was thinking of humans in space. There had been many near-future science fiction novels, and plenty of space operas far in the future, but few were about the time between.
Franck imagined a solar system that included major settlements on the Moon, Mars, the asteroid belt, and the more distant planets, ruled by three major factions: Earth, Mars, and the Outer Planets. Into this delicate balance, he inserted a fourth party: an alien influence infiltrating the solar system.
As he developed his world, a friend came to him for help: she was looking to develop ideas for a Massive Multiplayer Online game (MMO) for a Chinese internet service provider as an incentive for consumers to sign up for the service. This was in the early days of MMOs; games like Neverwinter Nights and Legends of Future Past were popular in the 1990s, but it was 1999’s EverQuest that took off, becoming one of the world’s most successful online games ever.
The field was booming. EVE Online launched as a space simulator in 2003, while World of Warcraft became the dominant fantasy platform in 2004. Franck didn’t want to compete with Blizzard’s blockbuster, and recommended a science fiction setting as an alternative. “I really wanted a version of EVE where you could actually get off of your ship and have adventures on the ground. That was sort of the initial idea, and then I took this near-future setting and built it out to accommodate spaceship and ground-based adventure.”
He set up his world with an eye towards gaming. Where World of Warcraft had two major factions to join, Franck’s story would have three. To further develop his world, he researched the solar system’s major bodies: Ceres, Ganymede, the Moon, Eros, and others, settings where the characters would be able to interact and continue the adventure.
Beyond the locations, Franck set up political discord in the system: guided by a grand terraforming plan, Mars strip mined the solar system for raw materials such as water, putting them into conflict with the residents of the asteroid belt and the outer planets. The delicate political balance was to drive much of the game’s conflict.
Despite their efforts, Franck’s pitch didn’t go far: “The people involved had no idea what massive investment it takes to make an MMO and as soon as they realized how big it was,” they backed off. “A project like that is like making a Hollywood movie … you’re looking at tens or even hundreds of millions of dollars [in development costs].”
The route to a MMO was like many business propositions: it ended, and everyone moved on. The pitch might not have gone anywhere, but Franck now had assembled his formerly random ideas and research about a human-occupied solar system into piles of careful notes.
Late night gaming sessions
Franck moved onto some other projects, one of which included a writing some fiction. Writing never really interested Franck; he’d enjoyed reading stories throughout his childhood, and wrote quite a bit for his games, but had never set out to write prose.
That changed when his sister took a creative writing class and asked him for a story idea. “I gave her an idea that had been banging around in my head, and she wrote a story and gave it back to me, and she had done it all wrong,” he said. “So, I wrote my version of it, the version that was actually in my head.”
He was friendly with some people who worked with Ender’s Game author Orson Scott Card. Seeking feedback, he passed along his story. They liked what they read, and gave it to Card, who was encouraging. The story was great, he said, and whoever wrote it should keep at it.
When Franck left a full-time job with a generous severance package and a non-compete clause, he decided to attend a writer’s workshop in North Carolina founded by Card. Uncle Orson’s Writing Class and Literary Boot Camp was a two week experience, and Franck went, armed with his story — the same story Card later bought for the second issue of his own science fiction magazine, Orson Scott Card’s Intergalactic Medicine Show. Franck’s first pro story, “Audience” published in March 2006.
Franck hadn’t forgotten his world, however. It was well suited for gaming, and while it wouldn’t become an MMO, he started to run it as a roleplaying game on a post-to-play gaming forum. He opened up a private forum with threads for each round, for each character, their actions and out-of-character commentary. It was here, online, that a story began to emerge. What had been distant elements of a world were now together in a vibrant setting, alongside a grand story of human societies in competition with one another. Now, all it needed were some characters.
The game heavily influenced what would one day become the book: a crew of a water hauler is caught in the midst of an interplanetary war when they stumble upon an alien protomolecule on the asteroid Eros. Many distinct elements of the game made their way into the novel: characters, locations, ships, and events (Franck killed off one of his gamers when the player had to leave the game early; his out was a spectacular death). They key components of the larger story began to fall into place through various runs of the game, fleshing out the setting and testing out the logic of the world. Core elements of a narrative began to coalesce. Gamers developed the narrative’s central characters: Holden, Naomi, Amos, Alex and Shed, who navigated the solar system and the delicate balance of power around them, aboard the corvette battleship Rocinante.
“A lot of the characters in Leviathan Wakes are from the game, most notably the crew of the Roci. There were as many as eight crew members at some points in the game… [They] were condensed down for the books, but the core four crew members are recognizable from the game,” Raja Doake, who I met on the set of The Expanse in Toronto, told me. He’s named along with Tom, Sake Mike, Non-Sake Mike, Porter, Scott, Jeff, Mark, Dan and Joe in the novel’s acknowledgements — the original inhabitants of TheExpanse.
The game that played out on the forum eventually fizzled out. Liza Williams, who observed it at the time, noted that, “it was a bit like starting to read a book and getting invested in the characters, and then having it end just once things had gotten interesting.”
Bubonicon is an annual, regional science fiction convention held in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and one year, Franck made the trip to see a friend, Emily Mah, who was on the weekend’s program. There, he met Daniel Abraham, a local author who had been publishing his own short fiction since 1999.
Abraham enjoyed a different path than Franck. When it came to his reading habits, he “was an omnivore growing up,” he said. “The first book I specifically remember was The Other Side of the Sky by Arthur C. Clarke, and I remember exactly where I was when I first read ‘9 Billion Names of God.’ That was an amazing experience, and I read a whole bunch of Arthur Clarke and Larry Niven, [and] everything else I could get my hands on. I liked it all.”
From an early age, Abraham began writing what he characterized as, “terrible short stories,” and never stopped: they just became less terrible. In college, he studied biology, and worked in tech support for close to a decade after graduation. All the while, he continued to write and submit for publication. In 1996 and 1998, he published his first two stories in semiprozine magazines, and in 1998 attended the Clarion West Writer’s Workshop, where prestigious authors such as George R.R. Martin, Carol Emshwiller, Gardner Dozois, Paul Park, Lucy Sussex, and Connie Willis taught intensive six-week courses. “[It] was absolutely a watershed experience for me,” he remembered. The workshop helped him hone his craft and boosted his career. He began to place story after story in markets such as Asimov’s Science Fiction and The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, as well as many anthologies.
In early 2002, Abraham met up with George R.R. Martin for dinner. Martin asked him, “So Daniel, how do you feel about a three-way with two old fat guys?” The Game of Thrones author wanted Abraham’s help to complete a long-unfinished manuscript.
In 1976, Gardner Dozois started a story called Shadow Twin, devising the basic characters and plot, but set it aside. In 1981, Dozois asked Martin if he’d finish the story, knowing that Martin had enjoyed what there was of it. Martin took the draft, added to it, but didn’t finish it. He returned it to Dozois, who held onto it. In 2002, they brought Abraham on board, and he finally finished the manuscript. In May 2005, Subterranean Press, published it as a novella, later expanded into the novel Hunter’s Run, published in 2007 by Eros Books.
By this point, Abraham had established himself as an up and coming fantasy author. He gained some acclaim for a four-part fantasy titled The Long Price Quartet (A Shadow in Summer, A Betrayal in Winter, An Autumn War, and The Price of Spring), published between 2006 and 2009, and for Black Sun’s Daughter, a five-part urban fantasy series published under the pseudonym M.L.N. Hanover between 2008 and 2013.
Abraham and Franck’s first meeting didn’t go over well, but they crossed paths again and became friends. When Franck’s wife enrolled at the University of New Mexico, Abraham and his family lived a short distance away. With his single fiction credit, Franck joined the local collective of science fiction writers, The New Mexico Critical Mass. The group such members as Abraham, Terry England, Emily Mah, George R.R. Martin, Victor Milan, Melinda Snodgrass, S.M. Stirling, Iain Tregillis, and Walter Jon Williams.
Writer’s groups pop up frequently throughout science fiction history. Like the best of them, Critical Mass met to exchange stories, get critiques, and hang out with like-minded people. They also enjoyed gaming, and had heard about Franck’s sci-fi world. “So I hear you run a good game,” Melinda Snodgrass said to him. “Would you be willing to run a game for us?” Franck agreed, and set one up with himself, his wife, Ian Tregillis, and George R.R. Martin.
Meanwhile, George R.R. Martin hired Franck as a personal assistant, coordinating his work, public relations, research, technology, and other duties. Abraham, too, had heard a bit about Franck’s RPG world, and asked if he could play too.
With their wives as fellow players, Franck set up another game in The Expanse universe. Abraham played as a detective named Miller, living on the dwarf planet Ceres. Miller experienced problems with his police captain, even as a larger political crisis loomed. “What happens when you’re a cop and the government collapses?” is how Abraham put it. The game’s level of detail impressed him, and after three or four sessions, he realized that the setting would make for a great novel.
Franck recalls having no great ambitions for The Expanse: he’d put the work into the world, and just wanted to have fun with it. “The ambitions were mine,” Abraham said.
Waking the leviathan
“I had just come off of a couple of other collaborations that I had enjoyed,” Abraham recalled, “I really liked the world a lot, and saw how much work had been done so far, and I was deeply into the game. Every time I had a question about anything, Ty would just tell me. I thought, okay, he already knows the answers to everything, and he’s already done half the work for a book. We should just do this. The joke [is] that we did this for pizza money and overshot.”
Franck agreed. The initial plan called for Abraham to write the book, drawing on Franck’s notes and story outline, with an even split of all proceeds. They figured that they would get the typical $5,000 first-author advance, and planned to have fun with it. “Getting involved with massive media empires was not part of the end game,” Abraham recalled as we sat in the production offices for the television show.
The first writing attempt failed: Abraham wrote the prologue and first chapter, which were “perfectly competent, and wrong,” Franck said. Much like his first story, Franck had provided an idea to someone who didn’t see the world in the same way. He took the chapters back and rewrote them. After that, they began to alternate chapters. Collaborations are notoriously difficult; in more than one interview, both have highlighted the importance of staying focused on the end goal, and being open to the changes and edits required along the way.
“In five years of friendship and occasional collaboration, we’ve never fought,” Franck said. “We’re both pretty easygoing. I’d say that the most important factor in doing this sort of project without conflict is making sure you have the same goal. We decided early on what kind of book we wanted, and whenever we hit a point where we disagreed, we just asked ‘which version is most like the book we originally intended to write?’” Their goal? Write an old-fashioned space opera with plenty of sentiment.
Franck took on the chapters following Holden, while Abraham wrote for Miller. Once they completed drafts, they switched and edited one another’s work. They began meeting weekly, discussing the next pair of chapters, and went over the project from outline to sentence structure, working scene by scene.
Both had different writing styles. More experienced writing novels, Abraham focused on the prose, filling in the details that surrounded the characters. Franck had put together the entire world and much of the plot, and wanted action and dialogue that moved the story along. Between the two, they began to write out the novel that would become Leviathan Wakes.
Franck sketched out their working process in interviews: “How to structure the plot so that things are revealed in ways that keep the tension high — that’s Daniel. That’s Daniel’s professional background going okay, here’s how you do this, here’s why we reveal this here and why we don’t reveal this other thing until later.”
“Daniel winds up adding a lot of sensory detail to my sections,” Franck said. “My eyes tend to glaze over when reading descriptive detail, so I have a hard time remembering to add it in my own work. And when I edit Daniel’s sections, my most common edits are to details that keep the technology, if not plausible, at least consistent.”
They complemented one another, and as they wrote, they became James S.A. Corey. Abraham is quick to note that Franck was not an inferior writer: because the original post-to-play forum game was text based, he had a lot of prose and writing under his belt. Rather than honing his skills through the typical cycle of short story or novel rejections, he essentially used brute force in a public setting to do the same thing. “My original writing teacher taught me that everyone has 10,000 pages of crap that they have to work through before you start trying to sell things,” Franck noted, and through the forum work, he learned about pacing, and keeping an extra couple of surprises held back for when things start to slow down, attitudes that translated well into the novel.
Creating a novel that had only existed as a game presented challenges. A common adage in the speculative science fiction world is “Don’t adapt your long-running Dungeons & Dragons game.” The pace and focus of an RPG is different than that of a novel, a fact that was in the forefront of each man’s mind as they wrote. What came out of the game, beyond the major events they adapted, was the sense of pacing.
While elements of the story had played out already in various incarnations of the game, they began to make some changes as they wrote. They condensed some characters and moved others into the background, and shifted other things around to suit the novel. The protomolecule, which had appeared in some of the games, became the Phoebe Bug, created by the amoral ProtoGen corporation as an experiment, rather than being a straight-up alien infection in our solar system.
As in The Stars My Destination, Earth and Mars were set up in conflict with the outer planets. They pulled in influences from other places as well. Abraham noted that his own interests in noir-ish detective novels made its way into Miller’s chapters, while films like Alien, with its working-class approach, helped to define the novels’ look and feel.
At the same time, they designed their story to contain an overarching narrative, told through a series of discrete stories. “We’ve deliberately set up The Expanse to contain a lot of stories,” Ty told me in a 2011 interview. “If Orbit wants more stories in, there will be a lot more to tell.”
It was an uphill battle: on more than one occasion, friends and fellow writers told them that they liked what they were doing, but that the project probably wasn’t worth following through. Space opera was a dying field, and they likely wouldn’t be able to sell it. Colleagues told them that they should write a fantasy novel instead. Franck flatly said that he wasn’t interested in ever writing fantasy, and besides, that undermined the entire purpose of the project: they had the world already, and they wanted to have some fun with it. Carrie Vaughn and Martin read through early drafts, and provided their feedback. Soon, James S.A. Corey had a finished book.
Selling the world
Once they completed Leviathan Wakes, they began to pitch it to publishers. To prepare, they discussed where the world would go after the first novel — a roadmap for additional stories that would replicate the success of the first book would make the project appealing to publishers. Over the course of an afternoon, they sketched out the next couple of books, and included them in the pitch documents.
They also settled on a pseudonym: Daniel Abraham was known for fantasy novels under his own name, and Franck had no track record for novels. They needed a unified moniker, so they combined their middle names, and added the middle initials of Abraham’s daughter. The name was intended to emulate the cranky space opera authors of the ‘70s; “Jimmy” was born as a sort of brand name for the series.
They sent the book to publishers. At least one major house passed, while others said they would consider it, but one, Orbit Books, liked what they saw. Orbit already planned to publish Abraham’s new fantasy series The Dagger and the Coin, and found a lot to admire in Leviathan Wakes and its sequels. They made the pair an offer for the three books that they couldn’t refuse. It was far above what would be expected for a “debut” author, far more than they had ever expected to receive for their space opera.
Orbit is one of the major publishers of science fiction in the world. Founded in 1974 in England, it was acquired by Little, Brown & Co. in 1992. The company has published major science fiction authors such as Iain M. Banks, Ken MacLeod, and Charles Stross. In 2006, French multinational publisher Hachette Livre acquired Little, Brown & Co., and took Orbit international, expanding the brand from the United Kingdom into the United States and Australia. As they expanded, they began to pursue new authors, including James S.A. Corey.
After Orbit acquired the books in May 2010, the marketing team read the first manuscript. Alex Lencicki, the director of marketing and publicity, noted that his first response was simple: “Whoa…that was awesome.” Because they were about to release Abraham’s The Dragon’s Path, they began to plan out a coordinated marketing effort targeting both science fiction and fantasy readers. Anyone who purchased an ebook copy of one book would get the other. The move capitalized on Abraham’s existing reputation as a fantasy author, a move reminiscent of science fiction’s earlier days, when publishers packaged paperback novels together, tête-bêche, often pairing an established author with a newer one.
The Orbit team began to plan out the work of editing and marketing the novel. Editor Will Hinton noted that his job was made easy by the work that the pair had already put into the book through close collaboration and editing one another. “The series takes on some big ideas, but it also excels at showing you the smaller human moments behind it all,” Hinton told me. “While editing, I try to bolster these two sides of what they’re doing, the story as it works within a particular book, and how it works within the arc of the entire series. I’m just the backseat driver who occasionally reminds them to use their signal or turn on the windshield wiper.”
For the cover art, Orbit’s art director Lauren Panepinto turned to artist Daniel Dociu, “because his concept work brings that cinematic look we needed, and that’s exactly what we got with his breathtaking art.”
Dociu is the chief art director for NCsoft North America, overseeing 70 artists on projects such as Aion, City of Heroes, Guild Wars, Lineage, and WildStar. In his spare time, he worked as a freelance cover artist and had created jackets for novels such as Spider Star by Mike Brotherton, Shadowline by Glen Cook, The Lies of Locke Lamora by Scott Lynch, and Judgment at Proteus by Timothy Zahn.
For Leviathan Wakes, Panepinto provided Dociu with a basic description of what she and the art department wanted depicted. He set to work, drawing from his files of reference photos and artwork, and quickly put the cover in together in photoshop.
The cover portrays a starship and an asteroid in vivid blues and whites. It thrilled everyone at Orbit. “The sense of scale is mind blowing and the amount of detail is astounding,” Panepinto said. “The art is sophisticated yet, to put it mildly, badass. Everyone here had to pick up their jaw from the floor when the art arrived.” The team set the title in bold white letters across the top, and bright pink on the spine. At the top of the cover was a quote from George R.R. Martin: “It’s been too long since we’ve had a really kicksass space opera.” Abraham and Franck loved the cover. “We got really lucky with that,” Abraham said.
In the spring of 2011, advance copies began making their way to reviewers and bloggers, and the buzz began to grow. On June 15, the book hit stores and began to sell and sell. Positive reviews poured in; Kirkus Reviews called it “a huge, churning, relentlessly entertaining melodrama buoyed by confidence that human values will prevail,” while Russell Letson concluded his review in Locus by stating:
“We came here for space battles and encounters with low-life corridor scum and exposing the manipulations of corporate psychopaths and desperate searches for the last shreds of decency and heroic last stands and blowing stuff up, and there’s plenty of that to go around.”
io9’s Annalee Newitz titled her review “Leviathan Wakes is as close as you’ll get to a Hollywood blockbuster in book form,” opining, “when you dive into Leviathan Wakes … you’ll feel like you’re watching the opening scene in any of a dozen awesome science fiction films.”
By the end of the year, publications such as Library Journal had named Leviathan Wakes to their “Best Science Fiction Novels of 2011” lists. In April 2012, the highest honors came: the book made the short lists for the Hugo Award for Best Novel and the Locus Award for Best Science Fiction novel. Jimmy Corey had a hit.
Adapting the dream
In April 2012, Ben Cook was browsing the internet, looking for science fiction titles to adapt, when he came across an io9 article listing the recent Hugo nominations. He was a producer in Hollywood who had risen up through the ranks; he started his career as an assistant working at United Talent Agency before moving to Dreamworks and working with director Sam Raimi. In 2009, he made the jump to Star Roads Entertainment, where he worked in film development, helping to discover writers, directors, and projects to adapt.
Frequently, production studios option major science fiction novels, looking to explore the feasibility of developing them for the big or small screen. An option on a novel is often no guarantee of adaptation, but it’s the first, crucial step. Studios gauge the market, figuring out which of their holdings will best work based on the performance of similar films and audience expectations.
By 2012, the television world was undergoing a genre resurgence. An adaptation of George R.R. Martin’s epic fantasy series had wowed audiences the year before, and Robert Kirkman’s The Walking Dead was doing extremely well on AMC. Television programming (and audiences) have changed over the last decade, and a proliferation of shows like Lost, Game of Thrones, and The Walking Dead, as well as non-genre offerings like Mad Men and Breaking Bad, have demonstrated that audiences will not only tolerate complicated, detailed stories, but will flock to them in large numbers.
After Leviathan Wakes hit shelves, many producers approached Franck and Abraham about the possibility of adapting it into a movie or television show. They discussed this development with Martin, who had a range of experience with the television industry. He urged them to make sure that they were well represented, specifically by hiring a Hollywood agent.
In speaking with their own literary agent, they found that they had one representing them all along: Brian Lipson, an industry veteran who had sold the rights for major books including Band of Brothers and Boardwalk Empire. He had already been fielding offers on the books, and when they let him know of the ones they’d received, he informed them that they’d already gone through him, and he’d rejected all of them. They were to hold out for a serious offer.
Cook scanned the Hugo list and thought that Leviathan Wakes was the most interesting of the group: a novel about a conspiracy set in space. The title intrigued him, but he was cautious; a first installment of a series was good, but it also meant that the plot could go anywhere.
Despite that reservation, he immediately ordered a copy of the book, and when it arrived, he dove right in. “I knew right away that I had something really interesting and as a fan, something I was incredibly excited to read about,” Cook said. What attracted him the most was the realistic setting. “[There were] shades of our world in the characters — specific accents, monuments from the world cities, things that link this story back to our world in ways that Star Wars and Battlestar Galactica don’t.”
He finished the book in just over a day, and immediately began to check to see if the rights were available. Surprisingly, they were, and there was a lot of competition for the story. He reached out to Lipson, made an offer, and was promptly rejected.
Step after step
Leviathan Wakes was a huge success out the gate, garnering positive reviews and quite a lot of interest from various corners of the entertainment world. With a three-book contract to fulfill, Franck and Abraham had already finished the second volume. Fellow author Carrie Vaughn had given them good advice: begin writing the second novel right away: “Have it written before the first one comes out.” If the first book was a huge success, they’d be swamped with promotional efforts. If it flopped, it would be difficult to write the next one. Succeed or fail, the second book would be a challenge. In the meantime, Orbit released a side story, ‘The Butcher of Anderson Station,” as a standalone ebook. It was the first of many shorter pieces that add to the larger story.
Caliban’s War picked up a year or so after the events of Leviathan Wakes. Having survived the release of the Protomolocule, Holden and crew have their own ship, and larger plots are afoot in the solar system. After a shadowy group kidnaps a group of children on the eve of an attack on Ganymede, the system plunges into a shooting war, even as the remains of the asteroid Eros and the Protomolecule are doing…something on Venus.
They structured the second book in the same way as its predecessor: Holden and the crew of the Rocinante form one major viewpoint, while several new characters are introduced, among them Dr. Praxidike “Prax” Meng, a biologist who survived Ganymede only to lose his daughter; Gunnery Sergeant Roberta “Bobbie” W. Draper, a Martian Marine caught in the attack on Ganymede; and Chrisjen Avasarala, the United Nations Assistant Undersecretary of Executive Administration. (The addition of the new characters would become the model for future Expanse novels.)
Franck and Abraham also got to play with genre tropes. Where Leviathan Wakes mixed the space opera and detective genres, they wrote Caliban’s War as more of a political thriller. Additionally, while Caliban’s War was a continuation of the events from Leviathan Wakes, it had its own self-contained narrative. If Leviathan Wakes was a starting point, Caliban’s War would help set the direction for the rest of the series.
Despite the success of the first book, Abraham was anxious about how the second book would play out: “I’m worried about Caliban’s War, but not because I don’t think [it’s a good book.] I think [it’s] better in some ways than Leviathan Wakes. But part of what makes [Leviathan Wakes a] good book is that [it] make[s] decisions. Things happen, and there will always be readers who would have made a different choice.”
With the second novel completed before the first, the pair began to write the third, Abaddon’s Gate, which they thought of as a sort of haunted house novel. They checked in with Orbit: if the company wanted them to wrap up the series in three books, they needed to know. If Orbit wanted the story to continue, Franck and Abraham would be happy to keep writing.
Orbit responded with a deal for three additional novels and five novellas, and made the announcement in March 2012, before Caliban’s War was even released. It was a relief to the authors: the larger story they’d envisioned could now be told.
The series had grown to six on the strength of the first novel alone. On June 26, 2012, Caliban’s War hit bookstore shelves accompanied by more positive reviews, helped along by Corey’s able publicist at Orbit, Ellen Wright.
From that point, Abraham and Franck began to plan ahead. The books were selling well, and Orbit was standing behind the series. They sat down and drew up pair of outlines, one with nine books, the other with twelve, each ending up in the same place. They picked their direction and ending, and figured out what would have to happen in the last installment, right down to the last scene and line, and what would have to happen in each book.
Later that year, Corey and Orbit released two new Expanse stories: Gods of Risk, an ebook novella, and a short story, “Drive,” in Jonathan Strahan’s anthology Edge of Infinity. By the end of the year, Kirkus Reviews had named the sequel to its Best of 2012 list.
On June 4, 2013, Abaddon’s Gate appeared in bookstores and became the first of the series to hit The New York Times Bestseller list (at #22). Publisher’s Weekly issued a coveted starred review, while io9, and Buzzfeed would name the book to their own year’s best lists.
Once again, the book pulled in a new group of viewpoint characters, including Carlos ‘Bull’ c de Baca, a member of the OPA; Melba Alzbeta Koh, a technician identify for Clarissa Melpomene Mao; and Annushka Volovodov, a pastor. The plot followed the Protomolecule’s creation of an interstellar gate at the far end of the solar system. As various political factions investigate the structure and what lies inside, others plot the destruction of James Holden and his crew.
By this point, the successes of The Expanse had spread to other novels. Ancillary Justice author Ann Leckie noted that the success of Corey’s books encouraged Orbit to take chances on other space operas, like hers and Rachel Bach’s Fortune’s Pawn. That risk paid off as Leckie’s book became one of the genre’s most honored novels, sweeping that year’s awards.
While they sold the first three books together, and then three more, Franck notes that the books weren’t structured like a trilogy; that’s just how they sold: in triplets. They consider the series in terms of duologies: Leviathan Wakes and Caliban’s War each complement one another, and tell a complete story, while each novel remains a complete story in and of itself. The second pairing of books, Abaddon’s Gate and Cibola Burn likewise work together, telling a complete arc. “Books five [Nemesis Games] and six [Babylon’s Ashes] are flat out a duology,” Franck noted. “They’re so closely tied together, we could end book five with, ‘to be continued’.”
His initial pitch rejected by Brian Lipson, Ben Cook tried again. He passed the title along to fellow producer Jason Brown, who had been looking for a science fiction property to adapt. He and his partner, producer Sean Daniels, realized that they would have to demonstrate that they were seriously interested in producing The Expanse as a television property. They enlisted the talents of two acclaimed screenwriters, Mark Fergus and Hawk Otsby; who had written the scripts for films like Children of Men and Iron Man, and the producers had worked with them before.
They invited the screenwriters out to dinner and pitched them on the project. They talked about the books and the world — the depth of the setting and the focus on the characters. And not just the characters, but what they represented: these weren’t high-ranking executives charting the course of nations or military officers planning out a campaign. These were normal folks trying to get by, unintentionally finding themselves at the center of a solar system-wide conspiracy. Fergus and Otsby were on board.
Collectively, they approached Lipson with their proposal. The production team met Franck and Abraham for lunch, and began talking about the world. Lunch turned into dinner, and they closed out the bar, spending hours talking about the books and their vision for the series. Already big fans of the duo’s films, Franck and Abraham were sold.
“You know instantly,” Fergus recalled, “It’s like falling in love: all the chemistry and sensibilities clicked, and we were off and running.”
One of the major elements that attracted Fergus and Otsby to The Expanse was its focus on characters, and the approach to depicting them. They were tired of technological science fiction stories. This was an opportunity to tell a rich, character-driven tale. While The Expanse certainly had its technology, it was it was only used when necessary to propel a character-driven story. The focus was firmly on Holden and Miller, two regular guys in a crazy solar system, caught in the middle. Otsby brought up Alien as a source of inspiration, characters, “standing around talking about their contracts.” These were people everyone could relate to — blue collar science fiction.
They screenwriters committed to keeping diversity alive and well in the series. Early in the writing process, Franck and Abraham pushed for a diverse solar system, and race relations between Earth, Mars, and the deformed Belters play a major role in all four novels to date. The show plans to continuing that, and the cast includes actors from a variety of ethnicities, matching up with their on-the-page counterparts as best as possible.
In September 2013, Variety reported that the books would become a television series, with Fergus and Otsby writing a pilot for Alcon Entertainment. Alcon kept Franck and Abraham onboard to help write and produce, a highly uncommon circumstance in Hollywood adaptations. The group met in New Mexico for a series of extended meetings on what the show would look like. Together, they figured out how to best adapt the novels, assembling a plan for an entire television season.
That finished, they began shopping the series around L.A. They found a lot of interest, and Syfy ended up landing it. “They were very hungry for this,” Fergus noted. “A space opera to get back into the Battlestar Galactica mold.”
On the air since 1992, Syfy (then known at the Sci-Fi Channel) had developed a mix of science fiction television reruns and original programming, broadcasting ambitious series like the creature-filled space opera Farscape and the trio of Stargates SG-1, Stargate Atlantis and Stargate Universe. In 2003, the channel gained widespread critical acclaim with a reboot of Battlestar Galactica. However, by the end of the decade, the network had shifted priorities: they rebranded, and placed more of an emphasis on lighter shows such as Eureka, Warehouse 13, Alphas, and Haven, as well as genre-related reality shows such as Destination Truth and Ghosthunters.
Many regular viewers missed the space operas. The new direction was profitable, but the breakout success of a new group of genre-related shows overshadowed the programming. True Blood, Game of Thrones, and The Walking Dead, any of which could theoretically have played well on Syfy, found homes elsewhere.
In 2013, NBC Universal shuffled staff, putting new people in charge of Syfy. Bill McGoldrick replaced Mark Stern, who had overseen the branding shift, and became the executive vice president of original content. He immediately began to take the network in a new direction, green-lighting shows like Helix and 12 Monkeys. The arrival of the pitch for The Expanse was exciting: it was an ambitious, exciting space opera that would fit well on the new Syfy. Plus, it was already a popular book series, and it had an excellent set of talent behind it. Forgoing a pilot, Syfy outbid their competitors and issued a direct-to-series order for 10 episodes.
In 2014, Orbit released Cibola Burn and a standalone novella, The Churn. For the first time, the action leaves the solar system, as Holden and crew are dispatched to one of the many new colonial worlds now open to humanity. Franck and Abraham likened the plot of the fourth novel to that of a Western, where, “the railroad [is] coming through the town, and what people who are living hand-to-mouth do to protect themselves when giant corporate interests are just making a land grab.” Colonial OPA and corporate interests clash as new discoveries on the planet threaten an entire settlement, and the balance of power back at home. Franck noted that the novel was also a good opportunity to play with some realistic expectations of settling an alien world.
Somewhere, the pair found the time to write a non-Expanse book, Honor Among Thieves, a Star Wars novel about Han Solo. James S.A. Corey had become a major author in his own right, and had begun to branch into other franchises.
Where the first set of Expanse novels were released as trade paperbacks, Orbit sold Cibola Burn as a hardcover, a demonstration of their faith in the strength of the series. At the same time, the publisher doubled down on their commitment, announcing a deal with Corey for an additional three novels: a book a year through 2019.
With Cibola Burn out in stores, the pair began working two jobs: writing the fifth book, Nemesis Games, and working on the television show. Following the sale to Syfy, production began in earnest. With a considerable amount of interest in news of the television show, Cibola Burn picked up starred reviews in Publisher’s Weekly and Library Journal.
Meanwhile, Fergus, Otsby, Naren Shankar, and the rest of the writer’s team behind the series had to figure out how to distill a long, complicated novel into a television show. It was possible: George R.R. Martin’s A Game of Thrones demonstrated the possibilities.
The cast list hinted at major changes: Avasarala, who plays a prominent role in the politics of the second book, is there from the start. Other changes were due to constraints of a visual medium. In the books, the Belters, born in the absence of gravity, have a distinct appearance: tall, thin, almost cartoonish. While their strange physicality is important thematically, adapting the appearance to screen proved to be difficult, and the showrunners had to make some changes.
Cook noted that the series is being adapted as a whole, book-by-book, and that fans of the books, like with every single other adaptation, will have to prepare to expect that the television series will have its differences. In each of the major television adaptations of genre properties, including Game of Thrones, showrunners have merged characters or changed names, simplifying events or shifting the larger story. “Already,” Cook noted, “[we’ve] made some departures, but all in the spirit of telling the same major arc.”
The filming was scheduled to take place at Pinewood Studios in Toronto, previously used by big-budget productions like Total Recall and Pacific Rim. Over the summer, Alcon cast a series of key roles: Thomas Jane as Detective Miller, Steven Strait as Holden, Cas Anvar as Alex, and Dominique Tipper as Naomi. There were some surprises as well: Iranian actress Shohreh Aghdashloo was cast as Chrisjen Avasarala, who first appeared in Caliban’s War. Terry McDonough, best known for his work on Breaking Bad and An Adventure in Space and Time, would direct several episodes. Meanwhile, the writing team continued work. In the fall of 2014, filming commenced.
I visited the set in the spring of 2015. As I met and spoke with members of the cast and crew, I heard over and over again that the show was something special: the production crew clicked, and everyone was excited to play their part to bring it to the screen. Actress Florence Faivre, who portrays Julie Mao, noted that she hadn’t read the books, but loved the immersive world she was now a part of.
Steven Strait read Leviathan’s Wake and Caliban’s War after being blown away by the script. “I wanted to read the other books, but I’ve cautiously held off, because it’s unhelpful to know exactly where he’s going,” he said. Strait added that having the authors on hand was also useful: he was able to ask technical questions of either Franck or Abraham, and get as much detail about his character as he needed.
Still, it could get a bit odd for the authors behind it all: their creation was literally coming to life around them, bringing with it many surreal moments. “You know, it’s all very cool, but at some point, you get ‘wondered out,’” Franck mused. Abraham agreed: “I hit my high water mark a few weeks ago, when a minor character that I created for a specific technical problem walked by my seat on their way to set.” Yet the television show won’t impact their outlined vision of the series, nor will it change how they imagine their characters: they’ve lived with them for far too long already.
A new world
“Huh, that’s not our shitty Belter ship.”
The ship Franck has led us to is clean, clad with plywood and standing several stories tall — a far cry from the rundown spaceship that we expected.
We climbed the stairs of the scaffolding to the cockpit. The ceiling overhead has been removed in order to fly an actor around the set in an illusion of zero gravity. We stood around, peering at the controls and seats, taking in the minutia of this fictional world brought to life before climbing back down to the ground floor. Our next stop is a series of ship corridors and a storage locker where one of the characters has been imprisoned. Two of the members of our group, Raja and Liza, note that the settings are almost exactly as they had imagined from the original games played almost a decade ago.
A month prior to my set visit, Syfy released the first taste of the show via a brief teaser trailer. A flash of images blow past: Martian Marines, Belters, Holden, Detective Miller, Avasarala, space battles. It’s clear that Syfy is angling for a big hit.
It will cap off a year in which the channel returns to its space opera roots. On June 12, Syfy will release Dark Matter, written by Joseph Mallozzi and Paul Mullie (who ran Syfy’s Stargate franchise), following a group of passengers who wake in deep space, without their memories, on a spaceship loaded down with weapons and headed for a war zone. A week later, they premiered another new show, Killjoys, about the exploits of three bounty hunters in a solar system caught in the midst of a war. In December, they plan to air an adaptation of Arthur C. Clarke’s classic novel Childhood’s End, and they have an impressive list of other projects in development: The Magicians, from the novels by Lev Grossman; an adaptation of Clarke’s 3001: The Final Odyssey; and Hunters, based on Whitley Strieber’s novel Alien Hunter. [Neither project has materialized as of 2021]
This summer’s resurgence of space opera on Syfy coincides with the launch of Nemesis Games, which will represent a major change in the series: instead of new viewpoint characters, the crew disperses after the actions of Cibola Burn¸ each one of them becoming a point-of-view character.
Abraham and Franck have shared their longterm plot outline with their production partners, allowing them to steer the television show accordingly. With an additional four novels coming after the debut of the first season, there will be plenty of material for the show to adapt. “We’re just telling the story like it’ll run for a long time,” Cook told me. “Hopefully, that’ll work out in our favor and we won’t leave anyone hanging. But all we can do to plan ahead is to make the best show possible so fans will show up for years to come.”
It’s clear that Alcon Entertainment is banking on success: earlier this month, they began laying the groundwork for the future, assembling the writing team to begin the production process for a second season. “We were just informed by [Alcon Entertainment] President of TV development [Sharon Hall] that we should head back to LA in June for [season two] writing,” Franck tweeted.
Shortly thereafter, Syfy released a full trailer with, a release date: December 2015, a decade-and-a-half after Franck first began thinking about the balance of power deep in the solar system. In that time, his idea became a pitch, which became a popular game, which transformed into a novel, then three, six and finally nine of them, before being picked up to be adapted for television.
The Expanse has endured years of play testing and feedback from hundreds of people in its early days. It’s the product of a close collaboration and friendship between two authors who brought a world to life, and the efforts of thousands of people working in Toronto, Ontario to bring the show to life.
When I first read it, Leviathan Wakes hit all my buttons. It had everything: a conspiracy, human civilization branching out into the planets, a crew of a starship looking to right the wrongs in the universe, exciting moments that kept the pages turning faster and faster. Others have joined in over the years, drawn by the vivid covers, the action and visuals from the show, or just the sense of community that comes from a close-knit fandom. The story has come a long way in the twenty years since Franck began dreaming up the world, and it’s surpassed all expectations.
Undoubtedly, the books and show will continue to attract new readers and fans in the years to come, continuing to do what Franck dreamed of from the start: join in on one hell of a trip.
Since this piece was originally published in 2015, a lot has changed — something I hope to write about at some point. The first two of the final installments — Persepolis Rising and Tiamat’s Wrath have since hit stores, with the final book, Leviathan Falls expected to be released later this year at some point.
The television series has also continued, although there was a bit of a setback: the Syfy channel canceled the series after concluding its third season, prompting a massive fan outcry which eventually led to a pickup order from Amazon Studios. Season 4 — which followed the events of Cibola Burn — debuted last year (I got to visit the set one more time), and a fifth — following the events of Nemesis Games — comes to an end today. And while Amazon has renewed the show once more, it’ll be the final installment of the TV series.
When the series eventually comes to a close in the next year, it won’t be the last we see of Jimmy Corey: the authors have a new space opera project in the works, one that’ll draw its inspiration from the likes of Ursula K. Le Guin and Frank Herbert.
Along the way, the series has gone from critical darling to a big hit, commanding a massive, enthusiastic fanbase that gathers together in group meetups, sits down to play an RPG and board game adaptations, dresses up in replica costumes, and eagerly awaits the next installment.
Fortunately, we have a bit more to look forward to before. But even once it’s done, the world that Franck and Abraham constructed will live on in everyone who picked up one of the books, played a game with friends, or tuned in to one of the episodes, and maybe the next generation of writers who pick up a pen and build new worlds of their own.