James SA Corey

Expanse, book 1

Orbit (2011)

ISBN: 9781841499888

Reviewed by Alexandra Pierce

The inner solar system is quite well colonised, and humanity is beginning to move out into the outer reaches as well. Unsurprisingly, there is friction between the planets – and the asteroid colonies – in some of the same ways, I feel, as there was in Africa when European countries decided they wanted to establish colonies on that continent (without, happily, the mitigating issue of prior occupation). Who should have control – the people in the area or the people back home? How do you make decisions when communications suffer a significant lag – and when the conditions there are significantly different from the conditions here? And then you add in travel time, and rogue elements care of capitalism and free enterprise, and you have a rather chaotic system. On the scale of the solar system, even if you restrict yourself to the asteroid belt and in, that’s a very messy situation indeed. I really, really enjoyed the world-building here. The description of the living situation on the asteroids in particular was very compelling, and the way in which – for example – relying on external sources for all of your air and water would change people’s attitudes towards those fundamentals, and the corresponding cascading effects, was beautifully drawn. I also enjoyed that the focus was largely off-planet; it would have been a very different story had it been slightly more, well, grounded.

The notion of Earth/Mars rivalry is not a new one, of course; many authors who have suggested planetary colonisation have imagined at least political disputes, if not war, over issues such as governance and resources. Here, though, it is not the focus of the plot; more the background, and the catalyst, and eventually the binding factor in two quite different narratives. One of those narratives is a detective yarn that owes a lot to the noir: grizzled cop looking for missing girl, ends up getting involved in something much bigger than he expects. The other narrative is of a space-lovin’ ship’s captain who stumbles across the wrong derelict, and ends up getting himself chased from one end of the system to the other because of some rather delicate intel that he accidentally gets his hands on. Miller, the cop, and Holden, the captain, trade chapters throughout most of the book – although it’s all in third-person, so there’s still a barrier between reader and character. Their stories start in quite different places (literally and metaphorically), and spend the novel (550-odd pages) merging and twining and departing in clever and intriguing ways. James S.A Corey is actually Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck writing together (quite why you would go with a nom de plume and then tell absolutely everyone about it confuses me; were they told that collaborations didn’t sell, or was it whimsy?), and I wonder whether each of them was largely responsible for one narrative – not that I could pick a difference in writing styles.

I had one big problem with this novel, which colours my view of it, and that was Miller’s developing preoccupation with Julie, the girl he is tasked with finding. Some of the reasons for why he might become obsessed with her are developed along the way, but it made me feel quite uncomfortable, and additionally I did not feel as though that discomfort was part of the intended effect. While other characters acknowledge that Miller has taken it a bit far, quite how creepy and weird that is is not made explicit. This was problematic for me, although not enough to make me stop reading.

My view, then, of Miller is tainted by his (non-)relationship with Julie. Overall he is one of those not-necessarily-likeable characters whom a reader nonetheless can (perhaps grudgingly) admire and appreciate (caveat above in mind), making hard choices and occasionally getting them wrong but standing by them, and his own morals, through various tribulations. And I did end up overall admiring him. Holden is a very different character, as is appropriate for a multi-point of view novel. He tends more towards action, although to say that one is brain and the other brawn is doing both a disservice. I think Holden is easier to like, as a person, although he certainly has his own faults. This may partly be because we see Holden interacting more positively with more people, particularly the crew of his ship, whom we also get to know somewhat; Holden’s story is largely theirs as well, and they are a disparate and motley group indeed. Their banter, and their cooperation, helped make Holden’s sections of the story more enjoyable for me than Miller’s.

The cover of my paperback has George RR Martin proclaiming this book as “Kickass space opera” and, much though I hesitate to quibble with GRRM, I feel I must. An enjoyable piece of SF, absolutely. I’ll probably read the sequels (this is the first of a trilogy, and it ends with a really awesome twist). While I am not especially one to quibble over sub-categorisation, for me this was not space opera. It was not … operatic enough. Not grandiose enough. The distances involved were too small, the plots too petty (in the sense of petite, rather than mean), the scope and implications not wide enough for it to count as such. Still, it was an enjoyable ride and it will be interesting to see where Corey/Abraham/Franck go with the story in the rest of the trilogy.