In a near future where humans occupy many of the planets, moons and asteroids in the solar system an invading alien virus wreaks havoc on the tenuous political and social order. This scenario is the setup for The Expanse series of novels by James S. A. Corey—the pen name of the writing duo Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck. The fifth book in the series—Nemesis Games (Orbit Books)—was published this month, and later this year a television series based on the books will premiere on the Syfy network.
The story follows an intrepid crew of space truckers who get caught up in the intrigue, along with Martian soldiers, interplanetary politicians, tortured private detectives and other characters who try to make sense of the changes wrought by the virus, called the “protomolecule,” which hitches a ride into the solar system Trojan horse–style on Saturn’s moon Phoebe.
Scientific American recently talked to Abraham and Franck about the science behind their books, what is in store for the TV series, and the potential future colonization of our solar system.
[An edited transcript of the interview follows.]
Tell me about how The Expanse got started.
Franck: It was originally designed as a game setting for a possible massively multiplayer online roleplaying game. At the time World of Warcraft was dominating that space so I came up with this science fiction setting instead.
Abraham: Ty continued to explore the setting in that media. When he moved to Albuquerque and we wound up in the same writing group, he let me play some of the tabletop sessions. The thing that struck me in those games was that he had already done all the research. Anytime I had a question about that world, how things worked, he just had the answer to hand. So it seemed like a no-brainer that we should try writing a story in that setting.
Do you think humanity will ever colonize the solar system and live on planets and asteroids as in your books?
Franck: No, not really. There’s no economic reason to do it. Maybe there’s some money to be made from pulling some rare resources out of the Asteroid Belt, but robots will do it.
One of our rules is we never let facts get in the way of awesome. Some people write stories about robots and make them compelling, but I’m much too fascinated by humans.
I love the idea that something in our solar system that we think has been there forever, like the moon Phoebe, is really a Trojan horse sent by aliens. It underscores how we really don’t know a lot about many solar system bodies.
Franck: Phoebe is strange; that’s why I picked it. It almost certainly isn’t a native moon of Saturn because its orbit is so weird and its composition is weird. The theory is it’s probably a captured Kuiper Belt object. It’s a weird moon to begin with; we just made it a little weirder.
The science of the protomolecule is fascinating, and keeps getting stranger throughout the series. How did you come up with it?
Franck: I had done a bunch of research for a story many years ago on how Ebola works, how it transmits itself, and I found it horrifying, of course. And then later I was thinking about colonization and how the best way to colonize other planets is to build nanomachines and throw them at other solar systems.
You want to set your story in a place where things are being shaken out. It’s why disaster movies are so popular. The protomolecule is our volcano. It’s the thing that goes off and shakes everything up and causes huge changes in the social order. The story we’re telling is the fallout and the new order the humans will set up.
Personally, I appreciate that your spaceships don’t include a magical technology that manages to create false gravity without any apparent explanation.
Franck: Once you introduce artificial gravity it creates a million other ramifications, other technologies that come out of that, which I just didn’t want to deal with. I wanted a more grounded, near-future feel.
Daniel has this theory, and I agree, that good stories come out of limitations. For example, the speed-of-light delay becomes a major plot point in our books because no mater how far apart you are in the solar system you can only send messages at the speed of light. There’s always going to be some lag and that creates some really cool plot points.
What kind of role have you played in developing the TV series?
Abraham: We have been more involved in this process than anyone should ever be. It’s been amazing. They brought us out last summer to meet with the showrunners. We were in the writing room with the writers when we wrote the first season. Ty was out in Toronto for pretty much all of primary photography. There’s not a whole lot of this that we didn’t get to put in our two cents on—which doesn’t usually happen for authors. But they have ben incredibly inclusive and good with us.
Do you think fans of the books will be happy with the show?
Abraham: Who knows? We are! I think what they have done with it is really, really good work. The tools for writing prose just behave differently when you have a camera and actors and music and special effects. That they have come up with ways to get very similar effects and stay very true to the spirit of the story—I think it is great.
For example, if you have a character with a long, soulful interior monologue, that’s really boring to watch. Finding ways to make that dramatic and visual and happening in relationship to people is not a trivial problem. We were lucky that we got some genuinely amazing writers and a production company who gave us the freedom to make some brave and fascinating choices.