Review of The Expanse, Season 4

Reviewed by Stephen Case

There are certain myths that recur in science fiction, and one of these is the myth of the progress or social evolution of humanity. Gene Rodenberry gave us perhaps the best treatment of this myth (which, to be fair, was for him a genuine hope) in the first two series of the Star Trek franchise: a future where human society had developed socially hand-in-hand with technological and scientific progress. In Star Trek, humanity had transcended poverty and racial or nationalistic divides to become a utopian civilization of explorers. Of course, later iterations of Star Trek undermined this idealization in lots of interesting ways, and it looks like Star Trek: Picard will be another step in this process.

Most science fiction, for better or worse, has given up on Rodenberry’s optimism. Epic science fiction today more often imagines that technology will continue to develop and horizons will recede, but people will more or less remain the same. The Expanse, first a book series by James S. A. Corey (the combined pseudonym of Daniel Abraham and Ty Frank) and now a television series of the same title, fits very much into this trend. Evolving technology in Corey’s imagined future means that humans have settled Mars, the asteroids, and the moons of the outer solar system, but none of this means humans themselves have evolved—and this is a central theme in the series itself.

The social background of The Expanse, which initially plays out in the solar system, sees humanity more divided than at perhaps any other time in history. There is an uneasy peace between the militant nation of Mars and the United Nations (Earth), while both these “inner” powers are pitted against the scattered Belters of the asteroids and moons, whose terrorist-like factions fight for the people they ostensibly represent. (Earth in The Expanse is an interesting analogue to Star Trek’s Federation: a planet united but with the majority of its population unemployed, living in poverty and ruled over by a rich elite, facing the rest of the solar system with equal parts superiority and suspicion.) On Earth, Mars, and the Belt, the wealthy—corporations and the military, mainly—have inordinate influence, politicians and business moguls sacrifice peace for personal gain, and leaders are quick to resort to force.

The first three seasons of The Expanse, based on the first three books in the series, did an exceptional job of telling scifi against the background of interplanetary politics and the threat of a discovered advanced alien technology (which, of course, quickly fell into the hands of military contractors). These seasons were at their best when they dealt with deeply flawed humans making choices and then facing the consequences. Particularly devastating was a story arc involving the Secretary General of the UN, his indecision regarding whether or not to target Martian weapons trained on Earth, and the result of that delayed action. The second and third season also featured the character of a Methodist minister whose political links made her witness to developments at the fringe of the solar system related to the advanced alien technology. The writers of the television series deftly presented this character as a genuine person of faith dealing with the challenges at hand and working to offer pastoral support to the people involved.

The first three seasons culminated with the opening of a gate connecting the solar system to other star systems. Cancelled by Syfy, the show was picked up by Amazon for a fourth season, based on the fourth novel, Cibola Burn. In this latest season, which dropped in December, the show’s action for the first time extends beyond the solar system, as the crew of main characters (James Holden and his team aboard the frigate Rocinante) are ordered by the new UN Secretary General to settle a dispute on the first-settled colony world. Once again, a central theme reemerges: even with a thousand new planets suddenly in reach, people can’t stop hating each other and fighting over land.

The conflict is that Earth is blockading any official settlement of the new worlds until they can be scouted and deemed safe. Of course, the Belters with justification consider this a stalling tactic to make sure Earth and Mars get first share of the spoils. As the season (and book) begin, a small group of Belter refugees has managed to run the gate blockade and establish a mining settlement on a planet they name Ilus. Unfortunately, a UN corporation has already received an official charter for the world. When a team of scientists and security personnel arrive to enforce this claim, things escalate quickly. Once Holden arrives to moderate the dispute, his connection with the alien technology—dormant on the planet for billions of years—begins to wake it up, and things quickly go from bad to worse. Indeed, watching this season, which closely follows the book, one almost has the sense that the writers were egging each other on, daring to see how far they could push their characters by disaster on mounting disaster, until the effect was almost comical.

In the book, the story was focused on and just above the surface of Ilus exclusively, so much so that it almost felt like an extended “away mission” episode, disconnected from the larger political drama that had motivated the series up to that point. The writers kept the focus almost claustrophobic, tight on Holden and his companions working against time to reach a solution on the surface, and others trapped in orbit above. In the television version, the story is still largely focused on Ilus, but the season simultaneously tracks threads of secondary characters back in the solar system. Much of this felt like filler meant to keep these characters in the viewers’ minds and offer leads for the fifth season hook. The scenes on Mars and Earth, in particular, fell flat. The exception was the thread focused on the characters of Drummer and Ashworth, two leaders in the new Belter alliance working to maintain peace with Mars and Earth. The television series has done a fantastic job making the culture of the Belters come to life, and it’s primarily because of the acting and personality of these two characters. Accordingly, the dark twist that ended this particular thread came like a knife in the gut.

The conflict on Ilus, though, was central to the season, along with Holden’s growing impotency to do anything about it. This is a trait of Holden that has been central throughout the series: he wants to do the right thing, to prevent war and senseless destruction, and to bring criminals to justice. But he’s just a guy with a ship and a loyal crew, and this season underlines how little that actually means in the face of ancient technology going awry and longstanding hate simmering between the Belters who feel pushed off their home and the security personnel from Earth who are “just doing their jobs” and upholding the law. Things would have been a little more ambiguous from an ethical standpoint if—both in the book and TV version—it wasn’t made abundantly clear that the leader of the UN force on Ilus was simply a sociopath who used his authority as an excuse to kill people.

For people who take considerations of faith seriously, science fiction is a fascinating example of secular mythologies. Our mythologies often enshrine our hopes. With the original Star Trek, those hopes were something utopian and optimistic. We would evolve socially to become better as an entire species. With The Expanse, those mythologies are something much grimmer—and yet somehow hopeful as well. Throughout season four, as the characters are pushed to the very brink of survival, they keep hope alive. That hope isn’t based on any higher power. (The only higher powers in this show are the vanished ancient alien builders who, if they were gods, were deeply flawed and disinterested ones.) Neither is it hope based on humanity broadly construed. Holden and his crew have seen too much of the brokenness in how people act toward each other to have any hope in that.

The characters in The Expanse have come to a point where they’re wise enough to have no hope for humanity writ large, humanity as a general concept or idea. This resonates with where a lot of science fiction writers, readers, and viewers are today as well. We’ve lived through the optimism of capitalism and of technological determinists who preached the gospel of universal progress. We’ve seen how technology transforms war, expands ecological degradation, and can simply add to hopelessness or ugliness in the world. Yet the characters in The Expanse, and especially here in the tight focus of season four, retain their faith and hope in people—in the specific individuals they encounter. Here the examples of heroism or loyalty aren’t sacrifices made for humanity; rather they’re made in spite of humanity and for specific humans.

Right now, this view of the future rings truer than any Rodenberry-like utopia. And it leaves the door open for a deeper treatment of faith and religion in fiction. I can’t imagine, for instance, anyone in Star Trek: The Next Generation going to church or even seeing the need for it. The humans in that imagined future have outgrown all that. Instead, they have faith in the Federation and what it stands for, in humanity in general. But in the broken future of The Expanse, I can see cultural faith traditions still being very real for people whose loyalty and hope rests in each other, not in governments or factions or ideals of nations far away. This is a major part of the reason why the character of the minister in seasons two and three didn’t feel awkward or forced. In the long, cold night of Corey’s future, a genuine word of hope would be welcomed.

Stephen Case is a historian of science who teaches at Olivet Nazarene University in Bourbonnais, Illinois. Hes published over thirty short stories in magazines including Orson Scott Cards Intergalactic Medicine Show, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, and Daily Science Fiction. His book reviews have appeared at Black Gate and Strange Horizons. Cases first novel, First Fleet, was recently reviewed in Mysterion and is available on Amazon. His first non-fiction book, Making Stars Physical: The Astronomy of Sir John Herschel, was published by University of Pittsburgh Press. You can learn more about his fiction and his research at or by following him on Twitter @StephenRCase.

Support Mysterion on Patreon!