This is a complex society in which Eros, Ganymede, and Phoebe are the familiar Londons, Shanghais, and Johannesburgs of today. But keeping all those people alive is quite another matter. Vegetables and animals are raised on the moons of Jupiter and Saturn; ice gathered from Saturn’s rings is melted for drinking water; and minerals are mined from the asteroids. All of this requires labor.

Which brings us to the Belters, the solar system’s asteroid-dwelling population and work force. Over the 10 or 15 generations of permanent space colonization, the Belters have effectively evolved into their own race. They are conspicuous physically, with slender, tallish bodies, the result of the years spent in low gravity. They are aurally distinct, too, with their own tongue—Belter, a creole mish-mash of the many languages and dialects of Earth’s original space pioneers.

Social consequences unfold. There is a tense divide between the dwellers of the inner planets—Earth and Mars—and the Belters, who dominate space beyond. The proud and restive Belters hold fast to a felt moral superiority familiar to repressed peoples through history, seemingly prepared at any moment to rise up in indignant protest of second-rate treatment by the languid and entitled inner-planeters. The supercilious Earth and Mars dwellers are just as determined to hold the Belters down.

When the infectious Musk hastens us to colonize Mars in a “great adventure,” a binge-watch of the first season of The Expanse—and, once you are hooked, a read of Leviathan Wakes, the first book of the series—offers a sobering splash of cold water. For the Belters, we see, colonization has evolved into not-so-soft apartheid.

This is drama—a space opera, says Ty Franck, co-author of the books along with Daniel Abraham, writing under the collective pen name James S.A. Corey. Despite the way-out narrative, the plot line feels authentic, an effect in no small part produced by dialogue that abruptly whips into the Belter language, a tongue created for the show and rendered without subtitles (see this story for more on that).

The insight of The Expanse is that, contrary to the assumptions of so many blockbuster sci-fi authors, the greatest danger in space is not necessarily aliens. It is how law and custom become established for those who settle out there.

The story foretells a future population on Mars starting over where Earth went wrong—attempting to create a more just society. But as civilization spreads further, it succumbs to some of the worst social and economic fault lines that have dogged humans since their origins. The Expanse contains a deeper, stinging allegory for our own times as well, a look from a distance at the anger in our midst, and fateful decisions yet to be made.

With their talk of space mining and colonization, Musk and Page give us a gee-whiz, all-but-blithe technological vision of the future. It has fallen to Hollywood to provide the social, cautionary one.

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