Are we doomed to be the same?
‘The protomolecule changed everything except for what it didn’t.’
This is the main takeaway from The Expanse - a SyFy/Amazon Prime Video space opera that takes place in about 200 years from the present day. The series, books, and novellas take on the subject of how our civilization will look in the future. New technologies, expansion to Mars (which is by then an independent republic) and the Belt (where miners form clans and fight for resources exploited by the Inner Planets) pose the same problems that we have experienced as a species throughout the whole history of mankind - the fight for power and the uneven accumulation of wealth, with whole societies living outside of the zone of comfort and safety.
We join the heroes of this great work of literature and television in a moment where a new factor comes in – the protomolecule, something that has the potential to flip the whole balance of power upside down, but not the way people treat each other. But is this something that has to happen? Will we always go around in circles, just further and having new sticks to beat each other with? I want to speculate on one aspect of this cycle – the way we treat refugees.
We first meet Prax, one of the series’ utmost positive faces, when he is fleeing his home of Ganymede after it was bombed and its economy shattered. He is carried onto a refugee ship unconscious and learns very fast that the ‘us-them’ paradigm works even in such places, where it seems that people are united in seeking help. In a grim scene, he parts with the friend that helped get on the ship and watches her being spaced because she belonged to the race of Inners’ (as a Martian).
In season 2 of the TV show, the crew of Rocinante – the series’ main protagonists – have to go undetected to Ganymede, which suffered heavily from the battle between the United Nations (now unifying the nations and cultures of Earth) and the Mars Congressional Republic (an ex-UN colony). The station is in a state of humanitarian collapse. While our heroes pursue their goals, the refugees that want to get out of the warzone are in a worsening situation – the station’s systems are in the process of cascading shutdown. The crew of the Weeping Somnambulist, a relief ship, want to help and get out over a hundred refugees from the now-isolated dock. Unfortunately, they cannot fill their air tanks due to the shutdown of the service responsible for this. They have air for less than half of these people. The crew, joined by Naomi Nagata of the Rocinante, has an impossible choice: take only the number of people they can (but how do they pick who gets to live and who doesn’t?) or don’t take anyone at all in the fear that they will be stormed on opening the gates.
Fast forward to season 6, we see a situation where a humanitarian crisis is used as a weapon, and refugees are used as tools to gain advantage. Following the capture of a ship that directed all successful attacks on Earth, the Beltalowda – as the people of the Belt call themselves – leader decides to strip the whole Ceres station, the Jewel of the Belt, of everything that it needs to survive, including food, technology, and ships, and abandon it. The joint Earth and Mars forces are faced with a choice: leave the rebel citizens to themselves and let them die, or act humanely but let the opponent gain significant advantage in terms of tactics and time.
The choice is met with a decision: to help and act humanely. The forces that give away humanitarian aid are bombed, but the story of a Belter with a cat named 'Lazy Earther' warms hearts and brings the antagonised societies a bit closer.
Let’s get back to our time. The last decade has faced us with a number of humanitarian crises, which have had to be handled by the nations of southern and eastern Europe. The most recent crises – and the ones closest to me – are two that followed each other. As a citizen of Warsaw, Poland, I’ve seen large numbers of people throng the border of Poland and Belarus – people from the far and Middle East, as well as Africa – promised that they will be able to cross the border of the wealthy European Union and find a new life. The second refugee crisis followed with Russia invading Ukraine and forcing millions to leave their country and seek shelter from their homes being shelled and people being murdered. These two events were met differently by the people of Poland, and I want to elaborate on this, especially the way the second crisis was handled not by the government, but the people themselves. This gives me hope that we are not doomed to repeat the same mistakes.
The Women of The Belt
The Expanse's (TV show) most charismatic women are the Beltalowda’s Naomi Nagata and Camina Drummer. Both born and raised in the Belt, they fought their way through the lows to become prominent figures in the future world. They are not establishment, but rather leaders of hearts.
At the Weeping Somnambulist, Naomi rejected the idea of leaving refugees behind for her own safety. She faced the desperate crowd and explained the situation to them. They picked the most vulnerable and the young people and children, got them on board and fled the collapsing station. The others accepted that they might not make it and let them go.
At the Ceres Offensive, Camina Drummer saw how the leader of the so-called Free Navy abandoned his people for his own gains and looted his stocks and gave them back to her people. She became the natural leader of the counter-faction, and was recognized by the leaders of the joint force that occupied the station (yes, they stopped their pursuit to do that – which required another great female character, Chrisjen Avasarala, to oppose the idea of leaving people to die).
These are two notable and noble stances that saved many lives in a humanitarian crisis. We’ve seen and continue to see this type of reaction throughout all conflicts that have happened and are currently happening. It’s nothing revolutionary to have people of heart oppose people of power. Is this the only motivation, the only way though?
The Unlikely Allies
Poland has nothing to be proud of with how it handled the Belarussian crisis. First the Polish military started making often brutal pushbacks through the border, and only after a while did they establish humanitarian centres that started helping the weaponized refugees by simply treating them as human beings. Obviously, many NGOs fought their way there to help these people, and the situation more or less normalised, though it’s still not stable as Belarus continues to use them to impose pressure on Poland.
What we common people understand is that this situation was meant to antagonise us against people fleeing from Ukraine from the-then-forthcoming war. Poland isn’t exactly known for being the most tolerant society, and we were supposed to react the same way in February 2022. The hardships in history between Poland and Ukraine reach back to the 16th century and both nations have committed atrocities against each other. What Putin didn’t account for was that the exodus of Ukrainians dates back to 2014 when Russia annexed Crimea and the Donetsk/Luhansk regions, and the Polish society became accustomed to their next-door neighbour speaking a different – though a very similar – language.
So when the invasion started, Polish society didn’t wait for the reaction of the government and rushed in with spontaneous help. This time NGOs didn’t follow the military but they had to help common people, who decided that their neighbours' aunts, daughters, mothers, grandmothers and other relatives needed help. Their colleagues from the offices needed help in picking them up from the border. The corner store woman’s mother and sister had to be picked from near the warzone, and so on. Before the government stepped in, Poles welcomed over 2 million people into their homes.
Lang Belta, the United Nations, the Martian Colony
The point and connection between this latter event and my beloved series is that in the world of The Expanse, the societies are much more mixed than we are now, though they still remain in factions. Let’s focus on the language – the biggest indicator of culture. Belters have a creole language. During humanity's expansion into the solar system, people from many different parts of Earth or Mars often lived and worked together, and they developed a pidgin language to communicate with one another. Over time this developed into a full-fledged creole language, lang Belta, which became a common tongue of the Belt and the outer planets.
Mars was at first colonised mostly by companies based in India, China, Japan and … Texas. Their language is close to “common” English, but you can only imagine the lingual diversity that this mix of people created.
The United Nations of Earth and Luna (the Moon is a federational republic) have mixed even more thoroughly – Pastor Anna Volodyova of Russian descent being is married to the African-born Namono, which means “younger twin” in Bantu. They both live on Earth with their daughter, first in Uganda, with a later move to somewhere called New Dolinsk, which suggests Eastern Europe.
With such a mix, it’s easy to compare the situation between Poles and Ukrainians and the reality of The Expanse. Everyone’s connected somehow, everyone has a relative everywhere. Are we really bound to repeat the old course of events in such a world? If this level of empathy is possible in our 21st century – which appears to be really going back to the 20s of the previous century – then in the 23rd it should be more optimistic than what is predicted in the series, providing that civilisation will endure to that time. The Expanse shows not only battles and mysteries, but also how the Earth changed as a consequence of how it’s changing now. Big cities have flooded and have massive anti-flood walls. People live on basic income with AI handling most of the repeatable tasks, with lotteries for courses and universities with waiting times of dozens of years. This is something that we can already see as our near future. But I oppose the idea that we will repeat the same mistakes when we allow ourselves to interconnect, the way it’s shown in the show. Even now, though going through another circle, we seem to be moving forward.