Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Hard Burn: The Expanse Trilogy

I was surprised to learn that James S.A. Corey, author of the tremendous SF series The Expanse, is actually a pen name shared by fantasy author Daniel Abraham and his collaborator, Ty Franck. The three novels which encompass the series so far are so seamless and well-crafted that they hardly feel like separate books, let alone three huge books written by two different people. They combine everything I love about SF into a slick and accessible package, with the electric action of modern fantasy and the moral and philosophical nuance of classic sci-fi. These novels illustrate a fictional universe which is incredibly compelling, and it behooves any SF fan – or anybody interested in being one – to bump them up to “must-read” status. Franck built the universe of The Expanse as a singular project, initially intended to function as the setting for an online multiplayer video game. Then Abraham signed on to flesh out characters and fill Franck’s setting with a compelling narrative. 

Unlike other SF works which vault humanity into the far reaches of the universe, depict faster-than-light interstellar travel, and show people coexisting with extraterrestrial organisms, The Expanse has a more grounded speculative setting. Our species has spread out into our own solar system, but no further. Mars has been colonized, and there are agricultural and industrial outposts as far out as Neptune. An invention called an “Epstein drive” decreases travel time between celestial bodies, but forces ships to fly with extreme thrust, which causes fatal g-forces. To compensate, crew members must sit in gel-filled couches which inject them with stimulants and muscle-control chemicals, keeping them from blacking out during a “hard burn.” This is a far cry from the fantastical hyperdrives of Star Wars, blasting characters across galaxies in maximum comfort. But these depictions of advanced technology, realistic as they may be, still take a backseat to the human element – this is a very human society, driven by interplanetary politics and economies. Mars, for example, has a distinct culture, separate from that of Earth, which is removed even further still from Belter society (the nickname for those who occupy the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter). The total human population has become a vast melting pool of races, most characters sharing in an incredibly diverse genetic lineage. Martians of the Mariner Valley affect a quasi-Southern accent, and Belters have elongated skeletal frames from generations spent in lower gravity. A character might appear Chinese, but have a Portuguese name. This creates enough racial tension to make for some solid space drama (one character notes that “a certain death rate [has] to be expected” when you keep so many highly-evolved primates in the same box for months and months on end), but even that isn’t the focus of the story – simply an example of the excellent worldbuilding that defines the series.

Authors Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck (Photo by Liza Groen)
This is a universe in which a million stories are happening all at once, but the one Corey lays before us mostly focuses on an Earther captain named James Holden and his lovable crewmates, who eke out a living on their intrepid ship Rocinante (named for Don Quixote’s horse, which I think is a brilliant reference – the horse is named as such to denote his status as the king of all decrepit and aging steeds, and nothing could be more romantically appropriate for a spaceship. Han Solo’s Millennium Falcon and Firefly’s Serenity are similar, but their names don’t capture this classic character, with its roots in nautical fiction, as well as Rocinante does). In the first novel, Leviathan Wakes, Holden is forced to take control of the Rocinante after the ice-hauling ship he serves on is destroyed. Simultaneously, a Belter private eye named Miller takes on a missing persons case, chasing a girl who escaped into the solar system on the very ship that Holden commandeers. Holden and Miller’s stories are told alternately chapter by chapter, until their paths converge and the narrative becomes larger than both of them, focusing on an unknown life form which envelops a space station and slowly, horrifically absorbs its inhabitants. This mysterious entity (later named “the protomolecule”) becomes the focal point of The Expanse series as Holden and all of humanity contend with the possibility that, in this very realistic and pragmatic universe, we might not be alone after all. As the novels progress, our perspective of this universe broadens, and we’re introduced to rosters of new characters whose lives reflect an even richer tapestry of fiction. Caliban’s War begins with the accidental obliteration of the agricultural structures on Ganymede when its orbiting solar satellites crash onto the surface and cripple the solar system’s food supply. This crisis sets off a moody middle chapter for the series, more contemplative and personal than the first novel, focusing on individual trauma and the necessary futility of navigating through political and social quagmires when humanity’s existence itself is at stake. The protomolecule, after sacrificing several million souls to its organic growth, retreats to the surface of Venus and incubates, its ominous presence and cryptic intent casting a dark atmosphere over the novel. The third entry, Abbadon’s Gate, is where The Expanse begins to stray away from science fiction and into more speculative territory. The protomolecule abandons Venus and jets off to the edge of our system, forming a ring-shaped star gate, which representatives from all of humanity’s societies rush to observe. Tensions reach their boiling point and Holden and the Rocinante are caught up in the middle of it – until they are forced to pass through the gate themselves. Corey never misses a narrative beat, even when navigating this more fantastical territory, and integrates it effortlessly into the realistic world established from the outset.

Corey’s writing style is remarkably similar to that of George RR Martin (of Game of Thrones fame), not just in the way that character perspective shifts from chapter to chapter but in the economic, gritty realism. In fact, both Corey and Martin are members of a New Mexico author’s cabal called The Critical Mass Writer’s Group, and the cross-breeding shows through once you’re aware of the influence. If this is indicative of a larger trend in contemporary SF and fantasy, then there’s cause to rejoice, because these authors excel at wringing the vital human stories out of fictional settings long known for the way they alienate readers with implausibility. The success of this collaboration is undoubtedly due to cooperative editing, which helps the novels feel lean and vigourous despite the huge wealth of material to absorb. You feel you’re getting plenty of bang for your buck, and with short chapters and uninterrupted narrative momentum, these books – which might appear daunting in size – are easily digestible.

It’s hard not to recommend The Expanse to any newcomer interested in dipping their toes into the very broad pool of SF, because while they’ll enjoy the cool clarity of the narrative and the cleverly-drawn characters, the surprising depth is brilliantly representative of what this genre can do. To me, the difference between sci-fi and fantasy is that sci-fi shows us what might be possible in the future, and fantasy shows us what nobody will ever be able to see. The most gratifying thing about The Expanse is that it shows us both.

–  Justin Cummings is a writer, blogger, playwright, and graduate of Queen's University's English Language & Literature program. He has been an avid gamer and industry commentator since he first fed a coin into a Donkey Kong machine. He is currently pursuing a career in games journalism and criticism in Toronto.

1 comment:

  1. Amazing, clear synopsis and review. Thank you. Just added these to the top of my reading list.