I spend quite a bit of time in the science fiction sub-categories on Amazon and I have watched the Space Opera sub-category turn into a bastardized playground for military science fiction. Nearly every book in the top twenty is a variation of an aging spaceship and captain and their plucky crew saving the known worlds from a menace of some sort. They all belong in the space fleet/space marines categories, yet they completely overwhelm the civilian space opera that I prefer — the really big scale sagas such as Dune, and Peter F. Hamilton’s Commonwealth Saga. You have to dig very deep into the category to find stories of that sort, which is probably why I completely missed the writing team of James S.A. Corey’s Leviathan Wakes.
I did hear a lot of fuss about Syfy’s The Expanse last year, and put the series on my list of series to check out.
The list is very long, so I only just got around to it. The credits told me what I had missed; that the series was based on Corey’s book. I am now working my way through the book, because I just know I missed details on the way through the first season of the TV show. There are always things that have to be changed, glossed over, or are impossible to film, so I’m curious to see what they might be.
The series, by the way, is a don’t-miss if you’re any sort of science fiction fan. It kicks ass for a number of reasons, including:
Not a single wimpy, there-to-be-pretty female anywhere.
The most Machiavellian character on the show is an aging East Indian woman, Chrisjen Avasarala, who doesn’t pull her punches (played by Iranian Shohreh Aghdashloo). There’s a female engineer, one of the leads of the show, Naomi, who is smart and secretive…and black. One of the lead characters spends the entire season obsessing over and hunting for Julie Mao, a revolutionary of French Chinese descent. And it goes on from there. Not a single woman in the show was there as love interest for one of the lead male characters. Ade Nygaard came close to being someone for Holden to be upset about losing, but she was already breaking up with him and moving on to better things before that happened. All the women had serious roles, which was so nice.
No generic anything.
I think one of the show’s (and book’s) strength is diversity — in colour, in languages, in ethnicity, in gender. Plus there isn’t a single, generic accent or language. There is Belter lingo that isn’t thoughtfully interpreted — you have to figure it out from context (the book is the same), the accents are a sampling from across the globe; British, American, and what I call Indistinguishable. I thought I even heard an Australian accent from one of the characters (it might have been my imagination). The most interesting accent and speech was that of Jared Harris, who played Anderson Dawes, the OPA revolutionary on Ceres. His accent was just weird. His language was strained and mixed with Belter lingo. You had to concentrate to understand what he was saying and that’s exactly the way a Belter would sound, in my opinion. After generations of living in the Asteroid Belt, it would be natural for the language and accents of the humans there to shift. It only took around a hundred years for the Australian accent to emerge from the mostly British colonists who settled there, for example.
Little thoughtful and human touches.
I loved that in the establishing shots of New York, the sea level had clearly risen, for there were dikes around Liberty Island and Manhattan, holding back the sea. Alaska wasn’t just Alaska anymore, it was the Alaska Archipelago — the sea had risen high enough to create islands up there. I love that the inertia problem in space travel was solved in this story world with something other than “inertial dampeners”…and that it was addressed in the first place.
I liked that there was dirt and garbage, the haves and the have-nots, and clothing wasn’t incredibly weird and impossibly impractical. There was graffiti and kids and pets.
Ships were aged and broke down. They creaked and groaned. Public transport looked as uncomfortable as it does in this day and age (alas).
Characters had character…and stayed in character.
I think this was the most refreshing part of the series and what I’ve read of the book so far. The characters were actually people, with real lives, personalities and reactions to events around them. They had histories, all of them. That’s probably why the women weren’t placeholders, either. They got exactly the same treatment as the male characters. So often in space opera science fiction, the characters play their roles and that’s it. The Star Trek universe is often guilty of this; the irascible doctor (take your pick), the character aching to be human (Data, Seven of Nine), the relentless captain (pick a captain, any captain), and so on. Military Space Opera in particular tends to carve out “types” simply because of the sub-genre – a ship has a captain, and usually a medic, a second in charge and some sort of science officer to supply the obscure answers. Those roles and professions attract certain characters, and so the generalizations occur.
So I admit I had my jaw clenched when I started watching the season of The Expanse, already automatically trying to catalog everyone into their generic roles and compartments. When Holden turned down the XO position aboard the Canterbury, and meant it, I was pleasantly surprised.
I really liked watching Miller search for answers–he was somewhat the dogged investigator, but he made a few decisions that broke the mold.
The easy and cliched reactions were missing. People didn’t sleep with each other because they were opposite genders in a tight situations, they didn’t start shooting unless they really, really had to, and they had emotional reactions to shooting. They would listen to reason and could change their minds as a result. It’s all very normal, human behavior in the people we know, but on TV it’s often missing. It isn’t in The Expanse.
Watch and see for yourself. It’s great space opera.
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