Review: Caliban's War by James S.A. Corey

Recommended? Yes! I liked this second book in the series.

Who Might Like This? Hard sci-fi fans in need of a quickly paced but detailed read, but also want the opportunity to think more deeply about the nature of conflict.

*There could be some mild spoilers here if you haven’t read the first book, so you are duly warned.*
Caliban’s War by James S.A. Corey (writers Ty Franck and Daniel Abraham) is the second of nine books in The Expanse sci-fi world, the novel series that I have chosen to read this year. As I read this second book, spring is ever so gradually nearing and the days are getting longer. The virus is in slow retreat, but always a threat. Right now, I’ll take what I can get. All this to say that my mood was more optimistic starting Caliban’s War, as compared to Leviathan Wakes. But things change, they always do, it is inevitable. I’m good here, safe enough in Vancouver, but while I was reading Caliban’s War, the war in Ukraine broke out. As I was reading about fictional wars in space, I was seeing real war here.

We catch up with the crew of the Rocinante as the protomolecule is gestating on Venus, where it absorbed Sgt. Miller and Julie Mao from Book One. Will they come back? Who knows. Captain Holden is wrestling with his own demons, notably how he has become hardened to killing and death, and not liking himself too much for it. On this outing, it is war between Earth and Mars that takes centre stage, battling over an attack that happened on Ganymede, the breadbasket of the solar system, and also a place of refuge where pregnant women often gestate and deliver their babies because it's unsafe to do so in deep space. That attack? It ends up being something evolved from the protomolecule, but even so, the nations still back themselves into such one-upmanship positions that mass carnage seems inevitable. Fortunately, bare-knuckle diplomacy and a bit of strategic gunplay save the day (sort of), and factions back off into their uneasy corners. Mutually assured destruction is averted.

There are some great new characters that I hope show up in subsequent books. Shout out to you, pistachio-chewing, foul-mouthed UN Undersecretary Avasarala (described as,“someone’s grandmother in a bright sari, a splash of yellow in the middle of all the dark brown and dark blue and charcoal gray”) and Bobbie, the awesome female Martian soldier.

I suppose what’s interesting to me is that Caliban’s War, and the series in general, is marketed primarily as entertainment. It really is a great, easy and engaging read. It’s plot driven, and not too heavy on character development, though there is some. Indeed, here is what a back cover blurb says: “As close as you’ll get to a Hollywood blockbuster in book form.” ( I suppose that’s reasonably accurate, given that the series has been adapted for television. But the cool thing about books is that even if they’re not high art, they can still be thought-provoking and relevant.

Almost too relevant right now. Let’s take another look at the cover blurbs. On the front: “This is the future the way it was supposed to be.” (The Wall Street Journal). I almost never even notice blurbs, but this one jumped out at me. I looked up the piece in the WSJ, and taken in context, the reviewer means that The Expanse future is technologically more probable than Star Trek or Star Wars. Point taken, but in isolation on the book cover, I thought, “Uh, no, this is not the future the way it is supposed to be. It’s just the same as now.” There’s no reason that the future is supposed to be any way I guess, but Corey isn’t painting an optimistic picture two books in. Humankind has not really changed very much and that’s a bit sad. It is not the fault of the writers or the story, because in truth, the book is successful in making one think about current events.

As I mentioned in my review of Leviathan Wakes (Book One), the protomolecule is the “other” that the warring Earth, Mars and Belter factions needed to come together and stop killing each other. Clearly, that peace didn’t last long, as we see in Book Two. This time they know the protomolecule is the threat, and still the humans fight and fight. It is an economics and power struggle certainly, but the biggest factor I saw was fear. When people are afraid, they often externalize it. It’s hard enough when this happens on an individual level, but on a national or, in this case, planetary level, it can be world-ending.

Perhaps the most obvious current analogy to the protomolecule is the coronavirus as a threat. Mostly, we’ve worked together to solve that one, but not uniformly. However, the bigger threat that I imagined here is climate change. Climate change seemed initially a gradual but palpable threat that is accelerating and now demands drastic action. It portends change, and big change is scary. Humankind has the tools to work together to mitigate climate change, but we’d prefer to ignore it, and I think that gives rise to deep fear. Complex problems and change cause fear. The war in Ukraine is not obviously related to climate change, but while I was reading, I contemplated how horrid it is to fight and invade, while we Earthlings have so many more problems we could constructively put our minds to. We fight, while the Earth heats up and climate disaster looms.

Ok, but…I still really enjoyed this read. I love that the book is entertaining, page-turning fun. I’m starting to befriend the crew of the Rocinante and get a feel for this future, warts and all. Characters on an individual level, optimistically, can make change. Holden has insight into his numbness to the horror of what he’s been through and tries to claw back his humanity. He notes to his shipmate whom he’s treated badly, “...I’ve been scared to death and cowards always look for an easy target.” Again with the theme of fear. The politics are interesting and the fact that the series is a jumping off point for my thoughts about current events is an excellent thing.

My hopes for the next books? I’d like to see more of Avasarala and Bobbie, and if someone asked me to wager if they’ll be back in subsequent books, I’d take that bet. I’m super interested to see what happens with the protomolecule. I’m already wondering if there can be any positives in the relationship between Humankind and an alien species. Caliban’s War ended with one portentous development to carry us on to the next book and one totally-didn’t-see-it-coming, last-page-of-the-book best cliffhanger I’ve been subject to in a long while. I can’t wait to read Book Three, Abaddon's Gate.


Read a Series: The Expanse 

Review: Caliban's War (March 18, 2022)
Review: Leviathan Wakes (January 29, 2022)


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