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Mason Wong

What can we learn about the future of capitalism from The Expanse? It is obvious that this series[1] spends a significant amount of time focusing on problems of labor, capitalism, and extraction. But what exactly is The Expanse saying with its interest in the economics and labor problems of space colonization?

This essay is an attempt to trace the contours of imaginary labor economies in speculative-fictional literature, focusing principally on the asteroid-mining Belters of The Expanse, while also discussing other imagined capitalist futures in works of Chinese and USian science fiction. In my view, Belter culture and identity as depicted in The Expanse is essentially inseparable from The Expanse’s interest in capitalism. In fact, I offer on top of this that the Belters are The Expanse’s most valuable contribution to an ongoing speculative conversation about the future of capitalist economies and the material conditions of labor in the future.

So let us begin with a simple question: who or what, both in and out of the fictional universe of The Expanse, is the Belter?

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In the most basic sense, the Belter is the economic lynchpin of The Expanse’s spacefaring future: as members of a class of laborers born and raised in the asteroid belt (‘the Belt’) and the outer-planet moon colonies, Belters spend their lives mining asteroids in far-flung parts of the solar system for ice, minerals, and metals essential to the maintenance of humanity’s space colonies. Thinking more politically, the Belter is meaningfully many things: an unruly colonial subject, a node of linguistic transmission, a profit-generating laborer. But the Belter is one thing above the others—a cultural and social hybrid, alien in his appearance and experience while still identifiable as a semi-familiar object of exploitation. Alone among the people of The Expanse, the Belter is a uniquely distant entity: biologically and linguistically separated from The Expanse’s other humans, but human nonetheless.

The modal Belter—pejoratively referred to as a “skinny”—is both taller and slimmer than his Earth and Mars counterparts, with brittle, elongated limbs and a recognizably enlarged skull. Because of their adaptation to low-gravity environments, many Belters are dependent on strenuous exercise routines and taxing steroid regimens to maintain their health, while others suffer from disabling genetic abnormalities. The Belter language, too, resembles any number of Earth tongues while being by and large unintelligible to its audiences. Constructed by the science fiction writer, polyglot, and linguist Nick Farmer specifically for The Expanse, Belter Creole bases itself on English while drawing influence from the orthography and vocabulary of East Asian, Slavic, South Asian, and Romance languages.

The Belter Creole language is at once an impressive technical feat and a charming speculative-fictional curiosity. But it also represents something much larger than an achievement in language construction and so-called “worldbuilding." Instead, within the narrative context of The Expanse, the Belter language is one of the clearest examples in recent speculative fiction of the cultural merging and hybridity that the literary theorist and philosopher Edouard Glissant referred to as “creolization.”

I mentioned just now that the Belters have an air of hybridity about them; the question then becomes: from what? We know the specific inspirations for Belter Creole because of the willingness of Nick Farmer to discuss his work, but what can we gather from the text of The Expanse about the Belters and their cultural origins more broadly? A rather vulgar political reading of the Belters might force us into considering their story as parable or allegory, but this in itself is a difficult reading to defend. In a general sense, the Belters are obviously exploited laborers, but this fact in isolation does not make them a meaningful parallel to any particular real-life situation. More specifically, the Belters’ social and identarian position is tied to a difficult-to-untangle mix of biological, linguistic, social, and even (depending on how you read either the television show or the books) racial factors which, when put together, have no strong real-life analogue, even in a vague and undefined sense. Nor does the tale of the Belters seem socially or morally instructive in any particularly noticeable way, other than perhaps as a generalized disapproval of exploitative labor practices. In fact, politically active Belters are often portrayed as simplistic extremists, and the narrative status of the pro-Belter independence Outer Planets Alliance is often in flux.

Edouard Glissant. Photo Credits: YEHKRI.COM A.C.C.

I return to Glissant for a clearer interpretation of the Belters’ status. What makes the Belters a particularly interesting fictional object is that they have, in their depiction, so many shades of different oppressed groups, from the permanent laborer status typical of indentured servants and slaves to the physical and genetic abnormalities that we may recognize from ghettoized or otherwise geographically segregated (often racial or ethnic minority) underclasses. The identarian culture of the Belters—their language, but also their tattoos and their nascent political organizations—are similarly reminiscent of various real-life referents, although it remains difficult to put our finger on what exactly they resemble once we consider all these characteristics in tandem.

Of course, not everything in fiction needs to be an allegory or a parable, but I do think the inability of the Belters to fit into a crude allegorical framework is meaningful. To my eye, this inability arises from the fact that the Belters are an example of what the scholar Lorna Burns, citing Glissant, refers to as the “impossibility of legitimate lineages [or] cultural affiliations[2].” In other words, in the process of the Belters’ formation as a political, cultural, and economic entity, they have undergone Glissant’s essential process of creolization—the “becoming that refuses to settle into a fixed, essentialized identity” in favor of becoming “something different, [settling] into a new set of possibilities[3].” Notably, this is different from the mere combination of cultures and histories, whether in real life or in literature. Per Glissant:

Creolization is unpredictable, whereas the immediate results of crossbreeding are more or less predictable. Furthermore, creolization opens on a radically new dimension of reality, not on a mechanical combination of components ...[4]

Because of this, The Expanse’s engrossing depiction of the Belters is an unusual literary achievement in and of itself, even when we consider the long history of science fiction drawing from a multitude of real-world inspirations. Rather than roughly kludging together various historical inspirations in a way that might more easily trigger the pathos of recognition, The Expanse’s writers—with the help of skilled technical experts like Farmer—have created a fictional culture and polity as compelling as it is distinct from anything outside The Expanse’s universe.

Of course, we are not just interested in the Belters as curiosity—I have, after all, promised to show that the Belters’ depiction is a meaningful contribution to the conversation around the future of capitalism. This leads us to an obvious question: could the capitalist circumstances which shape the Belters’ lives and identity also be subject to a sort of institutional or systemic creolization? In my view, absolutely. Here, I am not alleging that creolization applies to every type of hybridity (though it may); instead, I am merely suggesting, to begin with, that the circumstances of extractivism and labor exploitation are key to our ability to understand the nature of the Belters’ creolization and may in fact be an integral part of that phenomenon.

Throughout The Expanse, the Belters demonstrate—in addition to the spoken Belter Creole language—a series of distinctive physical gestures which serve as a type of sign language. This development, we soon discover, is necessitated by the fact that so many Belters are employed in extractive industries that require them to communicate non-verbally during spacewalks. The physical abnormalities mentioned earlier are symptoms of the Belters’ labor conditions as well, a product of the challenges of birth and growth in low-gravity working environments. The segregation of the Belters from Earth society is also enforced not just by law but by biology. Unlike humans, who grew up in higher-gravity environments, Belters cannot survive on Earth for more than short periods of time. It is, within The Expanse’s fictional boundaries, impossible to conceive of the Belters outside of the economic system in which they exist. Thus, any discussion of the identity of the Belters is in effect a discussion of the ways in which The Expanse views the nature of capitalist enterprise, generally with regard to labor and extractivism, but also specifically in the age of space exploration and colonization.

As such, the shape of The Expanse’s depiction of capitalism’s future may be best understood within the framework of creolization, in much the way that the depiction of the Belters is fundamentally creolizing and is difficult to understand as anything else. If we understand the Belters as products of both creolization and their material circumstances, we should also at least entertain the possibility that these material circumstances are subject to the same process of creolization as the Belters.

To begin with, the type of extractive capitalism depicted in The Expanse is unique—that is to say, meaningfully separate from the types of extractivism we know now—not just in form, but in substance. It is almost axiomatic that new frontiers in resource extraction and human colonization will lead to new forms of capitalism; it is likewise obvious that these new iterations of extractivism, colonialism, and capitalism will be accompanied by novel developments in labor exploitation and the biopolitical control of workers. Much as the Fordist economy described by the likes of Adorno and Horkheimer in the 1950s was a meaningfully distinct phenomenon from the neoliberalism of the 80s and 90s, the economy of the 2350s as depicted in The Expanse must of course be distinctively different from the “platform capitalism” of the 2010s or the extractive economies of the 20th and 21st centuries.

The Expanse does actually show us this fact quite clearly. But the nature of what is happening (or rather, what is being done) to the Belters is unusual even by the rather low standards of human welfare in extractive industries throughout history. However much it remains at its core rooted in capitalist practices of resource extraction and abusive labor relations, the extractive capitalism of The Expanse has a distinctly hybrid quality to it that mirrors the creolization of the Belters themselves. The biopolitical situation of the Belters, for one, is unique—their low socioeconomic status within the interplanetary political economy of The Expanse is not merely the product of wealth and income disparity, but also of a systematized effort to tie their access to air and water to their labor productivity. This is not simply an exaggerated version of labor-for-sustenance agreement that powers most capitalist economies; much like the aforementioned segregation that results from the Belters’ gravity-altered biologies, the extractive corporations’ control of the Belters’ lives is complete in a way which presents
substantive differences from any real-life referent.

We see this clearly in Leviathan Wakes, the first book of The Expanse. Early on, Leviathan Wakes spends a significant amount of time detailing the events of a small Belter rebellion at Anderson Station, a “tiny shipping depot” controlled by the Earth-Mars colonial authorities which serves as a “minor distribution station for water and air in one of the sparsest stretches of the Belt.[6]

The presence of a sprawling, colonially-controlled supply chain—Leviathan Wakes’ narration notes that Anderson Station is merely a node of “fewer than a million Belters[7]”—in a much larger and more complex interplanetary economic network upon which the Belters’ lives depend already indicates the existence of the sort of complete biopolitical dominance discussed earlier. However, the precipitating incident in the aforementioned Belter uprising is actually more complicated. Notably, it is not until the colonial authorities attempt to squeeze more blood from the Anderson Station stone that rumblings of revolt begin.

Gustav Marconi, a career Coalition bureaucrat on the station, decided to implement a 3-percent handling surcharge on shipments passing through the station in hopes of raising the bottom line. Less than 5 percent of the Belters buying their air from Anderson were living bottle to mouth, so just under fifty thousand Belters might have to spend one day of each month not breathing. Only a small percentage of those fifty thousand lacked the leeway in their recycling systems to cover this minor shortfall. Of those, only a small portion felt that armed revolt was the correct course ... of the million affected, only 170 armed Belters came to the station, took over, and threw Marconi out an airlock. They demanded a government guarantee that no further handling surcharges would be added to the price of air and water coming through the station.[8]

The Anderson Station rebellion is, predictably, quickly quashed in bloody fashion. But the specifics of what Leviathan Wakes describes are important to understanding the uniqueness of the exploitation of the Belters. The Belters are not simply subject to a system of colonial labor which leaves them in a state of quasi-indentured servitude. Rather, their entire existence is contained within a sophisticated, monopolistic network of supply chains and labor systems[9] designed to be maximally extractive of the Belters’ production in such a way that they cannot participate in even the most basic economic activity without being exposed to life-threatening forms of rent-seeking on the part of colonial authorities.

Upon closer examination, it becomes obvious that the Belters are stuck in a type of arrangement without any historical precedent, one that is, notably, fundamentally dependent on an exploited class’ skilled use of extractive, pharmaceutical, and aerospace technologies which do not yet exist (and may never). The Belters are neither slaves nor sharecroppers nor unwilling participants in a free-market system—instead, they are trapped in a state of perpetual, compensated underclass servitude, one which equips them with unusual skills (spacewalking, mining equipment operation) and does not subject them to the political stagnation of slave status, but also denies them both the physical and economic ability to leave their positions.

These facts certainly do suggest a sort of creolization in the fictional design of the Belt’s political economy. But is there another way to understand the relationship between Earth, Mars, and the Belt? Through any number of historical and literary-critical frameworks, presumably—but I would argue that these frameworks, too, lead us to conclude that there is a process of creolization happening with the type of capitalism depicted in The Expanse.

We may examine the Belt’s status through a postcolonial lens, with Earth and Mars as colonizers and the Belters as colonized subjects. There are shades of world-systems theory here as well: Earth and Mars are imperial cores, and Mars perhaps a sort of military-imperial hegemon; the Belt is rather plainly a peripheral territory. As a socioeconomic unit with a single division of labor that contains within in multiple cultural systems, Earth, Mars, and the Belt do, indeed, make up a sort of "system" as Immanuel Wallerstein defined it, although perhaps more of what we might call a "many-worlds system" than a "world-system."

But are the Belters colonial subjects in the traditional sense, exactly? It is notable that the Belters themselves are the forefront of a colonization effort, though they are closer to colonial laborers than colonists per se. The postcolonial framework also frays somewhat when considering that the Belters are the spear-tip of a truly unique effort to expand capitalist enterprise into new spaces. The establishment of human colonies in the Belt is not a traditional colonial expedition into already-populated spaces, but a colonial project which previously only existed in the most ludicrous of imperial propaganda: the settlement of a resource-rich space truly uninhabited by other humans.

In some ways, the situation of the Belters is closer to that which the scholar Ramón Gutiérrez calls “internal colonialism[11]”—the system by which Black and Chicano residents of the United States became subjugated within their own countries in the same way that colonial subjects in the so-called Third World were. But this does belie the incredibly important fact that the Belters are essentially, in both a physical and biological sense, on the periphery of human society rather than a geographically and politically near underclass.

Perhaps our best theoretical framework for understanding the Earth-Belt relationship may be the work of the political geographer and Marxist theorist Martin Arboleda, whose book Planetary Mine: Territories of Extraction under Late Capitalism draws on a wide variety of theoretical and historical sources to construct a theory of extractive economies in the age of globalization.

Arboleda argues that global extractive economies together form a set of “sprawling circulatory infrastructures,” which form a “a new geography of late industrialization that is no longer circumscribed to the traditional heartland of capitalism[12],” connecting “sites of extraction to megacities, factories, financiers, fleets of dry-bulk carriers, technocrats, precarious migrants, and industrial workers[13].” Per Arboleda’s description:

... the mine is not a discrete sociotechnical object but a dense network of territorial infrastructures and spatial technologies vastly dispersed across space ... the planetary mine [is] one that vastly transcends the territoriality of extraction and wholly blends into the circulatory system of capital, which now transverses the entire geography of the earth ... the technological basis of contemporary [extractivism] has blurred the boundaries between manufacturing and extraction, waste and resources, biologically and nonbiologically based industries. [Thus], this ... warrants the reconsideration of extractive industries beyond the mere wresting of minerals from the soil.[14]

Is this recognizable to viewers and readers of The Expanse? In some ways. The solar system-wide economy of The Expanse is, like our world, dependent on a network of extractive infrastructures located across disparate locales; similarly, the extractive economy of the Belt is only one piece of an economic exchange network which touches everywhere humans live by way of providing the water, raw materials, and commodities needed to maintain not just Earth and the human colonies, but their economies as well.

But at the same time, Arboleda’s model is tailored specifically to our world, with a specific interest in the “robotization and computerization of the labor process brought about by [the] fourth machine age.[15]” Arboleda’s “planetary mine” cannot definitionally exist in an economy which relies on the type of biologically distinct mass human labor which we have identified the Belters as, much less in an economy which treats them both as a slave-like underclass and as skilled workers impossible to replace with machines.

That is not to say the work of people like Arboleda, Wallerstein, Gutiérrez, and others is worthless to our understanding of the Belters. We must merely take our recognition of pieces of the asteroid mining economy in these theorists’ work as signs that the variety of capitalism depicted in The Expanse is defined by what the anthropologist Mayfair Mei-hui Yang (herself leaning, as we are, on work done by theorists of linguistic hybridity) calls “economic hybridity”—the “coming together of economic logics and practices from different epochs and cultural histories[16].” In other words, we can reconcile these contradictions and merge the contributions of the aforementioned theorists by conceding that even the methods of capitalist extractivism and labor exploitation in The Expanse are creolized, rendered unrecognizable and meaningfully distinct from their original referents by way of overlapping hybridities.

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I want to take some time to explore the nature of this creolization of extraction and capitalism, moving beyond abstractions and theoretical generalities towards specific speculative-fictional imaginings of future capitalisms and their relationship with labor.

To my mind, Chinese science fiction, a genre that has experienced somewhat of a renaissance in the last several decades, provides the most generative comparative framework for our exploration of The Expanse’s treatment of capitalism. Both The Expanse and its Chinese science-fictional counterparts are interested in the new hierarchies and social forms that will emerge out of the capitalisms of the future. But the factor that makes Chinese science fiction a particularly useful framework for this comparison is what the literary scholar and intellectual historian Jing Tsu has identified[17] as the uniquely prolific nature of Chinese speculative work, a quality which arises from a need (or at least a desire) to speak simultaneously to governmental, scholarly, domestic, and international readers.

In fact, in a roundtable with Jing Tsu, the Chinese science fiction luminary Liu Cixin once argued that Chinese science fiction is, in part because of its aforementioned qualities, uniquely prepared to conceptualize the limits and potential of future societies. In his remarks[18], Liu proposed that Chinese science fiction is concerned with social organization tout court, and that Chinese writers are particularly interested in sci-fi as a way of exploring new types of social collaboration, exploitation, and interaction. Liu’s assertion is quite interesting in and of itself, but whether it is in a broader sense true does not really matter here. For our purposes, it is important enough that his work, including not only the critically acclaimed The Three-Body Problem but also short stories like the green energy-touting epic, The Sun of China, fit into this mold.

Like The Expanse, The Sun of China is fundamentally interested in questions of extractive economies and labor relations. But for Liu, the Anthropocene and its attendant environmental catastrophes are essentially problems of human organization which can be solved by some combination of technological innovation and competent social engineering. Among other things, The Sun of China depicts—as its key focus—the building of a massive weather-controlling, solar power-gathering satellite in low Earth orbit, which helps turn the deserts of northwestern China slowly green. In general, the plot takes as given human progress towards an age of peace and plenty.

Liu’s borderline cheeriness about the Anthropocene and the technological and political possibilities it portends are not in any way representative of Chinese science fiction (or even of Liu’s work), but they do provide an important contrast to the works of the Chinese science fiction writers Chen Qiufan and Hao Jingfang. Where Liu assumes, in the words of literary critic Jessica Imbach, that the future of capitalism will “roughly mirror [China]s economic ... transformation from a poor [country] into a space-faring economy[19],” Chen and Hao take a more skeptical view, probing the specifics of who and what may be lost in these transformations, as well as whether they will occur at all.

Notably, the work of both Hao and Chen is highly concerned with what the theorist Rob Nixon refers to as “slow violence”—the “violence that occurs gradually and out of sight,” the violence of “delayed destruction ... dispersed across time and space ... attritional [and] typically not viewed as violence at all[20].” Like The Expanse, they set their stories at least partially within the scope of vast and seemingly immovable systems of economic and social oppression, which perpetuate forms of slow violence upon their subjects. Similarly, they are also deeply interested in the intrusion of capitalism upon the environment, whether through their depictions of the consequences of extractivism or the extension of market demands into the broader ecosystem.

Furthermore, unlike Liu Cixin, Chen Qiufan takes an interest in the fact that the place of science in human society—in other words, the key generic concern of what is broadly called "science fiction"—is “written and rewritten by the allocation and flow of capital[21].” In other words, much like The Expanse, Chen’s work often explores a sort of non-utopian economic hybridity situated within broader circumstances of slow violence, environmental destruction, and labor exploitation. Chen has said as much about his skepticism of speculative fiction’s scientistic and utopian tendencies:

[The idea of] "science" is itself one of the greatest utopian illusions ever created by humankind. I am [not] anti-science, [but] the utopia offered by science is complicated by the fact that science disguises itself as a value-neutral, objective endeavor [even as] we now know that behind the practice of science lie[s] ideological struggles, fights over power and authority, and the profit motive[22].

The Year of the Rat

This attitude is important to understanding Chen’s work, as well as the reasons why it resists the urge towards either technological optimism or a crude corrective dystopianism. Accordingly, Chen’s fiction often takes a rather dark tone, accompanying lurid portraits of human (and animal) degradation with an affectively detached—if substantively concerned—attitude towards broader political and economic settings. Chen’s "The Year of the Rat," for example, depicts an arguably even bleaker vision of labor politics than The Expanse. Like the Belters, the rats in "The Year of the Rat" are originally a sort of genetically-distinct generator of economic value (in the rats’ case, they are designed by Chinese scientists as luxury pets for export); however, they soon break free of these bonds and become an organized, intelligent menace to their former oppressors as a whole. In turn, the Chinese state draws upon a similarly exploitable reservoir of labor—the country’s well of un(der)employed college graduates—to form a “Rodent-Control Force” tasked with the traumatizing undertaking of killing possibly-sentient rats en masse.

Though neither are meaningfully creolized like the Belters, both the Rodent-Control Force and their murine prey are interlocked into the networks of trade and ecological ruin described by Arboleda. Furthermore, they, like the Belters, serve as a depiction of the ways in which technology and evolving economic needs reconfigure labor. From a description of how the rats in "The Year of the Rat" came to be:

In her eyes, the business of raising rats was not all that different from working on a contract manufacturing assembly line or in a shirt factory. We still didn’t control the key technologies. The embryos all had to be imported. After the farm workers raised them, they went through a stringent quality control process, and those that passed were exported, implanted with a set of programmed behaviors overseas, and then sold to the wealthy as luxury pets.

All that our country, the world’s factory, had to offer was a lot of cheap labor in the least technology-intensive phase of the operation.[23]

Like The Expanse, "The Year of the Rat" also takes an interest in the ways in which the lines between exploiter and exploited blur, as new futures bring forth new categories and configurations of labor. At one point, gesturing towards the mirrored roles of the rats as economic value-generators and the Rodent-Control Force as economic threat-destroyer, "The Year of the Rat" depicts a discussion between two of the Force’s increasingly demoralized erstwhile rat-killers on the morality of the vermin-hunting operation:

He didn’t laugh. “I want to go home.”

“Don’t be stupid. The Drill Instructor would never give permission. And it will look terrible in your file. How will you ever find a job?”

“I just can’t do it.” Pea stared at me, speaking slowly. “I think the rats didn’t do anything wrong. They’re just like us, doing the best they can in this world. But our role is to chase them and their role is to be chased. If we swapped roles it would make no difference.”

I can’t think of anything to say, so I just put my hand on his shoulder.[24]

We may in this way consider the political and labor position of Chen’s Rodent-Control Force to be analogous to the strange, colonial-adjacent circumstances that define the Belters’ lives. Just as the Belters are both a key economic nexus of human space colonization and its largest group of victims, so too are the Rodent-Control Force both largely victims of the State’s slow violence and perpetrators of traditional violence against a developing, persecuted species. In the end, this dynamic colors the story’s conclusion[25], with the human-rat conflict ending abruptly for reasons beyond the control of the now shell-shocked narrator, who concludes that he—much like the Belters—is trapped in a set of circumstances that are largely beyond his power, but which he bears some small material responsibility for creating.

Hao Jingfang’s Folding Beijing also serves as a useful comparative text for The Expanse. Folding Beijing depicts a near-future Beijing which features the temporal and geospatial segregation of social classes in a way which we may consider at least minimally similar to the Belters’ situation. While wealthy professionals and owner-class Beijing residents occupy the luxurious “First Space,” some fifty million workers, principally waste collectors, small resellers, and scavengers, are crammed into the destitute and unhygienic “Third Space,” segregated not just by space but also artificial divisions of time. As a description in the second chapter of Folding Beijing outlines:

The folding city was divided into three spaces. One side of the earth was First Space, population five million. Their allotted time lasted from six o’clock in the morning to six o’clock the next morning. Then the space went to sleep, and the earth flipped.

The other side was shared by Second Space and Third Space. Twenty–five million people lived in Second Space, and their allotted time lasted from six o’clock on that second day to ten o’clock at night. Fifty million people lived in Third Space, allotted the time from ten o’clock at night to six o’clock in the morning, at which point First Space returned. Time had been carefully divided and parceled out to separate the populations: Five million enjoyed the use of twenty–four hours, and seventy–five million enjoyed the next twenty–four hours.

The structures on two sides of the ground were not even in weight. To remedy the imbalance, the earth was made thicker in First Space, and extra ballast buried in the soil to make up for the missing people and buildings. The residents of First Space considered the extra soil a natural emblem of their possession of a richer, deeper heritage.[26]

Folding Beijing

Notably, much like how the Belters remain integral to the economy of interplanetary colonization in The Expanse, the waste-worker residents of Third Space are “understood [to be] the backbone of Third Space’s prosperity” and by extension the prosperity of the rest of Beijing, though they remain socially alienated and live in a state of both physical and psychic isolation from other residents. Again, we see a manipulation of existing social categories and phenomena vis-à-vis future capitalisms. And although what Hao does with his version of Beijing does not feature the distinctive hybridities of the Belters, we can notice a similar interest in the potential of new technologies to exploit, segregate, and extract, as well the depiction of existing inequalities (in this case, Beijing’s notorious wealth disparity) mutated into novel forms.

In any case, my point is not to dwell on any particular work of science fiction, or even to allege a transcultural confluence of labor narratives, but to return to our question of what speculative fiction has to say about labor and capitalism. Speaking broadly, there is a through-line that connects all of the works we have discussed thus far: though "The Year of the Rat," Folding Beijing, and The Expanse depict rather different labor environments, they each display a skepticism of scientific-utopian narratives and a key understanding that the economies of the future are not merely exaggerated version of the economies of now, but rather innovative (and often worse) creations. From Belters to waste processors to the Rodent-Control Force, these works’ subjects serve as speculations on the ways in which new regimes of extraction and exploitation may shape the lives of their subjects into yet-unknown forms.

But as interesting as the trans-Pacific comparison of speculative futures may be, the above discussion of comparative science fictions leaves us with an unfortunate, or at least troubling, observation: that when placed in the context of global theory, the reading of science fiction as social-critical text often seems to fall short, or at least seems convoluted and roundabout in its thinking. The Chinese writers discussed above, like the writers of The Expanse, are interested in futures which do not exist and never will, defined by imaginary hierarchies and technologies which require significant interpretive work to draw political conclusions from. Next to the work of Arboleda or Nixon, we may be pulled towards thinking that even if speculative fiction does have something to say about capitalism, it should say so more clearly.

So why read speculative fiction at all? For the simple reason that it is interesting, obviously. But does science fiction, especially "hard" science fiction, really have any value as political text when held up to more straightforwardly predictive or prescriptive genres? Why not stick to theory, philosophy, or even the social sciences? They are, after all, disciplinarily bound to make at least a solid attempt at forecasting and discursively regulating the future. To the extent that they are speculative—and more often than not, they are—these genres of work are at least not plainly fiction.

*

Let us continue this line of thought by examining yet another work of science fiction—one which tackles similar issues as the works discussed above, albeit with a very different aesthetic and affective framing. These differences in affect and presentation make Ridley Scott’s 1979 film Alien seem like a strange work to compare to The Expanse or the Chinese stories mentioned above. The team behind The Expanse expends quite a bit of energy trying to tailor their speculation to scientific realities, in a largely successful effort which has garnered The Expanse a reputation for being "hard" science fiction. Alien, on the other hand, dispenses with such concerns entirely in favor of creating an atmospheric horror environment featuring artificial gravity, extraterrestrial archaeology, quasi-sentient androids, and questionable space physics.

I offer up this comparison nonetheless, however, because Scott’s film tells us something important about what science fiction has to say about labor, extraction, and capitalism. Alien is, of course, "about" a great number of things—principally cosmic horror and sexual violence—but in a very noticeable sense, it is a story of labor exploitation. The crew of the Nostromo are coded as blue-collar stiffs, and the narrative spends a very significant portion of the film (correctly) treating Ash, an android representing an interstellar corporate overlord who unbeknownst to the workers subjects them to dangerous experiments vis-à-vis the titular alien, as a primary antagonist. The principal concern of the barely-seen Weyland-Yutani Corporation, which in any case looms over the film, is the extraction of exotic biological resources from the environment in pursuit of a presumably profit-based goal.

We are now more than 40 years from the premiere of Scott’s film. The intervening decades have given us quite a few examples of corporate managers intentionally putting their employees in the path of biological and scientific menaces for the purposes of maximizing profit (the COVID-19 pandemic comes to mind most easily because of its scale and recency), and still more stories of corporate or scientific incursions bringing out previously unthought-of problems (the recent pandemic, again, chief among them).

Was Alien prescient? Prophetic? Only coincidentally and ahistorically relevant? In my view, none of these things. Speculative fiction is not merely futurism or social theory by other means. Even in that limiting context, science fiction as literature (not to mention the critical apparatus which examines it) has a far different set of hermeneutic and imaginative sensibilities than its more plainly philosophical or social-scientific counterparts. For one, science fiction of any type has no duty to project or predict anything—in fact, any given work of speculative fiction may even be made weaker by sustained and serious attempts to do so.

Returning to our earlier discussion about the nature of hard science fiction, it may seem strange of me to suggest that a genre which is (at least purportedly) so deeply rooted in scientific and social realities has no meaningful predictive value. But this perceived strangeness arises only because of a common misconception of what "hard science fiction" really is—a misconception which may in fact be a fundamental misunderstanding of whether "hard science fiction" exists at all.

In my view, the "hardness" of science fiction is an ideological screen, one more often draped on by critics than by authors themselves, who tend to understand quite intimately the nature of the demands made by speculative fictional work upon their writing[27]. It is true that some works of speculative fiction are more interested in staying within the limits of known scientific laws than others, but there is no compelling reason why we should take this interest (or disinterest) as a key factor in our interpretation of science-fictional literature. In some ways, the "hard" framing is a crude play for intellectual legitimacy, leveraging social confidence in science and instrumental rationality to demonstrate that science fiction is in some way more "serious" than its reputation would suggest. But the mere fact that certain critics (or even authors) drape literary speculative-fictional work in the affect of scientific respectability does not mean that we need to let such a veil distract us from what is really going on in The Expanse and works like it.

Though The Expanse grounds itself in "real" scientific laws and semi-recognizable social circumstances, these trappings of our reality in some ways merely serve the same purpose as the grungy crew fatigues and familiar workman’s tools of Ripley and her compatriots in Alien, investing audiences in what is, upon even a facially closer read, a genuinely distant future. Or, to speak more technically, a speculatively creolized future. Even ignoring stylistic deviations from the laws of physics like The Expanse’s depiction of sound traveling in space, The Expanse is not interested in predicting the contours of space exploration exactly, or even at all; if so, the Belters would be robots devoid of language and asteroid mining would be a banal and deeply unsexy, if still malevolent, activity. In other words, if it were actually the harder-than-diamond predictive science fiction some of its most ardent fans claim it to be, The Expanse would be a far less interesting work in both a literary and political sense.

What works like The Expanse and "The Year of the Rat" offer us is a speculative vision of the future that takes as its basis criticism rather than prediction, theoretical imagination rather than scientific realism. The underlying premise of Chen Qiufan’s work, for example, is often plainly imaginative and unmoored from any real-life scientific basis. Take, for example, this unsettling, darkly humorous exchange from "The Year of the Rat":

From time to time, I feel many bright eyes are hidden in the dark, observing us, analyzing us, day or night. I think I’m going a little crazy.

By the bank of the river, we discover eighteen nests, low cylindrical structures about two meters in diameter. Several physics majors squat around one, discussing the mechanical structure of interweaving sticks. On top is a thick layer of leaves, as though the makers wanted to take advantage of the waxy surfaces of the leaves to keep water out.

“I’ve seen primitive tribal villages like this on the Discovery Channel,” one of the men says. We all look at him oddly.

“It doesn’t make sense,” I say. I squat down, considering the trails of tiny paw prints that connect the nests to each other and the river, like an inscrutable picture. Do the rats have agriculture? Do they need settlements? Why did they abandon them?

Black Cannon laughs coldly. “You need to stop thinking they’re people.”

He’s right. The rats are not people. They’re not even real rats. They’re just carefully designed products—actually, products that failed quality assurance[28].

We are obviously not in danger of being menaced by a guerilla insurgency of hyper-intelligent rodents. But as a way of discussing the nature of extractivism and labor, this kind of speculative criticism is a highly productive practice, creatively warping our expectations of what these things will look like in the future and questioning whether the conceptual categories of today (“colonial,” “underemployed,” etc.) will remain useful in the future. Just as "The Year of the Rat" explores the ways in which the kinds of ecosystem disruption and labor impressment endemic to 20th-century Chinese history did survive the end of the Mao era and mutated in such a way that they will assuredly continue well past the rule of Xi Jinping, The Expanse asks whether it is at least conceptually possible that the so-called space age will simply produce new forms of oppressive social structures that remain yet unimaginable to us. That the specific futures depicted in these works will not materialize is, in a very important way, entirely immaterial.

This is all to acknowledge that yes, we will likely not live in the Belters’ future, and certainly not in the Nostromo’s, but also that this doesn’t matter. The leftist intellectual, particularly any literary critic who styles herself a Marxist, is often reminded of the value of imagining better worlds—of taking us conceptually from the prospect of "a world to win" towards a world which has indeed been won[29]. I simply offer that speculative fiction and its criticism have a darker side as well, one as valuable as any hopeful imagining done by utopian writers and those who read them. We are reminded by The Expanse, by "The Year of the Rat," by Folding Beijing, and more, that world-systems of extraction may transcend physical worlds; that planetary mines may become interplanetary ones; that creolization may often simply mean worse and novel forms of exploitation; that opportunities for humankind are also just as easily opportunities for capital.

Gironde, France, 1968. Photo Credits: Tangopaso

« Cours vite, camarade, le vieux monde est derrière toi ! »  (“Run fast, comrade, the old world is right behind you!”) Such was a (perhaps “the”) slogan of the 1968 Paris uprising. Whatever one thinks of May ’68 and its legacies, this is a useful line of thinking. I propose that The Expanse and its literary relatives present us with a similar sentiment, in reverse—a warning that for all the promise of futurism and technological advancement, plenty of new, and perhaps much worse futures are right before us. In the course of outrunning le vieux monde, we may find that we are awaited not simply by new worlds to win, but also many more which may yet be lost.


[1] Here, I am referring to both the series of science fiction novels and the televised adaptation, although for the purposes of the later discussion about the constructed Belter Creole language, I am principally referencing the TV series.

[2] Lorna Burns, “Becoming-postcolonial, becoming-Caribbean: Édouard Glissant and the poetics of creolization,” Textual Practice 23 no. 1 (2009), 102.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Edouard Glissant, “Creolization in the Making of the Americas,” Caribbean Quarterly 54 no. 1/2 (2008), 83.

[5] Based on the work of the sociologist Saskia Sassen, the term “extractive capitalism” refers to the type of “advanced” economy, documented in Sassen’s book Expulsions: Brutality and Complexity in the Global Economy (Cambridge: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2014), which is unusually “depende[nt] on extracting goods from one part of the world and shipping them to another” (12) and “marked by . . . even sharper imbalances in its relation to, and use of, natural resources” when compared to capitalism’s “traditional association with plantations and mines” (219). Notably, Sassen also extends the definition of “extraction” to the realm of labor relations, noting that “the global geography of extraction ... extends to extracting the gains workers fought for during much of the twentieth century [by] mechanisms ... often far more complex than the outcomes” (219).

[6] James S.A. Corey, Leviathan Wakes (New York: Orbit Books, 2011), 103.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid., 103-105.

[9] I acknowledge freely that this arrangement is somewhat similar to that of a company town, albeit to such an extreme degree that it becomes different in kind from any 19th-century industrial colony. In my view, this quality is yet another example of the way in which the Belters’ situation is an amalgamation of historical models of labor exploitation in extremis, such that they form a new and unique whole.

[10] World-systems theory is an interdisciplinary model of world-historical analysis, based principally upon the work of the sociologist Immanuel Wallerstein, which emphasizes transnational and transregional economic dependencies, casting global history within the frame of a “system that is a world” made up of "core" countries which extract raw materials and so-called "low-skill" labor from "periphery" countries. Per Wallerstein, world-systems theory argues that “the units of social reality within which we operate, whose rules constrain us, are for the most part ... world-economies and world-empires,” systems dominated by “large bureaucratic [imperial states] with a single political center” and a global economy defined by “axial division of labor ... multiple political centers [and] multiple cultures” (see Immanuel Wallerstein, “World-Systems Analysis, in World System History,” in Encyclopaedia of Life Support Systems, ed. George Modelski (Oxford: UNESCO, EOLSS Publishers, 2004), 1-14).

[11] Ramón A. Gutiérrez, “INTERNAL COLONIALISM: An American Theory of Race.” Du Bois Review: Social Science Research on Race 1, no. 2 (2004), 281.

[12] Martin Arboleda, Planetary Mine: Territories of Extraction under Late Capitalism (New York: Verso, 2020), 4.

[13] Ibid., 247.

[14] Ibid., 5-7.

[15] Ibid., 4.

[16] Mayfair Mei-hui Yang, “Putting Global Capitalism in Its Place: Economic Hybridity, Bataille, and Ritual Expenditure,” Current Anthropology 41 no, 4 (2000), 477.

[17] Chiara Cigarini, “Pandemic and the (Fanta)scientific: A Prism of Voices from Today’s China,” The Ohio State University Modern Chinese Literature and Culture Resource Center, August 2020.

[18] Cixin Liu and Jing Tsu, “Worlds of Science Fiction” (New York Public Library, 2022).

[19] Jessica Imbach, “Chinese Science Fiction in the Anthropocene,” Ecozon 12 no. 1 (2021), 126.

[20] Rob Nixon, Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2011), 2.

[21] Ibid., 374

[22] Chen Qiufan, “The Torn Generation: Chinese Science Fiction in a Culture in Transition,” in Invisible Planets: 13 Visions of the Future from China, ed. Ken Liu (London: Head of Zeus, 2016), 374.

[23] Chen Qiufan, “The Year of the Rat,” in Invisible Planets: 13 Visions of the Future from China, ed. Ken Liu (London: Head of Zeus, 2016), 32.

[24] Ibid., 58.

[25] The English translation by Ken Liu ends the story earlier than Chen’s Chinese original. The Chinese text includes an epilogue that shows the narrator retired from the Rodent-Control Force, looking at a new batch of genetically engineered rat pets and reflecting on the morality of the Rodent-Control Force’s war against the emerging rat civilization.

[26] Hao Jingfang, “Folding Beijing,” transl. Ken Liu, Uncanny Magazine 2 no. 1 (2015).

[27] In fact, the writers of The Expanse explicitly deny that their work is "hard science fiction" at all.

[28] Chen, “Year of the Rat,” 33.

[29] Chen Qiufan himself has argued in an interview that the “true value of science fiction” is that it teaches readers to “learn to imagine” the “future[s they] wish to create” (see Gautam Bhatia and Chen Qiufan, “‘With Every Future We Wish to Create, We Must First Learn to Imagine It’: An Interview with Chen Qiufan,” Strange Horizons 26 September 2022 Issue, 2022).

 



Mason Wong 王樂知 writes about Anglophone and Chinese literature. His interests include comparative science fictions, theories of capitalism, and marine megafauna both real and fictional. He is based in Virginia and can be found on Twitter.
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28 Nov 2022

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