Review: Persepolis Rising by James SA Corey

“That seemed to be the human pattern–reach out to the unknown and then make it into the sort of thing you left in the first place. In Holden’s experience, humanity’s drive out into the universe was maybe one part hunger for adventure and exploration to two parts just wanting to get the hell away from each other.”

I was so happy to sink into Book 7 of The Expanse series after a hiatus–I read Book 6 eight months ago! Returning to this universe is like visiting with old friends now. And I was surprised, because the crew of the Rocinante are actually ageing. There’s a 28-year time gap between the books, and Holden, Naomi, Alex and Amos must be about 70 years old. Bobbie, now a permanent crew member (and one of my favourite characters) is a bit younger, but I suspect she’s pushing 55. I liked that they’re all going grey, and that their bodies ache and their backs crack. Avasarala, ever the political schemer, is in a wheelchair, but has apparently had her whole peripheral nervous system re-done. Ah, the future!

I had summarised Book 6 (Babylon’s Ashes) as a workhorse of a book, where politics took centre stage and things had to happen for us to get on to the next adventure in this protomolecule-driven future. Indeed, a new chapter has begun: the Laconian takeover! Winston Duarte, the once Martian Congressional Republic Naval officer, is now High Consul Duarte of Laconia, a ring colony where he’s been experimenting (on himself no less) with protomolecule technology. Duarte is flirting with eternal life in order to create an Empire. “‘If you want to create a lasting, stable social order,’ Duarte said, ‘only one person can ever be immortal.’” Laconia has thirty years worth of protomolecule ships, tech and power; this is not going to be pretty for the newly formed Earth-Mars-Belter alliance era of peace and prosperity.

This book made me think about leadership, with all its responsibilities, successes and pitfalls. In Persepolis Rising, this is illustrated by new characters President Drummer of the Transport Union; and Santiago Singh, the Laconian governor of Medina station. Each has to make decisions that are morally ambiguous, but they must commit and not double-think themselves. They always have to sacrifice one thing for something else.

Drummer has to be harsh with Freehold, a ring colony that’s breaking transport rules in the Slow Zone, to set an example. She’s not a ruthless person, but she has to decide to be pitiless. She commits. Later, she questions herself, but can’t think of how she could have acted any differently. I think that’s one way to cope, otherwise how could one live with the weight of hard decisions:
“Her plan for Freehold had been cruel, and she’d done it for the convenience of not being a government, not really…She should have been kinder, wiser, more cunning. She should have been something other than what she was. There had to have been a moment when she could have chosen something different, when all of this could have been stopped. She couldn’t think of when it had been.”
I so enjoyed reading Santiago Singh’s point of view. He’s an interesting character with a personality that’s perfect to make him a bit of a tortured soul. He’s a family man, and does most things with his wife and young daughter at the forefront in his mind. But he’s also a company man, with a black and white morality that Duarte will exploit when appointing him as an inexperienced but unfailingly loyal first Laconian Governor of Medina Station. He stands as a complete contrast to Holden, who has his own strong morals but can fudge them a bit for the greater good, and who can interpret and fluidly change to meet situations on the fly. Singh sees the world in terms of rules and punishment; married with his imposter syndrome and fragile narcissism, this is a recipe for a ruthless ruler, even though he was not a bad man to start with. Give a fragile narcissist a hole that he can’t dig himself out of, and nothing good can come of it. But it’s more complex here because Singh knows himself well enough to regret what he is becoming:
“...Singh found that he very much wanted to send a message to his wife. Tell her how afraid he was. Tell her that maybe accepting his assignment had been a terrible mistake. That walking the line between the man he had always thought he was and the ruthless authoritarian ruler the job required of him wasn’t something he could do and remain whole. That the man who could order civilian deaths as a reprisal could not share the same space with the man who loved his wife and played with his daughter and couldn’t wait for her to get old enough so he could buy her a kitten…

That was what terrified him. Not that the job would force him to be both of those men but that he was capable of being both. That all it would take is a bit more pressure, and Santiago Singh would be a man who loved his daughter with all his heart and who also ordered genocides.”
As always, there are great lines about change and the repetitive nature of human history. The long time span of the books now is giving a fantastic perspective. I’ve mentioned two leaders that were prominent in this book, and the greater question now is: What kind of governmental leadership is best for Sol and the ring system? The authoritarian Laconian Empire of Duarte or the democracy of the Earth-Mars-Belter alliance? Surprisingly the answer is not clear cut; Duarte makes some interesting arguments for an Empire, as ruthless as it is to dissidents. Holden and crew hold up the side of democracy. Don't get me wrong, I think I’ll be coming down on democracy’s side here but it’s maybe a question of perspective, and Persepolis Rising has introduced some moral ambiguity into the question. I suspect this may be the meat of the next book. We’ll see!


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