James S.A. Corey, “Nemesis Games” (2015) (narrated by Jefferson Mays) – Ehhhhhh I did not like this one as much. It feels like the Coreys have gotten sick of the workaday space world of “The Expanse” series and are throwing it away. I guess that’s not that bad- the world is fine but not something to which I feel great attachment. But in this one they tried to do too much with too little and it just wasn’t that great.
To explain what happens in “Nemesis Games” I’ll need to talk more about the spaceship crew-ersatz family at the core of the Expanse series. I haven’t done this before because most of the characters involved are boring. Admittedly, I’ve written about main character perspective-dullard Holden in these reviews, but he’s unavoidable. Like the Game of Thrones series, all of the chapters in the Expanse books are told from the perspective of a rotating set of characters. Each book has Holden as a perspective character, plus a few new ones. This one retains Holden, but the other perspective characters are the other crew on his ship, the ragtag chosen family of the “Rocinante.” There’s his girlfriend Naomi, his engineer/go-to thug Amos, and his pilot Alex. Naomi is strong and sensible in that stock scifi lady way, Amos is a tough guy who has “no moral core” save for loyalty to the crew and sentimentality about kids (which is to say he has all the moral core readers expect), Alex has… a Texas accent, because Texans settled Mars early? You can see why I didn’t dwell on them before. They’re fine for what they are but you don’t read these books for the character study.
We start off with everyone scattering! Doing errands. Naomi has a mysterious summons to her Asteroid Belt home. Alex goes to Mars to say sorry to an ex. Amos departs for Earth to bury one friend and visit another in jail. Holden is left alone out in space to bother people. Then some shit goes down! But alas, other than a sense of general frenetic activity, this shit is not well laid out. Someone’s stealing spaceships, and someone wants Naomi to do something sketchy, and then asteroids start landing on Earth! It’s all connected, somehow. Shit is getting ugly!
The problem is, none of it feels earned. I don’t want to say “real,” though verisimilitude can be an issue too. The main thing is this- the baddies (spoilers, if you care) are rogue militant Asteroid Belt settlers and some dudes from the Martian space navy. To the extent this has any basis in what came before in the books at all, it’s in one of the weakest points of the Coreys worldbuilding. Earth, Mars, and the Belt are depicted as all basically having Earth-country-style nationalisms. The Belters in particular feel put upon by the Earthers and Martians. But it always felt superficial- the Belters have silly argot and accents, part Hispanic, part South Asian, and are portrayed as hardscrabble due to living on asteroids and space stations. Especially now that the “gates” opened in previous books and settlers can go to other solar systems, the whole Belt way of life looks pointless, as does terraforming Mars. Well… it’s hard to suspend disbelief when you realize that such programs were always pointless, given that they were supposedly impelled by “overpopulation” and welfare statism on Earth. The Coreys just kind of hand-waved most of that away with stuff about the innate desire for “frontier living” etc.
I didn’t buy it, but I didn’t have to for most of the books. In this one, I was much more pressured to buy, because it formed the motivation for this random Belt faction coming out of nowhere and pulling off all kinds of crazy shit and doing genocidal asteroid damage to Earth. It strained credulity in other ways, too. We’ve followed the head of the “Outer Planets Alliance,” a Belter terrorist group turned political party, since the first book, and now we’re supposed to believe this wise, badass warrior could get completely flummoxed by the existence of a splinter faction? It’s hinted that this faction had some kind of major outside help, and I guess it’s from the Martian navy? But beyond similar hard-to-believe politics stuff (that, again, happens under the nose of their government and takes them completely by surprise), there’s no set up. It’s just kind of lame, and even hard to follow at times.
The book’s not all bad. There’s some decent action sequences. The stuff with Amos on Earth, where he needs to survive the apocalypse alongside a girl who tried to kill his whole crew a few books back, was fun. In general, it was ok seeing some of the old viewpoint characters again, as they get swept into the big drama. The sense of scale is admirable. I’m glad the Coreys decided to be ambitious. It just seems their eyes were bigger than their stomachs. Their sense of big picture just isn’t there, and it reminds me of George R.R. Martin, their maitre, in a bad way. I wonder if there’s a genealogy- the coup/conspiracy-based strategizing of the likes of French revolutionary Louis-Auguste Blanqui and the “propaganda of the deed” of turn of the century anarchists, which gets bowdlerized into the deeds of villains in early pulp fiction, which turns into an understanding of how villainous plans and politics just work… because none of it really passes muster.
Neither does the philosophizing about human nature, it’s supposed tribalism, etc., that the Coreys put in assorted characters’ mouths. It’s a funny coincidence that those memes with Vin Diesel going on about the power of Family came out when I was listening to this, because to the extent the series has a message, it’s basically the message of those memes. The ultimate bad guy (introduced in this book out of nowhere) is someone who doesn’t understand, who corrupts, family (and is Naomi’s abusive ex, natch- the Coreys don’t do the worst possible job with that relationship but it feels as pro-forma as a lot of the rest of the setup here). That’s fine for an end-of-movie/book/season speech you can zone out for. It does not for great scifi plotting make. ***’