Why SyFy’s The Expanse is just as good as James S. A. Corey ‘s books

The Expanse is a fast-paced, ultra-addictive sci fi book-series by James S.A. Corey, who is not one guy, but two, namely Daniel Abraham and Ty Frank. While I salute both of them for their excellent story-telling and strict observation of the old writer’s maxim “Action And Conflict Work Best”, this is not about them.

First, there was TV
Kidding, I do not watch analog TV, I watch series online. Furthermore, I watch my feeds on Twitter, always looking for inspiration. Which is how found out about the SyFy Original Series The Expanse.

I watched three episodes and was totally hooked. Since I couldn’t wait, I bought all the books and read them, one after the other, one book per day. I have actually just finished the last and also finished watching Season 1 of The Expanse on SyFy. So I thought I’d write this down while it’s still fresh.

This is an analysis of how SyFy’s adaption of the series to the small screen compares to the series’ books so far, namely Leviathan Wakes, Caliban’s War, Abbadon’s Gate, Cibola Burn and Nemesis Games.

Which means there will be spoilers, though I’ll try to avoid major ones.

The Expanse is rife with conflicts
Set 200 years into the future, the central conflict of the series plays out between Earth and Mars, with the Asteroid Belt wedged in between.

Former-human-colony-turned-independent-planet Mars envies Earth its blue skies and vast freedom, while Earth is well aware of the fact that Mars commands the better-equipped navy.

Nevertheless, they have formed an uneasy alliance over the Belt, populated by the Belters, humans, who, over the span of generations, have physically adapted to the low gravity. Belters mine the asteroids for precious resources that are available neither on Earth nor Mars and coveted by both. The Belt itself is heavily dependant on the Earth corporations its people work for. Which is why many of these people resent Earth, seeing themselves treated as second-class citizens, a sentiment that is heavily exploited by the Outer Planets Alliance (OPA), a semi-terrorist trade union and every capitalist’s nightmare. The OPA wants independence for the Belt above everything else, no matter the cost.

So, everyone already has their own agenda, but when a new and so far unknown player enters the board and tries to turn this already smoldering conflict into open war, a set of unlikely heroes is called upon to save the solar system.

The cast and crew are diverse
Earth-born and downright righteous first officer James Holden, competent chief engineer and Belter Naomi Nagata, her Earth-born techie sidekick Amos Burton and soft-hearted Martian pilot Alex Kamal become the center of attention, when their ship, the ice-hauler Canterbury, is blown up by what appears to be a Martian stealth ship, and James Holden, bent on revenge, thinks it an incredibly bright idea to announce just that to the entire solar system. When yet another ship dies in their wake under suspicious circumstances, they are wanted not only by Mars, but also by Earth. Their only hope is one Fred Johnson, an Earther who has turned into one of the most prominent figures within the OPA.

On Earth itself, the incredibly gifted and charmingly outspoken UN-under-secretary Chrisjen Avasarala has to unpack her entire arsenal of diplomatic skill and blackmail to find the truth, and on Ceres Station in the Belt, desillusioned Detective Miller finds out that a missing person’s case he is working might actually be linked to what happened to the Canterbury.

The fact that the survivors of that ship reflect the different sides of the major conflict itself, is, of course, a classic setup. Instead of exploiting that, the authors choose to turn the crew into yet another faction, namely the one that tries to mediate. Holden, Naomi, Amos and Alex grow close in the confined space that is their ship, and there is no room for conflict. They accept each other unconditionally, which is very, very endearing, considering what horrible atrocities the other conflicting parties commit against each other on a regular basis.

While Holden’s righteousness provides the moral compass, Alex’ goofy, easygoing nature makes him the heart of the team. Naomi and her fierce intelligence are the rock they all build on and Amos, who is often described as a man without subtext, is just himself, an apparently indifferent and ruthless killer with a mouth as foul as that of the Queen of Cussing, Chrisjen Avasarala.

There be aliens
No major spoilers, that was my promise, but this one I have to spoil for you: there are aliens. You never would have guessed, right? But, and that is so intriguing, these aliens existed billions of years ago. It is Julie Mao, Detective Miller’s missing person’s case, who, along with Miller himself, ignites their comeback. Sort of. In my opinion, The Expanse would work just as well without the aliens, and, to my great satisfaction, Nemesis Games proves just that. But I will reveal no more of that, read or watch yourself to find out. I for one am very intrigued by how SyFy is going to play that.

TV show vs books
The Expanse is an incredibly complex world and the authors pack so much action and so many characters and character interactions into the story, that adapting the books chapter for chapter is impossible. So SyFy sticks to the core of the story and improvises on that. And while the scenes on Earth are at times extremely different from the original, skipping books, adding characters, they fit smoothly into The Expanse‘s narrative. I especially liked that the (male) ambassador to Mars is married to a man, since diversity is one of the hallmarks of the books and I very much appreciate that.

The often oppressive settings inside the spaceships reflect the books’ description quite well, but I admit I had a different, bleaker image of Earth fixed in my mind after reading. One with more concrete and less green, to be precise.

What I absolutely adore is the way they’ve managed to bring life to all the variations of “g”, of gravity,  used in the books, and the fact that they chose to make use of the colorful Belter slang, which is hard to decipher even in written form.

As far as the cast is concerned, I think it is close to perfect. My favourite characters in the books are Amos and Alex. Amos, the man without subtext, is straightforward, prone to violence and socially incompetent, but at the same time a clever man of crooked principle. He is incredibly good at reading people and knows exactly just how far he can go. Wes Chatham, who plays Amos on the show, perfectly projects that ruthless determination, unnerving calm and terrifying ease with which Amos switches between amiable banter and violence.

EP7 “Windmills” features the perfect Amos moment, right when Wes Chatham turns around and says the magic words.

Alex – and why they made his Martian origins a secret on the show is beyond me – is the nicest person one can imagine. He loves the crew like family and he does not like it at all, when there’s tension between them. He is quiet and competent, funny, cautious
and soft-hearted, much like Cas Anwar interprets him on the show. Yet his Alex has definitely more swagger than the Alex in the books, and I confess I like his Alex even better.

Cas Anwar elaborates on Alex’ character and Mars in this SyFy Character Spotlight.

You can find more on The Expanse on James S.A. Corey’s official website. http://www.jamessacorey.com

Season One of SyFy’s adaption of The Expanse is out on Blu-Ray and I’m looking forward to Season Two, which airs in 2017.

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