Let’s Talk About “The Expanse”

 

About seven months ago, a kid I work with told me about a science fiction TV show he thought I’d enjoy. It was a little something called “The Expanse.” It had a great premise. The only problem was that it was on the Syfy channel.

If you’re not familiar with Syfy, until they rebranded themselves a few years ago, they were the Sci-Fi Channel, a cable station nominally devoted to science fiction television. The only problem is that … their programming was terrible. If you need an example of their garbage programming, they’re the folks behind Sharknado. The fact that they changed their name to “Syfy” should tell you everything you need to know. But I was assured, by my coworker, that this one series was the shining gem of the network and that it was worth watching. And, boy howdy, was he right.

The series is set a few centuries in the future. There’s a united Earth, under the UN. There’s a colonized Mars, attempting to terraform, and there’s The Belt, the people who live and work in the asteroid belt. They are the Third World of the solar system. They have their own culture, their own language, their own society, and they are perpetually under the boot of the Inner Planets. The series centers on two main characters, James Holden, who begins the series as XO of an ice freighter, and Miller, a hard-boiled detective who lives on one of the inhabited asteroids in The Belt.

“The Expanse” television series is a masterpiece. It’s superbly done. The production details are exquisite. It is everything I want from a science fiction television show. My wife and I quickly burned through the first season, which was available on Amazon Prime. That was in February or so. I didn’t want to pay for the second season, which we calculated (correctly) would come onto Prime when the third season premiered on television, so we held off.

But wanting more, more, more, I began reading the books, of which there are currently seven, with another coming in December and a final book in 2019.

The overwhelming majority of science fiction I’ve read was written in the 20th century. The great masters of the genre all did their work in the 20th century, mostly before I was born. I think the last science fiction book I read from this century was The Martian. It was refreshing having a work with modern trappings: computers, coding, cell phones (called “hand terminals”), and something resembling the Internet (and Internet culture) all play a role in the story.

For me, Leviathan Wakes was not only a masterpiece but a breath of fresh air. It is everything I want a science fiction work to be. The world-building is rich and robust. The characters move me. And the authors (James S.A. Corey is a nom de plume for Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck) understand how science fiction works because they’re keen observers of history and human nature.

Allow me to explain. Great science fiction works thusly: Technology and circumstances change; social patterns, customs, and habits form around those changes; but human nature stays the same. People do what they always do. So to understand and create great science fiction, one must understand human nature.

The authors do this masterfully. They will tell you this is not “hard sci-fi” because there is no math. True, but they do fully account for gravity, which is the real dividing line. (It also means that the space combat is realistic.) There seems to be no aspect of the technology of living and working and fighting for centuries in space that they have not thought of. And not only is the technology there, but the culture of The Belt is built around those conditions. For example, Belters are always fastidious, especially about changing air filters. (Because, if you slack off, everyone dies.) It’s a hard life living in space, and it’s bred a culture of hard people.

I finished the seventh of these monster tomes (they are 500+ pages) on Monday night. It is all I’ve read for the last seven months. There’s a reason for that: these books are superb. (When Season 2 of the television series came onto Prime, I stopped 10 minutes into the first episode, because I was blurring characters and plot lines.)

I cannot recommend them enough.

Addendum: The certified geniuses at Syfy wouldn’t know a good thing if they saw it, so they canceled the series after the third season. Or maybe they realized the series was too good to be on their terrible network. (The truth is that it was expensive to produce and they only made money on the first-run viewing, not on streaming.) It was promptly picked up by Amazon, which knows a masterpiece when it sees it.

There are 48 comments.

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  1. LC Member
    LC
    @LidensCheng

    For a couple of years now, Syfy has been looking for their next BSG. They’ve been adapting or in the process of adapting a bunch of famous sci-fi novels. In progress or done: The Expanse, Childhood’s End, The Magicans, Olympus. To come: Stranger in a Strange Land (really skeptical of this one), Brave New World, etc. Of course, all the series to really keep an eye out for will be done by amazon. 

    • #1
  2. Spin Inactive
    Spin
    @Spin

    A – I agree in general with everything you’ve said.  

    B – The TV show is not a masterpiece.  It’s just ok.  But it’s good enough to get me in to the books.  I started reading the books after season one, then when season two came available I tried watching it, and got bored.  The characters aren’t nearly as enjoyable as in the books.  I guess thats always the case.

    C – Who is your favorite character?  Mine is Amos.  I love his story.  

    Addendum:  Avasarala; ammirite?

     

    • #2
  3. Bishop Wash Member
    Bishop Wash
    @BishopWash

    I’ve seen it listed on my Amazon Prime choices and have heard good things about it.  Haven’t taken the time to watch any of it. Sounds as though I would enjoy it and that I need to take the time to sit down and watch it.

    • #3
  4. Fred Cole Inactive
    Fred Cole
    @FredCole

    Before someone asks, let me address whether it’s appropriate for kids.

    Wrt the TV show, probably not.  There’s a zero gravity sex scene in the first episode.  So there you go.  

    Wrt the books, there are sex scenes, but nothing graphic.  There’s graphic violence, but it’s not as bad on the page as it would be on a screen. 

    There is, however, a non-trivial amount of bad language in the books.  This especially includes the above mentioned Chrisjen Avasarala, who is this old lady with … quite a mouth.  She’s known for spewing R-rated aphorisms (language warning, um, obviously), which has earned her a cult following.

    That being said, you could probably give these to a teenager.  

    • #4
  5. Travis McKee Inactive
    Travis McKee
    @Typewriterking

    I’m the sole being alive that thought Caprica was great. BYU TV, of all places, put out a nice 1o-episode series called Extinct that is surprisingly well-done. 

    I intend to finish up reading all the works Orson Scott Card had added to the Enderverse before exploring what else is new in sci-fi. I paid little attention to the “Sad Puppy” thing, and I’m not terribly familiar with any of the related authors, except John C. Wright. He lately did some pulpy thing with space vampires that is probably pretty good, as I enjoyed his Golden Age trilogy quite a bit. 

    As a Prime subscriber, I suppose I could make time for The Expanse. Prime originals hadn’t been great. I expected some stupid cheesy fun in John Claude Van Johnson, but it didn’t really deliver on the premise. I might as well watch something good. 

    • #5
  6. Quake Voter Inactive
    Quake Voter
    @QuakeVoter

    Engrossing books. Leviathan Wakes creates an extension of our world which challenges you.  Even the novellas are weirdly compelling.

    The political and dimensions are realistic and grounded.  As a conservative, patriotism for the Earth is an odd concept.  But how about rooting against the Earth?  Support the UBI?  Well, maybe not after you see the implications.  It’s not the Federalist Papers in space, but it’s kind of the Federalist Papers in space.

    The TV series is first rate though Spin nails a few of the weaknesses.  You could argue that only one Belter looks like a Belter:  the prostitute from season one.  And, while likeable and handsome, Steven Strait is an uninteresting actor with little charisma.  The loss of Jared Harris was The Terror’s gain.

    On the other hand, Wes Chatham can convey more levels of badassery than Jack Palance.

    • #6
  7. dnewlander Coolidge
    dnewlander
    @dnewlander

    The authors live here in Albuquerque. One of them (I can’t remember which) is or was George R. R. Martin’s assistant.

    I have enjoyed the TV series, but after the first season I started reading the books, on the advice of friends. I’m glad I watched the show first, because I read all of the dialogue in the actors’ voices, especially Amos, who’s my favorite.

    I’ve only watched the first episode of season 3, because after you’ve read all the books and know what’s going to happen, a lot of the suspense has gone away. (Although it hasn’t completely irked me, unlike another Sci-Fi Channel* show, The Magicians, because at least the showrunners of The Expanse really they’re making a show based on some books, not just a show that shares character names with some books… But I digress.)

    I’m glad Amazon picked it up, since that means season 4+ will probably drop each season at once instead of spread out over eight weeks. I wonder if they’ll push some of the boundaries Sci-Fi held them to, like two f-bombs per episode, which really limits Avasarala’s dialogue.

    Anyway, I agree: the books are great and the show is an admirable attempt. It will be interesting to see how they continue it.

    • I refuse to use their stupid, but copyrightable, new name
    • #7
  8. Spin Inactive
    Spin
    @Spin

    Quake Voter (View Comment):
    You could argue that only one Belter looks like a Belter: the prostitute from season one.

    Yeah, but what are you gonna do?  Even Robbie Draper is mis-cast in terms of her physical size.  You gotta go with whatcha got….

    • #8
  9. Spin Inactive
    Spin
    @Spin

    Fred Cole (View Comment):

    Before someone asks, let me address whether it’s appropriate for kids.

    Wrt the TV show, probably not. There’s a zero gravity sex scene in the first episode. So there you go.

    Wrt the books, there are sex scenes, but nothing graphic. There’s graphic violence, but it’s not as bad on the page as it would be on a screen.

    There is, however, a non-trivial amount of bad language in the books. This especially includes the above mentioned Chrisjen Avasarala, who is this old lady with … quite a mouth. She’s known for spewing R-rated aphorisms (language warning, um, obviously), which has earned her a cult following.

    That being said, you could probably give these to a teenager.

    There’s a lot of political intrigue I wouldn’t have understood as a teenager.  I remember re-reading Dune 2 years ago (hadn’t read it since I was a teenager) and thinking “Wow, this isn’t the same book at all!”  

    • #9
  10. Quake Voter Inactive
    Quake Voter
    @QuakeVoter

    Spin (View Comment):

    Quake Voter (View Comment):
    You could argue that only one Belter looks like a Belter: the prostitute from season one.

    Yeah, but what are you gonna do? Even Robbie Draper is mis-cast in terms of her physical size. You gotta go with whatcha got….

    I agree.  That’s why it’s a “you could argue” thing for me.  Standout acting is more important.  I can’t decide whether Cara Gee’s acting is particularly good, but it’s standout and defining.

    Also, arguing against Dominique Tipper’s body type is impossible for me.

    • #10
  11. Randy Weivoda Moderator
    Randy Weivoda
    @RandyWeivoda

    Fred, I hope you will forgive me for this.  I don’t want to change the topic but since this post is attracting the attention of science fiction readers, I want to make sure everyone knows about the large science fiction convention that some of your fellow Ricochetti are going to next year.

    • #11
  12. TRibbey Inactive
    TRibbey
    @TRibbey

    LC (View Comment):
    Stranger in a Strange Land (really skeptical of this one)

    Ooh, I agree, that could really go either way.

    I have been pleasantly surprised with The Expanse so far. I can appreciate some B level television and SyFy upped their game on this one. It will be interesting to see if the Amazon funded season 4 is a little more visually polished. 

    Quake Voter (View Comment):
    The loss of Jared Harris was The Terror’s gain.

    True. Hopefully we will continue to see more of Thomas Jane, David Strathairn, & Shohreh Aghdashloo (although only Jane is listed as being on the show through 2019, according to IMDB).

    • #12
  13. Ekosj Member
    Ekosj
    @Ekosj

    Thanks for the tip!    I will definitely check it out.    

    • #13
  14. Nick H Coolidge
    Nick H
    @NickH

    I read and enjoyed the first two books, but got bogged down in the third. Not sure why, but about a third of the way through I just wasn’t enjoying it so I put it aside. But you’re definitely right about the quality of Leviathan Wakes. I went into it having only seen the first episode of the TV series and thought I was getting one kind of story – a simple extrapolation of where we are now to where we will be in the future. A thriller with international politics replaced by interplanetary politics. What I wasn’t expecting is that it would be something much bigger and grander. I like books that take a good story in unexpected directions. 

    I also like your definition of great science fiction:

    Allow me to explain. Great science fiction works thusly: Technology and circumstances change; social patterns, customs, and habits form around those changes; but human nature stays the same. People do what they always do. So to understand and create great science fiction, one must understand human nature.

    I’d add that great science fiction can also use alien nature to contrast and explore human nature in ways that other genres can’t do. 

    • #14
  15. Hank Rhody, Possibly Mad Contributor
    Hank Rhody, Possibly Mad
    @HankRhody

    Fred Cole: If you need an example of their garbage programming, they’re the folks behind Sharknado. Although the fact that they changed their name to “Syfy” should tell you everything you need to know.

    Sci-Fi isn’t trademarkable; Syfy is. It’s the same reason there’s a “The Gathering” in Magic.

    And Sharknado was a masterpiece.

    • #15
  16. Fred Cole Inactive
    Fred Cole
    @FredCole

    Nick H (View Comment):

    I read and enjoyed the first two books, but got bogged down in the third. Not sure why, but about a third of the way through I just wasn’t enjoying it so I put it aside. But you’re definitely right about the quality of Leviathan Wakes.

    Okay so the third one was the hardest for me to get through. I’ll tell you why it bogs down. The Last Jedi has the same problem. The story gets slow because slowness is an element of the story.  When they get to The Slow Zone, things really slow down. 

    So the good news is that #3 is the low point of the series. It gets better again with #4 and #5 is the best of the series after LW. 

    • #16
  17. Aloha Johnny Member
    Aloha Johnny
    @AlohaJohnny

    Just finished the first one on audiobook – loved it.  Will get to the next soon via audio and will add the series to my watch list.  Thanks for the heads up on the series.  Did not know it existed.

     

    • #17
  18. Mark Wilson Member
    Mark Wilson
    @MarkWilson

    The intro music is so hauntingly beautiful.

    • #18
  19. Arizona Patriot Member
    Arizona Patriot
    @ArizonaPatriot

    Fred, thanks for the recommend.

    For anyone:  How does The Expanse compare to:

    (1) Firefly (the best SciFi series ever, in my opinion)

    (2) Dark Matter (pretty good and recent, but sadly cancelled after a season-ending cliff-hanger)

    (3) Babylon 5 (the best multi-season story arc, with decent acting, though the CG was primitive)

    (4) The Battlestar Galactica reboot (pretty well done)

    • #19
  20. Mark Wilson Member
    Mark Wilson
    @MarkWilson

    Arizona Patriot (View Comment):

    Fred, thanks for the recommend.

    For anyone: How does The Expanse compare to:

    (1) Firefly (the best SciFi series ever, in my opinion)

    (2) Dark Matter (pretty good and recent, but sadly cancelled after a season-ending cliff-hanger)

    (3) Babylon 5 (the best multi-season story arc, with decent acting, though the CG was primitive)

    (4) The Battlestar Galactica reboot (pretty well done)

    I would put it about on par with (4), a ways below (1).  BSG had a much more spiritual element to it.  The Expanse is more political/technological.

    • #20
  21. Hartmann von Aue Member
    Hartmann von Aue
    @HartmannvonAue

    Weird that you published this today, Fred. I was looking for family friendly TVSF that I could share with Maedel when we run out of Trek variants (STD will not make the cut, I am pleased to report) but a quick glance of the Bing search results for “images” from the Expanse knocked it off the list. I may watch it myself thought and try to get Vrouwe interested. As for family viewing…may Space Battleship Yamato?

    • #21
  22. Fred Cole Inactive
    Fred Cole
    @FredCole

    Why doesn’t STD make the cut?

    • #22
  23. Hartmann von Aue Member
    Hartmann von Aue
    @HartmannvonAue

    Fred Cole (View Comment):

    Why doesn’t STD make the cut?

    Magic Mushrooms. The show is staggeringly stupid even by ST standards (uneven, I admit, but we also avoid “Spock’s Brain” and whatever that episode of TNG was that had  them de-evolving…and nearly every episode of Seasons 1 of TNG and VOY) and trashes so much of the original continuity that it is not welcome. Neither are the Abrams movies. 

    • #23
  24. TallCon Coolidge
    TallCon
    @TallCon

    I’ve only seen the first two seasons and I am anxiously awaiting the third to drop on Amazon Prime. I’m not reading the books because I don’t want to ruin the show. 

    It’s not perfect, but I realized at one point that I was complaining about some beach of the laws of physics that would never have entered my mind on another show.  I’d gotten spoiled. (More space battles where you’re too far away to see the opponent, please. ) 

    If the show has a political bent, I can’t tell what it is. Like someone else said they just stick to human nature and let the story go from there.

    Almost everyone is my favorite. 

    • #24
  25. CB Toder aka Mama Toad Member
    CB Toder aka Mama Toad
    @CBToderakaMamaToad

    I’ve read the books and am trying to get Papa Toad (who’s also read the books) to watch the series with me on Prime (I have watched about 10 minutes and want to watch with him) but our schedules haven’t been coinciding well enough… Maybe later next month.

    Good discussion.

    • #25
  26. Bethany Mandel Editor
    Bethany Mandel
    @bethanymandel

    Thank you! I was just looking for something new to watch.

    • #26
  27. Sash Member
    Sash
    @Sash

    I might read it, but I’m terribly insulted that you don’t like Sharknado… because that is a masterpiece…. :)

    • #27
  28. TallCon Coolidge
    TallCon
    @TallCon

    Hartmann von Aue (View Comment):

    Weird that you published this today, Fred. I was looking for family friendly TVSF that I could share with Maedel when we run out of Trek variants (STD will not make the cut, I am pleased to report) 

    Pro or con I’m not calling Disco (or the Expanse) family friendly. 

     

    Netflix’s new Lost in Space should fit your bill. I loved it. 

     

    • #28
  29. Al Sparks Thatcher
    Al Sparks
    @AlSparks

    TallCon (View Comment):
    If the show has a political bent, I can’t tell what it is. Like someone else said they just stick to human nature and let the story go from there.

    There is a political bent laid out in the books. There are power plays between the Belters, those who live and grow up in space, and who can never go down to Earth because the gravity might kill them, the Martians (i.e. the humans who colonized Mars) and the government of Earth.

    The Belters want to be left alone, while the administrative state on Earth wants to dominate them as well as Mars. The term “administrative state” is never used, but the powerful people are high level bureaucrats, with the politicians portrayed as puppets.

    If you’ve read the books, you’re going to catch all that in the TV series, but it’s lightly played in the series and not as obvious.

    • #29
  30. BalticSnowTiger Inactive
    BalticSnowTiger
    @BalticSnowTiger

    Arizona Patriot (View Comment):

    Fred, thanks for the recommend.

    For anyone: How does The Expanse compare to:

    (1) Firefly (the best SciFi series ever, in my opinion)

    (2) Dark Matter (pretty good and recent, but sadly cancelled after a season-ending cliff-hanger)

    (3) Babylon 5 (the best multi-season story arc, with decent acting, though the CG was primitive)

    (4) The Battlestar Galactica reboot (pretty well done)

    Closing in on Firefly.

    • #30

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