The Expanse
“The Expanse” has been critically acclaimed for its relevance to present-day politics

This article is a preview from the Winter 2017 edition of New Humanist.

“Belter lives first,” said the captain of the transport vehicle as he pushed a button that jettisoned some 50 refugees – who were ­unlucky enough to hail from Earth – into the vacuum of space. It is in this scene, taking place in the second season of The Expanse, a television series that critics have hailed as the “most politically relevant sci-fi show” in decades, that the language of Trump, Brexit and other recent political developments manifest. It’s a pivotal moment for the show and contemporary TV in general.

The series is set 300 years in the future. Humans have colonised Mars. Smaller colonies have been established on asteroids, from which the resource-hungry planets draw things like minerals and even water. In circumstances that take inspiration from the American revolution, Mars has seceded from Earth a few generations after its initial colonisation and, after getting close to full-scale war, an uneasy peace is in place.

But the asteroids too, collectively known as the “The Belt”, are agitating for revolution. Their inhabitants, essentially second-class citizens, believe that it is through their work that Earth and Mars prosper. In return they only ­receive oppression (in the form of food and water rationing) when they make any demands – such as work safety regulation or more autonomy to run their own affairs.

It is in this setting that another player is introduced in the form of an alien molecule. Effectively a biological weapon, the molecule falls into the hands of a powerful corporation which then proceeds to play both sides for maximum advantage, a move that threatens to overthrow the balance of power and lead to an all-out war.

What does all this have to do with our world? Inside every piece of good science fiction there’s a fundamental truth: even the art of writing about the future is undertaken by people whose only tool for understanding history and reflecting on it is a rear-view mirror. Regardless of how imaginative and otherworldly the settings surrounding the best science fiction are, the concerns of the characters ­reflect and address real-world issues.

Another work that struck a chord recently is the novel Something Coming Through by Paul McAuley. In the story, Earth is the scene of a limited nuclear war, the environment is in ruins and humanity is in despair. An alien species appears, giving us the chance to leave the planet. This species will provide the means and some technology, in exchange for mining rights in our solar system. With the exception of the original Star Trek, in which a post-scarcity future has manifested itself and work is only tied to personal development and ambition, most sci-fi is concerned with resources and who gets to reap the benefits of space exploration. Notably, later incarnations of Star Trek take this into account, especially Deep Space 9. Why is this discusion more relevant at this particular moment?

Elon Musk, the CEO of Tesla and Space-X, already lives in this world. “I want to die on Mars,” he said during the SXSW festival in 2013, “Just not on impact.” He is the most visible of a number of billionaires shooting for the stars, Richard Branson of Virgin being another highly visible poster boy of the privatised race for space currently underway. While even a decade ago it seemed entirely in the realm of fantasy, Musk is pushing for a human colony on Mars within his lifetime. Other companies, with backing by behemoths such as Uber, are planning to mine asteroids for precious metals and more, much like the plot of The Expanse.

But these are not dreams of Utopia. This is the next step of the “Anthropocene”, a concept that has found prominence in the last few years. It describes the first geological age in which the environment is being shaped primarily by human activity. The Anthropocene – or, even better, the “Capitalocene”, as Jason Moore proposes we rename the concept in his book Capitalism in the Web of Life: Ecology and the Accumulation of Capital (Verso) – is expanding to space.

In his book Moore gives a sense of what drives capitalism today. He says “[Capital] must ceaselessly search for, and find ways to produce ‘Cheap Natures’ as inputs to commodity production.” In a planet with ever-diminishing resources, the reduction of the consumer base to an elite with access to almost unlimited resources originating on asteroids and neighbouring planets, coupled with the drastic reduction in the living standards of the majority of the population, can even be sold as a way to deal with climate change.

This is another theme that features heavily in The ­Expanse. In season two, the Martian Marine trooper Bobbie Draper asks her superior officer, who has been to Earth, if he has seen the ocean. He confirms he has. Mars is still being terraformed and no water is to be seen on its surface. “What was it like?” she asks.

“Dirty. One more thing they don’t appreciate”.

The air of cultural superiority Earthers believe they are entitled to also hovers over the show, contributing to the tensions the characters are dealing with. Deep Space 9 also dealt heavily with the subject of culture, even taking a poke at the cultural imperialism of the Federation, the show’s fictional interstellar republic. In one of the most famous quotes from DS9, a Starfleet security officer who just defected to a hostile terrorist faction accuses Captain Sisko and the Federation of exerting too much cultural pressure on other races. “Everybody should want to be in the Federation,” he says. “Nobody leaves paradise. In some ways, you’re even worse than the Borg. At least they tell you about their plans for assimilation. You assimilate people and they don’t even know it.”

In The Expanse, the cultural side of interplanetary expansion comes into sharper focus. The different factions have distinct fashions. A more punk style for the Belters, a militaristic one for Martians, and what we could label “high fashion” for Earthers. The Belters even have distinct dialects, made up as they are by a multitude of nationalities stuck in small spaces.
The science fiction of the past two decades carries dire warnings about what will happen once humanity reaches for space. The competition for resources will not go away, regardless of how plentiful the yields are. Cultural conflicts will arise. And the current problems of capitalism will persist.

Herein lies the problem with the way this expansion to the stars is currently talked about. How can we expect the very systems that deplete our planet’s resources, sow inequality and pit cultures against one another to change simply by merit of having left the Earth? There is no guarantee of that. There is a very real danger that “they will take Mars from us”, as a friend said to me recently when we discussed the phenomena of private companies venturing into space.

The Expanse brings these issues vividly to life. Instead of hiding behind sci-fi conventions and clichés, it wears its politics on its sleeve and makes sure we understand that in this coming conflict, there are no good guys. The Expanse serves to make us understand that global peace will not come simply because we don’t need to gut our mountains and chop down our forests for resources. If we’re not careful and considerate about our next moves and who we allow to be our agents in the next few decades, we will be simply repeating the same mistakes 382,746 kilometres up – Mars’s position at the time of writing – from where we stand.

“The Expanse” is available to watch on SyFy; “Something Coming Through” is published by Gollancz