Beyond The Pale

Review: Cibola Burn

Last year I started reading a series of books by the composite author James S. A. Corey, who is an amalgam of Daniel Abraham and Ty Frank. The first book, Leviathan Awakes, is the story of a washed up private security guy named Miller and ice miner named Jim Holden having adventures in a universe that’s falling apart as a result of some corporate sociopaths trying to weaponize an alien molecule that they found on a moon of some planet. If that all sounds sketchy, it’s because it’s been a half year since I read the book, and I don’t necessarily retain a ton of the details about the light fiction that I read (using audiobooks) at the gym and doing the dishes.

Regardless of retention, however, I really enjoyed the book, and I immediately purchased and read the two sequels that had already been published at that point, Caliban’s War and Abbadon’s Gate. The series as a whole follows the adventures of the crew of the ship Rosinante, captained by Jim Holden, who got control of the ship late in the first book and quickly made it his own. The way the ship and its crew are characterized vaguely remind me of the Millennium Falcon from the Star Wars series, but that might just be because I know that the Corey duo have also written a Star Wars novel together, so all that baggage is loaded into my RAM when I read Corey’s books. The ship’s adventures parallel the attempts on the part of the alien molecule from the first book to find the civilization that created it, which has been destroyed by an unknown alien entity. This parallelism results from Holden not being able to keep himself out of any trouble in the solar system. He’s drawn to it by some magnetism, but even if he wasn’t, Miller is always there to push him into trouble, even though he dies in the first book.

Last week, while I was browsing, Audible, I found out that the fourth book in the series, Cibola Burn, had been released, and I immediately purchased it. The book had a new reader, and the reviews on Audible weren’t positive, but when I compared the voices, I didn’t think the new reader was bad. He wasn’t nearly as nuanced as the previous reader, but he’s fine, and the book doesn’t lose much by the change. If you need the reader to be Morgan Freeman, then there’s either something wrong with the book, or your imagination is lacking. This book isn’t the best in the series, but the reviewers who didn’t like it because of the reader were just being cranks.

Cibola Burn takes place after the proto-molecule has created a worm-hole into a routing station built by its creators, only to find that the creators have been wiped out, leaving a thousand earth-like planets abandoned and ready for the taking. When a group of squatters run the blockade set up outside the wormhole gate and take up residence on one of the planets a year before a UN Science expedition arrives, hostilities ensue, and representatives of both governments call on Jim Holden to act as an impartial mediator, supposedly because they know that he will be completely transparent about what’s going on there, but in reality because they know that Holden is a pro at starting wars (by this point he’s started two or three of them), and they don’t really want the colony to succeed right away. They are afraid that if humans break out of the solar system as quickly as the gates look like they are going to allow, humanity will break under the weight of its overexpansion.

When the Rosinante arrives, hostilities have escalated, and Holden does the best that he can to alleviate the situation, but he ends up in a catch twenty-two, and butts up against my biggest complaint about the series, yet another sociopath. I was really annoyed about the prevalence of sociopaths in this series until I started thinking about Al Qaeda and ISIS, and I realized that maybe they have a better grasp on the sheer number of rank assholes running around in the human gene-pool than I do.  Things get worse when the proto-molecule communications system that was planted in Holden’s ship in one of the previous novels boots up the planetary defense system, which have been dormant for a billion or so years. Parts of the system work; parts don’t. Both situations cause problems. Negotiations fall apart, people start dying, half of the planet explodes, insta-death slugs start crawling out of the ground; same ole’ same ole’. This is one of the things that I really like about this series. In every one of the books so far, Corey has taken some major horror trope (zombies, flesh-eating bacteria, the unkillable monster, death-slugs) and made it science-fictioney in a not scarey but still awesome way.

Holden saves the day with the help of Detective Miller’s proto-molecule emulation, who’s been hitching a ride on Holden’s brain ever since book two.

Thinking back on everything I’ve written here, I realize that I don’t think this is a very important book in the series. It’s more of a place-setter for whatever is coming next. The primary importance here is that it gives us a chance learn just a little bit more about the proto-molecule and to get a first glimpse of whatever killed it. It also gave us the chance to (supposedly) see Miller die for real. Either this is a red herring for future books and we’ll see him again when we don’t expect him, or the authors realized that Miller had the potential to become a deus ex machina and make Holden seem invincible, and they didn’t want him around to get Holden out of any and every problem that he bumped into (much as Amos gets almost-killed way too often). Either way, we’re supposed to walk away thinking that he’s gone.

Regardless of the books importance to the series, it was a good read, and I enjoyed it enough that I listened to the whole thing as quickly as I could and was angry at myself when it ended. Corey has me on a tether about the alien civilization and whatever destroyed it, and he is (They are? What are you really supposed to do with a pseudonym to two authors that make no effort to hide their duality?) doing a great job of doling out just a little bit more information with every book instead of giving a huge data dump to take away all of the mystique early on. The focus of each book is personality driven, with that hard-science fiction taking place just a bit at a time over the course of thousands of pages. This will not only make Corey a lot more money (good on them), but it leaves me with the feeling that I’ve earned whatever I learn about this imaginary world when the reading is done. Whatever its problems, if you are looking for an ENJOYABLE read more than an IMPORTANT read, The Expanse is the place to go.

June 28, 2014 Posted by | Book Review | , , , | Leave a comment