Danger Lurking in the Belt

The Expanse: Book One

Leviathan Wakes

When a book is translated to the screen we, as the readers who are now the viewers, expect there will be some changes. Books aren’t normally translated literally to the screen as adjustments are often needed to make something that works in the new medium. Inner monologue has to be made external in some way. Characters sometimes have to be moved around, or combined, for the sake of keeping things concise and easy to follow. These are the kinds of changes that work for the medium even if some fangs complain, no matter what, about any change from the source material. Of course, they have the source so if they really want it they should go back and read it again.

Some adaptations, though, can be pretty slavish to the source material. They can go too deep in trying to bring every detail, every scene, every moment, to the screen unchanged. These adaptations often get bogged down because they try to bring it all, and, in the process, they lose sight of making a tight, entertaining narrative from the bones of the story. Just look at the first two Harry Potter films as examples of movies that are so dedicated to recreating the source material that they lose the fun of the story. Those films didn’t really pick up until they were willing to move things around and really get at the heart of the story (not the details).

Interestingly, the Expanse TV series found a way to split the difference between the two styles of adaptation. It took the source material of the book series, starting with the first novel Leviathan Wakes, and then created a long-form version of the story that hewed fairly close to the original books. I say fairly because there were a number of major changes the series made, shifts in the adaptation that were clearly made for the sake of setting up major characters and giving them things to do even when the books did not. That’s the struggle of having casts set and people needed on set – they have to do things even if the original stories didn’t pay any attention to them.

Going into Leviathan Wakes I did expect to see the basic story as I knew it from the first two seasons of The Expanse (which is one of my favorite TV shows ever). And, in fairness to the TV series, it does a really solid job of taking that story and making it as compelling and watchable as the original novel. What was interesting to me, though, was just how much was expanded in the TV show that didn’t appear in the book at all. The core story is there, and the book (despite its near 600 page length) stays focused on that story. Everything around it that was new for the show felt essential at the time but doesn’t appear here in the book at all.

We’ve already discussed the story before, back when we reviewed the first season of the show, but let’s go over it again here in brief. The story kicks off with Julliette Andromeda Mao, heir to the Mao fortune, is kidnapped, along with the whole of her Belter crew, out in the reaches of the Solar System. The crew that captures her locks her up, but then something happens to their ship, leaving Julie as the only survivor. She eventually escapes, finding the ship empty and derelict in space… and also that it’s infected with something. Something alien. She scuttles the ship as best as she can and then flees, taking the infection with her.

Elsewhere in the Belt, James Holden and a small handful of crew from the Canterbury – technician Naomi, engineer Amos, and pilot Alex – go to investigate a distress signal but are helpless to watch when some mysterious stealth ships blow up the Cant. They flee, bouncing from one group trying to capture (and use) them to another, until they finally get their own ship, which they rebrand the Rocinante. They find that they’ve become central figures in a mystery far bigger than their blown up ship and lost crew. And somehow that same mystery ties in with a case Detective Joe Miller is investigating on Ceres station. A case of a missing girl. The case, as it turns out, of the missing Julie Mao.

For those of us that come to the books from the TV series, the broad strokes seem right. Holden and Miller on two sides of the case, both discovering there’s something sinister, and alien, at play in the Solar System. What’s missing from that description, though, is the third side of the series: UN Undersecretary Avasarala. And that’s because she’s not in this first book. At all. We actually don’t get any perspective of Earth or Mars from this first adventure, with the novel keeping everything focused on the Belters, Holden and Miller, exploring two sides of this case.

Frankly I was confused at the start going into the book, just as I’m sure any book reader would have been going into the TV show. It makes sense in both contexts the way this was done. We, as watchers, likely want to know how Earth would handle the discovery of an alien “virus” come to the Solar System. But in the context of the book, keeping the action focused on these two characters, and no one else, works. We get to learn about the conspiracy around this alien tech, the company (Protogen) trying to tap into its potential (through the most nefarious ways possible), and we also learn about Julie Mao and her case, which all ties back to that alien virus. Anything outside of that would feel superfluous.

Of course, once we got into the second season, the first half of which was also based on Leviathan Wakes, we had another new character in Gunnery Sergeant Bobby Draper, and she too isn’t actually introduced until the second book. Draper and Avasarala are major characters in that second book (which I am steadily reading my way through now), but they aren’t mentioned once in this first book. Which does help to explain why, sometimes, their stories in the first couple of seasons felt superfluous. They didn’t have source material to really tap into so the series had to make it up. I think, honestly, I prefer the more focused version of the story presented in this book. It keeps the action where it needs to be, on this alien tech, the protomolecule, and it doesn’t divide our attention. Any other changes the show made were minor by comparison and worked in context.

The book really is a solid, fast read. Told from the third-person limited perspectives of Holden and Miller, the book gets us through the major parts of the story, using the two characters to skip back and forth over stretches that would otherwise be “and then the characters spent a week floating through space to their next destination.” And despite the book being, well, a book, it’s surprisingly action packed. There’s plenty of space action, many scenes of battles and fights, and shooting matches, all of which are well discussed and detailed. Not being able to see the action and just having to imagine it, there were times when I wondered how the book could convey the space fights. And yet it does it very well, with few moments that I had to go back and reread to understand the context. Authors Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck, writing under the pen name James S.A. Corey, manage to craft a thrilling, easy-to-follow, space adventure that keeps everything moving while rarely talking down to the readers. It’s heady, harder sci-fi that remains enjoyable from start to finish.

Most importantly the book stands on its own. It creates a compelling version of the narrative that was copied well for the series but that holds up on its own. I love the TV series and I’ll watch it every couple of years. But the book is solid enough that I could see myself going back to read it again. Yes, it’s a story that I’ve now experienced multiple times in different forms, but that doesn’t keep it from being interesting or exciting. This is a great story that was done well the first time. It’s a book that, even after seeing the series (and seeing it again), I still found myself ripping through it. It’s that good.

Can a book and its adaptation exist in the same space without diminishing each other. In the case of The Expanse, and its first book Leviathan Wakes, I’d argue it can. And it makes me excited to go through the rest of this novel series not only to see how well the books set up the story for the show, but just so I can experience all these events from a new perspective as well.