Our 2nd Expanse book raises the stakes with new characters
Let’s start by reviewing the POV characters we’ll have in this book.
James Holden is in a different place in this book. When we were introduced to Holden he was the 2nd in Command on the Canterbury. Former Earth Navy, dishonorably discharged, charming and handsome. He becomes the captain of our Crew on the Rocinante and starts a relationship with Naomi Nagata, another member of our Crew. Easy main character fodder. He is known throughout the solar system for his broadcasts in the first book which caused Mars to go to war with The Belt and then Earth to go to war with Mars.
We ended the last book with Holden preventing Earth from nuking Eros. Fred Johnson takes Earth’s nukes and the crew watches as Eros, the protomolecule, Julie Mao, and Detective Miller crash into Venus. For the last year or so Holden has been working for the OPA, the Outer Planets Alliance, Space Hezbollah. He seems to have spent the time hunting space pirates which is where we open the book. Holden seems…jaded? He’s working for OPA but not part of the OPA. He’s trying to figure out what he wants to do with his life. He’s in an in-between phase. He’s not where he started as an Ellen Ripley style hired hand on someone else’s spaceship but he’s not yet a Malcolm Reynolds style independent ship captain. That’s how I communicate, references to other things. Holden’s arc in this book is about getting to that next phase of his life and out of the liminal space where he starts.
Helping him get there a new character, new POV character, Praxidike Meng and his daughter Mei Meng. Prax, as he’s called throughout the book, is a botanist on Ganymede, a moon of Jupiter. His four year old daughter Mei is our prologue POV. In the prologue, Mei is kidnapped. Prax spends the opening of the book looking for her, first on Ganymede and then later with the crew of the Rocinante. He’s an NPC who gives our player characters a quest. And when that quest is complete the Crew can point to it and say “this is what we want to do with our lives.” Prax is a character we root for. He starts the book at absolute bottom and over the course of the book the Crew helps him put his life back together. He also provides a lot of exposition in the story and much of the impetus to move the plot forward in the direction it goes.
Prax is the first Elite Belter we’ve met. While Miller was a cop both he and Naomi come from lower class backgrounds. Prax is a botanist on Ganymede. Ganymede is explained to us as the most essential of humanity’s settlements in The Belt. While Ceres is The Big City or biggest port of call in the Belt, Ganymede is its breadbasket and a hub for medicine and science. By being both a scientist and a parent seeking their lost child he really grounds us in the idea of The Belt as people trying to make their way in life. Miller, both as a cop and the audience’s ambassador to Belter culture spent a lot of time showing how different The Belt is from the world that we the audience recognize in our lives. Prax shows us we’re really not so different after all. He wants to feed people and raise his family, what could be more basic than that?
Contrasting with Prax is Bobbie Draper. Her full name and title is Martian Marine Corps Gunnery Sergeant Roberta Draper. While Alex flew for the Martian Navy for 20 years, retired, and took a job flying on the Canterbury, Bobbie (as she is known to everyone) is an active duty Martian marine when we meet her in Chapter One. While Prax is noted to be skinny even for the low gravity born Belter, Bobbie is one of the biggest people in the series. Pacific Islander by lineage, two meters in height, muscled like a maiden’s fantasy, clad in the red power armor of marine force recon.
I’m talking a lot about her job and what she looks like. When we meet Bobbie, that is who she is. She’s the ideal soldier. And then like Prax she’s immediately kicked to rock bottom by the events taking place on Ganymede. While they couldn’t be more different, the story of Caliban’s War for both Bobbie and Prax is about two people getting their swagger back. They both face real disillusionment with their lives in this story. Prax goes back to his life. But I get the sense there’s a part of Bobbie that dies after her first chapter. The character we meet isn’t the character we have later.
There’s a scene in a later book, when a young character given a new job is compared to a rock in a tumbler. In a rock tumbler, you place the rocks together to rub against each other and they come out polished. In this metaphor the idea is that putting a younger person with someone experienced rubs the stupid off the young. Bobbie seems to be in that position in this book. In the third Metal Gear Solid game, a character says that a soldier has to be nothing more than a political tool. Bobbie gets a chance in this book to see how those tools are wielded and why when she’s placed with another character.
Our last POV and my favorite, United Nations Assistant to the Undersecretary of Executive Administration Chrisjen Avasarala. Her title conjures up the main characters from British political satire comedies like the Minster of Adminstrative Affairs in Yes, Minister or The Department of Social Affairs and Citizenship in The Thick of It. In those shows, the comedy comes from small characters with very little power struggling for relevancy and status but their impotence means they can only fail. A competent person who could accomplish great things would never be placed so far down the ladder.
Avasarala is not those weak incompetent characters. I’m reminded of a quote from the series Sherlock about Mycroft Holmes. Mycroft claims to “occupy a minor position in the British government.” Sherlock retorts, he is the British Government. Avasarala is the government of Earth or at least its most competent member.
Avasarala gets a great establishing character moment in her first chapter. The scene is set, the heads of the armed forces of Earth are in a meeting. Stern people, all of them men, all in uniforms. They’re discussing the war with Mars. Very serious business. Admirals and Generals arguing. Then we’re introduced to our POV character. An elderly Indian woman in a bright orange sari eating pistachios from her purse. She says five sentences, leaves, and then the military of planet Earth tries to figure out how best to meet her wishes.
I imagine Avasarala is a fun character to write in the model of characters like Topsy Lavish from Terry Pratchett’s “Making Money” or Olenna Tyrell from ASOI&F. She’s a feisty old woman who curses like a sailor and runs Earth. She’s also a grandmother, someone who lost her 15 year old son to an accident, and her decades long marriage to her poetry professor husband is the most touching relationship in the series. Like Miller in the first book, Avasarala also has a nigh-superhuman level of insight into people not to mention access to the finest psychological profiles her government’s intelligence community has to offer.
Every Avasarala chapter or appearance is a treat. They’re all like small council chapters. The character is a great example of competence porn wrapped in a blanket of fucks.
If you ask people what they remember about The Expanse TV series they’re going to highlight two performances. In the last essay I highlighted Wes Chatham’s breakout performance as Amos. The other one is Shohreh Aghdashloo as Avasarala. Aghdashloo has a decades long IMDB page and I imagine she was pursued for the role of Avasarala in the same way Charles Dance is the only actor the showrunners for Game of Thrones could picture in the role of Tywin Lannister.
All right I guess I have to stop gushing about Avasarala and talk about the plot of this fucking book.
The first few chapters of this book take place on Ganymede. If you don’t care to google it, Ganymede is a moon of Jupiter. It is referred to as the most important of humanity’s settlements outside Earth and Mars being where the food that the Belt relies on is grown. We start with Mei Meng, Prax’s daughter, being kidnapped from her school. This prologue is terrifying because while Mei doesn’t understand what’s happening we in the audience do. When a strange woman is introduced as Mei’s mother here to “pick her up” Mei starts to ask where’s mommy and then her kidnappers tickle her to silence the question. Then at some point the kid makes an innocuous comment about space monsters. One of her kidnappers is clearly only there because they needed someone to act as mommy and sucks with kids. She starts leading the 4 year old to a large specimen tube, “You like space monsters?” Woof.
Cut to…Bobbie Draper. Bobbie and her fireteam of marines are also on Ganymede, guarding Mars’s interests. Bobbie, like the audience, is an outsider to Ganymede. She gives us an update on what’s happening in the solar system. Mars and Earth are on the edge facing off against one another. Bobbie is special forces and ludicrously overqualified to protect soybeans. But Ganymede is important so they need to be there. Things are boring.
Then shit gets real. Shots are reported at the Earth base? Then the Earth Marines come out? They’re running away from…something. There’s a creature similar to the one Mei saw. A human but with no space suit in the vacuum of Ganymede’s surface. It jams the radio around it and effortlessly kills the marines from Earth and Mars. Before Bobbie loses consciousness she sees the creature explode. I forgot this creature exploded here until Bobbie recalls it later in the book.
In the stars above Ganymede the spaceships open fire on each other. People are dying on the ground so damn it they should die in space too. This causes damage to the mirrors in orbit which reflect the distant sunlight onto the vital crops the planet produces. This brings us to Prax, the maker of those crops. Prax witnesses the destruction above and realizes his daughter is missing.
These early chapters press the gas and drive our characters towards Ganymede. Bobbie is fighting the war. Prax is surviving the war. Avasarala is governing the war. These three POVs give us a soldier, civilian, and politician’s perspective on Ganymede. These roles are not an accident.
The one exception here is the Rocinante. It’s acting as the Starship Enterprise, hunting space pirates. While these pirates are killing people, they’re also engaged in survival crimes, attacking ships for their air, food, and water. We meet the Roci in medias res about to get into a fight. Holden is more worried about his coffee than the people shooting at him or killing the people shooting. There’s a “time to make the donuts” weariness to his actions. But we got a place to be and the chapter ends with OPA Honcho and Adventuring Party Patron Fred Johnson telling Holden to get his ass to Ganymede.
Holden and the crew (except Alex) are put on a ship named the Weeping Somnabulist. Its crew was killed by pirates. Now Holden and the crew, on behalf of Fred, are headed to Ganymede pretending to be a relief ship. The Somnabulist is done in the books with much less ceremony than the show. This might be one of those moments that the show does better. There’s a wonderful Amos character moment here where Amos distracts the Earth Marines that inspect their ship from Holden who’s trying not to look nervous doesn’t fucking work. The Expanse TV show spends like 3-4 episodes getting to Ganymede after closing the first book. The book just hard cuts with the crew there already.
Starting the first two Holden chapters in medias res seems to hint at the lack of agency Holden is searching for. Holden is frustrated and sick of everyone’s shit. Landing on Ganymede is juxtaposed with food freighters taking off because that food is owned by corporations while Holden’s ship is bringing relief supplies to the starving. Holden immediately threatens a pack of criminals looking to shake him down while Naomi looks on with disapproval. He does so good though, convincing corporate security to stand down from launching a food freighter. And then they meet Prax and we get the first of our new POVs with the Rocinante.
The crew is conducting an investigation as to why Earth and Mars are fighting on Ganymede. We the audience know that a weird protomolecule space monster attacked both sides and this was used as a reason to start fighting. The audience knows Prax’s daughter was taken by a doctor and there’s a connection between the kidnapping and the monster but not why. It’s Miller’s plot from Leviathan Wakes in reverse. While Julie Mao’s investigation just led to an even wider and wider circle of mystery here we are trying to narrow the scope. The war is already there but the Rocinante crew goes from investigating warfare to finding Prax’s Daughter.
While this goes on, Bobbie is in recovery. We really get to sit with her as a character as she tries to heal. There’s a frank discussion of PTSD. Bobbie is sent to Earth as part of the negotiations demanded by Avasarala. Avasarala will later tell her that the reason Bobbie is there is to show everyone that Mars did not start the fighting and doesn’t know about the weird protomolecule space monster.
Bobbie does not disappoint in this regard. She’s brought to these very official meeting on Earth. She’s not expected to say anything but her power armor is brought out as it has the only video recording of what the hell happened on Ganymede. This will pay off later. In the meantime, Bobbie speaks up at the meeting and wants to know “okay why are we talking about literally anything except the fucking space monster?” This is taken as a grave embarrassment to the dignified meeting.
Caliban’s War alternates between the story on Ganymede with Prax and Holden and then on Earth with Bobbie and Avasarala. They’re taking place at the same time and reference one another in the same way that Miller and Holden’s plots referenced each other in Leviathan Wakes.
On Ganymede, Prax meets the crew of the Rocinante by chance and asks them for help. By chapter 10, Prax has put together some more information on his daughter’s kidnapping than he began the book with. He has figured out that one of Mei’s doctors was responsible. There are also a number of other children missing. All of them have the same immune system disorder, like Mei. The Crew heads to a hacker to get more security footage about Mei and the Doctor’s whereabouts when she was kidnapped. Naomi points out that she could hack the info just as well, but the story needs Amos to almost beat the Hacker to death when he tries to up the price.
Naomi says that this is out of character, that Holden would not normally resort to violence as quickly as he has been lately. This feels more like something we’re told than something we’re shown. The audience doesn’t have enough information to pass this judgement on Holden. The character seems frustrated and he’s acting out. He also seems to have very understandable PTSD related to his experiences with the protomolecule to date. More than anything he seems sick of everyone’s shit. He’s having a stressful day and this seems understandable but that’s not what Naomi keeps telling us.
Using the security footage, the crew is able to pick up on Mei’s trail to a disused part of Ganymede. On the way they pickup some security contractors. Everyone, EVERYONE, including the intelligence people reporting back to Avasarala on Earth, instantly recognizes James Holden despite his effort to remain incognito by growing a beard.
With their new friends, the Crew happens upon some hired guns and a thrown grenade looses one of the protomolecule monsters. We the audience know what’s been set free but the crew does not. Holden loses his shit upon seeing the protomolecule on Ganymede and they resolve to leave. I forgot this happened, the crew actually gets captured by Earth intelligence forces for like 15 minutes. The journey takes a few chapters but by Chapter 22 The Crew leaves Ganymede with Prax in tow.
Amos gets a bunch of characterization in these chapters, more than we’ve seen for him before. Amos takes to Prax and his search for his daughter and it becomes deeply important to him.
Meanwhile on Earth, Avasarala hires Bobbie as a liaison to the Martian military. This is also where the book introduces Jules-Pierre Mao, Julie Mao’s father and the head of Mao-Kwikowski, our evil corporation in the Weyland-Yutani sense. Jules-Pierre denies any connection with the protomolecule, Avasarala threatens she will ruin him if he’s lying.
The book tries to keep up some mystery about who could possibly still be researching the protomolecule after Protogen has been destroyed. This daylight between Protogen and Mao-Kwikowski doesn’t exist in the show and honestly that approach makes more sense. It’s not mentioned in the first book, only the second, that Protogen is a subsidiary of Mao-Kwikowski. The plot seems obvious, is that just presentism? I think it’s a knot that didn’t need to be there. The book seems to want it to be a surprise…but it isn’t. Evil Corporation had more Evil Projects than the one we found in the first book. I am…over-fucking-whelmed.
This bad writing bites Caliban’s War in the ass when it comes to Holden’s plot. Holden is convinced that, since the Crew gave the Protomolecule sample to Fred Johnson, Fred must be behind Ganymede. Holden is jumping to a fucking conclusion and literally everyone but him sees it, to the point that Naomi breaks up with him for like 15 minutes over it.
Let’s talk a bit more about Avasarala and Bobbie, my favorite part of the book, before I get to my least favorite part. The show changed Avasarala’s son to a marine killed in action when in the book he was 15 and died in a skiing accident. The kid being a soldier lets the show make some naked emotional appeals to use his death for drama later. Before this re-read I did not remember what Errinwright’s relation to Avasarala was. He is in fact her boss.
Chapter 12 gives us more Avasarala character building and shilling for how smart she is as well as showing us with her grandkids. We get one of the all time best Avasarala quotes here, “These cunts are digging into my grandma time.” Errinwright, her boss, and Soren, her assistant, are on the edges as constant side characters. The show tells us right away that Errinwright is up to some shit, the book hides this. Avasarala is focused on Venus which is objectively more important as an alien lifeform is doing god knows what there. But Ganymede is immediately more important as the guns are all being moved there. Avasarala doesn’t see that she’s being sidelined.
The Show and Book are very different with regard to Bobbie on Earth. The Show makes Earth seem like a real shithole. Bobbie is surrounded by desperation and a system that doesn’t work. The book is a bit more grounded. Earth seems like “If The Federation Was Real This Would Be It.” There’s no money but also no one owns a fucking vineyard. In the book, Bobbie is walking around earth to get some tea and there’s a wholeass UN campus. The focus is more on the scales falling from Bobbie’s eyes. She doesn’t request asylum like in the show. The show kind of wrote themselves into a corner with Bobbie turning against Mars, the book just makes less dramatic choices. Here she just gets a job.
In Chapter 24 the war between Earth and Mars suddenly gets hot. We are told that one of the admirals, Nguyen, is going to Ganymede with a fleet. Avasarala thought she used bureaucracy to re-assign his ships so that he wouldn’t be able to fight Mars. But somehow, he keeps them.
Caliban’s War is repeating the “Bad Guys Start A Fake War To Cover Up Shit” plan that we already saw in Leviathan Wakes. This plan seems slightly better thought out but I’m still not convinced the scale of this coverup was needed or possible.
In the show, the Martian Negotiator gets killed by Errinwright and he pits Mao against Avasarala. Again the book is less dramatic. Her assistant Soren tries to pit Avasarala against Bobbie. Avasarala, based on this one minor character biting their lip while they talk, realizes the plot and explains it to the audience. In the show Errinwright tricks her into meeting with Mao to kill Avasarala. The book is so much more clever. Avasarala gets an assignment from her boss and knows she can’t refuse without losing face which will cost her real power. Avasarala leaves Earth to meet with Jules-Pierre Mao and is put on a ship to Ganymede.
The Rocinante leaving Ganymede and Avasarala leaving Earth is the end of Act 1. It turns out that the protomolecule monster is onboard the Rocinante. The crew sciences the shit out of it and gets the thing off the ship and blasts it with their engine.
After killing the monster, the Rocinante heads for Tycho Station. Holden threatens Fred Johnson and gets fired from the OPA. Holden kind of knows he’s jumping to an unsupported conclusion and does it anyway. He’s being dumb. The plot needs him to be dumb here so he can operate independently. But Holden immediately gets his shit together. The Crew is thrilled to be independent. They have that agency they were seeking at the start of the book. But. Not to be a bitch but this lasts like one book. Fred and Holden have a big dramatic showdown but this doesn’t last. In future books there’s practically no daylight between Holden and the OPA.
Holden eats a lot of shit in this book. Alex doesn’t let him off the hook by stating that they “started a war” last time Holden sent a broadcast and that “Help” is a strong word for what the crew does. Fred tells Holden’s he’s sick of the self-righteous attitude and belief that the universe owes Holden something. Avasarala does not hold back in her opinion. To quote her in chapter 35, Holden is a “fucking moron.” But Bobbie defends Holden in a fashion that Holden is on his own ship and he’s free. He’s not playing The Game.
Naomi and Holden are broken up for like one chapter. Reading the text, it seems like the problem is not the violence, it’s Holden taking everything on himself as the voice of justice. What Holden says goes and hang everyone and everything else. Fred points out, I am the boss, I don’t have to put up with this, Fuck You, Holden. But the crew forgives Holden. They have to or there’s no story. They want to. Honestly only Naomi is upset with him and she immediately seems to forgive him.
Holden and crew make a public appeal for Prax. They broadcast widely, hey this is Prax and some asshole kidnapped his daughter. They crowdsource enough money to investigate and a lead from a former colleague who clues them in that Mei’s Doctor probably worked for Protogen. This is the one time when Holden’s “Tell Everyone Everything” behavior actually works.
In Chapter 36, we get a shitload of exposition courtesy of Prax. While Holden keeps jumping to conclusions that are wrong, Prax seems to magically get correct information based on Science. Here, Prax suggests that the monsters on Ganymede are humans modified with the Protomolecule. Prax has also tracked chemical shipments to Io, another moon of Jupiter, which he believes is the next step in the breadcrumb trail. Based on this information, setting the protomolecule monster loose on Ganymede as a live field test seems like the dumbest fucking thing in all existence. I would say this is akin to trying to make a grilled cheese sandwich using a nuclear bomb test.
Chapter 36 leads into the best part of the book and possibly the entire series. The Chapter ends with backlash to the public appeal when Prax starts to get death threats. Someone in Public Relations on Earth releases a fake story that Prax is a wife beater and child molester. Avasarala treats this as the first mistake made by her enemies as it gives her a cudgel to start demanding answers to this obvious bullshit.
To recap Avasarala’s actions until this point. She is trying to keep the war between Earth and Mars from escalating. She fails because her boss is undermining her with help from her assistant who has betrayed her. Avasarala is sent on a humanitarian mission to Ganymede aboard Jules-Pierre Mao’s space yacht. The purpose here is to get Avasarala off the board. Avasarala knows this, but doesn’t see a way to get out of it while keeping her job. She doesn’t believe she’s in any danger because that’s The Game. No one actually gets hurt they just lose their job.
The problem comes when Avasarala tries to contact Holden from aboard the Space Yacht. Then shit gets real. The crew of the space yacht cuts off her access to communications and refuses to redirect the ship. Avasarala tells the captain, “you’re making a mistake, shithead.” With the power of law on her side, she turns to Bobbie and tells her, “Get me control of this fucking ship.”
What follows in Chapter 38 is the best action scene in the entire nine book series. Bobbie puts on her Fucking Martian Power Armor and proceeds to take control of this fucking ship. This seems heavily inspired by the first Iron Man movie when Tony Stark builds his first suit of armor. Bobbie cuts her way through a bunch of security people who are completely outclassed by her. Bobbie gets control of This Fucking Ship. Avasarala realizes that the Earth Navy is about to squash Holden for being a pain in the ass who is onto the plot. Then they realize that Mao’s space yacht is also home to The Razorback, Julie Mao’s racing ship. This almost makes me weepy and I wish the show gave The Razorback a bit more ceremony. Something about Julie’s voice saying “you can’t take the Razorback” in her sing-song voice in the show just gets to me. Followed of course by Miller’s “you don’t take shit from anyone.”
First though, there’s some paperwork to handle. I mean this literally, Holden and his crew do paperwork in Chapter 39. Holden’s big sin up to this point has been making the decisions for everyone. Here, Holden proposes that he, Alex, Naomi, and Amos form a corporation and they vote on important things. And then they vote on who does what on the ship. This is a session zero. This is a TTRPG session zero where the group discusses their roles and boundaries. We clarify who has what job. This is a fucking session zero, it’s great, you will not persuade me I’m wrong here.
We also get an interesting discussion between Prax and Amos here. Amos gently asks Prax if the news about him abusing his daughter is true. Prax assures Amos that it is not true. On a re-read you see that Amos will immediately kill Prax if he believes Prax is a child molester. The audiobook really sells this, the narrator does a great job of translating Amos’s unspoken threat. Prax does not realize the danger he’s in. I mention this as a good character moment for Amos. The Prax/Amos relationship gets a lot more development in the show. I don’t think it is bad in the book, just the show gives it more space.
This gets us to our meeting between all our POVs. Avasarala believes Earth won’t blow up the Rocinante with her aboard. She is wrong. A couple changes from the show, Bobbie’s Power Armor should be red and not the gun metal grey of the show. Avasarala is wearing a sari not a spacesuit. This meetup also takes us into our Third Act.
Couple little moments, Chapter 40, I laughed aloud at Holden calling Avasarala a little old politician. Also, Avasarala takes her coffee like Winston Wolf, lotsa cream lotsa sugar. The book also gives us the benefit of Avasarala’s POV. When she meets the crew we get her background on them from intelligence files.
Chapter 42 has a fight between Holden and Avasarala that feels like the final death of Holden’s paladin philosophy. Or at least, showing its limits. The situation is that Earth’s navy is coming after the Rocinante. They’re going to be destroyed, all is lost. Holden proposes they send all of their information to the whole universe. Avasarala says they should send it to two Earth admirals.
Avasarala calls Holden out. How much of this shit is his fault because he decided to send out information to the galaxy at large? Holden’s response: None of this is my fault. Bad people deciding to do bad shit is not his problem. Recall his reaction in the first book when called out. Like a prepared speech, “I didn’t say anything that wasn’t true and engaged in no speculation.” Avasarala hits back low. She says that if they tell everyone everything then the moon of Io is probably going to be nuked and that little girl Mei Meng is likely doomed. Holden has a college anarchist response that the reason everything is fucked up is because of little political cabals.
Fortunately, the Rocinante crew votes on things now and Holden loses.
Two things happen next. We get exposition spread out between a few chapters and a space battle. The space battle is pretty straight forward. Earth sends ships to blow up the Rocinante. At Bobbie’s urging, the Roci reaches out to the Martian navy which has enough ships to take out the contingent. The Crew is now free to proceed to Io where everyone is going to meet up for a showdown.
After the battle, things get quiet. The surviving Martian ships resupply the Rocinante as well as re-arming Bobbie’s suit of power armor. The episode “Reload” in the show is one of my least favorite. The book comes to same ending with less drama. It’s strange how quiet things get after this battle. Like the stakes are going down. Everyone has a minute to catch their breath and prepare for the fight to come. Bobbie works on her armor and is preparing to fight a monster again, this time fighting to win.
The Exposition focuses on what the hell the monsters are. The book calls them hybrids one time and Protomolecule Monsters everywhere else. The show just refers to them as Hybrids which is way more straightforward.
For starters, the bad guys are mutating kids without immune systems to make them into living weapons using the protomolecule. The problem here, and this is not mentioned in the show, is that they don’t work. By that I mean they can’t be controlled. There’s a bomb surgically placed in them to blow them up as needs but as the monster on the ship shows they’ve learned to remove that bomb if they want. Also, when one protomolecule monster learns something, they all learn it. So they all know how to escape any constraints put on them.
Jules-Pierre Mao has developed these as a first strike weapon and is auctioning them to the highest bidder. That bidder turns out to be Earth, at least a faction of Errinwright and Nguyen, instead of Mars. The crew collectively drops their fudge that everyone could be looking at Mars transformed into another Eros. That’s a couple million people on Eros vs four billion people on Mars.
Holden’s chapter uses the post-battle break to consider who made the protomolecule. On a first read, we know NOTHING about who made this thing. All we know is that about two billion years ago Some Species threw a rock at earth expecting to use its single celled life forms to make…whatever the fuck is happening on Venus which we don’t know. One scientist calls Venus a Whale Brain doing Spatial Reasoning problems.
This is the slow preparation of arms. It’s quiet but everyone is kind of expecting this to be The End. The folks on the Rocinante don’t know if they’re going to walk away from this one. Avasarala quietly considers her intelligence files on the crew to give us some background. This doesn’t mean anything now but I’d call it gardening for future potential plots. Naomi has two masters degrees and could’ve gotten a full scholarship for her PHD. Alex has a shitload of drunk and disorderly arrests and a child he doesn’t know about. And Amos Burton was indicted but never tried for several murders on Earth and got a vasectomy the day he was legally able to. More importantly Avasarala also takes a moment to feel love for her poetry writing husband. I love that this gets shared with the audience.
We spend these few slow chapters preparing for the battle to come around Io. Holden brings it around in chapter 47. He calls it “watching Ragnarok gather.” While on the Rocinante it felt like things were getting slower, smaller, that’s not actually what’s happening. What is actually happening is that a couple Earth figures, Errinwright and Admiral Nguyen, are basically launching a coup by trying to acquire this planet destroying protomolecule weapon. Holden describes the situation around Io as the largest number of space ships that have ever been in a single battle. Earth’s Rebels vs Mars + Earthers recruited to our POV Avasarala. The book does a great job of not letting get lost in those weeds, it keeps our attention focused on the intimacy.
Mild Spoilers Here But This Shit Is Important
The best example of this focusing is Holden’s conversation with Avasarala in this chapter. Everyone is headed to Io. Holden says they should be there in 18 hours. Avasarala complains that space is too big but this is the same story as ever about Empire building. Empires grow until their reach exceeds their grasp. Avasarala makes the statement that in humanity’s beginning we fought over who got the best branches in the tree. The only difference is now humans fight over a solar system. This reminds me of a big Alex speech in the 5th book, Nemesis Games. It’s about 3/4s of the way through the book. Alex passes judgement on the events of that book saying that what happening there is “who gets the most meat from the hunt. First access to the water hole. Mating rights. The usual primate issues.” If The Expanse series has a theme I think this is it. That no matter how far out we spread, people are still people. This comes up in the later books. We want agriculture. But we keep fighting over the idea that someone over the hill has it better than we do or worse, that they’re about to take our shit.
Here Endeth The Spoilerth
We settle into a standoff after the philosophy when the fleets meet at Io. Everyone’s got their guns, no one’s dramatically cocked them yet. Errinwright sells out Nguyen. Nguyen threatens to launch against Mars if everyone doesn’t stand down. Then a message comes through from Earth ordering Nguyen back and the fight is on with the Rocinante just trying not to die. It feels a bit like the end of Serenity and the chickens have come home to roost. It should be mentioned that during these fights Bobbie takes a burden off Alex to crew the Rocinante’s point defense cannons. Her title is after all Gunnery Sergeant. Things are chaotic but the result is a loss for Nguyen.
Then Io fires its monster carrier torpedoes and all hell breaks loose. There are 230 in all. 230 children with an immune disorder transformed into alien hybrids. Awful. It’s not clear how it happens but one of the torpedoes hits Nguyen’s ship. In the show, it is shown that one of the monster carriers is shot down and crashes into his ship.
The show gives us a lot more of the back and forth with Nguyen trying to assert control aboard his ship. It also has another character, Admiral Souther, aboard his ship and eventually executed, for the sake of drama.
The book leaves the beginning of what happens aboard Nguyen’s ship to our imagination. It’s a clear use of the “Nothing is Scarier” trope. All we get is Nguyen’s increasingly panicked requests to get off the ship and his refusal to turn the cameras on as the protomolecule monster is set loose.
The monster torpedoes are headed for Mars but there’s a problem. Their transponders are off so the missiles can’t be tracked and shot down. And without an offer of escape, Nguyen refuses to turn the transponders back on.
No one knows what to do at this point. So Holden steps in to make the hard choices and live with the consequences. Amos, Bobbie, and Prax will head down to the surface of the planet to find Prax’s daughter. And Holden decides he’ll take the Razorback to Nguyen’s ship to find the transponder codes for the monster torpedoes they assume are headed towards Mars.
Naomi asks Holden not to go. He does. But she insists that they are working together on this. Holden is acting like he’s not coming back and that this yet another goddamn hero moment. Naomi is not having that shit. Holden finds this compromise acceptable.
We do Holden’s journey all within chapter 49. The struggle that all our POVs face here all feel self contained. It’s funny how Holden reflects that the Earth Capital Ship he’s flying to is so close at “only a few thousand kilometers”. The ship, the Agatha King, is a horror movie. The ship is flooding with radiation within minutes of being hit by the protomolecule torpedo which the Rocinante crew recognizes as the protomolecule trying to feed itself.
Holden meets a survivor shortly after boarding who gives him some exposition. The monster went straight for the reactor and killed everyone who tried to stop it including every marine on the ship (so no more armed backup for Holden). At first Holden doesn’t see anyone else except for the occasional puddle of ominous goo. The survivor tells him that everyone, everyone, in the ship is in the galley of the ship. This seems like an obvious shout out to Aliens where the computer says everyone is congregating in one part of the complex. The show does a lot of the Agatha King with Avasarala’s hireling, Kotyar. The book is better because it combines letting your imagination do the work before pulling the trigger on hundreds of zombies.
Holden gets past the protomolecule infected zombies and reaches Admiral Nguyen. When Nguyen refuses to hand over the codes that will let the missiles get shot down Holden immediately shoots him dead. He thinks of Miller shooting Dresden in the last book. They reach the ship’s self-destruct and Holden immediately wants to sacrifice himself because of course he does. But fortunately the survivor he found was infected and will totally sacrifice themself. Larson is fucking real one. RIP. After this, it’s over. He gets the codes, gets the fuck out, and Larson scuttles the ship.
Meanwhile on Io. Bobbie, Amos, and Prax are headed down to the moon. The book really divides everyone’s mission very quickly. Bobbie is here to confront the monster while Amos and Prax are rescuing Mei. Everyone is having a boss fight with the enemy that defeated them before. Holden confronts the protomolecule while Bobbie confronts The Hybrid Monster. They find a monster quickly and her fight is on. There is a fun action scene that follows. Unlike the show the monster here grows new limbs, it grows a fucking proboscis trying to get into her power armor. She eventually triumphs, blowing the creature’s head off, which seems to kill it, and leaves her coated-in-goo armor behind on Io. It’s awesome, it doesn’t top her taking the space yacht, but it’s a great moment for her character.
Amos and Prax head into the scientist’s complex. This sticks pretty close to the show. They find six children in cages, including Mei Meng. The evil doctor, Strickland, immediately tries to play it like he’s one of the good guys. Except Amos, Prax, and the audience heard this fucking asshole talking before they walked in saying they could use these kids to negotiate passage to safety. Prax realizes that Holden’s broadcast caused the doctors to not kill Mei. Unlike the show, Prax walks away with his daughter and no drama. He doesn’t agonize about killing Strickland. He takes the kids and goes. Amos on the other hand, is That Guy and shoots Strickland. Albeit without a cool one-liner like in the show.
Then it’s over. Everyone has fought their boss battle or faced their fear or what have you and we have to figure out what next. I think more than any other reason this is why The Expanse gets a justified comparison to Game of Thrones. We don’t cut to credits. The characters have to keep living in the world they created. Aragorn, or Avasarala, do not rule wisely and well fade to black. Prax wants people to stop giving him money now that he’s found his daughter. Avasarala is refocusing on the politics of the next move, riding back to Earth in triumph and re-building Ganymede. Amos is playing with Mei, he and Bobbie are chucking the kid back and forth in low gravity. No one said science fiction can’t be fun folks. As Avasarala says, you never win the game. You just don’t lose first.
While the Rocinante crew and Avasarala bask, some people lose. Bobbie is left adrift. While the show brought her back for the adaptation of the third book, we leave her here with her ghosts Avasarala says that being haunted is something that doesn’t go away but you get better at it. That line reminds me of Wandavision, what is grief but love perservering? Bobbie wonders if she’s ronin or what. Avasarala leaves her with a blank check to do whatever she wants if she ever decides to cash it (Book 4 Epilogue here we come!). Errinwright gets to retire instead of getting a well deserved cell or bullet.
One big open question I’ll get to in the spoilers is that while Errinwright and Nguyen bought the protomolecule weapons from Jules-Pierre Mao on behalf of Earth, we never find out who they were bidding against on Mars. Avasarala reflects that whoever Jules-Pierre Mao was talking to in the Martian government or military is going to get away with nearly destroying humanity.
Eventually the crew gets back to Earth and we end our Avasarala chapters in this book with her sending messages to her grandkids on the way and returning to her husband with an armful of lilacs and a big hug. She feels the Rocinante crew looking at her, wondering who is this guy who is married to Sweary Grandma Chrisjen Avasarala. It’s beautiful.
The last two chapters are from Holden and then Prax’s point of view. Holden agonizes through telling his parents he’s with a Belter, his parents are a little racist but accepting. There’s one line that seems like a spoiler for future books I’ll cover below but the reason for this chapter is the perp walk. Holden and Avasarala finally come face to face with Jules-Pierre Mao. In the show, Mao is on Io. Holden takes him prisoner and forces him to kneel before Avasarala in a delicious but very dramatic moment. It’s fun but makes no sense that Jules-Pierre Mao is on Io. This is a man that doesn’t touch the merchandise.
Holden meets Mao face to face to ask him why and if this was all worth it. He tells Mao he found his daughter Julie and asks “Was it worth it?” Mao has no response other than “Why are you here?” and he mentions Antony Dresden, the Protogen executive Miller shot in the head. Mao does not get off any lighter despite not getting shot. Avasarala rubs it in a little, reminding Mao that earlier in this book she told him things would not go well for him and she is not someone to fuck with.
Avasarala tries to recruit Holden but Holden refuses. He’s done working for governments for a while. Mao is going to get his legacy erased and dropped into a prison forever. Avasarala is pissed that she’s getting promoted and she has to travel and be away from her family instead of the relatively quieter background puppetmaster job she had before.
Jules-Pierre Mao, in the end, finds out.
We come at last to our finale. There’s a reception on The Moon for the victors. This reminds me a lot of season 5 of the TV show, you know the scene I mean if you’ve seen it. Prax is there but he’s happy to be with his daughter. In the background we hear Avasarala say “Son of a fucking whore” loud enough for Mei to ask, “what’s a whore, Daddy?” Prax, PhD Botanist and Father-Of-The-Millennium, says it is a kind of frost. Fred Johnson shot down the monster torpedoes that were headed to Mars with the nukes he stole from Earth in the first book which wraps that plot up neatly. In the show Naomi recommends he do this which is a nice touch to set up the coalition in book 3.
Then Venus happens.
An object takes off from the surface of Venus. I think the show doesn’t do the size of it justice, Prax puts in on level with Ceres (1/13th the size of Earth) or Ganymede (slightly bigger than our Moon). The music in the show is wonderful. Holden can’t take his eyes off the news. Whatever this thing is, it’s what the protomolecule came to do and humanity is powerless to stop it. In keeping with it not having an exact size, we never get much description of it. A squid-like ship, impossibly huge.
Then comes the stinger. Detective Miller appears in the Rocinante to Holden with a glow of protomolecule blue.
WOOF. That’s such a good ending. Now we can roll the credits.
Caliban’s War is a worthy sequel to Leviathan Wakes and makes you want to immediately read the next book, what with it ending on a great hook. We cover some of the same ground, another fucking evil corporation starting another fucking war for research into an alien superweapon. Watch a movie guys, you can’t control the alien technology. But it’s just so fucking fun.
The early Prax chapters seed the ground for our 4th Book where Basia becomes a POV character. Prax sends Basia a message, saying that they found his son, Katoh, dead in this book.
In Chapter 26, Amos has a line, “I was born to be the last man standing.” Did the authors know how they wanted the series to end at this point? I think they had an inkling of what would happen even if they didn’t quite know how to get there yet.
During their breakup, Naomi leaves Holden to live temporarily with Samara Rosenberg who is a wonderful woman that gets fridged in Book 3. We get much more Sam in that book and like Avasarala we grow to love her because she’s so goddamn competent.
The show engages in some whitewashing on UN characters. Sadovir Errinwright is supposed to be dark skinned and Secretary General Esteban Sorrento-Gillis was a political prisoner near the Andes. The show casts white guys for both of these roles.
The public appeal The Crew makes for Prax reminds me of Holden’s broadcasts in Babylon’s Ashes. There, Holden does some human interest stories from Ceres just showing people living their lives and the propaganda actually helps build up a lot of support for repairing the solar system in the wake of the Free Navy.
The fight between Fred Johnson and Holden reminds me of the fight Holden has with Drummer in the 7th Book. There Holden arrests the rogue leader of Planet Freehold instead of just condemning the planet to death for violation of the Spacing Guild’s rules. Drummer is running the show at that point in the series and is basically sick of Holden’s shit, but she doesn’t have time to make it stick like here. Not that it does stick, Holden and Fred get reconciled pretty fucking quickly.
Humans Modified with the Protomolecule doesn’t work in book 2, it sure as shit doesn’t work come book 7-9 when Duarte tries to do it. I think the one change there is that Cortazar and Laconia have 30 years to experiment before Duarte tries making himself…whatever he makes himself into in an attempt to live forever. Which is ironic considering how the series ends.
Holden in Chapter 41-42 prepared to suicide run against the six Earth ships reminds me of when he proposed doing this in season 5 of the TV show. Show Holden comes off very Jon Snow, giving his life for no reason other than to go out heroic. Here the book really condemns that attitude as kind of just idiocy.
With regard to Avasarala wondering who Mao was talking to on Mars, I wonder if the authors had Duarte in mind at this point. Maybe in theory if not name. Duarte is an aide to an Admiral in the Navy at this point in the story. In book seven, Avasarala says that Duarte’s thesis in college was focused on how Mars could take control of the solar system, which got him a position in the Navy and so on.
In Leviathan Wakes, Naomi and Holden briefly discuss procreation. Naomi mentions she has eggs frozen on Luna and Europa. But here at the end she says one quiet line, “No babies” before she falls asleep. I think it’s clear at this point the authors had Filip in mind and an idea for how to reap the seeds they were planting. I think while Leviathan Wakes is a great sci fi book Caliban is really where the gardening starts for The Expanse as a series.