Science Fiction

The Fractal, Fractious Politics of The Expanse

Taking humanity from Earth to the stars isn't easy.


If you have spent any time reading or watching science fiction, you have almost certainly encountered stories in which humanity has spread throughout the galaxy and is capable of traveling relatively easily between star systems. These stories tend to treat the mechanics of interstellar travel as long solved, often via dubious gimmicks (warp drives, hyperspace) that hand-wave away the problems of interstellar migration. Star Trek, Star Wars, and even the Alien films all take place in futures where traveling the galaxy is as accessible via spaceship as Earth is by plane or by boat: Trips can take some time, but fundamentally there's little question about whether or not people can traverse the distance between stars. Yet few science fiction tales have attempted to answer the question these easily traversed galaxies imply: How exactly did we make the leap from our solar system to the stars beyond?

That is the question the series of stories called The Expanse, much of which was adapted into a six-season television series that aired on SyFy and Amazon Prime Video, sought to answer. Over the course of nine novels and a handful of novellas, authors Ty Franck and Daniel Abraham, writing under the pen name James S.A. Corey, took human beings from the solar system to the galaxy beyond.

The authors trace our species's arduous journey from Earth to Mars to the asteroid belt, and eventually to a vast array of new worlds. They offer a vision of humanity's expansionary potential situated somewhere between the hard limits of a solar-only civilization and the magical ease of convenient interstellar travel. It's a vision that presumes we can and should reach the stars, but that doing so will require making a lot of difficult choices and solving a lot of difficult problems—and not just the usual problems of grand adventure. They'll be the frustrating, mundane problems that people always face when confronted with big challenges: politics and social compromise, engineering and risk-taking, and the irrepressible idiosyncrasies of individuals, all of whom seem to have their own particular ideas about the best way to live.

When Grand Plans Fail

Among the greatest compliments I can pay the series is that I have almost no idea what the authors' personal politics are.

This is not for lack of opportunity. The Expanse novels deal extensively and intricately with the machinations of economics and politics, from planetary council votes to trade negotiations to union contracts to corporate security complications. Yet the series takes pains to give plausible motivations to even the most villainous characters, and nearly every political cause has at least one or two sympathetic adherents. Characters regularly speak about their viewpoints and worldviews, but there is no sermonizing, no sense that the authors have merely organized an ideological demonstration project in novel form. You understand where the characters are coming from, but the authors don't seem to be channeling an agenda.

If there is a big idea about politics underpinning the series, it is more elemental: Grand plans fail, yet people keep trying them anyway.

When the series begins, our species has split into three primary political blocs. There is Earth, humanity's home and its breadbasket. Earth is a political power center owing to its large population and vast agricultural resources. Its economy is flush, and its residents live easy, with many choosing to live on "basic"—a universal basic assistance program that allows them a minimal standard of living without having to work. Earth's economic dominance has given rise to resentment in the other two factions: Mars, which has a relatively small population but has become a technological and military powerhouse, and the asteroid belt (simply referred to in the books as the Belt), which specializes in labor-intensive resource extraction and where hard living conditions prevail.

In short, the Belt is tough, ornery, and blue-collar; Mars is regimented, prideful, and technologically advanced; Earth is lazy, politically connected, and rich. Accordingly, each faction has advantages and disadvantages, and each has different goals. The Belt wants respect. Mars wants dominance. And Earth wants to retain its legacy status without having to work too hard at it.

This inherently unstable structure creates plenty of high-flying conflict. The early books take place in the shadow of military tensions between Earth and Mars. Later, the Belt becomes the primary antagonist, as a terrorist political organization from the outer ring begins launching asteroids at Earth, taking out entire cities in hopes of bolstering the Belt's political fortunes. In the final three books of the series, humanity has begun to colonize the stars, thanks to a gateway opened by a mysterious element known as the protomolecule. A powerful colony uses the technology in an attempt to subjugate the rest of humanity—in the name of bringing it together to conquer a mysterious alien menace.

If this sounds like the setup to some sort of complex tabletop game—an interplanetary mashup of the resource management of Settlers of Catan and the faction-based, dice-driven combat narratives of Dungeons & Dragons—that's probably because it reportedly began as a setting developed for just such a game. (The original game does not appear to have ever been published, but multiple games derived from the books or show exist.) That setting means the series's overarching storylines are driven primarily by conflicts over politics, cultural differences, national ideologies, and resource management.

The last of those is particularly salient, given the setting. More than most science fiction stories, The Expanse revolves around questions of trade. Even after centuries of development, space is a harsh environment, where food, water, and breathable air are always in short supply. Much of the drama in the series revolves around supply chains—the physical act of moving materials vital to survival from one place to another.

Similarly, there is a relentless focus on the value of engineering, and on the complicated risks of living off of technology designed to stave off death in a murderous void. In space, human beings live and die by their tools. Many of the books' ships travel rapidly among the planets via a device called the Epstein drive, for example. The Epstein drive helped open up the solar system to human expansion, but the inventor's test went awry, leaving him stranded in space. The end result was a huge benefit to humanity, but it came at significant personal risk.

The Expanse is a story about how people band together to pursue their own interests, sometimes through trade, sometimes through diplomacy, and sometimes through out and out war. The Expanse's political battles are never just a simple three-way conflict: Within each political bloc, there are political factions and sub-factions. The Belt, for example, is often represented by the Outer Planets Alliance, or OPA, a loose confederation of semi-governmental militant groups. To the inner planets, the OPA is a single, coherent political unit with a history of violence; it is thus dubbed a terrorist organization. But the series consistently makes it clear that there is considerable disagreement within the OPA about whether and when to use violence and how to pursue political legitimacy.

There are even intrafaction disputes. The OPA is nominally a political organization fighting for Belter freedoms and dignity. But many of its members are space laborers who do outer-space drudgework—think asteroid mining and ice hauling—who see the OPA more as an economic collective, a sort of futuristic labor union. Some of these workers are diligent and honest, and some are lazy and corrupt. And quite a few manage to be both at the same time: They're hard workers who take pride in their efforts, and they also see a little graft as a natural perk of an unrewarding job, especially if it's at the expense of wealthy inner planets who don't respect their labors. For the most part, they're neither good guys nor bad guys. They're just people making choices based on a complex calculus of personal motives, social expectations, and political-economic circumstances.

The Expanse deploys this factions-within-factions approach to interplanetary politics throughout almost all of its storylines, with intrafaction rivalry often turning out to be as or more important than the conflicts between major political blocs. Earth is governed by a rivalrous mix of more hawkish and more diplomatic leaders; Mars is defined by militaristic honor culture on one hand and grandiose visions of dominance on the other. And once an alien gate opens up and makes passage to the rest of the galaxy possible, the factions splinter and squabble even more: The Earth faction argues that gate access should be restricted for safety reasons; others want freedom to explore. Inevitably, individuals decide to make the dangerous journey on their own, even if only for the glory.

Indeed, the conflicts go even deeper, with specific personality disputes within the sub-factions. People forge alliances when they share goals, the series seems to say, but conflicts ultimately come down to individuals and their idiosyncratic desires and personalities, which can be briefly organized to productive ends but can never be fully controlled.

There is a moment in Tiamat's Wrath, the penultimate novel in the series, when one of the major characters, Naomi Nagata, finds herself moving through an underground resistance movement. She ends up talking to Emma, a young member of the underground, who laments anti-fraternization rules that led two good shipmates to be fired for an affair gone wrong. Naomi wonders if protecting lovers from workplace discipline is all the resistance is really good for, to which Emma responds that flings aren't the point, but mercy and decency are. "Everything we do that's worth shit," she says, "we've done with people. Flawed, stupid, lying, rules-breaking people….​​Our rules are good, and they'd work perfectly if it were only a different species."

That, these novels suggest, is why grand plans fail: Because they don't account for the glorious, insufferable, inventive, irritating, irreducible individuality that defines the human race. It's individuals all the way down.

Why Humanity Succeeds

Even as The Expanse consistently presents fractious human individuality as the reason why grand plans fail, it also presents it as the reason why humanity ultimately succeeds.

The principal characters in the series are the crew of the Rocinante, a high-tech Martian ship that ends up in the hands of a ragtag group of adventurers with no stable alliance. At times, they find themselves working both with and against all three major factions. Those ad hoc alliances are made possible by the fact that the ship's regular crew are themselves drawn from disparate parts of the human coalition.

The ship is led by Captain James Holden, born on Earth to a family co-op of eight parents, and his number two, Naomi Nagata, is a Belter with ties to the OPA. Pilot Alex Kamal is a Martian military veteran, and engineer Amos Burton is a laconic tough guy from Baltimore. For much of the series, they are also joined by Martian ex-Marine Roberta "Bobbie" Draper, who is always helpful in a fight. They are not obviously natural allies. They have markedly different backgrounds, personalities, and goals. They often find themselves with conflicting visions of which goals to pursue, and how. Yet they learn to work together, sometimes through compromise, sometimes through argument, sometimes through patient negotiation. They find reasons to get along and pursue shared goals together, trying to be respectful despite their differing worldviews. It's not always easy, but for the most part, it works.

What's true in micro is true in macro as well. The crew of the Rocinante finds ways to work with others—Earthers, Martians, Belters, and even officials from a brutal authoritarian regime to which they are adamantly opposed—through a combination of patience, stubbornness, expediency, and decency. The Expanse is not the story of one morally superior vision of human political organization: It's the story of halting, flailing, frustrating progress through ad hoc coalitions that come together for a time to pursue a shared goal, then go their separate ways. Grand plans fail, but narrowly targeted joint efforts can succeed. And a whole lot of narrowly targeted joint efforts can, over time, succeed on a massive scale.

That idea carries humanity from the planets to the stars. When the series begins, a group of Mormons have decided to colonize another system by traveling via a massive generation ship, built to serve as a self-sustaining habitat that can survive a slow journey to a new solar system. The ship never makes it out of the solar system—but over the course of the next several novels, it is repurposed, first as an overhauled Belter ship, later as a waystation and control point for gate entry. Grand plans may fail, but practical workarounds are often quite useful.

Eventually, the mysterious, often deadly protomolecule is revealed to be the remnant of a powerful, ancient, long-defunct alien civilization. It opens a gate to a sort of null-space that contains a vast array of other gates, creating a web of passageways that humans can use to travel freely between systems. But the gate technology itself poses logistical problems, since it causes ships to disappear if they go too fast, or if too many enter at a time.

At first, there's a chaotic land rush as colonizers hope to stake claim to new planets. Some make the journey successfully, but once they do, they discover the eerie vestiges of a vast alien civilization that complicates their settlement plans. Meanwhile, Earth, Mars, and various corporate entities stake competing claims to promising new territories.

Eventually, a centralized authority built from the remnants of the OPA is put in place to manage the traffic. This mostly works at first, but there are dissenters who refuse to obey the traffic commands: A small colony called Freehold, full of anti-government weapons fanatics, creates a particular headache—but later turns out to be quite useful when opposing a vast authoritarian menace.

That menace is the product of Laconia, a colony founded by ex-Martian military brass who stumble on and then develop unusually powerful protomolecule technology. Their leader, Admiral Winston Duarte, becomes determined to unite humanity under a single authority (himself) in hopes of creating the unified empire he believes is necessary to fend off whatever force destroyed the aliens who left the protomolecule behind.

It's a credit to the authors that it's possible to understand Duarte's motivation, that he's acting in response to a real threat. Yet for Duarte, unification turns out to mean converting humanity into a vast collective consciousness that will completely erase the individual mind, allowing us to act as a single coherent organism. The final grand plan is to find a way to ensure that grand plans don't always fail.

Inevitably, even this plan fails too. But beating back Duarte's collectivization program comes at a significant cost, one that further atomizes human civilization, requiring a chaotic, ad hoc reshuffling of the interstellar order, which sets up another period of rebuilding. In the universe of The Expanse, no victory is easy, and no state of affairs, political or otherwise, is ever truly permanent.

As the final novel in the series closes, the Rocinante's Martian pilot makes a fateful choice. Then he looks around an empty ship and says, to no one in particular: "Trade-offs. It's always trade-offs."

The Expanse is, of course, a grand and spectacular story of humanity's journey to the worlds beyond the solar system, of space bending to human ambition, ingenuity, and will. But mostly it is a story of tradeoffs—of choices made and minds changed, alliances joined and fractured, problems temporarily solved, conflicts fought and contained. That is to say, it's the story of human progress throughout history—on the Earth of the present, and in the stars of our future.