Review: The Expanse Series

The Expanse is a sci-fi series, that started out—and is continuing—as a series of novels but whose story has also been adapted to a television series of the same name. On the literary front, the books are released on a mostly annual cadence1, and in 2019 they are 8 books into a planned total of 9 for the series. With TV, the show has had a good run of 3 seasons so far, though there was some controversy when the original network Syfy declined to pick up the 4th season, though eventually Amazon stepped in to finance it as an exclusive on their streaming service.

Note: some spoilers ahead, though mostly on story at the early parts of each book/television season. It’s hard to not spoil something given how much has been released already.

The plot is set at a time a few thousand years in the future, when humanity has learned how to travel within the solar system but is unable to venture beyond due to the massive distances between stars. There are 3 main factions throughout the storyline: a somewhat cliche unification of countries on Earth into the U.N.; a militaristic and scientific branch of the human race who have settled on Mars and are determined to terraform it into a Earth-like planet; an evolution of humanity among space stations and gas giant moons and asteroids called collectively known as the Belt2. Conflicts naturally arise between these forces as the story begins, but an alien artifact—eventually termed the “protomolecule”—disrupts what little order there was in the solar system and creates a bunch more conflict in its wake. You follow a crew of former ice-salvagers and their associates as they adventure through the system chasing after the alien intrusion.

The technological setting for The Expanse is uncommon in sci-fi stories. Certainly first contact is well-trod territory, but most stories either focus on the initial aspects of humans getting to space, or a far-flung future when interstellar travel has become as trivial as hopping on a 737. I suspect that merely exploring our solar system, without hand-wavy faster-than-light travel, mostly means going through known planetary bodies and moons that we already know are pretty barren. I suppose one can follow the classics and have the protagonists trip on buried alien artifacts to kickstart the plot.

The Expanse makes it work by focusing on the aforementioned factions, the people, and their politics. Certainly there’s a contraction of entire planets and the billions of people per planet into a homogeneous and singular entity, but the authors go to some lengths to add details to make each human race unique.

  • Earthers have it the best but mostly don’t even recognize their own privilege. Ordinary citizens have a version of universal basic income and are otherwise pretty comfortable.
  • Martians have dedicated themselves to terraforming the red planet and defending themselves from potential Earth aggression. Their elite military have to continually train in Earth’s gravity (1G) in anticipation of a land war.
  • Belters have developed their own creole, mostly English but mixed with French, Spanish and Mandarin Chinese. They have evolved in 0G and so cannot survive on planets without medication and training.

The situations, cultures, and motivations across these races then set up conflicts around the solar system and eventually beyond. Some of the familiarity of politics and human foibles are juxtapositioned with sci-fi tropes like spaceship rocket battles and rotating space stations.

The set of main characters are mostly well-written, with varied personalities and back stories3 that are believable if a bit rote. The villains end up being weaker and less fleshed out, in part because they don’t typically last that many books/seasons before being defeated in some way, in part because most of the stories are told from the perspectives of the good guys. That said, there’s some suspension of disbelief required to accept that the crew just keeps on finding itself in the middle of the most important conflicts of human history by happenstance4.

I’d say the weakest aspect of The Expanse series is the actual protomolecule. It’s the catalyst that drives the story forward, but it’s the most Plot Device of plot devices. Since it’s an alien tool beyond the understanding of mere human scientists, it gets enough abilities to frame a book or a TV season. The protomolecule can, but is probably not limited to:

  • Consume humans for…its purposes
  • But also create super soldiers if merged with humans
  • Project visions via tweaking neurons directly
  • But also control alien systems, though imperfectly at the most inopportune times
  • Create wormhole-like gateways
  • Slow down motion, but only for spaceships and not necessarily the things inside of them, but also excluding photons and electromagnetic waves5

I kinda wish the aliens would follow the UNIX philosophy and at least use a couple more tools, instead of lumping everything into their molecule and overload it with magical, plot-advancing powers.

As to the TV series, the show ends up following the books pretty closely, with some smart tweaks that I think enhance the story overall6. It features a diverse cast, good CG and production values, and smartly weaves additional world-building details within the main storyline. The books actually have have trouble with that last bit, as it uses a per-character narrative structure; each chapter focuses on a main character in the present, so historical events and personalities are mostly alluded from conversations. Much like Game of Thrones, I first started looking for book → TV show parallels, but over time the live-action version becomes engrained and I end up reading the rest of the books with mental imagery drawn from the show.

This is a pretty long review—because the books and show are themselves well-established at this point. The series is more of a space opera adventure and opts to stay light on the technology and physics/science aspects, so in some ways the setting and its “sci-finess” serves more as a backdrop for the factions, characters, and their politics and interactions. It’s still great fun, though, so hopefully both the authors and show-runners finish strong.

  1. In stark contrast to, say, another novel series, this one based on a fantasy setting, where the author started out with a good cadence and then got stuck on their 6th book for 8 years.

  2. And its people, the Belters.

  3. Which gets a deep dive in the middle of the novel series.

  4. At least with fantasy novels, the excuse that the main characters end up being royalty so their importance is self-explanatory.

  5. I guess technically, it’s controlling an alien space station that’s able to do this.

  6. Reminded me a bit of Altered Carbon in that regard.

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