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Why The Expanse feels so unique in sci-fi

NASA has started releasing images from the James Webb Space Telescope, and given us a glimpse into the far universe, bringing the distant suddenly up close, in unprecedented clarity. The science-fiction TV series The Expanse had a similar effect for me. In that it made me think about space in wholly new ways, making me consider its distances, physics, and basic inhospitality anew, with the previously slippery idea of space – as depicted in fiction – becoming sharper and clearer. 

I’ve watched Jedi using the Force in a galaxy far, far away (although I know the  Star Wars movies aren’t “real” sci-fi) and I’ve followed the adventures of Picard, Sisko, Janeway, and Burnham over their respective Star Trek movies and TV shows. However, for all their basis in theoretical technologies and physics that have some real-world calculations behind them, they mostly elide the messier parts of space travel (unlike these realistic space movies).

Archer’s Enterprise did it slightly better, since that series took place in a timeline closer to our own (circa 2151), but it still felt like sci-fi with the fiction emphasized. The Expanse, meanwhile, feels much more real. Far from making things boring, it incorporated the deep logistical challenges of a spacefaring race into its core, making it a part of its dramatic heart, supercharging its plot and storylines.

(Image credit: Alcon Entertainment)

The grittiness of The Expanse is revealed early. We are in the future and Earth is now governed by the United Nations (UN). Humans have colonized the solar system, but this expansion has resulted in great tension. Those who live on Mars have their own government, the Martian Congressional Republic, and the Martians are a proud independent “nation” with the best ships in the system. With Earthers struggling with overpopulation, and Martians still in the process of terraforming their planet, these two superpowers rely on the Belt and its laborers. Belters live and toil on the Asteroid Belt between Mars and Jupiter, but it also includes the inhabitants of the moons of Saturn, Jupiter, and Neptune. 

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