A review/commentary by Nalini Haynes
Once upon a time in a galaxy far far away…
Actually, in this galaxy.
Actually, in this solar system.
The story is set a few centuries in the future when Humanity has settled Mars and the asteroid belt but international politics is just as fucked as it is today.
This story began as a book series, beginning with Leviathan Wakes. It’s so successful that Syfy turned it into a TV series called The Expanse.
James Holden is XO on a dump that mines ice out near the gas giants to provide oxygen and water to colonies in the asteroid belt, where humans are called ‘Belters’. Holden is a bit of a dick but also a nice-ish guy. He is devastated when his mining ship is blown up while he and a few friends are answering a distress call.
A hard-boiled alcoholic detective, Miller, is on a space station trying to keep the peace, investigate a murder and find a missing girl. He even wears a pork-pie hat. (It looks a bit like a fedora for those who, like me, give no fucks about fashion.)
The missing girl, Julie, is trapped in a space ship. She appears occasionally in the TV series, making no sense and not fitting in with the other action until quite late in the series. In the book, however, all is explained.
I may be a little spacey: I may not be in space but I’m on painkillers and I’m in pain and I have 2 more weeks to wait (1 week by the time this is published) until surgery so why take shit seriously?
Anyhoo, the first book, Leviathan Wakes, covers about the first season and a half of The Expanse, according to ‘sources’. I enjoyed the TV series so much I burned through season 1 and I’m still waiting on season 2 because Netflix are dicks and don’t give all the shinies to Australians at the same time they give them to the rest of the world.
In the series, people are people and racism makes as little sense as racism everywhere. In the book people are still people and people are still racist dicks but on paper there are some visible differences to help explain how they know who’s what ‘race’ to be racist about. That is, the Belters who’ve lived outside of a planetary gravity well their whole life are really tall, skinny and have big heads. You kind of pick that up on the series with the guy being tortured Earthside in violation of the Geneva Convention. However, that didn’t happen in the book.
Interestingly, the Indian woman in the series doesn’t show up until the second book, when she’s a key player in the plot. If Syfy are planning a Game of Thrones style series (more story, less fucking and no mutual masturbation to provide action during soliloquys) then it makes sense that the woman shows up in the series because it gives continuity and, the way they’ve written it, it gives context. She visits Holden’s family on Earth, she meddles, she sees the prisoner, we follow her around. This is a masterclass in transforming a book series to screen.
Right. First book. Firrrssst book. Hmm. I’m up to the third book and I’d rather be reading than writing about reading right now.
The Expanse is so packed, so tightly paced, that when I finished watching it and connecting lots of dots I wanted to go back and watch it again to pick up the stuff I missed the first time. Now I’ve read the book, I’ve experienced the depth impossible to convey in a short season on TV.
When Miller starts seeing the dead girl, Julie, as a ghost I was really pissed and ready to throw shit at the screen. It’s a trope that should be stabbed in the heart, shot full of silver, burned, buried and the ground covered in salt. However, in the book it’s legitimised: first he imagines his ex-wife because he’s a lonely alcoholic who didn’t appreciate her until after she left. Then the ex is replaced by Julie because he’s hunting for her then hunting for her killers. By the end of the first book the underlying justification is expanded.
Then, in book 3, it’s not Julie who’s appearing as a ghost.
Nor is it a ghost, or so he tells us.
Space opera goes real science fiction on us.
I can’t remember if the first book or first season passed the Bechdel Test to be honest. However, I can state that books 2 and 3 do because some point of view characters are kick-ass women who kick ass and/or take names. The story is as diverse gender-wise as it is racially, with the in-story ‘racism’ reserved for whether someone is an Earther, a Martian or a Belter regardless of race, colour, gender or creed. FYI in book 3, one of the point of view characters is a lesbian presbyterian minister who asks forgiveness not permission and surprises herself as well as everyone around her.
From what I’ve read, The Expanse is likely to be axed at the end of season 3 because of ‘low’ ratings, in spite of not being available for viewing. Produced by Syfy in the US and marketed to Netflix Australia for season 1 and to Foxtel Australia for ‘exclusive rights’ although Foxtel isn’t showing it in Australia and has no plans to show it. So Rupert Murdoch owns it but CBF making it available. I’ve tried searching Foxtel to see if those articles are out of date but guess what? I can’t search to see what’s on Foxtel unless I either subscribe or get a ‘free’ 2 week trial. Mind. Officially. Boggled. Who would sign up to a subscription channel with a really bad reputation for poor quality images, buffering interrupting viewing and lack of availability without even knowing if the TV series they want to watch are available?
I just checked Justwatch: only season 1 is available to view on Netflix. Otherwise, The Expanse is not available via subscription, rent or purchase in Australia although the series finished airing on 19 April 2017. Yay. And industry execs wonder why Australians pirate movies and TV.
I’m a huge fan of Leviathan Wakes and The Expanse. The translation of the book to the screen is excellent. I’m looking forward to more of both. Now I’m taking my pain-riddled body back to the couch to read more of book 3.
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars for Leviathan Wakes
Rating: 5 out of 5 stars for The Expanse
ISBN LW: 9781841499895