Lovable Sociopaths and Badass Political Grandmas: Why The Expanse Deserves a Hugo

What if I told you that the savviest science fiction story on bookshelves right now features a stolen warship, a Martian cowboy, a lady marine who’s nearly seven feet tall, an endearing sociopath and a farm boy who has come close to accidentally instigating interstellar war at least twice? What if I told you that the person with the most power in the solar system was a little old Indian woman with a foul mouth who would hands down win the Game of Thrones? And what if I told you that all of these people existed in a framework dominated by hard science, with one of the most realistic portrayals of humans venturing to the stars in modern fiction?

Sounds kind of awesome, right?

The Hugos thought so too. Which is why The Expanse, by James S.A. Corey (a pen name for the writing duo of Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck), is one of the inaugural nominees of this brand new category honoring Best Series. Six books into the series that started with Leviathan Wakes back in 2011, The Expanse has had its ups and downs. But the series as a whole has consistently delivered some of the best hard sci-fi out there, through characters who are beautifully, and sometimes painfully, well realized.

Very mild spoilers below the cut!


You know those moments in really good stories that just stay with you? Mere pages into Leviathan Wakes, two characters on different ships deal with the rather unpleasant knowledge that one of them is going to be struck with a nuclear missile. It’s a foregone conclusion. Space warfare isn’t about dodging bullets; it’s about math. And the math isn’t on their side. So the tension of the moment doesn’t come from an explosion, but rather two characters on opposite sides of a comm link, listening to each other breathe.

The Expanse is full of moments like this, even when the storytelling isn’t at its best. Cibola Burn, which is the only book I’d recommend skipping in the series, still gives us hauntingly memorable imagery of a cataclysmic event on an alien planet. Most of these moments are made possible because in The Expanse, space isn’t just a setting that allows people to zip around in spaceships and shoot rail guns at each other (though they are some sweet, sweet rail guns). It’s a fully developed character that shapes the world and the people within it. By thoroughly inhabiting space, the writers are able to make some really special things happen, like developing the Belter culture of shrugging with their hands instead of their shoulders because it’s a more visible gesture in a vac suit. Or creating conflict out of biology. Have you ever thought about how to treat blunt force trauma in zero G where there’s no gravity to create drainage? Have you ever thought about how complicated it would be to give birth in space? The hivemind of James S.A. Corey has.

But space isn’t the only character worth mentioning. I believe I promised you lovable sociopaths and badass political grandmas, and trust me, The Expanse has them both. In a sci-fi medium that is often short on compelling women, this series offers two of the best. Chrisjen Avasarala, who defies all sorts of gender stereotypes by a) not being in her 20s, b) not being white, c) inverting the power dynamic by being a powerful, dangerous, ruthless woman married to a professor of poetry. She also uses words like “balls” (in reference to naughty bits, not sport paraphernalia) in casual conversation with some of the most powerful politicians in the galaxy. And then there’s Bobbie Draper, the Polynesian giant lady Martian marine who, in her own words, declares, “I don’t use sex as a weapon. I use weapons as weapons.”

My only complaint about these two is that there isn’t enough of them. They both appear as POV characters in Caliban’s War, but only make cameos until finally getting some quality screen time once more in the latest entry, Babylon’s Ashes.

Want to know more about the lovable sociopath? That would be Amos, a member of the Rocinante crew who serves as both ship’s mechanic and hired gun. Amos, an Earther who grew up in the slums of Maryland, has no conscience or moral compass. But rather than be a murderous serial killer, he attaches himself to his crew and uses them as a moral compass, eerily aware that he is different from others. You have never seen anyone happier than I was when Amos got his own POV chapters in Nemesis Game, in which the crazy events that happen around him take a total backseat to how fascinating it is just to see the world through his eyes.

It’s not all roses, however. With characters this strong (and I’ve left many out), it’s odd that some of the people we encounter over the course of the series are disappointingly lacking. James Holden, the protagonist that serves as the maypole the rest of the series spins around, is only remarkable in how unremarkable and uninteresting he is. And several of the antagonists we encounter (Murtry and Ashford, I’m lookin’ at you) are frustratingly two dimensional. When you place characters like these next to the likes of Melba, one of the antagonists of Abaddon’s Gate and Marcos Inaro from Babylon’s Ashes, who are both so fully and tragically realized, you wonder how they were written by the same writer (er, hivemind).

The series has other flaws, too. Despite depicting a world that thrives on diversity (nearly every book features POV and/or prominent characters who are minorities) and is not afraid to deviate from the heteronormative (Holden is the product of a family co-op consisting of 8 parents with differing sexualities, which is coincidentally the most interesting thing about him), the books often chicken out of tackling these things head on. Many of those diverse characters still act and feel very white, and all of the “core” characters are painfully straight, traditional monogamists (HOW IS HOLDEN STRAIGHT? SOMEONE PLEASE TELL ME).

On the whole, however, these books are made of wins. After hitting a bit of a slump with Abaddon’s Gate and Cibola Burn, the two most recent novels, Nemesis Games and Babylon’s Ashes have been, quite frankly, awesome. The Expanse is the kind of series that makes it really exciting to think about colonizing the stars, because after reading it you feel like you know what it’ll be like, both the good and the bad.

Gosh, all this gushing about The Expanse, and I haven’t even mentioned Miller’s hat.

5 Comments

  • steelvictory June 30, 2017 at 8:01 am

    Miller’s hat should be on the Iron Throne.

    Reply
  • kendrame June 30, 2017 at 1:44 pm

    Oh my gosh, that sounds awesome. I mean, I’m still painfully loyal (and maybe contractually obligated?) to the Vorkosigan series, but my scifi horizons are not as broad as I would like them to be and this sounds like a great series.

    Reply
  • Shara White July 4, 2017 at 11:19 am

    I remember reading Leviathan Wakes when it was nominated for Best Novel for a Hugo and being absolutely blown away. If it had won that year, I would’ve clapped wholeheartedly. Sadly, it didn’t (I think Jo Walton’s Among Others won that year, but I’m too lazy to look it up), and sadly, none of the series has been nominated since. It’s a shame: I think I’ve read through book three and I’ve been entranced by the world on the page and look forward to continuing.

    Also, the novellas have been fantastic. There’s one that focuses on Fred Johnson (The Butcher at Anderson Station) and one that has a Bobbie cameo in it that’s best read after Caliban’s War (Gods of Risk), and I think I’ve read one other, The Churn, but I don’t remember what that one was about. Either way, I think the pattern (at the time) was a book would be published, then a novella/short, and then a book, and then a novella/short, and so on and so forth.

    So I have a LOT to catch up on! 🙂

    Reply
  • almostdefinitelydying July 23, 2017 at 9:18 am

    Amos ìsn’t a sociopath. Stop calling autistic coded characters as sociopathic 2k17. I’m sure it’s an otherwise good article, but I can’t get past that.

    Believe me I understand why people get it wrong. It’s an easy mistake to make, but it still makes me really sad every time.

    Inability to understand/experience empathy =/= sociopath. Sociopath is a term with very specific criteria. It and psychopath are not terms that should be thrown around all the time just because a character has an attachment disorder / acts abnormally.

    Reply
    • Whitney Richter July 30, 2017 at 3:32 pm

      That’s a very valid critique, and I am at fault for not putting more time and thought into that classification. It’s incredibly important to me to be aware and educated about this exact type of topic, and I got it wrong. Thanks for calling me out on it. I will do better in the future.

      Reply

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