James S.A. Corey
Could it be? Yes! At long last, a book review. Probably best not to expect too many though. Anyway, I waited my turn in line for the newest entry in The Expanse for something like three months, finally got my copy from the library, and just barely finished it. This being book six of, last I heard, nine, it can be problematic to review. I imagine that most people interested in reading this post are already on The Expanse train and immune to spoilers up through book five, but one never knows. Accordingly, I’m going to be somewhat vague on details and talk more about the series as a whole.
This is a rare series that I picked up when it started and have more or less kept pace with over the last six (six!) years. The books are perfectly spaced in that I remember just enough of what happened previously to keep up, but have let most of the details slide back out of my easily addled mind. It is only in times of great concentration that I can think back to Leviathan’s Wake and chart the course that Corey has taken thus far; this leads me to wonder how the series will hold up as a series once it is complete and people are treating it as a relic of the past. To wit, we have followed an unexpectedly winding road from Miller and Holden to an overturned social order in the Solar System.
I don’t know exactly what was in the authors’ heads when they started The Expanse, but to me it seemed a bid to reanimate the corpse of 1970s blockbuster SF, perhaps pithily described as “Niven and Pournelle without the cringey social attitudes.” We may not notice it as much now, but compare the Solar System in those earlier books with so much contemporary SF: no Singularity, no AI, no post-humanism, just a ratty, lived-in world that hearkens back to the first Star Wars movie, or Pournelle’s Co-dominion stories. The Corey team also dispenses with high-falutin literary conventions and po faced Mundane SF, keeping things fun and action-packed even while preaching a diverse, tolerant worldview and poking around Big Questions. It was ambitious, but entertaining. Also quite successful.
Broader themes have stayed constant throughout the series, especially our species’ undying drive to squabble with each other for reasons large and small. The plot focus of individual books lurches wildly though, perhaps betraying the authors’ uncertainty of a final destination or the publishing reality that succumbs to banal economics and constantly moves the goal posts for series. Probably a little of both. Consider: Book One is all protomolecule. Book Two jumps into Solar System politics. Book Three is back to protomolecule. Book Four suddenly veers out into galactic colonization, a move that surprised everyone and led to probably the weakest installment. Books Five and Six whiplash back into Solar System politics, as though both the characters and the authors said, “Wait a minute, we can’t go gallivanting out into the stars with all this unfinished business back here.” Unsurprisingly, these last two books put the series back on track and cemented The Expanse as a must-read contemporary tale.
At the end of Babylon’s Ashes, things feel as though the Solar System plot is settled, or at least as settled as it will be for now. The Expanse has been itching to take up bigger questions teased throughout the series: what is the protomolecule and why is it here? What happened to its makers and is there really something scarier out there? How will humanity handle colonies? If the fourth book was a false start with these, the seventh promises to finally push the series from near-future realism into wild-eyed, galactic wonder. Or at least, I hope so. Clearly, the first push was premature, but with a larger foundation now in place, we can probably expect great things. Certainly I am more interested in those kinds of stories – star-spanning empires, ancient alien races, mysteries spread across galaxies, and I think that’s where the authors always wanted to go. We’ll see if they can pull it off as well as they did near Earth adventure.
Looking at Babylon’s Ashes specifically, I would rate it in the top half of the series. The last two have certainly driven up the intensity level, with the fate of worlds literally at stake. James Holden makes a return to the center in this book, after losing pride of place to his supporting cast earlier. Individual reader feelings about this seem to vary. There is quite a cast though, and we do get into the minds of others, some of whom were dragged back to prominence, others who have gradually carved out their own prominent space in the narrative. I enjoyed Michio Pa in particular, but I’m sure everyone will have a favorite. The plot marches on well, and I think the last two books have done an admirable job of both telling self-contained stories and moving the series forward.
Disengaged from the SFF community right now, I don’t know how people are taking The Expanse politically. Obviously these are fraught times, though only the UK and US seem to have given in wholesale to craziness, and these books are unabashedly progressive in their politics and messaging. I have to think there’s a certain subset of SFF that rages about all the diversity, positivity and understanding towards others, and general non-jerkwaddy thematic content in The Expanse, but maybe they are all too busy defending Trump from his own relentless failures to annoy the rest of us. It should surprise nobody that these books are what they are however. After all, Ty Franck is a protege of GRRM, a vocal partisan for our side, and Dan Abraham builds entire series from principles of political economy. Babylon’s Ashes probably wouldn’t hit as hard if the US elections had gone differently, but here we are, and Corey is making a strong statement.
Anyway, wrapping up. Who shouldn’t read this book? Neo-Nazis and anyone who hasn’t already read books one through five are the only groups I can think of. I guess non-SF fans can be forgiven for not diving in, but The Expanse is required reading for anyone staying current in the field. It’s a lot to digest if the reader hasn’t been keeping up, but the series is peaking right now and deserves all of the attention it’s getting. Highly recommended.