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“The Expanse” and “Mobile Suit Gundam”: two sides of the sci-fi coin

The Expanse // Mobile Suit Gundam

Fans of Amazon’s premiere science-fiction series would do well to spend their time between seasons catching up on its anime forebears.

It’s the future. The Earth has united under a single government and failed to deliver on the utopian promise of its technology. Those on top maintain their power by extracting wealth from colonies hanging in orbit. After generations of life in space, the space colonists begin thinking of themselves as a new strain of humanity and strike against the declining colonial center. This is the backdrop of both The Expanse’s current season and Mobile Suit Gundam

The Gundam franchise is a touchstone of the Mecha anime genre, featuring young pilots fighting battles inside 60-foot tall robots. It began 41 years ago with a television anime series that performed poorly with the child demographic its sponsors wanted to attract, but fatefully overperformed with teens, college students, and women; whose support lifted it to become one of the highest-grossing global franchises of all time, on par with more familiar American creations like Batman and Spider-Man. Its sequels, spinoffs, and tie-ins have continued ever since. Roughly half of Gundam titles share their setting with the original show, known as the Universal Century timeline, and the rest are divided between numerous timelines of their own. No matter the setting, each installment iterates on the themes and aesthetics of the original. Mobile Suit Gundam’s influence falls wide across the science fiction landscape, and The Expanse reflects it clearly.

Fans of each franchise recognize the similarities in the other, and there are even some Easter Eggs that seems intentional. The first of the Free Navy’s meteorites to strike the Earth destroyed Dakar, the home of the Earth Federation congress in 1985’s Mobile Suit Zeta Gundam. That series also originated the repeated maxim that Earth’s souls are “weighed down by gravity”, a line paralleled in Commander Thorsen’s interrogation of Bobbie Draper: “[Gravity]’s different when you’re there. This oppressive pull-down. It pulls the spirits down with it”. That scene was set on the MCRN Scirocco, possibly named for Zeta Gundam’s final antagonist, Paptimus Scirocco, a man changed by his years spent orbiting Jupiter. But the parallels aren’t a list of click-bait references, they’re the undergirding assumptions on how science fiction should reflect the world.

Mobile Suit Gundam 00
Mobile Suit Gundam 00

Gundam was a watershed moment in the Mecha genre. After it aired Mecha would be split into the “super robot” and “real robot” subgenres. The Expanse stands apart for building drama and narrative tension out of Kepler’s laws, but Gundam’s own version of realism, though mostly aesthetic, was revolutionary in its own right. Its mechs are treated like any other category of military equipment; only distinct from tanks and planes in their tactical niche. Ammunition and replacement parts are constant concerns. The space colonies are O’Neill cylinders, a favorite design among futurists, both strong and fragile in particular ways that boost the believability of the action within them. Small, accurate details ground the walking robot conceit, like only using zero-emission electric vehicles within the sealed atmospheres of space colonies, the ubiquity of sealed drink pouches in zero-g, or characters on EVAs pressing their helmets together to speak in the vacuum of space. Most significantly, our protagonists were in a war between factions of humans, not defending themselves against the alien invaders or monstrous beasts of super robot anime.

That innovation is the strongest link to The Expanse. Gundam’s wars are born of people’s self-interest, driven by ideology, and rooted in material reality. James S. A. Corey’s setting is, at its highest levels, a web of interrelating nodes. Resources are extracted, trade links established, and opportunities exploited across incredible distances so great that individuals become blind to how every action creates a reaction. Colonization of exoplanets moves forward, so Martian terraforming is unnecessary, so the meticulous plan of Martian society falters, so the Free Navy can act without restriction, so millions die in a meteor strike.

Meanwhile in the Universal Century, a revolutionary dies, so an opportunist takes over, and builds a military regime called Zeon, and the independence movement becomes fascist. After winning the war, the Earth Federation’s special forces violently suppress the colonies, becoming authoritarian themselves, which starts a civil war, creating an opportunity for a new Zeon movement to return. Each conflict, and each individual, is a product of their material reality. It’s hard to bridge the gaps when humanity no longer shares the same sky.

But even with all the terrible acts, there are fewer outright evil people than one might expect. Even Zeon’s royal family are shown in moments of grief, and hoping for their father’s approval. The villain is the war itself, and the yardstick for measuring villainy is how each antagonist relates to it, from those prolonging the war for their own purposes, to the conscripts just hoping to see another day. Somewhere in the middle is Ramba Ral, who treats his place in the Zeon military as his 9 to 5. He even kisses his wife goodbye when he gets into his robot. But that’s contrasted against the moment he curses the Earth Federation for making him fire at press-ganged teenagers, absolving himself of responsibility as he pulls the trigger. It’s a complexity you might put against Anderson Dawes as he drifts back and forth between gang boss and political figure, his childhood hardships never far from his mind.

What The Expanse and the Gundam franchise share is an impulse to reflect the world as it is, but on a grander scale. To use genre trappings to heighten the contrast, and make the truth more visible. It’s magical realism without the magic. They approach that goal through a materialist lens, and set an array of pieces out on a board bigger than the Earth can hold, to see how each still exerts a force on all the others. If you’d like to see this in practice for yourself, the following is a list of five Gundam titles that each exemplify a piece of the brand’s connection to The Expanse.

For Rocinante fans: Mobile Suit Gundam (1979)

The originator. Nearly all the above examples of parallels come from “first Gundam” so I won’t repeat them. The series follows a group of young people, mostly civilians, who are forced to flee in and crew an Earth Federation warship to escape a sudden attack on their home colony. They navigate the space between enemy attacks and allied neglect as the war changes each member of the crew. Like the Rocinante crew, they come to be the best hope for a peaceful solar system, despite having no home to truly rely on.

For Free Navy Fans: Mobile Suit Gundam: Char’s Counterattack (1988)

Marco Inaros was not the first person to strike at the colonial elites of Earth by lobbing asteroids at them. He wasn’t even the first to broadcast a premature victory speech turned civics lesson while wearing a uniform with an abstracted bird emblem across his chest. This theatrical film is a sequel to the three animated tv series that preceded it, paying off 9 years of intertwining plots and character arcs. At its core is Char Aznable, a charismatic leader that feels like a very direct inspiration for Inaros, and every major player gets a moment to puzzle over just what exactly motivates him. It also introduces new young characters, who will return in this year’s upcoming feature film Mobile Suit Gundam Hathaway.

For Tech Fans: Mobile Suit Gundam: 08th MS Team (1996)

What if Romeo & Juliet was a Vietnam War movie, fought with giant robots? This 12-episode series, originally released direct to video, follows a platoon of Federation pilots in a ground campaign through Southeast Asia. The team and their robots are both slapped together from spare parts. This may be the Gundam title that takes the “real” robot designation most to heart. A gummed-up air filter will reduce your fighting strength as easily as enemy mortars. And heat is lovingly animated, both in a shimmering desert and the way beam weapons melt, burn, and scorch different materials. The central dramatic question is whether Ensign Shiro Amada can be relied on to kill the enemy, after he loses the ability to dehumanize them. Shiro, like James Holden, is a character at his best when he’s a step or two more moral than the world around him.

For Churn Fans: Mobile Suit Gundam Thunderbolt (2015)

This pair of films is the most stylish of all Gundam titles, with a free jazz soundtrack and electric action direction. It’s also the most grim by far. Characters only have happy moments, outside of flashbacks at least, in the second film. And not particularly often even then. It asks if war makes monsters out of men, or reveals the monsters that were always within, but wraps its bleak outlook in exhilarating, acrobatic violence through wrecked monuments to earlier battles. It was also left on an incomplete ending, with no announcement on further adaptations of the manga source material. We’ll see if that’s another parallel to The Expanse after season 6.

Fo Beltalowda: Mobile Suit Gundam: Iron-Blooded Orphans (2015)

This is the only title on this list set outside the Universal Century timeline. In this setting, life on Mars is cheap. Cheap enough that companies would rather give child workers risky surgeries that let them plug their nervous systems into heavy machinery than teach them to read or give them on-the-job training. The trauma and poverty foisted on these teens make them fiercely loyal to one another, with a powerful bravado. They may have been born on the Martian dust, but they’re Belters through and through. The setup sounds like bait for teenage edgelords, but the show’s commitment to the truth of its characters, and showing the audience possible avenues of action their blinkered experience will not let them imagine, makes IBO a gripping tragedy. Every step the protagonists take is another nail in their coffin, even their greatest short-term victories.

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