2015’s Nemesis Games is the fifth volume in James S. A. Corey’s Expanse series.
Back in the Solar System after dealing with an extrasolar diplomatic crisis, James Holden bows to the inevitable. His much battered ship Rocinante is in desperate need of repairs. With Rocinante in dry dock, what better time to give his loyal crew shore leave?
Holden is ignoring the first rule of adventuring: never split the party1.
Amos the mechanic heads off to Earth; an old friend is dead and he wants to make sure it was due to natural causes. He will also make sure that her affairs are tied up as she would have liked. The trip will also let him visit a friend serving a life sentence for mass murder.
Naomi the engineer has personal business: complications from a love affair over long before she met Holden or any of her other crewmates on the Rocinante. When she was a naive girl, she fell for the charms of Belter activist Marco Inaros. Once she understood what sort of person he was, she severed connections… almost.
Alex takes a trip to his native Mars.
The portal network leads to a thousand Earthlike worlds. Wonderful news for humanity in general, provided they can rise to the challenge of learning to live in ecosystems with no current niche for humans. For Mars, this is a calamity, because why bother with centuries of terraforming when shirt-sleeve habitable worlds are within reach? This is a catastrophe for Belters as well; their economy threatens to collapse. They could emigrate but … many Belters cannot adjust to living on (what are to them) high-gravity planets.
Marco Inaros is determined to preserve his people’s way of life at all costs. If other people pay the costs. Marco and his allies have spent years planning a daring coup. With Naomi delivering herself to him as an unwitting hostage, now is the time to strike.
The first inkling of disaster is a stealth asteroid strike in Africa. That news is still rippling out across the Solar System when assassins target the heads of state of the Outer Planet Alliance and Mars. There’s a second asteroid strike on Earth.
His space ship in pieces, his crew scattered, his main companion a man marked for death by the conspiracy, his lover Naomi being used as bait by Marco, Holden is unlikely to save the day. In fact, the odds that he will survive seem pretty poor.
I’ve put off reading this for three years because I knew that the plot involved dropping dinosaur-killers on Earth. I am not a fan of plots that require killing three or four billion extras to make room for the plot.
An interesting discussion of the issues involved in stealth asteroid strikes can be found here. Corey’s rocks of doom are supposedly stealthy because they have been given an anti-radar coating. I would think that folks would have noticed the thermal signatures of the fusion rockets used to launch them, but hey … plot’s gotta do what a plot’s gotta do.
Re the Marco/Naomi subplot: Marco expected Holden to show up with Naomi, because (I’m guessing) he cannot imagine someone who would trust a lover to travel on her own. For that matter, Naomi turns out to be much harder to keep prisoner than Marco had expected. And while Naomi does get an assist from her friends, it’s not Holden who rockets to her last-minute rescue.
Marco, the Belter mastermind, is a thoroughly unpleasant cult leader, skilled at gaslighting his followers and to some extent himself. The Belters do have legitimate complaints (and not much reason to think Mars or Earth will care if the Belters vanish), but they are idiots to trust Marco. He wants the Belter world to survive, but only because he feels comfortable there. Marco is all for Marco and nobody else. It will be interesting to see if he gets his comeuppance and if so, at whose hands.
Marco is also an incompetent mastermind. He is thrilled by the initial success of his plot and sees nothing ahead but a march to victory. What he does not take into account is that, while the two asteroid strikes on Earth killed billions of people, there are still many billions left. Enough people, infrastructure, and resources to wipe out the Belters, and billions of reasons to do so. Marco’s end-game doesn’t look good.
Not that it matters in the context of this particular novel, which mixes post-apocalyptic adventure (for those on Earth) with interplanetary thriller/military science fiction. Nemesis Games takes place over a comparatively short time. A time just long enough to cover Marco’s attacks and their immediate aftermath. Just long enough to cover many thrilling brushes with death. Five hundred pages of brushes with death! But the book is nowhere long enough to deal with the long-term consequences of the Belter rebellion. Well, this is part of a series; presumably later books will deal with such matters.
Nemesis Games builds on the rolling series of terrible decisions seen thus far in the Expanse. Humans have been handed the keys to the stars, but they seem bent on annihilating themselves before a dangerous galaxy can do it for them. Thus far the series has featured three interplanetary wars and a death toll in the billions, all avoidable. If Corey continues killing humans at this rate, it’s going to be a close race between series end and human annihilation.
1: This may be incomprehensible to non-roleplayers. Sorry, but not so sorry I won’t add this footnote.
The Expanse series can be viewed as a Classic Traveller campaign in which the PCs mustered out with space ships and somehow talked the GM into letting them have a gunboat instead of the usual trading spaceship. Which meant the GM had to create adventures for a heavily armed ship run by people whose skills are not particularly military. The characters even correspond to CT career paths:
Bobbie: marines (but the player can’t make every session)
Reportedly, Jim Holden is intended as an example of how annoying lawful good paladins would be in real life. Curiously, in a way this makes Holden a cousin of Elizabeth Moon’s Paksenarrion Dorthansdotter.
Leviathan Wakes, the first in the series, functions as the game’s mustering-out.