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

On Childhood: Family Reading and Forts

Last week, an old friend asked me to write to her and tell her what my childhood was like. When I started thinking about what to write, I realized that she was asking me to do something that I can’t do in just one email, so I decided that I’d make my first project on Beyond the Pale (Is that name a keeper?) be a series On Childhood. I hope you enjoy.

Dad read to us every night when I was growing up. I don’t know when it started exactly; I assume it must have started in the nursery, with picture books and Dr. Suess or Psalty the Singing Songbook, but my first real memory of our reading times is at the house on Crottinger, so I must have already been about 10 years old. Part of the Royal Ranger’s curriculum was family devotions. The church gave everyone a daily devotional called Keys for Kids, from Children’s Bible Hour, and if we could say that we had read the devotions as a family for three or five days between Royal Ranger meetings, then we got different amounts of points, which, compounded with attendance, memorization (“Ready, ready for anything, ready to work, play, serve, obey, worship, live, etcetera.”), and advancement points, could add up to some mystical number over the course of the year to make you eligible to receive the coveted Ranger of the Year award. Of course, I wanted to be Ranger of the Year, and Dad was the pastor, which meant we had to show solidarity with what the Commanders were trying to do, so Dad started reading Keys for Kids to us.

One night, after we had finished devotions and prayed, Dad pulled out a new book that he had just bought that afternoon, and he wanted to read to us. It was about a young boy named Scarboy who takes his brother and runs away from the Enchanted City where everything is done backwards, people live in the night and sleep during the day (“morning morning, see you in the night)”. Scarboy runs away because his mother has died, and all orphans belong to the Enchanter, who uses them for slave labor. He flees to a Great Park, where me meets all kinds of people who teach him that humans aren’t supposed to sleep in the day and work in the night and that the enchanter isn’t the rightful ruler of the Enchanted City, that he a usurper, and there is a king who lives in hiding and will come back one day to set the city free of the Enchanter and set all things to right. They teach him that for now the king lives in the forest, rescuing people from the enchanter, but only those who believe will see him. Tales of the Kingdom fascinated me, and it started a love for reading together as a family that would never really end for me. Even now, when Andrea and I live in a place that doesn’t have a dish washer, I will wash the dishes while she sits and reads to me.

Chris, Jaimie and I were all hooked, but especially me, probably because I was a little older, and Dad had a tendency to read books with fantasy elements, which were always my favorites. From Tales of the Kingdom, and Tales of the Resistance, we went to The Chronicles of Narnia, Summer of Little Rain, a book whose title I can’t remember about a boy who escapes from being held captive by Native Americans, My Side of the Mountain, The Little Princess, and many, many more. Often, Dad would try to make what he was reading to us match up with what we were doing at the time. For instance, one summer we were going to visit Mom’s parents in Tyler, Texas, and we stopped by in Branson, Missouri to see the Shepherd of the Hills outdoor drama. Dad bought a copy of the book that it was based on, and when we got home, that was the next book that he read to us. On another vacation, we went to the grand canyon, and Dad read Marquerite Henry’s Brighty of the Grand Canyon, which was extra exciting since we were camping in a national forest at the time, where there weren’t any actual campsites or bathrooms, but there were plenty of mountain lions making noise and scaring mom.

As we got older, Dad did less and less of the actual reading, and we did more and more of it, but Dad was always my favorite because he was a much smoother reader than any of us were. I can still hear Dad chanting “Ohm phah bah, ohm phah bah, ohm phah bah, din,” when the Naysayers were chasing Scarboy and Little Child on the way to Great Park.

We grew up, and so did the material we read. But there were some places that he just wouldn’t go. When we were reading C. S. Lewis’ space trilogy, and we finished Perelandra, Dad refused to read That Hideous Strength. He said that it was too scary. I assured him that we wouldn’t get scared, that we wanted to hear the rest of the story. He told me that if I wanted to get the rest of the story, I’d have to read it for myself. He said he wasn’t worried about me getting scared. He was the one that would be too scared.

One of the classics, a book that we would come back to time and again, whether Dad was rereading it , I was reading it to myself, or we were watching one of the several movie versions that we had, was the always-famous, The Secret Garden. The solitude of the characters reminded me of my own solitude, even though when I was alone, it was for different reasons than they were. I loved to be in the woods, especially building various types of fort (I literally always had Poison Ivy), so it didn’t take much effort for Michelle Robinson, the girl who lived in the big blue house behind ours, to convince me to redirect the fort building tendency toward a more aesthetic scheme when she invoked The Secret Garden.

Michelle had found an oak tree that in the woods that was significantly bigger than all the others ones in the forest. If you had asked me then, I might have made up some story about how that tree was probably one of the last survivors from the primeval forest that would have been there before Europeans and their lumber mills came sweeping through. Of course, whatever story I came up with would have been patently false, but from a ten-year-old point of view, it wouldn’t have been that unreasonable. The tree was certainly older than any other tree in the forest and must have been the first to sprout whenever this forest had been allowed to spread itself back over the farmland. It was so big that with our fingertips touching and our arms spread wide, faces pressed flat against the trunk, Michelle and I were nowhere near reaching all the way around it.

We chose a circle at the base of the tree that was about 15 feet across, made up by a rough circle of smaller tress, and we started working by marking off the walls of our garden with branches. In our thinking, an unbroken ring of sticks marking off our territory was just as good as an eight foot brick wall in terms of moral strength, we knew that we didn’t have to worry about anyone besides our younger siblings crossing that wall, and death threats took care of them for the most part. It was winter, so there wasn’t a lot of green growth on the ground, but what there was, we protected. We carefully excavated all of the twigs and rotting leaves from around the plants, careful to disturb nothing that was living, though I would occasionally try eating a leaf if I thought it looked like something I had seen in a survival handbook. During the course of the clearing, we accidentally uprooted more than a few plants, and we were always terribly upset whenever this happened because we weren’t sure if that was going to be the plant that would have ended up being the cornerstone for our whole aesthetic. Only when we had cleared all of the fallen debris from the circle so that we had a pristine ring of nothing but plants and bare dirt did we deliberately pull any plants.

Before we would remove each plant, we would carefully examine it from different perspectives and in light of everything else that was going on in our little fort, and if we felt that it added to the appeal of the garden, we would keep it and put rocks or sticks around it to indicate pathways and flowerbeds in the garden. There was a fallen tree rotting not too far from our fort, so we would pull out big handfuls of its guts to use for mulch around the particularly aristocratic looking weeds. We found an old log and stood it on end by the base of the big Oak, and we stood three or four little statues on it. We had found them out in the dangerous part of the woods where the person who owned the property before Michelle’s dad had dumped all of his garbage, and we thought that they, along with some strategically positioned bits of broken blue glass, really added to the effect. We literally spent hundreds of hours at the base of that tree during that fall and early winter, and it was heartbreaking when the snow finally came a buried it.

The work of making the space was much more gratifying than inhabiting it, so eventually we would abandon that fort in favor of another one, and we would go through various iterations of the secret garden fort theme throughout the years before Michelle’s parents divorced and she moved away. Each fort got its own name: the war fort, the creek fort, the tree house, the cliff, the briar, the crawlspace, the fort under the stairs (when we abandoned that one, I broke light bulbs in the area you had to crawl into to get there, thus preserving our fort forever from anyone who might want to defile it), but that first one, it was the prototype, the shrine, our secret garden.

March 2, 2009 Posted by | Childhood | , , , | 4 Comments