Cibola Burn

Cibola Burn is my least favorite Expanse book and the hardest to get through.  There I said it.  This can be a frustrating story where things just keep getting worse and worse and worse until the characters get lucky and limp away from a shit show at the fuck factory.

The situation in Cibola Burn builds off the Gates opening in Book 3.  Our heroes and their Alien Computer Simulation of Detective Miller turned off the Magrathean Security and opened 1373 gateways to 1373 solar systems.  Most of the gates lead to habitable planets and this story deals with the crew of the Rocinante journeying to the first human settlement on an alien world.

The titles of the Expanse books are clues.  The Leviathan is a biblical sea monster.  Caliban is a Shakespearean character, half human, half monster.  And Abaddon could refer to a Hebrew angel of death but more likely for book 3, a bottomless pit where the dead rest.  Cibola is almost optimistic by comparison, referring to the Spanish myth that the western hemisphere, the “new world”, contained cities of gold.  At the end of Book 3 Alex made reference to the greed that would come next after the gates opened.  In the TV show Holden literally uses the phrase, “blood soaked gold rush.”  In our own lives the new world had resources but the cities of gold were a myth.  And the story about cities of gold is only optimistic for some people.  Not the civilizations getting destroyed in its pursuit or ignoble would-be conquerors who are going to be sacrificed for the benefit of their equally genocidal masters that get to spend the gold.

There’s a quote from Cibola Burn on the back cover that always gives me a chill.  “An empty apartment with a missing family, that’s creepy.  But this is like finding a military base with no one on it.  Fighters and tanks idling on the runway with no drivers.  This is bad juju.  Something wrong happened here.  What you should do is tell everyone to leave.”

This book has been very front of mind for me recently.  I am getting more into Free League’s Alien TTRPG.  And a central feature of the Alien universe is colonizing new worlds.  Alien: Covenant centers around humanity’s first colonization ship landing on a new world.  The movie Prometheus almost uses the back cover quote above word for word.  Their version is “We were so wrong.  We must leave.”  In those movies this is a very intentional use of Lovecraftian Horror.  The idea that ignorance is the safest choice.  Space travel and journey into the unknown places Humanity in far greater danger than remaining on Earth.

It brings to mind a quote from The Call of Cthulhu: “…the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the light into the peace and safety of a new dark age.”

Lovecraft and the horror of the unknown is what we’re stepping into with these new worlds in the Expanse going forward.  To contrast Lovecraft and quote Abaddon’s Gate, Belter “philosophy boiled down to ‘what you don’t know kills you.'”  There’s a connection I can’t quite explain between the central Expanse theme that science can solve all our problems except for people and Lovecraft’s horror of some kind of cosmic Peter Principle that humans keep pushing our luck until something pushes back.

Let’s take a look at our POVs for Cibola Burn.

Please welcome back for our Prologue, Gunnery Sergeant Bobbie Fucking Draper.  Let’s have a warm hand for Roberta.  Bobbie is back home on Mars and she is watching the news.  Sure it’s actually 1373 solar systems but she quotes the pithy line historians will one day use, “A thousand worlds…” perhaps uttered with childlike wonder.  While it hasn’t been long since Book 3, Bobbie tells us that the great undertaking of terraforming Mars is on shakier ground than it once was.  Fewer pedestrians on the street, university enrollment down.  To punch the subtext home, Bobbie’s family is making the argument literally in front of her.  One point of view is that when it comes to these Thousand Worlds we need to wait and see.  Billions of people live on Mars and are invested in Mars.  We came too far to abandon this now.  The other point of view from Bobbie’s nephew is that people could be living on the surface of 1373 worlds in a few years or they could be on the surface of one world, Mars, in a few hundred, maybe.  Why spend your life on Maybe Mars when the future is here, now, waiting to be seized?  The invisible hand of Adam Smith’s just slapped Mars across the face.  The kid points out that people are already living on one planet called New Terra.

Bobbie reflects that humanity made the jump very quickly from childlike wonder and Lovecraftian dread of the unknown to “The aliens aren’t home, let’s take their shit.”


We’ve actually already met our chapter 1 Cibola Burn POV character, Basia Merton.  He was a blink and you’ll miss him character in Caliban’s War.  His son, Katoh, was one of the children killed by the Mao-Kwikowski as research to weaponize the protomolecule.  Now Basia lives on the first human settlement on one of the newly discovered planets.  The news called it New Terra but he calls it Ilus.  Ilus refers to the founder of Troy in Greek myth.

Basia’s inaugural chapter gives us the housekeeping for this book.  The people already living on New Terra were refugees from Ganymede during book 2.  Unlike Prax they didn’t go home, but instead just kind of stayed in narrative purgatory for years until the writers needed them here on Ilus/New Terra.  Now they’re the first community established on a planet inside of the 1373 gates.

Basia’s first chapter is set just before what Bobbie is presumably seeing on the news.  More people are coming to Ilus/New Terra.  These people are from an Earth Corporation to mine the shitload of lithium the planet has in abundance.  We have the setting, we have the factions, and we are told that the planet Ilus/New Terra is nearly a two year journey from Earth.  It’s a frontier story which very intentionally hearkens back to Westerns about the American frontier as much as any science fiction or horror about the unknown frontier of space.

Basia is also a newly forged violent extremist.  Basia believes he was once a gentle man who is now driven to build bombs.  Maybe someone smarter than me can decide to what extent it’s problematic to have the Expanse setting’s oppressed group, The Belters, be cast as indigenous people trying to survive against encroaching capitalist interests.

Basia also introduces us to some side characters in his wife and children, more on them later.  Another important character here is only known as Coop.  Coop’s defining character traits are that he has OPA tattoos and that he is an asshole.  While Basia is okay with blowing up a landing pad to make the Earth Corp’s commercial exploitation of natural resources impossible, he isn’t okay with murdering people.  Which is why Coop, The Asshole, doesn’t tell Basia that when the bombs are planted the Corporate folks from Earth are about to land on Ilus and are within the bomb’s range.  Basia blows the bombs early but not early enough.

The first chapter ends with the bombs going off close enough for shrapnel to destroy a heavy shuttle coming down from the Earth Corporate Ship.  The second chapter takes place minutes before the end of Basia’s first chapter.  One of the passengers on that shuttle is Doctor Elvi Okoye, our next POV character.

Elvi Okoye is an Exozoologist.  I kinda prefer Xenobiologist.  A few years ago that meant she thought she’d be studying chemicals that could maybe one day become bacteria on some lifeless rock.  Then the fucking gates open to 1373 solar systems worth of biospheres.  Needless to say, what she was expecting to do with her life has changed dramatically.

The action and drama of a bomb going off near the landing shuttle provides a lot of the content in Elvi’s first chapter.  There’s also a streak of black humor as the infinitely calm shuttle pilot first plans to head back to space and then announces they’re going to take a look at a “secondary landing site.”  Crash.  A secondary landing site means the goddamn shuttle is going to crash.

The violence of the crash gives us a moment to step into a kind of omniscient narrator’s place to review Elvi’s backstory.  The book is literally doing a freeze frame “you’re probably wondering how I got here.”

Elvi contrasts the expansion of humanity on Earth to expansion in the Asteroid Belt and now the gates where she left on an Earth corporation ship from Ceres 18 months prior.  The timing here is a little fuzzy.  At the end of the third book it took five weeks for the Rocinante to deliver Clarissa from the Ring to Earth for trial.  Now we’re really attached to that 18 months from Ceres to New Terra figure in Cibola Burn.  They mention it repeatedly.  Just take their word for it.

Like Basia, Elvi has some side characters to introduce.  Not all of them are staying around.  One of those is the leader of the corporate expedition, his name is literally Governor Trying. He’s here to forge a peace between the invading earthers and our not quite indigenous Belter population.  Then he dies in the shuttle crash.  The guy trying to make it work was named Trying and got killed.  This series is not always subtle.

Elvi also introduces us to Fayez Sarkis.  Fayez is a Martian and a geologist.  He and Elvi have a brief conversation that reminds the reader about what we already read in Bobbie’s prologue about the expected exodus of the Martian population.  Again, why bother with centuries of terraforming when there are potentially hundreds of worlds with oxygen and magnetospheres?  Fayez is an amiable, quippy side character, gardened here at the beginning.

Elvi’s first chapter introduces us to our most important non-POV character of the book, Adolphus Murtry.  Murtry is head of security for the Earth corporate faction.  The first sentence introducing him uses the word “hard” twice.  In the next chapter his voice is likened to a rattlesnake.  And he gets a descriptor you might remember from a few shitbags in ASOI&F, “his smile did not reach his eyes.”  Those lines and the first name Adolphus, last name two hard consonant syllables, are not subtle clues to the reader that this character is our Antagonist in this book.   I will have a lot to say about Chief of Security Murtry later.

Like Basia, our third POV character, Dimitri Havelock, might ring a bell.  He was Miller’s partner back in Leviathan Wakes.  He was a rookie then, now it’s years later we’re reintroduced to him.  Havelock has a sense of himself as a follower.  When something happens, he reacts how his superiors react.  And our re-introduction has him absolutely refusing to let a prisoner out of the brig 50 minutes before his sentence is up.  Havelock is kind of a camera on Murty or asking himself “what would Murtry do?” most of the book.

And so off Havelock goes to the security meeting in the aftermath of Basia blowing up Elvi’s shuttle. I’m trying to keep all the names forward.  Havelock is pleased to be “in the room” again indicating his place as a camera.  The meeting boils down to three positions.

Person 1: We can do whatever we want on this new planet because no one can get here within a year and a half.

Person 2: Uhhh guys we’re still only a few hours from The News and there isn’t a statute of limitations for murder.

Murtry: We’re not going to disagree among ourselves because I’m in charge.  Also I’ve requested “latitude” to deal with the “squatters.”

Murty is more openly agreeing with the person who fears consequences but in practice wants to cover his ass on taking the “we should murder everyone” position.

In the end, Murtry sends the “we’re not murdering everyone” person down to the planet.  On the way out they say to Murtry that whatever force they use, they don’t want the Belters to gain sympathy.  Murtry doesn’t agree to that.  For Murtry, soft power is for losers.  The person who said “we could murder everyone” is set to watch the Belter ship in orbit and they ask if they can prepare a weapon to fire at the ship.  Murtry doesn’t agree to that either.

Murtry calls Havelock into a private meeting. He wants to talk to an Earther the same way Tom Wilkinson as LBJ wanted to talk to Tim Roth as George Wallace in Selma. Murtry’s request for “latitude” was respectfully denied by the corporation on Earth.  He and Havelock both racistly agree that Belters are racist against the inner planets.  Both of them are big on the charter from Earth’s UN that gives the corporation the sole right to mine the planet.  Murtry orders Havelock to keep an eye on the Belter staff of their ship.  Trouble brewing.

Murtry leaves things by announcing with great contempt that to resolve the situation between the Belters and the Earth Corporation on Ilus/New Terra a mediator is being sent.

That mediator is, of course, our next POV character James Holden.

We also get several chapters marked Interlude from the POV of “The Investigator.”  This is Miller, or at least the computer projection of him created by the Protomolecule.  These chapters are short and dense with symbolism while the reader tries to understand what’s going on.

We join the Rocinante as it makes transit into the Slow Zone.  Holden is creeped out by the place and doesn’t want to stop. But then we get a farcical re-introduction of the Rocinante crew, Naomi, Alex, and Amos, all separately asking if they can stop for a few days.  Holden, like the third book, wants to refuse the call to adventure.  Holden tells them “we have McDonald’s at home.”  Then Fred Johnson, OPA bigwig, asks if they can stop for a few days to discuss business.

And where in the Slow Zone would they stop?  Remember The Nauvoo from the first book? First it was the Mormon generation ship, meant to blast off to a new solar system.  Then in book 3 it was the Behemoth, the OPA’s first warship.  Well now it’s Medina Station.  The only gas station in the universe’s biggest collection of off-ramps.

Fred Johnson shows Holden a message from Chrisjen “Fucking” Avasarala.  We the reader already know a mediator is going to New Terra/Ilus.  The hard cut picking up with Holden tells us immediately he’s going to be the choice.  Avasarala’s message points out that everyone hates Holden equally and he’s a terrible choice for a diplomatic mission.  The video ends with a message for Holden specifically. Avasarala thanks him for his service and tells him, “try not to put your dick in this. It’s fucked enough already.”  God, I love her character.

Fred recaps the situation for Holden and the reader.  As our quest giving NPC, Fred gives great summaries and adventure hooks.  So let’s recap one more time and hit the details because this shit’s important.  Humanity was supposed to spend years carefully researching the planets and moons inside the 1373 gates connected to the slow zone.  Only then after years spent confirming that inhaling some spore wouldn’t cause a parasitic organism to fatally explode out of someone’s chest would humans actually build settlements on alien planets.

Instead what happened is a group of Ganymede refugees flew through one gate to Ilus/New Terra.  The science given here is that the Ilus Gate is as close to the gate opposite our solar system’s gate.  So they could fly in at the fastest possible speed with the least braking needed.  This was before any kind of blockade went up to keep people from doing this.  So now Basia Merton and his people have lived on Ilus/New Terra for the past year before the book starts

Meanwhile, Royal Charter Energy has a UN Charter for scientific exploration of Ilus/New Terra.  They’re going there because “hey people are already there.”  Elvi Okoye was supposed to be setting up a domed, hermetically sealed community for research under the watchful eyes of Dmitri Havelock.  Elvi Okoye later assures us that as far as earth energy corporations go, RCE is as close to non-evil as they’re going to get.  Science first, then a fortune in lithium mining.

Holden, having Oppositional Holden Disorder, immediately sees the problem that Havelock and Murtry did not touch on during the meeting where they agreed that having the charter gives them the right to murder everyone they don’t like.

“Wait, what gives the UN on Earth the right to say who gets to live on an alien world?”

Fred Johnson smiles and acknowledges that Holden has grasped the point in his particular Holden way of maximum defiance in the service of Chaotic Good.

The UN is making a power grab to say who gets to live where and do what.  The OPA has the only gas station on the highway everyone has to take to get anywhere.  Nothing yet on what Mars is going to do. Hmm gee I wonder.  More on that in the Epilogue.

The point is that Avasarala and Fred Johnson are trying to work this out and they want Holden on board to try and mediate between the two sides.  In addition to being iconoclastically trustworthy, the Rocinante can land on a planet and has more guns than both the refugee and RCE ships.

Holden doesn’t want to go.  His sympathy is with the Belters over some Earth corporation.  And he’s being sent on a doomed to fail mission while the politicians punt and figure out what to do.  But.  This is a historic moment when humanity is trying to figure out how to govern 1000+ planets.  It’s a test case.  Holden wants to be part of that history.  And he can’t not help people in need of help.  Naomi points this out to him later, saying he’ll hate himself for turning his back on the chance to do good.

And so, the crew of the Rocinante agrees to take the job.  Avasarala expects them to fail while military minded Fred wants to keep control over the chokepoint that is the Slow Zone.  Holden gets a chance to help people and as Amos repeatedly points out, the money is really really good.

One final point for this first Holden chapter after Holden leaves Fred’s office.  Holden foreshadows The Problem For Books 5 & 6 after this book when he looks out at Medina Station and sees crops being planted.  The Nauvoo was built as a generation ship where the Mormons would grow their food in space for their centuries long journey.  Holden sees people using the ship for its intended purpose and thinks, “we’ll forget how to do this.”  The Expanse is headed in the direction of Firefly or Star Wars where people aren’t living in space, just traveling through it.  And if that’s the case why scrimp for metals in the Asteroid Belt or build bases on inhospitable moons?  As previous chapters indicate, Mars is already tipping over.  Why the fuck go through life on hard mode when we don’t have to?

Now everyone’s inaugural chapters are over and we get into back and forth.

Basia’s story is one of adaptation and its costs.  The belters are trying to adapt to living in a gravity well.  Not everyone makes it and that’s true in multiple senses.  Some belters can’t handle the plot convenient pharmaceutical cocktail that allows them to live on a planet and remain on their ship in space.  Basia wanted to change into a miner and he did that but he’s become a bomb thrower.  Coop was an OPA member, there’s no indication to suggest what he did before.  But the arrival of the corporation from Earth allows Coop to not adapt to the new environment and stay an OPA violent extremist.  Coop isn’t adapting and he suffers for it.

Basia’s wife, Lucia, was a skilled hand surgeon.  But as she mentions, she wishes now that her medical expertise was spent in general clinics which would’ve been much more relevant to her station as the only doctor on the frontier rather than a very specialized surgeon on Ganymede, renowned for its medical facilities.  Their daughter Felcia wants to go to college which doesn’t exist yet on Ilus, hence, she wants to leave.  Basia tries to refuse her own adaptation, becoming an adult, deciding what she wants for herself that might include rejecting the limited options of lithium mining on the frontier.  People went to Deadwood in the Dakota territory to mine for gold and mine the miners, not to get advanced degrees or invest in the stock market.  They went there so maybe their children wouldn’t be forced to go somewhere else and mine.

Day by day, breath by breath, choice by choice, Basia is being forced to work through the new environment he’s chosen to enter.  It brings to mind Prax’s discussion of the artificial environment on Ganymede.  In space, people controlled every variable and then lived and died by their exercise of that control.  Now on a planet they’ve given up that control in exchange for space, air, water, and exploitable natural resources.  Basia built and planted bombs to try and arrest change, to try and control the adaptation to his new environment.  But that’s impossible.

For more on how this is impossible, Elvi Okoye.  On the way to this new planet, Elvi had a thought, hoping the Belters were exercising strict controls to keep themselves quarantined from the pristine, never been interacted with ecosystem of Ilus/New Terra.  The belters most definitely did not do this.  They settled where the lithium was easiest to get to and then mined what they could for their first ship out.  But as luck and the authors would have it, the Earth Corporation arrives in time to get bombed and freeze the sale before they can sell their ore and hire lawyers to complicate the issue.

Elvi heads to a town meeting.  The RCE folks and the Belters all turn out.  There’s a dark parallel between Elvi killing one of the local lizards to gather data, and her living among the Belters in First Landing where some of them bombed the RCE shuttle.  The geologist, Fayez, sits next to Elvi and translates the words of RCE security for her and us in the audience which is funny. This is literally Gus Haynes from the Wire Season 5 translating Carcetti’s press conference on Burrell’s retirement.

Elvi gets up to speak at the meeting.  It falls on her to “do the job” in pro-wrestling parlance and argue the science which everyone is going to ignore.  Elvi gets up there and says “hey guys we were supposed to have a dome and airlocks and hermetically seal off human civilization from the alien environment.  But the bombing fucked that up so now we’re breathing in local bacteria and breathing out our bacteria and has anyone ever seen a movie before?”  The crowd is not receptive to this.  In Caliban’s War, Basia lost a child to scientific experiments and he is stubbornly opposed to hearing how the scientists want him to change his behavior to better accommodate nature.

I watched Alien: Covenant not too long ago.  There, the Aliens infect people through nearly invisible spores instead of giant ominous eggs.  So I am respectful of the idea that maybe they should take some precautions instead of just assuming their scans saying everything is hunky dory were 100% comprehensive and accurate.

Holden and the Rocinante enter Ilus/New Terra’s solar system.  We get some logistics here.  Even at a fast speed, it will take the Rocinante seventy-three days to get from the gate to the planet.  Also, Amos and Holden are going to be on the surface while Alex and Naomi stay on the ship in space.  Naomi also foreshadowingly makes sure that Holden has plenty of his anti-cancer medication.

While on the way, Holden The Mediator starts getting messages from the Belters and RCE pleading their cases.  Also Avasarala’s threats to Holden if he fails.  Naomi jokingly suggests they sell the ship and go back to work for Pur’N’Kleen, the water hauling company they started the series with.  In another bit of foreshadowing, Holden reflects that with all these new planets with boundless water and air, who’s going to need Water Haulers?  Obviously no one in that business is going to be upset that their industry has been made redundant.

In this chapter we start to get a glimpse of Holden’s thoughts on what he’s actually going to do as mediator on Ilus/New Terra.  Like other generic good guy main characters such as Jon Snow, Holden is generally trying to do the most right smartest thing.  His sympathies are with the Belters but they’re the ones who drew first blood.  But the lithium mining is what makes the planet worth living on at all.  At the end of the day, Holden is just annoyed that in a vast new frontier, humanity is squabbling over the first riches they’ve found.  Once again we have the overarching theme of the Expanse: People Are The Problem.  Or rather, they’re the problem we can’t solve no matter how many problems technology can solve.

In Elvi’s next chapter, Fayez drops something that turns out to be a huge deal.  Ilus/New Terra is, as best as they can tell, a manufactured planet.  This is why I call the gate-builders the Magratheans.  The planet has no tectonic plates, it has transport tunnels.  The lithium they’re mining is so pure it can’t have occurred by geological luck like the lithium on Earth.  The series of moons surrounding the planet are so evenly spaced everyone assumes they’re alien artifacts.

This turns into a thing.  Elvi sees bombs stored in the Alien Ruins.  Elvi reports the bombs to RCE Security.  RCE Security goes out to find perpetrators.  The Perpetrators, Basia and Coop, find out because Coop used Basia’s son as a scout.  They tool up.  We are told that Holden is a matter of hours away and the Rocinante is visible in the night sky.  Coop and his allies kill Reeve and the RCE security.  Reeve was the one who advocated caution to Murtry.  Reeve said obviously we don’t want to start something that is going to garner sympathy.  Reeve came out to the explosives where only the guilty would go looking for their evidence, and if there was violence, only the guilty would be potential casualties.  Looking at where this book goes I can’t help but think Murtry saw this as a likely outcome, putting the member of his team most hesitant to deal out retribution in the line of fire.  He does it here with Reeve, he does it with Wei later.  I don’t think it’s an accident even if this one goes uncommented on, like the absence of Bolton banners at the Battle on the Green Fork.

We are reminded of Basia’s connection to Holden.  His son, Katoh, was found dead by Prax and Holden on Ganymede.  Prax was a friend and said Holden was a friend too.  But Basia also thinks that Holden was too late to save Katoh.  And why did he rescue Prax’s daughter, Mei, and not Basia’s son?

Holden arrives on Ilus/New Terra in Chapter 11, about 20% of the way through the book.  Chapter 10 sees Murtry headed down to the planet where he’ll stay the rest of the book.  The text notes that Murtry equips his people in Riot Gear.  Recall Miller’s words from Leviathan Wakes, that while SWAT gear is meant for efficient killing, Riot Gear is meant to intimidate and control.  But for Murtry both objectives are the same and muddled.  He doesn’t believe in soft power but he also doesn’t believe in efficient killing.  He’s heading down to the planet to go to war and make things as messy as possible.  They’re treating the killing of Reeve and the other security not as a crime or a murder but as an act of war to be met with more escalation.  Murtry even announces that everyone has his backing for “pre-emptive violence.”  He also tells Havelock to convert their second shuttle into a nuke.  The corporation back on earth wants to de-escalate but Murtry’s having none of it.

So when Holden shows up, things are tense.  There’s an uncanny valley feeling to the planet, one that has the same colors as Earth but is Not Earth.  To contrast Murtry, Holden tells Alex to stop target locking the RCE ship and tells Amos to not bring a giant pile of guns to the planet.  The planet itself has no one to greet Holden.  Holden envisioned himself as a Star Fleet diplomat there to make First Contact.  Instead he’s hauling his bags by himself.

Some housekeeping notes on arrival.  Holden comments that where the population has settled reminds him of the American Southwest if not for the bone white Alien Ruins.  Although season 4 of the series was filmed just outside Toronto.  There’s an uncanny moment where they get bitten by the Ilus equivalent of mosquitos which then die because they can’t live on humans.  The rest of the mosquitos leave them alone which is real damn weird.  Do bugs learn that fast?

It feels very appropriate that Holden arrives at an angry standoff.  Fifty belters versus twelve RCE security goons.  You can picture them shouting RABBLE RABBLE RABBLE.  This also leads to the first Holden and Murtry confrontation.  We get more Murtry description here to belabor the point that HE’S THE BAD GUY.  “The man made Holden think of a shark.  All bared teeth and black eyes.”  Holden also succeeds on his insight check and realizes that Coop, who led blowing up the RCE shuttle and killing the RCE security, is a troublemaker.

This is immediately followed by Coop announcing to Murtry to be careful or his people might disappear too.  Murtry announces that this was a threat and shoots Coop in the face in front of Holden, God, and everybody.  Amos draws on Murtry.  Murtry quotes the UN Charter, the one that Fred Johnson and Holden both think is a bullshit power grab with the UN declaring they have power because they said so.  And so Amos and Holden make their first trip to the saloon on Ilus/New Terra where they’re quickly joined by Murtry for more banter and veiled threats.

Holden, who came here kind of on the RCE side, now wants Murtry in prison for, you know, murder.  Which Murtry takes as evidence of bias because he’s a real piece of work.  Personally, I have no doubt that Murtry’s character intended to kill a Belter within five minutes of Holden’s arrival to undermine his authority.  This is because he follows up being accused of murder by flexing that any backup is 18 months away and even Earth/Ilus communication has a 10 hour lag.  Amos, with his superhuman insight, immediately calls out Murtry as a killer who liked killing in front of everyone.  Murtry repeats his earlier line, “that sounded like a threat.”  Amos assures him it was.  Murtry leaves instead of shooting Amos because Amos is the Hard Power side of the Rocinante Crew.  Amos points out to Holden that they’re going to need to shoot Murtry at some point.

Let’s change style here and go through the arcs for our POV characters.  The next act of the book is everyone reacting to Holden and Murtry’s arrival to the planet.

Holden brings the colony administrator and Murtry to a meeting.  The first colonial arbitration meeting.  Within one sentence they’re disagreeing over the planet’s name.  Murtry isn’t the captain of the ship or the science team but it’s no surprise he’s the one in the room representing RCE.  Murtry concedes they can continue loading the ship but with the sale of ore frozen he’s not really giving anything up.  In exchange, the colonists give up control of their mining explosives.

Holden walks away from this meeting intending to be alone to trigger the Miller Hologram which we haven’t seen in a while.  Holden asks Miller for advice and Miller suggests letting Amos shoot Murtry and figures the colonists won’t survive long term.  For those keeping track, this is the second character to suggest “Just Shoot Murtry”.  This is where Miller makes his big speech about Ilus/New Terra being creepy and wrong.  He also casually mentions a defense network around the planet which Holden doesn’t follow up before that network becomes a problem.

Basia also pops in to mention to Holden that “No one can make us leave” which tells Holden immediately “This Guy Either Did Something Or Knows Who Did”.  The chapter ends with an ominous call from Naomi of an energy spike and movement of something big enough to detect from orbit.

Basia and the other extremists plan to kill Holden and Murtry.  It should be noted that after Murtry shoots Coop in public there are more people at the meeting, not fewer.  Basia refuses to go along with more killing.  He doesn’t want his kids dying for this.  He storms out and snitches to Holden.  Holden then turns and goes to Murtry so maybe they can prevent more violence.

Murtry takes the news that someone is planning to kill him pretty well and uses the moment to get into a dick measuring contest with Holden before Murtry orders more violence.  He had Basia’s meeting bugged and kills all the extremists after taunting Holden.  Holden nearly gets himself shot trying to help wounded people and realizes at this point, after everyone else, he’s gonna need to kill Murtry.  Basia is put under arrest and sent to the Rocinante for his own safety.

Elvi and Havelock are mostly bystanders to all this.  Elvi just wants to do science.  She really wishes they had a dome.  She catches a butterfly that turns out to be some kind of Magrathean robot instead of an actual insect and wonders “should we be concerned about this? I feel like we should be concerned about this.”  She also starts developing a crush on Holden that will dissipate when she hooks up with Fayez so the less said about that subplot the better.    Havelock wants to run security, not fight in a war.  Power spikes and robots large enough to be detected from space activate.  One of the RCE security people shoots up a 2 billion year old robot that sounds like a Protoss Reaver.

The nuke shuttle is made ready to go.  Murtry also tells Havelock to make a militia trained in low G tactics.  Havelock gleefully agrees to this and one final point, No Belters Allowed.  Captain Marwick echoes the late Mr. Reeve from a more practical sense.  While Reeve pointed out that the cameras were still broadcasting even if justice was 18 months away, Marwick points out that someday they’ll go back through the ring.  And Medina Station and the OPA are on the other side of that gate.

Havelock equivocates and quotes the rules.  They have a charter, they didn’t start the killing.  Marwick counters with the Murtry style corollary of “so what?”  Maybe The RCE Security team subdues all their enemies and can do whatever they want now.  But in the longer run, reputation doesn’t wash off as easily as blood.  Which sucks that in the epilogue Avasarala concludes that Murtry was kind of right, in his logic if not his end.

While this is going on Holden decides everyone is leaving.  Shit on the planet is waking up and they need to bounce.  The only person truly standing in the way of that is Murtry, the guy at least four people have asked, “why don’t you just shoot him?”  There’s a Doylist problem here that this would be a much shorter book if someone just shot the character causing all the drama.  And we can’t have that.

The Watsonian solution is that Naomi flies over to disarm the second RCE shuttle which has been converted to a nuke.  But she gets captured because Havelock and his militia are running an exercise on the hull of their ship.

I believe, with all of my heart, this happens purely because otherwise it becomes implausible that no one shoots Murtry.  The Miller Projection even mentions that disabling the Nuke Shuttle was a really dumb plan.  For now, Holden keeps Amos from shooting Murtry.  He knows that Murtry now has a card to play and he’s going to go all in, press every hard power advantage he has.  

I need to single out Chapter 25.  This is a Basia chapter.  He’s on the Rocinante with Alex.  This chapter has the best Alex speech in the entire series.  He talks about how his marriage fell apart because he couldn’t handle retiring from the Martian Navy and signed up to be a long haul pilot with Pur’N’Kleen.  He failed his wife by being the person he was.  He brings this back to Basia failing his family by setting off those bombs.  Sure, he needed to.  But his family needed him not to as well.  Alex grabs Basia and says, “Don’t go feeling sorry for yourself.  You fucked up.  You failed the people you love and they’re paying the price.  You demean them every moment you don’t own that shit.”

Chapter 26 follows up with Havelock who is now jailing Naomi.  Alex called the RCE ship with a message that amounts to, “anything happens to Naomi he destroys them.”  Murtry takes one look at that and says fuck ‘em.  They won’t shoot, we have a hostage, anyone has a problem with what we’re doing t’ll take 18 months for them to do something about it.  Actual human beings are rattled by the escalation.  The captain of the RCE ship doesn’t want to hold this prisoner and neither does Havelock.

This is a really great Naomi chapter.  Naomi understands her crew and especially Holden better than he does himself and lets Havelock know.  She tells Havelock that these are not warnings, this is just how it is.  Sooner or later Holden is going to decide he wants her free more than he wants to do the right thing and make peace like he’s getting paid to.  And when that happens they’ll free her or everyone will die in the attempt.  The certainty and fear in her voice gives Havelock pause which makes him call Murtry to “confirm his orders” but he gets told what he already knows. 

Chapter 28 is about halfway through the book both literally and in the plot.  This chapter has The Big Explosion.  Some kind of billions year old reactor blows up on the other side of the planet.  From here things get worse and worse every chapter.  The giant explosion sends a shockwave around the planet and causes torrential downpours.  The downpours destroy the town but everyone takes refuge in the alien ruins.  The rain causes a kind of slug to come to the surface with a potent neurotoxin that causes instant death if touched.  And the rain also causes a kind of microscopic organism to fall with the water and it can live in the human eye and makes everyone start going blind.  Then they can’t leave the planet because some kind of defense network activates around the planet which prevents any ships from landing and destroys the RCE shuttle that’s not a bomb.  It also deactivates fission so now all the ships are on battery power and slowly falling to burn up in the atmosphere.  

It honestly gets very hard to follow, the pace slows down, and every chapter is this kind of unrelenting misery porn where the characters are being tortured.  Elvi points out, to Murtry’s annoyance, that if the RCE had been the only ones here then the planet exploding would’ve destroyed their dome and everyone would’ve been killed.  I can’t help but wonder if Holden’s protomolecule sample is the thing fucking this all up which is the implication of the show.  The book indicates it is more the presence of life in general. But perhaps both.

On re-read I forgot that they made parachute drops from space with supplies.  I also forgot that the planet shoots down drops with power cells but not food and medicine.

One highlight of this section is Naomi’s reaction to overhearing Murtry talking to Havelock.  Anytime we can get Naomi in a room with someone who’s a bad person produces a great scene.  Her fighting Clarissa Mao, her messages to Admiral Trejo later in the series, and of course Marco in the next couple books.  Havelock tries to equivocate that maybe Murtry came off badly to someone who doesn’t know him or maybe he would’ve talked differently if he’d known she could hear their call.  Naomi’s judgment, “That man is a snake.”

Things start to get better in Chapter 41.  Elvi gets laid which somehow helps her realize that Holden’s anti-cancer drugs are the cure for everyone’s blindness.  Elvi speaks with a lot of technobabble which then gets translated into English by someone else.  On reread it’s a little silly that it takes them so many chapters to figure out it’s the cancer drugs.  Fucking Dr. House would’ve confirmed in five minutes that Holden is on anti-cancer drugs and maybe that has something to do with his being unaffected.  I’ll give her a pass because she was under a lot of stress and lack of sex will do weird shit to allosexual people.  She does kick herself later for not thinking of this sooner which feels like a lampshade hanging.

Chapter 40 & 42 is The Jailbreak.  At this point, fission is still off and the RCE ship is maybe two weeks away from falling into the planet.  Holden sent word to Alex, “Murtry won’t bend an inch so fuck him.  Get Naomi back.”  Basia boards the RCE ship using his previously mentioned expertise as a welder.  Havelock asks Murtry, why not just give her back?  They’re all gonna die anyways, what does it matter?  Murtry refuses and tells Havelock to give his militia guns and live ammo.  Havelock doesn’t think it’s a great idea to give his (racist & trigger happy) undertrained troops real guns.  So Murtry goes around Havelock and gives the head of the militia access to the weapons locker.

 Havelock starts preparing for battle.  Naomi tells him that if Alex is hurt she’ll let them all die.  She tells him that the RCE crew is talking like this is physics and there are no choices and that’s crazy.  Havelock responds by letting Naomi out of the cell.  He’s going to get her out.  On re-read I honestly forgot that Havelock helped with this.

Chapters 42 & 43 is a funny and action packed sequence.  They actually wind up rescuing Basia who can’t fight for shit.  Havelock efficiently takes down his militia of engineers and scientists with less lethal weaponry.  They bust out and fly back to the Rocinante.  Shout out to one gem as a scientist is irritated when a recoilless gun has some recoil and launches him in zero g.  “That’s an inaccurate name for the weapons,” he protests.  They make it back to the Roci.

We pick up in 44 with Holden.  He can’t help but laugh when Alex tells him he thinks Naomi got out on her own and is now rescuing Basia.  He finally gives into his urges and takes Murtry’s hand terminal away from him so he can’t coordinate against her.  With Elvi working on drugs to cure everyone, Holden goes off with Miller to turn the defense network off so the spaceships will work again.

Murtry has a problem with this.  As far as he is concerned the defense network is RCE property.  He and a security officer named Wei go after Holden.  Amos, Elvi, and Fayez go after Murtry once Elvi and Amos rig up another cart.  Meanwhile in space the Roci gets hit by the shuttle and the militia comes after them. 

Murtry uses Wei as bait to circle around Amos and shoots him in the back.  Amos kills Wei but takes a few bullets from Murtry.  This using his team as bait is kind of why I think Murtry intentionally set up Reeve thinking and hoping he’d be killed earlier in the book, after Reeve expressed a wish for restraint.

In space, they repel the boarders.  Havelock is reluctant to shoot people but has to shoot a couple.  Eventually they come up with a plan to evacuate the belter ship with huge plastic bags the RCE ship has in abundance and their people take shelter on the RCE ship.  Alex does blast the militia leader with a rail gun for pissing him off.

Chapters 52 – 54 are our climatic final battles.  Murtry is trying to kill Holden to prevent him from damaging that sweet sweet alien technology that’s going to kill Murtry and everyone else.  Even on re-read I cannot fathom why Murtry’s loyalty to his employer, Royal Charter Energy, goes so deeply.  What turned Havelock against him was Murtry basically commanding everyone to accept death because if everyone died the corporation would come back with more people but there would be no more Rocinante and no more belters.  At some point Naomi likens Murtry to Holden for fanatical devotion.

We start with Elvi.  She’s on the run after the shootout that killed Wei and wounded Amos.  She sciences the shit out of this and uses math to avoid him and catch up with Holden and Miller.  At this point, the Miller Projection Hologram has uploaded itself to a giant robot.  Elvi would very much like us to be in awe that we are technically talking to an Alien but Holden’s been doing this for years and it’s old hat for him.  Miller and Elvi go off to turn off the defense network and save everyones’ lives, Holden goes off to shoot Murtry.  The chamber they come to holds…something.  Elvi describes it as the eye of an angry god.  A bright light that does not brighten the room or cast shadows.  But the Miller Robot is completely incapable of perceiving this thing.

On that cliffhanger, we switch to the final showdown between Holden and Murtry.  This is very much written like gunslingers facing down at high noon.  The show gives Murtry a motivation, saying that he gets some percentage of the profit the corporation takes from this planet.  The book leaves his motives as philosophy and psychology.  Murtry likens himself to Cortez burning his ships.  Holden shakes his head at why someone would worship a murderer.  Holden is thinking about Dresden in the first book.  He remembers him as someone trying to justify murdering millions on Eros to Genghis Khan.  Then Miller shot Dresden in the face.  Holden was apoplectic about that murder.  Here he qualifies that memory as how he felt “at the time.”  Implying he’s changed.

They continue to chatter with hands over their gun butts.  Holden kind of checks out of the conversation after the Dresden memory.  His replies stay curt while Murtry gets to monologuing.  He gets back to the parallels about the American West and Spanish Conquistadors that make up the book’s title, Cibola.  Murty argues that all the death and killing is completely necessary to build a civilization.  Failing of course to note that the Western hemisphere had civilization aplenty before the Europeans committed thousands of genocides while Ilus/New Terra was empty, save for a few pilgrims that got there first and RCE was swimming in their wake.

Holden waves aside the idea that Murtry maybe killed his crew or not.  Or that Murtry is right about frontier politics or not.  But there is one real sticking point, and I think this is important to the philosophy of the Expanse series.  The overall theme of this series is that no matter how powerful our spaceships or science, people will still be people.  The most important reason Holden needs to shoot Murtry is that Murtry is just a real asshole.  I take comfort in that.  Holden shoots Murtry.  Fucking finally.  People are truly the unsolvable problem. Some people you can reason with there are a few real assholes out there that would benefit tremendously from being killed or beaten within an inch of their lives and then kept away from everyone else.

Holden doesn’t kill Murtry but he maybe shoots him a couple times more than is absolutely necessary to incapacitate him.  Murtry abandons the frontier law of the jungle attitude and retreats to legal platitudes that he was technically following the charter, the one Holden and Fred Johnson think is bullshit.  Holden gives Murtry a taste of hard power that just feels delightful on the tongue.  Sure, maybe the Earth Corp backs Murtry.  But Avasarala’s dick is bigger than theirs and Murtry is an asshole who tried to make her look bad.

Boy howdy, next time I’m in a D&D game and someone starts monologuing villain shit I think I’m just going to shoot them in the face.

We shift from Holden versus Murtry to Elvi and Miller versus…god.  Miller figures if he, a Magrathean Protomolecule Robot, touches the Angry God Eye of whatever species killed the Magratheans, it will shut down everything protomolecule related on the planet since he’s technically networked to all of that.  Something between a fatal poison and an EMP.  The protomolecule tech on the planet is wise to the idea and when Miller connects to everything, they get his plan and attack.  In the end, Elvi has to literally carry the Miller Robot’s…let’s call it the Robot’s brain and she has to carry it into the Angry God Eye.  Doing this gives her a page long acid trip and also Kills Miller again this time for good.  We get one last interlude with Miller aka The Investigator as he and all the other consciousnesses of Eros that carried this so far are finally put to rest.

This takes us into our wrap up.  Havelock is on the surface of the planet where the Roci is delivering supplies.  Sure there are problems.  Havelock needed a lot of blood after the militia attack, the Roci needs repairs, Amos needs new fingers, the people on the planet need food.  But these are the problems people and their science can solve.

The exemplar here is Chapter 56 with Holden.  Someone is setting up a tent near the Rocinante’s drive cone.  When Holden tells them to move the person protests that they have every right and the spot wasn’t claimed by anyone.  Holden points out that when his spaceship takes off their shelter will be destroyed.  They move and Holden wishes them a fine afternoon.  Holden reflects that while people won’t listen at least on this planet they have a respect for wind.

Holden finally gives us the City on the Edge of Forever quote and says “let’s get the hell out of here.”  Basia is left behind with his family instead of being carted off for making the bombs that started this whole mess.  The frontier justice comes with the frontier pardon.  Naomi later quotes Miller from book one that the frontier doesn’t have laws, it has cops.  There’s an echo to the first Holden chapter when the crew all in tandem asked if they could stop at Medina station for a few days.  Now they do that same thing with the crew asking for coffee.  Pleasure in the simple and domestic.  Then Holden spends five hours finding the last protomolecule blob on the ship and has it fired into Ilus’s sun.

For our Epilogue we come back to Chrisjen Avasarala.  She’s journeyed to Mars for meetings.  We don’t learn about the specifics.  So the detail we do have carries a lot of weight.  Avasarala looks at the Martian Speaker of the House, guesses that he doesn’t understand the situation, and tells Fred Johnson that the Martian Speaker of the House is “fucked.”  

The rest of the chapter is her meeting with Bobbie Draper for dinner.  Avasarala is pissed.  She thought Holden would fuck everything up bit instead he’s genuinely brought people together.  In a strange way, Holden proved Murtry was right.  If you grab land, preferably with a gun, and hold onto it hard enough, odds are you can keep it.  The gold rush is on.

Bobbie wants to know why that’s a problem.  So what? Let people grab land.  The problem, Avasarala says, is the Martian population.  If 14 billion people leave Earth, so what?  Earth could lose half its population and not blink.  But if 20% of Mars’s population left?  According to Avasarala, the economy tanks and the state goes with it.  And when people see the writing on the wall what happens to Mars’s thousands of nukes and military warships?  

This is a pretty damn good apocalyptic speech.  What’s worse is that Avasarala is certain this is gonna happen.  She speaks in terms of absolute certainty and foreshadows the rest of the series.  It brings to mind the great Nic Cage’s movie, “Lord of War.”  In that movie, Nic Cage the Arms Dealer has a bonanza selling Soviet equipment when the Cold War ends.  To quote the film, “the day after the wall came down, the paychecks stopped coming.”

In the next book, we find out who bought the guns and what they paid for them.

As I said at the start, for me, this is my least favorite Expanse book.  I find the middle a real slog to get through.  Although on this re-read I was surprised how few chapters it actually is between the explosion and fixing things.  The contrived Naomi getting captured plot to keep Murtry alive is an eye-rolling thumb on the scale at best, a real idiot ball grab at worst.  I don’t find the fascist corporate lap dog, the starry eyed scientist, or the bomb making dad as interesting as any of the POVs we got in previous books.  There’s a sense of helplessness in this book that I dislike.  It brings to mind those A Dance With Dragons Dany and Jon chapters from the middle of the book.  Those chapters have a very intentional frustration as the two characters learn how to be leaders.  These are similar as Basia and Havelock are forced to witness events from space while Holden and Elvi try and be the adults on the planet.  

The book is by no means bad though.  The Alex Speech in Chapter 25 is a highlight for his character in the series.  The action beats are good.  It is very cathartic to watch Murtry get shot.  To his last moment in the book, locked up in the Rocinante, he goes out protesting that he hasn’t broken any laws.  Holden assures him that the best legal minds in the United Nations are trying to come up with some.  It’s a comforting if fictitious thought that someone can be enough of an asshole that they suffer some consequences.  At least when the powerful don’t need them anymore.

Spoilers for future books & Quick Hits



  • The prologue and epilogue here are foreshadowing the next five books with regard to how a rogue wing of the Martian military deals with the Gates and 1373 new planets making their planet obsolete.
  • With regards to Avasarala saying that if half the population of Earth left, Earth would be fine.  Considering the next book this feels like some pitch black gallows humor. In a manner of speaking, 14 billion people are about to leave earth. It just comes with an ecological apocalypse too.
  • In the show, this is where the show was now made by Amazon.  The show invents a plot about Avasarala running for office to keep Shohreh Aghdashloo around the whole season.  It doesn’t work and is terrible.  At least the Bobbie parts of the show have some action but they also feel very tacked on.  And worse, putting Bobbie into season 3 of the show led to her dishonorable discharge rather than the more heroic and honorable departure her character earns.
  • There is a big cringy moment of Naomi telling Holden that people do extreme things in prison when he asks how she got her jailer over to her side.  Shades of Tiamat’s Wrath and Teresa.


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