Books of 2017, #5: Cibola Burn, by James S. A. Corey (The Expanse #4)

Cibola Burn is my least favorite book in The Expanse.

I think, in the end, it comes down to the primary antagonist, Murtry—he’s not just an antagonist, he’s a villain; too obviously a psychopath, too mustache-twirlingly pleased with behaving in an almost inhuman manner.

Even Captain Ashford in Abaddon’s Gate is clearly…well, at this moment in time, I have to say, he’s Trumpian—obviously mediocre but placed in high position for reasons other than competence, and thus given to defensive, authoritarian, megalomaniacal behavior, because he mistakes being a strongman for being strong. It’s ugly, but it’s all too understandable. Also, he’s just not in the story that much, so you don’t have an opportunity to get tired of him.

Murtry, on the other hand, quickly outstays his welcome.

But his malign presence did make me start to think a bit; if you look at who the villians are—as opposed to merely antagonists—they’re generally corporations and their representatives: Protogen, Mao-Kwikowski, and Royal Charter Energy. Is that simply because, in our post-2008 crash world, the amoral venality of corporations is the evil most visible to us?

And what does that say about our current President?

Anyway, while I found the first half of the book fairly interminable, it does pick up the pace somewhat in the last half. We do see the last of Miller, which is perhaps a little sad, but also, I think, a necessary precondition to moving on to stories set in a somewhat different arena.

One more to re-read and then on to new material.

Books of 2017, #4: Abaddon’s Gate, by James S. A. Corey (The Expanse #3)

So here’s the thing: when you have books that, in order to really justify being re-read, are dependent on the characters being compelling enough that they will minimize visibility for the plot happening, you damn well better make each and every one of those characters awesome.

Now The Expanse has compelling characters—I could read about Holden and his crew for extended periods without any complaint. And Bobbie Draper and Chrisjen Avasarala are a similar delight to read. Clarissa Mao starts to get interesting, but mostly right at the end of the novel. Pastor Anna and Carlos Baca…just aren’t.

What that means is that something like half our narration is focused on people who just don’t hold your attention the same way the second time around, which means you end up staring at the plot happening, and that makes things a lot less interesting.

Sure, Bull is smart enough to understand the politics that put him where he is, and how to at least attempt to leverage whatever he can to get a good outcome, and owes Fred Johnson…but that isn’t enough.

And Pastor Anna is obviously a good person, and asks us to think about WTF does the idea of meeting actual aliens would mean for humanity, and provides wonderful contrast to Amos, our endearing, light-hearted psychopath. I mean, it makes for some wonderful copy…
“Killing people won’t make him feel better,” Anna said, regretting the words the second they left her mouth. These people were going to be risking their lives to protect her. They didn’t need her moralizing at them.

“Actually,” Holden said with a half smile, “I think it might be for him, but Amos is a special case. You’d be right about most anyone else.”

“God damn, Red,” Amos said, putting his hand on hers. “You must be hell on wheels as a preacher. You’re making me feel the best and worst I’ve felt in a while at the same time.”

Good-hearted unrepentant killers were not something she’d had to fit into her worldview before this, and she wasn’t sure how it would work. But now she’d have to try.
…but it ain’t enough.

All of which feels a little bit like nit-picking, insofar as it’s a still a fun read, but it just doesn’t feel like it’s going to hold up like the first two novels—I found myself putting it down far more than the first two books because I could too easily find something more interesting to do.

That said, plot-wise, it is a big shift for the universe of The Expanse, and opens up a whole lot of new possibilities to be explored (at least through book #9).

Books of 2017, #3: Caliban’s War, by James S. A. Corey (The Expanse #2)

I’ve read critiques of Leviathan Awakes that felt the Noir backdrop for Miller didn’t work, and that they were happy he was gone by the end of the first book.

Although I certainly found the crew of the Rocinante more fun, I still kind of liked Miller; still if we had to lose him, could we do better than gaining Chrisjen Avasarala and Bobbie Draper? Easy answer: No. Especially Avasarala:

“They’re all fucking men,” she said.

“Excuse me?” Soren said.

“The generals. They’re all fucking men.”

“I thought Souther was the only—”

“I don’t mean that they all fuck men. I mean they’re all men, the fuckers. …

Whatever my feelings about the plot and in some cases character changes they made in the TV show, the only thing that really hurts is that Avasarala simply can’t be so casually foul-mouthed on basic cable.

Or just some of the text that comes along with her:

She’d stopped looking tired a while ago and had moved on to whatever tired turns into when it becomes a lifestyle.

Still, Amos does ultimately win the quotability competition:

“When it comes to scrapes, I’m what you might call a talented amateur. But I’ve gotten a good look at that woman in and out of that fancy mechanical shell she wears. She’s a pro. We’re not playing the same sport.”


He turned toward the galley, but the conversation wasn’t finished.

“If I had. If I had done those things, that would have been okay with you?”

“Oh, fuck no. I’d have broken your neck and thrown you out the airlock,” Amos said, clapping him on the shoulder.

“Ah,” Prax said, a gentle relief loosening in his chest. “Thank you.”


At least as far as my enjoyment goes, it’s important that these two compelling characters get added for this second book, because on re-reading, it feels like the gears of the plot are clanking just a little bit in the background—I feel like there’s some manufactured conflict that doesn’t play out as smoothly as it should have.

Still nothing more than typical sophomore slump, and not anything like, say, the second book in Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey & Maturin series, where things totally go off the rails before he figures out how to manage the whole notion of a sequel.

I also book-ended this with the short story The Butcher of Anderson Station, which gives some background on Fred Johnson and how he got his sobriquet, as well as the novella Gods of Risk, which is what Bobbie Draper does on her summer vacation. I think the interstitial story strategy is a pretty brilliant one—it lets the author address things that add some richness to the main line of stories without having to have an awkward flashback or play stop-the-world for an awkward infodump.

Books of 2017, #2: Leviathan Wakes, by James S. A. Corey (The Expanse #1)

By any measure, I was late to the party with The Expanse. I hadn’t heard of the author (either pseudonymously or individually), the books, or the SyFy Channel adaption until it was well underway—and I assumed, since SyFy hadn’t done anything of interest to me since before they changed their name, that it was probably going to be crap.

Still, I saw a review at that was quite complimentary, so I set the TiVo to pick up everything and waited for the earlier episodes to come back around, and then started watching.

Something like four episodes in, I bought all (at that time) five books, and devoured them all in short order. But I had utterly lapsed in tracking my reading by that point, so I never mentioned them here.

With the knowledge that the second season of the TV program is coming up, and the advent of a sixth novel being published last December—and knowing cramming down five novels in a couple of weeks doesn’t necessarily lead to the greatest retention of the material, so I didn’t want to start it and be confused—I decided to re-read them. And just for good measure, I decided to re-watch the first season of the show.

Whew, that’s a lot of preface.

I think the most interesting thing for me is really the contrast between my experience of this, and Last Year.

This is so unambiguously what I was thinking of when I talked about a plot-driven book.

Don’t get me wrong, there are some extremely likable characters, of whose interactions I am delighted to partake, whether it’s Miller in all his dourness, or Holden in his occasionally moronic idealism, or Amos in his…Amos-ness.

But in the end, the focus is ultimately on “what happens”—you can see the strings pulling the characters along. It’s not even enough that they simple witness the action, they have to play their part and read their lines so that Stuff Can Go Down. When the book ends, it’s hard to imagine these characters continuing narrative.

All of which sounds terribly pejorative, which isn’t really my intent—I’m not here to run these books down at all: I really enjoyed them the first time around, and I think I enjoyed them even more this time. But it’s a very different experience.

And the text is done with plenty of skill and attention. It is far more quotable than Last Year. To pick out a few things that I highlighted during this read:
The circle of life on Ceres was so small you could see the curve.
All the energy he’d put into holding things together—Ceres, his marriage, his career, himself—was coming free.
He changed to a competition show with incomprehensible rules and psychotically giddy contestants.
The second most interesting thing for me is the difference between the book at the TV show.

I hadn’t quite paid enough attention to the finer details of things the first time around, I guess, or maybe it was just lack of familiarity such that I didn’t notice it, but the way things play out in the book at the TV show are very different.

Some of it, I’m sure, was to keep production costs down—the escape from Eros, for instance, has a lot less going on in the TV show, and some of it is probably about things that would be a lot harder to present without requiring more telling and less showing—I’m thinking of the mechanism that brings Miller and the crew of the Rocinante to meet for the first time.

There were a number of things that were setup for events that happen in later books (I’m thinking of Naomi and Fred’s interactions here), and introducing Chrisjen Avasarala earlier was something of a no-brainer given how great she is in the books, and how important she becomes.

But the way they present Amos, or even, to a lesser extent, Chrisjen, ends up being less nuanced, and even hints and distorting the characters in a way that starts to remind me of what Peter Jackson did to Faramir the The Lord of the Rings—and that is the single thing about those movies that still sticks in my craw nearly a decade and a half later.

What I would really love to see, I think, would be an analysis by Todd Alcott, (or someone like him) who was both very familiar with the source material, and with what things work and don’t work in the visual medium, to perhaps try and understand why some of the changes were made.

Books of 2017, #1: Last Year, by Robert Charles Wilson

I didn’t expect to make a first post in this series this quickly—but I started this book around 6pm yesterday, and ended up finishing just after 11pm. A little late for me, but I wasn’t inclined to stop.

I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised—I’ve found most of Robert Charles Wilson’s books compulsively readable, and one of their virtues is that they don’t carry a lot of fat; although reading ebooks can obscure relative length, he simply doesn’t do doorstops.

It’s one of the several ways they’re not your average Science-Fiction novels.

If you read the synopses you could be forgiven for thinking they were plot-driven; certainly they all start with some relatively high-concept plot: Spin – the Earth has been enclosed in a bubble that retards time. The Chronoliths – mysterious monuments start appearing from the future. The Affinities – humans can be classified into 22 distinct groups.

But they’re not plot-driven, or at least they bury the mechanics of their plot deep within the organic choices of their characters. Specific individuals, who get caught up in events; often through relationships, sometimes because small actions of theirs pull them in, or perhaps because their action is an unintended precipitating incident.

In the case of Last Year, Jessie Cullum is in the right place at the right time—twice in fact—and his life is upended. Again.

Another distinctive feature of his stories is that their ends are…hard to describe. It’s tempting to call them messy or ambgiuous, but that isn’t quite right—it brings to mind authors who can’t stick the landing, where the book ends because they just ran out of stuff, or got tired of typing.

It’s a little more like they’re open-ended, except that’s not really it either—although Spin did end up with a sequel (though it was more a book in the same universe), that’s the exception rather than the rule.

I guess the best way to describe it is that the characters rarely feel like they quit existing the moment you turn the last page—that they have more life ahead of them, and more stuff is going to happen to them; it may be epic or mundane, it doesn’t matter. All that matters is that while this particular story may be done, while this particular segment of their life may be finished, it’s neither an end nor a setup for more.