2014’s Cibola Burn is the fourth volume in James S. A. Corey’s Expanse series1.
The Ring Builder’s protomolecule creates death and damage — just ask the unfortunates on Eros — but it also grants opportunities. Humanity has lost one major asteroid city; it has been forced to share the solar system with a vast, powerful alien artifact that regards humans as potentially useful raw materials. On the plus side, thanks to the protomolecule humanity now has access to the Ring Builder wormhole network and a thousand life-bearing worlds.
With potential living space expanded a thousandfold, one might expect it would take centuries before groups began squabbling over territory. Ha ha. It takes about a year.
Refugees from the Ganymedian theatre in the grand Mars-Earth-Outer Planets Alliance-Deranged Corporations squabble fled through the Ring and the dimensional antechamber beyond it towards what they hoped would be a refuge. Their trajectory took them to a world that they named Ilus. As they had hoped, the world was human-friendly. Even better, their landing site turned out to be rich in lithium ores, ores that they can sell to their home solar system.
Determined to establish their claim to the extrasolar realms, the UN renames Ilus as New Terra and grants a mining licence to the Royal Charter Energy company. The UN is also gracious enough to send a gaggle of administrators along with RCE’s first expedition to Ilus/New Terra. The bureaucrats will give the illegal refugees the governance they would want if they only knew what was good for them.
Concerned that everything for which they have worked will be stolen, some of the new Ilusians set out to sabotage the landing strip on Ilus/New Terra. They succeed all too well. Not only do they manage to tear up the landing pad, but they cause the shuttle that was trying to land on it to crash as well.
Some neutral party needs to be dispatched to Ilus/New Terra to deal with the crisis before it spirals into full-blown war. Who better than James Holden, the stalwart idealist whose dedication to the truth helped touch off the war from which the refugees were fleeing? Offered a referee fee too good to turn down, Holden and his companions head off to Ilus/New Terra, there to convince the factions to cooperate with each other.
RCE security head Murtry has a better idea: batter the refugees into submission. Some will not willingly submit to their betters. That’s fine with Murtry. He needs at least a few people to execute if the rest of the Ilusians are to get the point. By the time Holden arrives, Murtry has done his best to ignite refugee/RCE hostilities that could burn for generations.
If the humans on Ilus/New Terra have centuries, that is. The local ecosystem is not nearly as benign as the settlers want to believe. Also, the one common property shared by every extrasolar world that the humans can reach is that a billion years ago they were Ring Builder worlds. Ring Builders built for the ages; some of their … um … relics are still active. The great unnamed enemy who exterminated the Ring Builders also built for the ages; their relics may also be still functioning. Between two such great powers, humans are chaff to be ground between millstones.
Each of the books in this series seems to explore a slightly different genre: zombie apocalypse IN SPAAACE, war (and why it’s a bad idea) IN SPAAACE, revenge novel meets dungeon crawls IN SPAAACE. This particular instalment is a first settlement adventure, in the tradition of Roanoke, Darien, and the backstory to Brian Stableford’s Daedelus novels. In spaaace.
It’s a long genre tradition that of course humans start settling alien worlds as soon as they can. Cibola Burn is no exception. Where it is exceptional is its willingness to demonstrate why that would be a bad idea2. While Ilus/New Terra’s and Earth’s biochemistries are different, lifeforms from one can still inflict potentially crippling or lethal effects on lifeforms from the other. The differences in biochemistry greatly complicate agricultural efforts; earth plants won’t grow without their familiar soil biota.
There are two reasons — no, three — why it takes so little time for people to start the extrasolar analog of the Lincoln County War. The first is, people are idiots. The second is that, from the UN perspective, the risk of a small colonial war is an acceptable price to pay to establish their authority over a region a thousand times as grand as the Earth. The third is that while, yes, there are a thousand worlds, the geometry of the portal network means that some worlds are easier to reach than others. The refugees picked Ilus because it was convenient; RCE picked New Terra because, thanks to the refugees it was the only world for which detailed information existed.
Wait, more reasons! A consistent theme in these books is that large corporations by their nature attract and reward amoral sociopaths. Unlike other large companies in the previous books, RCE does not seem to be artificially reshaping the brain chemistry of their employees to turn them into useful monsters. This may not be due to RCE’s (nonexistent) devotion to corporate ethics; it’s that it’s unnecessary. Given the proper motivation, the useful monsters will create themselves. The system works!
On a brighter note, humans may be as flawed as ever, but at least Holden seems to be learning from past experience. Although he seems an extraordinary choice for diplomat, being the Gavrilo Princip of Earth-Mars relations, he does his best to carry out his mission. Unlike previous books, he is not there to create chaos. He is there to preserve chaos. In this mission he succeeds.
1: And quite possibly the last book I reviewed for the Science Fiction Book Club. It is also the most recent Expanse book I’ve read. I got behind.
2: It’s not unique, however. Kim Stanley Robinson’s 2015 novel Aurora chronicles a settlement attempt that turns out to be doomed, doomed, doomed. Because it’s carried out by idiots, idiots, idiots.
Stableford’s Daedelus series had as its background the thesis that there are a lot of ways a seemingly friendly world could turn out be a lethal trap. In fact, of all the colonies established centuries earlier (and then, for reasons that seemed compelling at the time, ignored), at least half had died out. A significant fraction of the worlds where humans survived had dramatically transformed their inhabitants.
Similarly, Poul Anderson published a short story (when and where I forget) about a colony world which faced a number of challenging conditions, each of which had already been found and overcome on other worlds. None of those other worlds faced all of the challenges at once. Too bad for Anderson’s colony.