Nature Abhors a Vacuum: Rereading Cibola Burn

Cibola Burn, the fourth novel in the Expanse series by James S.A. Corey, is my favorite installment to date. There are a number of reasons for this, but the main one is that, for me at least, this book is the point where the entire series comes into its own. James S.A. Corey takes all the threads from the previous books and pulls them together. On one level, Cibola Burn is a classic space colonization stranded-on-an-alien-planet tale, but all the socio-political and personal angles that have been built up in the previous three novels hover over the action on Ilus/New Terra and turn it into so much more. I found it impossible to put down even during a second reading.

But first a quick summary to refresh your memory. Obviously, expect spoilers for all the Expanse books up to and including this one. You have been warned.

About two years have passed since the events portrayed in Abaddon’s Gate. The alien gate has given humanity access to a thousand unexplored systems full of Earth-compatible planets, which has brought the already tense political situation to the brink of war. The U.N. is making a power grab to administrate the new planets, while Fred Johnson and his “respectable wing” of the OPA is guarding access to the gate from Medina Station (previously known as the Nauvoo and the Behemoth).

Before the start of the novel, a group of Belter refugees from Ganymede has set up a colony on one of the planets (called Ilus by them and New Terra by everyone else) and has started mining its rich veins of lithium ore. Unfortunately, the UN has already assigned the mining contract for this planet to Royal Charter Energy. When the “Belter squatters” blow up a landing pad right as the RCE shuttle is trying to land, killing the provisional governor and stranding a group of scientists and security personnel on the alien planet, it doesn’t exactly create goodwill between the colonist Belters and the UN-backed RCE team. Fred Johnson and Chrisjen Avasarala, working hard to keep the situation from completely spinning out of control, sends the Rocinante and James Holden through the gate to defuse the tension on Ilus/New Terra.

Once Holden and Amos land on the planet (with Naomi and Kamal holding down the fort in orbit), Cibola Burn really takes off. The colonists are unhappy with the RCE security team’s heavy-handed tactics. The RCE folks are unhappy that the colonists attacked their shuttle and killed some of their own. Holden tries his best to calm the situation down, but the colonists’ innate distrust of the RCE team combined with RCE security chief Murtry’s borderline-sociopathic focus on reclaiming the planet for his company make Holden’s job almost impossible. And that’s all before the alien planet awakens and almost wipes the colony out.

The middle section of the novel shows the desperate attempts of the stranded humans to survive, squatting in an abandoned alien structure while outside the entire colony is wiped out by devastating storms. Then the situation gets even worse, when instantly lethal “death slugs” start crawling out of the soil. And then, unbelievably, it gets even worse again when everyone except Holden starts going blind because an alien organism that’s otherwise fairly innocent takes up residence in the humans’ vitreous humors. It’s like that old joke where everything goes wrong and someone says “at least it isn’t raining” just when the first drops start falling.

Here’s what I meant when I mentioned earlier that Cibola Burn is where the Expanse comes into its own. The situation on the alien planet is an incredibly tense mini-version of the political landscape that James S.A. Corey has built up in the previous novels. The author (or, well, you know, authors) have taken some significant bits from each faction in the story and put them in a tiny Petri dish: Belters face off against Inner Planets folks, the alien element is the catalyst that sends everything into a crazy tail-spin, and Holden and his crew try to prevent the situation from blowing up even further. Put all four of those together, not on the broader canvas of the solar system but in a claustrophobically tiny and isolated colony on an alien planet that seems to be doing its best to destroy everything on it surface, and things are likely to go boom. Which they do, spectacularly.

I don’t want to waste too many words on the novel’s ending section, because I’m fairly sure it’s an early glimpse at something that will become much more important as the series progresses—the left-over alien technology, so much more advanced than anything humanity has, but still deactivated and/or destroyed by something or someone even more powerful.

The feeling I got from that section is similar to what I experienced when I read Rendezvous with Rama for the first time. Vast, mysterious technology, hurtling into our solar system. Is it an attack? Do we communicate with them? At the end, it becomes clear this was just a fuel run for the alien ship. Likewise, the entire planet in Cibola Burn was at one point essentially a fuel depot/power station, and even though we little humans may like to potter around on its surface and pretend we’re colonizing it, the beings who created that technology would probably give us as much notice as we’d give to ants. And that’s not even mentioning the even more powerful beings who apparently shut down the whole system millions of years ago.

All the misery and death caused by the planet—the eye virus, the death slugs, the earthquake/tsunami/hurricane force gales? It’s all just the planet doing its thing, without malicious intent towards humans. Cibola Burn really hammers down that same sense of futility in the face of a vast cold universe. That eye condition isn’t malicious; it’s just caused by an otherwise innocuous bug that found a friendly environment to exploit. Unfortunately that environment is inside human’s eyes, causing them to go blind, but as far as that organism is concerned, they just found a bunch of very promising new habitats and they’re happily moving in. Much like humans with all these new available planets, nature abhors a vacuum…

Cibola Burn’s characters are another plus. For the four crew members of the Rocinante, there’s not a whole lot of new revelations aside from Alex Kamal’s story of how his family life fell apart because he couldn’t stop being a pilot. (I thought his occasional looks at his family picture in the pilot for the TV series were very moving because of this.) Amos is still a lovable violence-prone badass and my single favorite character in the novels. Naomi is just being her wonderful, ultra-competent, take-no-nonsense self. (The big reveal for her is coming in the next book, which I think my friend Renay will be blogging about here soon.) And Holden is, well, Holden.

I also really enjoyed the sections with Elvi Okoye, a biologist with the RCE, who seems to be a Sheldon Cooper-like distracted genius, but thankfully much more friendly and reasonable. I’m not sure if she’s just introverted and shy or if she’s possibly somewhere on the more functional side of the autism spectrum, but regardless, she’s an utterly fascinating character to get to know.

On the opposite side of the likability scale, we have Adolphus Murty, chief of security for the RCE contingent. He is evil in such a coldly rational way that I had trouble reading him: is he a psychopath who is taking advantage of the situation to live out his fantasies, or is he just so incredibly focused on accomplishing his job of securing RCE’s property (in this case the planet) that he’s not concerned about killing off everyone that steps in his way?

Continuing our look at the characters of Cibola Burn, I have to complain about one of my pet peeves, which is called the Law of Conservation as it applies to characters. If an author has a nice character, and he isn’t completely dead yet, hey, why not have him show up again later to fulfill a new role? In this case, the main culprit for me was Dmitri Havelock, who we last saw (I think) as Miller’s partner on Ceres, and who has now suddenly signed on as corporate security on the RCE ship. If I had the Heart of Gold’s probability drive, I could probably work out exactly how improbable it is that this same dude shows up at this exact spot halfway around the galaxy, but even without I can approximate it to “Pretty Darn Improbable”. Cibola Burn isn’t a worse novel for rolling Havelock out again, but if the authors had decided to introduce a new character in that role, I wouldn’t have minded at all.

There’s a second instance of this with Basia Merton who, if you’ll recall, we last saw trying to make his way off Ganymede, mostly overshadowed by the situation with Prax and his daughter. (Basia had a son, Katoa, who suffered from the same condition as Prax’s daughter, but who didn’t make it off Ganymede.) So Basia shows up on Ilus/New Terra, and initially I groaned a bit because I thought it was going to be another one of these “I’m not quite done with this character yet” deals. But then the family drama starts, with Basia’s daughter wanting to leave the planet to go to college, and it becomes clear that Basia is still processing the death of his son and is (initially) unable to let go off his daughter because of this. I found these scenes, with Basia slowly realizing he’s being unfair and finally giving his daughter his blessing, some of the most moving in the book. So, that’s an example of Conservation of Characters actually working towards a narrative goal — much more than just recycling people like Havelock.

Another pet peeve I had with Cibola Burn is the clunky plotting involved in getting Naomi to become a captive on the RCE ship. “Sooo we could disable the ship or the weaponized shuttle with some of this impressive Martian weaponry we have sitting around… but wouldn’t it make a lot more sense to send a single person with a welding torch over on a spacewalk to an enemy craft?” Meanwhile, entirely by coincidence, the RCE folks have started putting together a “Paintball in Spaaaaaace” tactical squad of folks who just, coincidentally, happen to be wrapping up one of their EVA practice drills when Naomi is about to weld her way into their ship. Well, at least it wasn’t raining?

Now, even though I’m not crazy about the twists and loops James S.A. Corey had to add to this story to make Naomi a prisoner with the RCE, I’m actually very pleased with everything that derives from it—the prisoner/guard interactions between Naomi and Havelock, the klutzy rescue attempt by Basia, and everything that follows from that point. So, clunky plotting officially forgiven because of the kick-ass finale in space.

Okay, one more final pet peeve: those impenetrable interludes. Really, just one or two of them would be sufficient. I like that the authors tried to give a POV to the aliens (I’m going to stick with the vaguest “aliens” here because I’m guessing this aspect of the story will continue to be developed) but I feel like maybe one at the end and one in the beginning would have been sufficient, like a prologue and epilogue. Even reading the first one, my eyes glazed over, and then when it started throwing in quotations from The Wasteland, I actually groaned. (The next chapter makes clear that this was a way to link it to Miller, who’ll use the same quote, but still.)

Anyway, all these pet peeves are relatively superficial. You still end up with an extremely intense planet-colonization-gone-wrong story set in (and benefiting from) the complex economical, political and personal situation laid out in the previous three books. Cibola Burn is an excellent fourth installment in the Expanse series, and (for the moment at least) my favorite book in the series. My only real complaint: not enough Avasarala.

Stefan Raets reads and reviews science fiction and fantasy whenever he isn’t distracted by less important things like eating and sleeping. You can find him on Twitter, and his website is Far Beyond Reality.

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