Cibola Burn (book 4 of The Expanse series) by James S.A. Corey (book review).

Cibola Burn’ by James S.A. Corey is the fourth novel in ‘The Expanse’ space opera series. Humanity has expanded to live throughout the planetary part of the Solar System and a gateway has appeared that can transport people to distant stars with live-sustaining planets.

People are desperate to find new living space, especially the Belters from the destroyed Ganymede Station. Their ship, Barbapiccola, has gone through the gate to set up an unauthorised colony on New Terra, Ilus to some. They discover and mine a rich deposit of lithium, which they want to sell back in the Solar System to buy more supplies to develop their colony.

The UN stakes its own claim to Ilus. They hire the Royal Charter Energy (RCE) to send a team of scientists to map out and explore it. Some colonists feel so threatened by the arrival of their ship, Edward Israel, they blow up the landing pad its heavy shuttle must use. However, the shuttle arrives earlier than expected and is destroyed along with the landing pad. Some people die, others survive.

Despite this antagonist start to their relationship, Belters and RCE help each other in a difficult environment on the planet: no way to grow their food, regular dust storms and the eerie relics left behind by an ancient civilisation.

Yet fear prevails: of the RCE stopping the lithium shipment that would lead to the colony eventually failing and of the Belters killing further members of the RCE team. RCE’s security starts and investigation to find those who exploded the landing pad, which adds to the tension.

The power blocks back in the Solar System agree to send an arbiter to diffuse the situation, one everyone hates, so can guarantee his neutrality between the Belters and RCE: James Holden, Rocinante’s captain, who happens to be near the gateway.

Holden has his own reasons for going to Ilus. Miller, a product of the alien protomolecule Holden can talk to, has to go where the Rocinante goes. It/he wants to find out why so civilisations across the universe have died and the key is on Ilus.

While Holden is on his way at high burn speeds, RCE security identify the terrorists’ meeting place in the nearby ruins. They set up watch for their return. The terrorists turn the tables and kill the security people.

Murtry, head of security, comes down from the Edward Israel. His way of sorting things out is to have security patrols in the settlement and sets up hidden surveillance to find out who the terrorists are.

Into this mess, Holden arrives and does his best to calm things down. Except the protomolecule/Miller goes investigating the ruins of Ilus. It becomes apparent that the whole planet has been manufactured. Miller/protomolecule in his search for answers accidently blows up a hidden nuclear reactor on the other side of the planet to the settlement, which in turn activates the defence mechanism on the string of moons around the planet. This results in high winds and a tsunami endangering those on the planet. Meanwhile, in orbit in surrounding space, all the ships’ fusion reactors stop working that will result in their orbital decay leading to atmospheric burn-up. Back on the planet, its biology becomes dangerous to the humans in a couple of ways. It is disaster heaped upon disaster.

The rest of the story is how they all sort out the various problems which is why it is, at 581 pages, a hefty book.

The story is told mainly from four points of view: Holden; Basia, one of the terrorist settlers; exo-zoologist Elvi; and Havelock, a member of RCE security who deputises for Murtry in orbit. It will take significant contributions from all four to prevent major disasters.

While this novel has all the hallmarks of an action-packed thriller, it does make a point of noting the passing of time on the long journeys, for example it takes the Rocinante at high burn 73 days to reach Ilus.

The Ilus biosphere is strange, far from what we readers are used to. Yet there is a two-way interaction between the humans and the biosphere. The mimic lizards imitate what humans do. The humans suffer from the microbes that are in the clouds. The reasons for there to have this ability to interact are gradually explained by Elvi. It grounds the exotic world-building in reality.

Both these aspects point to the general feel of the novel being ‘an extrapolation into not quite pure fantasy out of reality’. It is grounded Science Fiction verging into the incredible. It is a novel that will appeal to a wide spectrum of speculative fiction readers.

Whilst this is the novel’s strength, it is also its weakness. Like a jack of all trades, master of none, this novel skims over the surface of so many fascinating subjects. None are really done in depth, which can leave some readers unsatisfied. This could be particularly so for aspects about Ilus because, by the end of the novel, Holden is flying back to the Solar System.

It should perhaps be noted that ‘The Expanse’ episodes that cover the ‘Cibola Burn’ story arc have notable differences in sub-plots and is unable to go into the kind of detail that gives a ‘sense of wonder’ of a different world.

In summary, ‘Cibola Burn, is a cornucopia of delightful space opera themes, designed to be an enjoyable and relaxing read.

Rosie Oliver

August 2023

(pub: Orbit, 2014. 581 page hardback. Price: £18.99 (UK). ISBN: 978-0-356-50416-2)

check out websites: www.orbitbooks.net and www.the-expanse.com

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