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East of Constantinople, West of Shanghai

On The Expanse

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I guess you guys out there have heard about the big noise that started when SyFy announced it was dropping The Expanse, the series based on James A. Corey’s novels and now in its third season.
The fans really got militant on that one, and I feel rather bad because I am a big fan of both the novels and the series, and sitting here in this corner of the universe, I’m pretty cut off from a lot of the action.

Sure, I signed the petitions, and withstood the blank stares of my friends that basically don’t get it (more about that later on) when I told then You should watch it!.
But it’s a little too little.
This post will not make things different, but at least I’ll give me the opportunity to point out a few things that I love about the series not only as a viewer, but also as a storyteller.

This will ramble a bit.
You’ve been warned.

So for the totally uninitiated: the series is set in the future, at a time when Earth (suffering from some massive climate change) has colonized Mars and the Asteroids, and established various bases on the moons of the outer planets. The political situation is complicated – Earth still acts like a sort of colonial power; Mars is a runaway colony struggling with a long-term terraforming effort; nobody cares for the Belters, that are basically the proles of the setting.

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And here is one of the great things about this series: the series deals with some major issues that are not a thing of the future. Discrimination, racism, economic segregation, “clash of cultures”.
The great thing – from my point of view – is that the series tackles these themes within a racially-neutral (if that’s the correct term) point of view.
The show features a great and diverse cast and is set in a universe in which there is no black, white or whatever. Being a Belter means being discriminated by some (well, by a lot of people, actually), being a Martian “Duster” means being discriminated by some, nobody really likes Earth people, but “race” as our own early 21st century troglodytes interpret it is meaningless.
And if the show does tell us that some problems – our primitive them vs us dualism – will probably always be with us, it also tells us that some of our current concerns will be dealt with, they’ll just fade away.
This is good science fiction, and it’s optimistic, in its own bitter way, and I like it a lot.

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Incidentally, the issue of sexual and gender roles is also addressed in such an elegant way that it really made me cheer while watching certain episodes.
It’s thoughtful, intelligent and classy.

In the series, the status quo is short-circuited by the appearance in the Solar System of the “protomolecule”, a mutation-inducing, virus life substance of alien origin. As factions vie for the control of the mysterious substance and its use as a power asset, we follow the stories of a dozen characters as they get caught up with the crisis.

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Another bit I love about the series is how it manages to follow a wide cast of characters without at the same time losing the viewer. It’s a tight show, it’s incredibly well written, and it is very satisfactory in term of narrative payouts.
Also, while a few scumbags do dot the episodes, and a few are really nasty, the main characters remain (mostly) decent people – maybe misguided or damaged, but trying to do the good thing. Which is quite good.
Also, people can debate problems, and change their views. The Expanse is a rational universe, in which reasonable people are capable of adjusting their views to the facts, and then tackle the issues at hand.
Given the current intellectual situation of our civilization, this is not bad. Not bad at all.

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The series also sidesteps two great pitfalls of a certain science fiction. One of these has become increasingly frustrating in recent years, while the other is an old classic.
The fist trap that The Expanse avoids is the one that routinely portrays scientists as soulless machines, hell-bent on sacrificing everything (and everyone) to their misguided hunger for knowledge. And while a few characters like these do appear in the series, they are not the norm, and indeed are portrayed as pathological scumbags. This, by the way, happens in a science-savvy society, and we are treated to some nice uses of science for maximum spectacular results by some of the characters.
This is not a “let’s invert the polarity” sort of series.
The second trap is the old classic idea that politicians are at best spineless fools, at worse power-hungry crooks, and our only hope rests with the military. Mind you, I love Keith Laumer’s Retief, and Poul Anderson’s Dominic Flandry, and Gordon Dickson’s Dorsai books, and a whole slew of military SF, but what the heck, let’s strive for a little variety.
In The Expanse you get the good and the bad in every walk of life, which is sort of obvious, considering we are all humans. And if politics does seem to be a nest of snakes, this does not make the military a pantheon of just gods.

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And this is, I think, why a lot of viewers don’t get the series. It’s complicated, and it breaks down and it subverts clichés. It gets its science right and its politics too, and it does not wink at the viewer.
A lot of the current enthusiastic new nerds that are happy to proclaim their nerd-dom online are basically what we used to call mundanes in the old days. Mainstream media users, that have simply jumped the bandwagon because in the second decade of the 21st century being a nerd is cool. While these new users are approaching the genre with curiosity – and hopefully having fun – they are still mundanes at heart. They have certain expectations, that are not the science fiction geek’s expectations.
They want entertainment that conforms to the expected clichés. They want superheroes beating the living crap out of supervillains, they want weird aliens and monsters, spaceships that go “whoosh!” and jump into hyperspace. They want good guys and bad guys with well-defined moral palettes and agendas, a solid comedy relief and maybe a brief speech about proper behavior from He-Man at the end of the episode. Or maybe some sweaty shagging, because hey, this is “for grown ups”.

And this, by the way, is not to diss the guys – the rule of thumb should be “the more the merrier”. It’s only that, for all their much vocal and proud geekiness, they are still pretty amateur at the thing. We’ve all been there, usually in our teens.
And when they slam into something like The Expanse they sort of get itchy – like they are out of their league, or maybe even out of what they are willing to recognize as their genre.

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I do not know if The Expanse will be picked up by a streaming media platform or what. I sure do hope it does.
Because it’s good entertainment, because it’s masterfully done, because it can be subtle while still being popular, and because does to me what I expect a good science fiction show to do: it makes me think.

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Author: Davide Mana

Paleontologist. By day, researcher, teacher and ecological statistics guru. By night, pulp fantasy author-publisher, translator and blogger. In the spare time, Orientalist Anonymous, guerilla cook.

6 thoughts on “On The Expanse

  1. I agree with every single sentence of this post.

    The Expanse is really good, it is Sci-Fi properly done, and the show stands up to the qualitative levels of the books.

    It does not try to represent cliches or to show “cool things” just for the sake of it. The characters are real people, not just the same trite archetypes, and the plot is a real history, not just the old “good vs evil” with packaged little moral lessons.

    Both the books and the show stand up to my personal standard of good Sci-Fi, that, to say it with our friend Clausewitz (well, more or less), must conform to the principle that “Sci-Fi is the continuation of History by other means”.

    Like

  2. I tried an ep but it didn’t do it for me. Probably my fault; I struggle with sci-fi after Firefly. Malcolm Reynolds ruined all other sci-fi for me 🤗
    Still, pisses me off when fave shows get cancelled. I just got the news Fox have dropped Lucifer which is one I’ve been enjoying. 💔

    Like

    • The Expanse starts slow and builds momentum.
      I loved Firefly, and there’s something vaguely Firefly-ish in the crew of the Rocinante.
      But I can see it’s not everyone’s cup of tea. Still I’d consider it a great loss should it be canceled.
      And I never watched Lucifer, which is not MY cup of tea, actually 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

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