The Expanse: Disappointment

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.

This isn’t a Sci-Fi Saturday post or a TV Tuesday post… this is a spleen vent.

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!

About Wyrd Smythe

The canonical fool on the hill watching the sunset and the rotation of the planet and thinking what he imagines are large thoughts. View all posts by Wyrd Smythe

20 responses to “The Expanse: Disappointment

  • Wyrd Smythe

    I may also post about the TV series, because I have some complaints specific to the adaptation. Mostly I really hate all the added conflict and drama. The reasonable behavior and intelligence of major characters in the book is somewhat discarded in the TV version.

    Because people find assholes entertaining, I guess.

    For example, Bobbie’s Marines. In the book, they’re a trained professional group. In the TV series, they’re childish assholes. Even Bobbie’s behavior, which I found weird for a trained Marine in the TV series, is much (much!) better in the books. I rather disliked the TV version of Bobbie, but I quite like the book version.

    This love of assholes and death and destruction… seriously, folks, grow the fuck up.

  • Wyrd Smythe

    I’m of the opinion that, if we don’t grow up as a species and pull our fucking heads out of our fucking asses, we are not going to space in any big way.

    Dream all you want to, you SF-besotted fools. Until we grow up, we’re just gonna wallow in our shit down in our increasing stinking polluted well.

  • Wyrd Smythe

    Yes, I’m angry. I have my reasons. People suck.

  • Brian

    Great review. I’ve read the first three books so far in conjunction with the accompanying TV series. I appreciate your verdict on the rest of the books so far and I look forward to seeing how they pan out when I get to them. I blogged about the TV series so far back in October; I had a few issues about that by the third part (not so relevant to the books): https://bmhonline.wordpress.com/2019/10/05/expanding-on-the-expanse-or-not

    • Wyrd Smythe

      Thanks! I took a look at your post. I kind of agree about Steven Strait’s facial expressions; I noticed that, too. He so frequently seems a bit overwrought. (In his defense, Holden did go from a relatively carefree position on the Canterbury to having the future of the Solar System on his shoulders. (And in the ring station, he sees the end of humanity played out. That could make a guy a bit overwrought.)

      I cannot agree about Naomi lacking emotion. If anything, she’s Holden’s emotional center. She’s the one that pulls him back from the brink. There is also that her backstory is pretty grim. To me, the relationship between Holden and Naomi is one of my favorite parts.

      It’s probably a good idea to keep in mind that, although the series is cloaked as a hard-SF story, it really isn’t all that hard. There’s a fair amount of hand-waving about the alien technology — very much an application of Clarke’s Third Law. (“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”) It has occurred to me that the later books might never resolve some of this stuff.

  • SelfAwarePatterns

    Wow. Sorry to hear that Wyrd. I don’t know what to tell you about the rest of the series. People acting in bone headed fashion is something of a theme throughout. It creates much of the conflict, with the ancient alien threat constantly hovering in the background.

    On book 6, I think I mentioned that I struggled with it, really the only one in the series that happened with. But I generally enjoyed 4 and 5, so it may not be a good indicator for you. My biggest issue with 5 was that I thought the Earth government was far too reasonable given what had happened. (Compare our reaction in 2001 when a few thousand Americans died.)

    While the series does have a theme of people making awful decisions, it usually ends up showing the consequences of those bad decisions. In other words, I don’t get the noir sense that that’s just the way things are and there’s no justice. (I do get a little of that from the show, which I’m not wild about.)

    But given your reaction, I’m not sure it’s enough. I think if I reacted that strongly, I’d bail. Sorry it’s not working for you.

    • Wyrd Smythe

      “People acting in bone headed fashion is something of a theme throughout.”

      Yeah, as I noted in the post. But it seems to me that ramped up in books four and, especially, five, plus there’s all that conspiracy stuff with the Martian Navy and taking over Medina Station. It’s just kind of a given that would be reasonable to accomplish. (I’m not at all sure it is.)

      I think Cibola Burn took me out of the series a bit (as I mentioned, the fourth season of the TV show is my least favorite by far and for the same reasons). I was really looking forward to returning to what I’d gotten out of the first three books, but Nemesis Games was the exact opposite of that. (I had a really hard time getting through the book.)

      “On book 6, I think I mentioned that I struggled with it,”

      Remind me again why? Too much internalizing?

      It appears to continue the story of Marcos Inaros, although apparently Naomi got to Filip. The Wiki page for the book suggests he has a change of heart.

      “My biggest issue with 5 was that I thought the Earth government was far too reasonable given what had happened. (Compare our reaction in 2001 when a few thousand Americans died.)”

      Oh, my! That is such a good point. (All we really see is Amos’s observation of two Belters on the Moon and how they’re trying to act invisible under the circumstances.)

      I can see Avasarala having a cool head, but everyone else? Not so much.

      “While the series does have a theme of people making awful decisions, it usually ends up showing the consequences of those bad decisions.”

      Yeah, to some extent, but I needed to see Marcos die in that book. Painfully. When I saw that book six continues the Free Navy plot line, I was “Oh, hell, no!”

      I do agree it’s not really the noir sense, but given the overall ethic it still kinda is.

      “But given your reaction, I’m not sure it’s enough. I think if I reacted that strongly, I’d bail.”

      It’s not looking good, but per our recent conversation I may be more prone to hanging in there (if I can manage to find a library copy of Babylon’s Ashes — during books 1-3 I seriously considered just buying the books, but now I don’t want to).

      “Sorry it’s not working for you.”

      Me, too! I’m so disappointed. 😦

      (I will say I just love Amos, and Avasarala is kind of a hoot. I do wonder at the authors having characters named Amos and Alex. I’m constantly having to remind myself which is which.)

      • SelfAwarePatterns

        Definitely too much inner monologue in book 6 (at least for me), a lot of it in Filip’s head if I remember correctly, which I was tired of inhabiting by the end of the book, but also a lot in the other characters. As I recall, things picked up toward the end and made me, on balance, enjoy it, but it seemed like more work than any of the others.

        I had a similar issue with Alex and Amos early on. The name similarity is curious. It’s surprising that Daniel Abraham, an experienced author, would make that kind of mistake. It might be because the setting and characters began as an RPG campaign. They might have just kept the original character names.

        It’s funny that when reading the books, my vision of the characters is more how their descriptions originally manifested when reading the early books rather than the show actors. For example, Amos for me in the book is a big brutish guy with a shaved head. And Naomi’s oriental features are definitely still there. And for some reason, Holden remains a middle aged guy with blond hair.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        “As I recall, things picked up toward the end and made me, on balance, enjoy it,”

        I do gotta give them credit for good endings in each book.

        I wouldn’t want to spend too much time in Filip’s head, either.

        “The name similarity is curious.”

        And weird! Two four-letter names both starting with ‘A’ and having a similar pattern. They even end with a similar sss sound.

        About the only thing that makes sense is it being some historical artifact. (That the series began as a game is one of the alarm bells I mentioned in the lede.)

        “For example, Amos for me in the book is a big brutish guy with a shaved head.”

        Interesting! There’s a whole thing about how adaptations “crystallize” the narrative visually. Lord of the Rings is one place that really struck me — how now I have strong images of Bilbo and Frodo as those actors. You’re saying in this case it didn’t quite take for you — you still have your original vision (which must have been strong).

        I saw the TV series first, so the images of the characters for me are definitely the actors. There’s actually something slightly jarring in the description of the Belters, since real human actors don’t look anything like that. I can tell they worked hard to cast tall skinny people, though. (I even wonder if there has been some CGI work done there.)

        Something I meant to mention somewhere along the way is how much I liked (and now miss) the Holden-Miller duo. The idealist and the cynic (Yin-Yang!). That was a relationship and a dynamic I’d like to have seen explored more. And it has the advantage of being dialog-heavy.

        One thing I never quite understood was how the protomolecule managed to manipulate Holden’s brain to produce Miller. If it had that kind of power, why just use it with Holden? (Although there does seem to me some suggestion that Pastor Anna, Elvi, and possibly others were somehow under some degree of influence of the protomolecule. Or maybe I was over-reading sub-text.)

        I was upset that some tantalizing looks into the protomolecule (via The Inspector’s POV and in some things Miller said) didn’t go further. But the protomolecule plays almost no role in book five. (And Fred Johnson had his sample in his office safe? Not smart, Fred. Naomi had the right idea — hide it somewhere only you know where it is.)

        There was one bit I liked enough to copy:

        ““Will this be on the test?””

        “Don’t be an asshole,” Miller said conversationally, and put his hat back on. “And that shit is custom grown. No two brains are exactly alike. Guess how much processing power it takes to really model even one human brain? More than every human computer ever built put together, and that’s before we even start getting to the crap that goes on inside the cells.”

        “Okay.”

        “Now picture those synapses as buttons on a keyboard. Five hundred trillion buttons. And say that a brain looking at something and thinking, ‘That’s a flower’ punches a couple billion of those keys in just the right pattern. Except it ain’t near that easy. It isn’t just a flower, it’s a pile of associations. Smells, the way a stem feels in your fingers, the

        It cuts off abruptly because the Cloud Library app has a really bad reader. The highlight function is almost unusable. It just goes on in the same vein and nothing missed from the point. I did love the point about how much processing power it takes — as you know, I quite agree.

        And the point about being custom grown.

        Lots of little fascinating bits, and for me the tale is really about the protomolecule, who created it and why, and who wiped them out (and why). The corporate evil and war stuff was just noise to me, but it was noise I could accept. I’ve never been a fan of colony SF and I’m not big on westerns usually, but again I can live with it. But when it comes to terrorism and planetary destruction, I’m kinda out.

        More protomolecule, less terrorists!

        Think I could get away with just skipping book six? Or would I miss too much to enjoy the last books?

        (There was another bit I saved to a text file. From book three. Pastor Anna: “Oh,” Anna said. She was not a political creature. She felt that politics was the second most evil thing humanity had ever invented, just after lutefisk. I’ve mentioned lutefisk in a couple of posts. I quite agree, although to me it comes after politicians.)

      • SelfAwarePatterns

        All of the book versions of the characters are also older for me than their TV counterparts too. And none of them are in as good a shape as the actors on the show.

        Now that you mention it, I don’t recall that there ever was a full explanation either on how Holden was seeing Miller. Clarke’s third law stuff I guess.

        I don’t recall the protomolecule playing any part in book 6. It does become very important again in the final trilogy, as well as what destroyed the civilization that produced it, at least in book 8. That said, stupid humans doing stupid things, is still a big part of the story. Think large scale organized stupidity.

        You could probably get away with skipping book 6. There’s a 20 year jump for book 7, so there’s catching up to do anyway.

        Warning: book 7 is not a happy tale and ends on a cliffhanger. And that Martian Navy conspiracy thing? Be prepared to learn a lot more about it.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        “And none of them are in as good a shape as the actors on the show.”

        Ha, yeah, that’s “Hollywood” for you. The books do mention how out of shape Alex is a lot. 🙂

        “I don’t recall the protomolecule playing any part in book 6.”

        Well that’s disappointing. But I’m not surprised. All three middle books — “Act II” — focus on the political aspect. I suppose to create the background for whatever happens in Act III.

        Your recommendation about bailing might be the way for me to go. I’m not hugely encouraged by what you said about books seven and eight. Maybe I’ll wait for the whole series to be out and find a synopsis somewhere so I can find out about the protomolecule and its civilization.

        The human stupidity of the real world, always a sore point with me, these past years has gotten to a level I find very hard to bear. I just can’t handle too much of it in my fiction.

        “Warning: book 7 is not a happy tale and ends on a cliffhanger. And that Martian Navy conspiracy thing? Be prepared to learn a lot more about it.”

        Yeah, and that’s maybe not what I need right now. Do not like Betrayer and Conspiracy stories, either. I could tell the corruption went deep from the book 5 epilogue from the Sauveterre POV. That left a really bad taste in my mouth.

        It does explain how Marco Inaros — who Fred Johnson thought a minor player and poor — pulled off his coup. I forget, maybe Johnson in that same scene, but someone speculated there was someone behind Inaros. Obviously so.

        (It was also kinda cool to meet Camina Drummer in the books. And I can see why you regret Bull being dropped from the TV series. He was pretty cool.)

      • SelfAwarePatterns

        Yeah, if the books were causing me to have to walk off my angst and cool off before continuing, I probably would find something else for entertainment. Good fiction is supposed to elicit emotional responses, including negative ones to make the positive ones feel more earned when they come. But if it’s affecting your quality of life, life is to short to put up with that.

        But then remember, I’m the guy who drops books pretty quickly.

        Interestingly, I had a similar response to the show’s inclusion of the election stuff. I intensely don’t want to be reminded of politics right now. I actually considered fast forwarding through the relevant scenes. Thankfully they were relatively short.

        I think you’re at the point in the story where the protomolecule has largely been explained to the point it’s going to be, as baseline technology for an ancient civilization, technology so advanced that we monkeys cause problems when we play with it. What the series further gets into is how that civilization was wiped out (answered in book 8). I can do a spoiler dump if you’re interested. I think you’d find the answer interesting.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        Go for it! I think I’m out for the foreseeable future. (I’m concerned season five of the show is going to be book five, so will I even like the season?)

        I may not be as quick to drop something, but I do have my limits. When the pro-con balance reaches a certain point, that’s enough, I’m out. Damn shame, though. The first three were so good.

        (I hope it’s not going to be a ‘they wiped themselves out because, smart as they were, they weren’t smart enough (just like humans)’ parable. Even ‘it was all a mistake’ would kinda suck. 🙂 )

      • SelfAwarePatterns

        Okay, I’ll try to put this behind a collapsible spoiler section to minimize anyone casually hitting it. (Hopefully this works.)

        I’ll keep quiet on the character developments so you’re not totally spoiled if you decide to read it later.

        Spoilers!

        So the rogue Martian Navy elements emerge after 20 years, with protomolecule enhanced technology, and establish a military dictatorship. During their conquest of the Solar System, an…event takes place, where everyone in the Solar System suddenly loses consciousness for a few minutes, although all ship board systems continue to function. That and there’s a phenomenon where if too many ships go through the gate system at once, some disappear.

        These are theorized to be attacks from an intelligence in another dimension, perhaps one disturbed by excessive use of the gate / protomolecule technology. (There’s even the implication that they may regard it as an attack on them.)

        Book 7 is basically about the takeover by the military dictatorship.

        In Book 8, that same dictatorship decides that, using game theory, it’s time to teach the other dimensional intelligence a lesson. (Remember, large scale organized stupidity.) The scientists think this is a horrible idea, but they’re overruled. So the military intentionally overloads the gate system and sends through a ship with massive antimatter bombs, timed to go off after they transition to…wherever.

        This leads to a massive response. A neutron star in one of the systems is induced to collapse shooting a massive burst of energy into the gate space, destroying all the human occupants, stations, and ships, and making the gates impassable for a while. In addition, the “event” from book 7 now happens across all the connected systems, repeatedly and periodically.

        A couple things of note. The dictator leader guy is being injected with engineered protomolecule to extend his life. His team appear to have enough control of it to do this. In addition, there is discussion that human consciousness is a quantum phenomenon. Which explains its unique disruption in the attacks.

        But during the attacks, Duarte, the dictator, is turned into a mess due to all his protomolecule assimilation. He’s effectively killed. The attack, whatever it is, appears to be devastating to protomolecule based systems. But for humans, it only appears to induce the loss of consciousness while the attack is going on. The intelligence appears to be using the same attack it once used, but without the same effect.

        That’s basically what’s known at the end of book 8.

      • SelfAwarePatterns

        Well, that didn’t work. Either I muffed the tags or WP ate them.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        I could see the closing details tag (although it was missing the closing angle bracket), so I could see what you meant. (I’ve never used the details element before, so I learned something, thanks!) I put the “Spoilers” in the summary element — don’t know if that’s what you intended.

        Looks like it worked. (And very nice to know that feature is part of HTML now!)

      • SelfAwarePatterns

        Thanks! That’s what I was shooting for.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        Interesting, and thanks for all that! It sounds like it might get interesting in book 8. Hard to say right now, but I might give books 7 and 8 a shot (since they’re available from the Cloud Library for free). Knowing what I’d be in for helps.

      • SelfAwarePatterns

        Book 7 is kind of tough emotionally, for a lot of reasons. (Probably more so for me due to where I was in my life when I read it.) Although book 8 is no walk in the park either. But the sci-fi elements definitely seem thicker than in the middle trilogy.

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