The Expanse is a science fiction franchise, based on a series of novels that have been adapted into a television show. (This essay focuses on the television show.)
The story begins roughly in the year 2350. Humans have colonized much of the Solar System. A lack of faster-than-light technology has prevented humanity from spreading to other star systems.
The Expanse is notable for its commitment to realism. The spaceships largely obey real-world physics--there are no shields, artificial gravity, laser weapons, or other tropes. The most unrealistic detail is that ships with fusion drives have become affordable enough for the working-class to purchase.
The players in the conflict
As the human race spread across the Solar System, it divided into three shards that are trapped in continual military conflict with each other:
Earth and Luna
Earth's struggles to mitigate global warming have broken down national divisions: the United Nations (UN) is now the sole government and military power on Earth.
Earth is polluted, overpopulated, and in economic decline. Half of Earth's 30 billion inhabitants live on Universal Basic Income (UBI). Job openings are so scarce that they are distributed by lottery--with applicants waiting in line for decades.
Luna--Earth's moon--is also a member of the UN with close ties to Earth. With a population of 100 million, Luna is effectively a wealthy suburb of Earth--containing some of the most academic, corporate, and government institutions in the Solar System.
(I made an additional photo gallery just to collect pictures of Martian military uniforms.)
Settlers from Earth colonized Mars hundreds of years ago. The Martians became the best scientists, engineers, and soldiers in the whole Solar System. Eventually, the Martians won their independence--forming a parliamentary democracy called the Martian Congressional Republic (MCR).
The MCR requires mandatory military or civil service from their nine billion residents, largely focused on two efforts:
- Terraforming. The surface of Mars is inhospitable, so the Martians live inside artificial dome habitats. For now. A substantial fraction of the entire Martian economy is focused on a >300-year effort to terraform Mars until its surface is more livable than Earth.
- Planetary defense. Ever since independence, Mars has been locked in a cold war with Earth. The United Nations Navy (UNN) has five times as many warships as the MCRN, but Mars has maintained parity by building technologically superior ships, enormous weapons platforms that can, and stealth technology to make their ships and weapons invisible to RADAR and LIDAR.
The gravity on Mars is only 38% as strong as Earth's gravity. This makes Martian bodies weaker--presenting a barrier from them returning to Earth. This is one of the reasons why Martians so motivated to build and protect Mars. However, the Martian Marine Corps (MMC) continually trains their marines in simulated Earth gravity to ensure that Mars is continually ready to launch a ground invasion of Earth.
The Asteroid Belt and the outer planets
Humans have colonized many parts of the Asteroid Belt and the outer planets, including:
- dwarf planets like Ceres.
- asteroids like Eros.
- moons like Ganymede (orbiting Jupiter) and Titan (orbiting Saturn).
- (fictional) human-built space stations like Tycho Station.
Both Earth and Mars depend on the Belt for metals, water ice, and other natural resources. The Belt is of particular strategic importance in the cold war between these two planets--as it means they do not have to depend on each other for resources.
The residents of the Belt--known as Belters--are a generational class of workers whose labor is exploited by the inner planets. The Belters have become outcasts in the Solar System--their bodies are too weak to ever return to Earth, and they are culturally and linguistically incompatible with Martian society.
Formally, the various colonies of the Belt belong to either the UN or the MCR. But informally, the Belt is controlled by the Outer Planets Alliance (OPA)--a terrorist organization fighting for Belter independence and for vengeance against Earth and Mars. The OPA has no central leader; it is split into a dozen-odd factions (of varying extremism) who are occasionally at war with each other. The more violent factions further their political goals using piracy, kidnapping, assassination, and terrorist attacks against civilians.
Much of the political conflict in The Expanse centers around the future of the Belt. The Belters are not shareholders in the Earthers' vision to rehabilitate their planet or the Martians' vision to build a new planet. They want a self-sustaining economy and independent system of government, but few Belters have the vision to compete against the OPA's violence and nihilism.
Reflections of the present day
The Belt faces many of the same challenges as post-colonial societies in the Middle East, Africa, and Latin America. The Belt suffers from the resource curse--where their abundant natural resources slows down their path to education, democracy, and industrialization. Many Belters are drawn to the OPA's anti-colonial vision, despite using Belters as human shields--much like Hamas or the Taliban.
Earth represents a declining empire trying to maintain influence over its current and former colonial holdings--similar to the United Kingdom after World War II, Russia after the fall of the USSR, or even the United States during the War on Terror. Earth has the largest military in the Solar System, but its size is a disadvantage: Earth is asymmetrically threatened by Belter terrorism, Martian stealth-coated weapons of mass destruction, and powerful non-state actors.
Mars is a former colony that turned into a superpower overnight. The Martians' small population, high tech economy, and mandatory military service resemble Israel, Taiwan, South Korea, and Singapore. The Belters tend to see Mars as another colonial power like Earth, similar to Hamas's perception of Israel. Meanwhile, the diplomacy between Mars and Earth resembles the chilly relations between South Korea and Japan or between Israel and the former Soviet Union.
Of course, there is a lot more that happens in The Expanse's plot, but I committed to not spoil any of it in this essay.
The Expanse's storytelling is unique for fairly representing the perspectives of all three societies. Unlike most other science-fiction franchises, there are no black-and-white heroes and villains. Every character's actions--whether good or evil--make sense given the character's incentives, limited information, and historical context.
In real life, most of us humans cannot watch a news broadcast without coloring it with our own biases. The wonderful thing about fiction is that we don't necessarily have biases for or against the characters. Fiction gives us the chance to explore conflicting perspectives equally, leaving our personal biases at home.
These links contain spoilers for The Expanse books and television series:
- I have compiled a photo gallery of Martian MCRN and MMC military uniforms from The Expanse's television show.
- The Expanse UI Design, a gallery of futuristic user interfaces in The Expanse's television show.
- What makes an "optimistic" vision of the future?, an essay by the economist Noah Smith.
- The Macroeconomics of "The Expanse", an editorial for The New York Times by the economist Paul Krugman.
- A pair of Reddit posts (1, 2) discuss how The Expanse relates to the present-day Israel/Palestine conflict.