I feel like a jilted lover. Or a very disappointed one. I found what seemed a delightful bit of science fiction color in an otherwise increasingly grey and dismal world. I let myself get attached (despite a few alarm bells going off in my head). I thought I’d found something truly worthwhile — something to invest myself in.
And it seemed really good at first. There was all the excitement of exploring something new and interesting. But after that great start, there came a most unwelcome left turn into a stinking swamp I want no part of.
I’m talking about The Expanse, a science fiction novel series by Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck working under the pen name, James S.A. Corey. (James is Abraham’s middle name, and Corey is Franck’s middle name. S.A. are the initials of Abraham’s daughter.)
There are eight books in the series plus a final ninth expected sometime this year (covid-19 willing). I’ve read the first five, and what’s got my knickers twisted is books four and five, Cibola Burn (2014) and Nemesis Games (2015). These two have much I hate in fiction and little I like. They may have turned me off to the series.
I think the nine books form a traditional science fiction trilogy with each “part” comprised of three novels.
The first part, which I loved, is the first three books, Levianthan Wakes (2011), Caliban’s War (2012) and Abaddon’s Gate (2013). In fact, I thought they were outstanding. Good old-fashioned space opera updated with some pretty solid science. If not quite the sort of diamond-hard SF I love, not far from it.
The second part, comprised of the aforementioned books four and five plus Babylon’s Ashes (2016), is what I’m seriously put off by. I have the dual problem of not being sure I want to continue as well as being unable to because Cloud Library doesn’t seem to have book six (but does have seven and eight).
As an SF trilogy it seems to suffer (seriously suffer) from the book two blahs that trilogies sometimes have. Book one introduces the characters and the problem, book three is the resolution, but book two often just moves characters around or gets lost in backstories or in some fashion loses the thread and just takes up space.
Which is how I see books four and five. I won’t say I hated them,… but to be honest I kinda did. (Huge let down from how much I liked the first three, and much of what I’m feeling is simply major disappointment.)
I’ll explain (warning: spoilers ahead).
The Expanse takes place in the 24th century when humanity has spread throughout the Solar System. There are three socio-political segments: Earthers, Martians (humans on Mars), and Belters (humans in space — mostly around the asteroid belt).
Each of the three hates the other two.
A fundamental premise of the series (a meme often repeated by various characters) is that humanity in space is the same bunch of fucking assholes we are now. We bring all our baggage and immaturity and fundamental stupidity along with us no matter where we go. We never grow up.
It’s the opposite of the optimistic view Gene Roddenberry had for Star Trek, which presents a mature humanity. (And which Trek has abandoned in the race to sink ever lower in human muck. I am so pissed about this bullshit that it makes me hate, which is a very unnatural and uncomfortable state for me.)
I am stuck in a world that thought electing that fucker was a good idea. A world in which it’s not impossible that fucker could be elected again (but it’s looking like we’ll have more sense — or at least some sense — this time; one hopes so). I am stuck living in a world of willful ignorance, corporate greed, fanatical terrorists, racism, sexism, and all the other completely unnecessary human bullshit.
I do not want that shit in my fiction. Not in large measure, anyway. Not as the story’s center.
I truly cannot fathom the attraction. Different strokes, I guess.
What I loved about the first three books was how most characters were generally intelligent and reasonable. It was so refreshing.
Those set up a really interesting situation and some great characters. Into the relatively stable three-way standoff between Earth, Mars, and the Belt, comes the protomolecule — an alien system sent here billions of years ago to create a transport gate.
But things went astray. The system should have ended up on early Earth where it would use the primordial biomass as construction material. Instead it ended up on Phoebe, a moon of Saturn, where it could do nothing.
[Neat idea: the protomolecule leverages bio-replicators — living cells — that it hijacks for its own purposes. An intriguing bootstrap mechanism.]
Eventually it’s discovered by humans. An Evil Corporation (and some Evil Scientists) tries to keep it secret and weaponize it (or at least make a ton of money from it). But monkeys playing with dynamite and lighters, they very nearly destroy Earth. Ultimately, the protomolecule does what it was supposed to — create a gateway.
The opening of that gateway ends the first part.
All of which I really enjoyed. Yes, the villains are a bit on the cartoon side, but everything else was so good that was a minor complaint (this is space opera, after all).
More importantly, the first part sets up the real problem: The ancient and powerful race that apparently colonized the galaxy seems to have been entirely taken out by… something else. The story is obviously building towards discovering who these two powerful players are.
My problem is that books four and five (and, based on the description, at least some of book six) turn away from that story and sink into something I didn’t enjoy at all.
Book four (Cibola Burn) is essentially a frontier western story. Most of it takes place down on an alien planet — the first attempt at colonizing through the gateway. There is some science fiction, but not much, and none that really seems to matter. The overall story isn’t advanced much.
It’s the story about the evil insane murderous bastard (the hysterically named Adolphus Murtry — you can just hear the “Adolf Hitler” there) who somehow managed to become the security chief of a corporation with a known good reputation. It’s mostly the story of a fight between the colonists (who are technically squatters) and the corporation (who has legal rights to the planet).
It’s also a story about terrorists among the colonists. It’s about people who have lost their damn minds. It’s about humans acting like… well, I was going to say animals, but in truth it’s just humans who understand evil.
[Season four of the TV series follows book four, and it’s the season I didn’t enjoy much because I don’t like SF westerns. And because of fucking Murtry. Why does a series that casually kills billions make such a thing of not killing Murtry? Amos was absolutely right. Take that fucker out immediately. Would have saved a lot of lives.]
The book has some weird coincidences and some repetitions. The character Havelock, who was Miller’s partner when the series began, is a key player, and so is Basia Merton, whose son Katoa, was a victim of Evil Scientists experimenting with the protomolecule. Basia, in fact, is one of the terrorists, having lost his mind.
So, in Basia, we have a repeat of Praxidike Meng, who lost his mind over his daughter, Mei, in book three. I got a little sick of Prax, so having to put up with the same shit from Basia was a negative for me.
In Murtry we have a repeat of the insane “kill them all” cartoon clown of Ashford, the captain of the Behemoth in book three.
The insane asshole quotient seems to be ramping up. Book three’s Ashford was bad enough (the TV version of the character was infinitely better), and book four’s Murtry is a real piece of work, but book five’s Marco Inaros is even worse.
I like the series enough that I was willing to overlook it. Much as I dislike SF westerns and raging insane assholes, I was willing to move past it.
But book five, despite having a better SF content, was really hard to read. I frequently had to put it down and walk off my frustration.
On top of some seriously fucked up human behavior, the Earth gets deliberately bombed with three asteroids that kill many millions right away and results in billions dying over time.
All for my “entertainment” — I hate that shit so much I can’t find the words strong enough to describe it. (I’ve been growing increasingly unhappy with the slaughter of thousands, or more, since the Lord of the Rings movies.)
(There is also an unwelcome repeat of the global storm of destruction from book four. The authors are starting to feel unoriginal to me.)
The casual destruction in superhero movies, for instance, really gets under my skin. In some sense it goes back to blowing up the Death Star in Star Wars. Audiences cheer the deaths of thousands of innocent technicians and other workers. On some level, it makes me a little ill.
There is also that Nemesis Games splits the crew of the Rocinante into four separate story lines. Amos is down on Earth, Alex is on Mars (with Bobbie Draper), Naomi is in serious trouble (again; she was in serious trouble in the last book, too), and Holden is with Fred Johnson on Tycho Station.
I think the story works better with the crew together on the Rocinante. (I did like the addition of Bobbie and Clarissa, although Clarissa’s sudden return to mental health is a bit convenient.)
The authors use a device of having each chapter switch viewpoints among a small set of main characters. At times that works really well, but sometimes it makes the narrative seem choppy to me (it annoyed me a lot in book four). The problem with a stylistic device is that it can become confining.
(My stylistic device for how I start blog articles can be confining. Takes me forever sometimes to write those three paragraphs.)
In any event, I’m faced with just walking away or investing more time to see if it gets better again. The description of Babylon’s Ashes doesn’t sound encouraging. (Maybe I should just skip it and move on to book seven?)
Mostly I’m super disappointed (and kinda angry). Maybe I’ll get over it; maybe I won’t. Other fish in the sea if I don’t.
Stay expansive, my friends!