I fell in love with aliens and outer space in second grade.
No, I wasn't abducted. Not exactly.
My brother was a big fan of Golden Age science fiction and once I started browsing through the Isaac Asimov, Robert Heinlein, and Arthur C. Clark books he borrowed from our local library, I was hooked. I was able to read well beyond my grade level in elementary school, and the stories weren't just more exciting than the lifeless "age-appropriate" books I was assigned at school. I was a first generation American, unlike everyone in all of my classes, and those thrilling library books spoke to my sense of being a stranger in a strange land. I felt welcomed, I felt liberated.
I didn't know back then that I was reading some of America's finest writers in the genre, but they set a very high standard for me. That taste for superlative science fiction has stayed with ever since, and I've always been thrilled to find a new writer, a new movie, a new series that satisfies it. I've lost track of how often I've seen Alien, for instance. And I recently re-read Fahrenheit 451, finding a whole new novel because of course I'm not the same person I was the previous time I read it.
Season One of The Expanse on Syfy, based on Leviathan Wakes, was a real discovery for me last year. What a great concept! Galactic jockeying for dominance between two superpowers: fading, more populated Earth and its former colony Mars which was smaller but better-armed, more sophisticated, and highly aggressive. Add the complicating factors of an Outer Planetary Alliance (OPA) split by various factions, and "the Belters"--a fiercely independent, racially mixed populace living in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter. These people speak their own patois, are physically different from "Dusters" and Earthers and feel the sting of oppression. Through them, the writers of the books and the TV series get to address issues of class, power, colonialism, and prejudice in dramatic ways.
Season One was exciting, beautifully filmed, and featured a dashing, dynamic ensemble cast. It was riveting from one episode to the next, just plain gorgeous to watch, and featured a highly memorable sex scene. I know some people dismiss work like this as "escapist." Even if I didn't admire science fiction so much, as an author myself, I find terrific story-telling in any genre illuminating.
While I had serious reservations about the writing and structure of the first novel Leviathan Wakes, the second entry in the series, Caliban's War, is a much more accomplished novel. The writing is crisper, the characters have more psychological depth, the political machinations are nastier, the stakes are higher, and overall the story has more juice to it at every turn. Caliban's War is funnier than Leviathan Wakes, has masterful plot twists, and is tremendous fuel for this year's fiery season of The Expanse.
I've now watched the first four episodes of Season Two available to reviewers, and The Expanse outdoes itself in terms of drama, narrative momentum, and sheer energy. The special effects, cinematography, and sets are as breathtaking as ever, the plot's dynamic and surprising, and the deft, clever changes from the book--like a larger role for the OPA leader--heighten the drama.
There's plenty of it. Catastrophic war threatens to break out between Earth and Mars. The OPA and the Belters could all be drawn into whatever chaos erupts and millions will die. At the end of Season One, a deadly biological experiment had taken over a Belter space station ironically called Eros, trapping 100,000 people. Our climate change in 2017 is a burp compared to this bizarre, terrifying menace, and in Season Two this threat could even overshadow war as it intertwines with Earth-Mars politics in mysterious ways.
But none of that would matter without compelling human drama, and The Expanse fields many memorable characters trying to make sense of the political and scientific madness and keep destruction at bay. Three especially stand out--both for their pigheadedness and basic decency. Shoreh Agdashloo, who's made her mark in many TV series including 24, is a top-ranking, foul-mouthed, sari-wearing UN diplomat who in the series sees life with brutal clarity: "You never win. You just don't lose yet." Then there's Steven Strait's good-guy ship captain James Holden who has to become hard-as-nails when pushed past his limits. He helps anchor the series along with cynical, world-weary PI Joe Miller played by Thomas Jane as if he were in a classic film noir (despite the Emo hair).
Reviewers of all kinds have been doing cartwheels about Felicity Jones's role in Rogue One. But The Expanse fields two far more intriguing and complex female heroes in Dominique Tipper's Naomi Nagata (above) and Frankie Adams' Bobbie Draper (below). One's a chief engineer and a Belter, the other's an elite marine in the navy of the Martian Congressional Republic. Each character feels as fresh and compelling as the whole series. These two actors bring tremendous presence to the screen as well as diversity, and their interactions with the rest of the cast crackle with excitement because they're just so damned fierce.
The Expanse is electrifying science fiction that deserves as wide an audience as Rogue One. It's a deeply satisfying show that doesn't feel shopworn or put together from scraps the way Rogue One's writers have said their story was. The vision of the future it lays out is dazzling, compelling, and scary as hell.
I'll be interviewing two stars of The Expanse in upcoming blogs.
Season Two premieres February 1.
Lev Raphael is the author of 25 books in genres from mystery to memoir and is a regular blogger at The Huffington Post. A former public radio interviewer and reviewer, he's also reviewed for the Washington Post and the Detroit Free Press where he had a crime fiction column for about a decade. He teaches creative writing at Michigan State University.