Is the Expanse's portrayal of science and technology realistic?

  • Thread starter Howie BL
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In summary: This one I don't really have an opinion on. I think it's a realistic limitation given the limitations of the technology at the time. Radiation therapy wouldn't be feasible in space because there's no way to shield the patient from the radiation and the dose rates would be too high. And as for internal bleeding; it's possible but again the doses would be high and there would be no way to stop it other than to actually fix the problem (which would require a surgeon in space).
  • #1
Howie BL
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Hi

I'm a big fan of the Expanse (both the novel and TV series), largely because of its attention to scientific detail. But there are a few (pedantic) things that bothered me.. anyone agree / disagree?

1/ Mag-boots. This bothers me most of all. We're told that humanity has overcome the troubles of roaming in zero-gravity by simply strapping on a pair of magnetic boots (which hold you to the ground). With these, everyone walks and runs about the ships / stations with no bother... but wouldn't it still be really difficult to move around like normal? I feel like you'd still move around in slow-mo.. surely it would be hard to marry your body in line with the movements of your feet?

2/ Population of Mars! I believe they said around 7 or 8 billion?! On a planet smaller than Earth, that has not yet been terraformed. I just can't quite fathom how that would be possible.

3/ Lack of robotics / AI / automation... Maybe that's just the route they wanted to take the story down. But it seemed to me they were lacking a few concepts that are already being adopted now.

4/ Medical advances. I find it tricky to believe that they can prevent death from exposure to otherwise-would-be fatal doses of radiation, but not find away to prevent death from internal bleeding in zero G. I know it would be difficult, but it shouldn't be less possible than the former.. I'd expect some progress on that in a future with so many humans careering about in space.

Fully aware these are likely conscious sacrifices of realism for the sake of more enjoyable watching! I just wondered if anyone else thought the same. Of course there's also the magic 'Epstein Drive' but we all know that's just a necessary fantasy.
 
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  • #2
Also a big fan of the Expanse :) though I haven't finished reading all the books yet. Re your points:

1) I don't remember any lines in the book that describe magboots as allowing people to move around in zero-G just as easily as if they were in gravity/under thrust. I'm pretty sure there was a description somewhere about it being weird to get used to because you need a different gait (you need to pull down with your connected leg when taking a step to connect your leg that is extending out, rather than relying on gravity to pull you down). For the TV show the answer is simply a practical one; having the characters adopt weird walks whilst using magboots would not come across that well in a visual story telling medium, and the magboots are a small suspension of disbelief in a show that otherwise does some very cool things with microgravity. For example; there was a scene in the last series where someone is shot through the head whilst wearing magboots in zero-g. Rather than falling down the actor slowly raises their arms to show that their dead body is just freely moving whilst still anchored to the floor.

2) By the time of the show Mars has been settled for 300 years, not just visited settled. Obviously the first colony would be very primitive, small and almost certainly not self-sustaining. But the expanse universe is one in which they have the technology and experience to build self-sustaining closed ecosystems. It's one of the reasons that I love the series because they actually talk about the importance of managing an ecosystem inside an artificial environment and the challenges of doing so (like in the first series where Prax discusses the risk of a cascade failure in a dome's ecosystem, which mostly consists of polyculture vegetation on living walls throughout the station). A terraformed planet would have cheaper living costs because settlements wouldn't have to spend resources on maintaining their environment (or at least negligible so compared to an artificial one) but it's not a necessity. Across those three centuries the Martians have steadily grown their habitats, constructed a self sufficient local economy and continued to experience population growth. I don't think there's any established number for how big the initial colony was on Mars but if it was 1,000 people then to grow to a population of 9 billion they'd need an annual population growth of ~5%. That's pretty high for a country nowadays but we also have to factor in immigration as Mars, especially in its early days, was receiving regular arrivals of colonists from Earth. It's certainly a believable number.

3) The Expanse authors are on record as saying they weren't interested in writing a story with strong AI. Hence in their universe AI science develops but hits another AI winter and only incremental improvements in weak AI occur. They do have rather smart interfaces, they talk to them naturally and often ambiguously and yet most of the time the computer figures out what they're asking (even for fairly complex requests). There aren't any humanoid robots that I remember but they do have a lot of industrial automation. I can't think of anything they don't have that we have now, though the setting is deliberately pessimistic about the potential for things that are currently experimental.

4) Wound healing is a very complicated process, in zero-G even more so. There's unlikely to be simple fixes to that beyond "put the patient in a spinning drum or turn on the propulsion". Simulating gravity is pretty easy in the expanse universe (though the books do a much better job of describing the variety of developmental disorders people on Mars and the Belt suffer from due to a life in lower-G than earth, something that the show has a hard time doing because it would have to find dozens-hundreds of 7 foot tall extras with bone disorders) so arguably finding a more complex solution is less of a priority. Radiation however is everywhere, as for their treatments they aren't perfect. I don't think the show or book ever go into detail for how their radiation treatments work but it seems like they have treatments to increase the chance of surviving acute radiation poisoning and if the patient does manage then they get an implant that IIRC protects against the types of cancer they're likely to get. My headcanon for that is that the patient has a the genomes of a variety of cells sequenced to identify a range of mutations present in their body due to the exposure. Then a culture of modified T-cells (a very exciting development which is in several clinical trials IRL) is produced and put back into them via the implant, which does something to monitor and maintain their populations over time. Effectively they get a vaccine against the types of cancer their individual mutations are likely to produce. Not perfect (they can't reproduce anymore) but the risk of developing cancer from the exposure in later life is diminished.
 
  • #3
Woa, thanks for the insight! Wasn't expecting so much info.

I have to confess I've only read the first few books and that was quite a while ago, so the TV adaptation is fresher in my mind. The novels do (as they usually tend to) go into more detail and build up the concepts more naturally and believably, though I agree the TV version does a great job of not cutting corners. It's probably one of the most realistic sci fis I've seen (if not, the most).

Appreciate what you mean about the setting being deliberately pessimistic with respect to the real potential for current experimental technologies. I think often science fiction goes over the top, squeezing in as much stereotypical futurism to the point of all-out fantasy. More realistic to assume a lot of current concepts fail to find pragmatic use cases. Perhaps I was too accustomed to the futuristic visions of old.

The Mars population still kind of bothers me though. I mean, that's more populated than the Earth is now. A population growth rate of 5% is crazy high, especially as our current global growth rate has been declining over the past few decades/century, particularly in more developed nations (which would likely be at the forefront of the colonisation effort). Immigration would need to be very very high, which I guess it might be. But even then, that's a continuous, huge population growth, supposedly being comfortably supported on a non-terraformed planet. Maybe the problem is more my inability to fill in the gaps that they didn't detail.
 
  • #4
Howie BL said:
A population growth rate of 5% is crazy high, especially as our current global growth rate has been declining over the past few decades/century, particularly in more developed nations (which would likely be at the forefront of the colonisation effort).
I think the idea was the Martians were incredibly motivated, with a strong sense of frontier spirit. They weren't going to Mars to party until they're in their 30s before maaaaybe deciding on a kid or two. They were pioneers settling a new world, and later on - dutiful patriots. Couple that attitude with modern advances in medicine, and it seems quite doable.Regarding the hardness of SF - I've only seen two seasons, I think. Maybe two-and-a-half. I had a strong sense that the nice sciency bits were much less so in the second season. The battle with the Donnager in S01 was amazingly good, but once they started to fly around in their gunship, doing crazy turns while sitting in their flimsy chairs strewn haphazardly without much sense or care for g-forces - they kinda lost me.
 
  • #5
Howie BL said:
Appreciate what you mean about the setting being deliberately pessimistic with respect to the real potential for current experimental technologies. I think often science fiction goes over the top, squeezing in as much stereotypical futurism to the point of all-out fantasy. More realistic to assume a lot of current concepts fail to find pragmatic use cases. Perhaps I was too accustomed to the futuristic visions of old.

Yes a lot of science fiction suffers from the seeming need to throw everything and the kitchen sink in. In reality it's both perfectly fine and incredibly interesting to worldbuild future scenarios were certain technologies haven't matured as fast or as well as we hope IRL. Having said that the expanse universe is certainly one where automation exists and is much better than it is today, hence why technological unemployment is so high on Earth,

Howie BL said:
The Mars population still kind of bothers me though. I mean, that's more populated than the Earth is now. A population growth rate of 5% is crazy high, especially as our current global growth rate has been declining over the past few decades/century, particularly in more developed nations (which would likely be at the forefront of the colonisation effort). Immigration would need to be very very high, which I guess it might be. But even then, that's a continuous, huge population growth, supposedly being comfortably supported on a non-terraformed planet. Maybe the problem is more my inability to fill in the gaps that they didn't detail.

The Martian society has a strong sense of nationalism and civic duty. There is a big focus on sacrificing for the good of the collective, even if said sacrifice goes on for generations to benefit descendents you'll never meet. It's not unreasonable to think they might develop a cultural push for large families; incentivised practically with tax/subsidies that multiply with more children, extensive funding of day care/schooling (alongside communal raising of children to free up workers etc). Even then immigration can play a big role, Earth's population grows at an average of 0.5% across the same period but given that they start with a larger population in absolute terms they gain a hell of a lot of people a year. Even a fraction moving to Mars (as quick as they can build new domes and culturally assimilate) would be a huge boost.
 

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