James S.A Corey’s (a pseudonym for authors Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck) The Expanse novels depict the near future within the Sol System. Mars has been colonised and much of the asteroid belt holds human settlements. The interplay between Earth, Mars, and the scattered populations of the Asteroid Belt are what drives the plot of the seven book series. The stories are told through the first person accounts of various characters in each novel, the next of which is due in early 2019. Very much within the ‘hard sci-fi’ camp, life in The Expanse is heavily grounded in scientific realism; space is infinitely vast, the laws of physics and gravity remain constant, and life in the vacuum of space is fraught with danger. This foundation in reality adds a sense of plausibility and humanity to the plot and its characters. The parallel between our world and this fictional one poses the question of whether such a future would be so different from our own. With intense action sequences, deep political intrigue and a unique human touch, The Expanse is an epic scale space opera well worth the attention of science fiction fans and as well as those new to the genre.
A little context is necessary before delving further into things. It is approximately the year 2350. Earth is burdened with an extremely large population and the repercussions of climate change, and Mars is a highly militarised sovereign nation, fervently focused on terraforming the red planet. With the advent of the Epstein Drive (more on this later) some 150 years in the past, effective and efficient interplanetary travel is possible. Thus, the limitless number of asteroids and meteoroids in space are mined for water and minerals. This has given rise to remote populations of people inhabiting the ‘Belt’ and outer planets, ranging from tiny mining platforms and science facilities on the farthest reaches of the solar system, to very large stations bustling with trade and commerce, such as Ceres, Pallas, and Ganymede. These scattered populations of the Belt (known colloquially as ‘Belters’) represent the third major faction: those born in space under no sovereignty. These peoples are largely comprised of the working class, and are loosely unified only by their tensions with the inner planets (Earth and Mars) and shared environmental circumstances. The Belter’s struggle for independence and legitimacy in the face of Earth and Mars dominance is a key theme throughout the series.
The cultural and physical differences between these three groups heavily influence the unfolding of the plot. Earth, the birthplace and anchor of humanity has been unified under the banner of the United Nations (UN). With a population of some 30 billion people, much of Earth’s economy is now focused solely on waste management. Because of job shortages and overpopulation, more than half of the population live on basic assistance: a global welfare program permitting unskilled people to simply live off of the surplus of those with the skills and motivation to secure a position in the workforce. Shortages of natural resources create an economy that is heavily reliant on the Belt. The UN Navy (space fleet) has a large and powerful force at its disposal, but is wracked with aging and technologically inferior vessels.
Contrastingly, Mars is highly advanced and wholly determined in its goal of terraforming the planet. Industrious, passionate, and highly focused, every Martian must do their part to ensure the terraforming project comes to fruition. Originally colonised 300 years earlier by the best and brightest scientists of Earth, who were largely of Texan, Chinese, and East Indian origin. It was not until 150 years later than they were granted independence from Earth. On the brink of outright war between Earth and Mars over independence, it was the invention of the Epstein Drive by Solomun Epstein (a Martian) which made space travel efficient and effective. This provided the bargaining chip Mars needed to secede from Earth and form the Mars Congressional Republic (MCR). They exchanged the technology for sovereignty, which Earth granted so as not to be completely outmatched in the race for harvesting the Asteroid Belt for resources. The MCR sports a much more advanced military program than the UN, but is significantly outnumbered. This has led to an uneasy and ongoing arms race between Mars and Earth.
Both Mars and Earth are reliant on the rich mineral deposits found in the Belt, and are thus reliant on the Belters. These are the miners, engineers, haulers, technicians, pirates, and opportunists born outside of Earth and Mars, who hold no recognised sovereignty to any nation. They represent those under the yoke of Mars’ and Earth’s economic dominion. Control of any given territory in the Belt is conducted via economic contract. For example, Ceres, the largest and most populous station in the Belt is administered by Earth, despite being run for and by Belters. Ganymede, the proverbial breadbasket of the outer planets and a key science station has political and economic interests held by both Mars and Earth. This is naturally a point of contention for natives of the Belt: why should the inner planets hold power over them and exploit their circumstances? In an attempt to legitimise themselves as a political entity, many factions have been formed within the Belt, the most notably of which is the Outer Planets Alliance (OPA). They seek peaceful self-governance and autonomy from the inner planets, but struggle to be given legitimacy when many of their members have ties to terrorist and militant organisations. Their self-appointed leader is Fred Johnson, defector from Earth and personally responsible for great atrocities committed against the Belt. By way of repentance, he now dedicates his life to the vision of equality and autonomy for the peoples of the Belt.
The hostile realities of life in the Belt results in profound physical and cultural differences between the inner and outer planets: the spoken language in the Belt is unofficially Belter Creole, a polyglot of Germanic, Romantic, Hindi, Slavic and Chinese languages that is emblematic of the ethnic diversity within the Belters. A life in low and artificial gravity results in a lower bone density, a comparatively emaciated frame, and a vast height difference. Women’s reproductive systems are also much more complicated in low gravity, requiring extensive medical assistance during childbirth due to atrophied uterine and abdominal muscles. Though graceful and adept at life in zero G, a fully grown adult born in the Belt is physically unable to withstand the crushing full 1g gravity of Earth’s atmosphere. Therefore, even if a Belter wished to live on Earth they would be unable to do so without costly medication and lengthy physical therapy, well outside the means of the average Belter. This creates a very interesting conundrum: what to do with a large population of nationless people incapable of leaving their life in space? The result of these circumstances is a complicated mix of those wishing to make an honest and decent life for themselves and their family, and those in open descent towards the inner planets. Vast underground networks exist, harbouring pirates, terrorists, revolutionaries, opportunists, and freedom fighters, all seeking independence and self-governance. It is little wonder that the Belt has a reputation of unpredictability and unrest.
These cultural differences also provide an interesting commentary on our own real world racial and interpersonal relations. Race and identity takes on a whole new meaning in The Expanse. Archaic discrimination based on skin colour, ethnicity or sexual orientation have seemingly dissipated entirely. However, discrimination has taken on new forms, with people born to the Belt being marginalised and dehumanised as ‘Skinnies’, somehow less important. Therefore, inequalities can perpetuate and atrocities committed, such as the infamous Anderson Station incident and many other events that unfold throughout the series. The sheer distance and vastness of space also factors in to this discrimination. People are physically so far removed from one another that empathising with someone born in the far reaches of space is very difficult. To the inner planets, the people of the Belt are largely expendable and intentionally excluded from the protection of sovereignty. This type of profiling and slurring is also extended to Earth and Mars. Earthers are naturally prejudiced, lazy and happy to stupefy themselves with drugs and meaningless entertainment as they drown in their own excrement. Martians or ‘Dusters’ are considered arrogant, haughty and inflexible, blinded by their single mindedness towards the terraforming project and own sense of superiority. This alternate take on race, nationality and discrimination is an interesting commentary on our own times. Though any form of discrimination is obviously abhorrent, a future where marginalisation based on skin colour, religion or sexual orientation has vanished is a certainly a move in the right direction. However, another aspect of this commentary is a sad realisation; no matter where we are in the solar system or how technologically advanced we appear to be, man can still revert back to violence and tribalism.
As is often the case throughout history, the three main factions in The Expanse define themselves by their opposition to each other group. Earth’s focus is on maintaining and consolidating its influence and power in the solar system whilst attempting to catch up to Mars’ technological superiority. Mars is fully committed to their goal of terraforming and becoming the dominant power in Sol system. Their sentiments towards Earth are of disdain; Earthers had their own garden but plundered and destroyed it, while Mars is building their own garden that they truly deserve and will cherish. The peace between Earth and Mars is out of an uneasy respect for one-another and an unwillingness to commit to such a long and costly conflict, should war ever truly break out. The population of the Belt simply focuses on surviving. At every turn there is a potential disaster waiting to happen: electronic malfunction, air recycling failure, a reactor meltdown, gas leaks, the list is endless. This gives Belters an almost obsessive regard for environmental systems. Any person found to tamper with or undermine the air, water, or life support of a ship or station will swiftly be ‘spaced’; thrown out of an airlock with no suit or air. Understanding a little of how each group views themselves and others helps to frame the broader events and plot points within the series. You get an understanding of how and why a character might make the decision they do and what historical events have led them up to that point.
The core of the novels revolve around the adventures of the crew of The Rocinante, made up of two Earthers, one Martian and one Belter. I’ll leave the books to detail the circumstances under which the crew comes together, but each has their own deep and complicated backstory which unfolds as the plot progresses. Their captain, Earther James Holden is a disgraced navy officer-cum-quixotic saviour, with a habit for being the centre of the solar systems attention, for better or worse. Amos Burton, the enigmatic and sociopathic ship mechanic from Earth who has left a dark past behind him and fully embraced life in the Belt. Alex Kamal, their upbeat pilot from Mars with a thick Texan accent, retired from the Martian navy after completing his service yet unwilling to settle for life outside of the pilots seat. And finally Naomi Nagata, born and raised on poor mining ships throughout the Belt, she is an extremely talented ship engineer with a closely guarded secret past. Together with their salvaged state of the art Martian navy ship the Rocinante, they travel the solar system as free agents operating from contract to contract for the UN, OPA, and MCR. These assignments range from trade missions and appointed emissaries, to military escorts and rescue operations. The diverse crew of The Rocinante gives it a unique position of famed neutrality, siding with whatever cause the political or strategic circumstances demand of the crew in order to do the right thing.
At this point I divulge a minor plot point; the introduction of an extra-terrestrial biology in the solar system. The consequences of such a discovery reverberate through the entire series and change the solar system forever. Such a revelation is very well executed, as it does not become the sole focus of the plot, but merely an added layer to the already complex and diverse political structures. Reactions of hysteria, fear, curiosity, and opportunism are all present. The power struggle that the alien discovery creates reminds us of a recurring theme throughout our own history: the lengths people are willing to go in order to understand and weaponize a new technology, and subsequently assert themselves as the dominant force in any arms race. Inhumane and treasonous acts follow in the wake of man’s attempts to wield this potent and mysterious power. Given the realism depicted through the series, we are asked what implications such a discovery would have within our own solar system. Would we react with barbarity and ruthlessness in our burning desire to understand the unknown, or would level heads prevail? Through the example given in the The Expanse, we are uncomfortably reminded that once Pandora’s Box has been opened, there will always be elements of mankind that will stop at nothing to unlock its secrets.
The solid foundation in real science is another strong appeal of the series. The locations dotted throughout the solar system are all real celestial bodies, the distances and orbits of each closely matching reality. Gravity and inertia are never overlooked: ships traveling too fast can and will crush their crew under immense G force, which inadvertently occurred to Solomun Epstein on the maiden voyage testing his new drive. Our bodies function differently in low gravity too, such as blood not flowing or clotting the same, muscles atrophy and weaken, and bone density is reduced. To some of these difficulties, humans have ingeniously incorporated ship thrust or rotation into providing an artificial gravity when necessary. Many of the larger floating stations of the Belt have had thrusters constructed on their exterior, permanently spinning the station to provide gravity at approximately 0.3 G. The sheer size of space is also not forgotten. It takes many weeks, even months to travel from one location to another within the solar system. Even with communications travelling at the speed of light, time delay is often significant. The only major fabrication within The Expanse is the Epstein Drive, which functions at a level not currently theoretically possible given our current understanding of nuclear technology and physics. However, all the relevant implications of travelling with such speed and power are given full credit, so it’s easily incorporated into what is possible in the universe portrayed.
The nature of combat in space is also very well thought out. Unlike many other science fiction novels, naval conflict is conducted via extremely long range, with battlegrounds thousands, if not millions of kilometres. Close quarters combat and boarding actions are extremely rare and dangerous (though luckily for you the book does detail a few such actions and it is awesome). The weapons of choice are high yield torpedoes, railguns and point defense systems to bring down enemy torpedoes, or in closer engagements to pepper enemy ships with high velocity projectiles. Soldiers in space are equipped with real world ballistics that can and do function the same way in reality. No fictitious shielding or laser beams exist, only projectiles going very very fast. No amount of steel or barriers on a ship can stop a railgun slug, nor prevent a nuclear explosion turning a ship into a plume of gas and shrapnel. Crew can only trust in their own skill, targeting systems and luck to survive. This gives combat in space a very visceral and deadly quality, making for very tense and exciting reading despite the vast distances separating combatants. All the more for the fact that all the technology presented is currently in existence (though obviously not as refined or advanced), suggesting that it is only a matter of time before we see space fleets sporting such armaments.
The lack of atmosphere in space is another important consideration in regards to ship design. For most vessels, breaking through a planet’s atmosphere is rarely necessary. Therefore, few ships have that in consideration during their ship design. It is an almost paradoxical thought, but aerodynamics need not be considered in space when there is literally zero resistance in the vacuum of space, making the often garish and ridiculous concepts of space craft from other science fiction media closer to the truth than we might have believed. Vessels in The Expanse are built for durability and contingency, with little regard given to aesthetics. More akin to flying megastructures than sleek or elegant spacecraft. This practical approach to life and travel in space is another focus of the novels not often touched upon in other science fiction. Life aboard a space vessel is only made possible through strict adherence to routine. The endless diagnostics, system checks, and repair schedules is what defines life on military, commercial or private ships alike. The glamour and romanticism of what it means to be aboard a state of the art ship is stripped away and replaced with a more tempered and realistic view. Though certainly not as stylish as a captain or pilot, it is the engineers, technicians, and mechanics that keep the ship running and everyone on it alive, and The Expanse gives these individuals a name, a face, and a story worth hearing.
This leads into my final point for the series: it’s uniquely engaging and human quality. Each chapter is told through the perspective of a host of different individuals spread across the solar system. These range from our main protagonists on-board the Rocinante, to people merely caught in the fallout of catastrophic events. We are even given the antagonists perspectives at times, showing that no matter what side we are on, we all have seemingly good intentions and beliefs, we all have loved ones we are willing to do anything for, and we all have reasons for being where we are right now. Often the distinctions between good and bad are entirely subjective or only varying shades of grey. Real people exist on both sides of an issue and no decision is without consequences. This is made all the more complicated when those people really do have a name and a face, and you can see first-hand the implications of an incident. We are introduced to people of every race, creed and sexual orientation all simply trying to survive and do what is right by themselves and by those they love. It is this human essence within the grand space opera that projects a positive and inspiring view of the future. Though circumstances may seem dire and humanity may still be plagued with the desire for conflict and conquest, a possible future where man has populated the stars and not only survived, but thrived despite the hostile and unforgiving circumstances is an optimistic and heart-warming future indeed. Truly a testament to the tenacity and ingenuity of man to survive and prosper despite all odds.