Home > Clement's Game > Science Fiction Round 56: The Expanse

Science Fiction Round 56: The Expanse


I had too much spare time in an airport last weekend, so I watched The Expanse.  Well, the last few episodes of it.  In short, The Expanse is fun, and terrifying.

As ever, there are spoilers, although it’s only the last two sub-headers that hit the end-of-season spoilers.

There are people who get spaced during the show, but I'm pretty sure this scene doesn't actually happen.

There are people who get spaced during the show, but I’m pretty sure this scene doesn’t actually happen.  Also, the “We’ve gone too far” tagline is especially ominous after you’ve seen the whole season.  (I was going to make the picture smaller, and then I was like… nah.)

Flip and Burn

The Expanse is great partly because they do a good job of presenting space travel — and many other aspects of life in space — very accurately.

One of my favorites is the “flip and burn” maneuver.  After all, in space, there’s almost no friction to slow you down, so the only way to change your velocity is to burn your rockets, or something similar — and if you’ve only got one big rocket, and you want to slow down, you flip around and point the rocket in the direction that you’re moving.  You also want to make sure your “floor” is in the right direction so that you get some convenient fake gravity while you travel.

Bonus: if you want to get somewhere fast, this is also what you do in the middle of your trip.  Accelerate (burn your rockets) all the way to the halfway point to your destination, flip around, and then burn backwards the rest of the way there to slow yourself down.  This gets demonstrated in the show, too.

I approve.

Acute Radiation Poisoning

This wasn’t quite as accurate.

Based on the comments of the characters on the receiving end, I’d guess from the Wikipedia table that they picked up about an 8 Gray whole-body dose of radiation.  Which is enough to incapacitate you in a couple of hours, but… well, the characters are shown taking some stims (good) and anti-nauseants (also makes sense) until they can get some of the greatly-improved future medical care.

They appear a bit feverish (which also fits), but then they start coughing up blood and having it running from their nostrils.

That doesn’t seem quite right.  They should actually be vomiting, or… well… excreting other fluids from other orifices.

I can’t really fault the show’s producers for the choice, though.  It looks dramatic, and I don’t think we would want to see the gastrointestinal symptoms.

There Are No Shining Heroes

This show is rather black and gray, or perhaps even gray and grey, in terms of the morality shown.

The “good guys” include Chrisjen Avasarala, who seeks to prevent a war — but finds torture and manipulating her friends to be entirely reasonable ways to try to protect Earth.

The police officer Miller on Ceres is accustomed to accepting bribes, and finds physical threats and assault an entirely reasonable method of keeping order.

James Holden is the closest to a fully good character — but he, too, has issues, especially with accepting responsibility near the beginning of the story.

Meanwhile, other characters have varying backstories — from justifying past evils, to attempting to atone for them, to trying to cover up… things.  Many of the characters who seem “evil” at first are later shown to have their own motivations, their own personalities and hopes, and are trying to do what they think is the right thing.

I think that this depth is what really drives the story forward.

Shoulda Seen It Coming

It was obvious, in retrospect.

When we learn that Mars is not behind the mysterious new stealth ships, and that someone has stolen one of their research projects, it’s unclear who actually is responsible.

Except, when you think about it, there’s only one force aside from Mars itself that has the resources to pull that off — and it isn’t the OPA.

It’s Earth.

I was constantly puzzling over this — if it isn’t Mars, and it isn’t Earth, and the OPA didn’t do it because they don’t have the resources, then who did?  Who has those stealth ships?  I was considering aliens (and I would have been disappointed if it was) until the clearly-humans are shown breaching the Martian ship.

I should have seen the possibility that, with Mars eliminated, Earth was covering up their own program — even from Avasarala.

Never Saw It Coming

What I really didn’t expect was the “protomolecules” that were stolen from the Phoebe research station, and seem to be some sort of shiny blue equivalent of gray goo.

I’m of mixed opinions about this.  On the plus side, the mysterious stuff is shown as needing energy — and possibly also matter — input in order to grow, which is good.  It doesn’t so far seem to violate matter and energy conservation.  It’s also prettily sinister stuff.

On the negative side, well… you called it “protomolecules.”  Look, just call it nanobots or self-organizing matter or something.  You call it protomolecules, and I think of the Star Trek protomatter from The Search For Spock and the fact that it was basically a technobabble plot excuse.

Don’t do that.

Then again, perhaps they used the random technobabble term because it sounded ominous without giving away the game plan for what the stuff actually is and can do, thereby allowing more suspense before the second season.

I still think it needs a better name.

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  1. michaelbusch
    2016/02/20 at 1:33 pm

    Some additional thoughts from me, to add to Rachel’s review:

    (1) “The Expanse” has a fairly diverse set of characters in comparison to many other productions. But the primary cast is still 50% heterosexual white men; including both primary protagonists – Miller and Holden. You can do better, Syfy. Especially since the supporting protagonists of Avasarala and Nagata are in many ways more complex and interesting characters than Miller and Holden are.

    On the positive side, Shohreh Aghdashloo does a good job portraying the extremely scary character of Avasarala. If we’re to conclude that an Iranian-American actor playing a character with a Telugu family name means that Avasarala has Parsi family ties, and given that she’s part of a political dynasty, I’m reminded of Indira Gandhi: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Indira_Gandhi .

    I hope both Avasarala and Nagata are featured more in the next season.

    (2) While it does have many characters who aren’t men, many characters who aren’t white, and several characters who aren’t heterosexual (who aren’t all white), “The Expanse” doesn’t do well in terms of representing disabled characters or actors. We encounter one disabled character, who is promptly killed off. Again: you can do better, Syfy.

    (3) All of the characters whose religious opinions we learn of during the show are Mormons. How does that make sense?

    (4) Being an asteroid astronomer, I got distracted by figuring out how “The Expanse” represented the different asteroids that show up in the series. They didn’t use the Dawn spacecraft maps of Ceres in this first season, which makes sense since those only became available when the season was most of the way through production. Eros is rendered as seen by NEAR-Shoemaker, with a bunch of fictional excavation and construction. An asteroid shaped like Bennu shows up briefly, being targeted by a mining operation. And an inactive comet shaped very much like Churyumov–Gerasimenko shows up too. Not bad choices for CGI.

    (5) It’s not clear from the various establishing shots we see if the large population center that is Ceres station is on Ceres itself or in Ceres orbit. It works better if it’s a >10-km-wide construction built out of a large mass of material moved into Ceres orbit.

    (6) Based on how long it takes to travel between Ceres and Eros in the show and the season during scenes set in Anchorage and Montana, I can tell fairly exactly when events of the first season of the show are supposed to be happening: around March 2222 or February 2282; unless Eros is to have been moved at some point. But I probably shouldn’t be applying orbital dynamics and economics to “The Expanse”, since the needs of the plot outweigh the details of the world-building.

    • michaelbusch
      2017/05/13 at 2:16 am

      Having now watched the second season of The Expanse:

      That there was a very large and well-established Mars colony by 137 years prior to the events of the series, with second-hand fusion drive ships being a thing you can buy, I will submit that the first season should have been happening in February 2282 – if Eros was not moved before that.

      But either way, Eros has been moved now, in a way that defies all physics.

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