Tuesday, 17 December 2019

The Expanse - I know what you are.

The Expanse: 4x03 Subduction.

I have really enjoyed the way in which The Expanse has tackled the reverberations of Holden activating the ring gates through its different settings and storylines. It is the kind of cataclysmic before and after event that will forever divide the history of humanity, and as such, seeing it both from the perspective of power - that of Avasarala, the temporary Secretary-General of the United Nations - and the perspective of those with very little power, downwell on the surface of Ilus, is enlightening. 

Avasarala is cautious about colonisation because her approach to humanity is cynical realism. She knows that the most likely outcome of a rush to the new planets is chaos, which is why there is no policy yet, and why the ships waiting at the ring gates have not been permitted to cross. It is also an ultimately unsustainable position, because people will migrate one way or another, with political sanctioning or against it. She is right to be cautious, as the conflict between the different parties down on Ilus shows: The Belters trying to live a new life, the RCE trying to establish mining rights for the corporation they work for (Royal Charter Energy) under the guise of a scientific expedition, Holden and his crew sent to act as diplomats. But she is also under threat from the political reality of the situation, and time is running out I think: Nancy Gao is running against her on a platform that centres colonisation, and Chrisjen's strategy to reveal her jumping the line when was living on Basic back on Earth is doomed to backfire: if anything, it will remind the huddled masses who are putting all of their hope into the new world that Chrisjen grew up with privilege, that she does not require the ring gates, that she can be content to be cautious because she has nothing to gain here, whereas Nancy Gao, who has risen from the hopeless poverty that reigns on Earth, would understand precisely what her citizens are hoping for. The moment has finally arrived: Avasarala, one of the most politically apt characters ever portrayed on television, has overplayed her hand. The only question is what she will do with all of that ambition if she doesn't get elected. 

On Mars, in a storyline that has seemed fairly far removed from the rest of the action but is likely to connect very soon, Bobbie is dealing with the fall-out of trying to rescue her nephew David by blunt force: he's been kidnapped by the drug cartel he works for, and he will only be released if Bobbie gives them access to technology. It's a moral quandary for the righteous former Marine, one she can't solve because the man behind it, Esai, turns out to be a police officer. After completing the mission and returning David, he asks her to work for them - on something that suspiciously looks like a mission way beyond making focus drugs, because the people carrying out the tight beam encryption modules that have been dismantled from Martian warships (now unnecessary after the peace treaty between the MCR and the UN) are Belters. Who would require all of this military technology more than those seeking to go beyond the rings? But, on the downside - what could you built, so far beyond the reach of control, if you had all of this superior technology, and perhaps a bunch of protomolecule?

On Ilus, which the RCE mission and the UN have re-named New Terra (a fitting first example of what colonisation does, naming things gives you power over them, and they will not accept the name the Belters have chosen for what is considered their illegitimate homeworld), things are getting out of hand just as fast. While Holden and Alex are trying to comprehend what Holden has turned on inside the mega-structures, and a lightning storm takes out the generator in the main camp, Murtry becomes the focus of the political aspect of colonisation. He is obsessed with punishing those he thinks are responsible for the deaths in his team, and not only has he fired the first shot, but he is also surveilling the entire camp, which is how he finds out about another plot against RCE. It's interesting to see him watched by Amos, who (from his backstory which we haven't really seen explained in great detail on the show) recognises a psychopath who gets his kicks from killing when he sees one. He knows that Murtry would be dangerous in any situation, but particularly in this one, which imbues him with so much power. When Amos confronts him, Murtry for a second thinks that they are the same, not understanding that Amos' entire life is about finding a moral compass in other people, that he doesn't kill for fun, but because it is necessary for survival, and as long as it meets that standard, he doesn't have any particularly strong feelings or moral qualms about it. Murtry doesn't kill out of necessity. 

There are smaller things here as well: Naomi has dreamed about living downwell but is now quickly finding out that the great dream is physiologically unattainable for her. Like other settlers from the Belt, her body is not prepared to exist in high-gravity environments, and the drugs have not worked sufficiently. What will the political implications be if this great new hope becomes unattainable for many who need it the most, the Belters whose economic base will move downwell beyond the ring gates? On the other hand, there is Lucia (the local medical technician who is now acting doctor of the settlement) and Jakob's daughter Felcia, who dreams of going to University on the other side of the ring gates to become an engineer like Naomi, but who is now trapped in her parents' dream of a new life, far beyond where traditional education and career paths reach. Her parents' greatest dream is for the lithium mined on Ilus to be sold at a profit, for their only connection to the outer world to come back from the ring gates with riches that will sustain the colony for years. It's not a dream that their daughter shares, but she has no choice in the matter. 

And then there is the greater question rumbling right beneath their feet: what is it that James Holden under Miller's instruction has turned on here? It is ancient technology, built by the same creators who have built the protomolecule, which has wiped out so many. It is technology without an instruction manual, billions of years removed from being comprehensible. It is exactly the kind of thing that Avasarala would caution against: humanity has landed in a future it is ill-equipped to deal with, and James Holden, a prime example of an idealist who gets in over his head again and again, has pressed a bunch of buttons without knowing what they would do. And now, not only does he not know what he has started, but he decides to shoot a torpedo at whatever is emerging from the Earth, because shooting at things that we do not understand has always worked out so well. It's the only thing he can think to do, even while Elvi, the RCE mission's biologist, tells him it is the worst thing he could do. 

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