If science fiction is ever going to become more than a niche within a niche, it needs mass appeal (not to be confused with its skinnier and surgically enhanced cousin, sex appeal). That means it needs approachable lead characters, a fusion of genres, a smattering of realism and a bloody good story.
The Expanse is a series, if the origin and sequel novels are anything to go by, that fits this bill. James A Corey, a pseudonym for Daniel Abraham and George RR Martin’s assistant, Ty Franck, have crafted a space opera set in a 200-year future that feels feasible, as mankind makes its first moves into space. There’s no interstellar travel yet, although the Mormons have commissioned the building of a giant spaceship that will carry them to a different part of the galaxy.
A James T Kirk lead character in James Holden is the story’s everyman. He lacks the confidence that set Kirk above and beyond the average male science fiction fan, making him more identifiable. His second in command aboard Martian warship and legitimate salvage the Rocinante, Naomi Nagata, is an intelligent Belter, the name given to the workers who have colonised the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter, with a refreshing resourcefulness and attitude not often seen in women of science fiction.
It’s this mix that works so well in The Expanse’s first two novels. Small helpings of hard science are served up with a great big bowl of modern characterisation, as well as a story that resonates with contemporary readers who want crime, mystery and suspense, presumably because their lives lack all three. One half of Leviathan sees down-on-his-luck Detective Miller of Star Helix, a private security firm in charge of policing Ceres Station, follow all matter of leads to track down a missing woman, ultimately revealing the conspiracy behind The Expanse. There are also biological weapons and vomit zombies.
The pacing is also superbly executed in the opening novels, even when two perspectives seemingly overlap and mistime their landings. These instances aren’t errors, they’re recaps so readers can catch their breath. Where Leviathan and Caliban’s War differ is the number of perspectives—the sequel has four lead characters when Leviathan has only two. The new characters add fresh insight into a world that was limited in the first novel to crumbling space stations and various spaceships.
With another four novels already published and three in the pipeline, The Expanse is an origin story for mankind as it takes its first tentative steps, and all of its problems, into space. It has mass appeal and enough hard science to please the pendants without turning away lovers of pure story. And it’s already been adapted into an excellent TV series that can hopefully draw the kind of audiences that will keep it on air for a long time to come, because the wider this science fiction series is read and viewed, the likelier it is we’ll get more from The Expanse’s authors and others in the future.