Why I Love the Expanse

I’m in love with the Expanse. Ty Frank and the [slightly more reclusive] Daniel Abraham, writing as James SA Corey, seem to have built a media empire out of space opera, and brought back to SyFy something it’s been sorely lacking – characters blown slightly out of proportion, battles stretching from the Earth to the Belt, and – most importantly – politics.

Science fiction has always such a fruitful battleground for political conversation, but for some reason we haven’t had a lot of political story on scifi for the TV.  The greatest TV series of our times – I’m thinking Star Trek and Firefly here – use politics and culture as a set backdrop on which to sketch their stories; effective when you want to tell a good story, but a bit of a wasted opportunity nonetheless.

The Expanse, in that regard, is like a kick up the ass for the medium. Belters, born and bred into a sort of corporate slavery, wear OPA tattoos and dream of their freedom. The Martians build a military empire startlingly similar to Germany during WWII – a heady cocktail of technology, scorn and fear. Those from Earth exploit others with a beautifully written privilege and style.

Everyone has their own language, their own accents, their own sports and past-times. On everything you see the inescapable touch of war and a constantly mutating system of politics. It’s hellishly difficult to write this kind of thing.

  1. Limits on travel and communication
    One of the most recurring themes of scifi is breaking the lightspeed barrier. There’s two components to this: travel – the Hyperspace, the Warp Drive, wormholes, the Chaos Dimension, et cetera – and communication. The moment you break lightspeed, all sorts of stories become available – galactic empires, explorer ships searching for new civilizations, even the Ultramarines.

    Personally, I think there’s as much story to be found with these limits than without. Power, diplomacy and idea-sharing fragment at large scales, which leads to all sorts of interesting premises. The Expanse spins this very cleverly into everything. There’s Mars, for example, which cannot be controlled by Earth because warships take time to get there.

    There’s the Belt, which is a series of very isolated communities -because it takes time to communicate and shuttle people between the Earth, the Belt and Mars – and that isolation has repercussions –  a culture and a language, a slang and politics all of their own. Entire story arcs are built around information asymmetry.

  2. The alien invasion and the race for superiority
    The Expanse’s alien threat arrives fast and sort of fizzles out, and when it does re-emerge it does so as something closer to Arthur C Clarke’s Monoliths than the big bad aliens from Independence Day. I love that the Expanse treats the protomolecule with believable humanity. No, people don’t unite in the face of an alien (Sir Clarke, you were far too optimistic!).

    Instead, they do the human thing and try to weaponize the damned thing, which kicks off a system-wide cascade of battles and political manouevers.It’s especially epic when the series combines basic space science (gravity wells, woohoo) with the trippy pocket universe of the wormhole and terrorists promptly use that to beat the crap out of planets.

    Space terrorism, done right! Big targets with gravity well, an endless supply of dumb rocks, and the vastness of space. It’s a brilliant inversion of power. Marco Inaros makes you really think what might happen if ISIS got into space.

  3. All of that potential for sub-stories.The Expanse is full of colorful, larger-than-life characters with hugely interesting backstories. It’s a lot like Star Wars in this sense. Fred Johnson (The Butcher of Anderson Station) isn’t the only one with a backstory worthy of a novella. What about the Mormons and their seedship? What about the establishing of the Belt? The colonization of Mars?

    I see the series already doing some of this; in an excellent series of snippets, they showed how a Martian engineer invented their space drive. There’s so much more that it’s mind-boggling. I think this is part of the draw: a massive universe in which, like in Star Wars, you can lose yourself.

And lastly, a nod to that beautiful microgravity.

It’s been said that the Expanse is Game of Thrones meets Battlestar Galactica. I disagree; A Song of Ice and Fire is probably unparalleled in [believable] political complexity and BSG was, well, BSG. But the Expanse is good enough to be great. In the Expanse, empires topple, people go to war, and everything changes everything else.

Now let me throw a monkey wrench into the works. It’s the future, right? Where the hell are the Ai?

Further reading:

An Interview With James SA. Corey (in reality, an interview with Ty Frank) http://www.lightspeedmagazine.com/nonfiction/interview-james-s-corey/

An Interview with Daniel Abraham (the less vocal half of James SA Corey) http://amazingstoriesmag.com/2013/06/interview-with-bestselling-author-daniel-abraham-james-s-a-corey-and-m-l-n-hanover/

Spaceships of the Expanse

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