The Expanse’s Line in the Sand: Caliban’s War

I was surprised when SyFy decided to launch The Expanse with the story from Leviathan Wakes. Although Leviathan Wakes is the first book in the Expanse series by James S.A. Corey, it also unquestionably the weakest book in the series. Its plot is a bit absurd and it lacks perspective, not to mention the characters aren’t terribly interesting. Instead, I hoped it would begin with Caliban’s War, which I have called the best science fiction novel of the millennium, cramming the events of the first novel in through flashbacks or info dumps.

But the pilot episode makes it clear the show will do the opposite: In bringing Chrisjen Avasarala on immediately, despite the fact she never appears in Leviathan Wakes, they are sort of cramming the events of Caliban’s War into the opening salvo. Avasarala introduces the viewer to the larger conflict between Martians, Belters, and Earthers, which is central to the series at large, but is backgrounded in Leviathan Wakes. This is necessary. This is good. Avasarala is a brilliant character, with richer layers than either of the main characters: Jim Holden and Detective Miller. Her inclusion in the first season of the television show bodes well for how Caliban’s War, the second novel in the Expanse series, will be incorporated into the small screen narrative. But, it doesn’t tell us everything.

Some series/book spoilers.

I am most concerned with how the show will handle the biggest and baddest space marine in the Martian army, Bobbie Fucking Draper. All of the things that are wrong about Leviathan Wakes are largely solved by Bobbie Draper (and Avasarala ). She’s compelling. She’s full of kick-ass action. She’s a woman. She’s gritty and authentic and relatable. She’s cool in a way that Holden and Miller aren’t. Herein lies the problem, though: if The Expanse doesn’t get Bobbie Draper right, the series will ultimately fail. I’ll tell you why.

Caliban’s War is the story of an abducted child, ripped from day care by a group of people trying to leverage an alien molecule for their own gain. Her father, Praxidike Meng, is on a mission to get her back. Of course, he gets some help in the form of do-gooder Jim Holden and his crew, who are on Ganymede to investigate the alien presence they encountered in Leviathan Wakes. Every novel in the series has a one-off story and this is the one for Caliban’s War. I suspect that the second season will focus on this conflict.

The secondary story line, which is interwoven with the preceding and proceeding novels, is a political conflict focused on the cold wars between Mars, Earth, and the Belt, all teetering on the edge of becoming hot. Avasarala and Bobbie Draper sit here, negotiating this tenuous situation. This part of the story has the potential to be Homeland-like in its ability to rivet viewers with political tension. It’s also part of the story dominated by women. It’s a part of the story that relegates Jim Holden and his cowboy Captain America schtick to also-ran status. I can’t help but ask myself, will it get the time it deserves? This is why I say Bobbie Draper’s portrayal will seal the fate of The Expanse one way or another, because all of the volumes from here on out feature women at their core. Well, that and another reason.

That other reason begins with Detective Miller, the ostensible star of The Expanse television show, as played by Thomas Jane. Spoiler alert, Miller dies at the end of the first novel. This is, overall, a good thing, as he’s a backward character, aping the hard-boiled sensibilities of a time that’s relevant neither in our world nor the future Corey imagines. It also begins with Jim Holden, the moral compass of the show—but about as nuanced as a soggy paper bag. The first season of The Expanse will live and die by the viewers’ engagement with the world, with the scope, with the amazing camera angles and tone, not by Jim Holden and Detective Miller. They’re placeholders, to a large degree. The series of novels has survived on the other characters, the ones who step forward in each book to take on a larger role, only to fade away and pop back up in cameos.

Holden is the through line, but only in a way that centers things for the reader. He’s really a vehicle for everyone else. This is why Bobbie Draper is so important to the sustainability of The Expanse. Will she be allowed to shine? Will she become the star of the second season or will she be sidelined in favor of Holden? The history of television points toward yes, meaning that The Expanse will concern itself with Holden and his crew. If this happens, I believe the true flavor of the Expanse series will be lost, leaving us with a humorless Firefly.

With that out of the way, let’s talk about a few other items that I wonder how the show will handle. First, as mentioned earlier, Detective Miller goes kaput. His character lives on, though, in some way, as a digital ghost, acting as Holden’s compass when it comes to the alien presence. I can’t imagine that Thomas Jane is super enamored with the idea of cameo appearances for the next four seasons. How will the alien force manifest itself if not in the shape of Miller? I suspect there will be some shifting on this front away from the novels. It just isn’t practical for Thomas Jane to continue to appear. Given the fact that I have made it clear that Detective Miller is a snooze fest, I consider this no big loss.

The second item that interests me is how the show will handle child abuse and endangerment. SyFy and NBC are not HBO. The Expanse is not Game of Thrones. What will be their tolerance level for showing violence against children? For me, Game of Thrones, The Walking Dead and the like are neigh unwatchable. I cannot stomach seeing the horror on screen even as I am entirely immune to it in prose. Violence against children in season two of The Expanse could very well be a deal-killer for me and for the network, which is not necessary known for edgy content like some of its cable brethren. I would prefer if they made an editorial decision to imperil adults instead of children, but I have little confidence that will happen.

All of that goes to say, I believe strongly that season two of The Expanse, which I assume will be echoing Caliban’s War, will be the true test of the television series. Leviathan Wakes and season one have a cushion. They have the luxury of exploring a new world and the sense of wonder that entails. It’s when that emotion wears off that The Expanse will have to earn its stripes. And that will only happen if Bobbie Draper and Chrisjen Avasarala shoulder the load.

Justin Landon used to run Staffer’s Book Review. Now he kinda blogs at justlandon.com. Find him on Twitter for meanderings on science fiction and fantasy, and to argue with him about whatever you just read.

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