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Is ‘The Expanse’ A Utopia Or Dystopia? Like Our World, It’s Both


It is the obvious which is so difficult to see most of the time. People say ‘It’s as plain as the nose on your face.’ But how much of the nose on your face can you see, unless someone holds a mirror up to you? ― Issac Asimov, “I Robot

The best science fiction is the kind that holds a mirror up to humanity. The mirror is hard to apply effectively.

For example, “Star Trek” was ultimately a story about humanity told against an exotic backdrop. Its allegories espousing tolerance, non-violence, and humanism were in effect heavy-handed morality plays. Later series tried to get murkier, to their credit. But the basic underlying principles of Gene Roddenberry’s vision stand.

Enter SyFy network’s show “The Expanse,” based on the ongoing sci-fi book series by Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck. Its second season opened February 1. Abraham and Franck, jointly writing under the pen name James S. A. Corey, certainly are fans of the extended political allegory, but don’t tell you what to believe.

The Setup of ‘The Expanse’

The series is set 200 years in our future, when humanity has colonized the solar system. The two independent political powers are Earth and Mars, who are in a cold war. Alongside the two axes of power are a third group of humans: the Belters, descendants of the early settlers of the asteroids and moons in the outer reaches of the system.

These individuals are physiologically distinct from the humans of Earth and Mars. Due to a life of low gravity, they have developed elongated bodies and large heads, and cannot survive in the gravity wells of Earth and Mars. This faction of humanity is quasi-represented by the Outer Planets Alliance, a group that strives for legitimacy and equal political access in the Solar System, but also has a hand in terrorist activities.

One can dissect the above description and write endless term papers about the historical parallels to the Cold War and to colonialism, but it is “The Expanse’s” little window on the future that holds most relevant.

There is much room to believe that the recent past in “The Expanse” universe was positive. We see generations of settlers on Mars working together in a communal and patriotic effort to terraform the planet into an Earth-like ecosystem; geniuses creating a new method of travel that makes the outer planets in our solar system accessible, and creating a way of spinning up dwarf planets like Ceres to emulate gravity; and resources galore, found in iron, platinum, and titanium-rich asteroids and water in Saturn’s rings.

But in that bright future, the authors sowed the seeds of discontent. And in that discontent is a cautionary tale.

The Assault on the American Dream

“The inner planets came out to the black with an understanding that they were soldiers sent to a foreign land. Bull remembered the feeling from when he’d first shipped out: the sense that his home was behind him. … The Belters didn’t have that….The forces that had brought their ancestors out to the Belt had roots in trade, commerce, and the overwhelming promise of freedom. The OPA had begun its life more like a labor union than a nation. The difference was subtle but powerful, and it showed in strange ways.”—“Abaddon’s Gate” (The Expanse Book 3)

“The Expanse,” at its heart, is the quest for freedom.

The Belters are effectively stateless citizens. If anything, they belong to whichever Earth- or Mars-based corporation has a license to operate the facilities at whichever station, asteroid, or moon on which they live. The authors’ political orientation is not cut-and-dry. You can read the series and find that corporations are a huge, mostly negative force in this universe. Many corporations are greedy, opportunistic, and corrupt.

But you can also look at the Belters’ anger at their oppression and see that they do not rage against corporations. They rage against their lack of agency in their lives and futures. The need for self-determination is a reoccurring theme here, especially the desire for individual self-determinism.

The characters want the freedom to live on their own terms. In the series, a group of eight friends in Montana enter a communal parenting arrangement to preserve a large swath of land on an overpopulated earth. To avoid the immense taxes involved in having a child each, they bear only one, created from all their genetic material. Similarly, the Mormons commission a generational ship for a multi-century trip out to the nearest star in hope of a life free from land and breeding restrictions.

Finally, on Earth, a large percentage of the 31 billion people are on “basic,” a welfare and basic income hybrid that provides housing, medical assistance, food, and some entertainment. They are ineligible to compete for the few jobs available. Many characters leave Earth precisely to avoid what one person refers to as a living death.

Much has been written on the rise both of Donald Trump and the frustrations of the American working class. Agree or not, Trump’s declaration that “The American Dream is dead” resonates with his base. A 2014 CNN-Money poll indicates about 60 percent believe the American Dream is out of reach. It would be a mistake to link these frustrations only to economics. It is about self-determination and control. Many Americans feel as though they have lost control of their destinies. They don’t want to be beholden to government or to businesses.

Freedom is defined in different ways, and the American Dream can be, too. The bogeyman, the thing that has taken control away, also differs. For some, it is class and race privilege that limits the opportunity for mobility. For others, it is the encroachment of the federal government that limits the ability to make a livelihood.

The American Dream may not be dead, but there certainly is a perception that it is. Elites may not agree or understand, but the perception is not something we can ignore. The disaffected class will attempt to take their control back, albeit likely with peaceful political disruption. Since we are talking about our near future, they may leave America behind and flee to another frontier, just as humanity in the Expanse fled the outer reaches of the solar system. As another cult sci-fi favorite proclaims, “I don’t care, I’m still free. You can’t take the sky from me”

The Innate Fallibility of Man

“A thousand new worlds to explore, and we’re still fighting over resources…We’re astonishingly shortsighted..A vast new frontier has opened up for us. We have the chance to create a new society, with untold riches beyond every gate. But this world has treasure, so instead of figuring out the right way to divide up the damned galaxy, we’ll fight over the first crumbs we find.” — “Cibola Burn” (The Expanse Book 4)

Unlike the purported utopia of humanity “Star Trek” espouses, “The Expanse” makes no bones about the fact that humans have an amazing propensity to screw up. Hardly any of the characters are virtuous. They are alternately racist, arrogant, philandering, xenophobic, profane, and ruthless—and those are the good guys.

At least out in the belt, resources are fought over. Distrust still exists among the political entities. And a few bad choices, or a few bad eggs, lead to system-wide atrocities. Throughout the series, entire populations are displaced or eliminated. Also, unlike the utopian Earth of “Star Trek,” this Earth has poverty, exploitation, drug use, and murder, much of it within the hidden cracks of society.

‘The Expanse’ makes no bones about the fact that humans have an amazing propensity to screw up.

Even the series’ main protagonist, James Holden, the virtuous everyman, isn’t a flawless do-gooder. In fact, most people outside his circle consider him arrogant, inept, and naive. There is something thrilling about spending half a novel inside Holden’s head, sympathizing with him, only to be jarred to reality when another character states: “You will be personally responsible for the single deadliest screwup in the history of humankind, and I’m on a ship with Jim [bleeping] Holden, so the bar’s not low.”

Like other good sci-fi, “The Expanse” explores what it means to be human. It is indeed human to err, to enter down a path of good intentions and instead find evil, to consign an entire group of humans (most prominently, the very physically different Belters) as the “other”: human but not the same type of human.

“Star Trek’s” utopian view of humanity, of course, is disingenuous, even if you ignore the purposeful “gritty” inserts of the later series. Even within Roddenberry’s broad vision, war exists, and is necessary. But war in “The Expanse” is, according to the show’s executive producer Naren Shanker, “this series of mistakes and miscalculations and misapprehensions amongst people on all different sides, that leads to this insane conflict breaking out…. all that does is it preys on their own prejudices and hatreds and stirs the conflict even more, which is part of the plan of the bad guys. They’re counting on human beings living off their worst possible nature.”

In this series, concentrating power in an individual’s hands leads to grave missteps.

Again, the authors don’t appear to have a specific partisan bent. One can look at the wars fought in the series, prompted by fear, overreaction, and resources, and draw parallels to American’s “warmongering”—the perception, for example, that our policies in the Middle East are dictated by the quest for oil.

But one can also focus on the fallibility of individual actions. Unlike the near future shown in “Star Trek: Enterprise,” where Captain Archer’s actions highlight human exceptionalism, in this series concentrating power in an individual’s hands leads to grave missteps. An insightful Amazon review of the third book reads: “As one of the minor characters notes, heroism is what happens when people don’t think about the consequences of their actions. As another character demonstrates, the same is true of people who commit evil acts. Circumstances often dictate heroism, just as they dictate villainy.”

Thus was the specter of unchecked political power foremost in the American Founders’ minds. The task of the American conservative is to balance the need for order and rule with the need for freedom and accountability. Hence the Constitution, remarkable in its restraint of power in the very document that grants that power. Some may laugh at the handwringing over executive or judicial overreach, but the separation of powers is integral to protecting the inalienable rights bestowed on humans, a protection tasked to a government of fallible men.

The Law of Unintended Consequences

“There was enough extra created by those who felt the need to work that the surplus could feed the rest. A world no longer of the haves and the have-nots, but of the engaged and the apathetic.” — “Caliban’s War” (The Expanse Book 2)

In the series, one antagonist began with a simple plan to protect the rest of the solar system—an act that actually would have destroyed it. The discovery of thousands of new systems and worlds led to a gold rush-like expansion to the outer reaches, accelerating Mars’ decay and causing a devastating attack on Earth. The do-gooder protagonist decides information transparency is the key to human freedom, but instead starts at least two system-wide wars.

In ‘The Expanse,’ the march of progress is not an undeniable good.

In “The Expanse,” the march of progress is not an undeniable good. Efficiency and automation mean not everyone can have a job—hence the basic assistance to the jobless majority. A young person would have to work a menial job for two years to qualify for higher education or vocational training, to prove his worth and not waste resources on an unproductive citizen.

Those who live on Basic have a subsistence-level existence. This isn’t the current in-fashion universal basic income proposal; not only is it not universal, it is not unfettered money. Instead, it is akin to vouchers, housing assistance, and food stamps. Only certain things, whether the type of beer, medical treatment, or apartments, are available to this population. One imagines that creating an unmotivated and immobile underclass was not what the architects of Earth’s social and economic policy had in mind. But such is the nature of unintended consequences.

Proponents of universal basic income state that it will decouple income from work, allowing people to pursue their passions, volunteer in the community, and further their education. It is a vision not unlike the post-scarcity economics of “Star Trek,” a system that encourages merit, self-improvement, and higher pursuits. It certainly may. It is a view of human nature that skews idealist, not base.

But the probability of negative consequences is non-negligable. Conservatism, in effect, is the inclination to hit pause on progress and ask, “What if?” What if raising the minimum wage puts people out of work? What if mandated maternal leave policies disincentivize female hiring? In all policies, progressive or not, some benefit, but some are left behind.

Megan McArdle addresses this issue skillfully, discussing the “Victims of the Free Market” and skewering both parties for their responses:

Market liberalism is no exception to this problem. The dynamic forces of creative destruction make many people better off, especially the descendants who will inherit the collective fruits of generations of American ingenuity. It also makes some people indisputably and permanently worse off, as previously stable and profitable careers are made obsolete… The idea that a universal basic income can substitute for a job is exactly the sort of thing that makes sense to an educated elite that already has a lot of other sources of status and reward in our society.

The people on Basic in “The Expanse,” memorably described as “the kind of people who just kick back and see how much they can [bleep] and watch entertainment feeds before they die,” are byproducts of the innovation and progress that define human excellence. As Tim Wu in the New Yorker states, “the problem with technological evolution is that it is under our control and, unfortunately, we don’t always make the best decisions.”

Brave New World?

“There were more places and ecosystems down there, more discoveries to make and resources to use, than there had ever been on Earth. It seemed bizarre that they were fighting and dying over that one tiny piece of high desert. And it also seemed inevitable.” — “Cibola Burn” (The Expanse Book 4)

At first glance, the universe as depicted in “The Expanse” is just, well, depressing. Throughout the series, the reader’s sense of inevitability—more bloodiness, more war—permeates the events. You can have a dystopia without apocalypse, and you can have a society that on the outside looks shiny but is rotting from within.

In “The Expanse’s” recent adaptation for TV, Holden’s mother quips, regarding her son’s love of Don Quixote, “Jimmy liked to think of himself as a knight. He thought it was a funny story. I never broke it to him that it was a tragedy.” Holden, in parallel to Quixote’s white-knightism, reads too much into the story and tries to be a force for justice, often with bad results. He even names his ship after Quixote’s horse. For the large part of “Leviathan Wakes,” the first Expanse novel, it does seem as though he is tilting at windmills, and really making things worse.

But throughout the series, Holden’s optimism wins out from time to time. Just like in any good story, there are kernels of hope in tragedy. There are themes of forgiveness, redemption, and wonder. The writers of the TV show, who have inside knowledge of the book series, say it will end with optimism. “It’s postmodern optimism,” clarifes Shanker, “which is tinged with great sadness.”

In the end, it is not easy to define the universe of “The Expanse.” Witness this Reddit thread arguing whether it is a dystopia. But it does seem that humanity in “The Expanse” is at a crossroads, and how they approach the hand dealt to it will determine its near future. Likewise, our decisions today, even if they seem petty and political, determine our own near future.