The Expanse is an acclaimed novel series by Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck writing under the pen-name James S. A. Corey. The first novel, Leviathan Wakes, was released in 2011 and nominated for both the Hugo Award for Best Novel and the Locus Award for Best Science Fiction Novel. Abraham and Franck have released a book a year since then, with Caliban’s War in 2012, Abaddon’s Gate in 2013, Cibola Burn in 2014, and Nemesis Games in 2015. Babylon’s Ashes is slated for June 2016, and three more untitled sequels are scheduled for 2017-2019.
The SyFy channel, in an attempt to relive the glory of its Battlestar Galactica days, is adapting the novels for television. The first four episodes were released online, and the fifth episode airs tomorrow evening.
I’ve read all the novels and enjoyed them a lot (especially the fourth and fifth) and I’ve seen each of the first four episodes twice (and find them promising.) But that’s not what prompted me to post about them to Times and Seasons. Nope, the reason I thought I’d tell you about The Expanse is that Mormons feature relatively prominently in both the books and the TV series. So, without giving any major spoilers away, I thought I’d write a quick review of how Mormons are portrayed in what could potentially be a fairly major new TV series.
This is the first scene in the series that references Mormons. It comes just about 10 minutes into the first episode, and it’s quick. As in, “blink and you might miss it” quick. I didn’t notice it at all the first time I watched it, but the second time (with Mormons on my mind) the poster in the center stood out. Here’s a zoomed-in version:
I can’t make out the gray text, but one thing that’s clear is that the poster is just a ripped off version of the promotional posters for The Book of Mormon musical.
Why did they pick that as the symbol to introduce Mormons? Your guess is as good as mine, although (based on the nametag on a subsequent Mormon missionary), perhaps there was nothing else that was universally recognizable as Mormon that wouldn’t run the risk of legal issues.
In any case, that’s the last you see of Mormons until episode three, when you get introduced (briefly) to Elder Murray.
This is Elder Murray accosting one of our protagonists (Dimitri Havelock, played by Hay Hernandez). It’s not a flattering portrayal of Mormons, but it’s not a wildly inaccurate one either. “Do you like to laugh?” asks Elder Murray. He then launches into the pitch for his gimmick: come see the Mormons do stand-up at a local comedy club. The two things that are the most odd are first: Elder Murray has no companion in sight. And second: the named tag, while clearly modeled on a Mormon missionary tag, is for “The Church of HUMANITY ASCENDANT.” You can see it a little more clearly in this screen grab:
There’s one more Mormon-centric scene. This one comes in the fourth episode when we are introduced to the Mormon’s new ship, the L.D.S.S. Nauvoo.
It’s not spelled out anywhere (that I know of), but clearly L. D. S. S. stands for Latter-day Saint Ship. This is just the establishing shot for a conversation that follows immediately thereafter between an unnamed Mormon representative (there on behalf of “elders and general authorities”) and Fred Johnson, the head of operations for the project to build the Nauvoo.
I’ll let you guess which is which.
The scene with our unknown Mormon (let’s call him Brother Smith, shall we?) and Fred Johnson is the longest one to feature Mormons to date. After a brief intro, the conversation goes like this:
Brother Smith: Mr. Johnson, the Latter-day Saints took a considerable risk hiring you to build the Nauvoo.
Fred Johnson: I know. Tycho spins up asteroids. We don’t build ships. Not ‘till now. But trust me, it will be a ship no one will ever forget.
Brother Smith: That’s not what I meant. I meant you. There have been rumblings that you should be replaced as head of operations for the project.
Fred Johnson: Why is that?
Brother Smith: You’re ties to the OPA have been making a number of elders and the general authorities uncomfortable, particularly in light of recent events in the Belt.
Given the way the scene builds, I wound up holding my breath when Fred Johnson asked, “Why is that?” This scene isn’t in the books–and it’s been a couple of years since I read Leviathan Wakes in any case–and I was half-sure that this was going to end up being about how bigoted and racist those Mormons are. In any case, Fred Johnson quickly intimidates poor, spineless Brother Smith into backing down from his attempt to replace Johnson as head of operations and summarily kicks all the Mormons off the ship so that he can conduct tests of the sensor array. (In Brother Smith’s defense, and without giving too much away, the Mormons aren’t wrong to be worried about Fed Johnson’s OPA connections…)
The depiction of Mormons in the book version is a little bit warmer. The closest parallel to this scene comes from pages 180-181 of Leviathan Wakes: when another group of characters (Alex, Amos, Naomi, and James) approach Tycho Station (where the LDSS Nauvoo is being built) in their own spacecraft:
Alex said, “Forget the station, look at that monster.”
The vessel it was constructing dwarfed the station. Ladar returns told Holden the ship was just over two kilometers long and half a kilometer wide. Round and stubby, it looked like a cigarette butt made of steel. Framework girders exposed internal compartments and machinery at various stages of construction, but the engines looked complete, and the hull had been assembled over the bow. The name Nauvoo was painted in massive white letters across it.
“So the Mormons are going to ride that thing all the way to Tau Ceti, huh?” Amos asked, following it up with a long whistle. “Ballsy bastards. No guarantee there’s even a planet worth a damn on the other end of that hundred-year trip.”
“They seem pretty sure,” Holden replied. “And you don’t make the money to build a ship like that by being stupid. I, for on, wish them nothing but luck.”
“They’ll get the stars,” Naomi said. “How can you not envy them that?”
“Their great-grandkids’ll get maybe a star if they don’t’ all starve to death orbiting a rock they can’t use,” Amos said. “Let’s not get grandiose here.”
So we’ve got James Holden–one of the main protagonists–wishing the Mormons nothing but luck and Naomi saying, “They’ll get the stars.” Of course Mormon sci-fi fans were tickled by this. And we didn’t take Amos’s jab personally either. Amos–who is basically Jayne Cobb (if you’re a Firefly fan)–is just the kind of guy who pops balloons. That’s what he does.
Now, the reason I rewatched all four episodes of show thus far with an eye on the Mormons therein is that Nate Oman told me I had to give him a review of the way Mormons were handled. So, with that in mind, here are some additional (still: spoiler-free) thoughts on the place of Mormons in The Expanse.
Abraham and Franck are not very subtle about their political views throughout the series. They have very few nice things to say about Earth which–in their future society–is a giant welfare state where a large proportion of the population lives on “Basic”, a kind of guaranteed minimum income that is socially corrosive and economically dysfunctional compared to the frontier spirit of Mars (which they go out of their way to depict as technologically and economically superior) and the Belt (which is where all the coolest people come from). But, at the same time, they go out of their way to take swipes at right-libertarians, including a rather gratuitously nasty depiction of a “prepper”-type character in one of the later books.
In other words, they obviously herald from the “gray tribe“: the left-libertarians for whom sci-fi and tech is a heartland. From that it’s not hard to guess that their view of Mormons IRL is one of benign contempt. Mormons are weird, but to the militantly secular gray tribe all religions are equally bizarre. The reason that Mormons show up in The Expanse is primarily one of plot convenient. There isn’t a single named Mormon character in the books. What’s more, after the first three books there is no mention of any Mormons of any kind. Mormons effectively disappear when the first trilogy ends, and when the second one starts we may as well be in a Mormon-free universe.
This is actually a rather conspicuous absence. For reasons I can’t get into (spoiler-related) it is extremely odd to have nary a mention of Mormons in the later books.
I don’t think it’s much a of a mystery, however. As left-libertarians, I think it would have been hard for Abraham and Franck to continue to depict Mormons in a neutral/positive light over the long haul. On the other hand, antagonizing the Mormon audience isn’t a good idea. Mormons love sci-fi. We read a lot of sci-fi, and we write a lot of sci-fi. Some of the biggest names in the biz right now are Mormon, especially Brandon Sanderson and Larry Correia.
As a couple examples of what I’m talking about, here’s a blog post from the Association of Mormon Letters blog with some fan-fic to “fix” a negative portrayal of Mormons later on in the books: Future Mormons in Leviathan Wakes by James S. A. Corey. (Major spoiler warning on that one, btw.) I also noticed that Abraham has a blog (Franck doesn’t, as far as I can tell), and at least a few Mormons had showed up to thank him for his portrayal of Mormons as sympathetic. I don’t think it takes a lot of blog posts and comments like that to convince authors to maybe not poke their fans in the eye. And so I’m pretty sure we won’t be seeing Mormons crop up again in The Expanse any time soon. For now, they are just an interesting kind of exotic side plot, much as they often are in sci-fi. (Examples run the gamut from Heinlein’s offhand reference to Mormon temple ceremonies in Double Star to a Mormon-colonized planet that is the setting for Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle’s The Gripping Hand.)
As for the TV treatment: I expect more or less the same treatment. There’s some novelty in showing Mormons in a sci-fi context, and that’s probably why we’ve already seen more on-screen Mormons than we did on-page. Because of the way the plot works out, we’ll have to see a few more, but once their role is played they’ll disappear as well.
All in all it’s not a great depiction of Mormons. I’d have loved to have seen a named character (on TV or in the books) who had some depth and believability. But it’s definitely not the worst depiction in the world, either. There hasn’t been anything outright false or egregiously offensive, and–given history–that feels like progress. Sometimes, it’s just nice to be included.