SPOILERS WARNING: This post deals with the nine Expanse novels and discusses the series’ ending.

The Expanse is a series of nine space opera novels—Leviathan Wakes (2011), Caliban’s War (2012), Abaddon’s Gate (2013), Cibola Burn (2014), Nemesis Games (2015), Babylon’s Ashes (2016), Persepolis Rising (2017), Tiamat’s Wrath (2019) and Leviathan Falls (2021)—accompanied by a short fiction collection (Memory’s Legion, 2022), written by American author James S.A. Corey, the penname of Ty Franck and Daniel Abraham. The series, popularized by its SyFy/Amazon adaptation (2013-), narrates how captain James Holden and his crew on board the Rocinante deflect the threat posed by a protomolecule engineered by an extinct alien civilization, which falls into the hands of very human, male patriarchal villains.

Martian Admiral Winston Duarte (who appears in the last three novels and has so far appeared in episodes 6×4 and 6×6 of the TV series, played by Dylan Taylor) takes advantage of the protomolecule to enhance himself and, once thus empowered, establish a multi-planetary military dictatorship. Duarte’s difficulties to remain human and his megalomaniac decision to turn humankind into a single hive entity to defeat a more powerful alien species, are the stuff of white-men pulpish space opera. However, the popularity of Corey’s highly entertaining novel series means that for many persons the ideas about the posthuman come basically from sf of this type, and not from sophisticated academic intellectual debate.

Corey’s Expanse series, I argue, uses the trope of the hostile alien species to send a warning about the difficulties of progressing as humans while male patriarchal villainy persists. This warning is sent not only through Duarte but also through the villain Jules Pierre Mao, who runs Protogen, the corporation illegally experimenting with the alien protomolecule that wreaks havoc in the Solar system before Duarte steals it. Also through the hero James Holden, who cannot solve the problem posed by these villains without becoming himself monstrously posthuman.

Following my own work in Masculinity and Patriarchal Villainy in the British Novel: From Hitler to Voldemort (2020), I wish to stress here that posthumanism and transhumanism no doubt help enhance patriarchal villainy. Male sf authors lack a clear anti-patriarchal agenda but their anti-posthuman positioning implicitly defends it, as I aim to show. Captain James Holden, the hero who embodies this anti-posthumanist resistance is not a strong enough figure, but this is part, I believe, of the limits of the anti-patriarchal agenda I have mentioned and of white male authors’ inability to shift the role of the hero onto women or a community of diverse persons.

The nine-novel series narrates how a protomolecule launched by an ancient alien species billions of years ago to build a system of ring gates as beachheads for either travel or invasion was accidentally stopped on its tracks by Saturn’s moon Phoebe. This protomolecule is found there in the 24th century by the Martian government, who commissions private corporation Protogen, ran by Terran tycoon Jules Mao, to exploit it. Protogen, however, soon develops its own plans, including experimentation with humans.

The hero James Holden and his crew, originally humble ice transporters, stumble upon these experiments and, once Mao is defeated, are later involved in the rebellion staged by Belter leader Marco Inaros, a man trying to safeguard the Belt asteroids in the conflict between Earth and Mars. In fact, Inaros turns out to be a tool of rebellious Martian fleet Admiral Duarte, who steals the protomolecule and starts his own military empire, having discovered a second, far more powerful alien species who had eliminated the original aliens. Duarte determines to defeat this other species by remaking himself and later all of humankind as transhumans using the protomolecule. Only the hero Holden, of course, can stop him.

There is nothing, then, surprising or innovative in Corey’s highly entertaining space opera, except that it offers a deeper characterization than usual if only because of its extension. Besides, unlike what might be expected, Holden is not the classic macho space captain but a vulnerable man constantly doubting himself, who pursues his heroic mission out of stubbornness rather than any patriarchal principles.

Duarte first appears as a nameless, shadowy figure. In Nemesis Games, the fifth novel, he masterminds the robbery of the only remaining sample of the protomolecule. In the sixth novel, Babylon’s Ashes, while Inaros decimates Earth Duarte stages a coup on his home planet Mars, absconding with one fifth of the military fleet to an unknown location, accessible through the ring gates opened in the Solar system by the alien protomolecule. The seventh novel, Persepolis Rising, set thirty years later, reveals that Duarte has been hiding on planet Laconia, named after the Greek Spartan capital, where he has built the formidable half-alien fleet which conquers all the ring gates.

Previous to this turning point, Paolo Cortázar, Duarte’s head nanoengineer and a man involved in Protogen’s appalling experiments, starts using the protomolecule to turn the villain into an immortal posthuman. Duarte ignores that Cortázar is actually using him as a guinea pig for his own transformation. When Holden is arrested by Duarte’s forces and kept prisoner for long years in Laconia, the captain plays the dangerous game of suggesting to Cortázar that he should kill Duarte’s only daughter Teresa, a fourteen-year-old girl. Ignoring that Holden has inspired Cortázar’s plot against her, Teresa communicates her fears to her already deeply transformed father who eliminates Cortázar. Without the scientist, Duarte’s posthuman transformation soon spirals out of control.

In a previous conversation with Cortázar, Duarte comments on the irony of his own position for “I’ve always rejected the great-man idea (…) And yet here I am” (PR 11). The other irony is that his decision to proclaim himself conqueror of the 1300 planets linked by the ring gates comes just when captain Holden’s girlfriend Naomi Nagata has finally convinced him that the time to retire has come. “You wouldn’t feel like it made you less of a man?”, she cagily asks, but he reassures her that he is ready. Of course, he is not.

According to a report by another main character, UN Secretary Chrisjen Avasarala, Duarte spent decades biding his time, having possibly realized at twenty how he could redo history thanks to the protomolecule. She confirms that Inaros’ Balter Free Navy was nothing but a distraction while Duarte fortified Laconia and developed his long-term villainous plans. Not all see them as villainous, though. One of Duarte’s lieutenants, Singh, reflects: “All humanity had seen the opportunity of new lands, of new worlds to inhabit, but alone of them all Winston Duarte had recognized the terrible danger that expansion would bring. (…) And he alone had the will to solve the problem” (PR 398). Holden is a serious obstacle in this megalomaniac plan because, Singh muses, the captain is “singular in all humanity because he’d bumbled into being in so many of the right places at so many of the right times. If there was one thing Laconia’s history taught, it was the power of the right person at the right moment” (PR 399).

When Holden meets Duarte on Laconia as his prisoner he warns the villain that he will fail because “You’re not picking a fight with the things that made the protomolecule. You’re picking a fight with whatever killed them” (PR 548). Nonchalant, Duarte replies that humanity was bound to use the alien technologies regardless of their origin and possible dangers. He proposes then to Holden that they become allies, “To take the shards of the protomolecule’s broken sword and reforge it”, turning humankind into “a single community” to “storm heaven” (PR 549).

In Tiamat’s Wrath, Holden describes himself to Teresa as her father’s dancing bear, a poor creature kept for amusement to “show power” (TW 98). He considers in a key passage Duarte’s personality, seeing him as a monster of a rather alluring type, and not as a fairly common product of patriarchal villainy:

Duarte was a thoughtful, educated, civilized man and a murderer. He was charming and funny and a little melancholy and, as far as Holden could tell, completely unaware of his own monstrous ambition. Like a religious fanatic, the man really believed that everything he’d done was justified by his goal in doing it. Even when it was the push for his own personal immortality—and then his daughter’s—before slamming the door behind them, Duarte managed to cast it as a necessary burden for the good of the species. He was above all else a charming little ratfuck. As Holden grew to respect the man, even to like him, he was careful never to lose sight of the fact that Duarte was a monster. (TW 252-3)

When Holden’s crewmember Amos is found hiding in Laconia, without the captain knowing of his presence, Duarte deprives his dancing bear status of his relative freedom. Holden is tortured for a long time until finally his crew rescues him. Amos’s secret friendship with Teresa  results in her own anti-patriarchal rebellion, to the extent that helps Holden and escapes on the Rocinante. Duarte is at this point so far gone into his posthuman path of degradation that the runaways are given chase by his henchpersons.

The denouement of the series in Leviathan Falls (2021) is thus focused on a hero severely impaired by the PTSD caused by torture and a raving, monstrous posthuman patriarchal villain. Holden feels “annihilated” (LF 186) not so much by his physical punishment as by how the dancing bear years had “broken down his sense of himself” (LF 186). In a significant conversation with Amos, Holden claims that he no longer fears death but wants “to go out knowing that things will be okay without me” (LF 241). Mocking him gently, Amos replies that perhaps “you’re not that important and it ain’t up to you to fix the universe?” (LF 241), a view seconded by Holden’s loyal but worn-out girlfriend Naomi (and in many ways by the readers, following her own stance).

To Naomi’s consternation, when Holden asks her for permission to do what it takes to defeat Duarte, he has already decided to inject himself with the protomolecule. When his posthuman transformation begins Holden feels “deeply at ease” (LF 413) and healed from his PTSD:

“His head felt weirdly clear. Even with the distant awareness of the others, the moment was his own. He felt as alone as he ever had, and also a kind of satisfaction. A falling away of doubt. The anxiety that had haunted him since Laconia had cooked off like dew on a warm day. He was only himself now”. (LF 414)

The authors, however, undermine Holden’s healing, masculine re-empowerment by siding with Naomi when she vents her anger after the couple’s low-key goodbye. She discloses to crewmate Alex that she is angry because Holden has been healed by the thrill of danger:

“(…) I saw him again. Just now. I saw him the way he used to be. At his best. And love isn’t what got him there. And it wasn’t care. And it wasn’t time. He saw something incredibly, stupidly dangerous that needed to be done and only he could do. And he just . . .” (LF 421, original ellipsis)

While he searches for Duarte, Holden uses his new posthuman might to attach himself to the ring gates and close them, thus saving humankind from the intrusion of the second alien species but also cutting off the 1300 inhabited worlds, at least until interstellar voyage is developed. This combined act of foolishness and heroism destroys him but the fact is that the man who had accused Duarte of deciding selfishly the fate of all humankind does the same, an issue raised by the authors in his final conversation with another key character, the protomolecule puppet Miller. Holden dies in a blaze of power (by which I mean energy) and glory, but reaps no homage. Amos asks Naomi whether she can survive without Holden and she tells herself “that she could. But she wasn’t ready to say it out loud” (LF 510), preferring instead to focus on how travel again to the lost planets. The hero is just gone.

As for Duarte, the superhuman monster, he dies twice, or in two stages. He abandons Laconia to take the central Ring Station and start building there the human hive mind. However, when Teresa and Holden find him, Duarte is being destroyed by the alien-infested station. Holden kills off his mind when the monster tries to murder Teresa, as the girl frantically pulls her father off the alien black threads binding him. Yet it is officer Aliana Tanaka, a tough Martian fleet officer and one of Duarte’s most loyal servants, who sacrifices her life to destroy his body, acting out of the deep anger she feels seeing what her hero has become. Tanaka dies wishing she could shoot dead the monster Holden is also becoming, but he survives her to save humankind, as I have reported.

I have not used here any theorization because it has been my intention to show you the kind of fantasies to which white, heterosexual, cisgender male writers apply their vision of the posthuman. Admiral Winston Duarte is, most transparently, a patriarchal villain interested in accumulating multi-planetary power. He believes that a radical posthuman transformation is the only way in which he can accrue so much power and, faced with an even more powerful alien species, he decides to alter all of humankind, seeing it as just a resource to be exploited for his own ends. The hero James Holden spends many decades trying to stop the villains from exploiting the alien protomolecule. He does succeed, though at the cost of becoming himself as monstrous as his rival, if only for respectable heroic reasons.

What interests me about this rather traditional space opera is how the authors know very well that it is yet another story about a villain and a hero in a patriarchal universe, yet they cannot refrain themselves from telling it. In the end Duarte and Holden come across as reckless, thoughtless men and it is apparent that Naomi and, secondarily, Amos, are the sensible characters whose opinions we should heed as the authorial delegates in the series. Yet, as I read about Duarte, a character whose narrative arc unfolded in the years of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign, mandate and attempted coup, I began to understand why the tale of how Holden defeats this villain is enjoyable as a consolatory fantasy. If even being just plain human, Trump (or Putin) are patriarchal monsters, imagine what they could be like if they were further empowered in ways that could make them posthuman or transhuman. Suddenly, The Expanse takes on a darker meaning and appears to be quite a relevant anti-patriarchal, anti-posthuman fable, despite not being at all the kind of gender-progressive science fiction we prefer now. Or is it?