The Expanse is a space opera – it’s about story-telling while trying to deliver a rather believable scientific background. They started quite well in terms of the scientific approach, but have made major mistakes in the second season that are very obvious and not easy to your eyes at. Even more irritiating ist the fact that they brought up some twists in the story-telling, that are really awful.

In season two we encounter a human/proto-molecule hybrid, the Caliban project. It’s a secret military project by Mars and seems to be running a bit out of control (as usual). The point is, that the mystery protomolecule is a typical sci-fantasy gadget, more magic than anything else. Only the name sounds scientific, but that is also misleading. “proto-” is Greek and means “first-, on the first place-, pre-, original” and so on. So the name protomolecule implies that the found alien molecule is considered to be the original or first molecule. Considering the complexity of the molecule based on the formula notation seen on the show, this molecule can by no means be an original in the evolutinary sense. It could have the function of a catalyst or creator, that forms all sorts of new intended molecules, but that would hardly be called a protomolecule by any scientist. It could be artificial, yet again, scientists would not call it protomolecule.

The scientific definition of protomolecule is:

– a collection of unstably bound atoms that has the potential to form a molecule if the structure can shed sufficient energy.
– a relatively simple molecule from which a more complex molecule is derived.

The most complex known molecules we know of, or have synthesized, are pretty simple compared to what the mad scientist is writing onto the windows of his cell in the series.
Polycyclic hydrocarbons and cobalamines (a vitamine group) are probably the most complex molecules we know of, yet they are much simpler than the so called protomolecule. It’s not impossibke that there are much more complex molecules out there, though.

On top of that the protomolecule has some superpowers, no known molecules have. Molecules are very sensitive to radiation, which is the reason why you won’t find many molecules, especially complexer ones, in space. Radiation is like a chisel, that hammers electrons out of organic compounds. After removal of enough electrons, the bonds within the molecule break and they form chemically reactive intermediates – radicals. However, the chance that two such radical fragments will recombine and assemble into an unreactive compound is relatively small. Instead, the radicals react with other biological molecules and interfere with their function.

It is pretty unlikely that there is a way to create such a complex molecule that is not susceptible to radiation like the protomolecule from the show. The more complex it is, the easier it breaks under radiation.

It’s also a pretty wild assumption, that this characteristic of the protomolecule can be transferred 1:1 to a much more complex system, like a human body, thus creating a hybrid creature that can survive hard radiation (and withstand absolute zero degrees and has no need to breathe air). The protomolecule is shown to have some sort of intelligence even in it’s very simple state (not wrapped around an energy cell or evolved into a humanoid hybrid). It’s also not quite clear how the protomolecule is able to produce flying glowing motes in it’s vicinity, that seem to react to humans.

Glowing space monster
Glowing space monster (that feeds on energy, just to waste that energy for glowing body effects – can light emitting eyes receive light still?)

The protomolecule serves as a magic plot device to transport all sorts of ideas that allow to continue the action story. It delivers nothing interesting about itself or does offer much that will last on closer inspection. It’s a magic potion, a pure plot device.

How far the writers are going is made clear in the scene, where the martian marines face the fleeing UN marines, that are trying to escape the protomolecule human hybrid. They went at great lengths to show us the advanced technology of the martian marine combat suits, yet in that situation – which is not exactly something that should make the trained marines loose their senses or good judgement, even Bobby is not able to recognize what is chasing the UN marines and react accordingly. The visual devices of the suit would have allowed to give the marines a clear picture of what was coming at them, not a marine without a space suit, but definitely something not human and probably very dangerous. They would not switch to standard defensive combat mode and simply allow themselves to get overrun. While total loss of memory is possible, Bobby clearly had no major damage to the head or brain that would cause such trauma. If the creature is so fast and impervious to even heavy gunfire, why did it allow the UN marines to run away for such along distance, so that they could reach the martian border? It could have killed them much closer to the domes. The whole scene is a dramatic setup for the political implications following in the series, but not very consistent and logical in itself. The design of that superweapon is questionable, too. What are the advances of creating a human hybrid? It is very resistant and very strong, that’s all. It isn’t equipped with any kind of helpful weapons (like claws), it has many weak points (walking upright, having a head and very thin connections between limbs) only compensated by it’s insane toughness. It glows in the dark like a beacon (“shoot here”), maybe to mock it’s enemies. It seems to have rather low intelligence and a very basic instinct for survival which lead to it’s demise. It seems to crave energy, probably radiation of some sort, as the neregy of bullets impacting (kinetic energy) or light seem to be of no interest to it. The core of a nuclear warhead is a valid target for the creature, stopping it from slowly bashing it’s way through the ship floor. The creature could slice marine armor single handedly and jump-crash huge holes into solid airlocks before, but it takes endless minutes to open a steel panel in the floor and rip out some pipes. It could be in low battery already. That would explain why it decides to leave the ship and willingly walk into the trap of catching the nuke core of a warhead thrown away from the ship into nothingness. Even that beast should know, that it’s chances for achieving anything in the future are dwindling as soon as it leaves the ship hull…

Another annoying situation was, when the Rocinante had to escape through the blockade by martian military ships over Ganymede. The episode took a lot of time to show how difficult it was to sneak into the blockade undetected, using a wild cold gas driven slingshot maneuver, that would have taken months or years in reality. At one point the Roci almost ran into a martian ship hidden behind a moon/asteroid and quickly pulled back by using cold gas maneuvering drives alone. A ship with such powerful cold gas vents would almost not need a larger drive, the Roci moved hudreds or thousands of kilometers in a few seconds moving backwards and out of sight of the martian ship. That ship, being a military vessel on alert, keeping up the blockade, seems to have no sensors that respond to the heat signature of a vessel within a few thousand kilometers. Or the electro-magnetic waves generated by the reactor and systems of the ship. The Roci did not use it’s main thrusters, but unless the pilot would have allowed to cool down the ship to the absolute zero of cold space, the ship would still stand out clearly to any heat sensors like a candle in the dark.

[su_box title=”MCRN Corvette Class” style=”soft” box_color=”grey”]We don’t know too much about ship classes, especially the MCRN corvette Tachi/Rocinante. It is said (in the books as I am told) that the corvettes were the smallest ships of the MCRN and used aboard the larger frigates as escort ships (like the Tachi on the Donnager). This is a bit odd as larger ships in space are faster, heavier armed and armored and well eqpped to do whatever they have to. A smaller vessel could not provide any means of support (except for flying into the hull of another vessel, for whatever that would be good). That is a typical misconception and tv trope – transporting the laws of naval warfare into space. On oceans large ships are slower and less maneuverable, have different roles and must be supported by very fast, agile ships like destroyers. They can defend against submarines and other smaller ships that courl do very much harm to a battleship while being a small and hard to hit target. That’s stuff from WWI, though. Since then, even naval warfare has changed dramatically. A modern destroyer is superior to any battleship or dreadnought of history. So even the intended role of the Tachi is questionable. Putting 20 nuclear missiles and a handfull of PDCs on that ship, making it a shipkiller, makes me ask why the MCRN is building huge battleships. They can probably carry even more nuclear missiles and a railgun (massdriver/kinteic kill cannon) which means even more overkill. As we can see in the series it doesn’t really matter what hits you. Large warships might survive a few missile hits (only because they use nuke missiles, which are pretty bad in space). So Holden threatenning to send a missile ir two at any MCRN ship in the orbit of Ganymede is pretty hollow. At least the larger warships there would most likely survive that, shooting back witk massdrivers and more. I think it is obvious that the blockade flotilla is not made up of corvette sized ships only but I have to prove that yet. Anyway, 10 or more vs 1 is never going to work. And Mr. Holden forgot that the Rocinante has only 2 missile tubes to fire all the 10 or more missiles required. He would not be able to fire more than probably 4 before his ship would have been pulverized. [/su_box]Anyway, when trying to escape with the Weeping Somnambulist, Holden threatens the hole martian flotilla of at least 10 ships to let them go or he would use all his nuclear torpedoes on all martian ships at the same time, destroying them along with the Rocinante. This tactic is not smart and would not work in reality. First we know the Roci is a quite well armed martian corvette, making it the smallest warship class around. Even if all martian blockade ships were corvettes, too, it is not very believable that the firepower of the Roci could do what Holden claims. His tactic would mean that he could bring down up to about half of the enemy ships if very very lucky, while the Roci and the Somnambulist would be vaporized the very same second. He shows no responsibility for his crew or the refugees they try to bring out of the area. He also would throw away all he has learned about the undoings of the martians and the UN, would not be able to continue his mission against the protomolecule and so on. Again, he made the worst choice possible. Against all odds, the script writers allow him to get away with it, for unknown reasons the martian ships back down (actually I have a good reason for them to do that – if they know the Caliban is aboard the Roci). Still, this “heroic” tactic is probably the biggest nonsense shown on the whole series and only cements the impression, that the Roci crew is a bunch of incompetent and naive people, that absolutely have no clue of what they are actually doing. Which is not good storytelling. In a different story universe, the Roci would get punished hard a dozen times for what they constantly do.

It would have been possible to make Holden believe, his dramatic threat had worked and deliver a believable explanation for the martian withdrawal for the audience, by showing the bridge of a martian ship and setting a comm call that says something like: “All ships withdraw. Hold your fire. This is a priority order from fleet command.”

Anyway, it seems the series is going more and more for the opera part of space opera, space being just an exchgangable stage. As someone on the net already stated, the whol story could also happen on a planet between major cities, the crew and people moving on shuttle busses. The whole plot and story does nor require space at all. Which is a bit sad for a space opera.