I recently decided it was high time to get back into The Expanse, a series I’d been quite enjoying since discovering it this year (thanks Si!), so I duly purchased the fourth instalment in the series, Cibola Burn.
This book follows on from the events of the third book, Abaddon’s Gate, where the alien protomolecule that had been gestating on Venus has now manifested itself into an entity known as The Ring near Uranus. The Ring leads to what is essentially a hub of other Rings that act as wormholes to faraway galaxies and, for the first time, humanity is able to explore realms outside of the Solar System. Cibola Burn joins the story a few months after the events of Abaddon’s Gate where humanity is now making the first steps to explore these new galaxies and worlds.
It sounds almost too open-ended to comprehend, but I feel Cibola Burn did well to focus not on the macro of the wider universe now being humanity’s plaything, but rather on the exploits and tribulations of the first world that is colonised. Ilos (or New Terra) is a colony in trouble – a new frontier brings the most elemental of societal qualms with it, it seems – in this case, issues of ownership and whether the rule of law that exists many light-years away really counts for much in this new frontier on the very edge of human knowledge.
Like Abaddon’s Gate, I felt Cibola Burn was certainly more subdued than grandstanding, but that sense of personality fitted the struggle of the colony on Ilos/New Terra. It certainly felt like it took a lot of inspiration from tales of colonisation from history – the colonisation of America struck me a little. Does whoever lands first really own the planet? What does a UN charter mean millions of miles away? Conceptually, I did understand why the two factions – the Belters who jumped the gun to land first and the corporate exploratory mission – would have cause for conflict.
I feel that the characters on both sides certainly stoked the fires of the nascent conflict, but again I felt that these characters and their rationales struck me as understandable – and totally human – as these are viewpoints that are observed all the time in 2016. The fear of the Belters that drives them to escalate the conflict with tragic consequences, and the apparent guilt at how the escalation came about; the corporate security whose zealousness to enforce a twisted interpretation of “the rule of law”; scientists who just want to do the work they set out to do; and Holden’s realisation that his mission to broker peace might just be a poisoned chalice designed to fail – all of these points of view seemed to matter because I had empathy for the plight of all of them. Sure, some of the characters were pretty rotten individuals but conceptually I did believe that a degeneration back to “us versus them” mentality and a seemingly-innate suspicion of the other side was a totally human characteristic as it’s happened throughout history, so why wouldn’t it happen in the far future?
That’s not to say that Cibola Burn is entirely introspective – there’s plenty of action; seemingly a curse upon the colony of New Landing. Things steadily escalate in a pattern I come to expect from the Expanse series – so even huge natural disasters that take place with 200 pages to go just make me think there’s even worse to come. It’s also a change of tack for the regular crew of the Rocinante; a definite disconnect between what happens planetside and what’s happening in orbit doesn’t allow the narrative to linger in one place and make its presence unwelcome.
Overall, Cibola Burn was an enjoyable read, and certainly a good instalment in this series. It deals with a lot of the philosophy of the series so far but also sets up what I suspect is to come – the true ramifications of what’s happened in three books so far on the status quo that’s been established. I’m definitely intrigued to see what this change does to the seemingly-immobile organisations and attitudes we’ve seen so far.
Buy Cibola Burn on Amazon UK