I quite enjoyed the Alfred-Bester-meets-Neal-Asher mix of last year’s Leviathan Wakes, by the pseudonymous collaboration calling itself James S.A. Corey (and wearing the separate bodies of Daniel Abraham & Ty Franck). I seem not to have been alone in this opinion, since the novel is currently on the Hugo ballot. Now comes its sequel/middle-volume-follow-up: Caliban’s War, subtitled Book Two of the Expanse, offers a remix of basic ingredients (plus some new additives) that is even better than the first volume’s. Those basics include a settled and industrialized solar system with its political-economic-cultural tensions being cranked up to the breaking point by the discovery and loosing of the ‘‘protomolecule’’ – an ancient, alien, biotransforming technology that may have been designed as a weapon. The first infestation – and the entire asteroid that held it – has crashed onto Venus, but we have clearly not seen the last of it. We also revisit some of the mean-corridors material that was so strong in Leviathan Wakes, but just as important this time (and nearly as mean) are the corridors of power in the UN and the military-industrial complex, and the battles fought there can be just as deadly – though the physical casualties pile up in other locations.
Where the earlier book divided its plot threads and viewpoint characters in two, this one doubles down and spreads out to show us the action – and the world – through the eyes of four interestingly different characters. Returning is the inflexibly honorable-and-honest former naval officer Jim Holden, who, with some surviving colleagues from the original cast, is operating the missile frigate Rocinante, liberated from the Martian Navy and now under contract to the new Outer Planets Alliance government works to suppress piracy. As in Leviathan Wakes, Holden and his crew are drawn into the story by a search for a missing daughter, this time a child who has become entangled in the machinations and destruction surrounding the escape of a second wave of protomolecule-generated monstrosities, and thus in the covert power-struggle that threatens to drag Earth and Mars into all-out war.
The girl’s father, Praxidike Meng (Prax for short) is the driving viewpoint character: a milquetoasty botanist who is transformed by his need to find out what happened to his daughter during the disaster that is gradually destroying the infrastructure of the Ganymede settlement. Prax’s relentless, obsessive search echoes in intensity, if not violence, Detective Miller’s quest for the missing heiress in Leviathan Wakes. On the other hand, violence of the controlled and professional variety is precisely the vocation of Martian Marine Gunnery Sergeant Bobbie Draper, the sole survivor of the incident that triggered the Ganymede disaster. She has seen, very close up, one lethal, superpotent product of the protomolecule, and she’s itching (in a controlled and professional way) to pay back whoever turned it loose. The fourth viewpoint is Chrisjen Avasarala, a hard-nosed, gray-haired, sari-clad, potty-mouthed granny whose three-or-four-levels-down title (assistant to the undersecretary of executive administration) conceals her real political power and influence in Earth’s UN governing structure. Her job is to keep the superpowers, Earth and Mars, from tearing apart the solar system, and that means finding out exactly who has been messing around with the protomolecule technology and generally stirring up strife.
As in any good Magnificent Seven-style adventure, we first spend some time with the individual actors who will constitute the ragtag team of heroes, and their converging plot threads also deliver necessary expository material and fatten up the setting. Prax’s frantic (but compulsively systematic) search for his child in the chaos of the disintegrating Ganymede colony establishes the complexity and fragility of its infrastructure. Avasarala’s round of official meetings and back-channel maneuvering outlines the theoretical and real lines of power and authority in the UN system – and shows that the political balance among Earth, Mars, and the Outer Planets is as delicate as Ganymede’s life-support systems. Bobbie’s experience with the process of debriefing after the Ganymede incident reveals the sharp (if politically unformed) mind that operates the powered armor. And the crew of the Rocinante get to show off their various competencies in space warfare, bureaucracy-wrangling, and general trouble shooting before taking in Prax and taking on the task of finding Mei – and whoever is experimenting with the ancient alien technology that might be planning to eat the entire solar system.
SF is strongly about details of How – how things work, how phenomena are structured, how they are understood – and what I am struck by here is the way that gets applied to internal states, for example, how it feels to be obsessed and starving (Prax) or dumped into a new and alien social/authority structure (Bobbie). From this angle, Corey is channeling C.J. Cherryh as much as Alfred Bester. But there’s still plenty of action, so one’s Minimum Daily Requirement of combat (space-navy, station-corridor, Jovian-moon-surface, hand-to-hand, and bureaucratic-backstabbing) will be more than satisfied. And through it all, whatever it is that the protomolecule is designed to do is getting done on and around Venus, generally just outside of camera-shot, but reported on periodically to remind us that the fights we are watching are not really the main event but preliminary bouts and that the fat alien lady has yet to sing. That, one supposes, is what will be presented in the third act, a teaser from which is appended at the end of this volume. But there’s no need to wait for Act III, or even to read Act I first – Caliban’s War is sufficiently self-contained and satisfactorily resolved to be read on its own. And it’s too much fun to be kept waiting on the shelf.