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Expanding on The Expanse

Fantasy has its Game of Thrones. Science fiction has its The Expanse.

(Picture from here. Leviathan Wakes is the first book of The Expanse.)

Game of Thrones was the TV adaptation of a successful set of novels. (A Song of Ice and Fire by George R. R. Martin.) The Expanse was the TV adaptation of the set of equally successful novels and other works by James S. A. Corey. Both deal with cultural conflict and war. Both have “magic”—actual magic in Game of Thrones. Alien technology that defies known physics in the case of The Expanse.

They are quite different in their characters. While there are rough characters in The Expanse, nothing compares to the unnatural evil that works its will in Game of Thrones. You’ll find genocide and child endangerment in The Expanse but you get incestuous murder in Game of Thrones.

While I am an SF writer the more important thing in this discussion is that I’m an SF reader. I’m much more drawn to alien tropes than dragons. Less drawn to monarchies than autocrats. So, I’ll talk about The Expanse here rather than Game of Thrones. Besides, I haven’t read the Martin books.

The Expanse is brilliant television and a set of excellent novels but both are flawed in interesting ways. Those flaws reflect curious writing decisions.

Note: I will be discussing things that happen in the books so if you’re spoiler-sensitive, don’t read any further.

The prose Expanse consists of nine novels and a few stories and novellas. In its future, the solar system has been opened to humanity by an incredibly efficient and powerful propulsion known as the Epstein Drive. This has divided humanity into three distinct groups: those from Earth, those from Mars, and those that live in the free space and moons of the solar system known collectively as the Belt. Those that live in the Belt are called Belters.

Mars is independent and on a continuous war footing with Earth since Earth has never really given up its hold on Mars. Think Britain and the US in the eighteen-hundreds. Mars is technologically superior to Earth but cannot match Earth’s industrial base. The ships of Mars are better but Earth has more of them. Neither much values the Belt.

The third is the growth and eventual factionalization of some Belters into terrorists. It is absolutely clear that Belters are an oppressed people in The Expanse. The Outer Planets Alliance (OPA) purports to represent the Belters but is, itself, divided. Some factions of the OPA are terrorists. Others want political autonomy. Think Sinn Féin and the Irish Republican Army (IRA.)

Any work with such grand themes needs lots and lots of characters to carry out the work. The novels have lots of point-of-view characters—one has fifteen.

The first book brings out the characters and ends with Eros crashing into Venus. The second book plays out the war footing that happens between Mars and Earth and the unscrupulous scientists building human/protomolecule hybrids. It ends with whatever the protomolecule has built on Venus launching into space. Book three begins after the Venus structure has moved out beyond the orbit of Uranus and reshaped into a ring structure. This is the book where the Belt begins to really make its presence known as a political entity as each of the players—Earth, Mars, and the Belt—are interested in figuring out the benefits of the ring. This is when the protomolecule reveals its agenda: it is intended to build connections to all of the other ring structures built by ancient aliens. Now, the solar system is part of a vast network of planets.

Book 4 explores how this new real estate affects the political stability of the solar system. Who is in control? It also personifies the protomolecule in its search for its creators. The protomolecule is not conscious but it is intelligent. Its purpose is to serve those that created it but it can’t find them. It does not succeed.

Book 5 involves exploring what is going on with the rest of the solar system through the eyes of the main characters. This book also shows the coalescence of some Belters into a military organization—the Free Navy. The Free Navy drops large asteroids onto Earth, decimating large swaths of land and population, and ultimately encamps just outside of the protomolecule ring, preventing anyone from using the new real estate. Book 6 involves the resolution of all of the threads in the previous books. The Free Navy is defeated but the Belt is now in charge of the Ring.

Books 7-9 take place some thirty years after the end of book 6 and have little direct impact on the events of the first six books. I’m not going to directly talk about them.

This is a large work. It has many, many characters. Some characters come into prominence and then fade out. Some stay the course for most of the books. Some appear for a particular scene and then are never heard from again.

In most cases, talking about the books is the same as talking about the show since the show closely follows the book. Issues of one are replicated in the other.

One decision—perhaps a flaw—is the way these characters appear, have a major impact, and then are never heard from or thought of again. One of the main characters is Naomi Nagata, the engineer of the Rocinante. She is a through character from day one all the way to the end. About halfway through the series, we discover that she had been a member of a violent OPA faction, had a son with its leader, and then left the faction and necessarily the son. It is represented in the work that she thought of the son often.

The son, Filip, shows up in the latter books as an important opposing character. Whole sections of the work involve the conflict between Filip and Naomi. Then, at a crucial juncture, Filip leaves the conflict and is never heard from again. In later books, he is never mentioned. Naomi doesn’t think about him. He never seeks her out. He has disappeared.

This is a continuing pattern: characters or events are important at the time but their reverberation across the work is severely limited.

From what I can tell, this is entirely intentional. The size of The Expanse is huge—close to five thousand pages over nine books. Probably a couple of hundred characters and hundreds of scenes with them. Dealing with dangling plot lines with an iron fist is probably necessary.

That said, Naomi was Filip’s mother. She didn’t think about him after she thought he died. I know mothers who agonize over their dead children for decades afterward. The loss of a child can destroy a marriage.

Filip’s father—Marco Inaros—is a charismatic leader who is more than a bit crazy. He dies along with his crew in the climactic moment of book six. His death is what breaks the Free Navy. But there is no mention of martyrdom. He does not appear to be venerated. Pol Pot died in 1998. He presided over the Cambodian Genocide from 1975-1979. We still talk about him. Inaros, by dropping asteroids on Earth, killed billions. But he’s not spoken of in later books.

I think this is a flaw. But others might just think it is a necessary decision based on the scope of the work.

There’s a simplification of events and personalities in the villains of the book. The evil scientists doing Mengele’s work hybridizing humans and protomolecule and destroying Eros are pretty cartoonish. The authors attempt to get around this by introducing techniques by which people are made into sociopaths who are, in effect, addicted to the work. This is introduced early but not fully embraced later as more and more people are doing these terrible things that have clearly not been so modified. A couple of the characters are distinguished from Simon Legree only by the lack of a mustache.

Again, is this from the scale of the work or is it a mechanism by which the evil is shown? Sauron is a simple villain, too. His motivations are never really explored and it’s not at all clear what his endgame would be if he won.

(One wonders what The Expanse would be like if told from the point of view of the villains. Think John Gardner’s Grendel.)

This may be a fundamental problem with complex fiction. James Michener wrote huge books that attempted to explore in depth the slice of the complex world he was describing. In my opinion, he did so at the cost of complex characters. James Clavell did the same with his Asian novels: complex world/simple characters.

SF, in particular, relies on world-building. Some have said that in SF the surrounding world is an additional character. Dune is an example of this—again, I would argue, relatively simple characters.

One of my favorite writers, John Dos Passos, seems to have the ability to create complex worlds inhabited by complex characters. But he seems to do so at the cost of a complex plot. Most of his books have many events involving interesting characters but they are more event collections than a plot.

It makes me wonder if there is a three-legged stool in writing: complex world vs. complex character vs. complex plot. Pick any two.

Complexity is messy. Our world is complex. It has no easy answers. Not everything is known. The reasons things happen are not always clear.

Humans are complex, too. What drives us inside is rarely visible to those outside—and certainly invisible as long as we don’t reveal it. Sometimes, they are not even known to ourselves. Emotions tangle with each other and impulses come, one after another. All we see of other people are their surfaces. Often, we cannot know the darkness that roils below.

This is hard to represent in fiction. Maybe it requires an iron hand.


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