Review: Babylon's Ashes by James SA Corey


“You go into a situation thinking about it a particular way, then something changes. Either you stick with the ideas you had before or you look at everything you have to work with and find a new shape.”


*Mild spoilers ahead*

Reflecting on what I like about The Expanse, some of it is the intricate plotting, the strategy, and the complex web of characters and factions. However, what elevates the series for me is the philosophy that the authors throw in. So many of the protagonists are thinking about human nature, their motivations, the nature of free will…the list goes on. Even when they’re reacting out of instinct, later, in quiet moments, they reflect. We see their inner struggle. It’s nice to see adventure, action, politics and a war narrative married to introspection.

Babylon’s Ashes is perhaps less philosophical. It lays solidly in the thick of things: The Free Navy under Marcos Inaros has taken control of Medina station, and is preventing any would-be colonist ships from passing through the alien rings to other solar systems, fearing a mass exodus of civilization to worlds beyond and eroding Belter culture and the need for their industry. In the wake of unthinkable destruction on Earth and the collapse of the Martian terraforming dream, an uneasy coalition of Earthers, Martians and non-Free Navy Belters forms in an attempt to defeat the Free Navy.

This is a workhorse book of the series. It’s a book where things have to get done in order for the new adventures to begin, so it felt like a stepping stone. A bit more functional. I didn’t mind because this far into the series, I’m so invested in the characters and this universe that the intricacies of strategy, plotting, and following more complex battle scenarios matters to me. The authors have built up so much capital in this series that they can spend some getting the job done and I'll tag along happily for the ride.

Even so, things waxed philosophical in the quiet moments. A few things struck me as I read. There was discussion of the nature of history, and an individual’s role in shaping events or not. Would history unfold on roughly the same track independent of our individual actions? Is it inevitable that history repeats itself?

I may be imagining it, but I picked up on a small nod to climate change. It was subtle, but spoke loudly to me. One scientist’s faint voice cries out a warning. Earth and Mars cannot produce materials any longer, and everyone is busy fighting a war that destroys more and more irreplaceable goods. All systems and materials degrade. There’s a curve that shows the degradation of supplies, and a curve that shows the projected output of new economic models, and soon supply will fall below demand. “We’ll be fine for three years. Maybe three and a half. Then the recycling systems stop being able to meet demand…And then we’ll starve. Not just the Earth. Not just Mars. The Belt too. And once we start we’ll have no way to stop.” Sounds like a familiar refrain, and no one but Michio Pa, a captain with a conscience, listens to him.

One character’s story that resonated with me was of the teenage Filip Inaros, Naomi and Marcos’s son. Under his father’s influence, he’s carried out the most heinous crimes, yet I can’t help but see his humanity. It’s hard to square in my own mind. He’s a kid, but old enough to know right from wrong. Under the tutelage of such a dynamic man as his father, and essentially used as a pawn–even as an extension of–Marcos, I’m not so sure. It was good to see Filip’s emotional maturation. I felt his struggle! He at once feels the glory of the Free Navy cause and his own participation in the destruction, but also the wrongness of it and how he’s been used by his father.
“Even while he doubted, he believed. It was like everything in his private world had doubled. One Callisto that had been the target of the raid. His critical victory that led to the bombardment of Earth and the freedom of the Belt. Another Callisto that he walked through now, where normal people had lost their mothers and children, husbands and friends in a disaster. The two places were so different, they didn’t relate. Like two ships with the same name but different layouts and jobs.

And he had two fathers now. The one who led the fight against the inners and who Filip loved like plants love light, and the one who twisted out of everything that went wrong and blamed anyone but himself. The Free Navy that was the first real hope the Belt had ever had, and the Free Navy that was falling apart…They couldn’t both exist, and he couldn’t let either version go.”
On a personal level, I can forgive Filip and see him for his father’s dupe. On the other hand, can Filip possibly atone for the volume of blood on his hands? I’m not sure, and I’m eager to see how the writers approach this question. (On a smaller scale, Clarissa Mao is forgiven, but her crimes were so much less massive).

At the end of the book, Anna, a thoughtful character who believes in the Christian god even as she knows her belief might be based on nothing more than ephemeral faith and a personal need for there to be something more, and her small family are on a ship with a thousand colonists bound for a new life on a planet beyond the rings. She questions the nature of free will while contemplating Tolstoy (“It is true that we are not conscious of our dependence, but by admitting our free will we arrive at absurdity, while by admitting our dependence on the external world, on time, and on cause, we arrive at laws.”)

“It revolved, she thought, around Tolstoy’s idea of an invisible dependence and the choice they’d made to come to the Abbey [the colony ship], and Name saying, We’re spending our whole lives together, so we need to be really gentle.

Because that was always true. The Abbey and Eudoxia were small enough it became impossible to ignore it, but even among the teeming billions of Earth, they were spending their lives together. They needed to be gentle. And understanding. And careful. It had been true in the depths of history, and at the height of Earth’s power, and it would still be true now that they were scattering to the more than a thousand new suns.”
I love the idea of being gentle and careful with each other–those we know certainly, but also with those we don’t, or those we disagree with. When we are in conflict, things seem dire, or, on a larger scale, as the earth warms and resources become scarce, being mindful to take care of our responses to people–the way we talk to them and treat them–becomes even more important.
Will the crew of the Rocinante travel past the rings into new territory in Book Seven? I can’t wait to see!


Read A Series: The Expanse


Review: Leviathan Wakes (January 29, 2022)

Review: Caliban's War (March 18, 2022)

Review: Abaddon's Gate (May 11, 2022)

Review: Cibola Burn (July 15, 2022)

Review: Nemesis Games (December 7, 2022)