Sunday, May 7, 2017

Review - Caliban's War by James S.A. Corey

Short review: A new kind of super soldier destroys the fragile peace on Ganymede, and James Holden once again finds himself in the middle of a conspiracy to exploit the alien protomolecule no matter the cost in human lives.

Dead Marine platoon
Wrecked lunar ecology
All for more profits

Full review: Caliban's War continues the story started in Leviathan Wakes, with James Holden returning along with the rest of the crew of the Rocinante to deal with yet another interplanetary crisis. They are joined by new characters who replace the missing Detective Miller as view point characters - the tough Martian marine Bobbie, the naive Ganymedean botanist Prax, and the calculating and shrewd U.N. official Avasarala, all of whom must navigate the crisis caused by the raw tensions between the governments of Earth, Mars, and the Belt. Against the backdrop of this raging internecine human conflict, the mysterious alien protomolecule carries out its enigmatic programming on the surface of Venus, sitting in the back of everyone's mind like a puzzle they cannot understand and an itch they cannot scratch.

As the second novel in the Expanse series, the primary question one must ask about Caliban's War is does the novel suffer from the "sophomore slump" that plagues so many sequels. The answer to a certain extent, is yes. Although the plot of this book isn't bad, a lot of it feels like a rehash of the plot of the first book in the series. A mysterious entity has been experimenting with the protomolecule, with unexpected and lethal results, just like in Leviathan Wakes. To cover up their activities, the evil doers have sparked a war by exploiting the tensions between Earth, Mars, and the OPA, just like in Leviathan Wakes. A missing daughter turns out to be the key to figuring out what the nefarious forces are up to, just like in Leviathan Wakes. Holden uses his fame in an effort to publicize a problem, and mostly makes things worse, just like in Leviathan Wakes. And so on. Further, the entire book feels almost like a place holder that exists mostly to put some distance between the big revelation concerning the alien protomolecule that took place at the end of Leviathan Wakes and the big revelation concerning the alien protomolecule that takes place at the end of this book.

From one perspective, the similarities between this volume and the previous one in the series are not really a weakness, as Leviathan Wakes is a really good book, which means that even though there is a lot in Caliban's War that echoes the plot of its predecessor, it is at least a decent framework to use. What ultimately saves this book is also what made the first book so good even when its plot was kind of wandering: The characters, from the primary viewpoint characters all the way down to the bit players who pass through the narrative once and then move on with their lives. Holden is back as the only viewpoint character to move from the first novel to this one, but his experiences have changed him. Whereas once he was a naive idealist, he has become a harder and rougher man, more callous, more willing to resort to violence, and more suspicious, but there is still enough of the old Holden left in him that when a distraught scientist looking for his missing daughter pleads for help, he can't turn the man down.

Three new characters step into the void left by the apparent deaths of Joe Miller and Julie Mao, and the distancing of Fred Johnson, with the book rotating between chapters told from their perspectives mixed in with chapters related in Holden's voice. The first is Bobbie Draper, a veteran Martian marine of Polynesian descent with a mountainous physique stationed on Ganymede whose entire unit is annihilated by an alien creature in the opening pages of the book. As the sole survivor of the attack that sparked a disastrous confrontation between the Martian troops and the U.N. forces on this economically vital moon of Jupiter, Bobbie finds herself thrust into the maelstrom of interplanetary politics and swept into events beyond her control. As a tough and experienced Marine, Bobbie is used to a world of discipline, honor, and loyalty. In the course of the story, she finds herself working alongside people for whom those values are not quite as important, in situations where she is a fish out of water. When Bobbie goes to Earth, the reader sees its society through her eyes. When the authors need to explain the ins and outs of the various political machinations to the reader, they do so by having Avasarala explain them to Bobbie. In many ways, Bobbie is the reader's window into the workings of Earth's government and society, a window that is made more effective by her own unfamiliarity with the subjects.

Also present for the disaster on Ganymede is Praxdike Meng, the Chief Botanist of a soy farm project on Ganymede whose work on engineering a superior strain of soybean is interrupted by the conflict that erupts on and above the moon, and whose daughter Mei is abducted in the very opening chapter of the book. Much of Prax's part in the story is taken up by his efforts to locate his missing daughter - a set of efforts that quite serendipitously turn out to be integral to figuring out what the villains experimenting with the protomolecule are up to. Unlike Bobbie, who is whisked away from Ganymede almost as soon as the shooting is over, Prax remains behind, and gives the reader an eyewitness to the disintegration and collapse of the Ganymedean infrastructure and biosphere. As in the first book, one of the elements that makes this series so good is the way that the authors convey the lived-in nature of the universe they have created, and in Caliban's War, no character conveys that as well as Prax does in the chapters in which he is trying to scrape by in the collapsing society left behind by the bombs and bullets of the Mars-Earth conflict. Unlike Bobbie, Prax is intimately familiar with the world that surrounds him, and knows (and conveys to the reader) exactly how it is progressively failing.

The final viewpoint character is Chrisjen Avasarala, a seventy year old Indian woman who is the third most powerful figure in the U.N. government that runs Earth. As a somewhat cynical and world-weary government official who is dedicated to getting to the bottom of what actually happened on Ganymede, Avasarala mostly fills the role Miller played in the first book, but since she has so much more political clout, everything she does in this vein is more of less Miller writ large, for good and for ill. The most notable thing about Avasarala is how different she is from all of the other viewpoint characters in the series thus far. Other than Avasarala, the books have had an officer on an ice freighter, an alcoholic detective in a backwater colony, a grunt Marine assigned to duty on a distant moon, and a divorced botanical researcher - all characters whose lives could best be described as ordinary, or even boring before their entanglement in the events of the books. In some cases, these character were at a dead-end in their careers and lives. Avasarala, on the other hand, is the one character for whom being involved in big events is not a fluke. In fact, Avasarala has spent much of her life intentionally inserting herself into world and even Solar system changing events. She is the one character who could be described as a "mover and a shaker", and as such, she provides a perspective on events that is unique in the series to this point.

The other element that makes this book work as well as it does is how, just like in Leviathan Wakes, the authors make their fictional world feel like a lived in place. One way that this book does that is by making things that were mentioned in passing in the previous book into important plot points in this one. When Avasarala is sent off on an investigatory mission to Ganymede, she is booked on the luxury space yacht of Jules-Pierre Mao, the man who had issued the contract to track down his daughter that sent Joe Miller on his quest in Leviathan Wakes. When Avasarala and Bobbie need to speed up their journey, they take over Julie's racing ship the Razorback, which was previously only mentioned in passing during Miller's investigation. It is these threads of connection that help tie the series together, and link the books together, but they also help make the world feel complete - the racing boat wasn't just some character building detail that served its purpose and then left the narrative, but is rather something that feels like it has its own existence that continues off-stage.

Although Caliban's War represents something of a mild drop-off in quality following Leviathan Wakes, it remains a strong book. To be blunt, the first volume in the series was so good that there was a lot of room for this book to drop-off into before it became disappointing. As noted above, the plot of this book does feel at times like a rehash of the plot of the first book, and one gets the sense that the primary reason this volume exists is to put some mental distance between the last big thing the protomolecule did and the big thing the protomolecule does at the end of this book, but there is still enough here to make this book worth one's reading time. The development of the new characters, the development of the fictional world they live in, and the deepening of the mystery of the alien protomolecule all serve the rescue this book from its rather rote plot, and keep the series as a whole moving forward. In the end, Caliban's War represents a minor sophomore slump, but is still good enough to be a superior book.

Previous book in the series: Leviathan Wakes
Subsequent book in the series: Abaddon's Gate

2013 Hugo Award Longlist
2013 Locus Award Nominees

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