The Future History of The Expanse

When history took a different path


This is adapted from a member-only discussion forum on Skyscraper City on The Expanse. The Amazon TV series is based on the book series The Expanse by JamesCACorey. Not having read the books is the perfect vantage point to talk about what I want to instead, namely: The future of history, or rather the history of the future.

The Expanse is hailed by its supporters for being a realistic science fiction-series. And in some ways it is, like the mechanics of space travel. In others it definitely isn’t, and the complaint below triggered this:

I watched the first episode thinking that it was going to be my new favorite show and absolutely hated it. They had human miners actually mining stuff in the asteroid belt sometime in the late 21st century. [VelesHomais]

Asteriod mining is part of the subgenre. This show hearkens back to 1950s/1960s “hard SF”. The Earth/Mars/Belt exploration and exploitation was a familiar trope. Belters are coal and ore miners placed in space. Depending on author vantage point Earth is Europe, Mars is (Western) USA, and belters the third world, or Earth is ruled by global capitalists, Mars the middle class and the asteroid belt the proletariat.

As this genre is quite US centric, Mars in practically all movies and most stories represents the US frontier. Much like the space opera princesses of Star Wars, another American Revolution re-enactment with primarily Britain as the Evil Empire. Or in cyberpunk, where the proles no longer are the miners, but the cubicle people.

The Expanse doesn’t follow genre slavishly, e.g. their ubiquitous mobile phones cater to our present sensibilities. But fundamentally this is an alternative reality in which the 1970s never happened. It’s nostalgic SF.

Mind you, I share the above complaint on our space. Space is going to be “smart” (run by machines), and there are good stories to be had with that as a background. Just not this story.

Genre consciousness

US science fiction literature has gone through stages like hard SF, soft SF, or cyberpunk. Soft SF wasn’t less realistic than hard, but the focus was on the mind and society, rather than the physics and mechanics. As prognostication goes, which of course never was the goal, soft SF did no worse than hard.

This also matches up well with the major culture/technology shift in the 70s. Hard and soft SF came in the run-up to or during the Space Age, while cyberpunk came in the run-up to the Information Superhighway Age.

Hard SF, soft SF, and cyberpunk

Space never went away, but it mostly faded to the background. Later, it got back in fashion, just as the space programme has. Both the books and series are recent.

The future history of solar system exploration almost invariably goes:

  1. Early Near-Earth space stations and probes all over the place, followed by a lunar base and a Mars forward base
  2. Base orbiting Jupiter moon and Venus (or on Venus, if story written early 60s or before)
  3. Mining the asteroid belt, more Near-Earth space stations
  4. Settlements on Mars, terraforming begins on Mars, possibly Venus and Jupiter/Saturn moon
  5. Earth-based commercial/colonial exploitation of Mars
  6. Mars rebels, other settlements may join in war against that colonial power
  7. Having resolved the paradox of capitalism (or something to that effect), tech magic happens. For The Expanse, see protomolecules and space gates.

The Earth oppressors may be some future tycoon of the gilded age, or a malevolent UN could represent the tyranny of government.

A movie solar system exploration chronology could be something like:

The Martian
Ad Astra
Total Recall
The Expanse

The future of our past

The world in 2020 is much closer to the world in 1990 than the world in 1970 was, at least for the West. That’s because the 90s was an inflection point of sorts and the 70s the end of an era, people just didn’t know it yet. 1969 had been a busy year. NASA landed on the Moon and, known to far fewer at the time, the Internet had uttered its first word.

Those 15 years after Sputnik spanned the Space Age, that replaced the Atomic Age just a decade earlier. This was going to be the age of rocket ships. Everything was be bigger and faster than in the past but also than today. Supersonic flights crossed the Atlantic, hovercrafts crossed land and sea. Space stations and Moon bases beckoned. Big Oil and Big Car ruled the roost, and USA ruled the world.

The end was quick. The oil shock came in 1973, the Apple II microcomputer came in 1977. In the 1990s we created the world we see in 2020. Instead of “faster, bigger” it was “smaller, smarter”. This continued at good speed until about the financial crisis in 2008. There are signs we are at a transition now, just like we were 50 years ago, when the Space Age ended.

The future of our present

In our timeline the world in 2020 needs space less than the world in 1970 did. Our focus is different. We may not be in a state of “peace, love, and understanding”, but at least our present world is no longer, like Belgium, divided in three (the first, second, and third), like the Cold War world was. Whatever we can do in space we can mostly do cheaper and better on Earth. Our planet is still working (if somewhat overheating).

There will be a niche for space tourism, a.k.a. manned space missions. An increasing number of nations see this as a marquee mission, better than hosting Olympic games. Bored billionaires want to make some splash with their cash.

So expect a string of missions beyond Earth orbit, a handful in the 2020s, several handfuls in 2030s, and then either it falls out of fashion again by the 2040s (just like the 1980s), or lower cost and better life support create a new frontier for mass tourism. Some might even want to stay.

But space belong to machines, not meat bags. Our bodies are not made for space, but machines can be. And they get autonomous enough to do the necessary tasks on their own. But it will certainly be a lossy business in the 20s and 30s, and is unlikely to run break-even by the 40s. That will put a damper on future space exploration, even autonomous.

Miniaturisation means that we can have many tiny chattering machines in space instead of a few lumbering ones (but sometimes you need to go big). As we get more things up there that would change the economics. When that happens, it can go quite fast. Before 2060–2070? Hard to see how that could happen.

Self-sustaining colonies in space with humans inside™ are not going to be economically significant. Instead we would be left with a few research ones, the deep space equivalent of the McMurdo Station in Antarctica or the Space Cow.

The dystopia that got away

Space colonialisation could, barely, have happened with 1970s technology.

Imagine an Earth progressing along this line: Heavily polluted, air, water, earth. War-torn. Nuclear war with Soviet Union barely avoided. The wealth is predominantly in the West. China is in a perpetual Cultural Revolution. The rest of the world perpetually in famine. “Limits to Growth” a prophecy. The incentives to leave this place would be strong.

Information technology would be in its infancy. (Even so, the Apollo crafts didn’t really need piloting, the computers could do that. They did need troubleshooting though.)

So in this timeline the oil shock never happened, the transition was even slower than today. Handwave. Handwave. Handwave. Finally we end up with The Expanse. That could work.

The economics of space

(There are probably better primers on space economics around than this)

If we wanted to, we could have a permanent machine presence in space and token manned bases on Moon and Mars by 2045 or so. 20–30 years is just about the same time it takes to plan, budget, build, and open a local railway line. We know how to do this, and whatever we don’t know, we can learn. What we don’t know is why we should do it. The lack of a why has held us back for 50 years already, and may hold us back another 50.

Without an economic or strategic incentive to do so, doing something “just because we can” or for the science will be slow. There are things that can be done in space, but most of them can be done cheaper on Earth anyway. Those elements that are in abundance in space still cost more energy and effort to harvest, move and use than their Terrestial sources.

Getting stuff up the gravity well and out of Earth orbit is costly, even keeping stuff up there is unwieldy and costly. Different orbits have different speeds. Speeding up a mined asteroid at Ceres to Earth orbit sp

Our probes and satelites may be “unmanned”, but there is a significant crew and infrastructure managing them. They are anything but fire and forget.

Eventually, though we have had advances in miniaturisation and machine “smartness”, and taken our first tentative steps towards a circular economy (moving from “extract, use, waste” to continuous reuse), there is more space can offer us than a life insurance policy.

Launch costs are falling fairly drastically, but it will still be ridiculously expensive. The smaller the crafts, the less the cost. The brighter the crafts, the higher the utility. Decade by decade the costs will be lower, and the returns higher.

So could we spread smart dust across the solar system and beyond? We sure could, but there are physical limits. There is also a time lag. Any space mission begins a decade or two before launch. Then, depending on target, it may take years to arrive and then first it can start being useful.

Since we can’t ship crafts and cargo from Earth indefinitely, space will need to be economically self-sufficient, and getting the space economy running will be a matter of bootstrapping. First the machine-building machines themselves, then the bootstrap that machine economy for profit. In effect space will become a developing country, just much poorer and limited than any country on Earth.

It took us 10–15 millennia to bootstrap our Earthly economy from the first seed capital. In that perspective a century or so to bootstrap the space economy may not seem too bad.

The different scenarios won’t differ that much in time scale, but will differ hugely in extent, from symbolic to massive.

Buy space bonds!

So if it can’t be speeded up (much), how could it be scaled up? How could that be financed? The traditional way to create money from nowhere is to create time-limited or perpetual monopolies, ownership. One of the oldest forms of ownership is land, and there is a lot of empty land in space.

Owning worthless land makes nobody rich, so there needs to be some profitable economic activity to tax or toll, so that space exploration can turn into space exploitation. Companies like Vereenigde Oostindische Compagnie kickstarted European colonialism, but theirs were largely a risk-sharing vehicle. The return of investment came within years, not decades. Long-term ventures have had disappointing returns.

Space tourism may be taxed, but that won’t pay for long-term space residents. Some form of indenture might. By going into space you incur a debt you have to pay back, yours, as well as your share of the debt of those who couldn’t repay. Unless overseeing very profitable operations, it is unlikely this labour will be cost-effective, but still we could be getting somewhere, on our journey to the world of The Expanse.

In the search of the lost timeline

Nobody is likely to have missed that space is becoming kind of cool again. It’s in fashion. And not just for Americans anymore.

We’ll sample more of the Solar System. Wider-ranging probes, the “Space Internet of Things”, will quite literally expand our horizon.

By contrast the premise of The Expanse is populated with fairly spacious reinforced human space bubbles in the shape of ships and bases. Sufficient time have passed to allow the cost of a bubble (the protective skin, the skeleton, and the life-supporting services) not to be exorbitant.

The world of The Expanse is primarily mechanic, not electronic like our world, nor bionic as in old hard SF (or our own likely near future). Robots are not prevalent. Those that show up are practical, specialised for their tasks, and again predominantly mechanical.

Compare this with the future of Westworld. This how we in our current era imagine our future (with Black Mirror as a transitional stage). To us Westworld is realistic, The Expanse is not. Could there be a Westpanse, some pathway? That does not seem likely, they are incompatible. Only, the original Westworld movie premiered in 1973, the year of the oil crisis, the year I argued our history took a different turn.

Are we now at a similar fork? Like the oil companies in the 1970s, the IT companies have never been as powerful as now. Are we facing two futures, one where the likes of Google and Apple will win, and one where they won’t? The climate after-effects of the oil economy will be felt long after its coming demise. What will be the after-effects of the digital economy?

Like The Expanse, cyberpunk would become an orphaned branch of future history. And our lost visions from the information age would set us apart from our bemused ice-mining, asteroid-hopping future selves.

On Twitter: jaxroam

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