Is sci-fi TV more feminist than books? (Or: Reading and watching ‘The Expanse’)

Naomi_cover

Rebecca:

Have you ever watched “The Expanse”? It’s a terrific space opera on Amazon Prime – my wife and I binge-watched all three available seasons recently, and — bereft of that universe — I recently picked up the first volume of the massive book series that spawned the TV show. Think George RR Martin in space.

Anyway, I’ve noticed something.

The first book, “Leviathan Wakes,” is expertly written genre storytelling. No wonder they wanted to make a TV show out of this! The scripts practically write themselves! The world-building is wonderful, and the plot doesn’t really have much downtime.

One thing is kind of bugging me though.

Both the book and the TV series include a character, Naomi Nagata, who is the engineer of a hardy little ship named the Rocinante. In the TV show she’s played by Dominique Tipper, and is a powerful figure in her own right.  She challenges the captain, keeps her own secrets, and makes decisions that affect the story. It’s a great performance, and a cool character.

In the book — this first book at least — not so much.

I’m about two-thirds of the way through the book. It’s told from two alternating viewpoints: The captain of the Rocinante in one chapter, a hardbitten detective the next, and back-and-forth we go. The characters? Both men.

The result is that Naomi, so vibrant on the screen, is reduced in the book. She still challenges the captain. She’s still competent. But she’s flatter, two-dimensional — the object of the captain’s gaze instead of being fully realized. She loses agency and urgency in the book.

That’s not the case just with Naomi. All the Rocinante crew who aren’t the captain are lesser, and less-interesting, in the book than they are on TV. (The book, though, offers insights in to the TV series: I finally understand why the Rocinante’s pilot, an Arab man who hails from Mars, has a Texas accent.) But given the various choices made in the two media, the disappearance of a strong, fully female character in the book is all the more noticeable.

Still: Great TV show. Watch it!

Yours in nerdiness,

Joel

Author: joeldermole

Joel Mathis is a freelance writer who lives in Lawrence, Kansas with his wife and son. He spent nine years as a syndicated columnist, co-writing the RedBlueAmerica column as the liberal half of a point-counterpoint duo. His honors include awards for best online commentary from the Online News Association and (twice) from the City and Regional Magazine Association.

One thought on “Is sci-fi TV more feminist than books? (Or: Reading and watching ‘The Expanse’)”

  1. Big fan of both the show and the books. If you read on in the series, all the other characters (including Naomi, Bobbie, and Clarissa) get their chance to shine. A lot of the characterization from later books makes it onto the screen, because the back-and-forth 2 POV structure that works OK in the book (if you don’t have anything to compare it to) would be super-boring on the screen. The first book is plot plot plot and moves like a bat out of hell as a result. They definitely sacrificed character development to make that happen, but the writers make up for it later.

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