James S.A. Corey, “Persepolis Rising” (2017) (read by Jefferson Mays) – This is the seventh Expanse novel! There’s one more currently out and another coming in November. Might as well finish them!
This one was better than the previous two installments, which entailed the Coreys (it’s a house name for two dudes) putting their world of a few-centuries-hence solar system settlement through the wringer. It’s not as good as some of the other, earlier novels. It’s thirty years after the last book! I guess there’s access to anti-aging drugs, because except for a rueful thought and allusions to graying hair here and there, most of the characters established in the series are still doing pretty good. Perspective-dullard Jim Holden and his Strong STEM Woman ladyfriend Naomi are about to retire from the adventuring life and let their remaining friends take over the “Rocinante,” the “Millenium Falcon”/“Serenity” of the series, but we know that means shit is going to hit the fan.
When the Coreys blew up their world in the previous two novels, there were two main culprits. We spent most of our time with the radical Asteroid Belters of the “Free Navy.” Their friends, a faction of the Mars Space Navy with an inscrutable agenda and took off through a series of alien interstellar travel rings to a faraway system. It’s those folks, now called Laconians after their new home, who come back thirty years later to ensure Holden can’t retire. It turns out they’re led by a megalomaniacal space admiral, Duarte, who has a plan to unify humanity into a big space empire. They come out of their space gate and start throwing beaucoup high tech space weapons around, and capture the space station where Holden and crew are waiting to go their separate ways.
Here’s the thing with the Laconians: the Coreys humanized them until they really didn’t seem that bad, and all the fighting really did seem pretty pointless. This is something of a problem with their worldbuilding in general and, I think, with the view on humanity they peddle in this series. They basically seem to think that political ideas are bunk, cover for “tribal” power conflicts and a desire for power embedded in “human nature.” It’s funny- in midcentury, you summoned the power of the thought of (real or purported) high minds, Freud, Marx, Nietzsche, the Founding Fathers, to end discussions, now you do it with the power of things beneath the mind- human nature, pathology, etc…
Anyway! The Laconians think they should be in charge of humanity because Duarte has a genius master plan to expand across the stars and because they’ve got good military discipline, they’re rational. Those aren’t great claims on the loyalty of a species, I’ll grant. But nobody else has a great claim, either, in Expanse-world, and I think that’s due to a combination of mediocre writing on the Coreys part, and their mediocre thinking about what drives human loyalties. The closest they came to anything sensible were the Belters, a sort of proletarian nationalism ala Sorel developed among the asteroids and space station habitats. Even that is weakly developed and contingent, especially thirty years after Holden brokered a deal that granted the Belters a lot of power in the solar system. There’s some allusion to a “Martian Dream” of terraforming planets and with it, redesigning society, but it doesn’t seem to mean much and also seems to have mostly upped sticks to Laconia. What the Earthers are up to other than cruising along due to inertia (and the dreaded welfare state!) and almost being apocalypsed in previous books by the Free Navy is hard to say.
So, when the Laconians come in and start taking stuff over with a minimum of violence, stated intentions of including everyone in their project, and seemingly overwhelming force… why do people care? Why bother resisting? I can almost hear nerds sputtering “but… but World War Two!!” Well, what about it? The Nazis had an agenda, one that really didn’t work for people other than them. Even then, most of the resistance came from people who had a belief system that motivated them: either a belief in a special relationship between their nation-state and the eternal that getting conquered by Germans would tend to traduce (DeGaulle, Churchill, etc) or else a belief in some humanistic order that the Nazis utterly opposed (mostly Communism, to a lesser extent liberal democracy). And even then, and even with all the provocations the Nazis, some of the worst (both in the sense of wickedness and the sense of incompetence) occupiers in history, most people didn’t rebel.
So the underground resistance angle that animates much of the story really doesn’t make a ton of sense to me. The rulers of the space station the Laconians trap most of our characters on are basically the Spacer’s Guild from “Dune” minus the freaky bits. Even Drummer, the viewpoint character who runs the organization, admits it’s not much as a political motivating force. Why does anyone care, especially enough to risk their lives? It kind of makes sense for Holden, he’s always doing dumb shit. And from there, it sort of makes sense for his crew. But they all act like it’s a no-brainer! I get that granting anyone power gives them the ability to abuse it. I just don’t see what power the Laconians tried to seize that the spacers guild or one of the planets didn’t already have, especially considering the harsh rules that space habitation necessitates?
Even after people start killing Laconians, the response isn’t that harsh. The Laconians commander, Singh, is one of the more interesting characters, but also raises questions. He’s pretty weak! He vacillates between harsh and lenient responses to provocation, but even his harshness isn’t that harsh by normal conqueror standards, let alone conquerors on a delicate space station. Why did the Laconians put this guy in charge? There’s various tantalizing hints about Laconian culture, a brutal utilitarianism under a veil of philosophical rationality, but we don’t really get enough to understand their motives. I guess I’m supposed to think it’s just “human nature” again?
Anyway, this book wasn’t bad. It had some cool battles, both fleet actions and underground guerrilla space station stuff. The characters feel more broken-in, even the new ones- the Coreys elegantly convey how the bonds of the “Rocinante” family changed and deepened over the decades they skipped over. The Laconians are the closest thing to a good idea the Coreys have had for a while, and it’s linked to their other good idea, the protomolecule, the ancient alien weapon/engineering tool that makes stuff all weird and eldritch but also powerful. It seems the Laconians rampant use of protomolecule stuff might be summoning up whatever killed off the protomolecule-masters long ago. This is kind of a weird transitional book, leading to the last two, but it wasn’t all bad. I just wish the Coreys either got better ideas, or didn’t lean so hard on their mediocre ones. ***’