movies, series

2023 – The Expanse (TV series 2015-2022)

timespace coordinates: 200 years into the future where humanity is spread over the whole solar system and on the brink of interplanetary war

The Expanse is an American science fiction television series developed by Mark Fergus and Hawk Ostby, based on the series of novels of the same name by James S. A. Corey. The series is set in a future where humanity has colonized the Solar System. It follows a disparate band of protagonists—United Nations Security Council member Chrisjen Avasarala (Shohreh Aghdashloo), police detective Josephus Miller (Thomas Jane), ship’s officer James Holden (Steven Strait) and his crew—as they unwittingly unravel and place themselves at the center of a conspiracy that threatens the system’s fragile state of cold war, while dealing with existential crises brought forth by newly discovered alien technology.

The Expanse has received critical acclaim, with particular praise for its visuals, character development and political narrative.  (wiki)

There is no denying The Expanse (now in its 6th and final season) has marked and will continue to mark the recent history of SF world-building – as a new phase in the development of the genre, especially in its socially aware forms.

Divergence 1

This it has done in two ways – by finally catching up with his literary material – the works of James S. A. Corey (none of which I have read) and the current world affairs. Most of the current blockbuster big-epic production of current SF (last year’s Foundation series and Dune by Denis Villeneuve are prime examples) have a nearly 60 years cinematic delay in regard with their original works. Besides what we could term the certain ‘neo-feudal’ or ‘techno-feudal’ (after Yanis Varoufakis) traits of both Foundation and Dune adaptations, including cloned emperors, barons, warring ruling families, there might be high time to look beyond the generally universally accepted and canonical. It is for the first time Earthers are not imbued with nostalgia – but with a sort of general reproach (both from Martian society and the Belters) as a planet of wasted resources and exploitative catabolic collapse civilizations. While antagonism remain in place even in peace, there is a lingering emotional involvement with all of the three branches of humanity. The Corvette-class light frigate Rocinante rag-tag team of Belters (humans from the Asteroid Belt), Earthers and Martians (humans on Mars) and their winded stories along the course of 6 seasons (which is a long time for today’s streaming) encourage the viewer away to avoid latching onto the good/bad dualist divisions that have characterized previous space operas.

Yes, I get why there is all this accumulated historical pressure or emotional investment built upon investment in SF sagas. Yes, I appreciate the ongoing interest of big production in established franchises and foundational SF cycles. Yet when will some current contemporary classics hit the big (or home) screen? Do we have to hope that someday, some huge Big Tech brother or geek entrepreneur (akin to Amazon Bezos or Apple+ or Disney+?), after light-years of lobbying might deem it worthwhile? There is signs that in reality, a broad-based and devoted new fandom can play its hand in the lobbying for the continuation of favorite SF series. Amazon Prime has taken up on The Expanse reviving the series, picking it up from Syfy channel after it was canceled.

So apart from giants like Asimov and Herbert, what else is there new old? Why not dig into 1930s masterpieces by Olaf Stapeldon like Star Maker or the 1960s ‘Instrumentality’ of Cordwainer Smith or say Professor Jameson by Neil R. Jones? They are the example that something does not have to be actual or timely, and that even ‘forgotten’ works might still offer some welcome surprise. Why not expand into other directions?

The Expanse (uniquely and encouragingly so) has a certain breath, an outward expansion that emboldens us to think about our current tribulations, and that keeps on addressing current topics via a careful (never carefree) world-building effort. I call it divergent in this particular sense that it did not have to grow-up, ‘mature’ over decades to finally get released. The Expanse finally is catch up with current concerns, implications and irreducible complexities of now. One can say all the other big space adventures have tried their hand at such a cosmic scope (both Hollywood ones – ST and SW), at the same time The Expanse does not have to try, because it just feels timely and involved.

a chronological guide to the early Expanse universe

Divergence 2

Second divergence with the Expanse is its exploration that works from a different premise (a situational and consequential SF) than say the usual cycles of either placidly mythic (timeless) space opera material (in G. Lucas’s Star Wars universe), or what might strike one as totalizing & bland promoters of a blind (absolute) tech- progressivism (say in Gene Roddenberry’s Star Trek). My bet is that the Expanse achieves this by being socially acute in its diagnosis – class struggle does not end on Earth, it will be carried in space. Both exploitation and emancipation will not evaporate once our spaceships will start mining and settling other worlds, no matter what the early Russians cosmist said that lack of gravity will unshackle humanity (of economic, racist or patriarchal status quo). For the first time post-cinematically at least, in recent memory, space exploration is not a romanticized ‘final frontier’, the bland off-world advertisment – but a timespace continuum full of consequences and warps that merit our full attention. The Expanse nurtures an attentive concern for what it might mean to insure a more equal (fair!?) re-distribution of resources and consequences in space (where they count most) as well in spite of all war-mongering enterprises, try hard to solve conflicts via diplomatic means.

Terrorism does not equal anarchism

There is already a Reddit dedicated to discussing why the traditional anarchist symbol is associated to the OPA sign during the later seasons of The Expanse (season 5). Why is this symbol present during Marco Inaros speech? Some have seen here the usual association of violence and destruction that gets instantly blamed on anarchism from James Bond villains to Batman. At the same time, the visible nationalist tint of Marco Inaros’s cause (according to Chris Nunn) makes it hard to fit under a black-red flag.

There is no mistake that the black-bloc as well as antifa during the Trump presidency have been depicted in mainstream media predominantly as terrorists and trouble makers, while far-right terrorism has been historically been played down. Now that neoreaction and nationalism is globally on the rise, even mainstream channels have had to acknowledge (especially after the Washington Jan 6 failed coup) that far-right plots historically outnumber left-wing ones or even outweigh the concerns about the called Islamist ‘threat’. Romania, pretty much a satellite state of the US, has upped the ante with such overly exaggerated responses in its rabid media response tothose that might feebly oppose the 2008 NATO summit in Bucharest. Overwhelmingly the mainstream media has been blaming all disruption on the ‘anarchist’ element (in RO always a ‘necessarily foreign’ element), because the locals are all honey and milk, while local destructo-capitalism is left to roam free. So this is how The Expanse – arrives at its weakest point, although I might also add that we should always follow the women of this universe. There is a gender critique at work here, and in fact one can see women being much more capable than men overall in difficult situations, and men, especially rebel leaders tend to make fools of themselves. At the same time I do not want to let US off the hook nor rush in with labeling it US progapanda akin to the usual contras or anti-Cuban sentiment in Florida. Even in space and even with such an incredible series at the Expanse it is good to be on the lookout. I am keen to see how this villainous image of the Belter rebel hero evolves – although it feels blocked in the egotistic militaristic and violent maniac mode.

Scavenger Technologies

Technologies – are for the first time not just stolen gifts from the Gods nor magick laser swords that can accomplish just about anything. Alien, Martian or Belter tech – no matter their true source or mysterious origin, stealth tech, they are all socially embedded in their uses and misuses, in social and economic systems and pliable only up to a point to our bidding and utilitarian aims. The Ring gate portals allow a new access towards various unknown exoplanets. These Ring portals are not just places of transit, they always seem to be responsive, always gauged and feeding on and off their ‘simple’ transit function. They are as much alien as the protomolecule, both carriers of historically -materialistic pronoucements, as well places of immigration, full of hope and danger, yet entirely prone to military-industrial exploitation. These are not easy pickings, not just appliances that await their capable human users. Beside the usual corporate vested interests, there is also scientific interest and genuine concern with using the protomolecule tech for pacific means (as there is today a drive for developeing patent-free SARS vaccines!). These incoming technologies (be it the Ring gates or the protomolecule research) get rapidly enmeshed in wider Sol system politics, most of the he times exacerbating already existing inequalities and conflicts. In the latest seasons, the protomolecule gets in the background and human factionalism and tribalism tend to take over. Each eps of the 6th season of The Expanse gets an intro from a parallel storyline on a distant world (Laconia) where a daughter of the colonists learns to use the resurrection powers of the local dog-like social creatures that are able to bring organisms (both local and foreign) back to life. Again – even if their is an unspecified sinister air to all of these ressurections (the creatures, including human ones are changed when they get back), nothing is developed – and we get the sense that human colonists are also very resistant to these changed and to difference in general.

I would actually say that the protomolecule in the Expanse is not so much about an alien tech – but about matter as such, the protean, in-itself, intrinsique qualities of a physical universe that is pretty large and full of suprises. Here I think that both The Expanse and its protomolecule and the last Star Trek (Discovery) cosmic mycelial networks – tend to integrate this enlivened scientific and speculative perspectives (one might even say a sort of pan-experientialist or recently popular panpsychist) on what was considered inert, passive matter. Life technosciences implicily work up from this new ‘animatedness’ of basic matter building blocks. In the Alien franchise, corporations where interested only in sampling alien organisms and developing them as bioweapons. In the Expanse, in tune with current technoscience developements, there is a further expansion into the very building blocks of matter. It is almost like this thourougly privatized endeavour has finally the means to try and retro-engineer (very like the methods of Synthetic biology) and unleash the hidden potentials of inoquous alien bits of matter. Today’s biocapitalism is being exploitated in a similarly retro-enginering way – pushed by both biomedical advenaces and corporate biotech vested interests that try to mine historical (non-human or inhuman) capacities that have arisen during millions of years of coevolutionary existence between bacterial cells and viruses let’s say (like the CRISPR-Cas system used in editing genes and believed to have evolved out of bacteria-bacteriophage interactions).

Cosmic Solidarity

Rocinante – and its crew is a diverse cast of characters that enacts all those conflicts as well as building up an unexpected solidarity. Initially, it was hard to dig for them. They all seemed quite uncharismatic or bland. It was much more easy to be enthusiastic for the detectivistic hard boiled characters and the strange realism of labour relations that get depicted right from the very start. Embodiment and alien-human or transformative space life hybridisation is important and with numerous after affects in the Expanse universe. Nobody is indifferent or impervious to the effects of long term-living under low gravitation or in dependency from supply chains. We see how this effects are being felt – experienced – along the whole lenght of the series seasons. Complete limb regrowth is possible, yet it is painful. Endocrine mods are possible yet, but even if they convey super human speeds they might be deadly on the long term.

Nothin is just instant future medical magic but a lengthy process that can go wrong and involve difficult and precarious decisions. Pilots can die during dangerous in-flight High G maneuvers, and gravitation affects each and everyone, yet some more than others. The threat from militarism is everywhere in the Expanse and there is the feeling that the industrial-military complex is always a constant threat to any terraforming activities and the balance of future beneficial living. No none is immune and all are united under these dire future circumstances.

Solidarity – seems to have at least one wellspring from these harsh general conditions but also from the way the Inners and especially Earthers have exploited and denied Belter (workin class) autonomy and equal rights. Beside the linguistic and cultural specificities (what one might call ethnic, racial or cultural element) and internal affinities of Belters (that have their own Idiom that reminds one of Creole or Caribbean English), there is also the economic class solidarity of the Belters. The common plight of asteroid miners, mechanics, labor migrants of the larger Asteroid Belt that have always suffered for generations as cheap and disposable labour pool for the ‘Inners’ (inner planet Earth and Mars) is a strong undercurrent in the series. I can only say that I can see a certain direct concern here with the growing number of actual climate migrants or migrant workers and displaced persons everywhere – in my case, the reality of this East European migrant pool after 1989 and the real inequalities (both economic and symbolic) exacerbated within the European Union (or Sol system unity in the case of The Expanse) highlighted by political scientist Eszter Kováts in a recent article. This is not just a case of hard scifi getting the science right or solving material contradictions – it is also about less easy to quantify traumatic effects, the scars of radiation sickness or severe trauma endured during prolonged exposure to the space vacuum that seems to afflict Belters more than everyone else. Earth in the Expanse series, even if united under a world governement and no blocs (something that feels very far from the current UN influence in the newly antagonistic US/China world) is itself a place of climate crisis immigration, growing inequality, raptorial capitalism, prisons and joblessness.

Naomi in one of the most beautiful and painful scenes of the show

High G Emotions

I found myself completely swayed by this series which from the very beginning was not about ‘pew-pew’ but about step by step complex developments and negotiations in almost impossible situations and for further than your planetary or asteroid mining – goals. From the first scenes, wearing magnetic boots – gravity and outer space life has felt palpable. I am usually get very emotionally involved with movies, but it has been a long time since I have been as much affected by a series (to tears). The Expanse has managed to do that for me. Some have commented on the pessimistic tone – of the later 6th season (just being screened). While I am feeling pretty harsh about Amazon Corp picking up from Syfy channel and making it theirs and also pushing this Belter terrorist Red-Brigade-RAF platitude to the max, I also trust J S A Corey’s friendly but firm grip on it:

It is not a SF ‘weepy’ (which I would gladly watch) – there is a lot of hearfelt encounters that feel very close now to early conditions now that much of solidarity is done online, and much of what comes from climate summits is really disheartening and ludicrous (no concerted action and ineffectual politicians). There is a lot to be learn just following Chrisjen Avasarala (magnificently played by Shohreh Aghdashloo – also known for her roles in Abbas Kiarostami’s films),  Secretary-General of the United Nations. As on and off Secretary-General she serves as the head of state and government of Earth and chief executive of the United Nations (UN). I find her development arc more interesting than let’s say Filip- Marco Inaro’s son. She basically starts like your run-of-the-mill War on Terror – CIA operative organizing black site type Gravity torture or Obama drone warfare support against revolting Belters. In politics and in contrast with a lot of recent US presidents, Avasarala is definitely not a war hawk. I refuse to see The Expanse as Games of Thrones in space, since this would again push a neo-feudal outlook, and what I prefer is a historically grounded development not these supposedly ‘human nature’ – or ‘eternal concers’. She, i think also changes during the series, and ends up preferring negotiations, opening channels and is always in a sort of counter-intelligence war with her own military arm, that seems to try and escalate and retaliate on each occasion.

gravity torture

Another incredible character is Camina Drummer (played by Canadian actress Cara Gee) that comes trough as a very tough and incredible determined Belter that is torn between her allegiance to the emancipatory cause of the Belters and the OPA and her vengeful actions towards testo male leader Marco Inaros. She is one of the most enduring and critical characters of the whole – she is always potrayed in a complex way that makes her (for me) a sort of emblem of the whole series.

an interesting non-binary polyamorous space unit

imdb

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