James S.A. Corey, “Babylon’s Ashes” (2016) (narrated by Jefferson Mays) – Well, the two Coreys (“James S.A. Corey” is a house name for two dudes) decided they’d do space Tolstoy. They even make it explicit in the last chapter, with one of their characters reading and expounding on the old Russky wife-hating sage. Indeed, they bring back pretty much every viewpoint character from the previous four books who aren’t dead, and a few more besides, to give their take on the goings-on.
And what ARE the goings-on? The Solar System is fucked after the last book, when a coalition of Asteroid Belt extremists and shady Martian-colonist naval officers blast the fuck out of Earth with asteroids. Without Earth, ecological collapse threatens the system. There’s an alien gateway that can get people to other solar systems out by Neptune, but the extremists control it. Like I said, it seems the Coreys got sick of the “Alien”-esque workaday space world last book and decided to apocalypse it. That wasn’t a great move, but was somewhat interesting. Now they need to clean up their toys and get them somewhere else. They spend hundreds of pages doing it! And it’s not that good, or that interesting.
The many viewpoint characters give you a bunch of looks at the world of the Expanse, but that world isn’t interesting enough to sustain the weight. It’s not bad, and it can definitely sustain good action, like in the first three books. But when interest has to come from the details of the world, it’s not enough. The Coreys don’t make anything that original or interesting. The closest is the Belters, which is good as they’re the pivot of the whole thing. A space-bound culture raised on stations, ships, and asteroid, they have kind of a proletarian thing (exploited by Inner Planets) and kind of a nationalist thing and kind of vision of everyone being space-based? It’s fine that the movement is confused. Movements are often confused. But the Belt, it’s people, and it’s politics don’t feel real enough to sustain the action or my interest that much, especially as a movement willing to get behind a genocidaire who also destroyed their lifeline, ie the Earth (the rest of the system has not been meaningfully terraformed). This is because Belter politics are a grab-bag of features of demotic politics and nothing coherent. It doesn’t scan. Martian and Earth politics and society are even less fleshed out.
All of this would be forgivable if the action delivered, but it doesn’t. It’s scattered and confused, and the Coreys take time out to deliver little homilies on “human nature,” how we’re “tribal” — lot to be said about the resurgence of that adjective in recent decades — and greedy but things are still worth it and anyone who tries to radically change things is bad, blah blah the usual. I don’t like normal Tolstoy that much. American pop scifi Tolstoy is hard to take. Eventually they go out to the alien gate and there’s a fight in the gate and it’s fine, people are gonna expand into the galaxy but the Belters will get some stuff etc. I’ve been told the one that comes after this is better, and the blurb I read shows some promising surprises, so we’ll see. **’