The Planet On the Other Side of the Galaxy

The Expanse: Book Four

Cibola Burn

With the opening of the ring gates at the end of book three, Abaddon's Gate, the scope of The Expanse shifted. What had been a book series about the balance of power between Earth, Mars, and the Belt and Outer Planets suddenly became much wider. Humanity (by the grace of a year-and-a-half one-way trip across our solar system and the next) could transit to any other of a thousand or more habitable solar systems, all sitting there, empty and waiting for a colonizing species. No longer was humanity bound to one star, stuck geoengineering a couple of possible planets and a handful of moons. Humans could go anywhere and spread among the stars. Everything about the series shifted.

As I’m reading through the books I’m noticing that the series of nine novels can really be broken up into three trilogies. The first, comprising Leviathan Wakes, Caliban's War, and the aforementioned Abaddon’s Gate, establish the balance of power in the solar system. It looks at the detente between Earth and Mars for control of the solar system, and how one company, pursuing advanced biotech from an alien civilization, manages to throw the entire delicate balance off completely. The second set of books, of which we’re just moving into, are about what the rings mean for humanity. The balance shifts, old lines drawn among the planets don’t matter as much, but that also leaves a power vacuum waiting for someone to come along to fill it. If Earth and Mars are so far away, with their own problems to deal with as well, who is really in charge of the outer planets? Who is really in charge out around another star when the journey out and back takes years?

Book four begins to hint at what is coming for our solar system with this power shift but, like with everything in The Expanse, the groundwork established is subtle. Unless you know the stories to come – which I do, having watched through the fairly faithful television adaptation – you wouldn’t see what will come in books five and six and how they build from this novel. Going through Cibola Burn, though, I was able to appreciate all the little things that are set up in this novel. How the shifting of power sets up trouble for all the planets back home, which then means a greater threat could be just around the corner.

But before we get to that we have to deal with the matter at hand. With the ring gates open, colonists want to move out to the new planets and try to make a home for themselves somewhere new. This complicates things back in our solar system. For Martians, instead of trying to make an inhospitable world into something livable, they could move to a new planet that is already livable and make a life for themselves there. For the Belters they could find a world free of Earth’s control, able to make their own lives without the boot of the “oppressors” on their throats. And, of course, if the balance of power shifts, who knows what that means for Earth. Avasarala sees all of this, but she also knows that peace has to be maintained at all costs.

Into this impossible situation, then, she sends a mediator team: the crew of the Rocinante. There is a colony on a planet, Ilus (or New Terra, depending on which side you asked). A group of Belters moved out there before a task force comprised of Terran and Martian ships could blockade the ring (for “safety”). They have laid claim to the planet and started digging up lithium from the planet, which is packed full of the stuff. Meanwhile a scientific and business interest, the Royal Charter Energy, has the official rights to the planet, as per Earth, and they want to take over all operations on New Terra, kicking the Belters to the curb. This is a situation likely to lead to fighting… which it does.

When a handful of the Ilusian settlers set off a bomb at the landing pad where the RCE shuttle could come, they accidentally clip the shuttle in the process, killing many members of the team (including the regional governor sent to keep the peace and oversee the planet). This puts security lead Adolphus Murtry in charge, and he’s a psychotic little man reveling in his chance to be in power so far from the control of Earth. Holden, Amos, and the rest of the crew of the Rocinante have to try and defuse the situation, help the settlers, keep the RCE men from retaliating and, oh yeah, deal with the protomolecule architecture that’s starting to wake up on the planet now that there are people living on Ilus. It’s more than any one team, you would assume, could handle.

While The Expanse would never be called hard sci-fi (the protomolecule, which sets all of the events of the series in motion, is basically “alien magic” by a different name), it does play in the same general field. The ships in the novels don’t move at faster-than-light speeds, inertia and gravity are factors that have to be considered, and there are real consequences for every action without any kind of “handwave technobabble” (outside the protomolecule) to explain things away. The ring gates do open up the universe some, but at the same time they still maintain that “almost hard sci-fi” feel. Yes, it’s a tech that isn’t explained in the books, but ring portals to other solar systems are about the only way that humans could travel the stars without some kind of faster-than-light engine. It works, and the book uses this new tech for great effect.

The action of the novel focuses on five characters this time around, all of them working in and around Ilus. There’s Holden, of course, the captain of the Rocinante, who continues to act as the thread connecting all these novels together. He’s not a perfect man but, as mentioned by everyone else in the books, he at least tries to be good. Murtry is, essentially, the polar opposite of Holden. He’s a monster, a human who revels in being able to unleash his beast. He’s the kind of person Amos understands, because Amos has a bit of that beast inside of him as well. The contrast between Holden and Murtry is a big source of the drama in this book as Holden works to try and keep the peace with everyone and Murtry wants nothing more than to see everyone burn.

Beyond those two there’s Elvi Okoye, a scientist on the RCE side, who came to the planet to study the native creatures and learn about their biology. She worries about what effect the humans will have on the world and, even more, what effect the world will have on the humans (which does become a problem later in the story). And there’s Basia Merton. Baz, as he’s known, was introduced as a side character back in Caliban’s War, the father of Katoa, one of the children caught up in the protomolecule experiments. Since then he, and his family, have been through hell, traveling through space, working to make Ilus liveable, all while dealing with the grief over the death of Katoa. He fights to protect the colony from the RCE, although he really doesn’t want anyone to die, just to leave him and his alone.

Finally we have Dimitri Havelock. While most of the action occurs down on the planet, Dimitri works as the RCE commander up on their ship in orbit around New Terra. He wants to ensure the RCE interests, to make sure that their mission is upheld. He is loyal to Murtry, but when he comes into contact with the crew of the Rocinante he starts to have his view of the mission, and of Murtry, shifted. He’s our perspective up above, but he also gives us a view into the morality of everything that’s happened and how loyalty can be pushed, shifted, and changed.

Bringing back both Havelock and Baz into this story is an interesting move. We hadn’t seen Havelock since Leviathan Wakes when he was Miller’s partner. He was, at the time, someone friendly to the Belters but they weren’t friendly to him, leaving him as the odd man out in their unit. That experience did color his reactions to Belters, but it also allowed him to see how Belters would hate being excluded and marginalized when it was the Earthers in control. Baz, meanwhile, gives us a connection to the Belt through a main character He can act as the flipside for Havelock, a Belter actually feeling the boot of oppression, showing us how someone can get pushed too far and lash out after. I like that the book brings both of these characters back, allowing us to reflect on their history and see the events of the book from their colored perspectives.

Interestingly, this book sees the most divergence between its own plot elements and the TV season that followed (season four). While the broad elements are the same, Baz Merton was changed into Lucia Mazur (Lucia was his wife’s name in the book, in fairness), but her plot line remains largely the same. The biggest deviation happens up above the planet, where Havelock’s plotline occurred. It doesn’t happen on the show because Havelock isn’t in season four at all, and there’s no alternate character created to replace him. Most of the action above Ilus, including Naomi going over to a shuttle-turned-bomb and attempting to defuse it before getting captured by the RCE security team only to then befriend Havelock while she’s held captive, is removed entirely. Sure, there’s a lot of plot in the ten episodes we get, and that means some material had to be cut, but this is a whole chunk of the novel (including a major character) excised entirely. For once it makes the series feel like an inferior adaptation in some respects.

Despite, or because, the novel is mostly characters dealing with the tense politics of the situation, it’s actually quite thrilling. There’s a lot of interesting back and forth moments, especially when Murtry is dealing with Amos. Oh, Amos is so much fun in this book, saying the things we all wish we could. The novel is able to mine so much energy, and tension, from the setup even before the protomolecule starts to rear its ugly head again. The writers knew what they were doing, and crafted a solid, taught story set far out from any of the locations we knew before, adding to the drama all the more.

Honestly I really liked this novel. The new world adds new ideas and perspective to the universe of The Expanse. But more importantly we get to see that the political drama that has been a core of these works continues on. This is a well crafted, well plotted novel that continues The Expanse out beyond the familiar. It’s everything we needed from the start of the second trilogy, and the actions here will, very much, have repercussions through the following novels to come.