More than once I’ve reviewed books that have been adapted to the big or small screen, and that’s not a coincidence. I’m just as likely to watch an adaptation of a book I’ve read as I am to read a book I’ve seen the adaptation of. And when this happens I’m often left thinking one is better than the other.
The Expanse series of books and shows, however, falls into a different category where each version has merits over the other, and I love both. So, like, score!
James S.A. Corey is the pen name of authors Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck, who also work on the TV show as producers, which is why I think that the shows and books feel thematically consistent, even when they are wildly different.
The setting was written with scientific accuracy in mind, albeit with some caveats. There is no interstellar travel, but interplanetary travel is commonplace, thanks to the miracle of the Epstein Drive, which provides constant acceleration while sipping fuel. And while the Epstein Drive itself is a bit of science magic (when asked how the drive works, the authors replied “efficiently”) the laws of physics are still very much in play.
For example, ship floor plans are more like a skyscraper than a cruise ship, because the constant thrust allows them to simulate gravity. As you approach your destination, you’re going to have to turn the ship around and decelerate for as long as you were accelerating. Travel times are limited by this acceleration, so it still takes days or weeks to get anywhere. Accelerating at high g for a long time can knock you out or even kill you, so during high g maneuvers, people are pumped with a cocktail of drugs to help them stay alive and conscious (and the side effects aren’t pleasant).
Leviathan Wakes is told mostly from two points of view. One is James Holden, a former Earth Navy officer who is XO onboard a water hauler coming out of Saturn, the Canterbury. The other is Joe Miller, a burnt-out detective on Ceres, the largest asteroid in the Belt, ordered to find a young woman who ran away from home on Earth and return her to her rich parents—a common enough occurrence that everyone who learns about it calls it a “kidnap job.”
The solar system is effectively divided into three factions: Earth, Mars, and the Belt. At the start of the book, Earth and Mars have an uneasy but long-standing alliance, the people of the Belt are exploited by the corporations of both, and tensions within the Belt are always threatening to ignite.
The Canterbury becomes that flashpoint.
However, the motives behind what happens are far more sinister than anyone realizes, and it turns out the fate of the Canterbury and Miller’s kidnap job are linked.
An interesting fun fact about Leviathan Wakes is that it started out as a roleplaying campaign. Ty Franck had ambitions of creating an MMO game, and when that didn’t materialize, he used his setting notes to create a play-by-post adventure on a gaming forum. This ended up helping to flesh out the setting as well as the storyline that is focused on James Holden and his crew.
It then attracted the attention of author Daniel Abraham, who asked if he could play too. His story (played along with their wives) ended up creating the foundation for Miller’s storyline. Abraham realized that the adventure would make a great setting for a novel. The rest is history.
Another major influence on the setting is the movie Alien, most notably the characters of Brett and Parker, the lowly engineer and technician who always complained about getting their rightful shares. Ty Frank wanted to create a future that felt lived in, where you have the wonders of space travel tempered by very real and ordinary human needs.
This is perhaps best expressed in the early chapters when a massacre happens, and Holden can’t understand why. A Picard or Kirk might be wondering about the political motivations behind it, but Holden’s first thought is, “Who gets paid?”
While The Expanse series is hard science fiction, that doesn’t mean it’s not a character driven series. The science serves the story, not the other way around. It’s just that the authors recognize that the realities of life in space can create compelling scenarios for the characters to interact with.
If I had to sum up the feeling of this first novel, I’d say it was Alien meets Blade Runner, with a touch of 2001: A Space Odyssey thrown in. If that sounds like your thing, check it out!