Welcome back to City on the Moon for the fifth and final part of my 2017 reading list, where I’ve been going over every book I read this year, not including Artemis and The Wrong Stars, my first two reviews. Part 4 featured Minecraft: The Island by Max Brooks, Blood, Sweat, and Pixels: The Triumphant, Turbulent Stories Behind How Video Games Are Made by Jason Schreier, Red vs. Blue: The Ultimate Fan Guide from Rooster Teeth, and Go Nitro: Rise of the Blades by Jeremy Dooley. Today’s list is a bit of a departure in that all six books are part of one series, a science-fiction story where realistic space travel meets alien technology.
The Expanse series of novels began in 2011 with Leviathan Wakes, a story where life in space was treated with an unprecedented realism. Space travel is not easy as most other science-fiction stories as ships could only accelerate so much before gravitational forces crushed the occupants. The usual science-fiction excuse technology, inertial dampeners, does not exist in this future. In The Expanse, humanity has colonized the solar system. Mars has splintered away, forming its own military-oriented government. A great terraforming project, generations in the making, promises to make the surface habitable. In the meantime, the Martians are forced to live in underground cities. Various other colonies have sprung up moons and asteroids scattered in the system, their resources harvested for Earth and Mars.
Leviathan Wakes follows two point-of-view characters, James Holden and Joe Miller. Holden is first office on an ice freighter who answers a distress call while returning to the colony on the asteroid, Ceres. Miller works as a detective on Ceres, investigating the disappearance of an heiress, a runaway who joined a separatist movement based in the outer colonies. After Leviathan Wakes, Caliban’s War increased the number of POV characters from two to four, starting a trend with the novels, only to be broken by Babylon’s Ashes, the sixth book and the only one to feature chapters from sixteen POV characters. Holden is the only common denominator among these characters, and though he is often central to the events of the novels, it is circumstances which draw him in. The story is rarely about Holden, but Holden is not content to wait on the sidelines as the solar system is brought to war around him.
Leviathan’s Wake was published in 2011, Caliban’s War in 2012, Abaddon’s Gate in 2013, Cibola Burn in 2014, Nemesis Games in 2015, Babylon’s Ashes in 2016, and Persepolis Rising arrived just this year. On top of that, there are also two seasons of The Expanse series on the syfy channel, a fairly faithful adaption which does make the necessary changes to adapt a book series into a dramatic television series. The author, James S.A. Corey, is not actually one author. Rather, it is the pseudonym used by authors Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck in their collaboration. Together, they split the characters and write each chapter, after hammering out an outline for the main points of that novel. These two embody their characters, granting them lives on the page which never seem forced. Every character has their defining characteristics, but Abraham and Franck manage to avoid the common science-fiction pitfall where characters are defined by that one facet of their personality.
The plot of The Expanse may include militaristic governments and hostile aliens—later books open up the universe by way of a gate system built by a now extinct empire—but the books have always been about racial tension. Humans growing up on Earth are not too different from humans today. Even those living on Mars are relatively unchanged. However, the differences are notable when we see characters who have grown up outside the gravity wells; the asteroids, the moons, the colonies where gravity is minimal. Growing up in low gravity environments has changed their bodies drastically. The Belters, as they’re labelled in the books after the asteroid belt, are unable to return to Earth as their bodies would be crushed under our gravity. Limbs are lengthened, organs are changed, and even a new dialect is formed. The Belters have adapted to life in low gravity, where their societies are true mixing pots. Languages in the outer colonies have blended together into a unique dialect the inners (The Expanse’s term for Earthlings and Martians) have trouble understanding. The Belters are often treated as second-class citizens, so it is no wonder separatist movements abound. They are fighting to protect their way of life from the rich, the rich, the powerful, and the ones who have the luxury of walking on a planet, looking at the sky.
Even as the novels progress, and alien technology forces it’s way into the plot and the lives of humans, Franck and Abraham maintain their grasp of realism. There are battles between ships, assaults on space station, even weaponized meteors thrown at planet earth. But the books are primarily concerned with the lives of people, how they react and adapt to the changing circumstances around them. As of book 7, thousands of worlds have opened up and the mysterious remnants of ancient aliens hide galaxy-wide threats. And yet, humanity still finds things to fight about and discriminate against. For all of its science-fiction trappings, the themes in The Expanse are as relevant today as they will be in the future.