James S.A. Corey, “Cibola Burn” (2014) (narrated by Jefferson Mays) – Back to the Expanse! This time the drama takes place on a planet on the other side of an ancient alien wormhole. But humanity doesn’t leave the cynical maneuverings that characterize the Coreys’ (its two guys, James Corey is a nom de plume) gritty workaday space solar system as established in the previous four volumes. Some squatters, survivor of the collapse of a colony on Ganymede that we saw a book or two back, went through the wormhole first and settled a seemingly earth-like planet. Alas, according to the rules, an Earth-based megacorp has dibs. They can’t even agree what to call it! The megacorp wants to call it New Terra, the squatters call it Ilus. In any event, they start fighting. Who’s called in to mediate but Jim Holden, space-dad and classic perspective-dullard, the protagonist who has less character than all the others but whose dogged insistence on heroic goals drives the story forward?
This one is pretty fun, taking as its motto the old writing workshop advice, “chase your characters up a tree, and once they’re there, throw rocks at them.” The corporate security people and the settlers do tit-for-tat terror on each other. The settlers are desperate for a place to live, and the leader of the corporate team is depicted as a kind of Colonel Kurtz psychopath, except speaking in corporate tough talk rather than whatever Brando was doing, so Holden can’t get them to knock it off. In the midst of all this, the planet turns out to be less a planet and more a planet-sized factory made by the same long-dead intergalactic alien civilization that made the wormholes… complete with defensive systems. These systems go off one by one, creating additional headaches for Holden et al at an agreeably frantic pace.
The other perspective characters include Elvi, a naive corporate scientist with a big-girl crush on Holden, Havelock, a corporate security guy, and Basia, an accidental (he only wanted to do property damage!) settler terrorist. I guess talking about them is as good a place as any to talk about this book and colonialism. Various people have told me the show is a good, “subversive” take on the difficulties of colonialism. I haven’t seen the show — I want to get through the books first — but that’s not really how I see this book. The actual issues of colonialism aren’t really here, because there is no indigenous culture (unless you could the long-dead builders of the planet). There is some racism on the part of the corporate security people, who are mostly from cushy, established Earth, and the squatters, who are hardscrabble Asteroid Belt types, but that’s about it. If anything, there’s more of your classic inter-settler squabbling, like Elvi the scientist earning the ire of the settlers for trying to get them to do less mining (and pooping) so she can do more science on a fresh, untainted biosphere. The violence of both sides is understood as being about greed, sociopathy, and in-group loyalty, the kind of thing basically-good people like Basia and Havelock can transcend, not really about power and who wields it for whose benefit.
There’s still enough of the Coreys’s master, George R.R. Martin, here to make any politics beyond “people are generally bad, except for your (often chosen) family, who you should be good to and open to expanding” supremely unlikely.But that’s ok, as far as I’m concerned, because it’s fine for a scifi adventure to be a scifi adventure without a scathing political critique behind it. It’s almost heartwarming, seeing the authors gesture at a broader point but landing on the usual bromides about family and empathy… anyway, I actually think the Coreys best Martin in terms of delivering on promises, and I’m not just talking about that last ASoIaF book we’re not getting. I mean resolving plots in a satisfactory number in an acceptable span of verbiage, balanced worldbuilding — the concept of the Expanse is about as thin, conceptually, as that of Westeros, but the Coreys haven’t built as much on such shaky foundations as Martin has — and not automatically going for the most cynical/grimdark resolution every time and calling it “tragedy.” Elvi gets over Holden and it’s fine- in Westeros, presumably she’d die horribly. Havelock learns some lessons without getting tortured. Even Holden’s girlfriend, Naomi, a cardboard Strong Female in most instances, shows some vulnerability in a human kind of way. All in all, not bad. ****’