Cibola Burn is the fourth book in The Expanse, a science fiction saga that will be made into a television series on the SyFy channel starting December 2015. Set in the distant future, it features a universe where the solar system is still racially divided, but the races are no longer black, white, Asian, or Hispanic. They’re Earthers, Martians, and Belters, those inhabitants of the asteroid belt. I read and greatly enjoyed the first book in this series, Leviathan Wakes. There the archenemy of the entire solar system is a mysterious protomolecule (whatever that is). Here, in book four, humans have overcome the attack by the protomolecule and used the knowledge gained from that alien race to migrate through a gateway to distant planets, or at least one distant earth-like planet, New Terra.
The United Nations, the governing body of the solar system, has granted exploration rights to this new planet to a company called RCE. The problem for them is that Belters have already migrated there and set up a colony. They’ve also renamed the planet Ilus. When the first RCE ship arrives, it is met with a violent explosion. RCE sees the inhabitants as squatters and terrorists, while those inhabitants see themselves as pioneering settlers and rightful owners. I’d give you a little lesson on the principle of adverse possession here, but you aren’t interested.
The ensuing conflict between the settlers and RCE results in the UN sending James Holden and his intrepid crew of the Rocinante to mediate. It helped a lot to have read Leviathan Wakes. I pretty much remembered the characters. Of course our heroic leader and his crew are larger than life. Amos is the massive mechanic and all-around invincible lethal protector of the entire Roci crew, especially Holden. Alex is the best pilot in the universe. Belter Naomi, Holden’s main squeeze, is the best engineer in the universe. James Holden, of course, is the charismatic, brilliant, and hunky infallible leader.
The RCE expedition leader is killed early on and his place is taken by the security head Murtry, who is evil incarnate. Okay, so the characters are rather like comic book superheroes and villains without the superpowers. Batman, maybe. Still, the character development is surprisingly dominant in this space opera, especially among the peripheral characters such as certain settlers and RCE people. Action is kept to a reasonable level, enough to sustain the adrenaline flow, without deteriorating into an endless battle scene. The good guys are trying to keep peace, not fight, and everyone is fighting to stay alive on a planet that seems to be hostile to them all. The dialog is often witty or at least lighthearted. Expect a lot of sentences without the subject spoken. I’ve wondered why the entire Roci crew talks that way. “Pretty sure that’s not gonna happen.” “Not a problem.” “Couldn’t imagine why.” Got the drift?
The final action scene is about as hokey as it gets. I think it must have been written more as a storyboard for some awesome CGI special effects scene than as a denouement of the drama. Such attributes as scientific plausibility and logical consistency go by the wayside, but you rather expect that.
For a 581-page book, it’s a surprisingly fast read. In the end it kept me eager to get to the next chapter throughout, and that’s the best I can expect from any book. You should really start from the beginning of the series or wait for the SyFy series, although I am not optimistic about the treatment it will get there.