The Expanse novels by James S.A. Corey are some of the best SciFi literature in a long time.
In 2011, the first novel in a new science fiction series by James S.A. Corey called The Expanse, Leviathan Wakes, appeared in a very crowded field. James S.A. Corey is the pen name used by co-authors Daniel Abraham and TY Franck and they have created an exciting, intelligent, scary and, most of all fun adventure set in a quickly expanding universe.
The opening premise of The Expanse is quite simple: humankind has populated the Sol system and reached the limits of its ability to expand beyond it. While Earth, itself, is unified under the banner of the United Nations, the age old squabbles have pursued humans into space. A cold war exists between the Earth’s United Nations and two other factions: Mars and the OPA, or Outer Planets Alliance (basically anyone who is not from Earth or Mars.) that mostly inhabit the asteroid belt and moons. They’re also known as Belters.
The details and politics can get quite complex but they make sense and are easy to follow. At the center of it all are the main characters, the multinational crew of a gunship called the Rocinante: James Holden from Earth, Naomi Nagata from the Belt, Amos Burton from Earth, and Alex Kamal, a former Martian Navy pilot. Dropped into the middle of all this is an alien substance, or proto-molecule, of unknown origins. This plot point ties together the Rocinante crew with a noir-like police detective named Joe Miller, a Belter on Ceres Station pursuing a missing girl. What follows is a wonderful pastiche of space battles, alien horror, and heroic deeds.
Characters are central to making any story compelling. The Expanse stories have MANY characters, as is the trend these days with long form stories, however S.A. Corey manages to make each of them stand out. Chapters are broken down into points of view, as popularized by George RR Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series, however it’s clear that the crew of the Rocinante are the main characters of the series. They not only provide a focus for the series, but are also the moral compass of the series. Led by Holden’s example, the crew believes in the greater good and doing what they feel is right, not just for themselves, but for humanity. This is at odds with the very Game of Thrones-like grey area which pervades the rest of humanity in The Expanse series, but don’t worry about too much Pollyanna. The growth and bonding of the crew happens over time and is well earned.
The Expanse is set in a unique time for humanity. While most science fiction stories are in a setting where humanity is either limited to the solar system or is galaxy-spanning with faster than light technology, The Expanse is a transitional one. As the author put it in an interview on Wired’s podcast The Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy:
“Very few people were working in the space where you take humans from the pre-FTL, trapped-in-the-solar-system kind of setting to the galaxy-spanning empire setting.”
In addition, there’s enough of a distinction between the three factions of humanity that it is easy to follow. It also sets up a rich tapestry of alliances, betrayals and everything in between. Earthers as the originals, have a subtle (and sometimes not so subtle) sense of superiority over the other factions but they are not evil or overlords in any way. Mars prides itself on being independent and making their own breathable world out of the red planet. Both hold disdain for the OPA which feels they are exploited and looked down upon by both sides.
After his crew, the most important thing on the Rocinante to Holden is the coffee maker. That’s a leader.
Something for Everyone
Mark Twain was quoted as saying:
“If you don’t like the weather in New England now, just wait a few minutes.”
The same can be said for The Expanse. Each book has its share of hard scifi, military scifi, space opera, horror, space exploration and a healthy dose of pew pew. Each book in the series has a different tone and focus, but all of them contain these elements. For instance, Caliban’s War is heavy on alien horror and politics, while Cibola Burn has a great deal of boldly going on a strange new world. Leviathan Wakes, the premiere book, has everything plus a good old fashion gumshoe.
The final reason to check out The Expanse: each book, while continuing the greater story in the series, is self contained, freeing up the reader to either binge or enjoy over time.