‘The Expanse’ is a story about systemic ruin

September 16, 2018

“The Expanse” is a popular science fiction television series (based on a book series of the same name) that at first seems to follow a predictable storyline: essentially the Cold War revisited, only in this case with warlike Mars (previously settled by people from Earth) pitted against Earth as the two planets vie over the resources of the asteroid belt (which is a stand-in for today’s so-called less developed countries).

But quickly we are drawn into a mystery that implicates a non-state actor with interests so important that that unknown actor has its own warships which are superior to those of Earth and Mars. While I made some fun of “The Expanse” previously for its assumptions about energy, after watching the entire series I’ve come to appreciate the nuanced manner in which it deals with the systemic risk that unfolds as the story progresses.

Here I must issue a spoiler alert for those who have not seen the series and wish to see it unhindered by foreknowledge of the plot.

Those who’ve seen the series know that the systemic risk results from the discovery of what comes to be known as the “proto-molecule,” an alien life form first encountered on one of Saturn’s moons. The proto-molecule has the miraculous power to transform anything living that it touches, remaking and reorganizing it from the ground up. (Later it learns to transform inanimate matter as well.)

The life form is initially controlled by a large conglomerate which immediately sees the proto-molecule’s potential as a weapon, one that could be sold to the highest bidder in the solar system. (The parallels to current-day genetic engineering and bioweapons seem obvious.)

But key word here is “controlled” for the proto-molecule quickly gets beyond the control of any human and appears to have a destiny of its own. What had previously seemed like a tool that would follow the commands of humans turned out to have agency itself, a profoundly and unexpectedly dangerous agency.

Throughout the series various characters voice concern about who should and should not get access to this life form, about who would use it “responsibly.” In the end every side gains access to it, but not without untoward and unforeseen consequences.

The best any of the characters can do at that point is simply accept with resignation that the life form/technology is now “out there.” While attempts were made to destroy it earlier in the story, now there isn’t even a hint of a suggestion that it needs to be outlawed and eradicated. No side wants to give up the power the proto-molecule seems to confer even if having it risks total annihilation.

In this respect, the writers of the series have their fingers on the current discourse on technology and human survival. Humans do not want to give up or even reduce their dependence on fossil fuels despite the likely catastrophic consequences. We do not want to curb genetic engineering even though the systemic dangers grow greater with every tweak of every genome. And, the constant and widespread use of chemical pesticides not only threatens the current generation, but generations to come through “epigenetic human alteration.”

One character in “The Expanse” seems to be resigned to the possibility that the proto-molecule will never be eliminated when she says:

No one knows what the proto-molecule wants or what it’s doing, but they are using it anyway. It’s already scattered too far to ever be sure it’ll all be gone. It’s part of the equation now, and it will be from now on. We can’t change that. We can’t wish it away.

This fatalistic attitude may seem appropriate for the series, but does it have to be our attitude about technologies posing systemic risk today?

As individuals we can and do make decisions to give up self-destructive behavior every day. People give up smoking, give up drinking, give up addictive drugs and give up excessive eating. It may be difficult to do, but they do it because they can see the harm to themselves and want to stop that harm.

It’s not the same with systemic hazards such as climate change, genetic engineering and chemical pesticides. It’s true that these hazards, too, are well understood and their harm is heavily documented. But, the big difference between the individual and society when it comes to such harms is that they aren’t evenly distributed.

Some people are affected much more profoundly than others, usually those with low incomes and low mobility. The vested interests who benefit economically from propagating these systemic risks can usually protect themselves from the dangers; for example, they aren’t likely to get sprayed with pesticides by a crop duster while dining in their Park Avenue apartments on a pastured-raised organic roast accompanied by locally grown organic vegetables and salads.

All the while these vested interests have armies of lawyers appearing before regulatory bodies insisting that every regulatory decision must go through a risk/benefit analysis. But there can be no benefit which outweighs the risk of systemic ruin in the form of intergenerational genetic damage, widespread chronic disease associated with exposure to chemical toxins, the threat to ecosystems and agricultural production from untested genetically engineered species, and the catastrophic consequences of unchecked climate change.

In “The Expanse” both the bad guys and the good guys keep thinking they can somehow control the proto-molecule long after it has demonstrated its horrific lethality—just as we think we can limit the damage to ourselves and our civilization despite the systemic dangers we’ve unleashed on the ecosphere.

Even though “The Expanse” is described as a noir thriller, it comes to a relatively felicitous conclusion at the end of the third season. But, it seems doubtful that the noir thriller we’ve produced for ourselves here on present-day Earth will end so well without a drastic change in our current trajectory.

Image: Cover of Amazing Stories of Super-Science (1930/9). Illustration for “Marooned under the Sea” by Paul Ernst. Via Wikimedia Commons.

Kurt Cobb

Kurt Cobb is a freelance writer and communications consultant who writes frequently about energy and environment. His work has appeared in The Christian Science Monitor, Common Dreams, Le Monde Diplomatique,, OilVoice, TalkMarkets,, Business Insider and many other places. He is the author of an oil-themed novel entitled Prelude and has a widely followed blog called Resource Insights. He is currently a fellow of the Arthur Morgan Institute for Community Solutions.

Tags: science fiction, Technology