Technology and the Design of Dystopia – The Expanse as a Cautionary Tale Within Civic Imagination

“Dystopian media, like Veronica Roth’s Divergent trilogy, take place in a world that is not only impossible, but undesirable. By showing us what we do not want to happen, it can help us think about how to prevent the real world from becoming like the story world.”

– Lauren Levitt, in Divergent Fan Forums and Political Consciousness Raising

In the screen adaptation, The Expanse, an adaptation of the literary works of James S.A Corey, the viewer is presented with a science fiction future in which Mars has been explored, colonized and developed as a politically independent society. Not alone in the cosmos, the Martian Congressional Republic (MCR) and Earth – with Earth then organized under the United Nations – both face off to the Belters, a society of the human inhabitants of the interstitial spaces within the Asteroids. Existing primarily within an exo-planetary fringe, the Belters represent generally a third society, one politically and materially estranged to the nation-worlds of the two populated inner planets, Earth and Mars.

As a prominent feature within the fabric of the story telling in The Expanse, this triad of political societies provides a complex framework within which, characteristics of societies today such as materialism, militarism, political identity, and social solidarity can be externalized for representation and for rhetorical consideration. Thus externalized to a future cosmos within a science fiction framing, the characteristics of humanity today can be explored as features of the humanity in the cosmos of the story.

The three-part spatial and structural division within human society in The Expanse – that of the societies of Earth, Mars and the Belters – this construct may provide a form of rhetorical framing for conflicts that emerge as central features of the story.

Spoilers Ahead – Dystopia Found

The Expanse develops a generally dystopian forecast for the future of humanity in the stars. Even in this future dystopia, however, humanity makes its resilient case for existence.

(Spoilers follow)

Among cultural aspects of the story in The Expanse, the organized militarism of the MCR, the progressive utopia of the future Earth, and the estranged independence and internal solidarity of Belter society are pitched to foment and collide once an unpredictable and potentially dangerous form of intelligent alien technology is discovered buried within an asteroid in the solar system.

For a purpose of providing a rhetorical introduction, the following represents an effort to summarize some broader aspects of the plot as developed in the television adaptation of the story in The Expanse. For purpose of copy rights, all rights are retained by the respective rights holder in the story’s agency.

How to Save the Earth, Part 1 – The Convo That Stopped the First Fall

(More Spoilers)

Throughout the literary conversation of The Expanse, the general antagonist of the story is developed as originating from Humanity itself. In studying the film adaptation, the development of the principal antagonist can be traced to three primary actors in the story, each originating from Earth, Mars, or the Belt. These three elements would each offer a distinct form of antagonist within the construction of the story’s broader narrative.

In summary, the first antagonist of the story – originating from Earth – is developed through an unfettered scientific agency, operating privately and without clear principles of ethics. This agency is aided through a scientifically unconscionable approach to studying a form of intelligent alien technology discovered within the depths of a single asteroid in the solar system – then described in the story as the Protomolecule.

Later unleashed and cultivated within an entire space station within Belter space, through a deliberate and scientifically unconscionable action by the private agency from Earth, the Protomolecule then consumes all human presence on the station. As indicated in the video adaptation of the story, this action was predicated through an ethically unconscionable, institutionally privatized effort in studying the Protomolecule for private scientific and commercial gain.

Initially located within a stationary orbit, the space station and its enclosing asteroid then begins to move by some esoteric physical phenomenon, and turns its heading rapidly towards Earth. The collision with Earth is narrowly averted, after one of the original protagonists in the story reaches out to communicate with the intelligence of the newly emergent alien vessel. Rather than it colliding with earth, the station-and-asteroid-become-alien-ship is then redirected to collide with another inner planet, one absent of human life in the story. Of course, humanity’s encounters with human frailty – as rapidly advanced through this alien catalyst – would not end there.

The Next Fall – Warlords of the Asteroids and Their Friends from Mars

The second principal antagonist of the story emerges from within the estranged polity of the Belt – a human society inhabiting the space of the asteroids between Mars and the outer planets. In a study of how the second principal antagonist is developed within the story, there may be an opportunity to explore a number of social characteristics such as of individual political identity and social solidarity, as represented within the Belter society. Furthermore, in considering how the materially well-developed societies of the inner planets in The Expanse have each related to this emergent antagonist from the Belt, the viewer might observe a number of negative social characteristics of formally institutionalized societies – such as of a political hegemony operating under secrecy, corruption of governmental responsibility in collusion with private commercial interests, and militarization in broad. Each of these themes might be addressed at length, with an observation of how the theme is approached in the storytelling for video.

Not deterred by the transformation and loss of the Belter space station and its near collision with Earth, the first antagonist of the story retains a role during the development of this second antagonist. During this second stage in the story, the collective agency of this first antagonist from Earth then directs its attentions away from a quasi-scientific meddling, turning to the direct weaponization of the newly discovered Protomolecule. Although not providing any direct aid to the second antagonist, however, the first antagonist then serves a role principally in destabilizing the tense peace between Earth and Mars.

Meanwhile, a number of separatist military interests on Mars have then proceeded to pitch their allegiance – along with the most advanced military technologies from the Martian nation-world – for endorsing the ambitions of the newly emergent antagonist from the Belt.

Subsequently, the story provides an externalized representation of coping mechanisms of society under global catastrophe. Filmed during the emergence of the COVID-19 pandemic, this aspect of the story is executed with a particular sense of care, in the screen adaptation. Of course, in the cinematic work for the video, the viewer might not be spared of all possible visualizations of the events creating the catastrophe. Much of the film work for this aspect of the story is conducted from a perspective in Earth orbit, with scenic elements completing the representation within the individual, particularly empathy-rich scenes on the ground.

Due to the scale of the catastrophe that unfolded in the story and its particular development within the story’s plot, this article will not endeavor to summarize the catastrophe at detail. It was big, literally interplanetary in it scale, globally efficacious, and conducted with the impunity of the antagonist from the Belt.

While the ambitions of the second antagonist are being developed within show’s plot, it’s revealed that the Protomolecule originated from a distant species, since lost to the material reaches of time.

The Final Fall: Meddling with Alien Technologies for Fun and Absolute War

In order to study the development of the third and final antagonist of the story, the viewer might consult the books that provided the literary basis of the screen adaptation. This third antagonist of the story is developed during the sixth and final season of the video show. From a synopsis after the original books, such as via the Expanse Wiki, it might be estimated that this third antagonist may eventually represent a sort of ultimate warlord, in the story, an individual enabled by a complete appropriation of the alien technologies of the story, then not constrained by so much as the limitations of human consciousness. In the video adaptation, the development of this third antagonist is indicated mainly through hints, within a short sub-plot developed in the show’s final season. This character appears to emerge from a group of Martian separatists who departed the solar system, in a duration while the private interests from each of the Inner Planets and the Belt were expressing their weaponized ambitions towards the selective elimination of known life.

Within the limits of the budget for the production and the screen runtime for the video adaptation of The Expanse, the third antagonist mostly makes a cameo.

The Story as a Foil – How Can We Avoid the Fall?

If we may adopt a theory of civic imagination, such as from the Civic Imagination Project at USC or after the works of Educating for Democracy in the Digital Age, the screen adaptation of the Expanse might be approached as a rhetorical device for inspiring conversations and further studies about circumstances within the world today. These approaches may appear to establish a sense of further cultural value for contemporary works in mass media.

As it representing a cinematic work created finally for distribution in a commercial video streaming service,The Expanse may provide a sense of popular appeal for viewing and for discussions. Albeit, for discussions within a young peoples’ public classroom, the dystopian and generally mature style of the story in The Expanse might seem to present a potential barrier towards the film’s adoption for discourse. It’s dark, so to speak.

If we can discuss the story, broadly, as mature adults in society, certainly the previous synopsis has not presented all of the socially and culturally appealing elements presented in the video adaptation of the story. We could comment, for instance, to the resilience of the Belters, in their adapting to the antagonist emergent from within Belter society, or the socio-political circumstances of Belter life, as illustrated in the video adaptation, in which the Belters have become an independent, but isolated, materially exploited and socially estranged culture, nonetheless a society retaining its own emergent language, popular identity, and actions of solidarity.

To consider the screen adaptation further, we could wonder about the disappearance of the cosmically present society that embedded the Protomolecule to where it was discovered in the local solar system. What was their society originally like, how did they disappear, and why would they embed this intelligent technology in a space-borne rock (so to speak) such that it arrived to a destination so far away from their original constructions? Was it a cosmic containment accident, nearly leading to the demise of humanity, once a private agency had sought to exploit this unfamiliar technology? Was it to provide a message to some distant species, and the text was lost in transmission? or may it have been an altruistic-yet-fatalistic moral effort, to enable some distant species to use the lost society’s technology, ideally without emulating their original losses?

Was it a proverbial, cosmic teaser, an invitation to meet the lost society in oblivion, or to avoid the same course and develop an alternative for those seeking an advantage of the Protomolecule? As a literary foil for persons and institutions in the original story, this and other aspects of the story might be discussed as to develop a dialogue about individual experiences and the significance of imagination today.

If a practice about civic imagination may help to establish a sense of further cultural meaning for works of mass media, perhaps it can be a useful concept for sense-making, using available materials in the contemporary media environment.


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