Friday, January 18, 2019

The Expanse Profiles: Fred Johnson

There aren't any real good pictures of Fred Johnson that artists have done, so I'll just include the one for the SyFy series. Here, Fred is played by actor Chad Coleman who we last saw on the series, The Walking Dead.

Fred Johnson is the defacto leader of the Outer Planetary Alliance (O.P.A.) because he's the guy in charge of Tycho Station. It's established pretty early on (in the books) that Tycho Station is where "the impossible" stuff happens. If you were to build a space elevator for example, it would occur at Tycho Station. They have the best space engineers and the most talent, and Tycho Station itself is a wonder of the futuristic world.

It's there at Tycho Station that the largest plot device is assembled (called The Nauvoo). It's an enormous generation ship with its own spin gravity core (it's so big in fact that it is essentially a space station with thrust). It was commissioned and paid for by the Mormons, who are wanting to use it to sail to the stars. With space being so big and speed being so slow, it's obvious that to reach the nearest star will take lifetimes. So The Nauvoo is built for that...for people to be born, live their entire lives, and die on the ship while sailing to their destination. Only it never quite gets there. At first it is used in a last ditch effort to destroy Eros Station once the protomolecule kills the 15 million people on it that call Eros home and is clearly targeting Earth. It fails because the protomolecule doesn't obey the laws of physics, and decides to go to Venus instead. The O.P.A. goes after The Nauvoo, captures it, and declares it to be maritime "booty" since it would (otherwise) be a complete loss (having been commandeered in an act of war). Then they rename it The Behemoth, and make it crucial to their fleet until after the Ring Gates open. Once this happens, The Behemoth is instructed to take up residence inside the Slow Zone (the space inside the Ring Gates) and is renamed "Medina Station." By being at the center of the Slow Zone, it is well-placed to control all traffic going to and from the 1300 habitable worlds.

Fred Johnson also has a nickname. He's called The Butcher of Anderson Station because Fred was responsible for massacring a group of Belter civilians on Anderson Station when it was taken by insurgents. The battle earned him fame in the inner planets and the Medal of Freedom (the UN Marines' highest honor). But it also made him infamous and hated among the O.P.A.

Fred was a puppeteer in a lot of the events that took place in the books. He repeatedly fixes Holden's ship, The Rocinante. He allows Michio Pa safe passage to Ceres station, which sets off a chain of events that undermine Marco Inaros' power (with his Free Navy). And it's through a meeting of OPA leaders that he calls together (but doesn't make it because he dies to high-g in a battle with the Pella en route to the meeting on Tycho) that Holden has his first real introduction to Duarte (the biggest villain of the series).

Coming up next Wednesday: Profile of Bobbie Draper (I won't be blogging on Monday because it is a holiday.)

Wednesday, January 16, 2019

The Expanse Profiles: Chrisjen Avasarala

In the Expanse television series we meet the diplomat Chrisjen Avasarala in the first episode. However, she doesn't actually make her appearance until book two of the Expanse published works entitled Caliban's War. I was kind of surprised by this, as I thought she would have made an appearance in the story much sooner.

Chrisjen is light on description, as are most of the details in The Expanse books. The dialogue does all the heavy lifting, which ends up being a decent tool through which to visualize people as it allows your imagination to fill in the details. The things that we do know about her are that she's 1) a skinny and short grandmother, 2) she's Indian by decent, and 3) she swears like a sailor (preferring the "f" bomb to just about any other swear word). You kind of need to get used to seeing it on the page in any chapter that you read.

Chrisjen starts out as the Deputy Undersecretary of the United Nations, which is the second most powerful position on Earth. This was a decent starting point for this character and made it so that she could ascend to Secretary-General of the United Nations in Nemesis Games after Earth is destroyed by rocks hurled by belter terrorists from outer space. An Artist by the name of TenshiRisu visualized Chrisjen Avasarala as looking like this picture (inset above and to the right). I don't think that the artist did a very good job of nailing the character. For one, Chrisjen is always described as wearing these bold and beautiful sari's. Second, she's always eating pistachio nuts, so there should have been something along those lines in the picture. If you are intrigued, you can see more of TenshiRisu's art HERE.

In the television series adaptation of The Expanse, Chrisjen Avasarala is played by actress Shohreh Aghdashloo, and I think she does a fine job of bringing the character to life. This is what she looks like on the small screen (at left).

Chrisjen Avasarala is my favorite character in the series for a number of reasons. She's incredibly smart, and she knows all the power plays to be made by the different factions in the solar system at all times, and she's able to gauge how dangerous any situation is with extreme accuracy. Additionally, she has some of the best dialogue that I've ever seen. Here's a sample of some of the things she's said.

To Bobbie Draper (a tall Martian marine): "Would you sit down? I feel like I'm at the bottom of a fucking well whenever I talk to you."

“Holden’s an idiot, but he’s not stupid. If he realizes he’s being watched, he’ll start broadcasting pictures of all our Ganymede sources or something. Do not underestimate his capacity to fuck things up.”

“It'd be a better world if there was always at least one right answer instead of a bucket of fucked."

"I feel like I went away for one day and when I came back, everyone was speaking Mandarin."

Chrisjen always has a way of cutting to the gist of any situation, and I look forward to seeing Shohreh Aghdashloo in the role (in the upcoming seasons on Amazon) as she ascends to power during the biggest crisis the Earth has ever seen.

Coming up on Friday: Profile of Fred Johnson

Monday, January 14, 2019

The Expanse Profiles: Alex Kamal

Alex Kamal is the last of the "main" crew of The Rocinante that I'm profiling here (and my knowledge is based on the books and on the television adaptation of those books). To the right, I've included an illustration I found of Alex Kamal on a DeviantArt page. It's drawn by a person that goes by the name "BlackPandaOps" and you can see more of their work HERE.

For pretty much the first three books, and well into the television adaptation, this character is kind of flat. He's basically your "hot shot pilot" stereotype that you've seen in a half dozen other space opera stories ranging from Star Wars to Battlestar Galactica. In the television adaptation, he is brought to life by actor Cas Anvar, who is a Canadian. I discovered that he speaks English, French, Persian, Arabic, Urdu, and Spanish. I thought that was pretty amazing. At left is a picture of the actor playing the part of Alex Kamal.
As you can see, the illustration by the artist above is deeply influenced by the portrayal by the actor. I couldn't really find any online that weren't influenced by Cas Anvar, which makes me believe that the television adaptation has probably brought in legions of new fans (like myself) for this series.

Alex Kamal, Like Naomi and Amos, all met Captain Holden on the doomed Canterbury, which (as I previously mentioned in another post) was a corporate ice hauler grabbing spacebergs from Saturn's rings and then making the voyage to a station where it could be used as a source of fresh water. He's a Martian, and because of this, there's a kind of "instant connection" that builds with Bobbie Draper once she's introduced in the series (Bobbie is a Martian marine and Alex is former military as well).

Alex gets fleshed out in the book Nemesis Games pretty thoroughly, with hints of his back story in the previous four books. He self-describes himself as a terrible husband and talks of the main woman in his life with glowing colors as she pretty much faithfully stuck by him, even though he spent many months away from home working as a pilot for the military. When that all ended, and he could finally stay at home, he actually didn't like being at home. So without his wife's knowledge, he went and got another job as a pilot and walked away from their marriage. Needless to say, he's not a great communicator (or even a good one for that matter). There's a scene in the books when he tries to patch things up with his ex-wife, and it realistically does not go well at all even with his apologies and whatnot. This is really how it should be, and I was surprised that the writers 1) went there and 2) that it was such a shut down with incredible finality to it. Also, kudos to the writers for Alex to get absolutely no closure on that part of his life; this kind of thing happens all the time to real people. That it happened here just makes me like the story even more.

Alex's piloting skills, kind of like the protomolecule whenever it shows up, are kind of a deus ex machina. If the situation looks hopeless, he can kind of fly them out of it. Although to be fair, he's also the one that killed Fred Johnson unintentionally, because the incredible forces he generated while making banks and turns while trying to outrun rail gun armaments and torpedoes were too much for the old guy (who ended up stroking out in his crash chair). I'm really looking forward to where they go with this character once Tiamat's Wrath gets published in March. Bobbie Draper is now captain to a ship built with alien technology, and I bet Alex gets to fly it. That's going to be a lot of fun to read about.

Overall, Alex Kamal is that one character that always seems to pop up in these types of stories: he's a broken man whose only true love is being in the pilot's chair, but who also is attractive enough that women end up in his bed for a short while, but a relationship just never works out.

Coming up on Wednesday: Profile of Chrisjen Avasarala

Friday, January 11, 2019

The Expanse Profiles: Amos Burton

When I'm explaining the character of Amos to friends who ask me about The Expanse, I refer to him as the lovable but psychopathic engineer. Because The Expanse authors (they write under the name James S.A. Corey) are kind of light on description preferring instead to let the dialogue and other people's observations of a character carry through in their point-of-view, I've got a simultaneously vivid idea of what he should look like and a vague-ish idea of what he should look like. At right is an artist sketch, and it differs from what you'll see of Amos in the SyFy/Amazon television adaptation. However, he's got the crazy eyes, which (to the credit of the artist) is pretty amazing. The artist, by the way, is named Tabitha Drambel and you can see her DeviantArt page HERE.

In the SyFy series (and I assume they are keeping the same casting for the Amazon series) the role is played by actor Wes Chatham. Here's a picture of him so you can see that he also channels the "crazy eyes" rather well. So who is this guy? Well he's a really good engineer and he knows how to keep The Rocinante in really good shape as it flies through space going from place to place and getting into dogfights with other ships depending on where you are in the storyline.

The authors are careful to describe Amos as "the last man standing." What they mean by this is that in any catastrophe, Amos is so tough that he would be the last one still alive while everyone else is dead. He also knows that he's a monster, having little or no feelings about anyone or anything, and he latched onto Captain Holden, because he is smart enough to know that on his own, he is capable of doing a lot of evil. Captain Holden has a very strong moral compass, and Amos willfully acquiesces to Holden's judgement because he knows (and believes strongly) that Holden will always do the right thing. Thus far in the books, he has not been wrong.

Amos really starts to shine in the book Nemesis Games. This is where I first noticed him getting a lot of his own chapters, and they are used to follow him as he visits Earth (where he hasn't been for many years) and to honor someone that he cared for that had died. He also reconnects briefly with some thugs and a drug kingpin that he worked alongside in Baltimore many years prior (Amos still has a formidable reputation). The drug kingpin is holed up in a sizeable arcology, which is a futuristic structure that supports a city-sized population all within one building.

While on Earth, Amos also visits with Clarissa Mao in prison (his nickname for Clarissa is "Peaches.") It isn't really clear if he loves her, but I kind of think that he loves Clarissa just about as much as a psychopath is able to do. To you and I, it wouldn't seem like love. But it's written in such a way as to hint rather strongly that there is a tremendous bond between them that goes beyond respect. In many ways, Clarissa is just as much a monster as Amos (if not more so), so maybe it's a bond that comes from being a fellow psychopath. When the rocks start falling on Earth, and the apocalypse starts, we get to see how Earth is affected through Amos's point of view. Escaping Earth is harrowing and there are many edge-of-your-seat moments that I can't wait to see in the television adaptation.

I think the funnest Amos chapter, however, happened in Persepolis Rising. Late in the book, Amos calls Bobbie (a Martian warrior) a "pussy," and it starts off a fist battle between the huge Samoan woman and Amos that is clearly "to the death." But she's so powerful and strong that he can't kill her no matter how hard she tries, and she eventually beats the crap out of him to the point that he can barely move. It's super therapeutic for Amos, because he realizes that maybe he's not the last one standing in any fight. Additionally, it pretty much solidifies Bobbie Draper as the incredible character that she's built up to be throughout the entire series. Yeah, I love Bobbie Draper. She's just too cool.

Monday: Profile of Alex Kamal

Wednesday, January 9, 2019

The Expanse Profiles: Naomi Nagata

 At right is an artist illustration of Naomi Nagata, who is the second officer on The Rocinante as well as Captain Jim Holden's long-term girlfriend. The artist that drew the picture is JujuFei, and you can look at more of her work HERE. As far as the books go, it's not how I would have pictured Naomi. But I think most people are not going to draw "Belters" correctly, because the author James S.A. Corey describes them as having overly large heads. When I brought this up to my community D&D group/collective, they argued that zero gravity would make your head swell disproportionate to the size of your body. In other words, Close Encounters of the Third Kind got it right when they had all these big-headed skinny aliens. That's what humans would look like were we to live our entire lives outside a natural gravity well.

In The Expanse television series, Naomi is played by actress Dominique Tipper. She's pictured below and on the left. Naomi served with Holden as a part of the crew of The Canterbury. As far as skills go, she's an excellent technician capable of hacking any computer to find any bit of information that the plot requires or to programming the magnetic bottle containment system that keeps a fusion reaction contained.

Naomi Nagata became super interesting after the Ring Gates opened to 1300 worlds. In the book, Nemesis Games, it's revealed that she had a kid named Filip with a Belter terrorist by the name of Marco Inaros. Marco, a Belter who is more than aware that access to 1300 habitable worlds means extinction to a lot of people who have evolved to live in zero gravity, takes his anger out on Earth by dropping a bunch of asteroids covered with anti-radar paint on the planet. The result is the death of billions of people, tidal waves the size of skyscrapers, and just massive extinction level events. Earth barely survives. Marco kidnaps Naomi prior to this event, and she becomes pretty essential in not only identifying who he is, but ultimately taking him out using a trick of the Ring Gates.

I can't wait until the Amazon series showcases the destruction of Earth. That is going to be some epic level destruction porn that goes on for probably an entire season, as the struggle in and around Earth's survivors, as well as all the characters impacted by it, go on and on.

In my opinion, Naomi was a pretty flat character until Nemesis Games. The introduction of her son, Filip, gave her a lot of depth. Additionally, I enjoyed the connection that she had with the terrorist Marco Inaros, because in many ways, it was the point of view we needed to have any sympathy for what the "belters" were going through in facing a kind of extinction with the opening of the Ring Gates.

Coming up on Friday: Profile of Amos Burton

Monday, January 7, 2019

The Expanse Profiles: James Holden

At left is some fan art by artist dana-redde on DeviantArt. It depicts what they think is Captain James Holden and his OPA (Outer Planetary Alliance) girlfriend, Naomi Nagata. I know I'm going to talk about Naomi on Wednesday, but I might as well mention that she's frequently described as being tall and kind of stretched out...a result of having lived her whole life in almost null gravity. At most, she's been exposed to spin gravity on stations like Tycho, Ceres, and Eros. As far as real gravity wells are concerned, she's probably only been exposed to Luna Station, Ganymede Station, and the resort built on Titan.

Anyway, we first get to know Captain James Holden--who is the primary protagonist of all seven books thus far--in the first few chapters of Leviathan Wakes (the first book in The Expanse series). As depicted in this illustration at right, the artist kind of gets the look of James Holden. I didn't quite picture him so small and cutesy, but his one consistent character vice in all of the novels is that he's constantly looking for a cup of coffee. As far as depictions go, the television series produced by the SyFy channel did a pretty decent job of casting an actor that I thought (retroactively applied since I watched the t.v. series first) did a swell job of filling out the role of Holden. A picture of him is included at left.

The actor that plays him is Steven Straight. In the book, he comes from Montana, and he is the only child to eight parents (it sounds a lot like a polygamist Mormon family, but without all of the kids that are normally associated with that). However, they never say that his parents are Mormon. Perhaps he's an only child because the Earth's population is already at 30 billion and no one wants to have kids.

At the time The Expanse takes place, the solar system is pretty much a colonized and functioning place. There are a billion people living on Mars and millions going back and forth to different stations throughout the outer planets. There are so many people, in fact, that stations like Eros have a population of 15 million or so.

In being the central pivot figure of The Expanse, James Holden is involved with everything. As the second officer on The Canterbury, which is a doomed ship that he sees attacked and destroyed relatively early in Leviathan Wakes, he follows his moral compass (which is very paladin-like) to report to everyone what he sees with the most transparency as possible. It ends up starting the biggest war mankind has ever seen, involving the Belters, Earth, and Mars (because of the attack on this one water hauler). He manages to come out of it smelling like a rose by commandeering (along with his small crew) a Mars gunnery ship that he renames The Rocinante, after Don Quixote's horse. It's a fitting symbolism because Captain Holden is forever tilting at "windmills" just like Don Quixote throughout this entire series.

Naturally, his fate gets entwined with a Detective Miller who is looking for the missing daughter of a mega-rich sociopathic scientist by the name of Jules Pierre Mao. Unbeknownst to anyone, the missing daughter, Juliette Mao, is the last survivor of a doomed crew that got infected by an alien virus called the protomolecule (because it was being studied by a bunch of psychopathic scientists who discovered the two billion year old strain in some ice around Saturn). I get the impression that Julie's crew was infected intentionally, and Juliette Mao (unaware of the danger her infection brings) flees to Eros station where Holden and Miller find her in the bathroom of her suite basically disintegrating into blackened tentacles as the protomolecule consumes her. From there, the whole of Eros station of 15 million are doomed and Holden and Miller barely make it off alive. They are both exposed to lethal radiation, but because of fantastic strides in medicine, Holden just has to take some cancer meds to keep the radiation from creating fatal cancers in his body.

One of the things that I think is brilliant with regard to the plotting of these novels (and story at large) is how every detail is never too small not to factor into a bigger plot point. Those cancer meds, which Holden swallows every day, end up factoring into the story of Cibola Burn, the fourth novel in the series. In that particular plot following the opening of the ring gates which lead to 1300 plus solar systems with habitable worlds, the first settled world called Ilus, comes to be very challenging for a bunch of colonists. There's this algae that floats in the clouds above the planet's surface, and when it rains, the algae can infect bodies of saline water (which it loves to multiply inside because that's its perfect environment). The colonists on Ilus get their eyeballs infected with this stuff which makes them all go blind...all except for Holden, who is on cancer meds that keep things from propogating out of control. So these cancer medications ends up being the cure that they can use to solve one of the many problems that the colonists encounter on their first visit to a truly alien world. It's brilliant writing, and a great example of having high stakes for characters to create tension.

Additionally, Holden's continued association with the protomolecule and what it creates extends way beyond the first book, Leviathan Wakes. After Miller dies by being on Eros as it crashes into Venus (all fifteen million people on board are dead by this point and the asteroid is being piloted by Julie Mao's consciousness whom Miller is in love with), Holden sees a projection of Miller created by a remnant of the protomolecule left on The Rocinante. This projection communicates with him and advises him on events happening both with the creation of the Ring Gates and on the events that transpire on Ilus. Holden eventually gets rid of that remnant of the protomolecule on The Rocinante, which ends his visions of Miller, but he is kind of forever linked with it. In the latest of the published books entitled, Persepolis Rising, Holden instantly recognizes the Laconian technology for being grown from the stolen protomolecule sample taken from Tycho station 30 years earlier, and he also recognizes the thing that appears on the Laconian battle cruiser The Typhoon as having originated from the same place as whatever killed the makers of the protomolecule two billion years ago.

And that's what's really chilling. The makers of the protomolecule were such an advanced civilization, that they colonized 1300 worlds and created wormholes that could bridge space itself. Yet Holden saw a vision that (at the end of their civilization), the makers of the protomolecule encountered something that they tried to defeat by destroying entire star systems. And it didn't work. Whatever it was, wiped them out completely. The first time the Laconian Battle Cruiser employs its magnetic weapon (created from protomolecule technology) in Earth space, an artifact from the destroyers of the protomolecule civilization appears and causes everyone in the entire Earth system to lose three minutes of time simultaneously.   

Having read nearly all the published material available for The Expanse, I can honestly say that Captain Holden ended up being a fine protagonist through which the story kind of unfolds just by living his life. Those are the best kinds of stories, are they not? 

Coming up on Wednesday: Profile of Naomi Nagata.

Friday, January 4, 2019

I am going to talk about The Expanse books and their television adaptation until February.

I really want to talk about The Expanse television series and the novels. I read all of them in December. Not to toot my own horn, but each of the seven novels clocks in at roughly 550 pages. So I plowed through A LOT of pages during credit card debt month, a.k.a. the Christmas season.

The way I see myself talking about The Expanse is by talking about the individual main characters first (touching on how they are represented in the television series up to the cliffhanger finale of season three) based off the books and novels in the series, which consists of:
And as many of you (who are fans of the SyFy series) know, it was canceled to make room for George R.R. Martin's "Nightflyers." This was a bad decision, by the way. However, Amazon did pick it up and season four should be coming along nicely sometime in 2019. So here's my publishing schedule that I've worked out thus far:

Monday, January 7: James Holden (the star and primary protagonist of the books). It sounds like a great place to start.

Wednesday, January 9: Naomi Nagata (partner to James Holden).

Friday, January 11: Amos Burton (Loveable Psychopath Engineer).

Monday, January 14: Alex Kamal (Dumpster Fire Hot Shot Pilot).

Wednesday, January 16: Chrisjen Avasarala (Firecracker Diplomat).

Friday, January 18: Fred Johnson (The Butcher of Anderson Station and Leader of Tycho Station).

Wednesday, January 23: Bobbie Draper (Martian Juggernaut).

Friday, January 25: Detective Josephus Miller (Detective Investigating Juliette Mao's disappearance)

Monday, January 28: Clarissa Mao (otherwise known as "Peaches" by Amos).

Wednesday, January 30: Praxideke Meng (the Botanist of Ganymede Station).

Friday, February 1: Winston Duarte (the Biggest Bad Guy there is).

Each of these characters is unique in their own way, and it's a marvel that they all came together so well. In case you didn't know, James S.A. Corey is the pen name of two authors who both live in New Mexico (so The Expanse isn't the work of a single person). In reading it, I would have been surprised to think of it as coming from just one person. It's just too huge...too big of an idea for anyone's head to handle. Additionally, one of the authors was the personal assistant to George R.R. Martin, and you can see Martin's influence (only the good influences) on just about every page. Point of View chapters told in the headspace of a single character have become my "go to" favorite for stories of this size. I wish more people adopted it, because it makes for one hell of a read.

Also, did you know that The Expanse started out as a pitch for a mmorpg based in space? I learned that by reading one of the interviews posted in the book, Persepolis Rising. I think that's kind of fascinating.

So tune in over the next few weeks if you want to know about all of these characters in depth. There will be spoilers as I intend for each post to be as thorough as I remember of what these characters did in each of the books, which is the source material for the television series. However, things will probably change in the adaptation. This has already happened, and I don't expect anything different from Amazon. Oh and (as usual) I will speculate on what happens next for these characters going forward.

Monday: James Holden!