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One of Hollywood’s most esteemed fanboys won’t be attending Comic-Con 2011 this week. But David S. Goyer says he has a good excuse: He’ll be working on director Zack Snyder’s forthcoming Superman relaunch starring Henry Cavill — the superhero opus most likely to be the biggest story of next year’s Comic-Con. “It would the height of irresponsibility to break away at this point to go to Comic-Con,” the Man of Steel screenwriter (also a key member on Christopher Nolan’s Batman team) told EW in an interview last week. (The film, slated for release next year, begins shooting next week.) Not that the Hollywood hyphenate isn’t capable of multi-tasking. Goyer is also currently brainstorming a new Godzilla flick and adapting his just-published sci-fi novel Heaven’s Shadow, co-written with author and TV producer Michael Cassutt. The book, set in the near future, has rival groups of astronauts – American (in a ship called Destiny) and an alliance of Russian, Indian, and Brazilian interests (in a ship called Brahma) – racing toward a mysterious “near Earth object” (wittily dubbed “Keanu”) hurtling toward our sun. The premise seems vaguely Armageddon-ish, but takes a surprising, challenging, mind-expanding leap into 2001: A Space Odyssey territory. It’s smart, serious, crackerjack-paced sci-fi, expressed through relatable characters and drama that will entertain hardcore geeks who love well-researched Big Ideas and anyone who likes spacey escapism.

Goyer – who works in television (he co-created FlashForward, adapted from the novel by Robert Sawyer), videogames (Call of Duty: Black-Ops), and comics (he scripted the recent Superman story that had the last son of Krypton renouncing his U.S. citizenship) – says adding “Author” to his resume has been liberating and rewarding. “It’s very satisfying that that you can have a complete separate career from Hollywood,” says Goyer. “And no notes from studio execs.” He was able to break away from his busybusy schedule to talk to EW about the book, as well as that aforementioned Superman comic book story. His comments will be of particular interest to those who wondered if the provocative, controversial tale was a set-up for the Man of Steel movie.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: How and when did you conceive the idea for Heaven’s Shadow?

DAVID GOYER: A few years ago, I had an idea for a screenplay – a science fiction film. I had long been a fan of sci-fi, but I wanted a grounded science fiction film, in the way Contact was grounded in a lot of real science. I wanted the story to take place in the next 10 years and be steeped in a lot of the ideas that NASA had on the drawing board. Now, at the time, I knew Michael Cassutt socially, and I proposed that we work on a treatment together. I was going to write a script based on this treatment and we would share story credit. We wrote the treatment – it was 50, 60 pages – and then the Writers Guild of America strike happened. Michael, who had written novels before, said: What if I turned this into a book proposal? …. After I sold the book, I went to Warner Bros. and then sold the film rights to a book that was supposed to have been a screenplay. I just started writing the screenplay adaptation this week, and we are currently midway through writing the second book. I might pull some things from the second book into the script. It’s like the movie could be version 2.0 of the novel.

Why was a “grounded” approach to science fiction important to you guys?

There are plenty of science fiction stories that don’t take a grounded approach that I like. But – and I say this in the best possible way – science fiction in novel form tends to be ghettoized. It’s ironic: In movies, the most successful films of all time have been sci-fi or fantasy. By far. But a lot of people who won’t even read science fiction books. In recent memory, the one author that comes to mind that had success in popularizing science fiction was Michael Crichton. He had a knack for making science mainstream. So our goal was to write a book for science people and for people who don’t necessarily read science fiction. That said, I just thought steeping the story in reality as much as possible would make it more believable. H.G. Wells’ [approach] to science fiction was to just change one thing – to take a world that is otherwise our world and make one tweak.

And what’s your one tweak?

[SPOILER ALERT!] Our story is basically set in our world, just seven years from now. We thought the near-term future would be more relatable. The big tweak in our story is that it’s a “first contact” story. But “first contact” stories often fall into two categories. The first is Independence Day, where we get invaded by aliens. Which is high unlikely in science circles because no one believes anyone would cross immense stellar regions just to invade us. It’s like taking an airplane to Moscow to buy a gallon of gas. But the other category of “first contact” stories involves aliens who test us, like 2001. Like, if you pass a test, you get to join some cosmic club. We try to come up with a third scenario for a “first contact” story. We feel it’s unique and makes sense. There other points of difference and ideas we wanted to explore, as well. I always felt that if we ever encountered an alien species, they wouldn’t look like us or even be humanoid, like E.T. Somebody once said if you wanted to imagine what an alien creature looked like, picture an octopus. So we tried to come up with some very different aliens. I think if we ever encountered aliens, even communicating with them would be really, really difficult. So we deal with that, as well. We also wanted to deal with scale of time. It gets touched on in the first book and we explore it even more in the second book. These particular entities, their scale of time is totally different from ours. They have lived millions if not hundreds of millions of years. So our life span is a blink of an eye for them. We also tried to come up with a science fiction story that had [spiritual] elements. It really gets into things like what happens after we die and the nature of the soul, which I think a good science fiction novel can do.

Filmmaker Guillermo del Toro – who has been co-writing a trilogy of vampire novels with Chuck Hogan (The Strain) – gave Heaven’s Shadow an endorsement. Did he give you any advice during the writing of the book?

His only advice was that if the book was going to have any integrity, it really needed to be a book, and a book first.

By that you mean not a movie script masquerading as a novel.

My film agent didn’t even know anything about it. When I told him, he was like: What?! It came about in an organic way. But I will say this: Hollywood loves pre-validation. Even if someone has a property that was first published as a comic book that sold only 5000 copies, for Hollywood, that is a stamp of approval. Oh, it was already published in another medium? Must be good! They get assurance from knowing that someone else already took the risk. And I want to be clear: We did take this seriously as a book. When we decided to write this as a book, we had an opportunity and even obligation to dig deeper into the world and premise. I wasn’t doing anything in the book for the sake of the movie.

What was the division of labor between you and Michael in terms of writing the book?

We used a version of the television model. We broke story like we would on a TV episode. We met a couple times a week and wrote our story beats on index cards, which we then posted on boards. By the end, we had three or four cork boards with cards all over them. Then we started churning out prose. He would write a chunk and I would revise it, then I would write a chunk and he would revise it. It worked quite well.

You’ve directed several films, including Blade: Trinity and The Unborn. If Warner Bros. gives your Heaven’s Shadow script a green light, would you be interested in directing the movie?

I don’t know. Only because by the time it would get made, I would have lived with so many different versions of the story that I may well be sick of it. To come aboard and make a movie this big would be a two-year commitment. That would be after writing a script for a year, and that’s after having spent a couple years writing a book. I don’t think I can spend more than four years on any one project.

I know better than try to squeeze you for details about Man of Steel

You won’t get anything from me, other than to say that it’s been a really, really fun experience.

But I did want to ask you about another Superman story – the short story you wrote for Action Comics, in which you had Superman renounce his U.S. citizenship after involving himself (peacefully) in Middle East political unrest. What was the genesis of the story?

The editors at DC Comics said: ‘Hey, we’re doing the 900th issue of Action Comics, would you like to write a story?’ We had a conversation, and out of the conversation, a question emerged: Is Superman still relevant? Because the numbers on Superman comics are down. So we started talking about what Superman might do about all these Arab countries in states of unrest, with governments battling civil protest. What would Superman do? It was purely a ‘What if…?’ proposition. What was interesting is that the mainstream public’s perception of Superman is 50 years out of date. I think one news program covering the story showed a clip from the 1950s TV show. It was also interesting to me that people thought it was a slight against America. It wasn’t meant to be that at all. He was actually trying to protect America from what he intended to do. But sure, the story was meant to be thought-provoking. And by the way: None of this has any connection to the movie. This story is set wholly in Superman’s comic book world where he has existed for years. One day when things settle down I’ll dip my toes in comics again. If I do, I want to do more provocative stuff like that.

Come back to EW.com all this week for more coverage of Comic-Con 2012. You can also follow Jeff Jensen’s Comic-Con coverage on Twitter @EWDocJensen.