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One of my favorite space opera series right now, beaten out only by the Imperial Radch series by Ann Leckie, is The Expanse by James S.A. Corey, a pen name for Ty Franck and Daniel Abraham. I love this series, and I've been pushing it on everyone I know for ages. I'm that friend with a crush doodling names in my notebook and making sappy mixtapes who never shuts up. RENAY ♥ THE EXPANSE.

lonely planet in space among a field of stars


The Expanse is a huge, sprawling universe about humanity's first steps into our solar system and the homes we build there. The series is currently represented by four main titles: Leviathan Wakes, Caliban's War, Abaddon's Gate, and Cibola Burn, with the next entry, Nemesis Games, forthcoming in June 2015. If you're into that sort of thing you can pre-order it here at B&N and also probably at other book retailers we don't talk about here. There are also a several side stories about characters in the series: "The Butcher of Anderson Station", "Gods of Risk", and "The Churn". There's one short story I know of, "Drive", available in Edge of Infinity, which lays the foundation for space travel, but also manages to be about compromise, love, and partnership.

I keep hoping Orbit will take pity on me and eventually release a side story collection, because I would buy that. Even though I have already purchased all the side stories, having them in one collection would be cool. TAKE MY MONEY, ORBIT. I mean, you already have lots of it, but I would be happy to give you more.

Banner for the cover of Leviathan Wakes with title in bold block letters and James S.A. Corey is smaller block letters


The Expanse is predicated on the idea that we have some compelling reason to populate places that are prohibitively hard to live on or in, like in domes on Mars, or the Asteroid Belt, or spaceships. Humans! We have the spirit of adventure! Time to travel is one issue blocking wider expansion, but once that's solved? The only limitation is our desire to push out of our sphere of knowledge and experience and find new places to port both our best and worst qualities. Space is empty! Why not fill it with our drama?

There are themes of nationalism, but writ large. It's less about your street address, where you came from Earth-wise, what you look like, and more about your place on a rock hurtling through space. It also picks up the practically antiquated concern about communication lag and shifts it into a future setting. In the past, getting news and other information was a longer process, taking additional time the farther back in the past you go, especially when dealing with colonies or places controlled by governments or corporations which were far away. We're so spoiled by instantaneous communication. When we eventually send actual people far enough into space that there's a communication lag, we're going to get hurled back a century. I'm not sure most of us realize how weird that's going to be. We're so spoiled right now; this series grabs the idea that our metaphorical universes are going to expand and runs with it to great affect. Time is a commodity we've begun taking for granted in thousands of different ways. I mean, I can send my friends across an ocean a picture of an attractive celebrity and seconds later they can write back, "Ugh, no, what is your deal with Sebastian Stan?" The Expanse really shows how on a more important, political/human safety scale this lack of connection can change everything.

In the series, even a short time lag has created more than a physical distance between different groups spread throughout our system, on Mars, in the Belt, and on stations even farther afield. This distance has created conflicting cultures, a melting pot of different people, and has shifted many of the social issues we're tackling right now into a futuristic context. This series has a lot going for it in the ways it imagines social futures, while not being specifically about those things. The Expanse is about space monsters, monstrous people, and the monsters that people can avoid becoming with the right support structures.

Banner for the cover of Caliban's War with title in bold block letters and James S.A. Corey is smaller block letters


The series builds its universe by creating each entry as a different type of book. It's a fun game to play; it's pin the tail on the genre. Because Corey is playing the genre game, the first book is takes a lot of influence from noir. I didn't realize this until much later, and once I learned also realized this is why there are tons of films/books I dislike, because I think noir is very pretty to look at but not too great to soak in for any solid amount of time. The first book, Leviathan Wakes, opens with dead/terrorized ladies and finishes with the worst type of body horror/autonomy issues I can imagine (with bonus Obsessive Dude Hero). In a genre populated by narratives that kill, marginalize, and objectify women, often for the motivations, pleasures, and entertainment of men, this has become a huge roadblock to passing the series on to people who would otherwise love some of the other books because of the characters that come into play in later volumes. When the first book in the series treats women this way when there are other great books out there that don't punch certain readers in the face, it's tough to get people to continue. I've had more failures than successes, even when I do warn people about the tropes, because no one expects a surprise noir-themed space opera or the vicious way this books handles one of the main female characters. Leviathan Wakes was published in 2011. In the time between its publication the discussion of gender online, and how we represent gender in media, has changed drastically. As someone from within that community, this book really feels like going back in time.

Banner for the cover of Abaddon's Gate with title in bold block letters and James S.A. Corey is smaller block letters


Leviathan Wakes is narrated by a machine cog in the industry of space survival, James Holden, who becomes a captain of a small crew. We also meet down on his luck detective Miller, who grows obsessed with a case about a missing girl. Story beats are easy to follow and the overarching mystery that eventually unites Holden and Miller isn't hard to suss out. There's corporate shenanigans afoot, Miller stumbles into a conspiracy, and then hits rock bottom. He goes on the detective version a bender, and Holden manages to incite a war between various interstellar militaries by being the least politically savvy person in any given spaceship. This becomes a running joke; Holden is earnest, idealistic, marginally competent, and can inspire a lot of loyalty, but he's kind of a self-righteous tool about it. Holden is the reader avatar of the series; we follow him in each book, and unfortunately, he never manages to get much more interesting. Although through his interactions with others we do get to critique PTSD, as well as the price of celebrity and notoriety, and how we inflate people in public positions when we don't know them. That's fairly relevant to ongoing cultural discussions about being a public figure in the age of the Internet. What elevates Holden is the wide array of supporting characters Corey surrounds him with who challenge him and make him interesting by association.

Miller is...Miller. He wears a porkpie hat and probably needs about a decade of therapy. At least 10% of the therapy will be about that hat.

Banner for the cover of Cibola Burn with title and James S.A. Corey in bold block letters


My favorite book in the series is the second, Caliban's War. The difference between how women are portrayed and written between Leviathan Wakes and Caliban's War is so stark as to be jarring. Some of it is the genre switch away from the noir sensibility and the addition of multiple point of view characters. There's also a very clear improvement in deployment of tropes and a more nuanced portrayal of the social issues, political alliances, and consequences. These authors can write amazing women, excellent politics, and complicated social interactions. The level up between books is fantastic.

Caliban's War features two of my top three characters as POV characters. Naomi Nagata, my third, is in all the books, and she's rad, although she's never been a POV character. In Caliban's War, we meet Chrisjen Avasarala and Bobbie Draper. Avasarala is the U.N. Assistant Undersecretary of Executive Administration and Bobbie is a Martian Marine. Both are excellent with with strong voices, strength and vulnerabilities in equal measure, with complicated inner lives, different perspectives, and specific goals for their future. For example, Avasarala is a political bulldozer. She's in her 70s! She's competent and clever! She's gonna terrify/inspire six or seven twenty-something interns and piss off at least one male superior per day. Amazing.

It's frustrating to me that I can't get people to meet Avasarala and Bobbie because Leviathan Wakes is sliming all over everything (somewhat literally). Sorry, Leviathan Wakes! I love you because you gave me one of my favorite SFnal creatures and also for making Miller the greatest sassy detective, but you are not my favorite.

I've tackled this issue by changing how I recommend The Expanse. I've stopped reccing Leviathan Wakes first. I don't feel like Leviathan Wakes is specifically required to eventually grok what's happening in Caliban's War because the story time between each book is massive. There's enough explanation for Caliban's War to be an extreme case of in medias res, and to continue on from there, reading Leviathan Wakes as a prequel at any point.

Here is my personal Official Expanse Recommendation Reading Order.

Fancy Image Version:

alternate reading order for The Expanse


Regular List Version:
  • Caliban's War
  • Gods of Risk (optional)
  • The Butcher of Anderson Station (optional)
  • Abaddon's Gate
  • The Churn (optional)
  • Cibola Burn
  • Leviathan Wakes ← choose your own adventure!


The short story, "Drive", is also good read anywhere, if you want a small amount of background on the politics between Earth and Mars, and the foundations of space travel in the series. I read it before I read Leviathan Wakes and it was pretty cool to have in my reading toolbox.

IMHO, reading Caliban's War first and Leviathan Wakes elsewhere is an improvement, both in reading experience as well as enjoying the characters. For me, revisiting Leviathan Wakes knowing some of the events that come after makes for a more immersive reading experience because I knew these people, and cared much more about the how's of what changed their lives. It also makes this series more accessible, if, like me, you find some parts of noir off-putting. Unless you like noir, in which case, knock yourself out. You may have a pretty great time. I hold out hope this list will convince the people in my life I want to peer pressure into this series. IF SO, it's served its purpose.

Disclaimer: there is also the chance you will find the writing/story flat out boring, which has been cited to me several times. That's okay. There are other great writers telling stories set in space and on spaceships! Ann Leckie (Imperial Radch), Rachel Bach (Paradox), Aliette de Bodard (The Universe of Xuya), Becky Chambers (The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet), or Judith Tarr (Forgotten Suns)! Or you could pull a play from my Recent Reading book and read C.J. Cherryh (Downbelow Station)! I've also heard Iain M. Banks (Culture) is great. Space is booming! Choose your own space adventure.

The show based on the series is airing sometime this year (and seems to be melding some elements of different books together). I want everyone to meet Avasarala in the books and flail around with me that we have this amazing older woman in an incredibly important role and she's also about to be a character in a television show, as well. Played by Shoreh Aghdashloo! She is hella charming! Plus in the book Avasarala calls Holden a dick a lot, which pleases me to imagine Shoreh saying to Steven Strait, the actor playing Holden. Dear show, I only really want two things from you: for Avasarala to call Holden a dick at least once, and for you to be awesome. Totally doable. Good luck, The Expanse writers. I believe in you.

So if you don't like the books you might like the show! This trailer is available, although no word yet on when the series will start airing. Probably as late in the year as possible in order to torture me. SyFy has had an excellent historical record on causing me emotional distress! Why stop now?

The Expanse TV banner with the series title in block text over a field of stars


Congratulations to everyone who made it to the end of this ridiculously long recommendation for The Expanse. Go team! If you've read the books and like them, please come tell me, either here or on Twitter @renay so I can gaze at you with tears of joy in my eyes and ask you all your opinions about Avasarala, Bobbie, and Naomi.

(And also tell me if you end up shipping Holden/Miller. I can already see people who have read through Cibola Burn recoiling from their screens. Sorry not sorry, friends.)

(But seriously, let me know.)

Date: 2015-05-09 10:57 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] theliteraryomnivore.wordpress.com
I haven't read these and might watch the show first, but holy crap, Shohreh Aghdashloo is playing Avasarala?! SHE IS SO AMAZING AND AGH DIVERSE SF AND AGH LIFE IS WONDERFUL AGH!

Date: 2015-07-04 07:31 pm (UTC)
dragojustine: (Default)
From: [personal profile] dragojustine
I am a total stranger parachuting in on this but this is a great summary/pitch post. Nice! And I totally agree about the massive step-up in quality between books.

Question: Is there any fic for this? I just blew threw all three thousand pages and it's been ages since I've so keenly wanted MORE when I finish something, and it feels like there is tons of room for it in this verse. And yet, not a single work on AO3. Do you know of anything good?

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