The Expanse is really great. I absolutely love it. I want to say that up-front because it might seem like I’m hating on it, but I really do think it’s great TV, and really awesome sci-fi. Plus it has zero gravity sex.
But for me it isn’t really great sci-fi, because although it is progressive it isn’t really transgressive. The Expanse fails to imagine anything that feels truly beyond our world.
Transgressive Versus Progressive Sci-Fi
When I say ‘progressive sci-fi’ I don’t necessarily mean works that have progressive politics, although that can be an element. I mean works that simply explore how the world as it currently exists might progress over time. Transgressive sci-fi, on the other hand, does the important work of imagining a world vastly different from the everyday; whether that be to the good or the ill.
That difference can consist in radically transformed social and political norms, but it can also be primarily based in technological changes that deeply affect humanity. Think, for example, of Ursula K. Leguin‘s layered, sympathetic, very human portrayal of a planet dominated by anarchist philosophy (and, ironically, anarchist orthodoxy) in The Dispossed. Or of Samuel R. DeLaney‘s exploration of a seemingly conscious city that explodes social barriers even as it warps objective reality in Dhalgren.
The Expanse as Progressive Sci-Fi
Progressive sci-fi, from the vantage point of its transgressive cousins, seems rather like a someone in feudal England writing a novel about the exact same feudal world, but on other continents. Also, horses are way faster. They can end up writing an amazing story with great characters but, judged as a work that imagines a future transformed, it will fall a bit flat. That’s how The Expanse feels.
The show imagines a world where Mars has long been colonised by Earth, long enough that Mars has a distinct, rather Spartan, culture conditioned by the harsh conditions of a planet not yet fully terraformed. Earth itself is run by an Alex-Jones-paranoid-fantasy style world government under the UN, and there is a long-standing cold war between the two planets. In the middle are the Belters, an exploited class of workers who extract raw materials and ice from the asteroid belt for both Earth and Mars and whose attempts to gain rights are punished as terrorism.
All Too Familiar
The show has well-rounded female characters and some people of colour (mostly as secondary characters), which is great. There are also elements that could be seen as political critiques of currently existing corporate capitalism. But overall it feels like current geopolitics in space. For example, you’ve got Chrisjen:
She’s a really interesting character, and it’s great to see a woman outsmarting everyone around her while holding and wielding real power. But she’s also the head of an authoritarian government and personally orders the torture of suspected terrorists for information. The only real difference with today is that the suspects aren’t from earth. It’s hard not to think of the presidency of Barack Obama and the near-presidency of Hillary Clinton – victories for a kind of symbolic politics that keeps the broader power structures of the world intact.
Is This Even a Problem?
The short answer is no. Another short answer is yes. It depends what you think fiction – and sci-fi in particular – can achieve. If you believe fiction only exists to tell a good story, it’s no problem at all. But if you believe, as I do, that fiction can also help us to imagine radically different worlds – and thereby open up the possibility of their creation – then sci-fi that simply checks in on the status quo a little way down the track will always feel lacking.
But, really, watch The Expanse – it’s terrific fun. I’d just love to see some truly radical sci-fi hitting the small screen.