Book Review of “Cibola Burn,” the Fourth in the “Expanse” Series

cibola burn
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Last night, I finished Cibola Burn (2015), which is the fourth book in The Expanse novel series by James S.A. Corey (Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck). As with the previous novel Abaddon’s Gate, it was a little difficult for me to get into at first, but once I was hooked, I was hooked hard.

The general plot is pretty straightforward. Now that the Ring is operational and the gateways to other parts of the galaxy are open, a group of belter refugees took their ship on an unauthorized journey through a gate and ended up in another solar system. For a year, they’ve been colonizing Ilus (called New Terra by the UN) and have set up mining facilities. However, the UN has chartered the Royal Charter Energy (RCE) corporation to both scientifically explore and materially exploit the world, seeing the settlers as “squatters.”

A small group of settlers, including Basia Metron who we briefly saw in Caliban’s War (yes, people who have appeared before come back) planning to blow up the landing pad for the RCE ship’s big shuttle as a protest don’t realize the shuttle is on final approach. In trying to abort the explosion, Basia sets it off, either killing or terribly wounding everyone on board including the UN appointed regional governor.

This sets the stage for an RCE vs settler standoff. The settlers have the aging transport in orbit which they hope will transport their mined ore across the gate and back to market in the solar system, while the RCE has their more modern transport orbiting and establishing a blockade.

Who does the UN send in to play peacemaker but Jim Holden and the crew of the Roci, but even Holden doesn’t know he’s being set up.

Miller, or what’s left of him as a protomolecule construct, is still appearing to Holden but only when he’s alone.

As the only two crew of the Roci who grew up under gravity, Holden and Amos make planetfall while Alex and Naomi wait in orbit, the only armed ship this side of the Ring. Jim’s attempts at diplomacy, while well meaning, fall pretty flat, with each side of the corporation vs common person (the little guy) conflict claiming either legal or moral right.

Holden continues to be idealistic, Amos loyal and lethal, Miller mysterious, while RCE security officer Dimitri Havelock, Miller’s “Earther” partner from Leviathan Wakes, tries to keep peace on his ship. His homicidal security chief boss Murtry leads the majority of his troops to the planet in an effort to keep the peace after the destruction of the shuttle and subsequent assassination of a smaller group of security people. Except his idea of keeping the peace is to defend RCE interests at all costs up to and including genocide.

Then it gets worse. The protomolecule-created planet decides to fight back resulting in a planet-wide catastrophe that destroys the colony, blinds everyone (temporarily) except Holden, and threatens to knock all three ships from orbit by shutting down their fusion reactors.

As with the previous novels, the story is very character based, although the descriptions of technology, when required, are impressive (except alien tech, which in spite of the detailed depictions, I still couldn’t envision).

In this story, I only wanted one person to die horribly, expected others to die horribly instead, and except in the broadest possible way, didn’t see what was coming (yes, there was a “happy” ending).

The writers play the “race against time” theme to the hilt with every human life in that solar system at stake and an entire planet trying to kill them. Miller is the key, but he can’t physically shut down the defense grid. With Murtry out to kill Holden, it’s up to RCE scientist Elvi Okoye to work with Miller as his eyes and hands, but will she risk almost certain death to save everyone else?

This is another page turner from Abraham and Franck, and at least as far as the first four books is concerned, should be required reading for any science fiction fan.

There were a few slight “wobbles” in that the writers felt it necessary to casually mention various LGBT relationships/marriages as well as “three-way” relationships and let’s face it, Holden was raised by several mothers and fathers. That said, all of the principles seem to have more traditional marriages/relationships including Holden and Naomi as well as Biasa and his wife Lucia. After a tremendous crush on Holden for over half the book (hero worship as Holden’s become something of a legend), Elvi gets over it instantly just by having sex with a co-worker. Go figure.

Why do I care? I care, not because I object to stories including LGBTQ+ characters, but because I do object to “inclusiveness” for its own sake. Every character and every aspect of each character ideally should serve the story, not someone’s sense of “it would just be cool.”

I recently commented that in comic books, a number of previously straight characters, including Tim Drake/Robin, had abruptly been retconned, becoming gay or bi after 30 to 60 years or more of being straight. Now the son of Superman (long story) is supposedly coming out as gay as well. Good character development or coming out just because of the “it’s so inclusive?” Whoever and whatever your character is, it should make sense in the overarching storyline or you’re just blowing smoke up my wazoo.

But I digress.

As with Holden and Miller’s relationship in the previous novel, everything hinged on their partnership in disabling protomolecule technology. Once again, the machines were trying to kill everyone in response to humans as a perceived threat. I hope this isn’t the start of these books becoming repetitive. For that matter, how many times can Holden and Naomi be separated with Holden trying to figure out how to say his last goodbye?

We do see what appears to be a final goodbye, but with Miller it’s hard to tell.

In the midst of all this, as I previously mentioned, there’s a continuation of the conflict between Earth or Earth/Mars (gravity well) and belters/OPA so pretty much racism or classism as the case may be. This book used that theme to both intensify the conflict since the RCE/UN represents Earth and the “squatters” are pretty much all belters. Plus, even on the ECA ship, a minority of scientists and technicians are also belters. Havelock, when he worked with Miller on Ceres, was on the other side of that bigotry, but he’s got to put those feelings in order to do the right thing for the passengers and the ship.

Adding a planetary disaster to the mix, can the stranded RCE people and belter settlers pull together to survive, and even if they can, will their alliance endure after the crisis has passed? There’s an answer, but given events up until this part of the story, it seemed a little too optimistic to me, and maybe even to Holden who is the original Boy Scout.

Also, there’s a framing sequence with two other characters, Avasarala, who now is a very big shot with the UN but no less caustic and mouthy for it, and Bobbie, my favorite Martian Marine, now working at the equivalent of Mars’ VA. As it turns out, the discovery of habitable worlds on the other side of the gates will have dire consequences for the future of Mars.

Now that I’ve finished “Burn,” I don’t have to wait for the next chapter. Book 5, Nemesis Games just arrived from the library.

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