Pew-pew! Woosh! Zoom! Pew-pew! Kaboom!
Pardon me. Let’s begin again:
Caliban’s War is the second novel in James S. A. Corey’s space opera series The Expanse. (Corey is a combined pseudonym for Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck). The Expanse novels take place across the colonized solar system, from Earth, to Mars, to the fabricated habitats of the asteroid belt and the moons of Jupiter and Saturn. They follow square-jawed, morally-upright Captain James Holden and his crew, as well as a cast of soldiers and diplomats and civilians that shifts and expands in each novel, as they negotiate interplanetary politics and the growing certainty that a privately-owned biotechnology company operating throughout the solar system has been doing something exceptionally shady. Lots of shooting ensues, and also flying, and also exploding, some of the most entertaining of each I’ve read in a long time, bolstered and made meaningful by frequently funny and sometimes pointed and powerful interactions between enjoyable characters.
Caliban’s War trades in the shadings of noire and space horror the first book, Leviathan Wakes, lathered over its space opera substratum in favour of political thriller and military elements, as the central mystery surrounding the activities of the biotech company solved in the first novel has broader political and military implications for the balance of power in the solar system. However, this second book keeps the feel of a continuing series going with effortless ease despite this shift in tone. Comparisons are an oversimplifying trap to fall into, but it’s kind of like the new Star Trek movies — the new J.J. Abrams ones very specifically — if the plots made sense and didn’t assume you were a goldfish, like an actioned-up, flashier take on the teeming space habitats and cramped shipboard freedom of C. J. Cherryh’s wonderful Merchanter novels, with the fun-filled zest for life of a version of Starwars set in our solar system and minus the force in which the intelligence behind the narrative doesn’t feel the need to pause the story every five minutes to worship Joseph Campbell’s corpse. These novels are what’s sometimes called by the ridiculous name “hard science fiction” insofar as they make some attempt to imagine how long distance future space travel and life in space might work, so there’re lots of claustrophobic ship corridors and rotating artificial gravity drums and stuff like that, but the coauthors are really careful to apply the speculative science such that it furthers the plot and enriches the characters’ world and no farther, creating a space opera universe that feels grounded, but still very focused on story.
Though the book and series bring good action throughout and that’s where the focus lies, characters are very well-balanced, including those whose outlooks and life skills aren’t those of people you’d expect to see in an action flick. So while we have one awesome space marine character who’s thoroughly military, and several others who are varying degrees of cheerfully violence-ready, the book also contains one of the best, most well-rounded explicitly pacifist characters I’ve ever encountered in a story like this. Prax, the space botanist dude who gets a major arc in Caliban’s War, is slightly less well-served in terms of the sheer enjoyability of his sections and exploration of his character, possibly because he spends most of the book in a state of advanced psychic distress and feels much more out of his depth than the rest of the cast. For the most part, however, Corey keeps Caliban’s War as fun and as tense when we’re in a politician’s office as when we’re flyin’ in space, and is equally interested in the personalities that populate both scenarios. Also one of the new major characters in this one is this cranky old United Nations administrator who basically just swears at people nonstop for the entire book and she’s pretty great.
In mentioning the shift in tone and subject matter between Leviathan Wakes and Caliban’s War I’ve already hinted at the way this series structures itself, namely as a sequence of individual units of story that absolutely build on each other to produce something bigger, but remain very distinct. Part of this is focus: Leviathan Wakes is horror-tinged space noire. Caliban’s War is political thriller / military science fiction. Abaddon’s Gate, the third novel, is accessible psychological thriller fiction with a bit of exploration thrown in. The overall tone is the same across the series, but the concerns of each book are slightly different. The other part of this series structure that keeps each book a well-defined unit is that, while each novel builds on the previous one and you couldn’t, say, read them out of order, each completes clearly-defined arcs for its characters and closes major plot points. While Captain Holden’s adventures continue beyond Caliban’s War – well beyond, apparently –, this novel sees him and his crew through a clear stage in their evolution as defenders of justice and the freedom of information. Each of the other point of view characters, meanwhile, have arcs that feel complete enough that they could well never appear again, though I hope a couple of them do. While the novel’s epilogue leaves the story with a last-second development and a major open question, this feels more like an acknowledgement that the story has a next phase, rather than a cheap trick meant to gloss over a failure to close out this one.
There’s a generalization that floats around some corners of science fiction fandom that they in some way or other don’t make ‘em like they used to anymore. I’ve run into various versions of this narrative and I think they’re all stupid [beyond straightforward assertions like, say, the rarity of sf tv shows set in space these days, which is just fact], but I almost used one myself here. I was going to say that it seems like the focus in much successful science fiction, or at least the sf that I’ve personally been getting the most out of, has retreated from the stars in recent years. Instead, a lot of the best stuff’s been focusing on the problems of a series of overpopulated, overindustrialized, often quite distopic and shithole-esque imagined future Earths with a trend toward narrative with a bitter, confrontational “welcome to the future we’re making, bitches” undertone. For works emblematic of this trend see Margaret Atwood, Paolo Bacigalupi, Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower and Parable of the Talents a bit further back in the 1990s, and a whole crapload of young adult dystopias – including Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games – that honestly are probably what makes this feel like a marked tendency to me, rather than just the decline in public interest in space exploration working itself out in the science fiction of this economically strapped and restricted age as is only reasonable. In fact this is just warped perception and a reflection, perhaps, of which works in the genre have felt most relevant to me. Space fiction has, of course, continued to be published, and some of it’s been great. Caliban’s War and the other Expanse books feel like a step forward to me, though, despite their old-fashioned focus on people colonizing the solar system, because they commit absolutely to mixing a small degree of the rigour and attention to detail found in the sf stories that put the “science” first and often read like fictionalized tech manuals with the drama and excitement of unabashed storytelling, demonstrating that the presence of the one does not necessarily preclude the presence of the other – though admittedly the fact that the “science!” is used as a seasoning rather than as the main dish does probably help.
The Expanse is one of the most enjoyable, accessible, plot and character-driven works in a subset of recent sf that sets out to imagine the next couple centuries with a focus on space, insisting that humanity might still reach the stars en masse in some form, and envisioning a far from utopic but still broadly optimistic version of future society. This trend also includes works by authors like Kim Stanley Robinson and Alastair Reynolds. While Robinson in particular writes some individual scenes that I find stunningly beautiful and full of cosmic wonder, I think Corey’s Expanse books are my favourites in this niche, because they mix can-do human optimism with compelling what-happens-next plot so well, and ask questions about how moving away from Earth out into the vast mysterious dark of space might effect people’s outlooks socially, politically, and – in the third book, which introduces a pastor whose one of my favourite major characters in the series – spiritually, in ways that stay very grounded in the individual characters they apply to, rather than feeling as though the author is trying to ninja a textbook past us by grafting on a little plot engine to justify the social commentary and techno-wankery extrapolation. [M. J. Locke’s novel Up Against It, about the working inhabitants and administrators of an asteroid, is another recent novel that works really well in this optimistic, pro-space mode but hasn’t gotten nearly as much attention as the Expanse books. I know if I’d read Up Against It and the Expanse novels at the age of sixteen I’d have wanted to get me to space, and, crucially, that if I were a scientifically-minded teenager who could do math and stuff I’d wanna work to surmount the technical hurtles the book’s characters live on the other side of.]
Recommended: For everyone with a pulse, basically. Especially if you like stuff like the new Battlestar Galactica, the non-jedi bits of Star Wars, novels by John Scalzi and/or Lois McMaster Bujold.
Avoid: If you haven’t got a pulse this probably won’t do much for you. Also if you just don’t give a shit about spaceships, I guess. There is relatively little in the way of technobabble here, with the focus kept firmly on the action and the characters and their interaction with their evolving, politically-unstable world, but there is an attempt to extrapolate what I guess in my ignorance feels like it’s meant to be semi-rigorous future spaceflight and this spaceflight and how it works does get talked about, so if you just don’t like the aesthetics of spaceship stories it might be best to give the Expanse a pass, as it’s definitely playing squarely to those of us who do like spaceships and the exploration of hypothetical life in space. This whole spaceships and spacestations gig and stories about wizards and kings and lost magic are basically my two pigs-in-shit reading scenarios so honestly I really can’t relate.