The Expanse

During the first few months of 2021, a second semi-lockdown was instaurated where I live due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Bad weather outside, curfews and all, I had some more time inside on my hands to indulge my guilty pleasures, including watch some shows. The Expanse is one of those long-form TV dramas that seem to scratch my itch for SF in just the right way, a show that never ceases to amaze me in that as far as it goes, it is collated almost exclusively from TV sci-fi melodrama cliches a la Stargate SG-1 or Battlestar Galactica (the early-2000s one), but without the occasional high concept SF episode of the former or the mythical-religious pretensions of the latter. Yet, because of its ever-inventive formula for how to re-arrange those elements into new assemblages, it still manages to feel fresh enough each season. The SF part of it is mostly high production value, Hollywoodesque, epic scale space opera nonsense (for which, why not admit it, I am quite the sucker), but it is slow enough to build atmosphere (especially during the early seasons, sometimes verging on noir and horror) and develop quite interesting characters (especially great are Naomi, Miller, Camina and Ashford – others are constructed in a much more in-your face, caricatural way, but are still workable), and it also has some interesting world-building elements, such as the existence of the (literally) marginal Belters, a clear stand-in for post-colonial struggles, as we shall see.

There is also the fact that it has the most believable and sensible space combat of any mainstream SF franchise, built in such a way as to not stray absurdly far from the laws of physics, but also be tense and tactical in a way I never really felt in something like Star Trek (of which I am not much of a connoiseur, I am afraid) or Star Wars (though the old ones can be said to have a certain charm to them – the chit-chat of the fighter pilots, the distinctive sound effects, the ridiculous RAF contra Luftwaffe – in space!-style dogfights – but the prequels had a weightless and plastic quality to them that really makes sitting through the endless space battle sequences a chore. The new ones… the less said, the better).

But apart from that, the actual science fiction is strikingly unimaginative and mundane. Culturally, socially and economically, the show could just as well have been set in the present (or, as we shall see further on, in the past). In 200 years' time, basically nothing of substance is different, except the spatial extension of human habitation – for a bit of perspective, that is the distance in time between Napoleon’s death and today. One might say that that is not the show’s focus, or perhaps it is to be interpreted as a comment on the present rather then any particular future, as much of SF is, but it can’t help but bring to mind Mark Fisher’s observations on the “slow cancellation of the future”[1], our increasing inability to imagine and articulate new and radical futures – or, as one character in the show puts it, “even our dreams are small”. If SF extrapolates current trends into the future, is the show extrapolating precisely this lack of a future into the 24th century?

In The Expanse, politics were always front and center, and part of the story is told from the perspective of the highest executive in the future Sol system’s corridors of power, but it is all confined to this cliched thetricality of a politics of the spectacle, or what I like to call Flawed Great Man Politics (in this case, Woman but the point is the same - this is a fantasy of a politics determined by the character of those in power, rather than largely by high-level, impersonal, interconnected systems and forces). This is a style of political storytelling that has had quite the career in recent TV dramas – Scandal, House of Cards, etc. and perhaps aims to humanise political leaders in the audience’s eyes, to lead to an appreciation of their status as profoundly flawed people with dreams, aspirations and ambitions of their own – as if that was ever contested, or was even ever the issue.

Nevertheless I have not felt The Expanse did anything interesting politically until this latest season. The main political divisions in the show’s world are in a way an anachronistic continuation of the Cold War era mentality – perhaps even a nostalgia for that time, reflecting our inability to shed that legacy? Are we indeed still “trapped in the 20th century” [2]? – with the three main political factions clearly mirroring a pre-1989 world: The Inners, the two planetary superpowers of liberal-democratic Earth and quasi-authoritarian-militaristic Mars (never understood why does Mars always need to be the bellicose one in SF – just because of the name?). The third political faction is a loose collection of asteroid-bound microstates, labour unions, activists, pirates and other assorted exotica, located in the asteroid belt, its inhabitants called Belters. The stability of the system depends on the maintenance of a fragile detente between the Inners – with the Belt being ruthlessly exploited and stripped of resources by both superpowers in the meantime. Souds familiar? The show is then in no small part about Captain James Holden and the crew of the gunship Rocinante flying around, maintaining this status quo, presented as the least of all evils.


Marco Inaros is the leader of a belter faction that rejects this moderate approach. He (correctly) identifies the status quo as immune to reform and fundamentally rigged against the Belt, and that any compromise solution, no matter what short-term gains it might net the Belters, is simply a temporary relief. Sooner or later, when the Inners are in a position of power again, any gains made could be annulled, economic dependence reasserted, and Inner control reinstated. He wants a more permanent and immediate solution. He is obviously coded as the villain in this season, behaving sociopathically and sporting an outlandish public persona (with Che Guevara-ish looks for added subtlety) manifested through a Jim Jones-like cult of personality. His portrayal is quite confused though – sometimes it seems people fanatically follow him, to their death if needed, out of a shared conviction, but other times he is depicted as ruling through fear, intimidation, blackmail, bribery and other underhanded tactics, even among his inner circle. Which one is it then, show? The tyrant or the visionary?

Clearly, the subtext strongly suggests the former. More damningly however, the show also confuses ambitions of post-colonial struggles for liberation from the shackles of continued dependence with imperial ambitions, which is baffling, as confusing something for its opposite cannot so easily be done, not in any case in genuine intellectual error. After an unprovoked terrorist first strike on Earth that kills millions, Inaros makes an impassioned speech of secession, in front of an Anarchist black flag (I could not possibly be making this up):

Marco Inaros

But then he states:

We recongise the right of Earth and Mars to exist. But their sovereignty ends at their respective atmospheres. The vacuum, the Ring Gates, and the Ring Worlds [3] belong to the Belt, to Belters.

The Expanse, season 5 ep. 4

Is it not then an automatism rooted in the ideological foundations of our culture to accuse any attempts at liberation as, in fact, reproducing the same cycle of injustices? As the violent means of uprising only ensuring that the cycle of violence is continued, tit-for-tat? Perhaps that is why the show contrasts Inaros, the militant revolutionary, to James Holden, the Earth-born paragon who uses diplomacy, surgical use of force, and reformist, reconciliatory language to ultimately obtain the same thing while working nonviolently, within the system, to the benefit of all.

But does he ever obtain the same thing? Is violent uprising as irrational, vengeful and bloodthirsty as it is made out to be, and diplomacy, assimilation and reform so effective at delivering liberty and justice for all? Is a liberal-democratic Belter nation-state under the Earth-born leader Fred Johnson any better off than it was before, with the same power structures, economic interests and imbalances at play, under a different form? Does it not also incorporate and reproduce the conditions for its own oppression, by accepting the Inner model of politics, government, culture, economics? Not to mention, what about overcoming this model (which at that point would be circa 400 years old), for good?


  1. Mark Fisher, Ghosts of My Life, Zero Books, 2014, p. 8
  2. Ibid.
  3. Newly-discovered habitable planets, accessible through a wormhole-like “Ring Gate”