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A Political History of the Future: The Expanse

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On this installment of A Political History of the Future, our series about how science fiction constructs the politics and economics of its future worlds, we discuss The Expanse, whose third season premieres later this week.

The Expanse is a Syfy series, set several centuries in the future, in a mostly-terraformed solar system. It’s based on a series of novels (which I haven’t read) by James S.A. Corey, the pen name for the writing team of Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck. Seven novels have been published, with an eighth forthcoming later this year. The Expanse, which premiered in late 2015, has thus far covered the events of the first novel in the series, Leviathan Wakes (2011), and most of the second novel, Caliban’s War (2012).

One thing that’s worth noting about The Expanse is that in certain corners of SF fandom, it is punching well above its weight class. The second season of The Expanse garnered an average rating of 0.18 in the 18-49 demographic. For comparison, the loopy, decidedly niche-taste fantasy series The Magicians, which premiered alongside The Expanse, averaged 0.31 in the demo in its second season, and 0.27 in its recently-concluded third. HBO’s Westworld, considered a mild disappointment for the channel, had an average rating of 0.80. And unlike other low-rated cable series like Fargo (third season average: 0.31) or The Americans (fifth season average: 0.19), The Expanse doesn’t have a weight of critical acclaim to buttress its weak ratings.

You wouldn’t guess any of this, however, going by The Expanse‘s popularity and impact among SF fans, particularly those who describe themselves as fans of space-set stories and hard SF. My twitter feed is full of fans crowning The Expanse the best SF show on TV (or even the best show period) and praising it as the second coming of its genre. At last year’s Hugo awards, the mid-second-season episode “Leviathan Wakes” handily beat a category full of heavy hitters, including Black Mirror‘s “San Junipero” and Game of Thrones‘s “The Door” and “Battle of the Bastards”.

For two-plus years, I’ve watched this celebration of the show with bemusement. I don’t hate The Expanse, and I’ll probably keep watching it for as long as it’s on. But I also find it singularly un-engaging—surprisingly so, given how well-calibrated its premise and genre are to my interests. I would describe The Expanse as a show with great casting and production values, amazing worldbuilding, a so-so story, and characters who are, with a few notable exceptions, dull as ditchwater. In its second season in particular I’ve been extremely frustrated by where the show has placed its storytelling emphasis, and the political blindspots that has ended up revealing.

There are three major geopolitical entities that set the tone in the colonized solar system of The Expanse. Earth, governed by the UN with copious interference from corporate interests, is stable but ecologically and economically ravaged. Most of the population subsists on basic income, or leaves the planet to find work elsewhere in the system. Mars is a militaristic, communistic society, living under domes in spartan conditions, and devoted to a dream—generations or even centuries distant—of a fully terraformed planet. Martians are raised from childhood to believe in the necessity of doing their part to make that dream a reality, which includes forging Mars into a major power by developing a technologically advanced, gung-ho military.

Most of the series, however, takes place in the Belt, the name given to the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter. Earth, Mars, and corporations from both planets have colonized these asteroids and dwarf planets, mining them for minerals and water ice, establishing research and agricultural stations, and building supply, trade, and shipbuilding hubs. The inner planets are deeply dependent on the Belt, but the humans native to the region rarely benefit from that dependence.

Corporate control of Belt outposts means that civil and labor rights are virtually nonexistent, with Belters having to struggle to afford even the basics of survival, like water or air. Many Belters are too acclimated to low gravity to survive on Earth or Mars (and some are born with fatal genetic abnormalities, such as high chalk content in their bones, for which they receive no medical care). But even the ones who could live on the inner planets are treated like second-class citizens, overpoliced and underrepresented, subject to harassment from planetary and corporate authorities. The Outer Planets Alliance, or OPA, is a loosely-affiliated organization formed to agitate for labor rights and political sovereignty in the Belt, and sometimes crossing over into political violence. It is usually classed as an insurgent, even terrorist organization.

This is, obviously, a very rich premise, and veritable catnip for many readers here, touching so strongly on issues we’ve frequently discussed: labor rights, violent crackdowns against labor organizing, corporate exploitation of overseas (off-planet) workers, supply chains, the utility of political violence and its limitations, rampant inequality between and within nations. But my first source of frustration with The Expanse is the way that it touches on these issues only lightly and in its background, while the main storyline is something much more conventional.

The show begins with Jim Holden (Steven Strait), first officer on the ice-mining ship the Canterbury, taking a small team to investigate a distress signal from a derelict, which promptly destroys their ship. Through a confluence of events, Holden and the other survivors end up commandeering a Martian military ship, which they christen the Rocinante, aboard which they proceed to investigate the reason for their crewmates’ deaths. This investigation puts them on the same path as Joe Miller (Thomas Jane), a corporate cop on the Belt hub of Ceres Station, who is tasked with tracking down the daughter of the Lunar-based mogul Jules-Pierre Mao (Francois Chau), whose missing ship happens to be the one whose distress signal doomed Holden’s crew. On Earth, high-ranking UN functionary Chrisjen Avasarala (Shohreh Aghdashloo) begins to grow suspicious of Mao and his shady government connections. All three storylines eventually converge on the revelation that Mao has discovered, and has been trying to study and weaponize, an alien “protomolecule”, a variant on the trope that Iain Banks termed “an aggressive hegemonizing swarm”, something that turns other things (and people) into itself, without ever stopping.

So, despite a setting that seems to promise a rich political story, The Expanse quickly reveals itself as a bug hunt with political undertones. The two storylines, the political and SFnal, intersect in interesting ways over the course of the show’s two seasons. Much of the second season revolves around Earth having to make concessions to OPA because Mao’s machinations have left it in danger, or around Holden trying to ensure that OPA doesn’t gain control of what remains of the protomolecule.

The fact remains, however, that much of what’s political about The Expanse‘s worldbuilding happens in the background of its main story. That story is often entertaining—though, again, I tend to find the show surprisingly bland considering that it looks so good and is working with such beloved SF hooks—but it’s clear that The Expanse fancies itself as something more sophisticated. And yet it repeatedly fails to take full advantage of the breadth and complexity of its setting, and makes some frustrating choices in how it slants its political storytelling.

One thing that intrigued me about the show almost from the first moment is how it depicts the attitudes the different nations have towards each other. To Earthers, Martians are fanatics to be mocked at every opportunity. In a particularly strong scene in the second season, we learn that the UN deliberately placed the Martian embassy’s shuttle pad a ways from the main complex, thus subjecting visitors to the indignity of having to endure Earth’s higher gravity and endless horizon in full view of contemptuous UN troops. Martians, meanwhile, see Earthers as lazy and overprivileged, having squandered the natural environment that Mars is desperately trying to create.

Both Earthers and Martians view Belters with disdain, and frequently subject them to dehumanizing abuse. Our first introduction to Avasarala sees her inflicting “gravity torture” on a captured OPA operative—in what feels like a deliberate reversal of waterboarding, she repeatedly drains the water in the tank that is the only thing allowing him to survive in Earth gravity, and refills it at the last moment before his heart gives out. Another scene sees a Belter freighter captain accosted by a Martian patrol, which goes so catastrophically wrong that he’s forced to destroy his ship with himself aboard in order to prevent the blowback from affecting his crewmate-slash-nephew.

And yet despite making no bones about the fact that Belters have genuine, legitimate grievances against the inner planets, The Expanse repeatedly teaches us to distrust them as a political force. It’s actually not that unusual for Hollywood to treat labor and civil rights movements as inherently suspicious, reducing them to the two extremes of un-organized suffering and organized insurrection, with no middle ground for legitimate unionizing or political action. (This is changing a little under the force of real-world events, to the extent that only two and a half years after its premiere, The Expanse already feels a little out of step on this front.)  But The Expanse takes this even further with the personalities it places at the head of OPA, and the way it contrasts them with Holden’s apolitical desire to do good.

The most sympathetic Belter character on the show is Naomi Nagata (Dominique Tipper), a member of the Rocinante crew (and, eventually, Holden’s love interest). She has a past with OPA that is shrouded in mystery but which she’s tried to get away from because she finds the organization untrustworthy and violent. In particular, she’s suspicious of the two main figures vying for control of OPA: Anderson Dawes (Jared Harris), an organized crime leader from Ceres Station who never misses an opportunity to come off as oily and untrustworthy; and Fred Johnson (Chad L. Coleman), a former UN military officer whose nickname, “The Butcher of Anderson Station”, refers to the time he violently suppressed a strike on a resupply station, leading to hundreds of civilian casualties.

In the second season it’s revealed that Johnson acted under false intelligence from his superiors, who convinced him the strikers were bent on violence (though I for one am having trouble imagining what possible threat could have justified such an indiscriminate act of mass murder). In fact, it’s not the violence of Johnson’s past that’s treated as delegitimizing by the show, but the radicalism of his present, in which he’s shown venting political enemies from airlocks when they voice disagreement with his tactics. The power struggle between Dawes and Johnson is naturally treated as a justification for dismissing all of OPA—they’re too busy fighting themselves and all that—leaving Holden to take the lead in protecting the Belt from the protomolecule. Both men are viewed, by Holden and the show, as more dangerous than either of the governments on Mars or Earth, and the risk of letting them gain control of either the protomolecule or a clutch of high-yield nuclear missiles is what occupies our heroes for much of the second season.

It’s an emphasis that seems particularly perverse given the event that closes the first season, in which Jules-Pierre Mao’s plans to investigate the protomolecule’s properties reach their horrific next stage. His agents place an activated strain of the protomolecule on Eros Station, which within a day transforms the station’s 1.5 million inhabitants into a blob. It’s Bhopal times one million, except on purpose. It’s an act of war that is also a war crime. It’s, well, genocide. And it’s not something the show really expects us to care about.

It’s fascinating to observe how hard The Expanse‘s second season works to forestall our outrage over Eros. The first half of the season is primarily concerned with the question of what’s to be done about the thing that Eros has become, pushing the political and ethical significance of what happened there to the side. This is exacerbated when it becomes clear that Eros is traveling under its own power on a direct path to Earth, which naturally shifts our sympathies and priorities. This also serves to further delegitimize Dawes and Johnson, who are in a position to aid Earth but haggle over it in ways that, in theory, we should be sympathetic towards—since, again, they are technically at war with Earth. The show, however, depicts their behavior as monstrous, while withholding that sort of severe judgment from Mao and the people who aided him. This is part of the show’s project to convince us that these two men, who might use the protomolecule for their own aims, are of greater concern than Mao, who did use it on a civilian outpost in an attempt to develop weapons with it.

On Earth, Avasarala is furiously investigating Mao, but this is only to obscure the fact that she seems to be the only person in the UN who even gives a shit about justice for Eros, and that even her colleagues who aren’t in bed with Mao clearly don’t see the matter as significant. A major storyline revolves around Avasarala joining forces with Bobbie Draper, a Martian marine (Frankie Adams), to uncover the Martian military’s interests in developing protomolecule-based weapons. But this feels almost laughably beside the point, focusing on the exposure of a relatively minor crime when a much larger, more horrific one has been committed in full public view.

It’s particularly telling that the early episodes of the first season saw Holden’s anger over his ship’s destruction blossom into a populist movement among Belters with the slogan “Remember the Cant”, whereas the atrocity on Eros results in no corresponding public outrage. On the contrary, the most pernicious way in which The Expanse tries to undermine our rage over Eros is how it depicts Belters’ reactions to it. Early in the second season, the agricultural outpost on Ganimede is hit with another protomolecule-based attack. Our point of view character on this tragedy, the Belter scientist Praxidike “Prax” Meng (Terry Chen), loses his daughter in the attack, and in the aftermath he is cared for by his Martian-born colleague Doris (Grace Lynn Kung). When the ship that rescued them announces that inner planet citizens are being transferred to another transport, Prax watches in horror as Doris and the other Earthers and Martians from Ganimede are instead vented into space, in an act of senseless vengeance.

This scene is sharply contrasted later in the season, when Naomi tries to evacuate some of the last Belter workers from a rapidly-failing Ganimede. Realizing that her ship can only carry a fraction of the people who need rescue, she engages one of the strongmen who had previously bargained with her for a place on board to arrange an orderly selection. Instead of ensuring his own survival, he turns to the desperate Belters and exhorts them to face death with dignity, and to give priority to children, finally giving up even his own seat.

The show thus sets up an impossible binary for Belter reactions to Earth and Mars’s predation—they can be noble and self-sacrificing, or angry and indiscriminately vengeful, with no space in the middle for righteous, justified anger and productive action based upon it. It’s an extension of the first season’s similarly reductive attitude towards popular organization. Belters can either suffer beautifully, or they can act destructively, but the only people who can be trusted to actually save the day are Earthers like Holden or Avasarala, and apolitical parties like the crew of the Rocinante.

I don’t doubt that the story The Expanse is telling will eventually lead to greater political independence and sovereignty for the Belt, but I strongly suspect that this will end up being the gift of designated heroes like Holden and Avasarala, while figures like Dawes or Johnson will be marginalized or even turned into all-out villains. I really don’t know whether to expect any justice for Eros, and this is a major hurdle for me—I feel like a good rule of thumb for writers is that if you include a genocide in your story, you have to make your story about that genocide, and this The Expanse is clearly not interested in doing. The Expanse has a wonderful setting in which I could imagine some fascinating, politically-complex stories. But the one it has chosen to tell leaves me alternately bored and infuriated.

Next time on APHotF: not entirely sure, but I’m thinking of giving a look to the BBC’s adaptation of China Miéville’s The City & The City, and how the premise of the book reads very differently today than when it was published nearly ten years ago.

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