In 2016, and here in the first month of 2017, we as a global society have started laying the shaky foundation for what can be politely referred to as “uncertain times” ahead. Between Brexit, the election of Donald Trump, the rise of ultra-right wing politicians in Europe, and the seemingly shameless mainstreaming of extremism, racism, and something so far beyond the pale of what hypocrisy implies that we need to think of a new word for it, it looks like our species is determined to make good on all those dystopian young adult novels that have been so popular in recent years. Coincidentally, January 2017 also saw the release of Babylon’s Ashes, the sixth book in the politically charged space opera series The Expanse by James S.A. Corey (pen name for the writing team of Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck). By no fault of its own, The Expanse has become depressingly timely. It’s a sprawling saga of our expansion throughout the solar system (and eventually beyond) and the political turmoil that erupts between the three factions of humanity (Earth, colonized Mars, and a loose confederation of space stations scattered among the outer planets and known collectively as the Belt). Some crazy stuff happens, stuff involving alien spores and space warp gates, but before any of that, before the crew of the Rocinante become dear friends to readers, the whole fragile space empire goes to hell because one guy, in a fit of rage, sends out an angry tweet.
OK, to be fair, Captain James Holden is nothing like Donald Trump. Holden is a decent guy who wants to do the right thing, who cares about people, and who actually shows up for work. So I apologize to you, Jim, for what’s about to happen and who you are about to be compared to. And also to be fair, when Holden sent out his angry tweet (yes, it was actually a broadcast, but same thing basically; I’m not going to type that he went Live on Facebook), it was because a mysterious spaceship had just nuked hundreds of his friends and co-workers in a bald-face act of mass murder; not because Alec Baldwin poked fun at him on a show no one even watches anymore. But at the end of the day, James Holden sent his inflammatory tweet while in an emotional state, and though he never meant for it to be the case, it sparked a war in which many died and the repercussions of which are still reverberating six books later.
This is how we begin Leviathan Wakes, the first book in The Expanse. Not too long after sending his angry tweet, in which it can be assumed he’s implying Mars is responsible1, Holden discovers that the evidence that led him to that conclusion was faked. Yes, he’d just tweeted his outrage over a “fake news” story. As a result, Earth and Mars go to war. Leviathan Wakes was published in 2011, a year when the thought of a thin-skinned rage-tweeting buffoon becoming president of the United States was, at worst, an over-the-top Onion article. So there’s no claiming that James S.A. Corey foretold the ascension of Trump — though in retrospect, given the beast we were greedily feeding with our addiction to soundbites masquerading as news and Schadenfreude being the dominant form of entertainment, it shouldn’t have been a surprise that it resulted in President Trump.
Leviathan Wakes didn’t need Trump, though. It already had the hyperbolic, sensationalist 24/7 cable and online news cycle. It’s a critique of that cycle lurking at the heart of James Holden’s well-meaning but poorly thought-out broadcast. Holden is your relative who reposts an unbelievable story to Facebook without waiting for the story to be fact-checked. But at the end of the day, he’s just your relative; just some dude pushing ice around in a freighter somewhere near the rings of Saturn. It’s not his job, really, to fact-check news stories. That’s the fact checker’s job, and they’re supposed to work for the media outlets. Sure, it doesn’t hurt to do your own due diligence, but we’ve been taught that, if it’s coming from the BBC or CBS or the New York Times, that we can assume a basic level of trust, accuracy, and diligence.
But we can’t. Not anymore. Not since the endless news feeding frenzy started demanding content over correctness. Not since people stopped reading articles and started reposting headlines. Not since being first took precedence over being right. Push it out. Doesn’t matter if the source is “an unnamed hobo down by the tracks.” If the story ends up false, you can just bang out a correction or retraction; or even better, you can just pretend like you never posted it or reposted it in the first place. No one will care anyway, because when you scream a story at a crowd then whisper the retraction to an empty room, guess which of the two has staying power in the public consciousness? When media trumpets a story without checking facts, they do us a disservice. When they bury the correction or the retraction, they’ve betrayed us. And we too willingly, too often do our part, especially when the sensational story reaffirms some prejudice we already harbor. That is something that happens on both sides of the argument. You can’t make fun of someone for posting a link to a stupid, obviously shady study that proves something they already believed, then a week later and without self-awareness, post a link yourself to some similarly shady study that “proves” something you already believed.
Holden, like I said, is just some guy. And again, other than his tendency to send out tweets about sensitive issues without considering the ramifications, I wouldn’t want to imply that Holden is anything like Trump. James Holden sends out his message in a state of trauma, confusion, rage, and despair. And maybe he shouldn’t consider the ramifications. Maybe that information does need to be put out, immediately, unfiltered. It’s not a great move, but it’s understandable. That broadcast alone, in which Holden mentions Martian tech being discovered at the site but not explicitly accuse Mars, is not what sends Mars and Earth reaching for their sabers. It’s when the media gets Holden’s message and, rather than investigating his claim, they just run with it. Sell it in the most sensational and confrontational language possible. Whatever gets them more attention, higher visibility. Holden’s just a blue-collar Joe who has just been through the ringer; the media should know better. But again, it’s not about being right. It’s about being first and being the loudest. And so Holden’s one rash decision, amplified by the media frenzy, becomes a disaster. When Holden discovers that the evidence that convinced him Mars was behind the attack was faked, he tries to shout out his correction. No one hears it. No one cares. It doesn’t matter. The story has been set, and the wheels of belligerence have been set in motion. Like Moltke said to the Kaiser when Wilhelm started having second thoughts about invading Belgium and starting the Great War, you can’t back out now. The trains are already in motion, and changing your mind now would mess up the schedules.
Urban legends and official lies have been with us probably since humans first started gathering together in caves. Grok of the Stone People told me his cousin saw that goat man with the hook hand who stalks lovers down by the tar pits. When we got email, you got forwards from your parents warning you about “gang initiation week” in your city. But we’re in a new phase, one where the disinformation is spread much more effectively, believed more readily, and created with more maliciousness. Those emails almost seem quaint now, in this age of “Pizzagate” and whatever the hell that thing was where people believed Obama was amassing a secret army inside vacant Wal-Mart buildings so he could invade Texas. What we have now is less an annoying chain letter, and more like a return to the days when we could manufacture a bit of fake evidence and declare war. Even when that chicanery is exposed, it doesn’t matter. No one remembers the dubious justifications for the Mexican-American and Spanish-American wars. They just remember those brave fools at the Alamo and Teddy Roosevelt leading the charge up San Juan Hill.
In the realm of fake news leading to solar-system spanning war, The Expanse is not alone. Similar territory was explored in the political space opera The Quiet War and its sequel, Gardens of the Sun, written by Paul McAuley and published in 2008 and 2009 respectively. Written in the final days of the Bush administration and long before Donald Trump was a blip on the political radar, the two books are heavily influenced by the Iraq War and, more so, the dodgy and at times outright false justifications provided for going to war. Like the Expanse series, The Quiet War is set in a future where humanity has colonized the solar system, this time out of necessity. Decades of climate change and war have rendered the Earth rather a rotten place, and people sought to escape the catastrophe by migrating to the Moon and Mars. Earth itself, ravaged by ecological abuse violence, is dominated by three draconian governments, with most of the population centralized in large megalopolises while the rest of the planet is declared off-limits in hopes that some of the damage done to it might begin to heal.
It turns out the Moon and Mars are not far enough away from the belligerence of Earth, and so the immigrants escape further away, to the moons of Jupiter and Saturn where they eke out a reasonable existence thanks to their willingness to embrace environmental and biological engineering. These “Outers” establish a loose democratic confederation and a liberal view on personal choice and freedom. They are happy to just go about their business, but back on Earth there is outrage (as there always is). The Outers are considered smug and threatening, their willingness to modify their own bodies through engineering or simple evolution in the low-gravity environs of the outer planets considered an abomination. Earth demands they get back in line, and the Outers can’t understand why these distant, hostile sons of bitches are so up in arms. And really, there is no reason for it. There’s not even a clear economic or political advantage to it beyond beating up some weirdos you don’t like and distracting people from more pressing problems at home. Which, I guess, is the reason for many a war. So when the juntas of Earth decide what is needed is a good old-fashioned war with the Outers, they’re determined to get it — even if they have to manufacture the justification for it themselves.
Although the parallels between the Earth -Outer and US-Iraq wars are obvious, no one is claiming that Outer and Iraqi society is similar (like James Holden and Donald Trump).But this isn’t about who the enemy is or even what they’re like. It’s about the lengths a government will go to to pick a fight when it’s decided a fight is what it wants. Outers are a free and open society (in fact, along with The Expanse and maybe Iain M. Banks’ Culture series, these are some of the only space operas that feature democracies rather than empires with Regency-era nobility and social structures). There wasn’t much ado about Twitter in 2008, but we were by then ensconced in the era of online living. The Outers are a people who love broadcasting every aspect of their daily lives; no big deal in this day of Instagram and Snapchat but still a novel concept in 2008.
Later books in The Expanse delve more into the politics between Earth, Mars, and the Belt (for whom Earth and Mars are just the same “boot on our neck”). While there are a lot of similarities between McAuley’s Outers and Corey’s Belters, there’s also a lot of differences. When the Belters and the Inner Planets go to war, there’s a real reason. No need to fake it. Running six books (and counting) to McAuley’s two, The Expanse has a lot more room to, well, expand. And it does, taking the story in more cosmic directions. In both series, however, no matter how vast the battlefield and how epic the scope of events, the authors ground the reader in smaller, more human stories. For all that’s going on, The Expanse is about four people: Holden, Belter navigator and technician Naomi, Martian pilot Alex, and terrifying teddy bear Amos. Other characters come and go (who doesn’t love conflicted Martian Marine Bobbi Draper or foul-mouthed diplomat and politician Chrisjen Avasarala?), but it always comes back to the crew of the Rocinante who, like characters in a Howard Hawks film, are just a small group of competent people who deal with horrible circumstances.
And again, I am really sorry, James Holden, for comparing your “Mars did it” message to a Donald Trump tweet. No, not everything that happens over the course of The Expanse, or even within just Leviathan Wakes, is the fault of your well-meaning but ill-considered message.But as we enter an era in which petulant, misanthropic toddlers have suddenly found themselves at the helms of more than one powerful nation, with missiles and Twitter at their disposal, with all of them name calling and tantrum throwing and, to be crude, dick swinging in 140 bellicose characters or less, we’d do well to remember how far-reaching the consequences of governmental temper tantrums can be. At least James Holden tried to correct the situation, tried to make ti right. And at least he helped fight a strange space virus threatening to turn humanity into creepy puddles of vomiting goo. I don’t think we could expect the same mea culpa from President Twitterstorm.
- UPDATE (1.24.2017): As James S.A. Corey pointed out in a Twitter response, Holden never expressly states that Mars blew up the freighter. He states that Martian hardware was found related to the explosion. While it’s reasonable to assume he’s implying Mars is responsible, he doesn’t. It’s once the story is picked up elsewhere that Mars’ guilt is assumed. And yes, the irony of making this correction given the theme of this article is not lost on me.