The Expanse — A Milestone in Sci-Fi Television
And why it is so important to start exploring hard space
By MARTIN REZNY
A quick question — what sounds more exciting to you, being able to jump to the closest star in a matter of moments, or having to fly there for decades? The first instinct of many of us can be to think that the faster travel would make for a more exciting movie or a TV show, but in this essay I’ll try to explain why many of us would be very wrong. After all, as JFK famously said:
“We choose to go to the Moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard.”
Don’t worry about spoilers here, I am more interested in talking about the whole concept of the show, rather than any specifics of the plot or characters. Suffice it to say, it is a show based on a series of books penned by James S. A. Corey, where the peoples of Earth, Mars, and the Belt in between are in a state of cold war that’s about to heat up. What’s so significant regarding the story from my point of view is the era of space exploration in which it takes place.
If you think back to all of the other TV shows and movies set in space, you’d be hard pressed to find one about the exploration or colonization of the solar system using technology only slightly more advanced than what we currently have, developed fully by ourselves. Generally, the shows and movies predate this period by sticking to what we have now, just skip it with little explanation, or make the space travel tech a find, a gift, or a steal from aliens.
And that right there is the first reason why this era needs to be explored so much — so far, we have completely skipped the humanity’s role in its own rise to become a spacefaring civilization, connected to our actions in the present. Even the closest spiritual predecessors of this show, Battlestar Galactica and Babylon 5, have avoided this hardest and most essential step of humanity into the stars, going instead for clichés of interstellar alien empires or evil robots.
It’s time to stop ignoring what we could be doing soon, if only we decided to.
But first, let’s debunk this whole notion that low tech space exploration of our neighborhood and crude space combat are somehow less exciting than aliens, exoplanets, warp drives, teleports, shields, or phasers. Here are some of the myriad reasons why:
- Low tech in space is incredibly fragile, and can be damaged or destroyed in a number of ways which viewers will understand intuitively. So many ways, in fact, that the tension is built just by not being always able to predict what will go wrong. Shields that stop everything magically only lower tension, because they counter that sense of vulnerability.
- It takes forever to get anywhere, which ups the amount of time that can be used to build tension or to develop characters, as they have a chance to ponder the enormity of space, impossibility of the odds stacked against them, or the million ways in which they can die at any moment, with variable degree of warning. Instant travel turns it into an elevator ride.
- Aliens in most other space shows are humanoid to a point of being essentially humans in disguise anyway. Humans have plenty of psychological and social issues to explore, and keeping it closer to home is not going to make the exploration any less meaningful, probably the opposite. In a hard space world, aliens would only feel more real, too.
- As for exotic places to visit, don’t get fooled into believing that we actually really know what the places in our solar system look like up close. You get desert planets, oceans under ice, methane seas and weather, volcanic moons, asteroid belts, you name it. Likely more stuff we haven’t even discovered yet. Meanwhile on Stargate, 95% of planets are Canada.
- You’d also be surprised by how interesting weapon concepts can be found in hard science fiction, or science fact. Did you know you could supercharge lasers by nuclear explosions? That you can have a single cannon firing millions of projectiles a minute? Believe me, so far, the fiction pales in comparison to the truth. Real combat is also more logical.
I could go on, and The Expanse has a lot of great suspense in it, proving my point. But where it truly shines, in my opinion, is in all its aspects in which it goes beyond mere entertainment. Let’s look at the real challenges ahead of us.
Given the current state of science fiction, it seems to me that not even on many authors within the genre, let alone normal Earthlings, has it dawned yet that in many ways, the future we have been promised has arrived. Sure, you might say that we are not exploring space yet and therefore it hasn’t, but that’s the thing — having the technology is not going to make us start exploring space, we have to make us do that. And yes, we do have the technology.
Maybe not in the sense of having all the ships and stations actually built, but that’s only because we don’t want to go into space as a civilization yet. That’s all that it means when somebody says that it would cost too much money. That’s why in The Expanse, it’s the Mormons who are building a ship that would take a century to reach a new world without certainty of success. That’s why the people of Mars value their world way more than Earthers do Earth.
When you have the means to do anything you want, suddenly the only obstacles lie in your head. A show like The Expanse demonstrates the obviousness of this. Technically, there are only details to work out, like better radiation protection, or how to put various new systems together. When left to NASA on a low budget, it will take a while, also because they have “failure is not an option” policy. A wild west like rush would make things real fast.
What we lack now is a vision of why to go into space as a people and what to do there, that’s it. It can’t be just to make a quick buck. That mentality is our greatest obstacle right now, since space is all about long term. Hopefully, more shows like The Expanse will help move the science fiction as a whole from its current dystopic slumber into a search for new utopias. And this time, it will be utopias that can actually be accomplished, so let’s try to do it right.
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