I’ve read and enjoyed Daniel Abraham’s THE DAGGER AND COIN fantasy series (possibly the only fantasy series to feature an alcoholic banker as a protagonist – which is more interesting than it sounds), so when I heard he was one of half of the writers behind the pseudonym James S.A. Corey and THE EXPANSE series of science fiction novels, I was intrigued. When I heard that the other half of the pseudonym was Ty Franck, George R.R. Martin’s assistant, I was less intrigued, since I have grown wary of the underlying nihilism of A SONG OF FIRE AND ICE, and had no wish to read a piece of science fiction where all the likeable characters die halfway through the third book.
Nevertheless, I admit my wariness was misplaced – THE EXPANSE is a fascinating piece of science fiction, and is not in the least nihilistic.
The premise is that some indeterminate point in the future, mankind has figured out interplanetary travel, and human settlements are scattered everywhere from Earth to the moons of Saturn. (The first few paragraphs of LEVIATHAN WAKES, describing the fusion drive that made this possible, are a masterpiece of worldbuilding.) The solar system has divided into three power blocs – the Earth, ruled by a highly dysfunctional United Nations (frankly I think the scenario shown in Marko Kloos’s RULES OF ENGAGEMENT is more likely), the Martian Congressional Republic, and the Outer Planets Alliance, which both the UN and the MCR regard as terrorists. Compounding this is the fact that people living on the asteroid belts develop physical changes from growing up in low gravity, making it impossible for them to visit Earth & Mars without dying, which drastically widens the divide between the three power blocs.
In this volatile situation comes a new element – someone discovers a long-abandoned alien base on one of Saturn’s moons, and that base houses a molecular-technology based bioweapon that was apparently targeted at Earth two billion years ago, but accidentally got stuck in Saturn’s orbit.
Mayhem ensues, as various factions try to either take control of the bioweapon, destroy it, or study it. Compounding the situation is the fact that the alien machines have their own agenda and mission – a mission that they are going to complete, two billion years be damned.
What follows is both an interesting thriller and an intriguing piece of speculative fiction. How would people react if an alien artifact was in fact discovered? THE EXPANSE explores this question, while leaving room for lots of gunfights, ship battles, interplanetary wars, and other traditional SF derring-do.
Frankly, the three books reminded me a lot of the MASS EFFECT series of computer games, and I mean that affectionately. A lot of the same tropes are there – the power armor and the weapons, the Cool Ship, the corrupt governments and corporations, the mysterious research projects, and the alien artifacts that have the potential to save mankind or destroy it. Either the writers did some things as a deliberate homage to MASS EFFECT, or they employed the same pool of science fiction tropes. Either way makes for an interesting story.
One final amusing note – a lot of SF written in the US tends to be quite political, since SF necessarily deals with the future, and numerous writers base dystopian settings of what would happen if their ideological opponents prevailed in the future. So a lot of readers on either side of the US’s political divide can get quite annoyed by science fiction. The authors rather elegantly handle this by including bogeymen from both the Red and Blue factions of US politics in the book. Corrupt corporations? Socialist governments? Atheists? Preachers? Terrorists? They’re all in there! The future of THE EXPANSE is rather like the present, but with fusion drives. Which is always the case – the future is always like the past, but with better technology. Machines change, but people do not.
All in all, these were fascinating and enjoyable books, and I hope there are more of them.