Heroism in The Expanse

Mary B Smith

The gritty sci-fi series The Expanse provides many opportunities to explore the question, “What is a hero?” I was initially introduced to the story through the TV series. Unfortunately, the series ended prior to the books’ ending, so I waded into the last three novels: Persepolis Rising, Tiamet’s Wrath, and Leviathan Falls. I will be pulling from these last three books and from the television series in my discussion. I was drawn to the development of two characters, Holden and Amos. Holden and Duarte may be a more obvious choice, but the nuance between Holden and Amos was more fascinating to me. We have in these characters a contrast, between a reluctant hero and an unlikely one. James Holden, the reluctant hero. This characterization is obviously applicable at the beginning of the television series, when he logs the distress call he was ordered to ignore, having  left the UN Navy because his ethical code did not allow him to follow an unlawful order. He joins the Cant to escape responsibility, but the same scenario presents itself again, where he is forced to follow an unlawful order, and he can’t help but disobey. This single act starts a chain reaction he never could have anticipated, resulting years later in the ultimate sacrifice. Amos, on the other hand, presents as a completely amoral character driven by survival. Not the stuff heroes appear to be made of – remember his plan to shoot as many Martian marines as possible. His journey to heroism is twisting, entangled in Holden’s own. Let’s explore Holden and Amos in this role of hero, comparing and contrasting how and why their heroism manifests in different ways.

One of the most striking scenes in the television series, and the producer of countless memes, involves Amos and Prax finding Prax’s daughter Mei. The episode “immolation” (S3E6) demonstrates that Amos lives a life of absolutes. Once someone’s true colours are exposed to him, his version of justice is swift. Prax wants to exact murderous revenge on the doctor who experimented on and kidnapped Mei. Amos intervenes to stop him, telling him he is not that guy. Amos believes Prax’s true nature would not allow him to live with himself after killing. After Prax tells Mei that Amos was his very best friend, this forges Amos as the protector of this man and his daughter. The doctor does not realise the danger he is in, thanking Amos profusely until Amos says, 'I am that guy,' and ends the doctor violently. Amos appears to have a genuine desire to keep the good people good and make the bad people dead. If Amos sees you hurt someone completely innocent, he is coming for you. Always the steely eyed killer, but there is definitely a positive motivation there.

It is interesting that the books and show portrayed  no discussion between Holden and Amos regarding what happened to the doctor. In an earlier incident, Holden was furious at Miller for shooting the doctor who used Eros as one big immoral biology experiment. (Has anyone else noticed that doctors, PhD or otherwise, are the worst in this universe?) Holden wants nothing to do with Miller after this, but doesn’t bat an eye when Amos metes out the same death sentence to Mei’s abuser. Holden takes a step closer to the world Amos lives in. It isn’t that Holden isn’t still heroic, but rather that he seems to recognize more grey. This different reaction from Holden signifies a convergence of what justice looks like to both men when a truly innocent party, a child, is involved. This common belief comes apart later in the books.

The introduction of the Clarissa/Peaches storyline exposes a soft underbelly to Amos’ brutal tendencies and further evolves Holden’s moral code. Amos is there when Jules Pierre Mao is captured, making him partially responsible for ending the life that Clarissa enjoyed, and starting her on the path of vengeance. Surprisingly, Clarissa does, like the Frozen II song, 'the next right thing' when she disables the Behemoth's laser, helping to save humanity, even Holden, her professed enemy. Even after Peaches had attempted to kill Holden, and Naomi for that matter, Amos appears to see her as someone worthy of his time and possibly worthy of redemption. He helps transport her to prison, but then later goes to visit her on Earth. Clarissa asks him why and he doesn’t really have an answer. This bolsters the feeling I often have, that Amos wants a better life, different from the life he lived before the Rocinante. In his interactions with Clarissa, Amos seems to say, 'If she can be redeemed, maybe I can be too.' But this is not an all-consuming desire for Amos. After the meteor hit, Amos could have killed the remaining female guard to give Clarissa anonymity, but instead, he encourages the guard to go and find her son. Amos again protects the protector of a child, encouraging the guard to put the child ahead of her job.

The look on Holden’s face when Peaches arrives on the Rocinante is hilariously understandable. Not knowing everything Clarissa and Amos went through to get to Luna, her arrival is obviously very confusing to Holden. Shaking his head, he reluctantly gives shelter to someone he probably still fears. But when Bobbie comes aboard and Amos reveals Clarissa, Holden defends her presence, trusting Amos in this decision. This is a change for both characters. The previous iteration of Holden would never have trusted Amos to make the right decision when it came to judging a person’s potential for rehabilitation. The previous iteration of Amos would not have respected Holden’s opinion or friendship, enough to confirm their brotherhood, before bringing Clarissa on board. Amos sees Holden’s acceptance of the situation as confirmation of making the right choice. Holden in turn, expands his trust of others, believing them capable of making the right decision. He trusts the growth he has seen in Amos’ moral compass.

A new character’s arrival in the books helps demonstrate the continued solidification of the types of heroes both Holden and Amos end up being. Duarte’s daughter Teresa provides opportunities to show where each man is emotionally. Holden enters into pleasant conversation with her, but his actions are not those of a previous Holden, the defender of innocence, a line not to be crossed. He manipulates her, using her fear to cause her to approach her father with her concerns, even though he knows Duarte is unstable. This leads directly to Duarte's initiation of the actions ending Cortázar’s life. Duarte’s love for her is dying but not quite dead. Holden seems to feel some remorse for this treachery, but his desperation overrides that reluctance. Ultimately this manipulation protects Teresa, but rips the rug out from under her world. Teresa is forced to use herself as a human shield so that the Rocinante can leave orbit.

I believe Holden’s torture at the hands of the Laconian soldiers has a profound effect on him. Soldiers suffering from PTSD may not be objective in war. I believe militaries need soldiers who do not know the horrors of war. Soldiers need someone who understands their experience, but who has enough optimism to show them they can become whole again, without destroying those who hurt them. They can pull back from vengeance, and they can stop first-strike actions. In the end, Amos was not willing to sacrifice kids, while Holden was. Holden has been tortured and wants vengeance on the Laconians. In contrast, Amos has many opportunities to kill, kidnap, or extort Teresa. Instead, he bestows the nickname 'Tiny' on her, and gives her advice. When Amos is discovered and knows he will be shot, he tells her to close her eyes, so that she won’t be exposed to that horror. He does not go down fighting, realising Teresa would get caught in the crossfire. Holden has been changed; Amos has not.

We then see Amos miraculously reappear, a little disconcerting to all involved! Why is Amos fundamentally unchanged by this stunning resurrection? It raises the question, what are we at our finite level? The protomolecule integrates consciousness without bodies but in Amos’s case, it resurrects a body and maintains its consciousness within it. And somehow, Amos stays apart, fighting Duarte and the hive mind. I would like to believe it is his strength of character coming into play. Amos was forged on the streets of Baltimore. This unbreakable spirit is at the heart of Amos’ evolution into an unlikely hero. Even after this twisted resurrection, Amos continues to demand the protection of children. I found his conversation with Evi, informing her that the experiments with Cara would stop, to be one of the most intense scenes in the books. When Amos says, 'Doc I get it. You’re a good person, and I like you ... I see that you’re not getting off on this. That’s why we’re not having the other version of this conversation.'28 The hesitancy expressed by Evi, as to the necessary evil of their actions, helps ensure a different outcome between what happens to her – nothing – and what happened to the doctor that took Mei – death. Amos believes that the safety of one child is more important than the universe. Amos is willing to risk humanity to stop the girl from reconnecting to Duarte. And Evi realises how serious he is: 'It was her body telling her that she’d just stared death in the eye.'

Evi and Holden are willing to shatter the rules, knowing they are outside the lines, the opposite of Amos. Holden is shown a former Laconian soldier now kept in a box, repeatedly irradiated and experimented on. He got Cortázar killed for doing the same experiments, but a creeping fear and desperation enters Holden’s life. The Holden before this would not have wanted to put Teresa on that station with her father. He has seen Duarte before he disappeared. He knows Duarte now holds humanity’s fate in higher regard than his daughter’s safety, but Holden is still willing to risk Teresa on the off chance that she could change Duarte’s mind. Amos also has first-hand knowledge of where Duarte’s mind is, but he holds onto Teresa’s hope that her love can bring him back from the control of the protomolecule. He seems to have seen it as her last chance to see her father, while Holden saw her as everyone else’s last chance.

Amos sees the value in Teresa as a person, not a pawn. Holden is desperate to stop the attack, willing to try anything, use anyone. This reads like a last-ditch effort on Holden’s part to stop the necessary sacrifice he might be required to make. With Amos, this feels like a simple hope that the love he sees Teresa have for her father might make a difference. When that is not possible, the old Holden re-emerges, accepting his fate. Holden makes sure Teresa gets out, pushes her to safety, and Amos is there to catch her.

I believe Holden shares a strength of character with Amos, but to a lesser extent. He seems to require a prodding, a potentially apocalyptic outcome to spur him to act. He is able to maintain his sanity in his interactions with the protomolecule, but Holden requires Miller’s help  Miller to maintain his sanity just long enough. Growing up, James was wrapped in the loving warmth of an unusually large immediate family, protecting him in the winters of Montana. In the end, he needs a friend, the one that fought with him through the craziness of Eros. Can anyone wish for more, than to die with a friend? Throughout the books and series, Holden lives like a man desperately running from destiny, but in the end, he reluctantly, heroically, embraces that destiny with the ever-present, coffee-loving resignation that we have come to love. Sometimes it is in the surrender that a person is finally free.

As Holden surrenders to this fate of being the literal touchstone for humanity’s salvation, he sums up his entire life’s direction so beautifully. His belief that our individuality is what makes the human race so incredible is apparent. He recognizes the power of individual thoughts and dreams, like those of Epstein, propelling us through the stars. Through his final actions, he makes the whole better, by the heroism of the one. '“I absolutely believe that people are more good on balance than bad,” he said ... “I’m not looking away from any of that, and I still think there’s something beautiful about being what we are ... A few moments of real grace. Maybe it’s only a little more good than bad in us, but...” “I don’t have a fucking clue,” Holden said, and then did it anyway.'29 James and Miller defy Duarte’s plan, winning everything and losing everything all at once. The final, 'I saw a button so I pushed it' moment for Holden, the ever-reluctant hero.

In the end, Amos wins the fight against an instinct to destroy and rises above it. He becomes a builder of civilization. Amos is resigned to the fact that Holden is saving humanity while condemning parts of it to starvation and death. He asks Naomi, 'What about you, Boss? What do you think about all this shit?'30 He has developed a fundamental understanding of family and loss, knowing how Naomi will mourn Jim, and that Alex will leave to be with his son. He accepts responsibility for Tiny and believes he can help her move past her loss. Using his immortality in a complete departure from the way Duarte used his, Amos becomes the new touchstone for humanity. The epilogue shows that the essence of Amos never left, even after dying twice. He is the rock Earth stands upon when the space travellers show up. In his last words, which show Amos remains flawed by society’s standards, he becomes its most unlikely hero. 'We’re starting to get our shit together, and I’ve been doing what I can to help with that, but it’s slow going. I’m not into job titles. Name’s Amos Burton. If we’re good, I’m just some asshole. If you’re here to start some shit, I’m the guy you’ll have to go through first. Tell ‘em I said that.' Amos and Holden, two very different heroes, but heroes just the same.

28. James S A Corey, Leviathan Falls (New York: Orbit, 2021), 320.
29. Corey, Leviathan Falls, 500.
30. Corey, Leviathan Falls, 510.