Much, if not most, of sci-fi media tends to sit at one or the other end of a specific spectrum: optimism versus pessimism. star trek famous depicts a utopian future, one where humanity has united to explore the universe. Many franchises created in the modern era, meanwhile, lean toward the dystopian and dark, weaving cautionary tales about future technology and what it can do in the wrong hands. And in either case, the technological advances that take place in sci-fi universes tend to be the ones we can only dream of today. Travel hundreds of light-years away in just seconds; human cloning; suspended animation for hundreds of years – all of that is way beyond our reach right now.
Of course, that’s part of the fun of science fiction: imagining a universe so different from ours. But it is equally fascinating to ask: looking realistically at the trajectory we find ourselves on, where will humanity be in a few centuries? What technologies could we develop over the next three hundred years and how will they affect our society? This is the approach that The extent takes in his speculations about the future of mankind. Not only is it one of the most scientifically realistic shows on television, but the characters and their actions throughout the story lend it a sense of credibility that makes it uniquely immersive.
Many purists will say that it would be a mistake to call The extent hard science fiction, and they’re not wrong. Hard science fiction only deals with what we know to be possible, according to the laws of the universe as we understand them. The protomolecule, the extraterrestrial substance at the heart of all the conflict in The extent, is uncharted territory. Speculating about the behavior of an extra-solar entity is beyond the realm of hard science fiction, which means the series doesn’t quite fit into that genre.
The technological innovations of The extent, however, that’s another story. The story is set approximately three hundred years in the future, and for us looking to the 21st century, the progress of humanity seems realistic for that time. In the 24th century, humans still don’t travel faster than light, but we’ve upgraded our spaceships so that travel between planets takes days instead of years. We have developed medical technology to prevent cancers and counteract the effects of space travel on the body, but these are not miracle solutions; there are side effects and disadvantages. For example, after being exposed to deadly radiation, Holden receives a permanent implant that will ward off radiation sickness, but render him sterile. Naomi, to survive Earth’s gravity levels, must take medication with painful side effects.
Naomi’s approach to dealing with high gravity points to another realm of realism in The extent: the difficulties that result from growing up away from Earth. Naomi is a Belter; she grew up on asteroids or on the small moons of Jupiter or Saturn, astral bodies whose gravity is much lower than that of the Earth. And she’s not the only major character like this, either. Gunny, a Martian Navy sergeant, visits Earth in Season 2, experiencing a higher gravity than she has ever felt in her life. Both need to take medication for their bodies to withstand the pressure they are not used to. both find it difficult to adjust to the sudden increase in their body weight.
Gravity isn’t the only thing the outer planets lack either. The extent makes a point of explaining how those who live on Ceres, Ganymede and other outer planets keep their resources from running out. Prax, a botanist from Ganymede, explains how the research station has created its own ecosystem, allowing residents to grow food and recycle water. James Holden’s ship at the start of the series, the Canterbury, was an ice freighter; her only job was to bring essential water to the belt, and life there was disrupted when the ship was destroyed in the middle of a race.
Many sci-fi stories tend to skim over questions about how being in space affects the human body, either with vaguely explained technology or ignoring them altogether. That’s not necessarily a bad thing; sometimes those questions just aren’t relevant to the story. The extent, however, focuses on the concept of a humanity that has spread throughout the solar system. It is central to the narrative to explore the hardships of life away from the planet humanity has evolved to live on. It doesn’t address the difficult questions of how living in space, Mars, or the Belt would affect a human being. And it goes beyond the simple physical, into the psychological and the political.
The world of The extent is neither a utopia nor a dystopia. There are wealthy people who live in luxurious mansions on Luna; others struggle to survive in the Belt. Many are somewhere in the middle – living off government aid on Earth waiting for the job lottery to call their name; serve in the prestigious Mars Navy; or do scientific research on the outer planets.
Those who live on Earth, Mars, and the outer planets all have different life philosophies, heavily influenced by the environments in which they were raised. Those in the Belt are often overlooked and commodified by the inner planets, and struggle to get by; it has shaped a culture of tough, sometimes ruthless survivors who don’t like to rely on others, as Belter Drummer’s fighter often demonstrates. Mars’ compulsory military service and goal of creating a paradise has spawned a culture that prides itself on sacrifice, diligence, and national unity, traits that Gunny exemplifies. Many Earthlings, who grew up in crowded cities, learned to fend for themselves from a young age, like Amos.
The show features major characters from all of these backgrounds and more – and as the story progresses, it shows how they change. Avasarala starts out as someone who always puts Earth first, but as she learns of the existence of the protomolecule and the threat it poses, her greatest concern becomes the protection of humanity. in general. Main protagonist James Holden begins his story as an idealist, determined to see the good in everyone – and while he maintains this sense of hope throughout the story, he learns that sometimes the good is not just not there.
Even the antagonists, despicable as they are, have their likable moments. No one is bad for fun, but many people do bad things for what they think is the highest good. Sadavir Errinwright, for example, is a consistent villain throughout the early seasons. Yet he is not looking for personal gain. He wants to do what he believes is in Earth’s best interests, even if it means annihilating Mars. Jules-Pierre Mao, meanwhile, wants power and prestige, but he also believes his research can protect humanity from any threat the protomolecule poses. As Holden testifies time and time again, doing the right thing is infinitely more complex than it seems. It is these conflicts between different people’s ideas of “the right thing” and how to use the technology at their disposal that leads to The extent‘s conflicts.
It’s fascinating to imagine a utopian world like that of star trek, where Earth and other planets are united in the common goal of exploration and discovery. It’s equally interesting to imagine a world where technology is controlled by evil and corruption, resulting in a dystopia where a few heroes must rise up. But in reality, the most likely scenario is neither extreme.
Science fiction is all about what-ifs. What if new technologies came within our reach? What would it look like and what would we do with it? Would there be any downsides, and if so, how could we get around them? Would we use these advances to explore, advance our society and improve the lives of all humanity? Or would we use it to destroy ourselves and the very world we inhabit? What advances will we make as a species, and will they bring us together or tear us apart? The extent’The answer to these questions is: all of the above. Humanity is not inherently bad, nor inherently good. In The Expanse, nothing is black and white when it comes to making the right decisions, like in real life.
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