Friday, December 08, 2017

Caliban's War by James S.A. Corey

When I finally saw the first season of The Expanse on Netflix, I had not yet read Leviathan Wakes, the first book in James S.A. Corey’s space opera series of the same name.  The television series ends at about the middle of that book, so once I’d powered through all of the episodes available at the time, I bought it and read it in about three days.  I didn’t buy Caliban’s War until season two finally made it online.
Needlessly to say, I was pretty excited to find out what happened next, before season three came out, and I wasn’t too disappointed, but I was a little.

Caliban’s War is fun, there’s no question about that, but I feel like it’s a clumsier book than Leviathan Wakes, and that the writers definitely pulled some punches to give us a happy ending before showing us the “apocalypse.”

Here are my thoughts.

Holden Becoming Miller

 In the early chapters, there’s a bit of a conflict with Holden, where he and Naomi feel like he’s becoming more like Detective Miller.  Naomi is not happy about this.  She admires Holden’s better-than-good persona, and doesn’t like that he’s becoming more willing to tarnish it with bloodshed.  Holden seems less upset, except when faced with the likelihood that Naomi will leave him if he continues down this particular path.  She doesn’t really hold back her feelings on the subject;
“You were acting like that asshole Detective Miller, so I just acted like you used to. What I said was the kind of thing you say when you’re not in a hurry to wave your gun around.”
Corey, James S. A. Caliban's War (The Expanse Book 2) (p. 120). Orbit. Kindle Edition.
 When Holden tells her he thinks Fred Johnson, the leader of the OPA, has unleashed the protomolecule on Ganymede, she decides she’s had enough, kicks him out of her bunk and goes to stay with a friend when they reach Tycho.  She’s so against this change in Holden that she even talks about quitting the crew.
“If that’s who you are now, you need to drop me off somewhere. I can’t go with you anymore,” she said. “I’m out.”
Corey, James S. A.. Caliban's War (The Expanse Book 2) (p. 244). Orbit. Kindle Edition.
That’s how seriously she takes this issue.  And Naomi leaving the crew would pretty much be the end of the Roci’s adventures as we know it.  She does the jobs of at least three crew members.

I was actually pretty darn excited about this subplot.  It presented a fun emotional conflict for Holden, who is sometimes a golden boy of justice to the point that it gets annoying.  Plus, frankly, I liked Miller a lot more than Holden, because he seemed more human and interesting.  After spending a year blowing up pirates for the OPA, and after what he’d seen on Eros, it was understandable that Holden might be come a little more dark and cynical.

Unfortunately, halfway through the book, just after Holden confronts Fred Johnson with his suspicions about what happened on Ganymede, Johnson fires him and this fun little subplot just seems to disappear.  Holden apologizes to Naomi and boom, almost all is forgiven.  Tension is created and then evaporates, with seemingly no pay off.  Until we get to the very end of the book.

During the climax, Holden pulls a truly Miller-esque play, where he pretty much tells Admiral Nguyen, the last overt baddy in the book, that he’s either going to give up the codes to track the monster-laden pods that were just launched toward Mars out of the goodness of his heart, or he’s going to die and give them up.  As soon as it seems like Nguyen is going to continue to try to bargain, Holden blows him away.

When I read that, I was totally stoked.  Surely, this action would create a giant, painful rift between Naomi and Holden, leaving Holden having to question himself and maybe even learn to accept that not everything he’s going to have to do is always going to be okay.  Killing Nguyen is actually worse than Miller killing Dresden, the head of Protogen, since Dresden had been built up as this charismatic, powerful mastermind, who pretty much has to be put down, whereas Nguyen just seems like a tool.  You’d think this would be a major issue, but;
“No,” Naomi said, her voice sad. “That bastard deserved to die. And I know you’ll feel like shit about it later. That’s good enough for me.”
Corey, James S. A.. Caliban's War (The Expanse Book 2) (p. 543). Orbit. Kindle Edition.
Talk about a disappointing reaction.  And even worse, it’s not brought up again.  Holden pretty much gets to go straight to the victory party without having to think about murdering a guy.  Maybe it’ll come up in the next book. I hope it does.  Otherwise, what a waste of a great internal conflict.

New Characters

Bobbie

Caliban’s War introduces some new characters, namely Bobbie, Prax and Avasarala.  There are a number of others, but they don’t get their own POV chapters, so I’m ignoring them for now.

Bobbie Draper is a Gunnery Sergeant in the Martian marines.  She goes through some seriously traumatic stuff at the beginning of the novel, and spends the rest of it questioning herself and her role in the current conflict and the world in which it exists.  And yet, I find her almost boring.  She seems to exist solely as someone for Avasarala to foil off of.  She is there to show the reactions of someone sane in Avasarala’s crazy world of politics, which is kind of funny, since the novel tells us she’s suffering from PTSD.  By the way, this is initially illustrated by obsessively maintaining her power armor during her trip to Earth.  Maintaining weaponry and her own armor is shown twice otherwise, the armor in a mirrored scene where she’s come to accept that trauma and the possibility that she might die at the hands of the same monster that killed her platoon.  I’ll be the first to admit that I could have easily missed other hints of her mental trauma, not knowing much about PTSD, but if I did, then so did many, many other people.

We don’t really see Bobbie develop relationships much outside of the one she has with Avasarala.  Alex and Amos are both attracted to her, and she has a home planet and marine service in common with Alex, but most of their chemistry seems to occur “off screen” with the reader only being told about it, which I think definitely goes toward muting Bobbie as a memorable character.

Don’t get me wrong, she has some good moments, like the first time she goes outside on Earth and has a panic attack because she’s never gone out without a suit before.
Bobbie stood outside, eyes closed, breathing until she heard Chuck let the door close behind her. Now she was committed. Turning around and asking Chuck to let her back in would be admitting defeat. He’d clearly done some time in the UNMC, and she wasn’t going to look weak in front of the competition.
Corey, James S. A.. Caliban's War (The Expanse Book 2) (p. 162). Orbit. Kindle Edition.
But yeah, aside from the occasional gem, Bobbie stands in for the everyman in the face of the world of politics, a Watson for Avasala’s Sherlock to explain her more subtle moves to.  She does have her own redemption arc of a kind, which I’ll discuss a bit more coming up.

Prax

Praxidike Meng is sort of the catalyst for this whole plot.  His daughter, Mei, is stolen during the fall of Ganymede.  Starving, desperate, he turns to Holden for help.

It becomes evident pretty quickly that the biggest things about Prax are that he is a scientist, and loves his daughter.  Getting her back is pretty much the only thing keeping him alive as he wastes away and society crumbles around him.  He creates a logical system and a schedule of places to look for her and does so every day, despite this yielding no results.

This logic and obsession with data shows itself when Prax is faced with the protomolecule as well.
Prax had watched [footage of Eros] too, as had everyone on his team. For him, it had been a puzzle. The drive to apply the logic of conventional biology to the effects of the protomolecule had been overwhelming and, for the most part, fruitless.
Corey, James S. A.. Caliban's War (The Expanse Book 2) (p. 293). Orbit. Kindle Edition.
 As is to be expected with any character interested in acute observation these days, Prax is probably on the autism spectrum and really doesn’t relate to others well.  He doesn’t get social situations, sometimes with catastrophic results.
 It was the untaught etiquette of received wisdom. You yelled, you threatened, you cocked your gun, and then people talked. “Where’s my little girl!” he yelled. He cocked his pistol. The reaction was almost immediate: a sharp, stuttering report like a high-pressure valve failing, but much louder.
Corey, James S. A.. Caliban's War (The Expanse Book 2) (p. 177). Orbit. Kindle Edition.
He seems to get along best with Amos, who, of all the crew, seems to sympathize and care about the outcome of the situation the most. The difference in their personalities makes for some really entertaining exchanges, the best one happening after Prax’s ex-wife comes out on a broadcast saying that he was abusive and a child molester.

Overall, I found Prax equal parts annoying and interesting. Watching him pick something apart logically and pragmatically was almost always fun, but his ineptitude with others can be a pain. Sometimes, I think the writers made him awkward just to hammer it home that he is atypical and doesn’t interact with people well. It sort of feels like they saw how much people like House, or Sherlock and wanted to include a spectrum character. It also helps them avoid having their other characters do more work to figure out things about the protomolecule.

Avasarala

Oh man, I was so excited about Avasarala.  She is one of my favorite characters in the show, and I was a bit disappointed to discover that she isn’t in Leviathan Wakes at all.


The reason I like her so much is probably because she is a devious wall-to-wall bad ass who doesn’t take shit from anyone, but melts at the hands of her grandkids.  Occasionally, “fuck” is her expression of choice every other word.

Despite her position as undersecretary, she is a major game player.  In the show, she plays the role of detective, finding out about what’s really going on with Jules Mao and unearthing Holden’s past to try to understand his motives better.  In Caliban’s War, she’s charged with keeping an eye on Venus where the protomolecule is busy building something, and occupied with discovering what the heck is going on with the war that broke out on Ganymede and who stands to profit from it.  A stark difference between the show and the book is that Avasarala in the book does not torture a Belter for information, nor does she ever talk or think about doing something similar.  Keeping kids from dying is actually her major motivation.
And more than that, she hated that her failure was going to mean more war, more violence, more children dying.
That was the price for screwing up. More dead children.
So she wouldn’t screw up anymore.

Corey, James S. A.. Caliban's War (The Expanse Book 2) (p. 384). Orbit. Kindle Edition.
Generally, I found her a bit less morally ambiguous than the Avasarala in the show, which isn’t good or bad, really.

Over the course of the book, I’d say the biggest change that she undergoes is that she admits she can be wrong, which seems like something she almost never does.

I got a bit disappointed with her when she joined the crew on the Rocinante and quickly lost some of her bite toward the middle of the last act.  It’s understandable considering she’s in an environment that is pretty alien to her, a politician in the middle of what amounts to a dogfight, but her larger than life confidence and self-assurance is part of what makes her such a great character.  During the action, she’s little more than a radio operator, with little by way of intelligence to offer.  She sort of gets sidelined almost as soon as she joins the rest of the team.

I’ll be interested to see what kind of role she’s going to play in the next few books.  Hopefully more of one than Fred Johnson, who appears in only one scene in this one.

Amos Burton

Amos Burton has to be my second favorite character, next to Avasarala.  His morality and the choices he makes are so interesting to me, like how serial killers are interesting.  On the one hand, he wants to help Prax and save these stolen kids, but on the other hand, he’d have no qualms sucking someone out of an airlock just because Holden or Naomi asked him to.

In Leviathan Wakes, Amos is a guard dog in the shape of a person.  Toward the end, we see him warming up to Holden, but really don’t know much about him.  He’s an anomaly.  Fairly early on in Caliban’s War, he lets us in on a bit of his back story, namely hinting that he’s the child of a prostitute who was looking at a life of sexual abuse before he hopped a ship and went to space.  In the show, it’s indicated that he knows about this type of life, whereas the book is fairly clear that he lived this type of life.
The mechanic, Amos Burton. Implicated in several murders, indicted, never tried. Took an elective vasectomy the day he was legally old enough to do so.
Corey, James S. A.. Caliban's War (The Expanse Book 2) (p. 493). Orbit. Kindle Edition.
 Of all the main characters, I feel like Amos revealed the most about himself in this book.  We learn an interesting tidbit or two about Naomi and the reproductive problems Belters tend to have, but that’s about it.  Poor Alex hardly gets any attention at all this time around.

Theme

Okay, let’s talk about themes.  As with Leviathan Wakes, one of the major themes here is the natures of good and evil as they relate to right and wrong or lawfulness and unlawfulness.

Holden wants to be good, and considers himself good, but sometimes his actions, such as his broadcasts in Leviathan Wakes and even his broadcast in Caliban’s War have dire consequences for innocent people; in this case, his broadcast of what happened to Prax’s daughter pretty much turns what’s left of Ganymede into a proverbial meat grinder when those still there panic and riot.  This, by the way, is pretty much never acknowledged by Holden, and obviously, he hasn’t learned his lesson from the last novel.

Avasarala thinks Holden is an idiot because he consistently fails to think these sorts of actions through.  He is an advocate of the freedom of information, but doesn’t seem to realize what the release of this information does.  He pretty much single-handedly started a war between Mars and Earth the year before.  But as long as he works within his own standards of morality, does what he believes is right with little compromise, he feels no guilt.  Avasarala on the other hand, is painfully aware of her mistakes and missteps and blames herself even when things aren’t fully her fault.
She could practically see Arjun, the gentle sorrow in his eyes. It isn’t all your responsibility, he would say.
“It’s everyone’s fucking responsibility,” she said out loud. “But I’m the one who’s taking it seriously.”

Corey, James S. A.. Caliban's War (The Expanse Book 2) (p. 384). Orbit. Kindle Edition.
 Holden straight up murdering Admiral Nguyen toward the end of the novel is forgiven because Holden is on the side of good, full of his golden-boy righteousness.  It’s never brought up.  There is no trial.  I’m guessing it’s assumed that Nguyen goes down with the ship when it self-destructs, but after he gets a pass from Naomi, getting his hands dirty, finally going Miller, doesn’t seem to bother Holden at all.  So, is he still good?  Is he still the righteous, naive hero?  I think yes, and no, but I also think I’ll have to read the next book to see how this change is handled (if it is properly at all).

A theme that was a bit more prevalent in the last novel, which has shifted a bit here, is the idea of governments and their people in opposition.  In Leviathan Wakes, it’s pretty much Holden verses the solar system, and Miller’s arc shows us how hard those living in the outer planets have it when dealing with Mars and Earth.  This time around, the OPA is starting to be acknowledged as a fledgling government, one that Holden works for.  Meanwhile, a shooting war starts on Ganymede, where a massive amount of the solar system’s food is grown and where most of those living in the outer system go to have their babies.  It’s probably the most important moon, next to Luna, and nobody condemns Earth or Mars for it.  The only one doing anything to really work against any government entity is Avasarala, and she’s mainly trying to outplay Errinwright, who’s directly involved with the new Protogen.

General Thoughts

 Moving on to the actual writing and plot, I can't tell if the authors are getting too cocky after their first book, or panicking in some places.  Example:
And he’d never be able to adequately explain the certainty he felt that this lost little girl was at the center of everything that had happened on Ganymede. “I think this lost little girl is at the center of everything that’s happened on Ganymede,” he said with a shrug.
Corey, James S. A.. Caliban's War (The Expanse Book 2) (p. 238). Orbit. Kindle Edition.
That quote annoys the heck out of me, and this isn't the only time they pull this kind of lame joke, which makes it even worse.  I feel like they thought they’d learned a new trick and liked it so much they had to do it something like three times in the novel, but it just doesn’t work for me.

The first book wasn't funny.  It was amusing, particularly when Holden and Miller are actually in each other's presence, plus Amos and Alex provide some lighter moments, but on his own, Holden didn't strike me as having much of a sense of humor.  It’s part of his golden-boy ultra heroic persona that he takes the fate of the solar system and most of the time, himself very seriously.  If anything Avasarala, Bobbie, Alex and Amos banter enough that the authors could have easily avoided cheap jokes like that.

As for the plot, it follows the same premise as the first book; a missing daughter case involving the protomolecule.  It definitely goes in different directions, and Prax is certainly no Jules Mao.   It’s also not nearly as shocking.  Imagining the inhabitants of Eros, broken down into guts and body parts rolling around on their own was chilling.  The protomolecule soldiers aren’t really as visceral, though it is really messed up that they’re made out of immune-deficient children.

The fact that proto-soldiers are made out of the kids from Ganymede could have made for some decent emotion fuel, but aside from Prax, we only see one other parent freaking out about their kid’s disappearance, and we never see a reaction when Prax tells Basia his son is dead.  And Basia’s son, Katoa, is not the only dead kid.  For every monster, there’s one dead kid.  At the end of the book, I think only eight kids are rescued altogether.  There’s no mourning, there are no tearful reunions, beside Prax’s.  Once the kids are rescued, aside from a mention that their parents are being looked for, they pretty much disappear.

Conclusion

Overall, I think Leviathan Wakes was a stronger novel, with tighter writing, albeit with a slightly more simple plot.  This isn’t very
surprising, there’s a strategy among writers pitching series to polish the utter heck out of the first novel, which can result in weaker work later in the series.  This doesn’t mean the other books the writers have finished won’t top the first, but Caliban’s War doesn’t seem quite there.  It’s still good, it’s fun, and the ending is awesome, hopefully setting us up for some incredibly epic adventures in the next book.

Other Useful Information:

Bechdel Test: Pass
Helpful Tropes: Adult Fear, Cliffhanger, Colonized Solar System, Fantastic Racism, Powered Armor, Sir Swears-a-lot, Space Battle, Sufficiently Advanced Alien
Links: Goodreads, Wikipedia

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