I’m late joining the party for The Expanse. Almost too late, since SyFy canceled the series. Thankfully, Amazon picked it up for a Season Four, so there’s still hope for even more.
First, a little back story. The series is based on science fiction novels (and related short stories and novellas) by James S. A. Corey, which is the joint pen name of authors Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck. Since 2011’s Leviathan Wakes, the duo have published one Expanse novel per year, for a total of seven novels so far, with another to be published later this year. That’s a lot of source material for the series.
NPR Books called the book series “the science fiction equivalent of A Song of Ice and Fire.” This is pretty high praise, in my opinion. Even though I wrote in an earlier post that I planned to read the first novel in the series before beginning to watch the television series, I didn’t do that. I still haven’t begun reading the novels. I didn’t lie, either to you or to myself. It just turned out that I had a hole in my summer viewing schedule, and The Expanse was calling to me, especially after it was canceled by SyFy. This is a complete justification, but I think watching the series first may have been the right decision. I know that I will picture certain actors in my head while I’m reading the novels, the same way that I do now with George R. R. Martin’s books, and the way I did the last time I read J. R. R. Tolkien. I kinda like that.
I’m not comparing anything in this series to the books, since I haven’t read them yet. So, you’re spared that, at least. I’m sure I’ll compare the books to the series after I begin reading them.
I do have other things to compare this series to. Let’s start with the low-hanging fruit. Everyone wants to write the one-line blurb stating that The Expanse is Game of Thrones-in-Space. I can see this, at least on the surface. As with GOT, we have several POV characters in the series. There’s James Holden, the solar system’s luckiest survivor of one cataclysmic disaster after another. Joe Miller, the Star Helix detective on Ceres Station, who becomes obsessed about the missing Julie Mao, the way any noir detective in a fedora should be expected to. And, for the moment, Chrisjen Avasarala, a UN Assistant Undersecretary. Most of the scenes in the series so far seem to be filtered through the perception of one of these characters. Plus, like GOT, there’s a lot of backroom scheming and politicking going on, and competing groups that may very well be represented with individual sigils before things are over. We have Earthers, Martians, and Belters. There’s also a militant Belter faction known as the OPA (Outer Planets Alliance). Like GOT, it’s not always easy to tell who the bad guy is supposed to be either.
All right, getting past the GRRM connection, I also find it easy to compare this show to the Battlestar Galactica reboot. There’s something that feels more hard science-fiction about it, even though it’s not—at least, not entirely. I’d also compare it to the short-lived Firefly, especially in its world-building and multicultural tone. This feels like a lived-in, real world, not a sanitized-for-your-protection world like that in the various Trek series (forgive me, fellow Trekkies).
Since I am who I am, I’m comparing it really, really hard to the Mass Effect video game series as well. I find myself hoping that there will one day be a quality The Expanse video game to play as well. It would definitely be an RPG. The folks at BioWare need to get on that.
There are no aliens in the story world of The Expanse. At least, not so far. I would be perfectly okay with there never being aliens pulled into the story. Plus, we’re talking about our solar system—the Sol system—and not some far-flung galaxy here. In many ways, this reminds me of Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series, especially the original trilogy, in which there were no aliens and a lot of the action was sociological and political. Like this series, great space opera.
I’m not going to give away any of the secrets of this first season, since I would rather you remain intrigued enough to watch it. I will let you in on some of the plot points that motivate our characters.
James Holden becomes the poster-boy for war after he claims that the Martians have destroyed the ice-hauler Canterbury that he was serving as temporary XO upon. The truth turns out to be more complicated, of course. Holden and the surviving crew of the Cant end up in Martian custody, then survive another ship explosion, and then end up in their own Martian gunship, which they dub the Rocinante. Eventually, working a lead given to them by the Butcher of Anderson Station, they end up on Eros Station, looking for an OPA operative with the code name Lionel Polanski.
Joe Miller is a Belter detective born and raised on Ceres. He accepts the assignment to locate the missing heiress Julie Mao. He turns out to be too good at his job, so he is fired. Even so, he doesn’t stop looking for Julie. He finds her on Eros Station the same time Holden and his crew discover that Julie and Lionel Polanski are one and the same. Things go pretty horribly for everyone on Eros Station, and things are looking pretty bleak as the season ends.
Chrisjen Avasarala, the UN Undersecretary of Executive Administration, is also too good at her job. She proves that she can be a shark in political waters, and her own investigations show that the drive engines of the ships that destroyed the Cant and nearly started a war between Earth and Mars were actually manufactured on Earth. By the end of the season, Chrisjen is aware that there is a conspiracy afoot and that her own boss is involved, but she continues to play the game.
There are a lot of other characters in this one, and I’m beginning to understand that none of them are safe. Just like in GOT. One of Holden’s shipmates dies a sudden graphic death early in the season that genuinely shocked me, and I have a high tolerance for shock.
At ten episodes, I think this was the perfect length for the story, or segment of the story, that they wanted to tell. The production values are high and the acting is terrific. Seasons two and three each have thirteen episodes each, and I’ll take that. It’s what the Marvel series on Netflix have been running.
I enjoyed this one. And I recommend The Expanse for any science-fiction fans who like their space opera down-and-dirty.