Friday, 12 February 2016

The Expanse (Leviathan Wakes) TV Series/Books - Reviewed

I've previously briefly reviewed the books, and while I really enjoyed the detective noir-meets-space opera style, quality writing, well thought out setting and characters, I was a tad unimpressed by the rather slow-burning style (like many books by Daniel Abraham, it often takes 500+ page before things "hot up").    However I've been re-reading the novels and think I may have been a bit harsh - it probably sits behind Leckie's Ancillary series as the best sci fi of this decade.  (Admittedly the "awesome sci fi books" is not a crowded field - compared to fantasy which may currently be in its "golden age").

If you're not a dedicated reader, SyFy's TV Expanse series is a more accessible entry into the series, though I'd rate it alongside the excellent Night Watch, as show where movie viewers do benefit from reading the books first.  It is faithful to its source material, to boot. (RANT: Marvel (of late) and Game of Thrones have shown the way, after a century of scriptwriters botching the conversions, that following the source material IS the best way.  It's mere intellectual arrogance. The screenwriters/directors want to show they can do a beloved, bestselling book better than the actual author...  ...and wonder why audiences don't embrace it to the same extent....)

 The Expanse stands heir to series like Battlestar Galactica and Firefly. 
I was very pleasantly surprised at the quality of the production.
TV Show - So how is it?
The Expanse, for me, is the best sci fi series since the reimagined Battlestar Galactica (with 100% less self-indulgent navel gazing), and channels the much-lamented Firefly in a more serious way within a more epic, connected, overarching plot.  It is well acted (yes, SyFy?! what the heck?), and sensibly paced.  It might be a little dense and confusing to those who have not read the books.  Like the books, it has deliberate pacing and takes a while to "ramp up."   I'd give it until episodes 4-5 before you make a final judgement.  

The world building is excellent, consistent and well-realised, the special effects solid without being flashy, and the space combat was very cool - vector movement was prominent with ships being spun to use their main drives, with gravity on the crew having an major impact, as well as the time to reverse course. The sci fi is relatively hard, but well done.  Railguns, missiles and massdrivers were impressive in an understated way, and has inspired me to get painting more space miniatures.  The limited stealth (absorbing heat and energy but having to vent it after a while) was very interesting as a gamer, giving a submarine-esque feel to the few stealthships encountered.  Have to update my own space house rules. The ragtag crew eventually get their own ship - the Rocinante - basically a badass small gunship/PT boat style ship festooned with gatling guns - which makes the Firefly look the like the old merchant scow it is.  However it is a movie more about epic plot arcs, characters and a rich setting rather than flashy space combat - so if you are only wanting pew-pew maybe check out Youtube clips instead.  

Overall, a well-plotted, thoughtful series which has an understated quality I don't really associate with SyFy. Rapidly climbing to be my current favourite TV series, period.

Books - worth the effort?
Yes, well worth the effort, but as they are hefty tomes, recommended only for dedicated readers.  The author "James Corey" is the pen name of Daniel Abraham, a very talented fantasy writer known for his excellent prose and rather slow-burning style, in collaboration with GRR Martin's assistant Ty Franck.  

A thumbnail sketch: A Firefly-esque bunch of ex-miners lead by an idealistic captain and smart-mouthed crew discover a derelict ship - and a deadly secret.  A world-weary detective is tracking a missing girl. Galactic conflict ensues, and a terrible threat to humanity is revealed.

The Expanse book series features excellent writing, and a well-thought-out plot, setting and characters. Space opera meets noir detective thriller.  Characters have tough choices - and sometimes make wrong ones. A word of warning - It's 600 pages long, and the pace only picks up in the last 50 or so of the first book, Leviathan Wakes. Though it was well-written, I wasn't as invested in first book as I thought I would have been.  I feel this series only really kicks off with the sequel Caliban's War - and that's a huge time investment.  

Probably the best sci fi book series in recent memory, behind Ann Leckie's Ancillary Justice series (which edges it on strength of shorter, more accessible books and a more unique core concept rather than writing style).

Watch the TV show. It is excellent, but give it a few episodes to warm up.  The books are likewise excellent but a significant time investment given the slow and careful pacing, but a must-have if you are a sci fi afficiando.


  1. I was hooked from episode 1 of the TV series. Each episode has its bit of excitement and moves the plot along in some way. Can't wait for the second season (Jan 2017!)

    1. Whilst I was impressed with the production values and style, for me it didn't become "must see" TV until around episode 3+

  2. Is there a lot of gatling BS in the show?; because anymore even the mention of it turns me off of a setting as an unnecessary example of no longer relevant ''rule of cool'' inclusions.

    I'm pretty sure I've read the first book however.


    2. That's the only significant ship vs ship battle in the series. If it offends your sensibilities too much.... *shrugs*

      My 10c: Deciding if something is not "hard" enough sci fi is completely dependent solely on personal taste - you can draw the line ANYWHERE....

      ....I mean, ANY sci fi series where they don't have com systems built into their bodies is clearly ridiculous and you shouldn't watch it...

      I like realism in war movies and historical dramas. Realism in sci fi or fantasy? That's where the rule of cool should be set free to strut its stuff.

      (Caveat: I do often wonder in sci fi horror why they've somehow lost current NVG and thermal imaging tech and have to revert to flashlights....)

  3. For the most part I consider this less a realism issue and more of a the designer/author/creator didn't bother to do enough work on researching & fleshing out the setting issue.

    I'm in agreement that every setting will include some level of ''rule of cool'' items alongside blatant and/or subtle examples of easter eggs. The trick, which I've noticed is quite often missed by a whole lot of otherwise creative folks, seems to be using as few of either as possible to create something unique enough to stand on its own merits.

    In a book, film, or show the inclusion of gatling jars me out of suspending my disbelief where if not for that and a very few others I'd be perfectly fine. I own all seasons of the new BSG and aside from pretending certain episodes or the major let-down of an ending don't exist I rewatch it at least once a year.

    Gatling included in the setting for a game says to me the creator intended to deliberately set an anime-style tone and that is how I would approach playing such a ruleset.

    Basically, even a brief and not all that in-depth perusal of current and trending military technology should have amply illustrated things gatling to be an irrelevant and largely dead-end application. That the folks making something they intend me to accept as believable chose to use it anyways is poor story-telling.

    All that being said, what I've seen of Expanse on the web has been watchable and I hope it lives up to expectations and the hype when it gets released on DVD here next month.

    RE: Sci-Fi Horror - yes, a good example of pretty silly. It seems the only instances where visual tech is in a lot of shows is solely for a creature or etc ''jump-out'' moment.