When somebody turns a Roleplaying game setting into a series of books you get a well thought-out world. You see this in Steven Erickson’s Malazan Book of the Fallen, Raymond E. Feist’s Riftwar Cycle, and in the series I’m going to write about today: the Expanse series, by James S.A. Corey. This series of books is popular enough that it’s getting it’s own TV show adaption on Scifi channel this winter.
The series started with Leviathan Wakes, followed by Caliban’s War, Abbadon’s Gate, Cibola Burn, and recently Nemesis Games. The Expanse books are set in a future where humanity has managed to conquer most of the solar system. They’ve not discovered faster-than-light travel, and they don’t have faster-than-light communication. Through sheer stubbornness, humanity has colonized Mars, and made stations along the Kuiper Belt.
It gets interesting when you realise there are all kinds of conflicts brewing. Earth is ostensibly in control of everything– they have the most people and are the birth place of humanity. Mars, however, has the best navy, and the belters are most adapted to existence in space stations. Mars and Earth are fighting to be on top, and some of the belters have decided they don’t want to be under either’s boot and created the OPA, a group of belter freedom fighters (or terrorists, depending on your point of view).
The mix of conflicts and constant struggle between power groups forms the backdrop of all the books. Often, there is no clear right side or wrong side, but there is usually a clear ‘bad guy’ who takes their group’s views to an extreme.
The main characters of the books are Jim Holden and Detective Joe Miller. Holden is captain of a mining vessel in deep space (a.k.a. the belt), and Miller is a detective on a belter station. Holden is a somewhat arrogant overly honest man, who has his heart in the right place, but sometimes leaps before he thinks. Miller is a cynical detective, who’s seen too much in his career, and is slowly sliding into a lonely dishonourable retirement.
In the first book, the viewpoint alternates between Holden and Miller, but the later books shake this up. The cast also changes from book to book as the series’ world slowly expands (see what I did there) and people die.
Like the power groups, the characters are also made of different shades of grey. That is not to say that the characters are all egotistical evil bastards, like in Game of Thrones, but they do all have an agenda. Some characters have less qualms about killing people or letting them die. Others are decent, especially James Holden. The result is a set of characters ranging from laid-back to fanatic, with shifting allegiances to others. Combined with the power groups, this makes for some interesting stories.
On to the spoiler-filled part of the review about Cibola Burn, which I read recently, below the picture (Leviathan Wakes cover, by Daniel Dociu).
Cibola Burn begins with UN scientists landing on the newly discovered world of Ilus, which was already colonized by belters a year earlier. The UN (Earth) consider themselves the legal entity that should distribute ownership of new worlds, but the belters don’t accept that Earth is the boss of the universe. From there the conflict escalates.
What makes the story so interesting is that both sides have a point, but they are also both wrong. The main bad guy, is a rent-a-cop on the UN crew. The UN scientists are the most sympathetic in the beginning, because the belters started the conflict by blowing up their landing shuttle, and contaminating an alien world – which we know is very dangerous from earlier books. By putting a maniac in charge of that group, the conflict rapidly runs off the rails completely. Every time one of the characters makes things worse, you can see they actually have a good point, even though the end result is worse than what was before. This is both compelling and annoying, and I really loved it. It’s painfully close to what we see happening in conflicts around our own world.
Finally, there is the underlying mystery of the protomolecule aliens, which runs through the entire series. Each book a new chapter of who they were and what happened to them unfolds, but also leaves you wanting to know more.
All in all, the Expanse series is a great read.