The Expanse Aliens Are The Most Realistic And Terrifying In Sci-Fi

By Jeffrey Rapaport | Published

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Pity the sci-fi writer of the 2020s; our era could be the least conducive to thinking up original aliens–of creepy, compelling, surprising extraterrestrial baddies. But then there’s The Expanse, with its fantastic, engaging Ring-Builders, an alien species whose existence and technology stretch the very fabric of human understanding to its limits. Plus, these mysterious entities are terrifying. 

Ring-Builders Or Gatebuilders

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In retrospect, it’s an unsurprising feature of a series that–in both its literary and televised incarnations–earned global prestige for its intricate, impressive plot and scientific realism. Only a sci-fi universe so brilliantly executed, a space opera so persuasively wrought, delivers an alien concept so utterly alien it both parallels and surpasses our best and most avant-garde biological speculations here on Earth. 

For those who haven’t read or watched The Expanse, the Ring-Builders are additionally referred to as the Gatebuilders and are far from your typical humanoid extraterrestrials. To fully qualify their unique and horrifying nature, a deep dive into the series’ lore is necessary–don your nerd hats, and let’s take the plunge. 

From The Darkest Depths

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First, the Ring-Builders originated from an oceanic environment, one comparable to the icy moons encircling Jupiter and Saturn (especially Europa). Having evolved in crushing, unimaginable inhospitable depths, and hardened by freezing temperatures, the aliens developed into an aquatic life form featuring an extremely slow metabolism. 

To survive, the Gatebuilders hacked hydrothermal vents. They also engaged in a kind of biological theft, absorbing the genetic material from other, surrounding lifeforms.

Slowly, this absorption garnered the aliens so enriching The Expanse photoreceptive organs, capable of comprehending bioluminescence (the production and emission of light by living organisms). Armed with this evolutionary superpower, the Ring-Builders became a planet-wide hive mind able to communicate via light pulses across the vast oceanic expanse.  

A Collective Race

A little like the planet-sized oceanic alien in Stanislaw Lem’s classic Solaris, the Gatebuilders experienced profound integration, to the point that individuality essentially amounted to a nonconcept for them. Imagine a collective intelligence similar to neurons in a brain, where each individual functions as and comprises an enormous, conscious network. 

Evolve Tech Rather Than Inventing

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Once capable of advanced biological engineering, The Expanse’s Ring-Builders penetrated their moon’s icy crust to harness (and exploit) the vacuum of space. Having graduated to the cosmos, the beings began harvesting energy directly from cosmic radiation and the nearest star.

Then, in one of the series’ most novel conceits, the Gatebuilders displayed a groundbreaking approach to technology–not inventing but evolving their tech as a biological extension of themselves. Most recognizably, this advancement manifested as the awe-inspiring ring gates; it also amounted to their inertia manipulation technology, which facilitated transferring matter across vast interstellar distances.

The Protomolecule

Of course, central to the narrative of The Expanse is the protomolecule–an agent of change and creation derived from the very essence of the Ring-Builders, mysteriously conceived on Venus. A kind of super-element, the protomolecule played a vital role in the creation of the ring gates. No mere technology but a fundamental aspect of their being, the protomolecule is ultimately an incredible tool and symbol of the Ring-Builders’s evolutionary achievements.

Tapping Into Dark Fears

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Most saliently, the Ring-Builders coincide with a legitimate scientific fear, one equally at home in horror movies as it is in hard sci-fi like The Expanse: that extraterrestrial life, once encountered, would be too advanced for humanity to even fathom it.

Let alone survive the interaction.

Utterly detached from individuality, conceiving themselves as interstellar, the Ring-Builders are almost transcendental entities; they thus perfectly embody this fear. 

Ultimately, the Ring-Builders comprise a fantastic aspect of one of the most compelling hard sci-fi series of all time.