The Expanse of James S. A. Corey

What it is: this is science-fiction of the space opera variety. So we are not talking about hard science fiction in which the science is foregrounded.

But it is science fiction. The books are set in a future in which there is a fusion drive that makes interplanetary travel possible. An overcrowded Earth has populated Mars and the asteroid belt, including some of the outer planet’s moons. So the books are set on space ships, on asteroids and moons, and from time to time on planets.

Pros: there is a lot of careful imagination going into this. Naturally, the fusion drives cannot be described, but are posited. What they add to the situation is the possibility of constant acceleration, which means thrust, which in turns means some kind of gravity (I am led to believe). This makes for constant and varying gravitation, and it is one of the most interesting things the authors (the name is a pen name for a couple of guys who collaborate on the books) take into account. The Coriolis effect of spin gravity, the nausea and disorientation, the long-term physical effects of low-gravity, the crush of high gravity, the way ships proceed with such drives, many other things are constantly brought to bear on the story, and the effect is as realistic as I’ve encountered. The dangers of space, of vacuum, the things technology and medicine have to do, the things humans maneuvering must take into account all come into play. One is never unaware of where one is, thanks to the way it is told. Let me call it compelling realism, in terms of the science.

I gush on: the distances are calculated and factored in, then you find them making biological observations that are cogent, and so on with many branches of science and many details. One of the best things they remember is to describe the smells: one is being constantly updated on how they imagine things to smell, including the main character’s thing about coffee. And then you get descriptions of food, both appealing and unappealing, descriptions of clothing, of limitations on personal hygiene in zero gravity, etc.

Besides that, there is the military factor. Obviously the authors have a background. They have thought about ballistics in space, shooting on a pressurized vessel, and whether so-called recoilless guns really don’t recoil when firing in a void. They have obviously been exposed to the kinds of people who do security, strip guns and know how to shoot and to avoid getting shot. The weird chunkiness of mind such people develop and the pathetic inobservant vulnerability of those of us who don’t are all accounted for.

They describe gunfights, space-ship fights, fistfights and more. I find the way they tell these and most things done in high detail, with enough description to make it live, to give one a vivid sense of the experience. In short, they do not take shortcuts in making the situation come alive, and that is probably one of the best things these books do. Life in space is not glamorized, but it is brought to life in a persuasive way. There is little margin for error, loads of vast empty boredom, a dependence on what is artificial in many ways, including medical, and so on.

Another of the pros is the fast paced, plot-twisting, page-turning way the story is told. You can always count on there being a mounting series of problems by page 200 that is not resolved till almost page 600, and this makes for very fast going. The 200 page lead-in is engaging, one mystery leading to another, and a new aspect of the setting explored for good measure. I don’t try to figure out what is going to happen when I read a book: I enjoy being led along. I do not figure out mysteries when I read those, and it may be that because of that I can enjoy predictable things more than other people do. I have no idea if these books are predictable, except that things will always get out of control and the outlook become bleak before it improves. There is a regular pattern, but I find the way things resolve suspenseful. I have to get up and walk around.

There are a lot of allusions in these books. The title of the second book, Caliban’s War, is entirely and allusion. They allude to Dune and to the Hitchhiker’s Guide, to Hieronymus Bosch, to Shakespeare and various other expected and unexpected things throughout. It is not usual, though the allusions are shallow and relatively lifeless. But they exist.

And the characters do have depth and interest. The story is told in the point-of-view approach which is common nowadays. You can get inside one character’s head at a time, as an author, but you cannot tell a story from an omniscient point of view. This has its advantages. One of the point-of-view characters is a liberal Methodist minister[ess]. Which is one of the curious things about this science-fiction series. There is religion, a little deeper than the allusions too, and it is far more present than one would think. What that did was show me how interesting the point-of-view approach could be for developing things. It can be used to take the reader who is sympathetic to the original prejudices through a series of developments. It could be done persuasively, and seems to me a tool with possibilities. They use it to great effect in the first book, switching points in the same situation and making the most of the changes this introduces. It also serves in this kind of space opera to scatter the reader across the wide, distant spaces effectively.

Cons: there are a lot of contemporary assumptions driving this story, assumptions which in a few years may well be quaint. The overcrowding of Earth, the need to exploit resources, law as an instrument of oppression and manipulation, but not as a good, let alone a noble thing, the legalization and constant use of drugs, uninhibited sexual mores. There are interesting criticisms of this tolerant point of view, what with the discipline the military requires, not to mention the threat to survival of living in artificial rather than natural human habitats. I do think, as with Ursula K. Le Guin, these authors are more interested in a story than in ideology, but the ideology they have is present. It is not wise. They are in some way critical, I must say, and knowing, but in no way wise.

Rousseau’s old notion that humans are basically good has been tempered. Humans basically are no longer noble, but out natural ignobility is to be accepted. There is no such thing as wisdom, so then knowledge is all. At one point you think they’re going to say impulse is all, because it crusades and is righteous. At another point you see that idealism being shot down. But they fin cynicism is problematic too, and so there is a kind of wavering-needle morality, not sure where exactly to point, but generally trying to avoid pointing unfavorably, like Aristotle’s ethics of mediocrity. They posit a UN Earth government that keeps everybody unwilling to work on welfare in giant slums, and then posit a more overachieving Mars military meritocracy which rivals the wealthier and older Earth in military might. The politics of the story are believable, but one wishes one could expect more of the politics of prudence and wisdom had been imagined to have carried through to the future. It is, I admit, hard to imagine.

And that is what is worst about these books: knowingness is all. Knowing about science, knowing about reality, knowing about human hearts. Knowledge is something, it is a good. But when there is no wisdom beyond it, no fullness, no telos, nothing ultimate or magnificent, then there is only mere knowingness, and it is too thin, for all that it is deep in facts.

But as a dream of knowingness, without greater expectations, then it is at least that much. It is a broad expanse.

The projected nine book series—the seventh comes out in December—is held together by an alien mystery that grows in the crisis of each book. Something that went from horror, to wonder, to scientific mystery looms over it all and remains unresolved. But that it is merely knowingness to the nth degree is, alas, my somewhat cynical expectation. I intend to see how the great ending comes about.

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