Posts Tagged ‘ The Expanse ’

The Expanse is the Best Space Opera. Full Stop.

This week brought the dreaded news that the SyFy channel would not be picking up the series adaptation of The Expanse novels for a fourth season. The move was not quite shocking, but still somewhat of a surprise. The show’s productions values are top notch and not cheap, so the fact that it has not garnered a broad fan base like Game of Thrones made its future uncertain. But the universal critical acclaim seemed to suggest that SyFy would want to keep it around for bragging rights, if nothing else.

In the glory days of the SciFi network (before the questionable and to many, odious name change) the network took a similar gamble on an expensive critical darling that never really had the viewership to justify its budget but was a flagship for what the network wanted to be–before it decided to be the home of craptacular fare like Sharknado. Battlestar Galactica was part of the early wave of revitalizations and everything-old-is-new-again fervor that has gripped Hollywood throughout the twenty-first century. The show took name recognition and the outline of the original series’s concept and created a “gritty” and “philosophical” version of a pulp sci-fi dud from the 70s.

It worked and the network spun the long-running show into a prestige piece with a dedicated fan base that still argues for the series as one of the best sci-fi shows of all time.

Here’s the thing, though: The Expanse is better and will continue to be better than Battlestar Galactica.

Early in its life, the remade Battlestar Galactica (BSG to aficionados) promised its viewers that its nefarious android antagonists had “a plan.” But the producers and writers have since admitted that they included that bit in the show’s crawl simply because it sounded cool. Not only did the Cylons not have a plan, neither did the show runners.

The series sometimes raced and other times lurched through a thinky, but often incoherent exploration of man’s relationship to technology and the age-old question science fiction never gets tired of reheating: what does it mean to be human? Along the way there were some great characters rendered in fantastic performances (often having to overcome inconsistent writing) and some truly intolerable ones (looking at you, Apollo).

Many a science fiction series has waded through such unevenness. Star Trek: the Next Generation‘s first season is unwatchable today and rarely suggests the heights the show would someday reach. It’s natural enough for a series to take its time to find its footing.

It would be easy to look at the first few episodes of The Expanse and think that’s what was happening, but the pacing is not a sign of uncertainty, but confidence. The Expanse rewards patience as it builds its world and its characters. Now, in the third season, the complexity of that world and the investment in those characters is paying off in a tense conflict of epic scale.

But that conflict is only prelude to what’s coming.

Many other science fiction and fantasy shows struggle with endings just as much as many flail about for sure footing at the beginning. One only has to look back at the last few seasons of the X-files (to say nothing of the disastrous rebooted seasons) to see how a lack of “a plan” can be disastrous to a show built on mystery and intrigue. The same could be argued of Lost and, if last season was any indication, may taint the denouement of Game of Thrones.

But fans of The Expanse novels have no fear for that outcome. We know the shape of many things to come and they are earth-shatteringly awesome.  Fans like me aren’t worried by this (hopefully momentary) cancellation because it means we won’t ever know what happens in the story. What we’re afraid of is being deprived of the cinematic rendering of that story that we know it so richly deserves.

Hopefully, that won’t come to pass. Hopefully, the press swirling around the cancellation–every article I read reiterates that SyFy’s move is either a crying shame or down right tragic–will find it a new home at Netflix or Hulu and the Cinderella story will inspire more people to watch it.

It is a show that deserves viewers, but more than that, it is the space opera the Golden Age of Television deserves.

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Persepolis Rising (Book 7 of The Expanse)

The Expanse as a novel series has sought to serve many masters. Both fun space romp and broad political allegory, through the six previous novels the rag-tag crew of the gunship Rocinante has wandered in and out of the path of several dramatic events in future history–from a war between Earth and Mars to the opening of interstellar wormholes created by the mysterious alien protomolecule.

The seventh novel, though, opens after a dizzying time jump. At the end of the previous installment Babylon’s Ashes, the Rocinante crew bested the Free Navy, the foes who in the previous novel had used an asteroid attack to decimate Earth, and established a new interstellar transport guild to ferry survivors to the 1,300 new worlds opened up by the alien ring gates. Persepolis Rising begins thirty years later. This jarring opening is the novel’s weakest point as Abraham and Franck, the two authors behind the penname James S. A. Corey, take the reader on an inventory of where the characters from the previous books are after thirty years.

And the answer is: exactly where we left them. We are treated to descriptions of former Martian Marine Bobbie Draper complaining about her old joints and pilot Alex Kamal ferrying messages off to his son by his now-divorced second wife who we never met, but essentially, the crew of the Rocinante are still flying around, just with three decades of apparently uneventful experience under their belts.

Amazingly, thirty years hasn’t changed the core dynamic. Futuristic anti-aging drugs explain why these septuagenarians might still be up to the work of tooling around space as independent contractors in the vast galaxy opened up by the ring gates, but it seems a little hard to swallow that the crew roster would be exactly the same and that life’s eddies never wooed anyone away to greener pastures or brought new, permanent fixtures into their lives.

This distracting conceit falls into the background, though, as the novel settles into beats familiar for any fan of the series. Scheming, adapting, skating by. As always, there’s a big bad that must be faced. This time it is the Laconian Empire, a new political power that grew up from the renegade Martian fleet that disappeared amidst the chaos of Nemesis Games–a threat we knew was out there, but never could have imagined would emerge in quite this way.

The thirty year time jump seems largely a device to give the Laconians time to arm up. It turns out that their leader cum High Consul Duarte picked the Laconia system for his band of mutineers to settle in because it housed an orbital fabrication machine left by the builders of the ring gates. Using this arcane technology, Duarte has built himself and his new nation the most powerful fleet in the universe. Few in number, but unstoppable. With the odds against them, the Rocinante crew settles into those familiar beats to deal with the newest crisis.

What isn’t familiar is the dark territory the novel ends in. The series has grappled with warfare, genocide, and the darkest of human machinations before, but always before the heroes have prevailed over whatever strove to drive them apart, found one another, and faced forward for the next challenge that cabalistic conspiracies and alien protomolecules had in store. This time, though, the odds are so stacked against our heroes that victory has to be redefined. Early on, trapped on the space station inside the null space between the stargates, er, um ring gates, the crew’s goals are tempered by realism. Defeating the Laconians is, early on, dismissed as too lofty a goal. Instead, they must opt for escape.

In the Laconians, Abraham and Franck design an intriguing enemy. Bent on conquest to establish a unified human empire, the Laconians have echoes of fascist domination, but also overtones of American manifest destiny. Obviously, perpetual do-gooder James Holden sums up the problem with their assertion that humanity ultimately needs a single hand at the rudder, “Humanity has done amazing things by just muddling through, arguing and complaining and fighting and negotiating. It’s messy and undignified, but it’s when we’re at our best, because everyone gets to have a voice in it…Whenever there’s just one voice that matters, something terrible comes out of it.”

It’s the kind of thing Holden says a lot and though he is the hero of the series, the novels have never shied away from questioning his smash-into-it idealism. Here, as the Laconians politely demand surrender and show restraint, insisting that they want to preserve lives through their “transition,” there’s a certain allure to the order they offer.

In the face of this sorta-hostile galactic take-over, the crew focuses on throwing their new enemies off their game, hoping to retreat through the gates with the Rocinante and live to fight another day. It sets up what the authors describe as the concluding trilogy of the series which will take on not only the Laconian empire, but the lurking alien threat of whatever ancient force destroyed the aliens behind the protomolecule and the ring gates billions of years ago. It creates a daunting Empire Strikes Back atmosphere to the novel as the heroes face an enemy they know they can’t defeat.

I won’t go into detail about the emotional toll of this opening chapter of this three-novel conclusion, but suffice it to say that I was so wracked with uncertainty and–maybe “despair” is the right word–that I was unable to sleep after finishing the book…and now cannot wait for next year’s release.

So…it’s been a while

It’s been more than six months since I threw out any flotsam and jetsam into the tides of the Internet for the public record. There is a completed novel to show for my hiatus from discourse, but also an ungodly amount of hours logged in Destiny. During this time, I did occasionally write about the issues that I would typically air out here–politics, geekery, etc.–but I never polished those pieces enough to post.

I think, more than anything, 2017 was a year personally defined by a sense of powerlessness. I would write something and then look at it and think, “What’s the point?”

The world has gone so stark raving mad, yet everything I wanted to say about it made me feel like a broken record.

So…what’s changed?

Nothing, really. Trump is still president and he’s proven to be very much what we feared. In addition to his near-daily debasement of the already morally bankrupt American political landscape, Mr. Trump is now apparently running 30% odds of starting a war on the Korean peninsula and getting the nice people of Seoul obliterated.

And yeah, I am pretty powerless to do anything about that.

But the one thing we cannot offer Mr. Trump is silence. He is, after all, listening. Every note of discord rankles his fragile ego (and they call liberals “snowflakes”) and so we must resist all the more. This is a historic chapter in the American republic and if it does mark the beginning of the end for that noble experiment, well then I hope some graduate student laboring at some far-future university studying the era just before the Republic of Gilead comes across an archive including my ranting and raving and, for one brief moment, mentally puts me in the column of “Damn, at least some of them knew what was happening.”

Plus, there’s a new Star Wars movie and Expanse novel to talk about so…

 

In Praise of The Expanse

I just can’t say enough good things about this TV show…or the books it’s based on.

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Now, I don’t usually read for fun. I read. I read a lot. But I’m usually reading stuff that makes me feel superior and justifies my general snootiness toward others. Yeah, I’m a book snob.

But somehow, somewhere, sometime, I started reading Leviathan Wakes. It was a quick, light read and I enjoyed it as a diversion that didn’t make feel guilty the way certain other pass times do.

Then, I picked up the sequel.

Then the next book. And the next.

By the time I devoured the most recent novel a few months back, I was thoroughly in love with the world of The Expanse and was fascinated when I heard a TV show based on the series was coming to SyFy–which hasn’t had much in the way of a decent science fiction show since Battlestar Galactica, or maybe since it changed its name to, well, “SyFy.”

But they’ve righted that ship, that’s for sure.

I’m hardly the only one singing its praises as a Game of Thrones in space, but frankly, I think it has some advantages over the program that last year would have easily won my medal for “Best Show on TV.” Over at iO9, their spoilery review of the season credits the show runners with not one, but two “miracles.”

I won’t delve into those assertions in order to keep my equally glowing remarks spoiler-free. I will say that I’m intrigued as a fan of the books by the direction they’re heading, having shirked the Game of Thrones model of one book/one season. (This ten episode season has covered about 75% of the first novel, leaving some intriguing reworkings ahead in the forthcoming second season to plug the gaps and keep the intrigue rolling.)

The adaptation is about as good as one could have hoped for, although the books are a little more Firefly than you’d guess from the show, and the cast is stellar (even if the excellent Dominique Tipper should really be undergoing some Lord of the Rings style digital wizardry to match her character’s 2-meter stature in the book).

Game of Thrones has been (quite rightly) criticized for the way the show has or has not coped with the underlying misogyny of author George R.R. Martin’s fantasy world.  Innocuous scenes in the novels were rewritten for the show to sexually objectify and often degrade women in a world that was already not cutting them much slack.

The Expanse, though, is taking an altogether different tack, crafting the “strong” female characters now obligatory in any science fiction narrative (it’s still sad we have to note that they’re “strong” in this way when all we really mean is that they’re well written) against a character landscape that is thoroughly diverse. Yes, according to The Expanse, humanity’s future is pretty brown and nobody seems to give a damn.

Instead, what divides us in the future is political. Belters (those people living in low-gravity out beyond Mars’s orbit) are an oppressed underclass at the whim of the powerful forces of Mars, a purposeful authoritarian state, and Earth, a reservoir of entitled welfare queens.

It’s a backstory that sets up convenient and flexible proxies for the voices in our own political spectrum and lets the events in the story resonate beyond just the sci-fi mystery hinted at in the show’s first sequence.

As the show’s archetypal rag tag crew presses forward into the expanse, they’re running afoul of powerful forces and big questions about the control of information, the ethics of violence and power, and the morality of defending a status quo with so many have-nots.

It’s great stuff. Go watch it.