Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Review - Cibola Burn by James S.A. Corey

Short review: The Royal Charter Energy company has a claim on the mineral rights to New Terra. Unfortunately, colonists from Ganymede have gotten there first, and Holden finds himself sent to try to resolve the dispute.

An alien world
Two competing colonies
A deadly mixture

Disclosure: I received this book as part of the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program. Some people think this may bias a reviewer so I am making sure to put this information up front. I don't think it biases my reviews, but I'll let others be the judge of that.

Full review: Cibola Burn is the fourth book in the Expanse series, and as such it depicts the next step in the extended story that has been threaded through the books: The first attempt to colonize one of the new planets made accessible by the ring gates that resulted from the alien protomolecule's actions in the first three books. Or rather, this book is about two competing efforts to colonize one of the new planets, because if anything has been made clear in the previous books, when the denizens of Corey's universe have been faced with inscrutable alien technology, they make sure to bring their petty human conflicts with them when they try to deal with it. Consequently, when presented with more than thirteen hundred new solar systems to explore, humanity almost immediately falls to fighting over a single one.

The central conflict in the story revolves around the competing claims for the planet known as either New Terra or Illus, depending upon who one asks. The Royal Charter Energy company has been granted the right to exploit the mineral resources of the planet, and has sent the ship Edward Israel with a complement of scientists, engineers, and other workers with the aim of studying the alien ecosystem, setting up a permanent settlement, and beginning mining operations. This plan is complicated by the fact that a group of refugees mostly from Ganymede and other parts of the belt arrived some years before the Edward Israel on the Barbapiccola and set up shop themselves, mining the abundant lithium ore to be found on the planet and loading it into their ship with the intent of investing the profits from the sale of the ore back into their embryonic colony and securing a better future for themselves. These competing claims set the two groups on a collusion course, with explosive and deadly results.

The book follows the established pattern of rotating between a number of viewpoint characters, each providing a window into the events of the story from their unique perspective. As in the previous books in the series, Holden is one of the viewpoint characters, and to the extent that there is a protagonist in the story, Holden holds that place in the narrative. The other viewpoint characters feature two characters who also appeared in previous books, and one new face. The first returning character is Havelock, who was last seen as Miller's partner on Ceres, and who is now the deputy chief of security on the Edward Israel who mostly just wants to do his job and get paid. The other returning character is Basia, last seen fleeing Ganymede as a refugee during the events of Abaddon's Gate, and now settled on New Terra (known to the squatter settlement as Illus), and determined to make a home there for himself and what remains of his family. The new viewpoint character is Elvi, a scientist from the Edward Israel who spends much of the book on the ground trying to do the job she came to do while everything goes to hell around her. A few of the chapters are told from the perspective of "the Investigator", which is more or less what is left of Miller's personality after he was absorbed by the alien protomolecule. This choice of viewpoint characters has both benefits and drawbacks. On the one hand, seeing the return of familiar faces is somewhat comforting, and allows the authors to essentially update the reader on what has happened to Havelock since he was last seen in Leviathan Wakes and Basia since he was last seen in Abaddon's Gate. On the other hand, their serendipitous presence in a book set light-years away from Earth makes the world of The Expanse seem, well, not very expansive.

The plot kicks off when the Edward Israel arrives in orbit around New Terra/Illus and the squatter colony sets explosives on the shuttle landing pad, intentionally destroying the pad and unintentionally destroying an incoming shuttle that arrived earlier than they thought it would. Upon learning of the tragedy, Chrisjen Avasarala and Fred Johnson agree to jointly appoint a mediator to attempt to negotiate some sort of compromise between the two factions on New Terra/Illus. For somewhat underhanded reasons, they agree upon Holden as their choice of mediator, and he and the crew of the Rocinante are dispatched to try to resolve the situation. The fact that Holden is completely unqualified for the job is readily apparent, but he is technically an Earther who had worked with the OPA, although he is not currently in Johnson's employ, which makes him both a politically palatable and expedient choice. Although the conflict isn't explicitly one pitting Belters against Earthers, the squatter colonists are pretty much all refugees from Ganymede, and the Royal Charter Energy company's mandate comes from the U.N., which is more or less the government of Earth, so despite the lack of formality, the conflict plays out like one between the interests of the inner and outer planets.

Even though Holden is supposed to be a neutral mediator, the representatives from Royal Charter Energy almost immediately start treating him as hostile - or at least Murtry, the head of Royal Charter Energy's security does. Murtry regards the Royal Charter Energy claim to the planet as inviolate, and treats Holden like an unwelcome interloper who is just getting in the way of his efforts to remove the squatter colonists by any means necessary. One oddity is that when Holden asserts that Murtry is overstepping his legal authority, Murtry responds that they should "wait until there are post offices", a reference to the Old West before civilization arrived to impose law and order. The only problem with this stance is that Royal Charter Energy's superior claim to Illus/New Terra is based entirely upon the rule of law, so by making this argument, Murtry is essentially undercutting his own employer's position and nullifying the authority he claims to have. Strangely, no one ever points out that Murtry's entire claim to legitimacy relies entirely upon the rule of law that he disdains, which seems like something of a plot hole. The situation escalates with some back and forth with the one constant being that Murtry pushes the violence to ever increasingly new heights, almost driving Holden and his crew to side with the squatters as a result of Murtry's intransigence and unreasonableness.

In any event, the human squabbles are quickly overtaken by larger issues, as the entire planet more or less begins to turn against both the squatters, the Royal Charter Energy people, and Holden's crew. Two of the long-running themes in the Expanse are that humanity is ill-equipped to deal with inscrutable alien technology, and that even in the face of alien technology-caused Armageddon, humans will continue to squabble among themselves for petty gains even while the world burns around them. These themes take front and center in this volume, as first a worldwide disaster threatens to wipe out everyone on the surface of the planet, and then a change to the laws of physics places everyone in orbit in mortal danger as well. As if that isn't enough, the local flora and fauna unexpectedly turn out to be the source of still further lethal problems. To a certain extent, these disasters cause the humans to rally together for mutual survival, but all too soon the cracks start showing through and before too long they are all at their throats again, which, given the way the books in this series have gone thus far, seems almost inevitable. What is most interesting here is the extreme, almost insane, loyalty shown by Murtry towards his employers during these disasters, as he plots to secure Royal Charter energy's claims to the planet even if doing so means that he and all of his crew on the surface of the planet will certainly die in the process, which is a level of commitment that seems pretty intense for a man who is essentially a hired mercenary.

There are only two real weakness of the book. The first is that as the danger ramps up, the story starts to become a bit predictable. Each of the various conundrums facing both the colonists on the surface and the crews in space are confronted and dealt with, one by one. The ghost of Miller enlists Holden to try to figure out what has gone wrong with the alien machines that make up Illus/New Terra, and this investigation prompts the inevitable confrontation between Holden and Murtry with the expected deadly results. The second is that Murtry is almost cartoonishly over-the-top evil, as are a few of his followers, and the ridiculousness of these characters gets to be a little hard to take seriously at times. In some cases, the plot only moves forward because Murtry (or one of Murtry's minions) does something villainous that is almost as pointless as it is ludicrous. The action all wraps up with a rather satisfying conclusion, a fact that somewhat paradoxically causes Avasarala no end of heartache.

With Cibola Burn, the Expanse series both pushes forward and turns inward. On the one hand, the story turns somewhat back on itself, bringing back characters who we have seen before to provide supporting appearances in somewhat unlikely places. On the other hand, the larger story, having started with humanity confined to our Solar System in Leviathan Wakes and Caliban's War, expanded to a mysterious "between" space in Abaddon's Gate, now moves to distant star systems as people begin colonizing alien worlds while bringing all of their usual baggage with them, with the expected unfortunate results. This is, to my mind, the brilliance of the Expanse: No matter how far humans get from our home, no matter what wonders we find, or dangers we face, we are still merely human and still subject to the same frailties, failings, and prejudices that we have always had, but some people still keep trying to be better nonetheless.

Previous book in the series: Abaddon's Gate
Subsequent book in the series: Nemesis Games

2015 Locus Award Nominees

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