Season 5 of The Expanse finally made all the episodes available this week. In earlier, primitive times, TV shows would make their latest episodes available on a broadcast network at a specific time, and viewers were expected to make themselves available to watch it. If they didn’t, they had to wait until it was broadcast again at a later date, if at all. Later, it became possible to make your own recordings of programmes at broadcast time, so you could watch them at a more convenient time; also the programmes were made available on new formats so they could be watched at home at any time, even programmes made before the viewer was born. Nowadays, programmes do not have to have any broadcast time, they are simply available from a time, and can be watched any time later without the need to make special recordings or use other media. This is the highest stage of human development as beings who watch television programmes. The only further advance is to abandon the notion that the programme has any canonical version, and instead supply it as a collection of narrative and visual ingredients that the viewer somehow consumes in their own idiosyncratic way – but that is simply what the competing form of computer games have already evolved in to.
The idea of technological change, and how human lives will change around it, has been a theme of science-fiction as long as it existed as a distinct genre. The problem that sci-fi writers have always had is the limit of their own imagination, which usually had much fewer degrees of freedom for variations in social attitudes or reactions to novelties. When I read Robert Heinlein’s Time For The Stars as a young lad, I was struck that Heinlein could weave wonderful new worlds out of the possibility of telepathic twins, and alien planets, but he couldn’t imagine American family life being much different from the 1950s. There were still tiresome “sensible” male relatives telling the boys to stick with the safe course of going to Business School and not bother about the science and math any more than they needed. Heinlein could at least conceive that a new form of semi-English had become Earth’s lingua franca by the time the interstellar travellers returned home, but that was as much social change he could envisage. What is strikingly different about Philip K.Dick’s sci-fi stories is that, right from the start, he could imagine changing attitudes to drugs and sexuality and men’s clothing, long before those became issues in actual society. Whether he could make his characters talk about these things in an easy and convincing way, is another matter. The trouble with accepted, everyday things is that no one feels any urge to narrate or explain them, which is a problem for an audience dropping in from another world – unless they are helped by an omniscient narrator who can fill in the gaps, and that voice can be equally tiresome.
In The Expanse there has been uneven new development. Humans are using handheld devices to communicate and learn about what is going on, just like they have since the end of the 1980s. Spacecraft have become more advanced, capable of achieving speeds that were theorized as possible in the 1960s but not implemented at the time since there was no need for those projects to continue. Medicine has advanced such that what would be fatal or disfiguring injuries in the 21st century can be entirely reversed and the physical body made intact again. Enhancements to some human capabilities are possible, but not available to all. Robots are curiously absent from this world, other than the vast machine tools that presumably construct the immense spaceships in some orbiting yards and dry-docks we never see (we see old Martian battleships being stripped down by humans). Rich people employ butlers and maids at their country estates. Humans still interface with their computers through keyboards that have QWERTY layouts, a convention that was only adopted to avoid problems with the simplest typewriters, and has been strictly redundant since the early 20th century. Information is also massed on to visual displays and crews have to be gathered together in singular cockpits or control rooms – why? Why not distribute the crew around the vessel to avoid losing them all in a single catastrophic accident, relying on the magic comms networks that 20th century aircrew never had? And what is life on the ground like… seems we still live in cities composed of tall structures with lots of important people together inside the glass and metal. Since these are not our current buildings, why did we simply reproduce the old architecture when it was torn down for replacement? This new world is in many ways just a spray-painted replica of our world… because we couldn’t imagine anything too different. If it was too different we wouldn’t be able to contain the characters and stories of The Expanse, and they are characters and stories we are already familiar with.
What kind of sci-fi story does The Expanse tell? That’s easy: all of them. There’s the one about a space war between different planets, the one about a mysterious alien thing that threatens to destroy human life, the one about experimentation gone wrong (overlap with the previous one), the one about humans stranded on a planet with relics of an alien civilisation they can’t comprehend, the one about survivors struggling on the Earth after a catastrophic asteroid impact, the one about a guy who’s inexplicably like a film noir detective roaming around a derelict dystopia. What kind of sci-fi style does it use? There’s a pretense of “hard SF” scientific realism, and that gets trumpeted in the publicity about how accurate the details about zero-gravity are. But that’s the only thing that attempts strict fidelity to early 21st century ideas of the universe. Note that the zero-gravity injuries mainly arise in an episode at the end of season 3, when entire spaceships are suddenly halted instantly by an unknown superphysical power, causing their crews to be hurled about. That’s not hard SF, it’s more like extro-science fiction, and it is part of the pure fantasy of “the Ring”, the mysterious portal that serves the vital plot purpose of allowing us to reach new planets far beyond the ones we know. Other than that, we stay with the Star Wars convention that spaceship interiors are just modern corporate skyscrapers flying in the void. Although we are told that cultural and ethnic differences exist between the branches of the human family that have settled different worlds, there’s no attempt to capture the biological variations that would occur as a result of being born and raised in lower gravities to the ones on Earth, although that is an issue that Arthur C.Clarke considered in the novel of 2001: A Space Odyssey (it is part of the original Expanse novels but not the adaptation).
There are 2 unremarked details that seems to indicate physics and space may be quite different in The Expanse: messages seem to get around awfully quickly in this universe. They seem to reach Earth from the worlds beyond The Ring as fast as possible, even though the Ring itself is several hours by light speed from Earth. Also we seem to be using a “beads on a string” model of solar system, in which Saturn is nearby Jupiter because they’re next-door to each other in any simple drawing of the planets; but of course the planets go around the Sun at different speeds and are often further away from their “nearest” neighbours than next-nearest. A problem if they’re supposed to be standing-in for the static geography of the globalised Earth economy of the modern era, and “the Outer Planets Alliance” is supposed to correspond for a rebel archipelago in perhaps the East Indies. The space fleets of Earth and Mars certainly match the rival High Seas Fleets of the British and German Empires of 1914.
One other kind of modern Hollywood plot that appears in The Expanse is the techno-political-conspiracy thriller, and the world of high political intrigue it is set against. We have scenes amongst the high elite, and their secret dealings. We hear that this world is notionally meritocratic but in fact it’s hard to for a poor kid to get a break. This is ventilated in the bizarre “election campaign” between the establishment figure Chisjen Avasarala, and her challenger Nancy Gao, in which it seems that the UN global polity of 500 years in the future is still organised around the processes of US Presidential elections in the early 21st century, even still featuring the sort of issues and attacks that would come up in a battle between Hillary Clinton and Tulsi Gabbard.
Once in power Nancy has to deal with a crisis of Earth under terrorist attack, with clear similarities to 9/11. This isn’t the first time a current sci-fi series has played on similarities to the War On Terror: the reboot of Battlestar Galactica had the surviving humans displaying the uncompromising pro-torture and pro-extermination attitudes toward any Cylons they encountered that were espoused in discourse about the conduct of the war. Of course the original 70s version of BSG had its own political agenda: the human colonies are destroyed in a surprise attack after what is supposed to be a final peace and disarmament treaty was signed with the Cylons So maybe detente isn’t a good thing. American sci-fi has been projecting current US politics into outer space for a very long time, Joe Haldeman’s The Forever War being a grindingly obvious Vietnam-in-the-stars example.
The main invention of The Expanse is the tripartite division of future humanity into Earthers, Martians (dubbed “dusters”, by their kinfolk), and Belters (occupants of the asteroid belt and some outer solar system objects). The Belters speak a dialect that has diverged somewhat from standard modern English; all three groups have epithets for, and prejudices about each other. There is a very obvious correspondence suggested here with the after-effects of European imperialism: a world of ex-colonies with justified grievances against historical exploitation by the old Imperial rulers, and the persisting inequalities of rigged markets and controlled borders. We should also note that the historical mirroring lacks one vital part of the original source: the subjugated populations enslaved, transported and dispossessed by the expanding Empires. There were no native populations on these outer worlds, and there is nothing in this version to suggest that the blandly liberal bureaucracy of the UN compelled anyone to go and settle on new worlds much smaller than the old one. Also, unlike the European colonies, these settlements would not be self-sufficient for a very long time and would require a great deal of aid and control from the home planet to be viable, which makes it hard to see how the political divergences would have arisen. Why are there not as many differences amongst Belters as there are between them and the Inners? Why was it ever necessary to employ them, rather than sending robots to do the heavy lifting in dangerous places? The Belters are disappointed colonists, white Rhodesians whose farms were just never big enough to make money. If they are to represent the anger of the present day “Global South” or the precariat class of the global economy, then – despite all the anger and vituperation performed on screen – they are giving an edited, defanged version of current conflicts, easily assimilated in the techno-futurist cityscapes. The only serious leaders to emerge amongst them are the cartoon terrorist Marco Inaros, like a 90s Hollywood version of an “Arab extremist”, not even a good Die Hard villain, and the bitter old warlord Fred Johnson, who never gets much chance to be more than a spare part in other people’s schemes.
Nobody can organise to deal with structural issues in this world because they’re far too preoccupied with singular, heroic figures, such as our central characters including the blandly undermotivated Jim Holden, who gets around an awful lot of times and places where important things are about to happen. He’d make more sense if they just gave him a lightsaber, a mystical back-story, and a semi-Divine purpose. Really, the central narrative in this world works much like the ones you’ll find in here, which also has themes about dead and dying Empires:
Of course there is absolutely nothing new in the idea that Earth, Mars and “the Belt” would have conflicting economic interests and that poor boys would want to grow up to be somebody important. Those were the main ideas in the first proper sci-fi book I read, the one in the image at the top, which I found in a school library long ago and thought it was absolutely amazing when I read it straight through in one evening. Here’s the rest of the dust-jacket, and the bit where it is pointed out that an “Asteroid Belt” isn’t a swarm of boulders in close formation (the image of them used in The Empire Strikes Back, for example), but mostly empty space with the occasional bit of rock floating past.
That was 1964. In 1965, Heliocentric Worlds was made by a visionary traveller from Saturn.