As one of the most interesting sci-fi novels of the last few years, Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice — and its sequels Ancillary Sword and Ancillary Mercy — have undoubtedly inspired other authors in a variety of ways. But perhaps none so directly as Corey J White, who got the idea for his space opera novella Killing Gravity (paperback, digital) while reading Leckie’s novel. Though in talking to him about the first book in what he’s calling The Voidwitch Saga, White admitted that he was not only inspired by more than just Leckie’s book, but by anime and music as well.
So I always like to start with the basics: What is Killing Gravity about?
Killing Gravity is about Mars Xi, a powerful space witch with telekinetic powers, who’s spent most of her life on the run from the people who “made” her. After a near escape from MEPHISTO’s clutches, she goes to find the person that sold her out, falling down a rabbit hole that leads deep into her past.
It’s also about misogyny, war, independence, depression, family, and psychic destruction on a massive scale.
Cool. And MEPHISTO isn’t the German demon, right?
Ha, no. Actually, the word jumped into my head and I had to double-check that it was a good name for a nefarious research group. It stands for Military Experimental Post-Human Specialist Training Organization, and I blame Matt Fraction’s Casanova for my love of organizations with overwrought acronymic names.
Where did the original idea for Killing Gravity come from, and how different, if at all, is the finished novella?
The initial seed for the book was reading Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice and deciding I wanted to write a space opera that completely ignored the larger political situation of the galaxy, and instead focused on a character that dwelt on the fringes of society, both literally and figuratively.
After that, I can’t remember where any individual ideas came from, because they all sort of coalesced really organically, and writing it was quick and utterly painless. If only that were always the case…
Aside from leckie, what authors, and which of their books, do you consider to be the biggest influences on Killing Gravity, both in terms of what you wrote and how you wrote it?
Marlee Jane Ward’s Welcome To Orphancorp was a big influence in terms of how I wrote it. Before I read Orphancorp, I didn’t tend to write in first-person because I’d done it so much as a younger writer and felt like it was juvenile, or somehow less valuable, whatever that means. But Ward has an incredible and unique voice, and reading her book I realized how well first-person could be used, and it made me want to try something similar. I still went back and forth on the first vs third question, but without Orphancorp, I probably would have gone the other way.
What about non-literary influences, such as movies, TV shows, or video games? Because with sci-fi and witches, this kind of sounds like that game Destiny.
Well, the two biggest influences for Killing Gravity weren’t books at all. They were Akira and the discography of These Arms Are Snakes. It was Akira that I thought of when I was picturing the sort of destruction Mars would wreak with her telekinetic abilities, and the music of These Arms Are Snakes informed the way I thought about the shape of the story: jagged noise and fury contrasted with moments of quiet.
There are also similarities between Killing Gravity and Firefly, but I didn’t see those until they were pointed out to me.
I haven’t played Destiny, but if someone wanted to draw a parallel between the childhood of Mars and the other space witches, and the backstory of Master Chief and the other Spartans from the game Halo, I wouldn’t complain because I used to love that game, and Eric Nylund’s prequel novel, Halo: The Fall Of Reach, was way better than you’d expect a tie-in novel to be.
Now, you’ve said that Killing Gravity is the first book in The Voidwitch Saga. When in the process of writing Killing Gravity did you decide it would not be a stand-alone novella but the first in a series, and what led to this decision?
I think every writer wants to do a trilogy, and when you’re talking about space opera, it’s hard not to think about the original Star Wars trilogy because it’s such a great lesson in plotting, stakes, and character arcs.
Right from the get-go, I knew there’d be one big question that wouldn’t be answered in Killing Gravity, and by the time I got to the end of the book, I’d added a second big question. That said, I still assumed I’d need to see how well the book sold before getting to write a sequel, but Tor.com Publishing offered me a contract on a sequel very early on, which was a huge show of support.
Now I just need to hope that both novellas sell well enough to warrant a third so I can completely wrap up Mars’ story.
Without spoiling anything, how much of this series do you have figured out or even written? Like, do you know how many books it will be, how it ends?
The second book is with my editor now, but even before I wrote it I knew where all the characters would wind up at the end of a potential third book.
I’m sure there are many more stories I could tell with these characters, but by the time I’m done with the trilogy they’ll have been through enough hardship, so I’ll be letting them off the hook. But I’ve started working on a spin-off, one that does deal with galactic politics in a more direct way, while still tapping into the story of MEPHISTO’s space witch program.
So when do you think the other parts will be released?
At the moment, the plan is for Book 2 to come out in early 2018. Beyond that, only time will tell.
So has anyone come up with a good joke about how Killing Gravity sounds like one of Bill O’Reilly’s books [which have included Killing Lincoln, Killing Kennedy, Killing Jesus, Killing Patton, and Killing Reagan]?
As an Australian I barely even knew who Bill O’Reilly was before he was kicked off Fox News, and I certainly didn’t know about his books.
But the funny thing is that the Killing in the title is an adjective not a noun, so Killing Kennedy could be about a time-travelling JFK preemptively assassinating Lee Harvey Oswald, and Killing Jesus could be an alternate title for Ryu Mitsuse’s Ten Billion Days And One Hundred Billion Nights, a classic of Japanese sci-fi, which features an unstoppable, killer, android Jesus.
I think I’d rather read those books than Bill’s. Anyway, between the new Star Wars movies The Force Awakens and Rogue One, the new Star Trek films, and such TV shows as The Expanse and Dark Matter, it seems like Hollywood is on a bit of a space opera kick. Has there been any interest in turning Killing Gravity into a movie or TV show?
It’s still early days, so there haven’t been any adaptation discussions yet, but I’m definitely keen to see the world of Killing Gravity in another form.
In my head, I see it as an anime for some reason. I’m not even a huge anime fan, so I guess it’s the Akira influence coming through.
I could also see it working as either a film or a short-ish series. I feel like film adaptations of novels can be disappointing because novels are dense, and there’s so much that needs to be stripped out, but with a novella it should be easier to adapt without leaving too much of the book on the cutting room floor.
If it was going to be made into a movie or TV show, who would you like to see play MEPHISTO Commander Briggs and Mariam Xi and the other main characters and why them?
I could see Rinko Kikuchi [Pacific Rim], Ah-sung Ko [Snowpiercer], or Min-hee Kim [The Handmaiden] in the role of Mars. I haven’t seen Min-hee Kim in an action role, but she has a sort of quiet ferocity that I could see working really well…as long as she does loud ferocity just as well.
For Briggs, I could imagine Jeffrey Wright [Westworld], Chiwetel Ejiofor [Children Of Men], Forest Whitaker [Rogue One], or Idris Elba [Star Trek Beyond] in the role, someone who can embody intelligence, pride, and menace all at the same time.
Trix is meant to be physically intimidating, so Gwendolyn Christie [Game Of Thrones] is the only actor that immediately comes to mind. Mahershala Ali [Luke Cage] or Michael Kenneth Williams [The Wire] could both make an amazing Mookie. And for Squid, they’d have to be played by a non-binary actor. I can’t imagine “non-binary” comes up too often in casting calls, and I’d hate for that opportunity to be wasted.
Oh, so maybe Asia Kate Dillon who plays Taylor on Billions.
I haven’t actually seen Billions, but it’s really cool that there’s a non-binary character and actor on a big Showtime series.
Finally, if some enjoys Killing Gravity, what would you suggest they read while waiting for the next book to come out?
I’ll keep it simple here and recommend two books by Nnedi Okorafor. Binti is well worth checking out — I mean, it did win both the Hugo and Nebula Awards — and is set far in the future with organic space ships, alien races, and a sort of galactic university for the best and brightest of all species. More than the sci-fi elements though, I really loved the way it looked at Binti’s connection to her home and heritage even while she’s travelling among the stars.
Second, I absolutely loved The Book of Phoenix. Whilst this one is set entirely on Earth, it has a few parallels to Killing Gravity. Both are about a woman who was created to be a living weapon, and in both books the women wreak bloody havoc on the people and institutions that try to contain and control them.