The Expanse (2011 – )

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The series of books is definitely entertaining, and often genuinely engaging, even if each 600-page book is probably a third longer than it needs to be.

Authors Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck, writing collectively as James SA Corey, pad their narratives with long character ‘insights’ that are often counterproductive in exposing the authors as not quite as insightful as they may think they are. Or as being slightly contemptuous of an audience they regard as simple-minded enough to think of other people as simple-minded.
Nevertheless, they have a winning formula.

It’s a future where humans have populated colonies on the moon, Mars, the asteroid belt, and beyond. A UN-dominated Earth and the Martian Congressional Republic are the big hitters, pursuing an uneasy détente to maintain control over the outer colonies, populated by the ‘Belters’ and home of the outer Planets Alliance – a cross between a frontier criminal cartel and a revolutionary independence movement.

Add an ancient alien artefact, the protomolecule that converts biomass to construct an interstellar gateway, stir with neo-noir intrigue, cold war-style thriller, and apocalyptic visions, and you have the vehicle for an infinitely extensible, epic plot-line.

Drop in a cast of regulars careening around various scenarios in this universe, and you have an quite effective space opera. Almost in the grand tradition of EE Doc Smith or AE Van Vogt, albeit with a greater emphasis on an annoyingly persistent American literalism that undermines the potential for literary ambience and impressionism.

Unlike the novels, the Syfy television series is a notable achievement. Populated by relatively little-known actors and fewer pretty faces than you would expect from North American filmic fables, they all give convincing performances in an ever more rapidly paced, futuristic thriller.

The overly long narratives from the novels are compressed into less maudlin character sketches and action sequences, studded with convincing special effects that do not cross the boundary into the crassness of Star Wars/Star Trek kitsch.

It is far more clear in the TV series that political economy is the source of all friction, all the power-plays, and all the consequent action. In the novels this is often submerged into an almost quaint libertarian sentiment that sees our main characters as intrepid, frontier entrepreneurs.

Thomas Jane as the Ceres station detective Miller, unravelling the grand protomolecule conspiracy, is a much stronger presence in the TV series than he is in the book, where he comes into his own only after his death. The TV series has been renewed for more episodes in 2018, so there is yet an opportunity for Jane to re-merge, and to outdo his already strong performance.

I think Steven Strait as James Holden, Cas Anvar as Alex Kamal, and Dominique Tipper as Naomi Nagata are naturals in their roles. Perhaps because I haven’t seen them in anything else, and I saw them as these characters before I started reading the six extant novels: Leviathan Wakes (2011); Caliban’s War (2012); Abaddon’s Gate (2013); Cibola Burn (2014); Nemesis Games (2015); and Babylon’s Ashes (2016). It’s a bit of a production line, with further books planned out until 2019. Almost as if these were extended film or television scripts. Hopefully that won’t mean declining freshness of ideas, the way television series usually die.

The standout regular for me in the TV series is Wes Chatham as Amos Burton, the homicidal mechanic who is often a better judge of ethics than the people he looks to for pointers in that area. And Shohreh Aghdashloo as UN powerbroker Chrisjen Avasarala is impressive, though less so than she could have been if they had been able to maintain her brutally foul-mouthed persona from the novels as her veil for her sophisticated deviousness.

I was a little disappointed in Chad Coleman as Fred Johnson: not enough display toughness and street smarts there, and too much emphasis on sadness and bad memories of his past actions. I couldn’t quite see the mixture of pragmatic politician, ruthless soldier, and insightful self-awareness in the performance.

Frankie Adams was just completely miscast as Martian marine gunny Bobbie Draper; a big arse in skin tight leggings and youthfully chubby cheeks don’t substitute for the two meters of muscle and tough determination of the character in the book, who was credible because of those attributes. The lip-trembling débutante antics assigned to a character supposed to be a tougher-than-tough marine gunnery sergeant just misfired in the TV series, which devoted too much time to her in season two not to let this weakness affect the show’s overall quality. To be fair, I think the part would have been difficult for anyone I can think of. But it needed a tall woman with the broad shoulders of a swimmer, and the capacity to carry off a military poker face. The only one I can think of who comes close is Robin Wright in House of Cards, even if the Draper character is half that age. I’m sure, though, the casting crew could have found a young black actress with the physical presence and raw, menacing power the character needs to make it work.

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Also disappointing, but for different reasons, was Terry Chen as Praxidike Meng. It’s not that the actor failed, but that even in the books the character was not very sympatico. Tapping into the lazy cliché of Asians as studious and nerdy, his lack of backbone and resolve, even when searching for his abducted daughter, were an annoying distraction for me. The personification of nerdy science types as ineffectual when facing crude adversity is annoying in itself. My limited experiences of conflict lead me to believe, though, that characters like Captain John Miller played so well by the perpetually affable Tom Hanks in Saving Private Ryan, are more credible. A genteel schoolteacher, he could bring himself to do what was necessary even if it came at great psychological cost. Perhaps the new stereotype of soldiers only ever being brutes is down to the real world social realignment in the USA, with exemptions for the Patrician class from doing any fighting or policing, and a notable preference for employing unthinking brutes as frontline enforcers, unrestrained by thoughtfulness or cultured, insightful restraint. In the more Machiavellian settings of The Expanse, a man like Praxidike is unlikely to have survived at all as a meek stereotype in the harsh outer planets environments.

In sharp contrast to Praxidike, the principal Caucasian scientists are presented as genocidal sociopaths, willing to murder thousands for the sake of a science experiment. It’s an odd juxtaposition, with the sociopath angle probably resembling more closely what has become of the science-technical class of professionals in the West. No ethical or social consciences at all. Just a single-minded determination to play with their toys as an end in itself. I wonder whether this was an oblique stab at the dangers of messing with AI.

Turning to the peripheral characters, a really impressive performance came from Jared Harris as Anderson Dawes, the prickly, devious Belter, leader of one of the many OPA factions, and Machiavellian player in the Byzantine politics of colonial people seeking a better deal from the crude policing actions of the ‘inners’ – the inner planets of Earth and Mars. Harris probably did the best job of characterising the pidgin English argot of the Belters, and of portraying the cynical mistrust by Belters of any ideas or actions originating from ‘Earthers’ or ‘the Mickeys’ (Martians).

Shohreh Aghdashloo as Chrisjen Avasarala, Dominique Tipper as Naomi Nagata, Wes Chatham as Amos Burton, Steven Strait as Jim Holden, Cas Anvar as  Alex Kamal, Thomas Jane as Joe Miller.
Shohreh Aghdashloo as Chrisjen Avasarala, Dominique Tipper as Naomi Nagata, Wes Chatham as Amos Burton, Steven Strait as Jim Holden, Cas Anvar as Alex Kamal, Thomas Jane as Joe Miller.

With the disappointing trivialisation of the Bobbie Draper character, only Alex Kamal, the pilot of the Rocinante crew, offered a strong representation of Mars. That led to a missed opportunity to delve deeper into the Earth-Mars rivalry. A rivalry presented compellingly in the novels as less the cold war West vs Soviet trope, and more like the sibling conflict between East and West Germany, which was pretty serious too, but between brothers and sisters all the same. As a consequence the Martians in the TV series came across as two dimensional, like the Romulans or Klingons in the original Star Trek.

I suppose the status of the Belters is deliberately pegged at pre-revolutionary American settlers; they are the focus of the adventure, though often also its villains. Our sympathies are supposed to be with them for their underdog status. To really make that work, though, the third series deserves at least one more strong Belter character, and Naomi Nagata’s OPA past has to be fleshed out a little.

The TV series is not for idle distraction: continuity is sometimes disrupted by flashbacks and returns to the present that aren’t clearly signposted; the story of the adolescent Belter yahoo, Diogo Harari, is a case in point. We first meet him as a water thief on Ceres station, and then encounter him in an apparently earlier series of events with his uncle, inserted into a later episode without apparent context. In the second season I think the production team was more careful about continuity signposting.

The second season was a little slow, focusing for too long on the Ganymede incident and the subsequent search for Mei Meng, but the pay-off is spectacular: space opera at its best. Far better than anything served up in the main film science fiction franchises. Bowever, whilre series one was kept pretty tight, a little bit of self-indulgence creeps into season two; the writers are not quite good enough in character portrayals to pad the series out that way without trivialising them and the underlying storyline. Youngish men writing female characters should minimise displays of shallowness and their limited understanding of women.

It’s a sign of the times that I feel it necessary to temper these comments with a reminder that critique rarely focuses on what is done well. It highlights instead the gaps or visible seams in a work whose uncommented features are considered well done by not attracting attention as either better or worse than expected.

I suspect the overall success of the novels and the TV series will be good judgement about when to quit what was always conceived of as a milk run to extract as much profit from one conception as possible. No matter how good the writer, sooner or later ideas become stale or pale recycled clones of earlier vibrant plot-lines. Particularly if you are writing to short deadlines: a 600 page novel every year doesn’t leave a lot of room for reflection and original thinking.

So far I love it, but like ice cream, that can change quickly and uncomfortably if I get too much of it, especially if it no longer feels like a special treat.

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