In the first episode of The Expanse, we are introduced to the universe through scrolling text. We are told of a solar system in crisis. We meet Julie Mao and an unexplained horror lurking in the reactor core. The camera moves to Ceres station, boiling over with tension. We hear of the exploitation of the Belt by the inner planets. We are introduced to Detective Miller, his new partner, and a mystery case. So far, the writers have introduced many potential plot lines. However, how they will unfold is still a mystery.
Throughout the early moments of the series, we also see many different kinds of work. We begin to see how people live and the role their work plays in the universe of The Expanse. This immediately roots the series in one version of a speculative future. This is not a future society with the replicator-enabled abundance of Star Trek. Instead, workers are exploited, relying on precarious supply chains of air, food, and water to survive.
This contribution to the collection on The Expanse focuses on the work we see in the series. The representation of work is one of the key components that makes the series so engaging. Work provides a powerful way to relate to and make sense of the universe. This shouldn’t be a surprise, given how important work is for contemporary life. This is contrasted with horror, which drives the plot of The Expanse. There is tension between these two elements and it is this contradiction that makes The Expanse so appealing.
During the first episode of The Expanse we are also introduced to the Canterbury, an Ice Hauler (S1E1, “Dulcinea”). In the midst of activity, a voiceover talks of bonus cheques and competition over productivity rates. We see an industrial accident play out. First, a worker is crushed by ice, losing their arm in zero gravity. Then, a few scenes later, he is being stitched up. The medic explains: ‘well, you know that naturally, the company’ll try to screw you out of a good one, right?’ The worker responds that he knows what his contractual rights are and what he’s entitled to. They disagree on whether a Belter or Earth-made replacement is better. Clearly, health and safety problems in the workplace are far from uncommon. We meet Naomi and Amos as they walk with Holden through the corridors of the ship, arguing about PRP forms, arrangements for a retrofit, whether the company will pay for repairs – or more worryingly the cost-effectiveness of just paying out compensation – while they move through the worn-out and broken ship.
This is, as is often used in descriptions of science fiction, a universe that feels “lived in.” There are people who do jobs like those we do on earth, albeit with a different backdrop. They deal with problems that we may come across, too.
The first episode immediately brings to mind the opening section of Alien. As Ty Franck explains when discussing the episode on the Ty & That Guy podcast:
The parallels are pretty obvious … Daniel Abraham and I … when we’re working on the books, we’re pretty upfront about what we’re influenced by … and things like answering distress calls … and the Canterbury is absolutely a call back to the Nostromo.119
In Alien, we hear Parker and Brett complaining about repairs, contracts, and bonuses. The Nostromo is not a glamorous spaceship. It is a workplace and in need of many repairs. As Ty continues:
That idea of space as a place filled with blue-collar workers was so powerful to me when I saw Alien. Obviously, I had seen the original Star Trek … but they were military officers, they were important … then you watch Alien and Parker and Brett are truck drivers … they are merchant marines who wander around a leaking ship with pipe wrenches on their tool belts tightening fittings and fixing burned out motors and bitching that they don’t get paid as much as the officers do. And that was revelatory for me. I was like ‘Oh my god, that is what sci-fi can be.’
The purposeful similarity between the Canterbury and the Nostromo continues with the argument over the distress call. The workers on the Canterbury are caught between regulations that require them to answer the call, while also wanting to avoid pirates and get back to the dock for an on-time bonus. In a first glimpse of Holden’s character traits, he answers the call. From here, the storyline begins to unfold.
Alien, as one of the most important science fiction films ever made, had a deep influence on The Expanse. Alien is defined by the combination of the science fiction genre with horror, which makes for such a compelling story. The horror drives the plot, while also providing a way to increase the tension and keep the story developing. The Expanse (particularly as it develops over the books) also blends the two together, as well as noir cop drama and a range of other influences. However, the influence of the ‘idea of space as a place filled with blue-collar workers’ also runs through The Expanse.
Much of the series revolves around the legitimately-salvaged MCRN Corvette-class frigate that becomes home to the protagonists. While the ship is first named the Tachi, the new crew choose to rename it. Some alternative names are proposed by Alex, including 'Flamin' Alamo' or 'Screamin' Firehawk.' Holden proposes the Rocinante, later shortened to Roci. This was also the name of Don Quixote's horse. The name is a pun, with an approximate translation of ‘previously a workhorse.’ Quixote provides the title of the first episode (S1E1, ‘Dulcinea’), and in the episode Windmills (S1E7), when Avasarala meets Holden’s mother, they discuss a copy of Cervantes. There is, of course, an irony of calling an avant-garde MCRN frigate an old workhorse. However, it does become a near-constant site of repairs throughout the series, eventually ageing throughout the books. At one point, the ship is disguised as a working gas freighter, allowing even the ship to have a costume change. The Roci provides a means for the protagonists to move through the solar system and beyond, even going toe-to-toe with other military ships. Without it, the plot would struggle to develop from what would be a crew marooned on an asteroid.
The Expanse also starts with a range of familiar work-based science fiction tropes, including “truckers in space”, but also exploited asteroid miners. We are initially introduced to the Belt, dominated by the inners. However, the social relations in the solar system go far beyond just exploiting the labour of belters. As Mason Wong explains:
The Belters are not simply subject to a system of colonial labor which leaves them in a state of quasi-indentured servitude. Rather, their entire existence is contained within a sophisticated, monopolistic network of supply chains and labor systems designed to be maximally extractive of the Belters’ production in such a way that they cannot participate in even the most basic economic activity without being exposed to life-threatening forms of rent-seeking on the part of colonial authorities.120
The Belt is both exploited and oppressed by the Inners as a source of raw material and labour, as well as markets for Earth-based corporations.
The social relations of the Belt are sharply contrasted with those we see on Earth. Earth has a shortage of work – or rather an enormous surplus population. Far fewer workers are needed to produce the commodities necessary to sustain Earth’s population. In a process familiar to our Earth, an increasing proportion of workers have been made redundant, forming a reserve army of labour.121 We learn that much of the Earth's population exists on 'basic', a form of Universal Basic Income (UBI). Instead of the dream that some on the left see UBI as a way of breaking the connection between work and survival, it appears to have been introduced as a form of social control. It is closer to the vision of Negative Income Tax (NIT) argued for by Milton Freidman, a right-wing free market economist.122 Basic hasn't freed the majority of people on earth from the drudgery of work, but instead consigns them to a life of scarce opportunities. A select few are able to take on positions of power or escape, either through lottery or corruption. We also hear a negative view of the system during Holden’s interrogation on the Donager. As the Martian Lieutenant Lopez explains:
We are nothing like you. The only thing Earthers care about is government handouts. Free food, free water, free drugs so you can forget the aimless lives you lead. You're short-sighted, selfish... and it will destroy you. Earth is over, Mr. Holden (S1E4, ‘CQB’).
On Mars, we find the structure of military discipline and deferred collective gratification. Here, work is valorised as part of a collective effort to terraform the planet for the benefit of future generations. There is certainly no shortage of work in undertaking this planet-scale public project. The Spartan, brutalist architecture of Mars combines with a strong work ethic. This can also be seen in the disdain both Lopez and Martian marines hold for Earthers. Most of the Martians we encounter in the series are skilled workers, trained either through the military or university system. However, despite the tight discipline, we also later find an underbelly of organised crime, drug use, and escapism.
One of the most interesting dynamics of The Expanse follows the opening of the ring gates. The possibility of travelling to 1,373 new systems, many of which have habitable planets, turns the social relations of the solar system upside down. Belters start heading to the ring gates, eager to escape the yoke of the inners. The locus of power shifts from the inner planets into the ring space, with Medina station becoming a key transport point and node for humanity. The UN is panicked by the possibility of losing control as Earthers call to colonise these new planets.
The control society of Mars rapidly disintegrates. A section of the military breaks away, heading for Laconia. Stockpiles of military equipment are looted by Martians who suddenly see the possibility of living under open skies elsewhere. The promise of waiting a generation or more for terraforming falls away. The breakup of the Martian dream has clear parallels with the collapse of post-Soviet Russia, with corruption rapidly spreading through the military apparatus.
At the start of the series, the social relations in The Expanse feel set in stone – or at least asteroid rock – with little possibility of change. The impact of the ring gates reshapes the horizon for humanity. Instead of fighting over the resources of the Belt, struggling in the dust of Mars, or controlling the population of Earth, there are thousands of new options available. The ring gates trigger an epochal shift in economic and social relations, particularly as colony ships start slipping through the control of the ring gates. However, these are not changes that have been brought about, or indeed fought for, by the people of any faction.
This pessimistic vision cuts across the richness of the world building in The Expanse, which goes far beyond the themes of horror. There is a solar system, at first, populated with people developing their own cultures from the situations they live in. The Belt is perhaps the strongest of these, with its own Lang Belta language, food, sports, music, betting, drugs, factions, and so on. There is also the long term Mormon space colonisation project, although it gets repurposed during the story. There is a distinctly sociological feel to parts of the story, weaving a superstructure of activities that emerge from the new economic base of life in The Expanse.
Too often in science fiction, these aspects become disjointed from the economic relations. The way people work, why they do it, for whom, and under what conditions tells us important things about society (both in science fiction and our own world). Throughout the history of science fiction there have been many stories that either did not address the dynamics of work or the working class, or simply dismissed them. As Eric Flint, a science fiction author and critic, noted during a discussion at WorldCon 76, the class position of many science fiction authors shaped their perspectives on society.123 Writers who did not have much experience of work, or who didn’t have any connection to organised labour, were unlikely to make it part of the speculative stories they chose to tell.
There are some notable examples of science fiction authors that do focus on workers and organised workers. For example, Madeline Ashby, Paolo Bacigalupi, Cory Doctorow, Ken MacLeod, Adam Rakunas, Allen Steele, and Alex Wells.124 Moreover, the Hugo Book Club Blog has compiled a long-list of the ways in which organised labour features in science fiction. This is broken down by whether organised labour features as primary, secondary, or tertiary to the depiction, as well as differentiating between guild, business, and solidarity unions.125 The Expanse features in the list, with the entry:
Multiple Business Unions (Resource extraction workers, transportation workers); Positive depiction – Union integral in democratic governance. Help defend rights of oppressed workers. Provide legal counsel to workers in need; secondary depiction.
Work, as discussed, plays an important role in the universe of The Expanse. This should not be a surprise, given how important work is for contemporary life. However, there are also other representations in some of the strongest pieces of recent science fiction television.
A strong example can be found with Deep Space Nine (DS9), which departs from previous Star Trek iterations in a number of important ways. The first is that despite much pressure not to, the show developed series-wide plotlines and arcs, rather than the relatively discrete episodic format. The focus on the eponymous space station also means that we move away from the strictly hierarchical starship setting. The other series tend to focus on the deck and the captain barking 'make it so' while the work that this relies upon is relegated to nameless crew who slip into the background or are killed on away missions. Long before Below Decks (which could be an entry in this discussion in its own right), DS9 brought to life a broader picture of life in space. Many of the characters are defined by their work, for example, Miles O’Brien the engineer (and union-man), Elim Garak the tailor (who may or may not have had a previous profession), and many others. It should also be remembered that the workers at Quark’s Bar form a union and quote Karl Marx during the episode “Bar Association” (S4E16), although it is dissolved after the pay raise is granted. The plot was no accident and was supported by the actors. For example, Armin Shimerman, who was both the actor portraying Quark and on the board of directors of the Screen Actors Guilds, explained:
People think of this as a comic episode. And it is, of course. But in truth, it's really about union-management problems. The irony of it is that I play management in the episode. So, I thought that to make Rom have a reasonably hard job as a union organizer, I would have to be tough about it, to show the struggle to the audience. Although you don't see it on TV very often, this is something that goes on in America all the time.126
More recently, work has featured strongly in the Andor Star Wars series. Again, like DS9 it departs from previous iterations, featuring a much bleaker representation of Star Wars. Work features as a key part of the storyline. Much of the series focuses on the work of starting a rebellion, from the raising of money, organising clandestine activities, to carrying out operations. While other entries in the series and the films have often featured people scratching out a living in backwater planets, much more detail about the actual work is included. There are shift changes and workers in oil-stained uniforms breaking apart spaceships. There is the work of carrying out a heist, much less glamorous than the rebellion featured in the films. There is also a powerful representation of prison labour in the Narkina 5 Imperial Prison Complex.
The representations of work in The Expanse is part of this growing tradition of science fiction that takes both work and organised labour seriously. Like these examples, this is an important part of the appeal of The Expanse. However, the storyline is not driven by either the themes found in DS9 or the march towards rebellion in Andor.
The story of The Expanse is driven by the emergence of the protomolecule, how it is used by different factions, and the political and social effects this brings to the solar system. It is first developed as a weapon, leading to mass murder on Ceres, the impact with Venus, then the opening of the ring gates. There are familiar science fiction aspects here: the corporation run by a dynastic family, eager to use a new technology for both profit and political power. Ordinary people are used as pawns in a much bigger struggle, driven by conflict between the elite of the solar system. There are similarities here with the Weyland-Yutani Corporation in Alien, trying to profit from the discovery of the xenomorph, regardless of the lives of the crew. In The Expanse, Mao-Kwikowski Mercantile and its subsidiary Protogen play a very similar role.
The protomolecule is not the xenomorph, however. The protomolecule, for all its horror, is 'a set of free-floating instructions designed to adapt to and guide other replicating systems.'127 The protomolecule may create horrors from its host, but it is following instructions. It becomes clear that the protomolecule is building a ring gate, connecting the solar system to a set of interstellar highways left by a long gone civilization. Elvi learns more about this long extinct civilization of Ring Builders from the Adro Diamond. Cara and Xan Bisset are able to connect with the diamond and access The Library held within it.128
In Marxist terms, the protomolecule is the dead labour of this previous civilization, now set to automatically connect the ring gates to this wider network. The civilization lives on in the building of the ring gates. The protomolecule is a machine, albeit an incredibly complex one:
The machine proper is therefore a mechanism that, after being set in motion, performs with its tools the same operations that were formerly done by the workman with similar tools. Whether the motive power is derived from man, or from some other machine, makes no difference in this respect.129
The balance of the colonial and exploitative relationships of the solar system are thrown into disarray by the protomolecule. The long-gone civilization is reshaping humanity. There are similarities here with the destruction of Earth in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. The Vogons destroy the planet to make way for an intergalactic bypass. However, in this case, bureaucratic explanations are given for why this has to happen.130
Vampires in fiction have long represented the fear of capitalism. Marx argued that, ‘capital is dead labor, which, vampire-like, lives only by sucking living labor, and lives the more, the more labor it sucks.’131 Zombies have played a similar role in fiction, although they can also be a stand-in for a working class set on revenge. What then does the fear of the automated technology of the protomolecule tell us? The themes of climate change are clear in The Expanse, both with the development of Earth and after the attacks. However, a much bigger threat comes to face the universe: the Ring Entities. The use of the ring gates triggers an ancient conflict that threatens to destroy humanity. This is an existential horror beyond the protomolecule hybrids, zombies, or even vampires. The intergalactic road building machines continue to plough ahead, driving humanity into a conflict beyond what could have been thought possible.
The only solution is to reject the technology of the Ring Builders, breaking the connections between the gates and falling back into individual systems. There is no collective solution to this existential challenge.
The contradictions of The Expanse
The combination of science fiction and horror in The Expanse both drives the story, but is also a source of contradictions that runs through the series. These genre choices give The Expanse its unique features. As discussed, the representation of work strengthens the story, providing the ‘lived-in’ parts of the speculative fiction. It is a source of richness and texture. Building on this, the existential horror from the protomolecule drives the plot forward from crisis to crisis.
While The Expanse may feature strong themes of work and the transformation of the social relations of the solar system, the horror of the story wins out, instead of following these themes to a conclusion. Work is in the background throughout and provides the story with a richness and context, but in the end it is only an accessory to the horror. The Expanse has a pessimistic vision of the future – one in which collective action has little space.
The themes of work ground the horror of The Expanse. After all, as Emily Hughes reminds us, this is ‘the basic premise of cosmic horror: space is unknown, unknowable, indifferent, and exists on a scale that’s incomprehensible to humans.’132 Yet, the core of the plot revolves around a small group of lively characters – Holden, Naomi, Amos, and Alex. They go from hiding on a lowly ice hauler eking out a living to travelling the universe fighting an existential horror. We see glimpses of collective struggles, from the Belt to the settlements on the new worlds. It is here in The Expanse that the roots in a tabletop roleplaying game (albeit one originally played asynchronously online) become apparent. There are some excellent NPCs133 who feature along the way, of course, as well as a wide range of different locations. However, the Rocinante crew (and particularly Holden) are consistently at the centre of the universe-wide crisis. It is by its very nature an individual quest for change, instead of a collective one.
This is similar to many stories told in fiction. We can relate to a smaller group of characters, rather than trying to comprehend wider social changes undertaken by the collective, even if The Expanse weaves these together at points. As Nanni Balestrini, the Italian Marxist author, explained when discussing character in We Want Everything:
[It] is the story of a real person, Alfonso; he told me everything that’s in the book. He is a collective character, in the sense that in those years, thousands of people like him experienced the same things and had the same ideas and the same behaviors. It’s for this reason that he has no name in the book. I am interested in collective characters like the protagonist in The Unseen. I think that unlike what happens in the bourgeois novel – which is based on the individual and his personal struggle within a society – the collective character struggles politically, together with others like him, in order to transform society. Thus his own story becomes an epic story.134
The powerful worldbuilding of The Expanse ultimately narrows down to a story that focuses on a few protagonists. There are no collective solutions to the problems of first the solar system and then the universe. We do not get to hear more about the politics of the factions in the Belt, what kinds of societies are being established through the ring gates, or what the political dynamics and struggles look like. Instead the focus is on the heroism of a few characters.
From our glimpse of the inners creating their own gravediggers in the Belt in the first episode, we do not get to see revolutionary change in The Expanse. Instead, the ghosts and dead labour of an extinct civilization threaten humanity. There are some important warnings about technology here, particularly the way in which we are becoming increasingly alienated from it, let alone the potential effects it could have. However, the horror of The Expanse cuts across these themes. We find no collective solutions from any of the struggles that came before. While we cannot all salvage a Rocinante and try to change the universe, there are important lessons in The Expanse about what the future could – and should not – look like. This, like with many other science fiction series, is a reason to dig into the details.
119. You can listen to the Ty and That Guy podcast and find out more about it here: Wes Chatham and Ty Frank, Ty and That Guy, 2023, https://tyandthatguy.com.
120. Mason Wong, “On Belters, Beijingers, and Rat-Catchers: Economies of Labor and Extraction in Speculative Fiction,” Strange Horizons, 2022, http://strangehorizons.com/non-fiction/on-belters-beijingers-and-rat-catchers-economies-of-labor-and-extraction-in-speculative-fiction.
121. Karl Marx, Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, Volume 1, (London: Penguin Classics, 1992), 781.
122. Milton Friedman, Capitalism and Freedom (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1962).
123. Quoted in: Hugo Book Club Blog, “Imagining the future of organized labour (part one of three),” Hugo Book Club Blog, 2018, https://hugoclub.blogspot.com/2018/12/imagining-future-of-organized-labour.html.
124. As noted in: Hugo Book Club Book, “Imagining the future of organized labour (part two of three),” Hugo Book Club Blog, 2019, https://hugoclub.blogspot.com/2019/02/imagining-future-of-organized-labour.html.
125. See: Hugo Book Club Blog, “Organized labour in science fiction,” 2019, https://hugoclub.blogspot.com/2018/12/organized-labour-in-science-fiction.html.
126. Terry J. Erdmann with Paula M. Block, Star Trek Deep Space Nine Companion (New York: Pocket Books, 2000), 315.
127. Corey, Leviathan Wakes, 344.
128. Corey, Tiamat’s Wrath.
129. Marx, Capital, 495.
130. Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (New York, Harmony Books, 1979).
131. Marx, Capital, 342.
132. Emily Hughes, “Every Space Story Is a Horror Story,” TOR, 2023, https://www.tor.com/2023/02/06/space-opera-horror-and-the-endless-void-of-space.
133. NPC stands for Non-Playable Characters.
134. Rachel Kushner, “‘I Am Interested in Collective Characters’: An Interview With Nanni Balestrini,” The Nation, 2016, https://www.thenation.com/article/archive/i-am-interested-in-collective-characters-an-interview-with-nanni-balestrini.