In a time long ago, I was once privy to secret knowledge. Back in my film criticism/journalism days, I talked with directors, screenwriters, producers, all sorts of individuals: I knew a lot of folk who worked at various levels in the industry. I’m lucky enough to call some of them my friends – damned if I know how or why I found myself in their circles, yet there I was, an errant mote in the whirlpool of Important People. One of my favourite secret memories is when I received some… information. To protect my sources, I won’t say anything beyond that it was related to a significant milestone in popular culture – the sort of thing that only happens once.
I knew that, while some elements would surely be divisive, others would be received warmly, & some would have longtime aficionados leaping to their feet in delight. Oh boy, folk are going to love this, I thought. But I daren’t tell a soul what I knew – quite apart from betraying my sources’ confidence, how could I ruin something that means so much to so many? So, I went on forums, news site comment sections, Facebook groups, Twitter lists, and looked at what everyone was thinking about this pop cultural milestone… while I, privy to secret knowledge, cackled in glee like the proverbial Imp of the Perverse. Reading their theories, their hopes, their fears, all while I knew exactly what was going to happen. Then, the pop cultural milestone happened. Sure enough, some criticized a few parts – but the vast majority seemed to adore it. And I felt that kind of contentment, knowing that I never betrayed my source’s confidence for well over a year, waiting for this great event to unfold. Something of the glamour of prophesy, but for fun.
I wish I had happy secret knowledge like that again.
Whichever way the dice fall, the reckoning is coming. And it’s something we, the people of Scotland, are just going to have to deal with, whether we want to or not. We can’t pretend it isn’t happening. We can’t console ourselves with the idea that everything will work out & we won’t lose some of our heroes. But we can choose how we deal with the reckoning when it comes.
One of the most optimistic science fiction series I’ve seen recently is The Expanse. Quite how they got Jeff Bezos to fund a series so brutally critical of the space-capitalism he so fervently promotes is miraculous in itself – but more miraculous still is how the writers managed to turn one of the bleakest, darkest, most miserable dystopian settings into one that provides hope for the future. Folk often forget that in Star Trek, humanity only managed to get to the post-scarcity neotopia after a devastating Third World War: it didn’t just happen overnight. The United Federation of Planets was not gifted to humanity, it was achieved through trial and challenge. The Expanse posits a grim, cruel, monstrous future where corporations run worlds, the poor are treated as practically a different species, life is cheap, and Mankind dragged all the ills and evils of the 20th & 21st Centuries into the stars with them.
But where The Expanse differs from other dystopias is that it refuses to rest on its laurels – that Earth is always the boss, Mars always belligerent second-best, and the people of the Asteroid Belt and Outer Planets are always the downtrodden and neglected. For all the biting satire of some of the best dystopias, there’s a certain sense of comfort, complacency, or just resignation, that this is the way things are and the way they always will be. Any change is fleeting at best, or failure at worst. The Expanse defies it. Over the course of the five seasons produced so far, the power dynamics of this future have changed dramatically, and in many cases for the better. War criminals are held to account despite their vast fortunes; scheming politicians either discover their humanity or end up in prison; alternatives to total war, mutually assured destruction, and retaliatory terrorism are explored outside of hand-wringing protests and powerless think-tanks. If most “grimdark” dystopian Science Fiction is “Those Who Walk Away from Omelas,” then The Expanse chooses to stay and fight.
In the 4th episode of the 5th season, two Martian ex-soldiers contemplate what they had thought to be unthinkable – that several high-ranking Martian military figures, people they looked up to and admired, may be involved in acts of high treason against Mars, and the Solar System itself. Bobbie had defected to Earth after being made a scapegoat in an earlier plot involving Martian leaders, but Alex was still loyal to Mars – until he saw for himself.
Alex: You know, I’m willing to believe that Babbage is dirty and that Admiral Sauveterre is mixed up in this too.
Alex: But this ain’t one ship and a couple of people. This is an MCRN fleet tender and two heavy frigates.
Bobbie: Yeah, which means all three crews are in on it or at least getting paid to look the other way. You know this. It’s why we’re out here.
Alex: Bobbie, there is a big difference between knowing something is possible and seeing it happen in front of your damn eyes.
Bobbie: It just means your eyes are open.
Alex: You spent ten years in the marines. Navy cost me 20 and my marriage. Now to find out it’s all for a bunch of crooks…
Bobbie: Well, I doubt they were when you served, if that makes you feel any better.
Alex: How are you so nonchalant about all this?
Bobbie: I used to have a rat.
Alex: Like, an informer in… your crew?
Bobbie: No, an actual pet rat, when I was a kid. I named her Mouse. White fur, brown ears, tiny, clever little hands. She used to climb up my arm and hide in my hair, nuzzle her soft little nose into my cheek. And she was so smart.
Alex: Rats are smart?
Bobbie: Yeah. I used to put things in her cage, and she’d build the most amazing houses out of it. I felt bad every time I had to bust them down to clean it out.
Alex: So this is one of those teaching moments, right? Mars is like some rat’s house that needs to get knocked down or some like that?
Bobbie: No. Rats only live a few years. In the wild, it’s rare that they die of old age, and when they do, they go out hard. Lots of tumors, usually. One day, I woke up, and Mouse… was laying on her side, panting, eyes glazed over. My mum told me she was dying and tried to take her away, but I demanded that I stayed with her until she passed. I sobbed for hours. And then I stopped, and then a few hours after that, I was just tired. No matter how traumatic the loss is, you only have so much emotional stamina. Even grief can get used up.
Alex: So what did you do?
Bobbie: I built her a small box, and I buried her in it. I was tired of being sad, and I had to do something. It wasn’t going to help the rat, not really, but it helped me.
Alex: So we’re building a coffin… for our dying planet.
Bobbie: I went through the exact same thing you’re going through right now. And when you come out the other side of this, you’re gonna wanna be doing something that matters.
I have no intentions on building a coffin for a dying Independence Movement, no matter which heroes prove themselves unworthy of the adulation. A movement only lives or dies with the people who carry the cause. We can wallow in our despair, or we can do something that matters.