To the Stars: a Quick Take on “The Expanse”

Cover spread for the novel "Caliban's War"; features a spaceship in orbit over a world

This series has been on my radar for a while, despite my not knowing very much about it, other than the fact that it was a TV series on SyFy. I eventually got around to watching the first season, and shortly thereafter, I found out that it was adapted from a book series. Naturally, I had to investigate. What did the two versions look like? Would I find one to be more compelling than the other? Well, uh, spoiler alert–I quickly plowed through six books of the series, so that should already give you some idea.

The Expanse (the official title of the entire book series, also used as the show’s title) is a gritty near-future sci-fi story that deals with politics, the harsh realities of space exploration, and glimpses into the great unknown. Mars has been colonized (and is slowly undergoing terraforming), the Asteroid Belt is populated with miners who grew up in low gravity, and Earth is striving to maintain a grasp on the solar system, which gets increasingly more difficult as humankind expands (I PROMISE THAT WASN’T A PUN) across the Solar System. Now toss in one of the most naive-and-noble characters in all of literature, and watch the fireworks.

Starting With the Show

When I watched the first season of The Expanse, I found it to be a remarkably mixed bag. The attention to world detail was phenomenal–there was an interesting cultural and political division across the setting (the tough-as-nails Mars colonists, the politicking Earth humans, and the disenfranchised Belters), and there were all sorts of little details of realism. People wore magnetic boots, had special “crash couches” to help them survive high-gravity maneuvers, and there’s even one neat scene where a bird on the colonies of Ceres just floats around, barely flapping its wings, because the dwarf planet doesn’t have a strong gravity. The world itself is filled with imaginative detail–asteroid colonies that feel familiar and unfamiliar, illegal “slingshots” where daredevils launch themselves through the solar system, propelled by little more than the inertia from flinging themselves through the orbits of multiple planets, ice-hauling spaceships that bring a water supply to outposts in the Belt–and it’s a feast for anyone who enjoys a compelling setting.

Unfortunately, I didn’t find the characters nearly as compelling. There’s some powerful, dramatic events early in the series, and yet it was difficult for me to hook into the characters. They mostly came off somewhat flat and uninteresting, with the exception of Chrisjen Avasarala, the wonderfully conniving UN representative, to the point where I was balancing the parts of the show I could connect with against the main characters who I couldn’t connect with. Fortunately for me, the show would throw in some interesting characterization as it went on. When Season 1 wrapped up, though, I had an incredibly mixed reaction. Some interesting things had happened, but I wasn’t sure that I wanted to watch the second season of the show just to follow it.

And that’s when I found out about the books.

A Literary Expanse

The first book, Leviathan Wakes, was both familiar and also new. It roughly adhered to the first season of the show, until I got to the stopping point of the first season, and there was still at least a good third of the book to go. I was pleasantly surprised and also curious at what would happen next. What struck me the most was how interesting the characters had become, because all of the subtext which had been haltingly conveyed by the actors was now on full display in the writing. Inner thoughts, doubts, intentions, all on display. Because it’s long-form fiction, we start to get a far better picture of these characters through small details, from technology down to little quirks. Things which would normally go unnoticed except by a devoted fan are spelled out in a sentence, which is a perpetual advantage that written fiction has over cinematic fiction.

When I finally hit the conclusion of the first book, I was floored–because they took what had seemed like a world-shaking moment and managed to build it into something even more paradigm-shifting by the end of the book. Several setups paid off, but the road forward was paved with huge questions and tons of uncertainty. I had to dive into the second book. There were new characters, new conflicts, familiar faces, and delightful science fiction (with a bit more background than in the series). In addition, the epilogue of the book delivered a spooky ante-upping that completely shifted the arena of the series yet again. It shifted the stakes in a way that legitimately impressed me and made me keep wanting to read.

At first, there were a few things I’d assumed the books were about. The more I read into the series, the more I realized that it was just a starting point, a bridge to something bigger and more powerful. Book after book, horizons expanded and the scope of the work shifted. It wasn’t just a sci-fi political thriller, but it was in reality a look back on human history itself, through the lens of a true pivot point for humanity. When I realized this, I was floored. This entire series became so, so much more, and all the little details added up to something far more important.

What Sticks With You

While the big events of the novels in The Expanse are exciting to behold (including some that hit me straight in the gut with their gravity), it’s the smallest things that stand out the most, to me. There’s little character transitions, small but meaningful gestures, potent lines that come from the most unexpected places. The cultures of the far human future are unfamiliar in many ways, and I take an incredible delight in that worldbuilding. There’s pragmatism, faith, and melancholy, sometimes interspersed with Chrisjen Avasarala’s colorful language. The entire thing is a tapestry of human experience, with moments of humanity as its threads.

Amidst the bizarre science-fiction images you encounter in the midst of the series, what grounds the entire thing is its inhabitants, who look out towards the same starry horizons we do, with the same sorts of hopes that we do, asking the same questions that we do. The basics don’t change, only the details do. There’s a wealth of diversity in the faces that we meet (including some brief appearances by Catholic clergy!), and all of it adds up to the human core that everyone shares.

The Expanse looks up at the stars, and then it looks back down at us, with our anger, our joy, our desire, our anxiety, and our hope. It takes us to strange places, and grounds us in the familiar human heart.

Content Advisory: descriptions of bloody violence, very coarse language, occasional reference to sexuality (although, interestingly, no explicit sex scenes)

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