2012’s Caliban’s War is the second book in James S. A. Corey’s ongoing Expanse series.
Fresh off playing a central role in the intensification of the ongoing Earth-Mars rivalry (from cold war to the brink of the real thing), James Holden and the crew of the Rocinante now work for the Outer Planets Alliance. Their job: tracking down and dealing with pirates eager to take advantage of the current chaos. It’s a grim job but at least Holden and his people can be sure the alien protomolecule — a super-powerful nanotech able to reshape living things according to inscrutable and ancient protocols — is safely confined on Venus and will never bother humanity again.
It bothers humanity again.
As far as Holden knows, all of the protomolecule in the Solar System is either on Venus or in a sample he entrusted to the OPA. The transformed human that massacres UN and Martian soldiers on Ganymede’s surface is strong evidence that containment has failed. Since the transformed human has been jamming radio communications, all that is known is that two units apparently opened fire on each other. Only one Martian, Roberta “Bobby” Draper survives. By the time she regains consciousness and can explain what happened, Ganymede has been ripped apart by a brief but violent battle.
As the breadbasket of the outer system1, Ganymede was too valuable for either Mars or Earth to cede to the other. That problem has been solved, because it turns out that fragile habitats are an incredibly dumb place to host a battle. By the time the shooting stops, enough damage has been done to propel the complex towards collapse. Humanitarian effort will likely only limit the implosion of the one-great habitat, not prevent it.
Sent to Ganymede to assist in disaster mitigation, Holden is roped into Praxidike “Prax” Meng’s efforts to find his missing daughter Mei. Shortly before the monster was released onto the surface, Mei was removed from her class by someone claiming, quite falsely, to be Mei’s mother. Prax is very alarmed, even more than would be normal for any loving father, because Mei needs medication every twelve hours. If she doesn’t get it, her condition will eventually kill her.
Convinced that Ganymede has been lost to the protomolecule, increasingly afraid that someone has tried to weaponize the sample he entrusted to the OPA, Holden manages to get himself (and his ship) fired by the OPA. On the upside, this means he and the Rocinante are free to help Prax look for Mei … or, if she is already dead, find out why she was snatched right before the outbreak occurred. It soon becomes apparent that some very powerful people are determined to prevent any such inconvenient questioning.
Chrisjen Avasarala, assistant to the undersecretary of executive administration, is one of the voices of reason on Earth. She has become increasingly frustrated with the testosterone-poisoned men whose efforts to kick off a final war she struggles to foil. Her attempts to hobble would-be warmonger Admiral Nguyen and preserve the peace are sabotaged; it takes her a while to twig to the fact that most of the people working with her are her enemies. The one person she can trust is Bobby, sent to Earth to testify about the events on Ganymede.
When Holden of the Rocinante and Avasarala of Earth cross paths in space, things get even dicier.
Let’s get the grumbling out of the way: this is the second Expanse book in a row whose plot is driven in large part by the search for someone’s daughter, a daughter who has somehow found herself caught up in the nest of conspiracies involving the protomolecule. That’s two out of two, which my slide rule says is nine nine point nine something percent of the books so far.
But there are some interesting new characters in this volume: Chrisjen Avasarala and Bobby Draper. Avasarala is tricky. People sometimes think they’ve taken her prisoner, a delusion that lasts for as long as it suits her. Draper is the only survivor of the Ganymede monster’s rampage. After some tortuous twists of fate, the Martian ends up as Terran Avasarala’s chosen muscle.
Holden is still a plot-enabling idiot, although he does find new ways to play catalyst in this novel. Presumably, the unfortunate functionaries who have to deal with him will come to the same conclusion Julius Caesar did about Rome’s Vorenus and Pullo:
They have powerful gods on their side and I will not kill any man with friends of that sort.
Holden’s quite irritating to his friends, but his enemies tend up to become dead.
There are a few things I really liked about this book when I first read it, way back in 2012 … and found that I still like. Kudos for pointing out that it is a bad idea to shoot up life support systems (or to screw up the planetary ecology on which you depend, but, nothing to see here, please move along). More kudos for the depiction of Bobby Draper’s dawning awareness of some hitherto unexplored implications of Earth’s economic system. Earth is home to tens of billions of people, many of whom live on basic income. A Martian like Bobby is raised to think of Earth as a backwater filled with useless, dependent canaille. In fact Earth is insanely rich by Martian standards:
Only here on Earth, where food grew on its own, where air was just a by-product of random untended plants, where resources lay thick on the ground, could a person actually choose not to do anything at all. There was enough extra created by those who felt the need to work that the surplus could feed the rest. A world no longer of the haves and the have-nots, but of the engaged and the apathetic.
And if that was not bad enough, the Martian soldier realizes:
(O)ne thing was for sure: All that running and exercising the Martian Marines did at one full gravity was bullshit. There was no way Mars could ever beat Earth on the ground. You could drop every Martian soldier, fully armed, into just one Earth city and the citizens would overwhelm them using rocks and sticks.
Mars is desperately poor, so poor that everyone on the planet needs to work hard to keep the place going. In its way, it is probably nearly as fragile as Ganymede was. Pity they are wasting so much of their efforts on a pointless face-off with Earth.
Although this book hits some of the same notes as did Leviathan Wakes, it is not a reprise (well, except for the daughter-in-danger motif). This novel tells us a lot more about the implications of all-out-war in environments where mass death is only hardware failure away,
1: Ganymede has a magnetosphere, so it does not get fried too badly by Jupiter’s Van Allen Belt. Why nobody has turned Jupiter’s many, many distant moons into greenhouses is not addressed or explained, although it seems well within the abilities of human tech in this setting.