How The Expanse Defines & Transcends Science Fiction Genre

Has The Expanse's "hard science fiction" genre classification kept you from checking out the show? It shouldn't!

Like all of the best TV shows, The Expanse is both a shining example of its predominant genre and a story that breaks free of its genre boxes to become something greater. It’s a drama with the political nerdiness of The West Wing, the narrative scope of Game of Thrones, and the thematic focus of Mad Men orBreaking Bad. It’s one of the most diverse stories and worlds currently represented on screen, and it’s telling stories about the dangers of demagoguery and tribalism that are deeply relevant to some of today’s scariest world problems.

It’s also a show I am constantly trying to convince people to watch—not so much the sci-fi nerds in my life, who have mostly already fallen in love with this sociopolitical space opera, but those people who might not consider themselves “genre” fans, let alone fans of “hard science fiction.”

“I think there are people who respond to particular genres in particular ways,” The Expanse showrunner Naren Shankar notes when asked if he thinks there are misconceptions about the science fiction genre that have kept people from finding this show. “If you say ‘rom-com’ to somebody, they’ll say, ‘Get away from me.’ They’ll never watch that.” 

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Genre is a powerful tool that can help storytellers communicate to potential viewers what to expect from their story and, in an increasingly crowded mainstream storyscape, this kind of narrative shorthand is perhaps becoming even more important. Sometimes, however, genre comes with sets of stigmas, stereotypes, and misconceptions that can keep people from trying stories they might like or even love.

Science fiction, which has a reputation of being only for certain kinds of people (read: “nerdy” white men) has, historically, been one such genre. As a result, many people think that science fiction—especially “hard” science fiction, a term used to describe sci-fi that upholds a certain level of scientific accuracy—is not for them. 

“I think science fiction has expanded its reach massively in the last 10 years or so, [but] ‘hard science fiction’ is an unfortunate moniker because the first word is ‘hard,'” says Shankar. “It says that this is difficult or complicated and that’s really not what it is. It’s like real science fiction doesn’t sound like it would ever catch on, but that is the idea, that it treats the science side of it appropriately, right?”

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Shankar, who worked as a science consultant on Star Trek: The Next Generation, and had some valuable insight into the differences between writing a show like Star Trek and writing a show like The Expanse.

“I found out very quickly that [writing Star Trek] was not about being true to science, it was about being the maintainer of the fake science of Star Trek,” says Shankar. “All of these things, which were in effect magic, right?—gravity-plating and how the ships moved and phasers and sub-space communication—that was not the point of the show, the point of the show was telling stories via allegory … It wasn’t about space.”

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For Iranian-American actress Shohreh Aghdashloo, who plays U.N. Secretary-General Chrisjen Avasarala on the TV series, the reality of The Expanse doesn’t just pertain to the science of this world, but to the sociopolitical issues, as well.

“When we started filming, I kept saying, ‘What science fiction? Why fiction? There is nothing fiction about this. Everything that is on my [script] page is in the news,'” says Aghdashloo. “Last year, every time I turn the TV on … I listened a little bit then just put it on mute and then I go through my lines, try to understand it, try to figure it out, break the codes. What does Martians stand for? What does Belters stand for? And every time I put it on mute I was like, ‘My God, I should listen to that because this is exactly what is going on [in my script].”

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Based on the bestselling book series from James S.A. Corey (a pen name for co-authors Ty Franck and Daniel Abraham), The Expanse is set centuries in our future when humanity has expanded out across the solar system. When the show begins, Earth and Mars are locked in a tense Cold War, with the people who live in the asteroid belt, known as Belters, acting as the oppressed working class caught in the middle. When an alien entity is introduced into the system at the beginning of Season 1, Earth, Mars, and the Belt all fight to gain control of this mysterious force in an effort to maintain and/or seize power. 

Executive producer Andrew Kosove theorizes that the reason some people turn away from stories set in the future or the past is because they are looking for something that feels relevant to today, and don’t realize that science fiction is very much about now, even when it is set far in the future.

“I think people who push back against science fiction push back for the same reason that people push back against period pieces,” says Kosove. “They feel that this is about a world that’s different than my world and therefore it’s hard for me to emotionally engage. But good science fiction isn’t about [the future]. The show is set 250 years in the future, but the humanistic aspects of the show, the decisions that the human beings are making are the same decisions that human beings are making today and have been making for thousands of years before today.”

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Dominique Tipper, who plays Belter engineer Naomi Nagata, has insight into where these kinds of misconceptions come from because she used to have them herself. Tipper didn’t grow up loving science fiction, which she thought of as “serious” and “not fun” when she was a kid. Tipper still encounters misconceptions about what science fiction and The Expanse specifically is from people in her life.

“I have a producer that I’ve worked with before on my first film,” says Tipper, “and he recently said to me … ‘You’re really good at drama. You should do more of it. I mean, you can’t run around shooting guns in the States forever.’ … It’s like, ‘That’s not our show.'”

While Tipper has different ideas about science fiction as an adult than she did as a kid, she doesn’t necessarily think of science fiction first when contextualizing The Expanse as a story.

“I didn’t really consider The Expanse sci-fi in [the sense that] it’s not technology-focused,” says Tipper. “Obviously, it’s set in space so I guess that means it’s sci-fi, but I consider it a drama and I can consider it a political drama. So yeah, I think, in some respects, people will have an idea that stops them from maybe switching on the show, but, often, once they do, they’re like, ‘Oh, this is all the things. This is sci-fi and it’s drama and it’s political and it’s layered and it’s nuanced.'” 

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The Expanse‘s sociopolitical drama is complex and nuanced in a way that today’s increasingly messy world demands. 

“I think one of the things that we explore in The Expanse is the power of demagoguery and the danger of leaving an entire group of people disenfranchised, right?” says Kosove. “That’s really a lot of what the show is about and we’ve seen that in the United States … If you leave a bunch of people disenfranchised, right? If you have a very small stratum of society that controls the overwhelming amount of the wealth and other people are feeling hopeless, what person can step into that and exploit that type of circumstance?”

Cas Anvar, who plays Martian pilot Alex Kamal on The Expanse, divides storytelling sensibilities into “escapist” and “realist,” categorizing The Expanse as more of a “realist” story, but also noting science fiction’s unique ability to allow people to engage with sensitive sociopolitical topics by setting them somewhere unfamiliar. Unfortunately, Anvar notes, this superficial unfamiliarity can also turn people off.

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“There’s a large portion of the population that as soon as they see something that is not familiar, they turn off,” says Anvar, on why some people might not feel as comfortable tuning into a science fiction story. “And it’s unfortunate because the whole point of science fiction is it’s an allegory to our humanity, and it’s being done slightly unfamiliar so that no fingers are being pointed. And then the audience is free to open up and listen and get these images and these themes and everything and, and absorb them and possibly learn from them in a way that doesn’t make them feel confronted.”

As The Expanse gears up for its fourth season premiere on December 13th, it is at the start of a new chapter in its storytelling saga—not only because we’re seeing the main cast begin to explore worlds outside of our solar system, but because this will be the first season to premiere via subscription streaming service Amazon Prime rather than on cable network Syfy.

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As actor Wes Chatham, who plays fan-favorite Amos, points out, the platform change offers the show a broadness—in terms of worldwide accessibility, yes, but also in terms of what kind of viewers are regularly on the Amazon Prime platform.

“Being on the Syfy network,” says Chatham, “people in general, if they’re not sci-fi people, they automatically say, ‘Oh that’s a sci-fi show. That’s a sci-fi thing.’ There was something about getting released on Amazon that kind of changed that dynamic.”

While the Syfy channel attracts a certain kind of fan, Amazon Prime has no such generic specificity. This is good news for The Expanse and for future viewers of The Expanse who might not have tried the science fiction show previously because Syfy wasn’t in their normal network rotation. The first three seasons of The Expanse have been available via Amazon Prime since last February, and Chatham says that he has already noticed an uptick in recognition.

The Expanse Season 3 Reviews The Expanse Season 2 Reviews

“Just being out in town and people coming up and being like, ‘Oh my God, we love your new show,'” says Chatham. “And I’m like, ‘New show? We’ve been doing this for five years.’ And they’d be like, ‘We didn’t know. We didn’t know.’ Because it just didn’t get their radar. And they say, ‘What’s interesting is I usually wouldn’t be into something like this, but, sometimes, Amazon will put in the window, if you liked this, you would like that.” In other words: the algorithm knows!

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Jeff Woolnough, who has directed two episodes of The Expanse every season, including Season 4, thinks the show is “about to blow up” now that it’s on Amazon and has access to a broader audience.

“I think that Amazon is about to take us much wider, and that kind of passion [that already exists for the show amongst sci-fi nerds] is going to leak into the audiences that aren’t necessarily sci-fi people, but they’re going to realize that this show is so much more. This show is reality-based to me, this show to me is a blue-color sci-fi show. I mean I always think of it as more Alien than Star Wars.”

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Really, The Expanse isn’t quite like any other TV series that has come before. While many rightfully compare it to Battlestar Galactica, The Expanse has a steadfast interest in reflecting real-world science that iconic space opera, for all of its many strengths, did not have—not to mention a carefully-mapped out blueprint in the form of a literary source material that ensures a certain degree of consistency moving forward. (Insert Game of Thrones joke here.)

For Franck, it isn’t about getting The Expanse to fans of certain genres so much as getting The Expanse to the kinds of viewers who like to be challenged by long-form storytelling that demands you pay attention in order to reap the narrative rewards. As Franck puts it, The Expanse is not a laundry-folding show.

“We’re telling them a very long story with a lot of moving parts and a lot of complexity, and we reward careful attention in ways that a laundry-folding show doesn’t,” says Franck. “Halfway through an episode, we’re never going to go to a whiteboard and explain everything we’ve told you up to that point. That’s never going to happen. But if you pay attention, you’re going to have a moment in Season 3 where you go, ‘Oh my God, that thing they did in Season 1, they just paid that off.’ We do a lot of that, and we’re going to keep doing that. We’re going to continue to be a rewarding show for people who want to pay attention to something.”

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For too long, many people have thought that science fiction isn’t for them. When it comes to the inclusive, sociopolitically world of The Expanse, this thinking couldn’t be more wrong. This is a show for anyone eager to devote their time and attention in exchange for a carefully-constructed story that reflects contemporary chaos in intelligent, emotionally-affecting, and cathartic ways. I promise it will be more than worth the narrative reward… even if you never get your laundry folded.

The Expanse season 4 launches on Amazon on December 13th, with Season 5 already in production. Seasons 1 to 3 are now available to stream on Amazon.

Kayti Burt is a staff editor covering books, TV, movies, and fan culture at Den of Geek. Read more of her work here or follow her on Twitter @kaytiburt.