Review: Cibola Burn by James SA Corey

“We have a natural tendency to see an empty space and think it’s safe. Doors and corners are always dangerous, because you’re moving into something without being sure what’s there. By the time you see the enemy, you’re exposed to them.”
-Havelock to his militia

“It does not experience the wariness, but the wariness is part of it. It reaches out, rushing into the new possibility space, and something deep in it, wider than it should be, watches it reach.

Doors and corners. It reaches out it reaches out it reaches out. Doors and corners.

This could get ugly, kid.”
-The Investigator


Slowly, slowly we make our way towards summer. It’s been summer for a couple of weeks now, officially. But it’s been a cold, wet spring in Vancouver, and the spirit of summer has taken its time to arrive. Just now, with the sun and heat, the garden grows more quickly after seedlings had patiently waited out the chill. I’ve taken out my sunglasses, my hat, and my summer wear: skirts and dresses. We’ve all had to have patience: me and the plants. And now, when I look at my neighbourhood and really see what’s around me, I’m grateful for the spring rains and slow start. Now everything is verdant and lush, as befits a rainforest clime.

By contrast, how quickly the humans of The Expanse seem to have rushed through the Protomolecule’s mysterious gate, transported briskly across the Milky Way into another solar system. They’ve found a compatible-atmosphere planet that is otherwise inhospitable: brown, sandy and mucky. It has too much gravity, and nothing humans can eat grows there; there’s no green garden. No matter. They speedily staked their claims. Done, and done. No waiting around in this version of our galaxy.

The Belters of the OPA have encamped on Ilus (or New Terra, as Earth calls it). Desperate refugees from the doomed Ganymede trapped on a ship with no place to go, they flew there because they were out of options. But the UN, representing Earth, gave a private company the rights to set up a research colony. It took them a bit longer to get there, but when they did, they’re none too happy with the refugees.

Can everyone get along? Absolutely not! So the UN (yay Avasarala!) and the OPA colluded to send our hero James Holden and the crew of the Rocinante to keep the peace.

Humans are reaching out, further than they could have imagined, rushing headlong into something they don’t understand. That’s the wonder of the human race, and the flaw. And then…the planet acts up. I think everyone just forgot that the other major player here is the Protomolecule civilization, even if it seems to have been wiped out. Talk about unintended consequences! There are so many of them here.

I love the Expanse’s notion of “doors and corners,” introduced in book three. You think you have everything covered, and you really don’t. You’ve always got to watch out for those closed doors and dark corners: beware of what may lurk there. This book got me thinking about doors and corners. About being forever vigilant. I think a healthy amount of caution is good, but being on high alert all the time never did anyone any favours in the long term. Certainly not me. It’s anxiety-making and you can’t live that way. There is no end to unexpected danger.

But I think there’s another approach. Perhaps one can be aware that doors and corners exist, and prepare for the inevitable boogeyman, so that you can manage it when it pops out at you. Be able to deal with the bad thing when you accidentally poke it while sweeping away cobwebs in the neglected corner. I see this as akin to some aspects of Buddhist philosophy (You’re saying: Really? The Expanse and Buddhism? But seriously, when you’re learning about something you see parallels everywhere, so bear with me). One of the core principles of Buddhism is that suffering exists, and it often arises when we try to control everything. When we realize that we can't, we either cling to the positive or push away the negative, often reacting unskillfully. This leads to sadness, anxiety, depression and denial of things the way that they truly are. Basically, suffering. A good practice is to work on skills like mindfulness and acceptance so that we can see a situation clearly and deal with it in a more skillful way when it arises, even if we can’t change the facts. Basically, preparing a way to deal with what is inevitably in the corner and behind the door.

In this book, I watched Holden be at the centre of the storm. That adage of novelists piling bad things upon bad things onto the characters was practically the point of this book. First, people killed each other. Then, a shuttle got blown up because the planet’s Protomolecule defence system got activated. No supplies for the colonists now! Things are snowballing out of control. Then, half-way through, the real peril started: a planet-wide disaster happens and everything is wiped out. Then, toxic slugs that kill you right away if you touch them, then a green plant blindness for everyone on the planet…and all the while the ships in orbit are falling towards the planet and will be destroyed.

But Holden, who I sometimes just see as a placeholder character in this series–a figure to string the stories together–became the calm in the eye of the storm. So many bad things out of the corners, so many surprises leaping from behind doors. But he stayed calm. I saw him take a breath, pause, listen and decide on a course of action, then turn to the next terrible problem and do it all over again. It looked like mindfulness and it was great. It was the only way to be, because you really can’t check all the doors and corners, and you fool yourself if you think you can.

I liked this episode of the Expanse. There was lots of tension, and it truly is wonderful because in this series, you never really know if everyone is going to die, or be saved. (Except our OG, the Roci crew…so far). A new player in the Expanse universe is now revealed: A big evil (or simply unfamiliar and misunderstood) ball of something that is as yet undefined, that may have killed off the Protomolecule civilization. By the end of the book, the humans are cooperating, at least temporarily.

I’m curious as to what will happen next. One thing I realize is that I’m craving more backstory for Amos and Alex. I think it’d be so cool to have them as POV characters because as the series progresses, they get a bit more one-dimensional simply because they haven’t had much page time. I wonder if the authors will grant me satisfaction as the series progresses.


Quotes I want to remember:

-Elvi, on snowballing problems on New Terra (climate change, anyone?):

“But we have to look at what’s happening, because it’s really, really dangerous and it’s happening right now. And it’s all going to hit a crisis point, and then something really, really bad will happen.”

-The Investigator:

“He turns his attention to the dead space, to the world, to how you solve unsolvable problems. How you find things that aren’t there. What happens when you do.”

-Havelock, on his existential dread:

“From where he was, the fear had stopped being an emotion and turned into an environment.”

-Elvi, on the inevitability of history:

“All of nature was a record of crisis and destruction and adaptation and flourishing and being knocked back down again. What had happened on New Terra was singular and concrete, but the pattern it was part of seemed to apply everywhere and maybe always. Even the aliens that had made the artifacts, the protomolecule, the rings, had suffered some vas and cosmic collapse.”

-Avasarala, on resistance to change (so apropos to some political issues these days):

“That was the danger of being old and a politician. Habits outlived the situations that created them. Policies remained in place after the situations that inspired them had changed. The calculus of all human power was changing, and the models she used to make sense of it shifted with them, and she had to keep reminding herself that the past was a different place. She didn’t live there anymore.”


Read A Series: The Expanse

Review: Caliban's War (March 18, 2022)
Review: Leviathan Wakes (January 29, 2022)
Review: Abaddon's Gate (May 11, 2022)