The Expanse or: How Holden Kept Worrying and Learned to Embrace Division

Horst Trenkwill-Eiser

Unity and Division

At the end of the 20th century humanity finally entered the “End of History”. The Soviet Union collapsed and with it the (seemingly) bipolar post-war world order, leaving the USA as the sole global superpower. The space opened up by this collapse had to be filled and it was filled in with fantasy. If the end of this world order meant the advent of capitalist realism31 – the preclusion of the possibility of an alternative or even an end to capitalism – it also meant the arrival of its supplement: capitalist (unipolar) utopianism. While other utopias seemed far-fetched and out of reach, this utopia seemed sober, realistic and attainable, possibly even realised already. It is the idea of global political unity, of mankind finally coming together and democratically acting towards one goal. It is utopian because under capitalism, society, especially global society, is always fundamentally split and unity of action can only be the result of political, economical and cultural force: hegemony.32

Thus in the ‘90s, we see how US hegemony clad itself in the guise of world policeman, intervening where rogue states crossed the line, as in Yugoslavia or Iraq. Humanitarian interventions were not done for the sake of US hegemony, it seemed, but for the benefit of mankind. The culprits, small and local as they were, were attacked not so much as a global danger, but for crimes against humanity itself. As Chantal Mouffe argues, the political is structured a(nta)gonistically: any political identity needs an outside - an enemy for Carl Schmitt, an opponent for Mouffe.33 So any political consensus and political structure is based upon an exclusion and any global order, especially the liberal multicultural global order, cannot be attained without a hegemony upholding this exclusion. Lacking an adversary, the exclusion had to be enacted by declaring Saddam Hussein and Slobodan Milosevic villains, standing in the way of a truly unipolar order.34 This world order, then, presented itself as benevolent, free, and democratic. If only there weren’t these troublemakers…35

Catastrophe and Unity

The impossible realisation of this fantasy did not prevent it from slipping into pop culture. Indeed, Hollywood found fictional solutions to the dilemma of the paradox that in order to unite humanity you had to exclude part of it: the state of emergency, namely aliens and disasters.

A common feature of films like Independence Day, Deep Impact or Armageddon is that when faced with a common threat, humanity is finally forced to act as one. In Independence Day, an alien civilisation threatens the extinction of mankind. Shots of UFOs hovering over landmarks all over the globe remind the audience that, even though the film mostly shows events in the US, where coincidentally the actual action happens, events play out on a global scale. In typical Hollywood fashion, America saves the day, leading mankind into resistance and fighting back the technologically advanced aliens. Not only does this allow the film to stage the action as a fight of David versus Goliath and a repetition of the American Revolutionary War (referenced in the title of the film), it frames America as the representative of mankind itself.  When Bill Pullman addresses humanity as the president of the United States, the audience cannot help but see him as the president of Earth. Unity arises from an external, but global threat.

Deep Impact and Armageddon, both released in close conjunction in 1998, imagine an asteroid colliding with Earth. While the threat in Independence Day is an alien civilisation possessing, one would assume, consciousness, these two movies deal with an adversary that is unconscious and intentionless – a senseless act of nature. But similarly to alien invasion, the threat of extinction forces humanity to act together. Remarkably, in both films the international teams sent to deal with the asteroid include Russians, symbolic for this truly global act. Being the more populist of the two, Armageddon displays a deep distrust in and disgust at politicians and scientists. It celebrates the common man, while Deep Impact clearly has a more positive image of politics. Nevertheless, the fantasy staged in both is similar. Furthermore, neither film leaves any doubt that it was the USA without whom Earth would have been doomed, whether the American male or American science. Cooperation is not leaderless; the leader is naturally the USA.36 Disaster, then, ties mankind together; it presents humanity with the absolute outside: inhumane, thoughtless, senseless nature.37

Hegemony, not Unity

When disaster actually struck, it was neither nature nor alien. The terrorist strike on September 11, 2001 brought with it a new, forceful, though human, outside. Initially, reality seemed to conform to fantasy. NATO immediately declared mutual defence and only shortly thereafter attacked Afghanistan. The UN were all but united in condemnation. The space taken up by Al Qaeda was well prepared: it was the space taken by aliens and disasters in film. As the perpetrators of terrorist violence, Al Qaeda – and in the following years all Islamists – were the absolute other, the outside, the threat to be squashed. They were, in a word, monsters and as such, less than human.38 For the next decade and more, the threat of Islamic terrorism haunted the self-declared West. But global unity, if it ever truly existed, proved to be fleeting. Not even two years after the 9/11 attacks, the decision to attack Iraq split the international coalition rallying behind the US. Exactly a year after 9/11, the refusal by German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder to participate in a possible invasion of Iraq helped him secure re-election. Solidarity and unity did not last. 'America is from Mars, Europe from Venus', as Robert Kagan put it,39 explicated this shift – Europeans naively believe in multipolarity and a peaceful international order based on cooperation, communication and common rules, while Americans know there is no peace without (one) power. The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq turned into quagmires and contributed to further Islamist mobilisation. Instead of leading as a global hegemon, America found itself stuck in an unwinnable conflict while (supposed) allies and rivals kept gaining economic and political power, especially China but also Germany. In striking contrast to ‘90s fantasy, post-catastrophic 2000’s reality had the antagonistic nature of the political fully and forcefully reassert itself.

Unsurprisingly, the genre of disaster movies changed. The delightfully nonsensical film The Core in 2003 still had a crack team of mostly American scientists save the world from destruction, but the disaster was a mere pretence for staging themes taken from Jules Verne’s novels. Other films dropped the idea of successful political action altogether, either by showing its failure (The Day After Tomorrow), its impotence in the face of senseless forces of nature (2012) or by sheer omission (Cloverfield). The last of these shamelessly exploits the imagery of 9/11, limiting its focus to personal experience and reducing disaster to trauma, cutting off any political effects it may have, and thus placing America in the role of the brave, but ultimately helpless victim. This is the common theme to these three films: trauma and survival, but not agency. Ten years later, the genre would be repoliticised by the dark satire Don’t Look Up, which takes up the idea of an asteroid hitting Earth (standing in for climate change) but due to dysfunctional political and media institutions the US are unable (and unwilling) to save the day, as is the rest of the world, acting without the US. Nothing remains of the hopeful endings of 1990s disaster films, which celebrated the survival of a now-united mankind. Instead, all that seems to be left is dying with dignity. Furthermore, the zombie genre returned and again and again staged an apocalyptic collapse of (political) order – by an unstoppable infection (28 Days Later, 28 Months Later, Dead Set, I Am Legend, The Walking Dead, World War Z, etc.).

The Expanse

Starting in 2011, the novel series The Expanse entered this symbolic field and reshuffled its elements. In this series we find almost all of the features already mentioned: catastrophe, alien forces, political struggle, terror and capitalist realism.

I will continue by sketching the political order presented by the novels and will then analyse how this is then reshaped again and again by disaster, alien contact and interstellar human expansion. I will discuss the unique perspective this science fiction series has on issues stemming very much from its own time and where it, even though it allows for a complication of the capitalist utopian fantasy, nevertheless fails to address its basis.

The world of The Expanse is, at least initially, tripolar: Earth, Mars and the Belt. Our contemporary political order and its allegiances have disappeared in favour of an interplanetary (dis)order in which Earth and Mars, the Inner Planets, hold much of the power and the Belt struggles to get by. It is not hard to recognise this as an echo of the Cold War, with two superpowers vying for control and the third one trying to carve out a place for itself, by cooperation, compliance, or resistance. What is lacking, though, is an ideological divide. It is, unambiguously, a struggle for power. To unite humanity in this order is to subjugate. This is the background of the senseless political infighting, distrust, bickering and quid-pro-quo repeatedly driving James Holden to despair. Holden, from the very beginning, is the one person who still believes mankind can and must cooperate. Much of The Expanse is a series of escalating tensions and Holden trying to bring everyone to the same table.

Aliens, Viruses, and Gates

One of the most striking elements of The Expanse is how events we would think would lead humanity to reassess its place in the cosmos – the encounter of alien life and the possibility of interstellar travel – are in fact just further turns of the screws of the prevailing political constellations. Rather than unsettling identities and goals, these events are almost immediately integrated into pre-existing power struggles.

Eros, as the first of the events shaking the world of The Expanse, is literally a first encounter with alien life. But faced with the knowledge of alien life, the three factions of humanity do not reconsider their issues. Neither is there the coming together in the face of nonsensical destruction, as we have previously seen in disaster movies. There is little of the awe of encountering another great (if dangerous) civilisation that the beginning of Independence Day instilled in its audience. What happens is rather akin to the horror of infection films, only that the first instinct of virtually all participants of interplanetary power play is to exploit the protomolecule for dominance. Using a virus as a bioweapon, or a virus originating from bioweapon research is an established trope of zombie and infection films (from The Omega Man to 28 Days Later). The Expanse uses the same trope, but replaces it with an alien infection. Consequently, the encounter with alien life quickly turns into a cynical tale of politics as usual. As much as allegiances and even power may shift in the later novels, the protomolecule remains throughout the tool that promises power – much like a living nuclear bomb. No unity, then, is to be had from it.

Similarly, one would expect the possibility of interstellar travel, provided by the gates in the blink of an eye, to effect humanity. But much as with the protomolecule, the focus almost immediately shifts to the question of who controls this travel. Again and again, Medina Station becomes a focal point of interstellar conflict, notably with Marco Inaros’s Free Navy and later Dutarte’s Laconian empire. Controlling Medina means controlling humanity’s future at this point.

Living but non-sentient, terrifying but possibly exploitable, the protomolecule and the ring gates do not lend themselves to being an opponent, an outsider in opposition to which one could construct a unified humanity. Even more importantly, the rifts within humanity and the established patterns of interaction with nature (exploitation) push the need to use the protomolecule to the forefront. The awe of the encounter of alien life has turned into exploitation before the narrative of The Expanse has even set in.

Asteroids and Terror

The infection of Eros is a local disaster, but one that fuels the imaginations of the different factions. This disaster gains systemwide importance once the protomolecule takes over Eros’ inhabitants and uses them to propel itself towards a source of more usable biomass: Earth. The form this takes is familiar: an asteroid, Eros, hurtling towards Earth, threatening to erase if not all of humanity, then at least its origin. But where 1990s asteroid films had humanity come together, assemble a crack team of scientists (or a ragtag group of engineers and drillers) or come up with solutions for the aftermath, The Expanse has no place nor time for such things. It’s the Belters, of all people, who improvise to save their oppressors, with no support and little thanks from them. From the beginning, the 1990s optimism is lacking. Once Eros has hit Venus, it is business as usual.

But the threat of destruction by asteroid returns. The Expanse once again takes up 1990s disaster films here. Eros already was a twist of the asteroid trope, as it borrowed the remaining consciousness of Julie Mao, but with Inaros, this twist is taken even further.  In 1990s disaster films, humanity is faced with senseless, unmotivated destruction. In The Expanse, asteroids are thrown at Earth on purpose. There is not a vague intelligence behind it, but a full-fledged political movement. One cannot help but see this as a kind of space-9/11, not only in the constellation of its actors (hegemonic power, radicalised violent resistance), but also in its imagery. Nemesis Games is written in such a way that the reader gets the inside perspective of the victims by way of Amos Burton, trudging through a 9/11 Manhattan writ large, as well as the outside of people almost-obsessively watching the images from Earth. Marco Inaros uses recognisable anti-colonial vocabulary and by situating Naomi close to him, the novel leaves no doubt that Inaros is a monster (self-obsessed, often careless, and willing to sacrifice even those closest to him). But it also allows the grievances of the Belters to stand. It is telling that Naomi chose Jim after Marco; if Marco is the willingness to acknowledge the split in humanity and the desire to resolve it by erasing his opponents, Jim understands all sides and wants to resolve things by talking them out and finding a good compromise. Unlikely as it may seem after six books of Holden saving the world and the world turning back to its old ways, he manages to succeed.

Reshuffling the deck

In an inversion of reality and fiction, in The Expanse it is neither an asteroid, nor alien life that facilitates a compromise, it is terror. 9/11 was both a moment of (apparent) global unity, as well as the beginning of the end of American hegemony. Faced with their own weakness, the stricken UN, the representatives of a slowly collapsing Martian society and the OPA come together to form the Consolidated Fleet. This coalition of most of mankind is faced with an opponent who is reckless and has no qualms sacrificing the people they are fighting for. Inaros is a classical villain – so what was impossible in reality becomes possible fictionally: coming together in a moment of true weakness, faced with an opponent so universally despised they might as well have been non-human. The anti-Free Navy coalition still seems real enough; the true, and possibly only, moment of almost utopian optimism comes when this coalition does not immediately fall apart with the death of its raison d’être. The transformation of this coalition into a new interstellar order and the integration of the Belt is the outcome of political compromise, of unity in difference. In it, the importance of threatened identities (the Belt, but also Mars) is recognised and it succeeds by building upon and integrating difference. The Belt’s way of life, for example, is threatened by the opening of new worlds and situating them as arbiters in the powerful role of the Transport Union allows for the continuation of their ship-bound way of life. It gives power and status to the previously powerless. A second Free Navy is prevented not by subduing, but through disarming the powerless by giving them power, by integrating them into the power structure itself. A power structure that becomes possible because the old order has collapsed, Earth is in turmoil and Mars is collapsing due to the Martian Dream becoming largely superfluous. In effect, the one time unity is achieved in The Expanse, it depends on the prerequisites an other (Inaros, who is not a total other), and a coming together in weakness and dependence upon each other that suspends previous power relations – which depends on the intervention of catastrophe.

How closely tied the narrative of The Expanse and conflict really are can be seen in the 30 year gap that follows this compromise. There is nothing to tell. Narratively, unity, peace and stability are boring.

Power, violence, hegemony, unity: the nightmare scenario of Laconia

The final three novels present a new challenge and do so by erasing the power structure based on compromise and replacing it with the possibility of realising a first political, then literal unity of mankind. It turns out to be a nightmare. This challenge arrives in the form of the Laconian Empire and its High Consul Winston Duarte. This ascetic, thoughtful leader aims to put humanity under his rule. But he proclaims this is not for personal gain; indeed, he allows himself little luxury, and even his attempts at making himself immortal are ostensibly in the interest of mankind: putting an end to conflict, factions, and war. In his quest, he is not only willing to punish his subjects for subordination or to experiment on humans, but he also considers the need to sacrifice even his family and himself, all for the benefit of mankind.

The books leave little doubt that Duarte is a megalomaniacal sociopath. Resistance to his enforced order of eternal peace is characterised as noble and justified. All major characters of the series are part of this resistance. Directly putting Holden into Duarte‘s hands, the novels highlight their differences – but also their similarities. Duarte seems to assume Holden to be on his side, that they would share the same goals. In a way, they do, but Holden disagrees with the means to achieve them. This parallel is highlighted not only in their discussions (or rather Duarte‘s monologues), but also in their deaths: in the end, both of them sacrifice themselves for mankind. In Duarte, Holden faces the underbelly of his own political goals. Here is someone willing to impose peace and enforce unity, but it turns everything into a nightmare: war for peace is ruthless. Benign goals allow for unleashing righteous, and thus limitless, violence. The lesson here is a common one: unity and peace without freedom are worthless. The Expanse sings the anti-totalitarian refrain.

This refrain is taken up again, more intensely, when the conflict with the strange beings of the ring space becomes more and more of a threat. The ring gates apparently have invaded their space and the beings are not taking it lightly. In ever-more escalating events, people in different solar systems – increasingly even multiple ones –  lose their consciousness for longer and longer durations. Eventually, ships in the former slow zone are attacked and destroyed. As a resurrected Amos Burton proclaims, they are 'going to kill everybody.'40 Once again, humanity is faced with the possibility of its destruction. This time, the threat does bear a similarity to the alien invasion narratives discussed above. Unlike the protomolecule, which was only a tool, the beings beyond or within the gates have a recognisable motive: revenge. They cannot and will not be used, as they are beyond the grasp of mankind – in an inaccessible space, beyond human experience and thus totally alien. This combination of alienness and comprehensibility makes them seem especially threatening.

The Laconians do not know how to deal with this new threat, so they initially fall back on time-proven tactics: draw them out, hit them, kill them. Once this fails, the battle becomes even more desperate, especially as the modified Duarte slips into a coma after the next time loss attack. This is when the pattern of unity in the face of extinction is taken to its most extreme point. Returning from coma, Duarte gains new powers, among them the power to invade the minds of other people and break down the barriers separating them. In other words: literal oneness. The people experiencing this oneness are at first disoriented but increasingly yearn for it and embrace it.

Duarte sees a solution to the threat of the ring entities in this unity. He wants to harness his subjects’ energy to destroy his enemies. But he also sees it as an end in itself. This unity promises the realisation of his Laconian Empire at the level of the minds of his subjects: a collective mind, much like the Borg of Star Trek. Holden recognises Duarte‘s dream as a nightmare, but he is still forced to draw from the collective power of the people within the slow zone. To him, this is only a means, though. He wants to ensure the safe escape of the people trapped in the collapsing slow zone and sacrifices himself for them in the end. At the same time, he releases them from the yoke of the hive mind. It is probably symbolic that with his sacrifice he ensures humanity‘s survival by cutting the inhabited solar systems off from one another. Their survival is only possible if they disconnect – Holden has to give up the idea of humanity living as one in the very moment when he had the tools at his disposal to literally unify them. Holden chooses diaspora for humanity.41 In a way, The Expanse faces the imagination of a unified humanity head-on and exorcises it.

Living after the End Times

In The Expanse, catastrophe has happened – repeatedly. The imagery of catastrophe The Expanse used has been taken from alien invasion and disaster films and fictions. Its political grounding quite obviously lies in the early 21th Century. As with humanity in The Expanse, so we, too, have lived through catastrophe – repeatedly. And like us, The Expanse does not and cannot imagine a way out of discord. Neither catastrophe nor alien life manage to knock the world of The Expanse out of its cycle of struggle, much like how neither international terror, nor world economic crisis, nor a pandemic really change much about how we deal with the world. The amalgamation of instrumental reason (which manages to incorporate even alien life), moralist grandstanding (which makes us blame personal failure instead of structural failings) and, paradoxically, political disillusionment bordering on the cynical (which makes us accept the return of catastrophe as all but inevitable), is also our own. The distrust in the meta-narrative of global liberalism is recognisably part of our post-9/11 world. Unity is fleeting, conflict is constant. Like so many other recent products of the culture industry, The Expanse stages political conflict and draws much of its narrative energy from it. Similar to Game of Thrones (a powerful metaphor for the inability of a fractured mankind threatened by extinction due to climate change), it allows us to consume and even enjoy our predicament. It prevents itself from slipping into cynicism by centering both a chosen family (the crew of the Rocinante) and within it, a moralist.42 But in the end, this adds up to the acceptance of disunity as a virtue. Unable to imagine collective action as anything other than the result of reckless force or the erasure of the individual, The Expanse remains within the dominant frame of anti-totalitarianism, leaving behind even the last remnants of capitalist utopianism.43 For all its detailed depiction of conflict (and openness to queer identities), for its imaginative conception of what mankind living in space could look like, what it would do to humanity to leave Earth, it never once imagines a possible change in what propels humanity into conflict. Is not the economic exploitation of the Belt by the Inners the reason for their struggle? Unlike Robinson’s Mars Trilogy, there is no place for alternatives to capitalism in The Expanse. Cibola Burn offers a glimpse into the lives of the people affected, exploited and displaced by the forces of interstellar supercorporations. They suffer, they toil, they resist. But they remain heroes within the narrative specifically because their resistance is local and because it aims for integration into the interstellar market, rather than rejecting or outright abandoning it. If alternatives had found a presence in the series, one imagines this resistance would have occupied the same space as the Free Navy: irrational, if somewhat understandable terror. So while the fates of the inhabitants of that universe are riveting and while its world is convincing despite the fantastical feats of alien technology, its horizon never quite transcends ours. In space, there is no alternative.

31. Mark Fisher, Capitalist Realism (Winchester: Zero Books, 2009).
32. Another, diametrically opposed “end of politics” was imagined by Samuel Huntington in his Clash of Civilizations, which embraced multipolarity, burying class politics under the struggle of quasi-homogenic civilisations. It also embraces hegemony without much sugar coating and thus has little need for humanitarian fictions.
33. Chantal Mouffe, On the Political (New York: Routledge, 2005).
34. This is absolutely not meant to downplay their crimes, which are plenty and horrible: mass killing Kurds by gas or of Bosnians are attempts at genocide. My point here is solely the role they had to play for a global order.
35. Other integral members of this order, like autocratic oil regimes or China, were not troublemakers, of course.
36. It should be noted this positive picture of the unilateral New World Order was not without its challengers even in the USA: antisemitic NWO conspiracy theories as well as series like The X-Files or Dark Skies betrayed a deep scepticism towards centralised (global) power.
37. If disaster is, in a way, already included in capitalist utopianism as opportunity, as the spark of progress, is it any wonder that climate change is not taken seriously before its serious effects are felt? Does it not stand to reason that catastrophe will be terrible, yes, but progress will naturally follow? This almost-religious belief mirrors the idea of the market eventually supplying the solution by free market believers (and projects it onto the political.) And can we fault people for believing it? After all, as Marx has demonstrated, crises are inherent to capitalism and its “successful” reproduction. If it were not this way, would not all sacrifices made to capital and the free market have been in vain? (What happens when this idea collapses and what fantasies can replace it will be addressed below.)
38. There were, of course, voices highlighting the ties of Islamism to (capitalist, especially Western) modernity, arguing they do not represent an element of a primitive, violent past (and thus lack of culture, civilisation or humanity), but are inherent to modernity.See Paul Berman, Terror and Liberalism (London: W.W. Norton and Company, 2003).
39. Robert Kagan, Of Paradise and Power. America and Europe in the New World Order (New York: Vintage Books, 2003).
40. Corey, Tiamat’s Wrath.
41. Let us just quickly note the similarities to the Dune novels here: a God-Emperor who forces humanity onto a golden path through diaspora in order to ensure its survival. The Expanse splits up the roles between Duarte and Holden, humanises them – Leto is terrifyingly post-human – and puts humanity onto a similar path. This humanisation succeeds because Holden, as so often, did not have a long-term plan but acted in the moment – and because Holden is the series’ resident humanitarian.
42. Amos has outsourced his conscience to Holden after all.
43. Or rather: utopianism, in a very neoliberal fashion, becomes individualised. “Effective altruism” is as much a justification for hoarding unjustifiable quantities of wealth as it is a utopian narrative of the power of the individual to save the world.