rambling

COVID, The Expanse, and Me

As folks who follow my blog may already know, I tested positive for COVID-19 twelve days ago. I quarantined myself for approximately ten days, waiting to test negative and for my symptoms to subside. Around the five-day mark, most of my symptoms were gone. Yet the older CDC guidelines state that a person infected with “moderate COVID-19” should quarantine for ten days. Now, in light of the new CDC guidelines that suggest a mere five day quarantine, I figured I might be safe after five days; however, I also tend to agree with many that the CDC has shown itself to be a pawn of capital and a danger to workers everywhere. These new guidelines which claim that folks are safe and non-contagious after five days seem tailor-made to send workers back to their jobs too fast, putting their coworkers and customers at risk. So, I chose to ignore the new guidelines, and I quarantined for ten days. My symptoms may have been gone around day five, but I wanted to play things safe. I am immunocompromised, after all; type 1 diabetes and illnesses don’t mix well together. It takes my body a while to kick invaders out. So I stayed inside my room and made sure I tested negative and kicked my symptoms away before I walked around and did anything even remotely close to other people. Naturally, this gave me plenty of time to watch a lot of YouTube, to finally embrace a podcast, to watch the Netflix adaptation of that podcast, and read a book I’d put off for too long. What are all these things, you may be asking in your head, and I’ll tell you about one of them for now. The book I put off was Leviathan Falls, the final entry in the much-loved series The Expanse. The series has been about a decade in the writing, though the final book is the ninth book, so the pace of development was not slow at all. By the time I started reading the books, I believe they’d released five out of the nine planned novels, so I had a good amount of material to get through. Sometime along the way, SyFy decided it was time to develop a tv show based on the books, and I’ll get to that later; all you need to know for now is that I dutifully avoided the tv show as I read through the series, and I kept television’s beautiful but tailored imaginings of the books out of my brain. Anyway, back to my quarantine and the final book of the series.

A Long Time Coming and a Short Time Remembered

Perhaps the first half of the header above is unfair; not many of these books were a long time coming, as the authors collaboratively referred to by their pen name James S.A. Corey completed a nine-book series in the span of, let me check … yep, ten years, give or take. That’s about a book a year. The first novel released on June 2nd, 2011, while the ninth and final novel released on November 30th, 2021. I realize that they probably took some time to write the first book, so it’s probably more like an eleven or twelve-year process for the whole series, but still … even for crunchy-sweet science fiction, nine books in more or less a decade is pretty good. The potential math behind the creation of The Expanse is unnecessary and overly geeky at this point, so I’ll stop that train of thought; while it’d be fun to play around and figure out just how many words a day each of the series’ two authors wrote, it’d just be an exercise in self-amusement for me. What matters most to this discussion is the descriptor I used to talk about the series: crunchy-sweet. It’s a fancy way of conveying what I say to people when I talk about the series in real life: that the books are long, but they go fast like candy. Sweet, for how easy it is to consume them, but prefaced by crunchy, for the weight of the character development and the moral quandaries explored within their pages. Crunchy-sweet, maybe like peanut brittle, or something. Tasty so I remember that I ate them, but I can’t always recall the exact ingredients of the candy. There’s a funny phenomenon I experienced while reading the series: I could recall important vibes, like general emotions associated with plot advancements, but I couldn’t always recite important details. The specifics of situations and their space opera gravity fell away like a ship pulled into orbit, while the general feelings stayed like so much starlight. POTENTIALLY BIG SPOILERS AHEAD: I would always remember things like “The second book is when Prax goes searching for his missing daughter” and “The third book is the one with the slow zone and that one asshole who tries to take over the big ship.” The fourth book is the wild west one where the main players are stuck on a planet way out in one of the galactic frontiers. Book three to four is a big change; book six to seven is an even bigger change. To be honest, I hardly recall book five. It’s just the one where some of the characters are on Earth, or something. There is something stupefying yet beautiful about how easy it is to forget the specifics of this series, and I’ll go into that now; it’s about time I talk about The Expanse as a tv series.

Painting in Broad Strokes: Why Television Doesn’t Have to Hammer Home All a Book’s Details

Okay, now that I’ve drawn a line in the sand, let’s discuss the interplay of books and television. When I was a younger man, I leaned hard into books as the superior storytelling medium in comparison to tv. I love(d) to read, and whenever the books I enjoyed were turned into something filmic, I inevitably cried foul at the tv adaptation’s omission of certain details, and/or the weakness of film for not allowing time or space to accommodate all of a book’s complexities, as in characters, storylines, et cetera. Fuck, that’s a huge et cetera. In the words of one of my favorite college professors, “Your sentences are too long.” Actually, I’m paraphrasing, forget the quotation marks. Eh, I’m too lazy to go back now. Anyway, overly long sentences aside, this piece would be over. Okay, stop with the jokes, “writer.” So I used to get upset when movies and especially tv shows butchered my favorite books. That’s because I was looking for a 1:1 conversion, when, naturally, books and televisions shows are different mediums. They will present information differently, and when done well, each will play to their respective strengths. When I got upset at tv shows for not being as comprehensive or detail-rich as books, that’s because I was judging the filmic medium unfairly; I was using the strengths of books as my barometer for quality, when tv can’t be expected to be a book. In the last five or so years, I’ve softened my stance on the books versus tv debate, mostly because I’ve started accepting each iteration of a story as its own thing: sometimes so similar it’s hard to tell the difference, but usually different enough to warrant different criteria for judging quality. That’s my overly fancy way of saying that books are books, tv shows are tv shows, and expecting adaptations to be 100% faithful to their sources is foolish. Most importantly, those expectations detract from the enjoyment of each medium, usually to tv’s detriment; most of the time, they’re books that are adapted to the screen, not the other way around. So television gets shat on when it doesn’t necessarily deserve that.

What the hell was I on about? Oh yeah, The Expanse. The best part of each book’s details being easy to stick in a random corner of my brain, and my unwillingness to watch the tv adaptation until I’d finished the book series, is how it made the tv show’s interpretation of events look fresh. Thanks to the crunchy-sweet sci-fi that comprises the book series, the big story beats are easy to convey while details that would convolute the limited time and space of a tv show are fairly simple to repackage, repurpose, or right-out ignore; the people that make the show can go all protomolecule on the books, taking them apart and using only the bits that are actually useful to their overarching purpose. This isn’t to say that I’ve watched the whole show, but I did binge the first three seasons at the tail end of my quarantine. I’d finally finished the book series, and the time had come. I could watch the show without getting too hung up on details.

While some characters are way too young to match their book counterparts, and other characters are left out completely, and still other characters are merged with different ones, the general feeling of each character is conveyed surprisingly well on the screen; although I got used to Amos being a little older than his crewmates and Alex being a paunchy former marine well past his prime, the demeanors and motivations of these characters stay true to the overarching vision of the books. Besides, as it goes with candy, the moment-to-moment details, the minute pieces of the books, they don’t matter so much as long as the general themes and messages are shared. Honestly, after the first book, I mostly forgot how the writers described the crew of the Rocinante; the show’s versions of the characters could look however the showrunners wanted them to look, as long as they felt like a crew. As long as they hit the important story beats. As long as I felt something while watching the show. And, to my pleasant surprise, I did. I felt strong emotions, just like I did while I read the books, and I found myself gasping in delight at certain character introductions, and crying like a baby during particular developments. The show captures the vibes of the books perfectly, at least as far as season 3; I haven’t watched beyond season 3 yet, but I hold out hope that the rest of the show will affect me just as much. This is the beauty of forgetting and/or storing a story’s details: an adaptation or a re-imagining has a chance to affect the audience just as well as the source when the source is used as a skeleton. The flesh of the adaptation can be molded; the framework is all there, and now it becomes whatever the new medium’s creators want it to be.

Hope for Filmic Re-visions of Genre Fiction

There’s another show I watched recently that blew my fucking mind. I don’t think the show was an award-winning kind of endeavor, but it managed to make me laugh and cry and gasp, and have a damn good time while I watched it. That show is Shadow and Bone, and POTENTIALLY MASSIVE SPOILERS FOR SHADOW AND BONE AHEAD. Shadow and Bone or, more apt for the whole series it spawned, the GrishaVerse is a fantasy remaking of real world sorts of conflicts that are made more dramatic by the small science, which I will now insultingly call magic; I’m so sorry, Leigh Bardugo. What non-Grisha (read: non-magical) individuals see as magic is actually the in-universe study and application of theories called the small science. Basically, the small science proposes that the building blocks of nature, life, and the universe may be manipulated by those who are gifted, these gifted folks commonly being referred to as Grisha. I’ve now gone on a long tangent explaining the general makeup of the series of novels collectively called the GrishaVerse, novels which started with the Shadow and Bone trilogy, which is the very same trilogy on which the Shadow and Bone tv show is based. Only, I just lied: the show weaves other books and story arcs into its creation, in the most creative way I’ve seen it done. While the general arc of the Shadow and Bone book trilogy provides the skeleton of the tv show, a duology set in a different part of the GrishaVerse is also infused into the show’s storyline. Characters who initially operated outside the original Shadow and Bone story are now artfully mixed into the Shadow and Bone narrative, in a way that strays from the path taken by the books but still delivers a satisfying and believable story for television. I, as a reader and a viewer, am aware of these huge deviations, yet rather than shaking my fist and shouting at the showrunners for going off-book, I grinned at the confident beauty of this maneuver: my favorite characters from that other storyline are now involved in the show, and it actually makes sense, and it’s really fucking cool to watch.

This is why books and tv shows must be judged on their own merits; although prior knowledge of a book series may feed into the enjoyment of an adaptation’s creativity, I believe Shadow and Bone may still be enjoyed by those who didn’t read the books at all. I’m grinning because I know all these characters from the books and I love them; I’d hope a total newbie to the series would still grin, because the characters are compelling and clever and cool as hell. I think I’ve learned something, or maybe, I’ve accepted something: tv shows don’t have to follow their sources beat-by-beat. They can do their own things, and still be good in their own ways. I’m happy I’ve experienced a lot of television adaptations in the past few weeks, because they’ve shown me what is possible when tv and books are judged based on their own merits. Happy reading, happy watching, and happy living to you all.

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