Most of us are familiar with the enormous complexity of fantasy worldbuilding, but there’s another beast that’s just as difficult: science fiction worldbuilding. In addition to dealing with advanced technology, scifi writers have to consider the nearly infinite number of ways that human culture might change as it races into the future.
This is especially true in books like The Expanse, a series that is sort of space opera but also sort of hard scifi. It’s got battles and fusion reactors and politics, oh my. At eight books and counting, plus a TV show adaptation, The Expanse is undoubtedly a financial success, but what about its worldbuilding? Is this a setting firing on full burn, or is it slowly leaking oxygen and credibility through cracks in the hull? Let’s find out!
There’s no doubt about it: The Expanse gets a lot right. Author James S. A. Corey* clearly put in a lot of effort laying the groundwork for his space adventure. In fact, he’s effectively captured the epic feeling of space opera while keeping a strong semblance of realism. Broadly, Corey does this by confining his story entirely to Earth’s solar system, at least at first. Most space opera requires incredibly advanced technology to navigate an interstellar setting, but The Expanse instead focuses on what’s going on in the distant orbits of Jupiter and Saturn. That’s still pretty far in the future but doesn’t require anything so physics-destroying as an FTL drive.
That’s just the broad overview, though. To see what really makes The Expanse tick, we need to dive deeper.
Firmly Established Magic Engines
The Expanse doesn’t have FTL technology, but it is a story where the characters zip back and forth between planets, moons, and asteroids. Since getting around is such a major part of the story, it’s important to establish how that works. The Expanse pulls this off with a humorous anecdote about how the Epstein* Drive was invented.
While you’re chuckling at the mishaps of technological progress, you’re also learning that ships in this setting use a type of high-efficiency fusion for both power and propulsion, giving them a long-lasting fuel supply. This allows ships to constantly accelerate as they travel, providing a type of artificial gravity.* This is also a signal to tech nerds that space travel is relatively cheap in The Expanse, which is important for a setting that depends on interplanetary trade.
Since Epstein Drives will literally propel much of the upcoming story, it’s important for readers to understand how they work. And since these engines use a form of fusion that doesn’t exist in the real world, it’s important that they’re established as early as possible. Using a funny story as a vehicle to get the information across means readers won’t be bored as they read it. There’s also just some extra novelty to be had in a space-opera setting that doesn’t include FTL drives. It’s not unheard of, but it’s rare enough to seem new and exciting.
Cutthroat Resource Management
The Expanse’s solar community is built on the back of resources, both in terms of trade and extraction. Hundreds of colonies on asteroids and moons harvest raw materials and ship them to the inner planets, who send back critical products like food, medicine, and spaceships. It’s more complicated than that, of course, with plenty of trade between various colonies as well as between Earth and Mars, but that’s the gist. This explanation is super intuitive, since it seems unlikely humans would colonize the solar system just for fun; there must be something out there we want.
This web of interplanetary trade creates many excellent opportunities for conflict, something worldbuilders should always be on the lookout for. Grain shipments might not sound exciting on their own, but if trade is cut off to Ceres, thousands of people will starve. That’s the kind of conflict to light a fire under any protagonist and motivate them to have an exciting space adventure.
The Expanse’s resource conflict applies just as well to smaller-scale conflicts. Space is notoriously hostile to human life, and keeping us ugly bags of mostly water alive requires carefully balanced environmental systems. A proper space habitat needs its oxygen recycled, its water purified, and its heat vented out into the vacuum. If any of those systems fail, it can mean death. Worse, even a minor blow can cascade into a full failure, as each damaged system makes it harder to maintain the others.
This dynamic is fantastic for creating high-stakes conflict without violence between humans,* as the characters rush to save their ship or station from imminent collapse. It’s also great when Corey feels like showing the cost of violent conflict, as bombings and firefights have a tendency to damage vital systems.
Conflict Through Inequity
Oh look, it’s our old friend structural marginalization. Remember that vast network between the outer colonies and the inner planets? Turns out it’s not an entirely equitable affair. Older, richer, and more populous, the inner planets of Earth and Mars often see the Belters* as little more than a source of cheap labor. Conditions on Belter colonies and ships are often desperate, even as their residents work to create immense wealth for the inner planets. For their part, the Belters can’t easily break the arrangement since they depend on refined goods from the inner planets.
With this unequal balance of power comes unfair double standards, just like in real life! When Belters die from bad air filters or defective radiation meds, it’s just how things are. Sad, certainly, but unavoidable, at least according to the inner planets. Meanwhile, if anything ever happens to interrupt that sweet flow of resources, suddenly every measure must be taken to correct the problem. If it’s the Belters who are causing the disruption through protest or direct action, then the inner governments don’t hesitate to send in the troops.
Making matters even worse, Earth and Mars are constantly on the verge of war with each other, even as both of them happily oppress the Belters. Not only do the Belters have to make do with scarce supplies and substandard equipment, but also they’re in the potential crossfire between Terran and Martian warships. If the two superpowers ever do come to blows, it’s the Belters who’ll suffer most.
This is a setting that’s not only primed for conflict but also has a distinct moral imperative. As a reader, you want to see the Belters successfully fight back against their oppressors. This conflict has clear parallels to many struggles today without appropriating real cultures or invoking real-world bigotry, making it the best of both worlds. That said, the plot doesn’t always make the best use of this premise, sometimes falling into the trap of arguing “both sides.” Even so, the worldbuilding is still excellent.
Deep and Distinct Cultures
Fusion drives and ice harvesters are beautiful things, but even the most tech-focused scifi story needs a human element, and, oh boy, does The Expanse have that covered. Since the books mostly take place in space, it’s no surprise that the Belters often take center stage, and we get great insight into their culture.
In broad strokes, we learn that the Belters have a strong sense of immediate community because everyone on the ship has to do their share of maintenance or the whole crew dies. They also tend to be anti-authoritarian, since most of their lives are spent laboring for distant colonial powers. We also get a ton of smaller details, like how they have a special wave to indicate indifference, since a shrug isn’t usually visible inside a space suit. It is a little weird that the Belters have a mix of several languages while everyone else speaks standard English, but otherwise their development is fantastic.
Better still, the Belters aren’t all one group. There are as many Belter cultures as there are stations, colonies, and independent freighters. Wealthy residents of Ceres consider themselves Belters but pay far more attention to inner planet styles than folks on poorer stations, as just one example. This clash of many different groups with a larger culture is the source of even more delicious conflict.
Earth receives a similar treatment, though its cultural distinctions are drawn from the real world. While it’s clear that Earth is different in the future, existing cultures remain easily recognizable, and it’s clear that Terran nations still squabble and bicker even as they extend their reach to the stars. It also helps that we get a diverse cast of Terrans, both for immersion and to normalize characters of color in speculative fiction.
Unfortunately, Mars doesn’t get the same treatment. Despite a population of over four billion, Mars is portrayed almost as a monoculture. The strongest cultural differences between Martians is that some of them have a Texas accent and others don’t. Mars still has political conflicts, of course, but it’s a disappointment to see the Red Planet so culturally uniform.
A Connected World
A common issue with spec fic worlds of all kinds is the feeling that each location exists in a hermetically sealed bubble, like only the main characters have any interest in what takes place outside their local pub or cantina. Fortunately, The Expanse does not have this problem at all. First, the constant trade between Earth, Mars, and the Belter stations means there are always people from all over the system in a given location. People travel. They always have, and they always will.
Just as importantly, people take an interest in important events happening elsewhere. Sometimes this manifests as our heroes needing to deal with some kind of political conflict, but just as often, it’s the news. The Expanse’s main characters go on all kinds of adventures, so that means they’re on the news a lot. People hear about their exploits, and while that’s sometimes helpful, it also creates new problems. It’s hard to sneak around with reporters following you.
The main characters also watch a lot of news, which is how they keep up on everything that’s happening elsewhere in the system. This makes it really easy for Corey to show how a major event on Mars affects people mining ice from the rings of Saturn. Beyond the immediate exposition benefits, Corey also uses the news to dispel the feeling that in all the universe, only the protagonist is taking proactive action.
For an extra dash of realism, Corey also uses the light-speed delay to great effect. If something happens on Jupiter when the gas giant is 43 light minutes away from Earth, then 43 minutes is the soonest anyone on Earth will hear about it. That’s the fastest a radio wave can travel, and it leads to a number of incredibly tense scenes as the heroes wait for news of something they know has already happened hours ago.
Understandable Space Fights
The Expanse is full of human drama and realistic politics, but you know what it’s also got? Space battles. Lots of space battles. Combat in the vacuum is a major challenge for writers, as it’s difficult to strike a balance between letting the reader understand what’s happening and avoiding the trap of feeling like World War Two in space.
Corey gets around this by establishing a firm set of rules for how his spaceships fight. They use guided torpedoes at long range, which have to be shot down by point defense cannons. At medium range, railguns come into play. A railgun round can’t be shot down, but it can be dodged. Really close up, the ships turn their point defense cannons on each other. And it’s not just the ship that’s at risk! Projectiles and shrapnel can easily pass right through the hull without stopping, raising tension as the crew is always in harm’s way.
This system is easy to understand, but it’s clearly different from any kind of combat that happens in real life. From there, Corey adds another variable: acceleration. The faster a ship is accelerating, the more easily it can avoid enemy fire, but the more stress it puts on the crew. Even with all the advancements of the far future, human bodies can only withstand a certain level of g-forces.
Once these rules are established, they give Corey access to a number of strong turning points. He can make battles hinge on shooting down a single torpedo, landing a critical railgun shot, or making the judgment call of how much acceleration the crew can handle. Concrete mechanics make space battles far more satisfying than if they relied on more nebulous technology.
Small-Scale “Ground” Combat
A common problem in technologically advanced settings is that ground warfare gets complicated fast. In real life, wealthy armies have drones, airstrikes, artillery, and all manner of other goodies that make the battlefield a crowded place. In this technological chaos, it’s often difficult to show how the actions of a single soldier are significant.
The Expanse solves this problem by focusing on relatively small battles. No one invades Earth or Mars, and it’s not feasible for the inner planets to send large armies into space. Firefights take place on ships or stations where a tank just isn’t practical. Later on, the story does include colonies on Earth-like planets, but they’re quite remote and not the sort of place to find advanced military hardware.
This gives Corey the perfect excuse to keep the numbers and complexity manageable for his firefights. Instead of whole armies, there aren’t usually more than a few dozen fighters on either side, and the amount of destructive power they can bring to bear is limited. There are still advanced weapons, of course, including powered armor that turns each soldier into a walking tank, but that’s still easier to keep track of than a modern army.
By now, it’s probably obvious that I love The Expanse’s worldbuilding. It’s an excellent setting with robust rules that deliver strong novelty while also being completely understandable. That said, nothing is perfect, so let’s look at where The Expanse falls short.
Too Few Villains
In an interesting departure from many other epic spec-fic series, villains in The Expanse rarely last for more than one book. This has an obvious advantage: Corey doesn’t have to keep a single villain’s threat level intact across multiple books. The heroes can simply win the day and then be done with it. The downside is that Corey has to introduce a new villain for each book.
This isn’t too bad, at first. In the early books, previously established side characters are turned into villains when needed, and sometimes there isn’t a clear villain at all, just different political factions struggling for power. But as the books go on, it starts to feel like villains are just appearing from nowhere, which is jarring even in a setting as big as The Expanse.
This really comes to a head in book five, Nemesis Games, when we’re introduced to a new villain: Marcos Inaros. He’s a strategic genius and brilliant leader capable of bringing every major power in the system to its knees with seemingly little effort. Some of the good guys directly compare him to Alexander the Great.
These are all great traits for a villain to have, and my inner history nerd delights in Alexander the Great being used as a parallel for the bad guy rather than the hero, but how have we never heard of Inaros before? Has he seriously not made a name for himself already? We’re told that he’s been in the background, and it’s even revealed that he has a personal connection to one of the heroes, but it still feels like Corey ran out of antagonists and had to conjure one from thin air.
Not Enough Conflict
Hang on, how can I say The Expanse doesn’t have enough conflict when I spent so much of the first section praising all the conflict it has? It turns out that The Expanse has plenty of conflict… for the first six books. By the end of Babylon’s Ashes, the major political and material conflicts have all been solved thanks to advances in technology and the actions of our heroes.
This leaves the series with nowhere to go, so it pulls a 30-year time jump before book 7 starts. The entire purpose of this time jump is to give a new faction, the Laconian Empire, time to form offscreen. That way the good guys still have someone to fight against. That’s pretty much the only significant thing that happens. The Belters’ position in space politics improves a little, and a few more colonies are founded, but otherwise the setting appears unchanged.
Even the characters barely change in 30 years. They’re still doing the same jobs on the same ship. Their relationship dynamics remain unaltered. This gives the impression that the entire solar system has been running in place for three decades while the Laconian threat incubated. In a setting that’s otherwise living and dynamic, this is incredibly jarring.
Worse, the Laconians feel more like unwelcome interlopers than a big villain, like if you were watching Star Wars and suddenly the Borg showed up right as Luke and Vader had their final showdown. The Laconians don’t belong, not after we’ve spent six books getting to know this world and the people in it.
Demonizing Social Safety Nets
Admittedly, I wasn’t expecting to talk about social safety nets in a post about epic space opera, but then I remembered Basic. Basic is a government assistance program on Earth, and the name is highly reminiscent of universal basic income, a concept that’s been steadily gaining popularity for a while now.
Compared to most of the setting, details on Basic are scarce. We know that over half of Earth’s population is on Basic, and we also know that being on Basic is the worst. Depending on which part of the book you’re reading, this might be because being on Basic crushes your human spirit as you no longer struggle to survive, or it might be that the services provided by Basic are terrible. The TV show takes things a step further, with Basic recipients dying in the streets of preventable diseases.
Basic also traps people, since you can’t have a job if you’re on Basic, but without a job you can’t afford the necessities provided by Basic. This is a vicious cycle, and it’s weird that a book so concerned with the plight of Belters just ignores this extreme injustice on Earth.
More importantly, the portrayal of Basic makes a political statement that I don’t think Corey intended. In real life, Americans suffer and die every day because of inadequate safety nets, and yet a whole host of politicians and pundits continue to decry them as harmful or immoral. A lot of people believe this, even people who would really benefit from stronger safety nets. By portraying Basic as a harmful institution, The Expanse reinforces that belief.
It’s always possible Corey intended this as a commentary on what happens when governments mismanage social safety nets, which is certainly a topic worth exploring. Unfortunately, this is never brought up as a plot point, so there’s no commentary to be had. We even spend a lot of time with Earth’s high-ranking politicians, many of whom are both intelligent and of strong morals, but none of them ever mention fixing the obvious disaster that is Basic.
Broken Spaceship Rules
The Expanse spends a lot of time and effort establishing how spaceships work, especially when it comes to combat. These rules are what make the space battles engaging, elevating them from tech exposition to pulse-pounding action. Then in book seven, Corey completely throws those rules away.
First, we have the Void Cities. I’ve talked about these before, so the short version is that they’re massive space habitats that fly around the solar system, bringing industry and advanced production capacities to anyone who needs them. That’s fine, but for some reason, the Void Cities are also warships? So after a whole series of emphasizing how important mass and acceleration is, Corey turns around and shows his characters flying a cruise ship into battle?
As annoying as the Void Cities are, they don’t actually get much screen time before being destroyed by the other ship that breaks The Expanse’s rules: the Magnetar-class. These are warships of the evil Laconian Empire, and they have magnetic field weapons that seem like pure magic next to the more grounded torpedoes, railguns, and point defense cannons.
In fairness, it’s not automatically bad to introduce powerful new technologies, especially in the villains’ hands. But the Magnetars aren’t even in the same ballpark as previously established tech. All the time we spent learning and investing in the rules of space combat is now out the window in favor of a new magnet gun that seems to be powered by sorcery. It doesn’t help that Corey spends all of book seven introducing these ships, and by the end we still have no idea how they work.*
Crowdfunding Is Unheard Of
This one is relatively minor compared to The Expanse’s other worldbuilding goofs, but it sticks out as a major head-scratcher. In book two, Caliban’s War, our heroes find themselves in a bind. They need to find a kidnapped child, but they’ve run out of leads and don’t know where to go next. The brilliant solution? They put out a plea for help on the space-internet so they can raise the funds necessary to hire more investigators.
This is treated like a major innovation in the book, but it probably sounds pretty mundane to anyone reading this, as it’s something we see every day: crowdfunding. These days, asking tons of strangers for money on the internet is a mundane, even annoying occurrence. We’re used to every kind of crowdfunding, from funding a new product to raising money for charity. In the US, we even see people trying to pay medical and other lifesaving expenses through crowdfunding because our safety nets are so bad.
The idea that The Expanse’s main characters would be the first ones to try crowdfunding is contrived at best, laughable at worse. In any reasonable scenario, a solar system of over thirty-four billion people* would be absolutely awash in this kind of appeal. Our heroes would have a heck of a time even getting noticed. The best explanation is that James Holden, one of the protagonists, is super famous, but for some reason it never occurs to him that he might use that fame to fund anything else.
In all fairness, it’s possible crowdfunding might not have been on Corey’s radar when the book was written. Calaban’s War came out in 2012, by which point Kickstarter and GoFundMe were already a few years old, but the publication process is often several years long. If the book was written before 2009 when Kickstarter was founded, it would make sense that Corey hadn’t considered how popular crowdfunding would become. But that doesn’t change the fact that reading the book in 2012, let alone today in 2020, it feels very silly to watch the characters ask the internet for money like it was some hot new trick.
What We Can Learn
We’ve now seen the ups and downs of Corey’s worldbuilding, and even though up and down have no meaning in outer space, there still has to be something we can learn. Strap into your crash couches and warm up the drive: it’s time to see what lessons The Expanse has to teach us.
Tech Shouldn’t Be Boring
Science fiction has a bad reputation for either drowning readers in schematics or leaving them lost in a sea of unknown machines. We need to describe how new technology works, but, fortunately, The Expanse gives us an example of how we can do that without being boring.
In The Expanse, every piece of advanced tech is directly relevant to the plot. We learn about ships, because this is a story about having adventures on a spaceship. We learn about the effects of gravity on human development, because this setting is based on the inequality between people raised in space and those raised on a planet. Nearly every important piece of scifi tech is directly tied to the plot.
With this model, The Expanse gets to have its cake and eat it too. Corey can dive into technical descriptions with a lot more freedom than many others because it’s all relevant to the human drama. Lessons on torpedo guidance and life-support systems are painfully relevant when a volley of torpedoes slams into the station’s algae farms. There are still limits to how much a reader can absorb, but Corey’s style means readers want to learn more.
Most spec fic writers would seriously benefit from this approach. There are exceptions – a romantic short story might do better by employing handwavium – but if your technology or magic is at all important to you, make it part of the plot. Otherwise, why should readers care enough to learn how it all works?
Consistency Defeats Realism
I give The Expanse a lot of points for well-explained technology, but it’s still not super realistic. For one thing, automation actually seems to be less advanced than it was when the books were published, and that’s not even considering all the advances that have been made since 2011. No one in The Expanse uses drone ships, even though they would have huge advantages like performing extreme maneuvers without the risk of killing a human crew.
This is hardly the only technology missing from The Expanse. It’s also odd that no one uses lasers as weapons, considering every ship carries a fusion reactor that would provide plenty of power. Moving at the speed of light, lasers could burn down an enemy ship long before it was in range of torpedoes or railguns.
This is actually The Expanse’s greatest trick: even though these technologies are clearly missing, most readers will never notice. The technological system that Corey implements is so internally consistent that it rarely occurs to anyone he might have left something out. And because the technologies work so well together, they feel complete. That said, there are a few moments where characters jury-rig lasers as weapons, which raises the question of why they don’t do that all the time. But in most cases, the illusion holds.
We should all be thankful for this skillful sleight of hand, because the full implications of certain technologies don’t make for good storytelling. If The Expanse employed automation in a realistic way, most space battles would be fought by drone ships on both sides. That’s way less exciting than the high-stakes drama of human crews clashing among the stars. Scifi authors everywhere, take note: this is how you include cool technology without damaging your story.
Build With Your Plot in Mind
You can either craft your plot first and then create a world to fit it, or you can build a world that will support the plots you want, but either way your setting and plot have to work in sync. I don’t know which came first in Corey’s case,* but either way he did a fantastic job. The main conflict of The Expanse is political division among the various system powers, so Corey includes dozens, possibly hundreds of fault lines along which those powers can fight.
Not only does this mean that the plot almost never feels contrived, but it also lets Corey inject new types of conflict to keep things fresh. If the story was just Earth/Mars versus Belters for book after book, that would get boring fast. Instead, we see shifting loyalties and changing priorities. In one book, the Belters play kingmaker between the inner planets. In the next, Earth is exploiting inter-Belter divisions while Mars licks its wounds. The well-built setting ensures Corey won’t run out of conflict.
At least, it ensures Corey won’t run out of conflict until after book six. That’s when he finally uses up all the exciting political drama, forcing the story to endure a 30-year time jump where nothing changes except the appearance of some techno-magic villains. With better planning, this wouldn’t have been necessary. Even if it wasn’t possible to squeeze any more factions into the base setting, six books could have provided plenty of time to grow some new groups without resorting to contrived time jumps.
Granted, running out of conflict after six successful novels is a problem many of us would love to have, but I promise it won’t actually be a lot of fun when you get there. If you want your series to run a long time, then you need to be prepared.
Keep Abreast of Real-World Developments
Being informed about the world around us is important for everyone, but it’s particularly useful for scifi authors. We don’t want our far future settings to feel dated the moment they’re published, and the best way to avoid that terrible fate is to know what’s happening in the present. This doesn’t mean you have to spend every minute glued to the news. We want to stay informed, not destroy our mental health. Fortunately, the internet provides us with plenty of ways to learn without ingesting a diet of pure doom and gloom, be it thoughtful essays or funny YouTube videos.
Better research could have prevented The Expanse from acting like crowdfunding was a brilliant and unprecedented idea, but more importantly, it would have illustrated why the depiction of Basic was such a bad idea. In 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic has thrown the US’s terrible safety net into sharp relief, but this is not a new problem. Some simple googling would not only have shown the tragic facts of homelessness and food insecurity, but it would also have shown how many people think that the pathetically small amount of relief currently offered is somehow too much.
Given how progressive most of The Expanse is, I doubt Corey meant to side with the people who think safety nets are evil, but he ends up sending that message anyway. This is a danger of not being aware of political context. Not only is it harder to say what you want to say, but it’s very easy to make statements you don’t actually mean.
Fortunately, harmful messages are fairly rare in The Expanse, which is largely why the portrayal of Basic stands out so much. Despite this slip, Corey clearly did a lot of work to make sure his story was welcoming to all readers, both with a diverse world and with a plot that centers the fight for justice. And to make sure that fight remains exciting, The Expanse deploys its masterfully built technology and political conflicts. It’s an excellent series that many of us would do well to study.
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