After a year of global upheaval, one question is on all our minds: What lies beyond the horizon?
WORDS BY KENDRA PIERRE-LOUIS
PHOTOGRAPHS BY Théo De Gueltzl
Science fiction can help predict the future—whether it will be utopian interplanetary communities or ruthless colonial societies. As humans look toward building new worlds in space, a question looms: Will we drag our problems with us?
A few years ago, in an attempt to lose myself in something other than winter lethargy, I became enthralled with The Expanse, a space drama that asks: what if humanity became a multiplanetary species? What would happen next?
It’s a question that has taken on new urgency amid another space race led not only by NASA (which last year announced Artemis, a crewed mission to the moon) but also by the group sometimes referred to as “space billionaires.” Earlier this year, Jeff Bezos and Richard Branson slipped outside of Earth’s atmosphere on flights provided by their private space companies (Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic, respectively). Elon Musk has reportedly booked a seat on the next Virgin Galactic suborbital flight even as his own rocket company, SpaceX, is busy training civilians to go to Mars.
Their push, at least in part, comes from a biased belief that space represents our salvation, said Manu Saadia—author of Trekonomics, a book about the economics of Star Trek, a world in which resource scarcity does not exist. These billionaires believe humanity is doomed if we don’t go to space
“Asteroids, ecological disaster, overpopulation—you name it,” Saadia said. “They go through the gamut of all the potential causes for destruction.”
Musk claims he created SpaceX to make humans a multiplanetary species, so we aren’t all wiped out should a planetary-wide calamity befall us. Bezos has said that we need to move out into space because we are running out of resources. Both argue that in order to maintain technological progress, we will need to mine space, a feat best accomplished by moving off-planet.
To be clear, neither Musk nor Bezos were the first to push for this idea to become reality. According to Saadia, that credit arguably goes to the German-American rocket engineer Wernher von Braun, who in the late 1940s and early 1950s campaigned hard for a nuclear-armed space station and what he called “space superiority,” the idea that whoever controlled space would dominate Earth. Before he worked for the U.S. military, von Braun was a member of the Nazi party.
The Expanse, which premiered its sixth and final season on December 10, 2021, narratively rebukes von Braun’s vision in a number of ways. First, national borders on Earth disappear under a central planetary government. Secondly, the show lays out clearly how colonizing space means nothing if we don’t fix our problems here on Earth. Left unaddressed, those problems will follow us into space, and the risks they pose to humanity will magnify to a scale that, in comparison, makes climate change seem quaint.
To understand how, it helps to first understand a few things about the show: it is set in some indeterminate time in the future when technology has advanced to the point at which humans can safely live in space. In The Expanse, humans live on Earth, yes, but they also live in complex underground domed communities on Mars, as well as scattered across the asteroid belt on space stations and in ships. The world of The Expanse is scientifically possible: there are no physics-defying engines. Space is big, so travel takes a long time, and communications are often on time delay. This attention to scientific rigor has earned The Expanse rave reviews, but it’s the way the show investigates socioeconomic dynamics that makes it really stand out.
The same technologies that enable our forays into space don’t eliminate social inequalities like hunger, homelessness, and racism. They only deepen these problems. “So much of the show is about resources and scarcity and the connection between economics and history,” Naren Shankar, The Expanse’s showrunner, told me earlier this year. “Those are the underlying drivers of so much of what we talk about in the series over and over and over again. Those ideas are kind of baked into it at a very fundamental level.”
Take, for example, water. In theory, there should be enough water for everyone. Water, in the form of ice, is abundant in the universe. But in The Expanse, water is scarce because political and economic structures limit how it’s allocated. Early on, we learn that residents of Ceres, a key space station, are under water restrictions despite having been rich in ice for a thousand generations. Rich, that is, “until Earth and Mars stripped it away for themselves,” as an unnamed character says in the show’s first season. This strongly parallels how, today, we produce more than enough food for everyone but do not distribute it equitably; hunger and starvation are problems of allocation not abundance. It also echoes the work of Jason Hickel, an economic anthropologist who has found that poor countries develop rich countries through transfer of resources.
At first blush, racism seems like a thing of the past in The Expanse. People of different skin tones intermingle across class and political strata. But racism in The Expanse isn’t gone; it has mutated, with planet of origin becoming the focal point. Occupying the lowest level are Belters, descendants of earlier generations that fled to the asteroid belt as a way to survive. They are easily identified: their tall, elongated figures and proportionately bigger heads are consequences of being born and living in low gravity. They can no longer physically live on Earth—gravity will literally kill them—such that being brought to Earth is a form of torture.
The same technologies that enable our forays into space don’t eliminate social inequalities like hunger, homelessness, and racism. They only deepen these problems.
At the same time, because of who the Belters are and where they live, they have no say in political structures on either Earth or Mars—despite being taxed by their governments. And because many of the Belters live in de facto company towns (a concept that Amazon, Bezos’s other company, has proposed bringing back to the United States), they are left at the whims of corporations that are too willing to ration their water and air if it means saving a buck or sending a message. The end result is that Belters’ lives are both harsher and shorter. Life expectancies on Earth are 123 years (and even longer on Mars) compared to 68 years in the Belt.
Yet even those on Earth still suffer. Climate change was arrested but not before large chunks of the planet were already underwater. Trees are scarce. Houselessness is rampant. Jobs are reserved for the lucky and the well-connected.
“I put myself on the vocational training list when I was 17 years old,” a character says early in season two. He’s unhoused, living in the shadow of the United Nations (the seat of Earth’s government) and subsisting on sewer water. The kids in his community are exposed to radiation from the facility that manufactures the engines that power rockets into space. “I’m 52 now. Still waiting for my slot.”
The majority of people on Earth live on a form of basic assistance that keeps them alive but offers little beyond that. Having a child requires paying a hefty tax that many cannot afford, and the result is generations of undocumented people who exist outside of society.
Mars has more economic opportunity, but that too is not without cost. It’s a militarized nation-state that only accepts immigrants who fulfill national priorities. Those privileged enough to live there can’t go outside without a spacesuit, as Mars lacks an atmosphere. The human inhabitants of Mars live in complex tunnel cities.
Arguably, the show’s central villain for the first season and a half is Jules-Pierre Mao. A corporate titan cut from the same cloth as Bezos and Musk, Mao is the owner of a galaxy-spanning business that includes everything from consumer goods to weapons contracts, which makes him incalculably rich and powerful. Like the businessmen of today, he cloaks his violent actions in the language of discovery. In season two, when he finds alien life, Mao tells a government official, “You’re witnessing a discovery that could rewrite the story of humankind”—even as he pours millions into turning that same revelation into a weapon. His greed is the catalyst behind much of the first season, including triggering a war and the genocide of a space station filled with hundreds of thousands of Belters.
It’s easy to write off The Expanse as “just” science fiction, but the ideas that the show wrestles with are important. Science fiction both holds a mirror to culture and acts as a source of inspiration. By now, the fact that early cellphones were based on the Star Trek communicators has become almost a cliché. Even before that, in 1945, Arthur C. Clarke, the science-fiction writer who cowrote the screenplay for 2001: A Space Odyssey, described how radio signals could bounce off satellites for long-distance communication. These days, those once-fictional satellites direct the GPS in our cellphones.
Science fiction has also impacted the new space race. Musk cites the galaxy-spanning science-fiction series Foundation by scientist and author Isaac Asimov as one of his influences. Bezos is on record as a fan of The Expanse (Amazon actually saved the series from cancellation after its third season). In 2018, Philipp Jordan, at the time a doctoral student at the University of Hawaii, published a study that looked at the impact of science fiction on human-computer interaction. He found not only that science fiction plays a significant role in how humans interact with technology but also that the role is increasing.
The problem, however, is that much of the same science fiction we look toward for inspiration has a fatal flaw. It’s interwoven with the other main reason people support space colonization, according to Saadia: the myth that humanity is bound to expand into new realms and horizons.
“And they always go back to Africa,” Saadia said. “Some stuff I read by big space advocates, they’re like, Africa was static tropical humans. And then they left for the North.”
If this sounds like racism, you’re not wrong. If it sounds like colonialism, you’re also not wrong.
“Everywhere I looked in science fiction, I found traces of colonial ideology or colonial historical references or contexts,” said John Rieder, a retired English professor at the University of Hawaii at Manoa and author of Colonialism and the Emergence of Science Fiction.
The false belief that the only way we can deal with current and future problems is to expand outward is an extension of colonialist ideals. “Resource extraction, as a model, is really basic to colonialism,” Rieder said. “It’s based on just taking something out and not putting anything back in. And the fantasy, which you can see in so much nineteenth-century stuff, is that, basically, there’s an endless supply.”
“What we’re seeing unfolding in space is very much a frontier mentality.”
This is part of the logic that led Europeans—after overexploiting their own resources—to colonize so much of the world to then exploit those resources. As a result, millions of people suffered through slavery, famine, genocide, and cultural annhiliation while a handful of people got spices.
These days, we’re taking that same logic into space.
“What we’re seeing unfolding in space is very much a frontier mentality,” said Aparna Venkatesan, astronomy and physics professor at the University of San Francisco. “Bezos even showed up to the launch pad in a cowboy hat. I think that sends a message. [The space billionaires] refer to space as the Wild West.”
The closest analog to what’s currently happening in space is the early twentieth-century races to reach the poles and the summits of mountains like Everest. At least back then, people were plainer in their intentions.
Take George Mallory, the English mountaineer who died during his third and likely unsuccessful attempt to reach the top of Mount Everest. When asked a year before his death why he felt compelled to attempt the climb, he allegedly responded, “Because it’s there.” When the reporter asked Mallory about the scientific benefits of his earlier expeditions, Mallory could have scaffolded his desires as kind of a service to mankind, but he didn’t.
“Sometimes science is the excuse for exploration,” Mallory said. “I think it is rarely the reason. Everest is the highest mountain in the world, and no man has reached its summit. Its existence is a challenge. The answer is instinctive—a part, I suppose, of man’s desire to conquer the universe.”
We see this parallel too in The Expanse. Humans have conquered their own solar system, but some seek to go even further. On the show, Mormons have constructed a generation ship called the Nauvoo (from the Hebrew word meaning beautiful place) designed to take them on a one-way trip to a new planet more than 100 years away.
At least one character recognizes how grotesque this desire for endless expansion is.
“Earthers get to walk outside into the light, breathe pure air, look up at a blue sky, and see something that gives them hope,” says Anderson Dawes, a leader in a Belter independence movement, in season two. “And what do they do? They look past that light, past that blue sky. They see the stars, and they think, Mine.” Dawes, in some ways, serves as a bulwark against unchecked greed, introducing viewers to an old Belter expression: “the more you share, the more your bowl will be plentiful.”
There’s a reason why few people today speak as plainly about space colonization as Mallory did about climbing Everest: decolonization.
Maybe the stars are better off without us.
Liberation struggles saw success after World War II, and formerly colonized peoples began to become free, explained David Higgins, author of Reverse Colonization: Science Fiction, Imperial Fantasy, and Alt-Victimhood, which looks at the impact of colonization on science fiction and, by extension, our current space race. “In popular imagery, it used to be cool to be a conqueror,” he said. “And then, after the 1960s, it is not cool to be a conqueror anymore.”
In writing his newest book, Higgins found that groups such as incels, which are looking for absolute male supremacy, think of themselves as oppressed in America—even when history shows the opposite. “In many cases, they are the greatest beneficiaries of extraordinary privilege in American society,” he said.
And one of the reasons they can fool themselves is because of science fiction.
“Science fiction really has, for the last bunch of decades, been inviting audiences to identify with the colonized, fighting against the colonizers,” Higgins said. “We all want to be the Rebel Alliance fighting against the Empire. We all want to be Katniss against the Capitol, right? We all want to be the blue people in Avatar, right? But we don’t really want to imagine ourselves as being the Empire or the Capitol or the oppressive forces in Avatar colonizing that planet, taking all of its resources.”
Given this reality, some are beginning to question whether or not space colonization should be the goal. To borrow a line from The Expanse, maybe the stars are better off without us.
Correction, March 24, 2022 12:15 pm ET
Aparna Venkatesan's name was previously misspelled. We have corrected her name to the proper spelling. We apologize for this error.