Rise of the Skywalkers was disappointing. I saw it, and was going to do a review, but I’m two weeks behind the rest of the internet on this one. Everyone’s done their hot takes, their hot takes about the hot takes, the backlash to the hot takes, and the backlash to the backlash. We’re now in the phase where everyone is sick of hearing about it, and since I have nothing new to add to the discussion, I decided I’d instead talk about a Science Fiction property I am enjoying. Not The Mandalorian, still don’t have Disney Plus, but instead The Expanse.
Based on an excellent series of novels by James S. A. Corey, which you can pick up here, The Expanse has been described as Game of Thrones in space. That initially kept me away from the show, because I was burned out on Game of Thrones and the idea of seeing more gore and gratuitous nudity but this time “IN SPAAAAACE” didn’t really excite me. However, The Expanse isn’t like that. There is some gore, but only like two or three times a season and never particularly graphic, and there is some nudity, but I can only think of – again – maybe 4 or 5 times for all 4 seasons combined. That’s…pretty refreshing, to be honest. I’m not opposed to sex scenes, but they get old fast.
Instead, The Expanse is like Game of Thrones for the best possible reason – it explores similar themes from a different perspective, and it does so in a unique way. In this case, the central theme of “Humanity gets so focused on their petty internal squabbling that they miss the real dangers” is carried through both shows. In Game of Thrones, it was the mysterious Others, aka the White Walkers, a group of undead. In The Expanse, what we have is the protomolecule. I’m not going to say what the protomolecule is because unraveling that is one of the central mysteries of the series, but the gradual exploration of what it is and what it does is gripping.
Let’s talk about why.
The Expanse takes place a couple hundred years in the future, and is a rare example of science fiction that is fairly realistic. Earth and Mars are the two major powers of the solar system, and are in a kind of cold war when the show starts. Earth is hugely populated (note that Earth’s area of control also extends to our moon) but has become stagnant. On the other hand, Mars is still working on their generational project of terraforming the planet, and it’s able to rival Earth thanks to the discovery of the Epstein drive, a fusion reactor that made interstellar travel something that’s doable on reasonable timescales for humans. Both Earth and Mars have the drive now, but being the first to have it bootstrapped Mars up to the point where it could rival its motherworld.
Also, I’m in love with this opening credit – sets the tone and spoils nothing.
Outside of those two powers, there’s the Belt. A collection of habitats in the Asteroid belt and among the moons of Jupiter and Saturn, the Belt colonies are the third world nations of the solar system, heavily dependent on both Earth and Mars for resources, especially precious air and water.
We’re just going to ignore that being on the moons of those two gas giants would give the Belt access to more water and air than they could hope to ever use, courtesy of Europa and Ganymede. We’re also going to ignore that it really doesn’t make sense the moons of Jupiter and Saturn would belong to the same political group as the asteroid belt, when realistically they’d probably split off and become their own separate entities. But The Expanse is one of those rare shows that goes very realistic with its science but never forgets sometimes you need to sacrifice realism for the sake of a better story.
This video is 5 and a half hours long. It shows the distance from the asteroid belt to Jupiter and Saturn. Putting the moons of those in the same group as the asteroid belt is an acceptable break from reality. It’s 5 and a half hours long. I’d use a picture to illustrate this point, but it’s impossible with most screens – the planets to scale wouldn’t even be pixels.
But that’s all dry world building stuff, the stage on which our characters act. And the characters is exactly why I love this show. The first season (and first Book) centers around two main protagonists. The first is James Holden, and Earth native that moved out to the Belt, and the crew of his ship that feature a cast drawn from Earth, Mars, and the Belt in universe, and a wonderfully diverse mix of actors from a real world perspective. James and his crew find themselves pulled into the center of the world…wait, that doesn’t work…Solar stage after they are the sole survivors of shady action by shady people. It’s less stupid than I make it sound there, but I really don’t want to spoil it for anyone who hasn’t watched or read it.
Meanwhile, our second POV character is Detective Miller, and I know he has a first name but everyone calls him Miller and treats Detective like it is his first name, so I’m going to keep that going for this. Miller is a native of Ceres, the largest asteroid in the Belt, and he’s so hard boiled you could use him to make egg salad. He is given a mystery at the beginning of the season – what happened to Julie Mao, who we see very briefly in the opening scene and while we don’t know what happened to her, we know from that opening shot it was Probably Not Good™.
Intrigued? Watch the opening scene to see exactly how Probably Not Good(TM) it is.
Of course, both these plots end up winding together, but in ways you wouldn’t expect, and the story does a masterful job of twisting in and out without ever feeling like it’s trying to subvert expectations because that makes the writers feel clever.
I never once cringed for the women in this show.
At no point is a woman’s womb a major plot point. At no point is a character threatened with sexual assault. (In the books, Detective Miller does wonder if one character had dealt with that before because of how hard she trained in self defense, but there’s never an answer given.) The biggest ass kicker in the show is season two’s Martian Gunnery Sergeant Bobbie Draper, and she kicks ass because she was Martian special forces, and she’s Martian special forces because she believes in Mars. That’s it. There’s no trauma added out of the mistaken belief that women need to be traumatized to be badasses. She just kicks ass and is perpetually out of bubblegum – but she’s still a nuanced character, and at no point is her gender really mentioned – almost like she’s a real character as opposed to a walking pair of ovaries. In fact, the biggest male ass kicker, Amos from Holden’s crew, is a badass because of a traumatic childhood.
Meanwhile, the biggest political mover and shaker is Chrisjen Avasarala, the UN Secretary General who looks like a grandmother and curses like a sailor. Seriously, every single thing she says is pure gold, and I’d honestly recommend watching the show just to watch her verbally decapitate anyone who crosses her. By the same token, it’s so nice to see a women in power who is not either A) An ice queen or B) a mother figure. Chrisjen has a full emotional range and truly does care for the fate of the solar system, but also ruthless in pursuit of her goals.
And neither of those is our leading woman. That belongs to Naomi Nagata, a Belter with a Past, and while being the leading lady does slot her into the romantic role with James Holden, the romance is handled well and she has her own wants, desires, and goals outside of that relationship, so she’s still a damn good character.
It’s a rare case in genre fiction with a true balance between genders, because it’s not like those characters make the men incompetent. Holden is charismatic and honorable to a fault, Miller is a damn good detective on hard times, Amos can kick pretty much anyone’s ass and the only reason I think Bobbie would win in a one on one is Bobbie has power armor, which kind of skews the odds, and Alex is repeatedly referred to as the best pilot in the galaxy. It’s like the author sat down and went “Let’s write a good story. I suppose I have to assign the characters genders too, but I’m going to write about good characters first, and only consider the content of their pants and who they want to take to bed when it’s natural for the story” and then did exactly that.
Since I’m handing out Progressive Points, the story features a wonderfully diverse spectrum of people from a variety of ethnic backgrounds and sexual orientations and it’s never really remarked on, nor does the show make a big deal out of it. That’s not to say there’s no prejudice in the show, it’s just that anything else is overwhelmed by where someone is from. In the future, your planet matters more than anything else, and that feels…plausible.
That’s not to say either show or books are perfect, it’s just that the flaws don’t detract all that much. Holden and Naomi have very little chemistry at first, which is a real shame given how much the show expects us to care about them. That gets better in later seasons, but still. I love the idea of the Belter slang, but when it’s used heavily both versions of the story are very bad at telling you what it means. The book was at least good about giving you enough context clues to get an idea, the show, not so much. That’s a rare occurrence though, so I don’t dock points for it. A major plotline in season 3 was a character being framed for doing something awful, and – as a personal thing – I’m just never a fan of those plotlines in stories. Even when they’re well done, they’re just not my cup of tea.
Oh, and as a final note: the show and books are very similar in some ways, and have major points of divergence in others. The overall major story beats are the same, the difference is just in the details – although sometimes those are major details. For an example, Holden’s central character arc in the show and books are very different. However, the main plot is the same between both, and since Holden’s character in the book was revealed largely through his POV, a lot of it wouldn’t translate to video. Overall, the changes are a rare case where I believe the changes made were the right chances for the move to TV as a medium, and I don’t really think one version is better than the other – the books are better as books, the show is better as TV. Both are great, and you should check them out.
Fan of the Expanse? Let me know in the comments below! And what other sci-fi have you been watching and liking? Want to read something with more of an Urban Fantasy flair? Check out my book!