The Expanse (2011-2021) is a nine-volume space opera series by James S.A. Corey (the joint penname of the duo Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck), or a ten-volume series if you take into account the book gathering the associated short fiction. The novels have been adapted as a TV series, first by SyFy and later by Amazon, up to a sixth season, which also roughly corresponds to the saga up to the sixth novel (the seventh season has just been announced). I read the first novel, Leviathan Wakes, in the process of selecting works for a book on science fiction and masculinity which I aim to write next year. Reading about the TV series and some reviews of this novel indicated that Captain James Holden might be an interesting character to consider in my future book. I quickly gave up on him, however, because of a scene in which he tells himself that he is quite a good guy for not trying to have sex with his drunken XO, Naomi Nagata, but I thought that this might be the start of a narrative arc from asshole to hero, as it has turned out to be. At the point I am now (the seventh novel, Persepolis Rising) Holden has proved himself a hero several times over and a caring lover of Nagata, being in a relationship with her for decades. So, definitely, he will be the object of one of my chapters, if I manage to discuss in 6000 words a narrative arc comprising about 5000 pages in total.
My focus today, however, is not just Holden but also another member of the Rocinante’s crew that he leads, the mechanic Amos Burton. Holden names his ship after Don Quijote’s famelic horse to underline his own idealism, and it might be argued that the other members of the original crew (the Martian pilot Alex, the Belter XO Naomi) and Burton himself (another Earthman like Holden) play collectively the role of Sancho Panza, above all Nagata. Holden, as I have noted, is in a long romantic relationship with this woman in which she plays the roles of supporting girlfriend, moral conscience, and awesome spaceship engineer all in one. Apart from the faux pas of the scene I loathed in the first book, Holden turns out to be quite a good guy (of the white, heterosexual traditional kind), though with an irritating penchant to believe that the human species needs to be saved by him from the aliens and an assorted list of patriarchal villains. As men, Alex and Amos complement Holden by contributing skills he lacks as, respectively, a pilot and a mechanic, but Burton is also there to highlight Holden’s reluctance to kill if he can avoid it, and his normative sexuality, though in a very uncomfortable way for me as a female reader. At one point, Holden asks Naomi why she never had sex with Amos (when they were part of the crew of another ship, before they became a couple), seeing that the burly fellow has a sort of rough attractive and she replies that it was because of his sexuality, thus highlighted as problematic. The problem with Burton, Naomi and Holden know, and this bothers me, is that he only has sex with sex workers.
This needs to be commented on from two angles: the personal one referred to Amos Burton’s biography and the general one referred to the 24th-century setting of the books (action begins around 2350). Burton is the protagonist of the novella “The Churn”, which narrates how he left behind a life of crime on Earth to become, thanks to a combination of violence and sheer luck, a valued spaceship mechanic. We know from this novella (and other comments in the novels) that Amos (born Timmy) was the child of an unlicensed prostitute, active in Baltimore. When she dies (sorry, but I can’t recall whether she is murdered), little Timmy is fostered by one of his mother’s friends, Lydia, who eventually becomes his lover when he is still technically a child. Lydia is a good mother/lover to the boy but cannot prevent him from growing in a criminal atmosphere, in which young Timmy stands out for his big body, physical strength, and lack of scruples to murder if he thinks it necessary (a nasty feature he keeps in adult age and that is condoned and even celebrated by the authors and the Roci’s crew members). The question is that the authors suppose that because of his origins and diverse Freudian traumas Amos Burton can only have sex with prostitutes. When they finally find a love interest for him, the relationship remains platonic, and inexplicable to all.
Nagata’s view of Burton’s sexuality as anomalous is not, however, quite right for, after all, in the 24th-century Solar system in which they live there is prostitution, both of the unlicensed and the licensed types. Burton’s sexuality would be anomalous if, say, he killed the women he has sex with, or enjoyed raping children, or indulged in other sex crimes. As far as the world he lives in is concerned, he is just a client using a service controlled mostly by the authorities that license the brothels. I have not counted the times that the word ‘brothel’ appears in the series, but my guess is that this kind of establishment is mentioned at least twice in each novel as part of the services that any planet or planetoid provides. This is a universe in which whenever the Rocinante lands for repairs or a break, Burton goes off to find a brothel and have sex with prostitutes openly, not at all behind the backs of his crewmates.
They are not bothered but I am. The Expanse is full of interesting women characters, from Nagata herself to Martian soldier Bobbie Draper, passing through fierce, foul-mouthed UN politician Chrisjen Avasarala. Yet, these women live in a universe in which fellow crew members use sex workers and in which prostitution appears to have been regulated but not curbed down. You might say that prostitution has existed for millennia and is unlikely to die in the near future, but the point I am making is that sex work should not have a place in a 24th century in which women are 100% men’s equals. Or, alternatively, it should offer services to all. I have been waiting for six novels already for Bobbie to accompany Burton in one of his excursions, to buy male company, but this has not happened so far. Authors, readers, and main characters seem fine with Amos’s enjoyment of paid sex, and although this is hypocritically presented as part of his warped sexuality, the fact is that in his society it is still a male prerogative to pay women for sex.
In Babylon’s Ashes (the sixth novel) there is a particularly relevant chapter as regards this topic, narrated from Amos’s point of view (what the authors call ‘close third person’). Chapter 35 begins with Burton reflecting on why he uses brothels: we learn that he cannot feel the emotions associated to love (“just seemed like making shit up”), and that he acknowledges the sexual desire building up in his body during the long journeys as “he would anything powerful and dangerous that was sharing his workspace”. Instead of hooking up with one of his crewmates, however, he uses brothels because there “he knew what all the dangers looked like”, meaning he knew how to avoid emotions. I don’t see anything anomalous here, but just a candid account of how the male user of sex work operates. Of the girl sleeping by his side, Maddie, we read that she “was someone he’d used and been used by”, as if client and worker were equals; she, it is reported, was an unlicensed prostitute as a kid, before she joined “the legal trade”. Apparently, this makes post-coital talk easy, for since Amos had been raised among illegal prostitutes, “she knew he wouldn’t pull any of that ‘you’re better than this’ soul-saving bullshit. He also wouldn’t start calling her a bitch and being abusive out of shame the way some johns did”. Amos, who can’t sleep, feels generous leaving her to enjoy the bed he has paid for the whole night, and even more generous because, once what’s nagging him is solved, he decides not to go back to her and demand her services again.
There is in the meantime an absolutely crucial conversation between Amos Burton and Jim Holden, as regards the events in the latest confrontation between the Rocinante and the Free Navy’s rebel Marco Inaros. This is the first long conversation Burton and Holden have in the series, and as I have noted, it takes place in the sixth novel, when the two men have been working together for possibly one decade. Burton has noticed something odd in the missiles launched against Inaros’s spaceship and the suspicion that Holden may have manipulated them is what keeps him awake that particular night with Maddie. He demands an explanation from Holden (which I will not reproduce here to avoid spoilers), and seeing that the captain might not be in a position to finally eliminate Inaros, Burton asks the key question any hero needs to ponder: “Are you the right guy for this job?”. Holden faces the unexpected test of manhood with his proverbial honesty: “No. But I’m the guy who got it. So I’m going to do it”. Holden thanks Burton, who is “not certain what he was being thanked for”, and declines the mechanic’s offer to take the responsibility of killing off his hands. “My hands are fine”, Holden replies.
Here’s the little joke, or not so little, that the authors play. The reader might think that what is bothering Amos that night is finally realizing that he has feelings for one of his crewmates, either Bobbie or, more likely, the frail woman he has rescued from Earth’s devastation. When he returns to the Roci, I expected a scene between Burton and this woman, in which he would (perhaps) declare his love but tell her she is too pure for him to have sex with, or some other heteronormative nonsense. I was quite surprised to find out that what bothered Amos was Jim Holden’s performance as a proper masculine hero, particularly because, as noted, the men have no intimate conversations at all; in fact, all intimate conversations on board the Roci are between Holden and Nagata. She cannot be part of the conversation about Inaros at this point (there is later an intimate conversation in which Holden reproduces his talk with Amos), and, so, Burton, replaces Naomi in the scene.
What is inconceivable in the gruff masculine universe of The Expanse, no matter how soft Holden’s masculinity may be in comparison to that of the traditional space opera hero, is a conversation in which the captain helps his mechanic realize that love and sex with a woman can go together, as he has learned in his relationship with Nagata. That would be too uncomfortably close. There are polyamorous marriages in The Expanse (Holden is the child of one), gays and lesbians, and Holden is even the object of a gay offer of sex (which he politely rejects), but there is no space for male intimacy in which to discuss why Burton’s sexuality is ‘anomalous’ (not really…) and how he could enjoy more fulfilling alternatives than prostitution.
I am partly thankful to the authors for approaching the topic of sex work and being so candid about it, but I am also disappointed that women’s progress as they see it has not eliminated the “trade”. As far as Maddie is concerned, although moving from illegality to legality seems an improvement, the fact that sex work still exists in the 24th century says little about the general progress of women and of the human species. And if you are the type of person who thinks that sex work is like any other work, just ask yourself whether you’d like your young daughter/niece/cousin to announce she wants to be a professional in that trade. (Did you answer ‘yes’? Really?). The debate on prostitution, or sex work, is now at a point when clients have been criminalized in some countries following the Swedish model implanted in 1999, while sex workers have been decriminalized (not legalized). This model has actually been resisted by many sex workers on the grounds that it has made their work more dangerous, as the drop in the number of clients forces them to accept riskier encounters and has diminished their earnings (see https://www.swarmcollective.org/blog/the-swedish-model). They also complaint that there are, besides, few jobs for the women who wish to give up sex work.
What the case of Amos Burton shows, however, is that without a better sex education that can heal traumas and teach men that sex should be born of mutual respect and consent (and indeed of mutual seduction), sex work will continue well beyond the 24th century. What is wrong with that, you may ask? Well, again: ask yourself whether this is a career you would choose for a young person (girl or boy) that you love, and there is your answer. Or imagine going on a business trip with your male workmates and how you would feel if you knew they were going to brothels at each stop, for this is what Naomi and Bobbie see. I would be uncomfortable, to say the least, and if in Sweden could call the cops…Yet, from what I see the Swedish model is not part of The Expanse. So much for the future of women, let’s hope it is better than the authors imagine.