Babylon 5 is unquestionably one of my first true TV loves. J. Michael Straczynski’s space opera is an expansive tale of a massive space station at the center of a tense interstellar struggle between races. As one of the first series that truly felt like a novel for television, it has provided countless writers with inspiration for their own works, from page to screen—including Claudia Christian, who happens to be one of the show’s stars.
Wolf’s Empire: Gladiator, written by Christian and Morgan Grant Buchanan, offers an intriguing mix of genre elements. In this alternate far-future world, the Roman Empire never fell, and over the millennia, it has expanded its borders beyond Earth and out into the depths of the galaxy. The plot spirals out from a terrible act of violence: young noblewoman Accala Viricius witnesses the murder of her mother and brother, and swears vengeance, giving up her title and enlisting as a gladiatorial combatant in the arena, where she can exact her revenge upon her enemies. Unfortunately, a civil war and galactic politics upset her bloodthirsty plans, forcing her through a series of grueling trials on the road to revenge.
We recently had a chance to discuss the novel with the co-writers, who shed light on the work that went into constructing a plausible future based on a past that never was.
The two met when Christian starred in the 2010 production of Barrier: The Invisible Machine, which Buchanan wrote. That project eventually led to a collaboration on Christian’s 2012 memoir, Babylon Confidential, a look back over Christian’s life and career as an actress. Christian told us that while the memoir was her first book, she loved writing from an early age. “I’ve been writing since I was straight out of the womb,” she said. “My mom found me with little pencils when I was the age of three.”
That love for storytelling led to many conversations with Buchanan about the kind of epic sci-fi story they both loved best. Eventually, they finally decided to sit down and write the galaxy-spanning space drama that they’d dreamed up together.
Buchanan summed up one the main theme of the novel succinctly: “How can one disenfranchised citizen reform an entire Empire?” The book starts with a personal fight for justice, but as the story grows, “her fight and the fate of the Empire become intertwined.”
The collaboration benefitted from the co-authors’ respective strengths. Christian noted that her upbringing exposed her more to nonfiction: “In my world, it was basically history, and that was it. My parents had a very small collection of nonfiction books, and mostly it was memoirs. I wasn’t exposed to too much fantasy or sci-fi at an early age.” (Her first real exposure to the genre, appropriately enough, was Babylon 5.) Buchanan, meanwhile, had SFF in his blood; he began reading Philip K. Dick and Frank Herbert at an early age.
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Together, they spent the seven years assembling a story that pulls elements from both history and science fiction. Christian explained that while their fictional Roman empire never fell, readers shouldn’t walk away with the idea that this is a book stuck in the past: “A lot of the elements that were perhaps corrupt or wrong back in the actual day have not disappeared,” she said. “Many of the elements that made Rome fascinating are with us today: the corruption, sex and violence.”
Both Christian and Buchanan freely admit the debt they owe to Babylon 5: both the show and their novel are character-driven dramas set against the backdrop of interstellar war.
Buchanan noted our undying fixation on Rome’s legacy, particularly in the genre space. “There have been so many science fiction and fantasy series based on Rome… so we thought, why not just use Rome?” he said. “There’s so much richness and history [to] draw from.” Instead of calling their Rome-in-all-but-name empire by an invented moniker, they decided to just go ahead and call it Rome, propelling the ancient civilization into the far future. Christian said they strived to build a “complex and dirty” world that would appeal to a wide range of fans, both within genre and outside of it. After toying with aiming it at a YA audience, they decided to aim it at more mature readers.
They hope they’ll be able to continue their journey together. “We have [an] epic story planned out across three books,” Buchanan said. “We hope that we’ll get the space to play it all out.”