The Expanse Puts Science Back into Sci-Fi

For myself, science fiction as a genre is at its best when it explores the nature of our society (and how that can relate to technology). Rather than simply using lasers and space ships as a backdrop for an adventure story, good sci-fi is steeped in social commentary and analysis. From classic novels such as 1984 and The Forever War, to onscreen series such as Star Trek and Black Mirror, there is a dearth of sci-fi perspectives about humanity’s present and future. A recent such entry, that has gone criminally under the radar, is The Expanse series.

First developed as a series of novels written by authors Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck (under the pen name James S.A. Corey), and later developed into a tv series for SyFy, The Expanse explores the social, political, and military implications of humanity’s colonization of the solar system. Taking place hundreds of years in the future, The Expanse presents a future in which Earth and Mars become embroiled in a cold war turned hot, and how the Belters (the peoples who toil to extract the resource wealth of the outer planets) get caught in the middle.

Rather than simply acting as an allegory about neocolonialism for the sake of it, the setting of The Expanse is built upon logical conclusions about the implications of interplanetary travel and colonization. ‘Earthers’ despise Martians and Belters for their limitless access to free air and living space; due to vast overpopulation, most Earthers don’t have access to jobs and live on government assistance. Alternatively, Mars is an entirely collectivist society, bound by the single goal of terraforming its planet; Martians grow up to work as either engineers or as military personnel. Due to the vast distances between its asteroids and moons, Belter society is loosely held together by the squabbling Outer Planetary Alliance (OPA); ranging from politicians to terrorist and criminal groups, the OPA is held together only by its mutual hatred for the inner planet. The Belter language is a patois that reflects the groups who had been desperate enough to work out in deep space in the first place; whereas a Martian from the Mariner Valley may look Indian or Chinese but will speak with an exaggerated Texan drawl because of the groups that had originally colonized the area.

Beyond the human implications, The Expanse explores what the future of space travel may actually look like for technology. For instance, rather than sleek designs, ships are bulky and utilitarian because they can ignore drag; the lack of drag also means that the speed and manoeuvrability of a ship is only limited by a crew’s ability to survive thrust. Space combat resembles submarines firing their torpedoes from thousands of kilometres of distance. The distance also means that communication is limited by the speed at which light can travel between spaces. Farmers on Ganymede grow GM soybeans that thrive in the low light of the moon (assisted by orbital mirrors). These are the kinds of added touches which make the series feel so dimensionalized and well thought-out.

If you’re interested in catching up quickly, the television series is currently in its second season, roughly covering the events of the first book. The story connects the dots between a police detective working a kidnap job on Ceres station, and the surviving crew of an ice-hauler destroyed by an advanced stealth ship; it eventually unfolds to reveal political intrigue and a power struggle with system-wide implications.