The Expanse gets the science right—including the economics

JDN 2457502

Despite constantly working on half a dozen projects at once (literally—preparing to start my PhD, writing this blog, working at my day job, editing a novel, preparing to submit a nonfiction book, writing another nonfiction book with three of my friends as co-authors, and creating a card game—that’s seven actually), I do occasionally find time to do things for fun. One I’ve been doing lately is catching up on The Expanse on DVR (I’m about halfway through the first season so far).

If you’re not familiar with The Expanse, it has been fairly aptly described as Battlestar Galactica meets Game of Thrones, though I think that particular comparison misrepresents the tone and attitudes of the series, because both BG and GoT are so dark and cynical (“It’s a nice day… for a… red wedding!”). I think “Star Trek meets Game of Thrones” might be better actually—the extreme idealism of Star Trek would cancel out the extreme cynicism of Game of Thrones, with the result being a complex mix of idealism and cynicism that more accurately reflects the real world (a world where Mahatma Gandhi and Adolf Hitler lived at the same time). That complex, nuanced world (or should I say worlds?) is where The Expanse takes place. ST is also more geopolitical than BG and The Expanse is nothing if not geopolitical.

But The Expanse is not just psychologically realistic—it is also scientifically and economically realistic. It may in fact be the hardest science fiction I have ever encountered, and is definitely the hardest science fiction I’ve seen in a television show. (There are a few books that might be slightly harder, as well as some movies based on them.)

The only major scientific inaccuracy I’ve been able to find so far is the use of sound effects in space, and actually even these can be interpreted as reflecting an omniscient narrator perspective that would hear any sounds that anyone would hear, regardless of what planet or ship they might be on. The sounds the audience hears all seem to be sounds that someone would hear—there’s simply no particular person who would hear all of them. When people are actually thrown into hard vacuum, we don’t hear them make any noise.

Like Firefly (and for once I think The Expanse might actually be good enough to deserve that comparison), there is no FTL, no aliens, no superhuman AI. Human beings are bound within our own solar system, and travel between planets takes weeks or months depending on your energy budget. They actually show holograms projecting the trajectory of various spacecraft and the trajectories actually make good sense in terms of orbital mechanics. Finally screenwriters had the courage to give us the terrifying suspense and inevitability of an incoming nuclear missile rounding a nearby asteroid and intercepting your trajectory, where you have minutes to think about it but not nearly enough delta-v to get out of its blast radius. That is what space combat will be like, if we ever have space combat (as awesome as it is to watch, I strongly hope that we will not ever actually do it). Unlike what Star Trek would have you believe, space is not a 19th century ocean.

They do have stealth in space—but it requires technology that even to them is highly advanced. Moreover it appears to only work for relatively short periods and seems most effective against civilian vessels that would likely lack state-of-the-art sensors, both of which make it a lot more plausible.

Computers are more advanced in the 2200s then they were in the 2000s, but not radically so, at most a million times faster, about what we gained since the 1980s. I’m guessing a smartphone in The Expanse runs at a few petaflops. Essentially they’re banking on Moore’s Law finally dying sometime in the mid 21st century, but then, so am I. Perhaps a bit harder to swallow is that no one has figured out good enough heuristics to match human cognition; but then, human cognition is very tightly optimized.

Spacecraft don’t have artificial gravity except for the thrust of their engines, and people float around as they should when ships are freefalling. They actually deal with the fact that Mars and Ceres have lower gravity than Earth, and the kinds of health problems that result from this. (One thing I do wish they’d done is had the Martian cruiser set a cruising acceleration of Mars-g—about 38% Earth-g—that would feel awkward and dizzying to their Earther captives. Instead they basically seem to assume that Martians still like to use Earth-g for space transit, but that does make some sense in terms of both human health and simply transit time.) It doesn’t seem like people move around quite awkwardly enough in the very low gravity of Ceres—which should be only about 3% Earth-g—but they do establish that electromagnetic boots are ubiquitous and that could account for most of this.

They fight primarily with nuclear missiles and kinetic weapons, and the damage done by nuclear missiles is appropriately reduced by the fact that vacuum doesn’t transmit shockwaves. (Nuclear missiles would still be quite damaging in space by releasing large amounts of wide-spectrum radiation; but they wouldn’t cause the total devastation they do within atmosphere.) Oddly they decided not to go with laser weapons as far as I can tell, which actually seems to me like they’ve underestimated advancement; laser weapons have a number of advantages that would be particularly useful in space, once we can actually make them affordable and reliable enough for widespread deployment. There could also be a three-tier system, where missiles are used at long range, railguns at medium range, and lasers at short range. (Yes, short range—the increased speed of lasers would be only slight compared to a good railgun, and would be more than offset by the effect of diffraction. At orbital distances, a laser is a shotgun.) Then again, it could well work out that railguns are just better—depending on how vessels are structured, puncturing their hulls with kinetic rounds could well be more useful than burning them up with infrared lasers.

But I think what really struck me about the realism of The Expanse is how it even makes the society realistic (in a way that, say, Firefly really doesn’t—we wanted a Western and we got a Western!).

The only major offworld colonies are Mars and Ceres, both of which seem to be fairly well-established, probably originally colonized as much as a century ago. Different societies have formed on each world; Earth has largely united under the United Nations (one of the lead characters is an undersecretary for the UN), but meanwhile Mars has split off into its own independent nation (“Martian” is now an ethnicity like “German” rather than meaning “extraterrestrial”), and the asteroid belt colonists, while formally still under Earth’s government, think of themselves as a different culture (“Belters”) and are seeking independence. There are some fairly obvious—but deftly managed rather than heavy-handed—parallels between the Belter independence movement and real-world independence movements, particularly Palestine (it’s hard not to think of the PLO when they talk about the OPA). Both Mars and the Belt have their own languages, while Earth’s languages have largely coalesced around English as the language of politics and commerce. (If the latter seems implausible, I remind you that the majority of the Internet and all international air traffic control are in English.) English is the world’s lingua franca (which is a really bizarre turn of phrase because it’s the Latin for French).

There is some of the conniving and murdering of Game of Thrones, but it is at a much more subdued level, and all of the major factions display both merits and flaws. There is no clear hero and no clear villain, just conflict and misunderstanding between a variety of human beings each with their own good and bad qualities. There does seem to be a sense that the most idealistic characters suffer for their idealism much as the Starks often do, but unlike the Starks they usually survive and learn from the experience. Indeed, some of the most cynical also seem to suffer for their cynicism—in the episode I just finished, the grizzled UN Colonel assumed the worst of his adversary and ended up branded “the butcher of Anderson Station”.

Cost of living on Ceres is extraordinarily high because of the limited living space (the apartments look a lot like the tiny studios of New York or San Francisco), and above all the need to constantly import air and water from Earth. A central plot point in the first episode is that a ship carrying comet ice—i.e., water—to Ceres is lost in a surprise attack by unknown adversaries with advanced technology, and the result is a deepening of an already dire water shortage, exacerbating the Belter’s craving for rebellion.

Air and water are recyclable, so it wouldn’t be that literally every drink and every breath needs to be supplied from outside—indeed that would clearly be cost-prohibitive. But recycling is never perfect, and Ceres also appears to have a growing population, both of which would require a constant input of new resources to sustain. It makes perfect sense that the most powerful people on Ceres are billionaire tycoons who own water and air transport corporations.

The police on Ceres (of which another lead character is a detective) are well-intentioned but understaffed, underfunded and moderately corrupt, similar to what we seem to find in large inner-city police departments like the NYPD and LAPD. It felt completely right when they responded to an attempt to kill a police officer with absolutely overwhelming force and little regard for due process and procedure—for this is what real-world police departments almost always do.

But why colonize the asteroid belt at all? Mars is a whole planet, there is plenty there—and in The Expanse they are undergoing terraforming at a very plausible rate (there’s a moving scene where a Martian says to an Earther, “We’re trying to finish building our garden before you finish paving over yours.”). Mars has as much land as Earth, and it has water, abundant metals, and CO2 you could use to make air.Even just the frontier ambition could be enough to bring us to Mars.

But why go to Ceres? The explanation The Expanse offers is a very sensible one: Mining, particularly so-called “rare earth metals”. Gold and platinum might have been profitable to mine at first, but once they became plentiful the market would probably collapse or at least drop off to a level where they aren’t particularly expensive or interesting—because they aren’t useful for very much. But neodymium, scandium, and prometheum are all going to be in extremely high demand in a high-tech future based on nuclear-powered spacecraft, and given that we’re already running out of easily accessible deposits on Earth, by the 2200s there will probably be basically none left. The asteroid belt, however, will have plenty for centuries to come.

As a result Ceres is organized like a mining town, or perhaps an extractive petrostate (metallostate?); but due to lightspeed interplanetary communication—very important in the series—and some modicum of free speech it doesn’t appear to have attained more than a moderate level of corruption. This also seems realistic; the “end-of-history” thesis is often overstated, but the basic idea that some form of democracy and welfare-state capitalism is fast becoming the only viable model of governance does seem to be true, and that is almost certainly the model of governance we would export to other planets. In such a system corruption can only get so bad before it is shown on the mass media and people won’t take it anymore.

The show doesn’t deal much with absolute dollar (or whatever currency) numbers, which is probably wise; but nominal incomes on Ceres are likely extremely high even though the standard of living is quite poor, because the tiny living space and need to import air and water would make prices (literally?) astronomical. Most people on Ceres seem to have grown up there, but the initial attraction could have been something like the California Gold Rush, where rumors of spectacularly high incomes clashed with similarly spectacular expenses incurred upon arrival. “Become a millionaire!” “Oh, by the way, your utility bill this month is $112,000.”

Indeed, even the poor on Ceres don’t seem that poor, which is a very nice turn toward realism that a lot of other science fiction shows seem unprepared to make. In Firefly, the poor are poor—they can barely afford food and clothing, and have no modern conveniences whatsoever. (“Jaynestown”, perhaps my favorite episode, depicts this vividly.) But even the poor in the US today are rarely that poor; our minimalistic and half-hearted welfare state has a number of cracks one can fall through, but as long as you get the benefits you’re supposed to get you should be able to avoid starvation and homelessness. Similarly I find it hard to believe that any society with high enough productivity to routinely build interstellar spacecraft the way we build container ships would not have at least the kind of welfare state that provides for the most basic needs. Chronic dehydration is probably still a problem for Belters, because water would be too expensive to subsidize in this way; but they all seem to have fairly nice clothes, home appliances, and smartphones, and that seems right to me. At one point a character loses his arm, and the “cheap” solution is a cybernetic prosthetic—the “expensive” one would be to grow him a new arm. As today but perhaps even more so, poverty in The Expanse is really about inequality—the enormous power granted to those who have millions of times as much as others. (Another show that does this quite well, though is considerably softer as far as the physics, is Continuum. If I recall correctly, Alec Sadler in 2079 is literally a trillionaire.)

Mars also appears to be a democracy, and actually quite a thriving one. In many ways Mars appears to be surpassing Earth economically and technologically. This suggests that Mars was colonized with our best and brightest, but not necessarily; Australians have done quite well for themselves despite being founded as a penal colony. Mars colonization would also have a way of justifying their frontier idealism that no previous frontiers have granted: No indigenous people to displace, no local ecology to despoil, and no gifts from the surrounding environment. You really are working entirely out of your own hard work and know-how (and technology and funding from Earth of course) to establish a truly new world on the open and unspoiled frontier. You’re not naive or a hypocrite, it’s the real truth. That kind of realistic idealism could make the Martian Dream a success in ways even the American Dream never quite was.

In all it is a very compelling series, and should appeal to people like me who crave geopolitical nuance in fiction. But it also has its moments of huge space battles with exploding star cruisers, so there’s that.

One thought on “The Expanse gets the science right—including the economics

  1. Amazing analysis. I did note that in the book, the author makes note of there being no sound in a vacuum, such as when Amos pounds on a bulkhead on the Donnager.

    Like

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