Nuclear Arms Control as Metaphor in ‘The Expanse’
How a science-fiction show is telling one of the best nuclear Cold War stories of all time
This post contains spoilers for all three seasons of The Expanse.
The United States pulled out of Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty and kicked off a new nuclear arms race. America and Russia are modernizing their arsenals by reducing the number of warheads and reshaping what remains into far more lethal nuclear munitions. Iran harbors nuclear ambitions, North Korea is a nuclear state and the world feels as if it’s one step closer to atomic megadeath than at any other point in recent memory.
And all I can think of is The Expanse, SyFy — and now Amazon’s — flagship science-fiction show about the political and military battles that occur after humanity makes first contact with an extraterrestrial. In the show, a generations old balance of power between three rival human factions goes completely to Hell with the arrival of a weapon that can change everything.
The development of nuclear weapons changed the world. After the U.S. bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, humanity suddenly had a way to destroy itself. In the heady rush before the Iron Curtain came down, other states raced to activate their own nuclear arsenal and the world settled into the Cold War—where, it’s supposed, the threat of mutual assured destruction kept the balance of terror. There would be no more World War III because, afterward, there would be no more world.
That’s a simplification. The atomic age and the Cold War are, of course, much more complicated. But simple stories help us make sense of the world. And a good narrative can often reveal more of the truth than a detailed history. That’s why I love The Expanse. It’s first three seasons detail the shifting balance of power after the discovery of a brand new way for humans to kill each other.
The Expanse is set several millennia in the future. Humans have mastered space flight and colonized both Mars and the asteroid belt. Earth is the dominant superpower in the system, while a militant government runs Mars and is desperately trying to terraform it into paradise. Both powers extract resources from the Belt, which is populated by zero-g native humans called Belters. With no government of its own and no standing military, the Belters are the second-class citizens of the stars.
Earth and Mars have existed in a long detente, but everything changes with the discovery of a protomolecule—a science fiction MacGuffin that seems to destroy everything it touches. Business interests discover it first, but once the secret is out the three powers are in a race to weaponize the protomolecule.
Earth wants to maintain the status quo, Mars wants to be the dominant player in the solar system and the Belters want the respect a weaponized protomolecule would give them. They want a nation of their own.
Late in the series, the Belters acquire the protomolecule and various other scientific assets related to it. That simple act is enough to upset the balance of power and give the Belt what it needed to become its own nation. Thanks to its sudden ability to destroy, or at least cripple, its rivals. A new weapon can change the balance of power in an instant.
The leadership of North Korea sees its country as the Belt. It wants nuclear weapons because it knows that the terror of their use is the only thing that will bring other countries to the table. It’s the only way to get everyone to pay attention.
And the Hell of it is, it worked for the North Koreans the same way it worked for The Expanse‘s Belters.