Tuesday, October 1, 2019

Book Review: Cibola Burn

Book cover for Cibola BurnThe gates have opened the way to thousands of habitable planets, and the land rush has begun. Settlers stream out from humanity's home planets in a vast, poorly controlled flood, landing on a new world. Among them, the Rocinante, haunted by the vast, posthuman network of the protomolecule as they investigate what destroyed the great intergalactic society that built the gates and the protomolecule.

But Holden and his crew must also contend with the growing tensions between the settlers and the company which owns the official claim to the planet. Both sides will stop at nothing to defend what's theirs, but soon a terrible disease strikes and only Holden - with help from the ghostly Detective Miller - can find the cure.

Some refugees from Ganymede have come to settle Ilus (New Terra to others). Life is hard, but it's better than spending the rest of your life stuck on a spaceship begging for food and scrounging spare parts for your CO2 scrubber. The soil chemistry isn't quite right, but the lithium mine is a cash cow. Just gotta fill up the cargo hold and head back to Medina Station to sell it. That'll generate enough cash to buy what they need to thrive.

The thing is, they didn't check with anyone first. Why would they? It seemed like everyone turned their back on them. Along comes Royal Charter Energy (RCE) with a UN claim for the world and things get complicated fast. And by complicated, I mean people die.

Chrisjen Avarsarala (UN) and Fred Johnson (OPA) decide to hire the crew of the Rocinante to mediate the dispute. Holden doesn't want to go, but the protomolecule Miller simulacrum insists. It's been formulated by the protomolecule remnant to investigate why its creators are all gone, and it nags Holden just enough to make him even want to know.

Besides Holden, we get POVs from Basia Merton (one of the squatters), Elvi Okoye (RCE scientist), and Dimitri Havelock (security officer on board the RCE ship Edward Israel, presumably named after the astronomer). The authors do a great job getting you into their heads so that you can understand their motivations. Basia will do anything to protect his family after losing a son on Ganymede. Elvi is the consummate biologist, thrilled to be exploring a new world. Havelock was Miller's partner back on Ceres before the Julie Mao case became Miller's obsession and dealt with his share of anti-Earther bias.

His boss is Adolphus Murtry, a ruthless by-the-book kind of guy, who—to borrow the description that Amos and Holden have for him—is an asshole. Havelock mentions him working corporate prisons and industrial security his whole career. We don't get his POV though, so it's tough to figure out why he's so hardcore on enforcing RCE's charter given what happens over the course of the novel.

The authors explore the mythologizing of public figures. Holden and crew have a solar system-wide reputation at this point. In light of their accomplishments, Holden's public persona has been manipulated in the news media so much that he is hero to some, villain to others. We see that here as some characters are heartened at the news of his arrival to the colony. They assume that he will inherently agree with them on the spot and set things right, not realizing that things aren't that simple. Others view him as a dunce, easy to manipulate and render feckless. But, as Naomi put it to Havelock...
"A lot of people have underestimated Jim over the last few years. A lot of them aren't with us anymore."
I had a tough time putting this down at night and constantly checked the clock to see if I could squeeze in another chapter. Besides obviously wanting to know what happened to Holden and company, I was engaged with all of the POV characters this time. Each one went through personal growth, discovering things about themselves that felt good to see realized. While the standoff between the RCE personnel and the squatters was tense enough, a certain natural disaster that occurred midway through the book just amplified things.

This was a much better story than Abaddon's Gate. While all the interesting stuff happened in the first half of that book—and the second half was tedious with power mad jerks and body count padding—Cibola Burn carried my interest all the way through. It's a sci-fi adventure that lives up to the promise made in the first book. Now I get to worry and wonder what the TV show is going to cut out for season four.

4.5 stars


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