Anarchism & Don Quixote in The Expanse

NOTE: There are some spoilers below for people unfamiliar with the TV series or books.  Also, this commentary is confined to a reading of the television series alone, not the books.  It also borrows from some of my own scattered observations over the last several years on social media and in some cases from my own posts to fan discussion threads.

For sci-fi fans there are a lot of things to love about The Expanse.  Top on the list for many people is the show’s attention to hard science, including but not limited to taking actual evidence seriously when it comes to things like different forms of simulated gravity, the impact of hard vacuum on an unprotected human body, movement vectors in low-G environments, or even simple things like communication delays across vast distances of space.  Many popular science fiction shows and films assume these things away with high-tech gadgetry, like speed of light barriers themselves.  Part of the popularity of The Expanse is that it doesn’t go for quick technological fixes.  Space is a hostile environment.  It’s certainly not a vision of “fully automated luxury communism.” The world-building, both in terms of the science and in terms of the political and economic backdrop of the imagined solar system, is simultaneously gritty and thoughtful.  Likewise, character development in the Expanse and the interplay between the characters and polities or factions is also compelling.  The diversity of the casting is a huge part of the show’s success.  Within the story itself, nationalism, class, and colonialism all have both material and ideological weight in The Expanse, and help drive some of the individual and collective action that takes place in ways that are plausible.  The combination of world-building and ensemble character acting has produced a loyal and growing fan base, for both the television series and the books and associated novellas.

One of the things I enjoyed while watching the series was tracking all the Easter eggs related to Don Quixote.  From the very first episode (S01 E01) we are bidden to think about Cervantes.  The opening title of the entire series is “Dulcinea”, who was Don Quixote’s true love –– but who may or may not have been completely imaginary.  The show itself never mentions the word Dulcinea at all –– it’s only in the title.  This gives it a different kind of symbolism, even if it makes it less memorable for the fans.

Unlike most of the subsequent Don Quixote references, however –– which seem to relate most strongly to the character of James Holden –– the opening reference to Dulcinea is arguably about Julie Mao, and what she comes to represent for Detective Joe Miller.  For most of the story, Julie Mao remains elusive and perhaps illusory, but the idea of her drives Miller forward.  She is the only thing that ultimately causes him to act.

In contrast, Holden has no comparable Dulcinea at the start of the series –– although one could argue that Naomi Nagata becomes something similar over the course of the series.  However, unlike Don Quixote’s Dulcinea, Naomi is a fully realized, and subjective being, a protagonist and hero, in her own right.  She’s not a foil.  She acts for her own reasons, so the analogy to Dulcinea never quite holds for her.

Julie Mao represents this kind of obsession for Miller. He never really meets her until she’s dead, or transformed by the proto-molecule. But her idea drives him to do heroic things he would not otherwise have done, and ultimately to sacrifice himself.  Unlike most of the Don Quixote references in The Expanse, a case can be made that the opening reference to Dulcinea has more to do with Miller’s love for an imaginary Julie Mao, than it has to do with Holden in any way.

The rest of the Don Quixote references –– the ones that actually appear within the story universe and dialogue without being a meta reference –– all related in some way to the character of Holden. 

The naming of the space ship Rocinante is wonderful, and speaks to Holden’s bravery and moral character. In the original novel, Don Quixote’s trusty steed is more than just a “work horse.” The coupling was a play on words that transformed his steed from an old nag to the greatest of “has beens,” something befitting a knight.  However mangy or old such a steed (or space ship) might appear to others, it was still the paladin’s noble companion.  Not a new take on clunky space ships run by sci-fi protagonists, but still compelling –– whether or not we are talking about the Millennium Falcon in Star Wars or the Nostromo in Alien (which was itself a reference to Joseph Conrad’s own play on words for one of his literary characters).  

When Chrisjen Avasarala visits Holden’s mother on Earth she sees a hard copy of Cervantes’ Don Quixote in their house, and we’re told it was one of Holden’s favourite books.  But Holden is also self-consciously aware of these traits in himself.  In Season 03 Episode 01 there is a scene in which Holden is talking to Prax (played by Terry Chen) in the ship’s canteen, and he describes himself as “a guy who has a problem tilting at windmills.”  Whereas Don Quixote himself may have been unaware of his own delusions about villainous or monstrous enemies, Holden is at least partially aware of the dangers of his own conceptions, illusions, and convictions.  

Holden is thus a kind of fearless, perhaps semi-delusional paladin like Don Quixote.  His primary motivation and story arc revolves around a series of seemingly-impossible quests, a fitting tribute perhaps to his origin as a table-top RPG character in Ty Franck’s (one half of the pseudonymous James S.A Corrie) custom role-playing campaign.  It’s hard not to be reminded of the words to “The Impossible Dream”, one of the most memorable songs in the musical “The Man from La Mancha” (about Don Quixote):

“To dream the impossible dream
To fight the unbeatable foe
To bear with unbearable sorrow
To run where the brave dare not go

To right the un-rightable wrong
To love pure and chaste from afar
To try when your arms are too weary
To reach the unreachable star

This is my quest,
To follow that star
No matter how hopeless,
No matter how far.

To fight for the right
Without question or pause,
To be willing to march
Into hell for a heavenly cause.”

If that doesn’t capture the spirit of Holden’s character and driving force of his life’s quest — it’s hard to know what does.

But of course, in the archetypal paladin, there can sometimes be a fetishization of “the Law” that Holden doesn’t really share. Throughout the series, he’s far more interested in justice and goodness, than “law”. Like Robin Hood, he gladly breaks the law to serve a higher good. 

In many ways, Holden is a truer exemplar of anarchism than many of the factions of the O.P.A. (Outer Planets Alliance) that claim to stand for anarchism (and adopt some of its structures and symbols). Because Holden is neither a law-and-order acolyte, nor a nationalist, nor a materialist (let alone scion or avatar of capitalism or corporate power), he shares a great deal with anarchism as a disposition or tendency. He eschews flags and blind patriotism along with ideological labels, in favour of protecting ordinary people, regardless of their background. As such, he represents a kind of anarcho-paladin with Quixotic elements, even if he himself (or the authors of the books) might not identify with such terminology. 

Unlike Marco Inaros (who stood in front of an anarchist flag in S05 E04 –– the stylized, broken “circle-A” of the O.P.A. –– while justifying a genocidal crime against humanity), Holden lives many of the actual principles of anarchism (without the labels and pretence) to the same degree that Inaros subverts them.

On one level, that framing of Inaros’s wholesale terrorist speech and his overall narcissism, demagoguery, and autocratic rule, not to mention abusive parenting –– against the backdrop of anarchist and anti-colonial rhetoric and symbolism –– felt like a typical spurious and clichéd smear of anarchism as an ideology of nihilism and terror. 

It’s hard to know what the intentions and views of the authors and script-writers were, and are, on this score. But the fact of the matter is that the first solid – or more accurately, sustained – appearance of an overt symbol of anarchism in the TV show (over 5 seasons) was as a backdrop to Inaros’s speech justifying the murder of millions of civilians.  That’s pretty disappointing, even if the authors themselves have more nuanced perspectives on the subject.

Having said that, the divisions within both the O.P.A. as a relatively decentralized coalition, and the wider, non-homogenous Belter resistance to both Earther and Martian exploitation and rule, do show some recognition of the complexities involved.  Camina Drummer’s (played by the absolutely fantastic Canadian/Anishinaabe actress Cara Gee) polyamorous Belter pirate clan, and their own resistance to Inaros’s vision, were certainly welcome glimpses into a more socially and ethically attractive resistance faction –– although one would still be hard-pressed to call Drummer’s own hierarchical command structure “anarchist” in any sense of the term, without requiring some serious elaboration and disclaimers.

In Season 6 we see further elaboration of the divisions within the Belter resistance as Drummer’s faction helps lead the challenge to Inaros in the name of both Belter liberation and human decency –– but not (sadly) in the name of a much-maligned vision of O.P.A. anarchism as well.  This suggests a fairly limited and stereotypical understanding of anarchism on the part of the writers, although this assessment is admittedly based entirely on a ‘reading’ of the television series, not the books themselves –– and I claim no knowledge of the authors’ political perspectives beyond a few scattered and suggestive interviews here and there.

Of course, I never expect any of these shows (whether it’s Star Trek, or the Battlestar Galactica reboot, or The Expanse) to ever have great politics along these lines, or to challenge political and military paradigms, or to show real non-hierarchical decision-making structures in a revolutionary movement or larger polity, let alone non-hierarchical and non-exploitative economic alternatives.  More often than not, when they are shown or suggested, they are mocked or undermined with as much integrity and fanfare as knocking down a straw person fallacy.  

But it is always disappointing when they sometimes get close to exploring an important issue like workers’ self-management or egalitarian political and economic alternatives –– and then fail miserably to imagine a desirable alternative. The “radicals” in these imaginative universes are almost always ruthless terrorists who speak a great game about freedom and exploitation, and the hypocrisies of empire (and they are almost always right about that), but then are written in to the show as Machiavellian war criminals and terrorists themselves –– who almost never distinguish between military and civilian targets. The writers and script-writers rarely escape the U.S.-style imperial lens of our real world, or the settler-colonial lenses of our settler-colonial societies, even when imagining fantasy worlds. 

The Expanse, like many of these sci-fi series that have gone before, has wonderful and diverse character actors in them that drive the series.  It also has wonderful and realistic world-building in many ways.  But like so many others that have gone before, it also seems unable at times to imagine meaningful political and economic alternatives to crushing exploitation and ruthless top-down military and political hierarchies –– and the “radicals” or “revolutionaries” in each world are almost invariably charismatic Machiavellians like Inaros who would sacrifice their own child –– and millions of civilians as well –– to advance their own agendas.  

In any case, arguably all the characters –– across factions –– who gathered in the room at the end of the Season 5 finale and again in some respects at the end of Season 6, and who ostensibly came to realize on some level that flags and blind nationalism need to be consigned to the dustbin of history – were also awakening in the course of the series to the same kind of anarchist sensibilities that Holden had long been espousing (in spirit, if not in letter). This awakening seems to be a tangible force by series end, regardless of the labels that both the characters themselves and the writers who breathed life into them wished to articulate.  And in so awakening, all the heroes of the Expanse, in some fashion or another, seem increasingly to fall into Holden’s Quixotic, quasi-anarchist orbit: “to follow that [ethical, internationalist, intra-galactic] star, no matter how hopeless, no matter how far.”  Yes, ‘quasi-anarchist’ not anarchist … because they never could quite give up the decision-making hierarchies and structures pre-supposed by the writers who created them.  A non-hierarchical, liberatory anti-colonial movement, polity, or world is, after all, much harder to imagine than an Epstein Drive –– and sadly, even harder to imagine than the end of the world itself. Ursula Le Guin and Kim Stanley Robinson were perhaps more powerfully attuned to those ironies than most.

Parent, activist, researcher, amateur (and sometimes professional) historian, sci-fi/fantasy and nerd culture enthusiast, wilderness survival wannabe, former punk, red wine anarchist.

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