This story contains spoilers for season 1 of the vastness.
There are two kinds of realism in science fiction: scientific rigor (which is always debatable when it comes to space travel) and social insight. If you are lucky you will get one. And if you look the vastness, which returns tonight for its second season on Syfy, you’ll get a whopping doses of both. Plus you’re in for a helluva ride.
Based on the bestselling novels by James SA Corey, pen name for the crack writing team of Ty Frank and Daniel Abraham, the series follows the adventures of an interplanetary ice transporter 150 years into our future. During a tumultuous drive between the asteroid mines of the Belt and water-hungry colonies of the inner system, they become involved in a conspiracy that could provoke war between Earth and Mars. But from the earliest moments in the first season, it was clear that this show wasn’t going to be your typical space adventure. Sure there are explosions, zero gravity antics, glowing blob zombies and reckless heroes, but there’s also a rich, rewarding social world to explore.
The future of power
Perhaps the best way to put it is that this is a show for political junkies looking to get away from real politics. There are several new forces at play in this future world, and they make today’s problems with nationalism a distant dream. Despite environmental disasters, Earth is a superpower, and it is home to the UN’s systemic government. Mars is a hyper-tech society devoted entirely to the rigors of terraforming in the hope that their citizens will one day be able to breathe freely on the Earth’s surface. Their military technology is unmatched. Meanwhile, the asteroid belt, simply known as the belt, is basically a dead woodstyle border. It is full of poverty, corruption and exploited miners riddled with all the diseases that come from living in low gravity with cheap climate control.
As Earth and Mars battle for power, and the Belt rubs under their yoke, the whole system is basically a tinderbox waiting to explode. That’s where lead actor Jim Holden (Steven Strait) comes in. He kicks off the first flare with – what else? – a viral video full of unintended fake news.
Holden, the director of the ice transporter Canterbury, decides to answer an emergency call. While Holden and a small shuttle team investigate, the Canterbury is mysteriously vaporized by a stealth ship with unimaginable capabilities. Holden believes they have been attacked by Martians and sends a video describing what happened. He and the shuttle crew—engineer Naomi Nagata (Dominique Tipper), trigger-happy mechanic Amos Burton (Wes Chatham), and Martian pilot Alex Kamal (Cas Anvar)—think they’re going to die, too. But instead, they are rescued by Martian Marines, who are too late to prove their innocence. Holden’s music video in which he accuses the Martians of blowing up his ship has reached the entire solar system.
This creates tension at the UN, where Earth’s representative Chrisjen Avasarala (Shoreh Aghdashloo) quickly realizes that something strange is going on and starts asking secret questions. More spectacularly, it is sparking violent protests across the Belt, especially on the asteroid Ceres. Belters have long been the oppressed working class for the rest of the system, and a radical separatist group called the OPA wants the Belt to declare a sovereign power.
Thoughtful world construction
Unlike your typical Star Wars story, where there are Good Guys and Bad Guys, each with their own purpose, the vastness knows how sloppy politics can be. For most of the first season, we were immersed in the strange world of the Belt, whose political factions are at each other’s throats. We see this world of enclosed habitats and space stations, loosely linked by wobbly shuttles, through the eyes of tired, corrupt Belter agent Joe Miller. He lives on bribery and drink, is scorned by his colleagues and seen by his Belter brothers as an earth toad.
As an example of the thoughtful construction of the world featured in this show, we are treated to small but important details about the Belters’ environment. First, there are a few scenes where people pour liquids that flow into the air in a strange S shape before splashing down. This is a subtle yet great reference to the way gravity is generated in the Belt by spinning asteroids or space stations to create centrifugal force with its gravity-like effects. Admittedly, the effect here is exaggerated for storytelling. But at least we’re not dealing with hand-waving gravitons.
The other great detail of life in Belter is that the inhabitants of the Belt speak a creole language invented by linguist Nick Farmer, which reflects the distant origins of these frontier inhabitants. It’s a mix of European, Asian and African languages, plus some sign language, which together give us a pleasant sense of social realism. With just that one touch, the vastness reminds us that the Belt is a land of poor and sometimes desperate immigrants, just as border towns in America once were.
Okay, enough about how nuanced and thoughtful this show is. Because there are also the aforementioned glowing blob zombies, which also cause infected people to blow up crystals, which looks really gross and scary. Remember that distress call that Holden answered, triggering an interplanetary incident and popular uprising in the Belt? It was part of a conspiracy between evil UN honchos and even more evil execs at the multiplanetary megacorp Mao-Kwikowski Mercantile. They all want to get their hands on a glowing, goopy “protomolecule” in the outer solar system.
Believing that the protomolecule could change the course of human evolution, Mao-Kwikowski Mercantile begins dangerous experiments with it on Belters, taking over a small space station to infect everyone on it and see what happens. Meanwhile, they develop the Canterbury explosion to distract the humans on Earth and Mars. But there is only one problem. Julie Mao, the daughter of Jules-Pierre Mao, CEO of Mao-Kwikowski Mercantile, has defected from the Earth, disowned her family and joined the OPA resistance in the Belt. When she tips the OPA on about her father’s secret project, the OPA sends her out to find out more – and sadly, Julie becomes patient zero in the glowing blob of zombie protomolecule experiment.
The Dark Side of Posthumanism
Season two begins just as Holden and his crew, now on a stolen (sort of) Martian ship called the Rocinante, discover the experiments and while Chrisjen uncovers the political machinations behind them. Miller has been meeting with the crew of the Rocinante because his last duty as an agent – before being discharged from the force – was to find Julie Mao. So now the gang is all together, an asteroid called Eros is full of trembling, glowing zombies, and Earth and Mars are on the brink of war.
I’ve had a chance to watch the season premiere that airs tonight, and it promises to be just as intense as last season. We focus on Mars this time and learn a lot more about what motivates its people and political factions. After a narrow escape from Eros, Miller and the crew of the Rocinante must figure out what to do with their discoveries about the protomolecule. And Chrisjen goes rogue because she realizes her bosses at the UN are plotting something horrific.
There are so many things about this show to recommend it, but this season I’m impressed with the way the writers have brought realism even into the posthuman dream of “rapid evolution” that the protomolecule represents. Normally, this kind of theme would be ripped from a utopian essay on how biotech will help us live forever. I love that the vastness has a Silicon Valley-seasoned tendency to go beyond our bodies and put it in the mouths of executives who order to liquidate the population of an entire space station in the name of scientific advancement.
Most of all, I appreciate that every character is a shade of gray and that every planet or asteroid has a diverse set of factions that are barely in agreement on what to do next. This is a richly imagined future that doesn’t shy away from showing us the dark side of humanity. Without that necessary darkness, we could never discern the heroism, however compromised, of the Rocinante crew. They have a troubled past and are sometimes downright destructive, but they want justice for the victims of the powerful. Somehow, their moral ambiguity makes this message of goodness feel more realistic than any political drama.
the vastness airs Wednesday nights on Syfy in the US; in the UK, it should be available via Netflix soon.
If the audio above doesn’t give it away, Ars Technica’s decoded podcast follows along with the vastness weekly! Tune in to commentary from our staff, along with special guests, including show writers and cast, space experts, science fiction writers, and more!