“Science Fiction” is a weird genre. Just think about it for a second. Imagine you get the urge to read a good sci-fi story, but you don’t quite know what you’re looking for. So you go to your favorite bookstore, and you walk to the science fiction section. Already, you’re faced with two problems. The first is that you’d be surrounded by anywhere from a few shelves of books to potentially multiple aisles. How can you find that sci-fi gem if you have so little or so much to choose from? Furthermore, you’re faced with the second problem: it’s partnered with the fantasy section. Now, that’s not necessarily a bad thing; fantasy books are cool! But it’s not what you’re looking for today, so it’s a hassle. However, let’s say that you can ignore the fantasy issue, and the amount of books fail to over/underwhelm you.
Now you have to decide, “What exactly do I want to read?” That’s where things get a little more complicated. You have all the many types of science-fiction, plus the variety of stories you can encounter. To a genre newbie, it can be incredibly difficult to find your own niche within sci-fi. It’s even harder when you’re like me in that you are very particular when it comes to the type of sci-fi you consume.
But sometimes, on very rare, special days, you’ll stumble across something magical. My discovery of The Expanse book series by James S.A. Corey happened in a similar way.
After I graduated college, I worked at a bookstore for a summer while I job hunted. I was straightening up the shelves when I came across a book that caught my eye. It was called Leviathan Wakes, and because I think the word “leviathan” is cool, I picked it up. The cover was pretty neat, and the premise featured on the back cover sounded intriguing. So I took it to the counter and read through the first couple of chapters during slow times at the store, and I was immediately hooked. I bought the book after my shift. As fate would have it, just as I started to read it, I discovered that a TV series would be coming out on the SyFy channel based on the book, so I figured I would hold off on reading the book until I saw the series.
I remember seeing something on Twitter saying that the premiere of The Expanse was available on YouTube a week or so before the actual airing, so I abandoned the idea of sleep that night, loaded up the YouTube app on my TV, and watched it. I was immediately hooked. I got to the second episode before I stopped watching weekly, opting to wait until we started The Crash Couch to watch the rest. It took a little over a year for that podcast to finally materialize, but eventually it did, and now here I am, host of TCC and now caught up on one of the best science-fiction shows to ever be produced.
(Now, I’ll mostly be referring to what I’ve seen in the TV show for the rest of this post, simply because I’ve not read the books, but it can likely be applied to those as well)
So what makes The Expanse so special? So important to the sci-fi genre? Honestly, you can argue many things. The plot line is not simply a war between humans and some otherworldly species, so that makes it unique enough already. The characters actually have their own personalities rather than being carbon copies of things or cliches we’ve seen before. The writing is incredibly well-done, both in the show and the books. From a technical perspective, it’s clear that everyone who acts in or works on the show values it. The two authors who make up James S.A. Corey work on the show. The cast & crew interact regularly with each other and fans on social media (and make each live airing even better with their livetweeting). The love that goes into some of the behind-the-scenes work, from the writing to the acting and especially the visual effects is evident.
But The Expanse holds two crucial characteristics that elevates it above the rest.
First of all, it’s smart science-fiction (and not in a pretentious, “I’m better and more intelligent than you” kind of way). No matter if you’re watching it or reading it, you get the feeling that all of the technology and all of the events are possible (this is even more impressive in the books given that it can be rather difficult to convey this in the written word). In a world as fascinating as the one in The Expanse, it can be tempting to go off the rail and start making up things to represent what we know in real-life. Many, many sci-fi stories are guilty of this (I’m looking at you, Star Wars…). When you are using our own universe as the setting for your story, just use our own words. The Expanse feels realistic in this way, and also in the fact that it mirrors much of our own present-day world.
The second characteristic is a hot topic in media right now: diversity & representation. Personally, I’ve long argued for representation and diversity in media, but you have to do it in a smart, effective way, and not make it seem like you are forcing it, because otherwise you’re sort-of missing the point and diluting it. Thankfully, The Expanse is a prime example of how to do representation correctly. All you have to do is watch one episode and you’re going to see all sorts of people represented. It’s honestly refreshing to see something on TV offer quality representation without making the show “about that issue.” Credit the writers and casting agents for this one. It also helps that basically everyone who has been cast on the show absolutely fits the bill and doesn’t seem like they were cast simply to “fit someone’s agenda.” The behind-the-scenes crew are also a diverse bunch; just look at all of the credits to see that. In short, when you watch The Expanse, you are seeing some amazing talent at work, both on-screen and off-screen, and the fact that it’s all coming from a diverse cast/crew makes it even better.
There’s a reason that The Expanse is picking up in popularity, either with the books or with the show. Hats off to Ty Franck and Daniel Abraham, as well as every single person who works on the show. You all deserve that boost. In a time when sci-fi has been peaking more and more in the mainstream media, from movies to television and even Netflix, it’s crucial that we see a few tentpoles that carry the science-fiction banner for years to come. At its current pace, The Expanse is on track to do just that. And hopefully, it won’t let us down.