In Syfy’s The Expanse, Mars and Earth are two superpowers racing to gain the technological upper hand, while those who live in the Asteroid Belt mine resources for the more privileged planets and become more and more prone to radicalization.
As we enter the miasmatic era of a Donald Trump presidency, it is impossible not to view television—any pop culture, for that matter—through the lens of politics. Dystopian science fiction in particular warrants comparisons to present-day society, or at least points to where it might be headed. But finding allegories in fiction isn’t necessarily a bad thing, and former President Barack Obama himself has said that fiction can be “a reminder of the truths under the surface of what we argue about everyday.”
The Expanse does just that, only it’s the 23rd century, and humanity has successfully colonized the planets in the solar system. No, there is no demagogue with tiny hands running a planet in this story, but there are other obvious similarities you can draw: Marginalized communities are pitted against the wealthy and elite, limited natural resources cause war and strife, and nations are constantly poised on the brink of war.
But The Expanse doesn’t merely copy and paste current global affairs into its story. Instead, the show uses a nuanced, character-driven narrative to combat a Trumpian view of the world—one that eschews complexity by boiling down politics to simply good versus evil. Authoritarianism perpetuates the idea that nuance does not exist, only the impetus to quell opposition, and as Ruth Ben-Ghiat in The Atlantic points out, this leaves society open to the possibility of “violence without consequence.” The Expanse, on the other hand, manages to paint a portrait of a divided universe without vilifying one group and raising the other to god-like status, a kind of storytelling that will be essential in the coming days.
The series achieves this feat by making us question who the real heroes in its story are. Is it Chrisjen Avasarala (Shohreh Aghdashloo), operative of the United Nations, which controls Earth and the moon colony? Avasarala wants to protect the citizens of her planet and uphold Earth’s ideals of welfare and social reform, but she does so in a way that blatantly ignores civil liberties. We see this when she tortures a Belter for information, and when she repeatedly betrays friends and allies in order to achieve her goals. She is ruthless and cold, determined and vicious. Yet we also have to wrestle with the fact that she lost her son to terrorists, and her determination to stifle insurrection comes from her loss and her fear.
What about Joe Miller (Thomas Jane), the hardboiled detective who lives in the Asteroid Belt? On the surface, it looks like he’s fighting for justice by investigating the disappearance of Julie Mao (Florence Faivre), a key player in the OPA (Outer Planets Alliance, a Belter activist group). But his motives are dubious—much of his search is misguided by fantasy, ignoring the Belter plight and rejecting his own heritage. Is Julie Mao our hero, then? She has a humanitarian streak, seen helping miners made sick from poor living conditions. But she joined a militant organization without questioning its methods, ultimately leading to her demise. As for the Belters, it’s indisputable that they are an oppressed group facing severe injustice, but they are hardly monolithic. Some have chosen violent means to achieve their goals by joining the OPA’s terrorist cells, while others want legitimacy through formal negotiation.
The closest we have to heroes might be the crew of the Rocinante ship. This group of disparate people came together through unforeseen circumstances, each with different motivations for investigating the brewing conflicts between Earth, Mars and the Belters. What makes us root for them is not that they are consistently morally righteous (some of them possibly have sketchy backgrounds), but that they are fiercely committed to exposing the truth, whatever the truth may be.
This is not to say that there are no clear rights and wrongs in The Expanse universe. When the Belter miners are cruelly murdered after protesting inhumane conditions, we are meant to be appalled. When we see acts of terrorism that lead to the deaths of innocent civilians, we are meant to be horrified. There is no call to empathize with bigotry, or to tolerate murder. There is, however, a call to understand the root causes that underlie the institutions and systems that run the solar system—what privilege looks like, why terrorism happens. We are meant to confront evil and condemn it, but also to ask ourselves, and our leaders, “What is really at work here?” Only then can we move forward to better humanity as a whole.
And what might that look like? The Expanse has some ideas on that, too. All you have to do is take a look at the number of women in the series, all in positions of power, all with complex personalities. There’s the graceful and cruel Chrisjen Avasarala. There’s Naomi Nagata (Dominique Tipper), a capable engineer and natural leader aboard the Rocinante. There’s Theresa Yao (Jean Yoon), the stern captain of a Mars military vessel. On Ceres, there’s Captain Shaddid (Lola Glaudini), head of Star Helix Security, as well as detective Octavia Muss (Athena Karkanis). And at the heart of the series’ mystery is the enigmatic Julia Mao. Daniel Abrahams, one of the authors of the books on which The Expanse is based, said in an interview with Tor.com that “[i]t was always our intention to have a future world that included women who were strong as characters.”
The show’s not perfect, though. For instance, it still suffers from the Smurfette syndrome by often having just one strong female character within a group, resulting in a dearth of female relationships. But it’s a start, already miles ahead of a lot of current television. And if it seems like the mere existence of female leaders in a show is a low bar to set, you’d be right. Unfortunately, such is the reality of a country that balked at the very idea of a woman with political ambitions assuming the mantle of the presidency.
Most of these characters are played by women of color, and the showrunners are enthusiastic in their embrace of a multicultural future both in the story and behind the scenes. In an interview with The Verge, Naren Shankar explained that he was committed to the vision of the book’s authors: “The people who make it out into space, it’s not just going to be Neil Armstrong, clean-cut, classically white Americans. It’s going to be Indian, Chinese, Russian, a mix of everybody, every ethnicity. And that’s just going to melt and mingle.” The very foundation of the show’s futuristic premise is immigration—the colonization of previously uninhabited planets means that everyone is essentially an immigrant.
But The Expanse isn’t simply touting the idea of celebrating diversity. It’s imagining a post-racial society. Indeed, inequality doesn’t seem to exist between different races, or even different genders. Instead, we see a different kind of inequality, based on which planet one is from. Although the Belters, for example, are a racially diverse people, the group itself has a unique cultural identity. They are physically different (their bodies being taller and thinner due to low gravity conditions) and possess their own pidgin language (“Belter Creole,” a mixture of different languages that reflect the original settlers). Because of where they live and how they look, the Belters are essentially treated by the other planets as slave labor, inhuman even.
In the spirit of nuance, we should recognize that there is a danger in the aspiration for a post-racial world. Belters don’t want to give up their identity so much as gain civil rights that are afforded to all humans on other planets. It’s a multiracial society we need, not a homogenous one. Perhaps the lesson here is that inequality will always exist in some form or another when the privileged don’t recognize marginalized groups. Perhaps this is the story that progressives want to be able to tell—a story that does not pit the white working class against the black working class, for instance, but instead unites both against the same system of economic oppression.
The Expanse shows us a possible future, a future in which women can be leaders without the bat of an eye, in which racially diverse groups can unite in common cause. But it is also a warning about keeping institutions in check, about recognizing inequality wherever it might exist, in order to avoid past mistakes. Whether it provides lessons on how to deal with autocracy, or simply provides hope and relief from our current situation, The Expanse is must-watch television for our time. And I didn’t even mention the mysterious glowing blue stuff…
Elena Zhang is a freelance writer based in Chicago. Follow her on Twitter at @EZhang77.