Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck are like secret rock stars among science fiction writers. Their sixth Expanse book, Babylons Ashes, has firmly cemented them as masters of the space opera, while their involvement in the Syfy show based on that same book series borders on historical. “Nobody has as much involvement with a show that we have with The Expanse,” Daniel Abraham boasted to Inverse. “If it works, it’s gonna be great. If it doesn’t, it’s just gonna take everything and destroy it!”
So far, The Expanse is working. The first book was nominated for a Hugo Award and the third won a Locus Award. Meanwhile, the Syfy TV adaptation was called a “gamechanger” and the best sci-fi show in a decade” when it debuted last year. And as the second season of the show ramps up, the authors who started it all have revealed the ingredients to their special cocktail of pop science fiction.
Back in 2011, Franck and Abraham united under the pseudonym James S.A. Corey to write Leviathan Wakes, what would become the first installment in the Expanse books series. Six years later, they are on their sixth installment, giving the Syfy TV adaptation of the books a lot to work with. This puts them in the comfortable position of likely never having to face a Game of Thrones moment where the show surpasses the continuity of the novels.
Describing the premise of both the books and the show for the uninitiated has led many to brand The Expanse as “Game of Thrones in space.” But, that description isn’t really apt. Where Game of Thrones may have brought “realism” to epic fantasy, The Expanse brought accessibility to realistic science fiction. Set in the 23rd century, the Expanse is all about projecting how commerce, power struggles, war and political intrigue might actually play out in a realistic way. Primarily, the exploits of James Holden and his ragtag crew of the spaceship Rocinante are the centerpiece of The Expanse, but there are multiple character viewpoints, all of which Franck and Abraham crafted specifically to be inviting to a casual reader or viewer.
The authors suggest the focus on the “grunts” in a sprawling science fiction setting is what sets The Expanse apart. Season 2’s introduction of Bobbie Draper — originally introduced in the second Expanse book, Caliban’s War — continues their tradition of presenting regular joes in space. And the control Franck and Abraham have on the character development is obvious in the second season of The Expanse. Bobbie Draper of the books is pretty much identical to Bobbie Draper of Season 2: She’s a relatable Ripley-esque foot-soldier from Mars. It’s a direct translation encouraged by Franck and Abraham’s involvement. “She’s the same character you remember from the book,” Abraham said.
The development of several characters like Bobbie in the series will be something more carefully planned in The Expanse than on Game of Thrones. “George is not as involved with Game of Thrones as we are with the Expanse,” Abraham said. Franck added, “With all respect to George, that show caught up to him. There you had writers who had to make up where the story was going to go. That ripples forward and backward in the show. We don’t have that problem.”
While The Expanse benefits from not focusing too much on the levers of power, it also draws from a strong tradition of science fiction. “We were aiming to reach back to the pre-cyberpunk vision of science fiction — kind of the ‘70s — but with a more contemporary sensibility,” Abraham said, meaning though The Expanse might have a retro space-opera feel, it has more women with agency (like Bobbie Draper) and is inclusive a way that reflects a more progressive future. The classic 1957 Alfred Bester novel The Stars My Destination is a big influence on the authors, too.
“That and the movie Alien, which I’ve watched probably a hundred times,” Franck said. “The way they approach science fiction, at least structurally and thematically, is a big part of this. Ripley is third in command of the ship, and it’s not commented on. Nobody says, ‘Hey a girl.’ It’s just a fact of the world they live in.”
By hewing close to older science fiction and mixing classic cinematic influences, The Expanse is capable of exploring multiple kinds of storylines at the same time. This isn’t just about space-war or a struggle to survive in the asteroid belt. There are plots that feel like whodunnits, and even some romance, too. “Science fiction doesn’t have a single story,” Daniel Abraham explained. “You pick up a mystery, you kind of know what kind of story you’re in for. With science fiction, when you pick it up, you don’t know if it’s going to be Ursula K. Le Guin, a beautifully written parable of what society could be; or Philip K. Dick, a kind of psychological story; or Kim Stanley Robinson, really thoughtful, well-researched speculation about the future. They all fit under the same umbrella. Science fiction actually accommodates a tremendous variety of stories compared to other genres.”
Both authors are pumped for Season 2. “We love the show,” Ty Franck said. “We love what it’s done. But we are adapting all of The Expanse, not just the second book.” And for those that want to catch up, there’s a lot more to it than its infamous nickname, “Game of Thrones in space.”
“I think the most pretentious and self-aggrandizing answer would be,” Daniel Abraham said, “that it’s the science fictional version of War and Peace.”
Season 2 of The Expanse debuts on Syfy tonight at 10 p.m. Eastern.