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Zero Gravity

Welcome to The Expanse’s black hole of meaning

The future arrives when you’re not ready, which is why many of us are preparing for a nebulous coming collapse of civilization by consuming far too many dystopian box sets. At times like these, I prefer to spend my downtime in the future I want to see, rather than the one I actually expect. Times like these are made for space epics. Give me holodecks and laser-battles. Give me the sound of vac-suits opening on an uncharted asteroid. Give me hard-boiled detectives chomping made-up drugs on interplanetary haulers. Thank goodness, then, for The Expanse.  

The Expanse is a mass-market science fiction show whose creators clearly took one look at the state of the world and did what needed to be done: delivered the twenty hours of slick, serviceable escapism our weary hearts are gasping for. 

I binge-watched this show on the bed of a featureless motel room in Spain, ravaged by jet lag and heartbreak on a work trip, a solo book tour, my primary love relationship in messy tatters, my body whining and croaking from lack of rest. These are the sort of problems I’d dreamed of having as a baby writer ten years ago, which only makes them more embarrassing. I hit play. I prayed to the small gods of dodgy streaming and wireless internet not to let me down, and inhaled both seasons of The Expanse like the first gasp of oxygen after you’ve almost been thrown out of an airlock. 

The Expanse is a show that does what it says on the tin. It is a show about space. The title is, in fact, a common crossword clue for the word “space.” It is not Battlestar Galactica. It is not Firefly. It is not Farscape or Stargate and it is definitely not The Next Generation. Rather, The Expanse is all of these sliced up and fed into an algorithm that spits out TV scripts and sent off to a special room where they splatter it with every special effect known to Hollywood, with a quick detour via some producer’s cousin who used to be quite into Deep Space Nine and could shave off some of the more egregious clichés. The actual series is based on the Leviathan Wakes novels, co-written by Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck under the pen-name James S. A. Corey, which makes sense, because this is what happens when you try to do epic by committee. I haven’t read the books and I’m not going to. I hear they’re quite good.

The Expanse is also quite good. It is, in fact, the very epitome of quite good, and right now, quite good is good enough. The show does not want to mislead us by pretending to be unduly serious about the time we’re going to spend together. It knows what it’s for and is proud of its reliability, and you can tell this, because in one of the very first scenes the showrunners decided to cut the flirting and just give us what everyone who watches a science fiction series, deep down, really wants to see, which is attractive people having sex in zero gravity. 

The Expanse loves its audience and wants us to be happy. It is a study in terribly expensive blandness and also, quite possibly, the finest show ever made. By which I mean: it’s fine. It’s not a good show. It’s not a bad show. Its sheer unremarkability is its only remarkable quality.  It is the lukewarm gas station sandwich of popular narrative: unmemorable, but when you’re hungry and headed down a dark road, it’s exactly what you need. More flavor would be inappropriate. 

The idea is that someone wanted to make twenty hours of perfectly decent prime-time television about people having adventures in space, and thank god they did.

The actual plot is neither memorable nor important.  There’s a certain amount of political intrigue on starship decks, but not enough to trigger out anyone who’s detoxing from Twitter. The characters are likeably bland, especially Joe Protagonist, the drama-magnet and cut-price Kit Hartington–lookalike whose given name I still can’t recall despite it being spoken in almost every scene. 

This man has no obvious competencies besides being neither a dickhead nor an idiot, which by the standards of most narrative arcs including America’s makes him more than qualified to make decisions at a galactic scale. He is so obviously the hero that one must assume that every luckless minor character who crosses his path has either never read a novel or assumes the rules don’t apply to them, a dreadful mistake to make in a universe which—again, much like our own—is written by linear-minded sadists who care not at all for the life chances of anyone with more than a subsidiary speaking role. 

Personally, if I ever meet a generically handsome white man with an overdeveloped sense of moral fortitude at the helm of a ragtag band of renegades swept up in a major international conspiracy, I will be moonwalking as fast as I can in the other direction, or at least trying my best not to betray him to his enemies, because I’d have a vested interest in making it to the end of the episode with all my limbs attached and my brain unconsumed by any parasitic extra-systemic protomolecules this walking plot twist happens to have floating around his storage locker. I certainly wouldn’t be trying to make out with the guy, despite his kind eyes and digitally enhanced abdominals. If I ever make it to space, I’ll have my own shit to do, and kissing the hero tends to come with the risk of relegation to “tragic plot point.”

Another of the show’s key characters has been provided with a hat in lieu of a fleshed-out personality profile. At one point in the second series he loses the hat, and this is commented on in every scene just to remind us that this is that guy in the hat, because the showrunners know we’re probably not giving this our complete attention, and that’s okay. The character in question is a jaded detective with unorthodox methods and a drink problem, and while there was definitely room for the writers to improve on the cliché and do a deep-dive into  psychological, experimental space-noir, that would have left less screentime for sparkly space explosions, so they put him in a battered trilby and trusted us to get the idea.

In place of narrative invention, The Expanse offers a series of vignettes that might one day be included in a safety-training program for people trying to survive long-haul space travel. Many extraterrestrial dramas skate over the actual mechanics of super-atmospheric survival, but in The Expanse, this is where the VFX team really got to go to town. Water, whiskey, and bodily fluids of various hues glide in perfect jewel-like constellations through the thinning air. Spacesuits have exciting near-failures on the surface of moons that look like that screensaver you had in 2005. People get thrown into airlocks a lot. Really, a lot.

Science fiction has always grappled with serious philosophical issues, from the intimate application of surveillance to the makeup of a post-scarcity society to how the human race might morally as well as practically survive thermonuclear war. The Expanse contributes to this tradition by grappling with the socio-technical questions that everyone, including serious futurists who present papers at conferences, really wonders about at three in the morning. Questions like: What happens when someone gets decapitated in vacuum? What happens is that the visual effects people get very excited and we all go home happy—not that we’ve left the house in days now that the next episode countdown feature comes as standard.

The idea is that someone wanted to make twenty hours of perfectly decent prime-time television about people having adventures in space, and thank god they did. There are several problematic elements in the show’s handling of race, gender, and diversity, precisely none of which are interesting enough to get worked up about or, indeed, jarring enough for me to be bothered to describe. As long as you don’t expect a meaningful relationship, The Expanse is a deeply satisfying show. It doesn’t want to hurt anyone, and it is not the show’s fault that I got my heart broken anyway. 

Water, whiskey, and bodily fluids of various hues glide in perfect jewel-like constellations through the thinning air.

Here’s what happened. Around about the fourth or fifth time our heroes were gamely attempting to survive oxygen depletion in a vacuum-sealed chamber on a Martian battleship, I realized that I will probably never have to worry about how I’d fight my way out of an airlock. I will never need to know how to adjust the pressure valves on my suit before a spacewalk. None of these things are ever going to be actual dilemmas in my life, or yours, because the likelihood is that you and me aren’t going to space. Ever. That hurt to type.

I found myself thinking of the Earthseed books—one of the more profound works of political science fiction in decades, and somehow never adapted for television, which may have something to do with the fact that its writer, Octavia Butler, was a woman of color in addition to being the winner of multiple international awards, a MacArthur fellow, and one of the finest literary minds of her age. The second book, The Parable of the Talents, follows young prophet and community organizer Lauren Olamina through her attempt to build a humanist survival paradigm from scratch in the wreckage of an America fallen to religious fascism. The despot in question promises that his murder-squads and militarized bigotry will “Make America Great Again.” The book was written in 1998. 

Olamina’s job is to fight the rotting propaganda of violent nostalgia with a vision of the future for people who have all but forgotten what it means to anticipate one. She does this with didactic prayer-poems, and her repeated refrain is as follows: The destiny of Earthseed is to take root among the stars.

You know, I believe that. I believe that the human race belongs in space. It might be silly, it might be naïve, but I know people who believe all sorts of ridiculous things that do a lot more damage. I don’t acknowledge any vengeful God the Father. I don’t believe in a great Rapture to come. I do believe that if we are spared, if we spare one another, we will make it to the stars.

Not you and me personally, of course. By the time the species sorts its shit out enough to think about sending starships full of adventurers to distant planets, we’ll be too old to get on them, but I’ve met some kids recently who might not be. 

So I’m going to keep on watching shitty space shows. I’m going to keep staring at the stars like an idiot, even though it makes me sad, because it’s the only alternative to scrying into the ugly nostalgic fictions of the past. I am going to keep doing this, because I know that as soon as I quit, there’s a guy with a bridge he wants to sell me. It goes all the way back to the 1950s, and it’s on fire.