I love The Expanse. In my view it’s the best science fiction TV show since the re-imagined Battlestar Galactica. You could reasonably say Westworld should take that honor, and while it’s excellent I don’t think it’s as good of a show at its core. Here’s my heuristic — how good would Westworld be if it had The Expanse’s budget? I think it would have had a quiet death like so many mediocre Netflix Originals. But if The Expanse had a $25 million pilot, it would have been spectacular.
However, the things we love are never perfect. There is one problem with the politics of the series, and it arises because of an imperfect historical analogy that the show employs. Briefly, The Expanse takes place in Earth’s solar system roughly 300 years in the future. Earth, the Moon and Mars both have large populations, and human beings have a presence in the asteroid belt and on various moons of the outer planets. This is colonization all possible because of something Martians discovered called the “Epstein Drive,” and which they shared with Earth in exchange for political independence. Mars and Earth control the various settlements in the asteroid belt and the outer planets, whose permanent residents (“Belters”) are second-class citizens with limited rights. The Belt is mainly a source of food, water, ore, and other primary products for the inner planets, which are highly militarized and close to war at the series’ outset.
The dynamic between technologically advanced economies repressing less powerful societies and importing cheap primary products from them is, of course, an intended analogy with European colonial rule. The problem I see, however, is that a realistic pathway to human colonization of the solar system (this is “hard” sci-fi after all) wouldn’t lead to an equilibrium like European colonization at all. In brief, the economics and organizational requirements of colonizing space mean that the Belt could never become a poor backwater to be pushed around by Earth and Mars.
Let’s use an historical analogy to illustrate the point. Early European colonization efforts were responsible for the first corporations (the Dutch and British East India Companies, for example). These new institutional forms were necessary pool large amounts of capital and spread risk. Monopolies on trade with the colonies were initially justified as incentives for the risks companies undertook. Now consider that the organizational and technological requirements of any permanent human presence outside the solar system would be orders of magnitude larger than these historical precedents. Is an organization that successfully to underwrites asteriod mining likely to be a political pushover? I doubt it.
Consider also the people who would establish permanent human settlements in space. These would be engineers, scientists, and other individuals with highly specialized training and know-how. They would also have to be people who work exceptionally well in small groups and can survive long periods of isolation. On this point, it’s worth noting that The Expanse itself is somewhat inconsistent. On the one hand, Belters are represented as poor and downtrodden, while on the other hand, they all seem to have the technical skills of engineering PhDs.
One of the suggestive proposals The Expanse makes is that the prospect of adventure leads skilled, ambitious people to emigrate from Earth to Mars, and this “brain drain” offsets the obvious economic and political advantages Earth would have over a Martian colony. This is certainly plausible, given the technologies and investment that would be necessary to terraform the planet. However, the same dynamics would apply a foritori to any successful colonization effort of the rest of the solar system. The organizations and people that succeed with this endeavor would not be pushovers.
The missing political actor in the The Expanse is a private consortium, or public-private partnership, with a sufficiently encompassing interest to make risky investments in activities like asteriod mining. Any permanent human presence in space, absent some true breakthrough, would moreover be so dependent on complex technical systems to meet people’s basic needs that it would leave limited room for violent conflict (at least in space itself). Politics would instead take the form of bargaining, agenda-setting, and other uses of power that we find in highly structured environments like businesses or legislatures. The Wire, in space, anyone? I’d watch it.