James S.A. Corey
There is a Mexican standoff scene in the movie version of Miami Vice. All the characters do what we expect them to, dialogue slides into a familiar pattern, then BANG! Violence erupts a few beats ahead of schedule and people are dead. It’s a shocking moment, and probably the most memorable part of the movie; I kept thinking back to it as I read Cibola Burn, the newest Expanse novel from James S.A. Corey. The plot repeatedly threatens to run down conventional rails, but every time the reader starts to get comfortable, Corey sets off a virtual taser. I was never able to settle in and predict everything that would happen, because, somehow, the escalations always hit sooner than anticipated. Like the standoff in Miami Vice, actions and outcomes are standard, but the timing keeps a constant hum of electricity in the air.
The Expanse is one of the few ongoing series I keep up with. The first book, Leviathan Wakes, was a fun mix of 1970s inflected SF and contemporary Hollywood, but I have been impressed with the way that the authors have managed to add thematic depth in later volumes while maintaining the original vibe. I have been even more impressed as they expand a dingy, lived in Solar System that feels like Jerry Pournelle circa 1975 outward through a series of inexplicable alien artifacts and into the galaxy. Cibola is the first book to take place in a different system, and the first to really dig into the larger questions spawned by the protomolecule. We’ll look into these in greater detail, but I should give the obligatory full disclosure bit that this sort of thing is is the science fiction equivalent of injecting chocolate directly into my veins. Near-Earth stuff is nice, but distant planets, galactic mysteries, vanished elder races, and what not are where I get my buzz.
I don’t know what the authors originally had in mind for this, back in the days before Orbit expanded their contract to six, then nine books. (Stuff must be selling well. Good on them.) I wonder if they intended to take things further from the Sun than the asteroids, or planned on moving away from the throwback fun. There was a bit of deeper stuff in Leviathan Wakes, but mostly it was Solar System noir and vomit zombies. By Book Four, we’ve looked at religion, the place of violence in human society, Self vs. Other, serious considerations of how we might colonize the Solar System, and all sorts of heavy stuff. There are still explosions and butt kicking, but it’s more cerebral butt kicking. The evolution of the protomolecule is a good reference point for charting the path these books have taken. Fair warning that, while I will remain intentionally vague on some points, this will probably constitute mild spoilers for earlier in the series.
In the first book, the protomolecule is, if not evil, at least very threatening. At worst, it feels a bit like the precursor to an alien invasion, at best the sort of coldly superior intelligence that treats humanity like an ant colony. In book two, the protomolecule is mostly on the sidelines, as people once again try to exterminate themselves. (Corey ranks up with David Brin’s Existence in faintly hopeful pessimism here. And me. Honestly, if we as a race survive the next hundred years, I will be pleasantly surprised. But I digress.) In book three, the protomolecule has half-devoured Venus and created some giant BMO (Big Mysterious Object) out past Neptune, while Miller, half of the crime-solving team of Leviathan Wakes, has sort of come back from the dead to haunt the remaining half, James Holden. By the end of things in book three, we learn that the protomolecule is just a tool, its creators wielded awesome power, and now they’re all extinct at the hand of something even scarier. Nobody is going to purposefully smash humanity, though people do a pretty good job of enabling death-by-protomolecule with or without actual alien malice. Finally, the protomolecule has opened a gate to the stars, so colonists can rush madly out, at the risk of incurring the wrath of whatever offed the protomolecule builders. Follow this? We’ve come a long way.
Cibola Burn leaves behind (mostly) the political issues that underpin the first books and instead digs further into the questions posed by the gate. Corey again keeps things on a personal scale for now, tracking the travails of the first colonizers. This is nice, with good characters and story arcs, but what really gets me are the questions lurking just below the surface. No matter how intense the conflict gets, or how focused the characters are on the issues at hand, the bigger picture is always visible. Scientists on the new planet drop repeated hints early on that this world is not normal. Its actual purpose (very mundane) is revealed later in the book, but the key take home point here is that whoever built it has enough power to casually shape entire planets the way we might assemble a backyard shed. And in spite of that, they were completely wiped out by something even bigger. Those characters still in thrall to their lizard brains manage to ignore the background, but the more self aware are constantly faced with fearsome reality that whatever that thing is, it’s still out there. So, massive engineering projects? Check. Implacable galactic menace? Check. Humans scampering about ruins like unsupervised children? Check. Is anyone out there not having fun? Because if you’re not, this may be the wrong genre for you.
One other theme that I enjoyed is Corey’s treatment of violence, both as a narrative device and a social issue. This idea pops up in all of the books (and likely in the rest of the Abraham/Franck repertoire), but those that espouse violence as the first solution are inevitably in the wrong. The books don’t skirt the reality (or even necessity?) of violence, but it is rarely the correct answer. This seems odd on the surface, what with all the action, military involvement, constant threat of war, etc., but the quiet insistence that thinking and talking will do more than shooting is a welcome message. I admit that this is at the core of the Hard SF ethos – engineers and nerds as heroes and all that – rather than some original brainstorm, but pacifism is buried under a tidal wave of pop culture anymore in the hyper-violent US.
So 1000 words later, it is very possible that I have thought too deeply about Cibola Burn. I can only hope the authors approve, since I’d much rather write about that than give a bland plot summary. These are fun, popcorn type books for those that just want a slam bang adventure, but there’s plenty more enjoyment to be had if a reader wants to dig in. Now I just have another 12 months to wait for the next volume.