SF Essay 3 – text that’s not a text

The Expanse S1E01: “Dulcinea” – first aired December 14, 2015 on Syfy, based on the novel Leviathan Wakes by James S. A. Corey.


The premise of The Expanse is this: motivated by the imminent collapse of Earth’s ecosystem, humans set out on extraterrestrial jaunts to – what else? – colonize and extract resources from other planets and moons. They settle Mars around the year 2030, and the rest of the solar system soon follows, but humans never completely warm up to living in space and apparently never quite get the hang of living in peace, either. The show imagines a future disappointingly reminiscent of our imperialist past, only with cooler ships, infinite horizons, and ever more sophisticated ways of exploiting and alienating laborers. The pilot picks up around the year 2350, the second scene opening to a man giving a rallying speech to his fellow ‘Belters,’ the working-class people (oppressed) born on the Main Asteroid Belt or the moons of the planets beyond. The fact of the Belters’ altered physiology, a consequence of developing in low-gravity conditions, marks them as not exactly human in the eyes of the ruling class (wealthy and unelected, as far as I can tell), and therefore not as worthy of moral consideration (Gomel 2011). Belters live and work in some of the most hostile conditions known to man, and they are more fundamentally vulnerable because of it: colony overseers and wealthy ‘shareholders’ control them through the rationing of breathable air (Stuesse 2016).

When the term “space opera” was coined in 1941, it was a pejorative that referred to any and all science fiction hackwork – stories that were formulaic and prioritized action over any real literary finesse (Hartwell and Cramer 2006, 11-15). By 1980, through the work of publishers like del Rey Books, the meaning flipped entirely to denote bestselling science fiction entertainment, a subgenre unto itself characterized by grand, sweeping storylines and settings with a classic hero-adventure plot. Space opera became a lucrative as well as a literary postmodern enterprise, and now some of the most highly-praised award-winning science fiction writing falls under this category. People have never tired of Homeric stories set in space and the future. It seems we still and always want to imagine humankind on an epic scale– the things we’ll invent, what we’ll discover, who we’ll become. In some ways, no matter how bleak or inequitable a future is imagined, space opera comes with a bit of optimism built-in: Oh, the places we’ll go! (Casey 1996)

Every space opera on TV is a descendant of Star Trek, and though contemporary plotlines tend to circle the same few themes – interplanetary war, rogue pilots, capitalist greed – modern CGI and motion capture technology have kept the visual medium on the cutting edge of space opera storytelling. It is now possible to render in startling detail and large-scale space civilizations and battles that the subgenre is known for. At the same time, film faithfully captures the actors’ performances, nuances in gesture and expression that convey the equally characteristic moral dramas underpinning the action sequences. The whole thing, done right, is visually rich and believable, and the serialized nature of television shows lends itself to worlds built with layered plotlines, populated by characters who have the room to be their own individuals. The Expanse is the latest iteration, with more-than-passable scientific accuracy, depressingly realistic politics, and operatic stakes as high as ever.


Works Cited

Casey, Edward S. 1996. “How to get from space to place in a fairly short stretch of time: phenomenological prolegomena” in Senses of Place, edited by Steven Feld and Keith H. Basso. Santa Fe, NM: School of American Research Press.

Gomel, Elana. 2011. “Science (Fiction) and Posthuman Ethics: Redefining the Human.” The European Legacy Vol. 16(3): 339-354. DOI: 10.1080/10848770.2011.575597

Hartwell, David G. and Kathryn Cramer. 2006 The Space Opera Renaissance. New York, NY: Macmillan.

Stuesse, Angela. 2016. Scratching Out a Living: Latinos, Race, and Work in the Deep South. Oakland: University of California Press (I study inequality in food systems, so this is about recruiting migrant workers to work in poultry processing plants in Mississippi.)


Plot summary for the curious:

The viewer is immediately thrown into the expansive and barely-controlled chaos of interplanetary capitalism, but at the heart of it is a human-scaled mystery story – a talented young pilot named Julie Mao has gone missing, having rebelled against her family and taken to the stars. She’s the daughter of a powerful billionaire ‘shareholder’ back on Earth, and hard-boiled space cop/noir detective Joe Miller is given an off-books assignment to locate and retrieve her. Meanwhile, Jim Holden, an up-and-coming officer on the ice hauler Canterbury with a sense of morality that just won’t quit, derails the hauler’s direct flight back homeport to investigate a distress call from the freighter Scopuli. Right around when the lifeboat team discovers that the distress beacon was planted on the abandoned freighter, a stealth ship comes out of literally nowhere (“You said we were clear within a million clicks!”) and nukes the Canterbury.

P.S., if you, like me, thought the characters’ names were a bit boring for space-names three hundred years into the future, please know that Julie is actually Juliette Andromeda Mao, Joe is Josephus Aloisus Miller, and Jim, well actually he’s just James no-middle-name Holden, but he compensates with bodybuilding.