The Expanse

Published Mar 5, 2024

Description: Jess talks about space, science, and the future of humans in our universe with Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck, the award-winning authors behind the hit books and critically-acclaimed TV series The Expanse.


Our shared human heritage is science, and we are born observing and testing hypotheses about our world and our place in it. Our distant ancestors used gnomons on dials to track the sun’s progress across the sky, and oral traditions, hieroglyphs, and art passed on observed and tested knowledge of crop growing, animal-keeping, and even natural disasters.

But what about our future? We know science is essential to solving big-picture problems, but how will it fit with our evolution as a species, both here on Earth and as we make our way out into the solar system and beyond?

If these are the questions that keep you up at night, then join me on this foray into the expanse beyond our brilliant blue marble.

I’m your host Jess Phoenix and this is…SCIENCE.

Jess: I am delighted to have two talented authors here today. Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck wrote a series of books under the pen name of James S.A. Corey. Those books, of which there are nine complete novels plus several short stories and novellas, make up the body of work known as "The Expanse." Fans of the book and TV series are quick to note just how good the depictions of science and technology are, and how closely the political and social issues addressed dovetail with issues facing Earth today. The Expanse won the Hugo Award for Best Series in 2020, and I'm delighted to speak with the two people who've brought so much gravitas and storytelling skill to sci-fi as of late. So, thank you so much for coming on the show, Ty and Dan.

Daniel: Thank you for having us.

Ty: Daniel is the one who's in charge of gravitas.

Daniel: Yeah.

Jess: Well, good. We'll give him all the hard questions.

Ty: Yes.

Daniel: Lower your expectations, and we'll be fine.

Jess: It's, those of us in science are used to that. So, just wanna start off by mentioning to everybody who listens, writing novels is a tricky endeavor on its own. And writing a series of well-researched and plotted sci-fi books, with two authors, over the course of 10 years, is on another level. What sparked your drive to see the series come to life? And how did you navigate that juggling of two creative minds to make things work?

Ty: This is not as funny an answer as you're hoping for. The answer is, Daniel said, "Hey, do you wanna write a book with me?" and I was like, "Okay." And then we did. And then, a couple of years later, he's like, "You wanna write six more?" and I was like, "Okay." And then we did.

Daniel: It's one of those things where I don't think we understood what we were doing when we started, or we might not have actually done it. It was really, it started off as this kind of awesome tabletop role-playing game that Ty was running. And I thought, "Look, he's already done all the hard part. He's done all the homework. I could just write this down. We could sell it for pizza money." There's the origin story. Pizza.

Jess: Pizza and gaming, that is something that I think a lot of us can relate to. But your pizza and gaming has clearly produced something a little bit more intricate than many of our efforts in that space go to [crosstalk 00:02:47]

Ty: We overachieved.

Daniel: We did overshoot, yeah.

Jess: Before we dive into a little bit more of the specifics of "The Expanse," I've been wondering…we have so much exploration, and scientific research, and problems that we need to address here on Earth. So, what drew you two to writing about exploration in space?

Ty: Tackling real-life problems in fiction, I mean, it happens, it always happens, no matter what you're writing about, the time that you live in, even if you're writing about the far future. So, the things that concern us today are definitely gonna show up in the fiction, no matter what time the fiction is set. But, I get bored easily about... Like, I don't wanna write a 100,000-word tract on why global warming is bad. That would... Like, it's true, but it would bore me to write that. So, for me, the things that keep me interested are the new things, the unexpected things, the things we haven't seen or heard of before, and having the characters run into things that they have no frame of reference for, and have to struggle to figure out. That's what keeps me interested. And space is full of mystery. I mean, and you could make an argument that the Earth still has a lot of mystery here, too, you know, but I didn't wanna write a story about deep sea divers. So, it's either you're going to the bottom of the ocean or you're going out into space if you wanna find stuff we haven't seen before.

Daniel: The other thing that I think Ty brought to this, that was really useful, was a sense of history, and a sense of the way that the issues that we're seeing now, and that we expect to see in the future, recapitulate and rhyme with the things we've seen in the past. We get a certain amount of credit for, kind of, prescience about things, because we're actually writing about stuff that happened a hundred years ago or a thousand years ago or two thousand years ago. And it just turns out there are certain evergreen issues that show up in humans.

Ty: Daniel's saying the nice version. The not-nice version is, humans do the same dumb sh-- over and over and over again, so if you write about some dumb stuff somebody did 2000 years ago, I guarantee somebody's doing it today.

Jess: I'm assuming a lot of our listeners have probably been exposed to your work in some form, because it is very scientist-friendly. But for folks who don't know, the world of "The Expanse" is set in a future where humans have colonized the solar system. So, the UN is the governing mechanism on Earth, and it's the wealthiest and most secure region. The moon is a pretty functional outpost for shipping and transport and government function. Mars is a military power, and Mars itself is being terraformed. And the asteroid belt is basically populated with a lot of working-class people, who, their bodies have actually physically changed, because they've had generations born in low gravity. So, the social order is extremely stratified, and it seems really logical, when you put it in the historical context. So, when you set out to do this how did you conceive of this setup? I mean, was it instant, like, "Oh, this is how colonization of space would work?"

Ty: No. It was actually much more functional than that. So, the original pitch for "The Expanse," a friend of mine came to me and said, "Hey, my uncle is a bigwig at this Chinese internet service provider, and they want to develop their own in-house MMORPG." And if you don't know what that is, it's the massively multiplayer online RPGs, like World of Warcraft. They wanted to develop an in-house MMO that they could host on their internet service-providing platform, and attract people to use their service. This was for China, in China. And she said, "You know about games, and do you have an idea? Is there something we could pitch him as an idea for a game?" So, I sort of put together some loose notes that I had, and came up with a pitch that is what "The Expanse" is. And the reasons for all these things are very functional. You know, World of Warcraft has two factions. You can be the Alliance or the Horde, and they're fighting each other. And I was like, "Well, we'll be better. We'll have three. So, we'll have Earth, Mars, and the Belt, will be the three factions."

And then, once I had come up with that, then I had to come up with a reason, why are they fighting each other? So, Earth is, like, sort of the decaying empire. It's like the British Empire in the last couple centuries, where, at one point, it was the most massive empire on Earth, and then it begins to retract, and lose its status. And that's Earth. It's the decaying empire. And then Mars is like the United States. It's the breakaway power that suddenly is superseding its former home. Suddenly, it's the most powerful military, and becoming the dominant military force. And then the third, I wanted sort of that sort of, like, messy, anarchist kind of feel. And the thing that Daniel talks about, looking at history, the thing that has always been true is, when you want cheap material extraction, when you wanna dig up rare earth in Africa, yes, you can use expensive machines to do that, but 12-year-olds are cheaper. So you go and you just get a bunch of 12-year-olds to crawl down the holes and dig things up. And so, this idea that the mineral extraction from this belt would be all super-advanced robots just didn't feel true to me. What felt true to me is the minute that we can just take a bunch of poor people and ship them out there, that's what we're gonna do, because that's what we have always done. And so, you wind up with sort of the oppressed underclass of workers, basically miners, in space, who are being misused by these two superpowers for mineral extraction. And that's kind of where the idea came from.

Jess: I think that what really resonates with the series, both the books and the TV show, were the, like, the fundamental undergirding of the humanity behind all of this. Like, yeah, we're in the future and we have all these really amazing technologies, and we're being confronted by challenges that don't exist on Earth, as well as ones that do. But the humans are the real binding glue that holds the series together. And so, this is, you know, like I said, it's a futuristic space opera. But much of the conflicts do play out like they do on Earth. So, you get conflicts between governments and what they prioritize, between the oppressed people, etc., etc. But unlike sci-fi series like Star Trek, the conflict, the poverty, the suffering, they're very standard. I mean, in "The Expanse," that just happens. But the solutions to the crises seem to be mostly solved by people talking to each other. And so, what led you to approaching it that way, of this isn't idealized, this is actually more realistic, even with some more fantastic elements sprinkled throughout?

Daniel: I think, when you're doing something like this, it's necessarily a reflection of the opinions of the people who are doing it. And I think Ty and I both... Ty and I came from very different backgrounds. We came up very differently. And we came to some very similar conclusions about humans, and how they work, and how realistic it is to double down on murdering your way to a better tomorrow. And the, kind of, necessity of compassion, and of respect, and of learning your way out of trouble, instead of murdering your way out of trouble. And, I mean, it wasn't something we specifically discussed. It wasn't something where we said, you know, "Well, what are the themes we're gonna try..." you know, [inaudible 00:14:58] This is the conversation that we have with ourselves and with each other, and that's what winds up being reflected in the books and the series.

Ty: And I appreciate utopian futures. I appreciate them as aspirational. Like, you know, you watch Star Trek, and every...there are no poor people in Star Trek, you know, at least in the Federation, you know. It's, everybody is a spaceship captain, and everybody has an awesome job. Even as a kid, watching those shows, while I appreciated them, I was like, "Ooh. Who mops the floors on the Enterprise? Who does that job? Who mucks out the space toilet when it gets plugged?" And you never see that person. And then, in the '70s, in the late 70s, there's a movie called "Alien" came out, Ridley Scott's masterpiece. And I saw for the first time the guys I had always been wondering about, because you had Parker and Brett, guys in coveralls, with tool belts, and they were mad because they didn't get paid as much as the other. And it wasn't like, "We're all noble, square-jawed space heroes." It was like, "We're truckers in space, and we're getting screwed, because the people up in the bridge get paid more than us, and we don't get as much bonus as they do." And they're mad about it, and they're complaining. And I was like, "This is the fiction I wanna see," because it felt real to me in a way that Star Trek never did. And I appreciate the aspiration of Star Trek, but I, you know, and it would be awesome if humans could figure out a way to do that. But I feel like the future is gonna be, you know...when I talk about this, I always talk about, like, the first people to cross the oceans were, like, explorers, and adventurers, and sea captains, and all that stuff, right? The next people to cross the oceans were merchant marines. And they were just, they were, you know, using wrenches on boilers, and complaining about their paychecks, and covered in grease. And you never get to see that second wave in science fiction. You never get to see the grease-covered wrench guys. You always see the brave space captains. And I like that second part.

Daniel: There's this whole idea about transhumanism, and the idea of what happens when humanity evolves…we kind of pass over what evolution actually, you know, requires, as far as killing a bunch of people before they reproduce. But the idea of transcending humanity, to something better, and I've always thought the real transhuman moment would be when we stopped judging our worth relative to the guy who lives next to us. That's gonna be when we're not human anymore. That's gonna be when we've become something different.

Jess: Before we started recording, you know, you both mentioned to me, you're not scientists. So, that does beg the question, of course, at, like, how did you get the science right? Because, and I wanna just highlight this for folks who maybe haven't read or watched yet, but in the books and the TV series, it is stunning the amount of scientific detail that goes into the actual finished products, space physics, materials. And one of my favorite things is when you see the way blood or other liquids behaves in zero-gravity environments, or low-gravity environments, or, like, when you're in space, you have people working in space, doing, like, space walks, or you have fighting occurring in space, the space is shown as a vacuum. It is shown correctly. So, without being scientists, how on Earth did you get the science right at such granular levels?

Ty: We’re not 100% aiming for accuracy. But Daniel always jokes that the fact that people see us as hard sci-fi, or more accurate than other sci-fi, is a little shocking because we only ever aim for what Daniel calls Wikipedia-level plausibility. And it turns out that being seen as unusually rigorous is very easy. All you have to do is have light speed still be the rule, and have gravity the way gravity actually works. That's it. That's all we did that was radically different. You know, our spaceships don't have magical gravity plating, or, you know, that the ships aren't built like ocean liners, even though the thrust is coming from the back and everybody would be pinned to the back wall the entire time. Even just that, people go, "Oh, wow. That's so weird. That's so unusual." And the fact that if you're trying to call your buddy on a moon of Jupiter, it's gonna take a couple hours for your call to get there. It's not instantaneous communication. And even just those little things, just little things like that, people saw that, and go, "Wow, that's so unusual," because, historically, those are inconveniences for plotting, and so people just hand-wave them away. It's, "I don't wanna have to deal with that from a plot perspective, so I'm just gonna pretend, like, we invented the, you know, XYZ hyper mega device, and now we have instantaneous communication, and gravity wherever we want. And now I don't have to deal with that."

Daniel: There's another thing, though. We're not scientists. I have, like, a bachelor's degree in biology, but, you know, my career was tech support before I did this, so enh… And, but there's a level of excitement about and interest in the way the world works, that Ty and I both kind of had before we came to this. When you start talking about, you know, why is Ganymede the breadbasket? Well, because it has the magnetosphere. You know, we know that because Ty was interested in that when he was growing up, and he read a bunch of stuff, and he learned about stuff just for the joy of knowing things. I was a biology major because the cute girl was taking biology, and I wanted to sit next to her, and then I did four years of that. But that informs how I move through the world ever after that. And I wound up really enjoying things like thinking about evolution and genetics. And, you know, it's not something I do professionally, except to the degree that we're making it up. But there is a joy in being educated. There is a joy in knowing stuff and exploring stuff. And there's not actually a lot of homework we needed to do for the series, because we built the series out of the things that we already knew and were enthusiastic about.

Ty: There were a few times that we got to the edges of what we knew, and called in a little help. I don't know if you know Phil Plait, but Phil Plait, I reached out to him and asked him for some help on, I wanted to know exactly what it would look like when a neutron star collapsed into a black hole. Exactly what would be happening physics-wise and radiation-wise, and all those sorts of things. I didn't know that. And he helped me out with that. There'd be a few other times when we got to the edge of things we knew, and we'd reach out to somebody and go, "Hey, what would it look like if this happened?" Daniel solved a very complex physics problem by calling in some scientists to help him figure it out. So, we did occasionally need a little extra help, but we tended not to write about stuff that was beyond the things we already knew. We tended to stay in our comfort zone, generally.

Jess: I do know Phil, and he is the perfect person to ask about your neutron star questions. And if you ever need volcano help, you know who to call. So, that kind of makes me wanna know, out of all of the creativity that went into this massive series, each of you, individually, what is your favorite technology from what you wrote, that you hadn't come across in other sci-fi?

Ty: A trivial cure for cancer.

Daniel: Yeah, trivial cure. Seriously.

Ty: It's like, "Oh, I have cancer, so I'll just take this pill, and now I don't have cancer."

Daniel: One of the things that we did when we were doing that first book was we said, "Okay, what are the problems we have to have solved in order for this to be even vaguely plausible? What do we need to be able to do for sure in order to have a viable space-faring humanity?" And yeah, solving cancer was actually, like, the thing. It was like, "Okay, we're gonna be sucking down amazing amounts of radiation. How do we not just die?" It wound up actually fitting into the plot later on. And the fun thing... I didn't know this. So, we have that technology fit in in book...four?

Ty: Yeah.

Daniel: One of our characters, because he is on this kind of anti-cancer regimen, winds up not being affected by an alien parasite. And our biologist is like, "Oh, that means there's some kind of convergent evolution on a molecular level. That's amazing." And, you know, we wrote that because it was fun. And then, like, two years ago, somebody found evidence of there being a good move in design space on a molecular level, where things were, there was convergent evolution down there, and we to the guess right. That was awesome.

Jess: So, it's intelligent guesswork when it happens.

Ty: No, you make a thousand guesses, and one of them's right, and then you take credit for it.

Jess: So, I wanna just tie it here to what we do at Union of Concerned Scientists, other than being concerned. I mean, we are all very concerned. But we address real-world issues, right? Like, we have five major programs, and they cover things like climate and energy, food and environment, clean transportation, global security, which is a big thing. That's nuclear weapons-focused, largely. And then also, Center for Science and Democracy. So, we are wrangling with things that are major topical issues in "The Expanse." And so, I'm just wondering, did you have at any point, did you have a roadmap of big issues that you needed to cover, I mean, aside from cancer, before you had this world just run its course?

Ty: I needed something that allowed people to travel faster than modern conventional rockets would allow them to travel, in the solar system, because couldn't have every trip take five years. So, you know, you needed a much more efficient, much faster engine. So we just made one up. And then, the cancer thing. But, you know, part of what we had to come up with, or that I started out coming up with for the original design, is, what is the reason people would be in all these places? And you have to sort of accept the conceit that if humans can live someplace, they're going to. Because if you don't accept that conceit, then the world-building of "The Expanse" makes no sense. There's no reason to go to any of those places. So, we're just sort of accepting that people figure out a way to live on Ganymede, so they move there. Like, why would you ever do that? Nobody would ever do that. I think they would move there for a minute, and they'd go, "This place sucks," and then they would come back. But once you accept that conceit, then you have to come up with a reason. What are they doing on...what makes Ganymede unique in the solar system that people would use there? What's unique about the other moons? What's unique about the asteroid belt? What things are there, that, if people moved there, would become the thing that they do? So, there was some of that mapping we had to figure out.

Daniel: The other thing, though, you don't really need a roadmap for the big issues. If you just start off with a status quo, which we did, and then a destabilizing influence, which we did, all of those things come naturally from that. Questions about, you know, identity, and resource allocation, and food, and war, and governance. It's all connected. It's all connected in human experience, and it's all connected in the world. So, if you're trying to think through, you know, with whatever level of rigor we were trying to think through, those issues, present themselves along the way. You don't need a roadmap. It just happens.

Jess: When people think of space and futuristic technology, I think it is very easy to let the humanity fall by the wayside. And I think that's the common thread that is throughout this whole talk, and is also reflected in your works, is that humanity is it. I mean, we are the thing we can count on, both good and bad.

Ty: One of my favorite lines, you know, Carl Sagan said a lot of amazing things, but one of my favorite lines he said is, "No one's coming to save us. We have to do it ourselves." And I just love that sentiment, of, we are gonna have to figure it out. Whatever stuff we're dealing with, nobody's gonna figure it out for us. And if we don't figure it out, then we'll stay broken. And I think people forget that sometimes. I think people are waiting for the parents to come fix everything for us, and we're kind of on our own here.

Jess: Yeah. That's an excellent observation. I did wanna ask, and this is gonna be a tiny bit spoiler-ey. So, for people who haven't read or watched yet, maybe just turn your ears off for a moment. But one of the things I actually found fascinating is, it tracks with the global security side of things. Right now, our big threat here on Earth is nuclear weapons. But the most devastating weapon that was used with intent in the series, the one that sticks with me the most, is when a group, and I won't say who, is throwing asteroids at the Earth. And it's obliterating cities. I mean, it is more devastating, I think, than a nuclear weapon would be. What sparked that brainwave, that you could find weapons that aren't our nuclear mindset?

Ty: Oh, I straight up stole that from Larry Niven.

Daniel: Yeah.

Ty: Yeah, I mean, Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle wrote a book called "Footfall," where an alien species shows up to conquer the Earth. And unlike other books of that type, they don't land and fight us with hand weapons. They just stay in orbit and drop rocks on us, which is absolutely what you would do. You know, if you're in space, you have the high ground. Why would you come down here and fight? There's no reason to do that. You just drop rocks until we give up. And then once we've given up, then you come down and take the spoils. But it absolutely comes from there. And I remember reading an essay written by, it was either Larry Niven or Jerry Pournelle, where he's talking about once you have space, once you've conquered space and can easily move matter around up there, you don't need nuclear weapons anymore. You can just push anvils out the airlock. And that always just stuck in my head, that idea of, just something heavy, throw it at the ground. By the time it gets here, it is a nuclear bomb. And if you are low-tech... Well, and then, another thing, steal from everybody, William Gibson said, "When your enemy's high-tech, come at him low-tech." And so, you know, you can't compete with Earth and Mars with attack ships and high-tech weapons and all this, so you can't compete with them on that. They just have more money. But what you can do is you can strap a little rocket motor to a big asteroid, and just kind of point it in the right direction, and fire up the motor, and eventually, it turns into a devastating weapon that's almost impossible to stop.

Jess: So, now, we have kind of run the gamut here of some pretty interesting stuff. But because we are the Union of Concerned Scientists, and as I mentioned previously, we are very concerned, so I ask all of our guests here on the show one very specific question. So, Ty Franck and Daniel Abraham, why are you concerned?

Ty: Honestly, my biggest concern right now is, it's been 50 years, so the whole world has to ----ing start flirting with fascism again. And I don't get it. I don't know why every 50 to 70 years, we all have to do the fascist thing again. But we're in that cycle right now, and it seems to be worldwide. And I just hope I live long enough to see us come out the other side of this. But yeah, fascism is my concern.

Daniel: I'm gonna go with... The thing that I'm concerned about is how little we're able, we seem able to generalize our experience from other organisms. If you look at, like, yeast, and how yeast, you put yeast in a place, and then it expands until it eats all of the food, and then it just dies off horribly. And then you look at how we're doing, as monkeys on a rock. It seems like a very similar curve. And it doesn't seem like we're paying a lot of attention to that. We know that we need to stop using fossil fuels, and we just haven't done it. And we know that we need to be sustainable about our agriculture. We're just not doing it.

Ty: Well, it's inconvenient.

Daniel: Yeah. And, you know, we don't want to. And I think our essential similarity to yeast will come out if [crosstalk 00:36:52]

Jess: Well, we do have a painfully non-symbiotic relationship with yeast, as anyone who has ever had to take medicine because of yeast infections can tell you.

Ty: Oh, I got thrush mouth once, and that is miserable.

Daniel: Ooh.

Jess: Did they solve that? Did you solve that in "The Expanse?"

Ty: No, I didn't. But that is, yes. Having a yeast infection in a mucous membrane, not a pleasant thing.

Daniel: Yeah. Avoid that.

Jess: It's been quite a ride to go through your, the world you guys created. And I, for one, will be awaiting eagerly what you produce in the future.

If you have questions on the science of disinformation, email us at [email protected] for the chance to have your question answered in an upcoming episode! Thanks to Suzanne Shaw, Anthony Eyring, and Omari Spears for production help, and bon voyage until next time, Science Fanatics.