[Galaxy-sized spoilers: Beware]
Cibola Burn, the fourth book in the Expanse series by James S. A. Corey, continues the adventures of James Holden, his crew, and their ship, the Rocinante. (For a general review, this piece from NPR gives a nice summary of the book.) The series continues to be a romp through the galaxy, although most of this book takes place on an Earth-like planet, called Illus or New Terra, depending on where the characters hail from. Although the plan was to study planets for years before colonizing them, a set of refugees dashed through the gate without permission. A year later, they were followed by a exploratory science team sent by a corporation, Royal Charter Energy, from the UN government (meaning Earth.) Some of the colonists fear the arrival of the corporation, and instead of just destroying the landing, they accidentally damage the corporation’s shuttle, killing the governor and some members of the science team. This event solidifies the rival in-groups and out-groups. Both groups feel they have legitimate claims to the planet: the corporation is sanctioned by governments while the colonists have been trying to escape oppression and finally feel they have a place to call home.
This book is reminiscent of the dystopia, Lord of the Flies, by William Golding. The plot doesn’t track exactly, but it explores similar themes of being isolated from “civilization,” as well as what happens to people when they are facing anomie, or the breakdown of the norms in society. When I first read the book, I contemplated how the book dealt with themes of control vs. loss of control, action vs. inaction, and fear and anxiety. Questions are asked (and answered) like: Will people from the different groups destroy one another? Will they collaborate to survive a hostile environment? Who will take advantage of the chaos to exploit his or her needs for sadism? How does fear motivate people to undermine the bonds in their society?
However, the children in The Lord of the Flies, didn’t have James Holden (and his team) to intervene to help them through mediation, force, and by representing governmental authority. Furthermore, some of the settlers and scientists worked across the boundaries of their in-groups and out-groups to solve problems. For example, a major disaster happens, and the groups on Illus have to work together to survive. This is true for the ships still orbiting the planet, as well. Collaboration is the key to survival in harsh situations, and one gets the sense that there shouldn’t be a place for someone like the head security officer Murtry, who seems to be getting a sadistic pleasure out of killing and threatening other people. He makes it harder for them to survive. Lest it seem one sided, there are people, mainly men, among the settlers who also take an “us or them” perspective, murdering investigators from the security team.
And at the end of the book, it is revealed that Undersecretary Avasarala of the United Nations and Fred Johnson, President of the Outer Planetary Alliance sent Holden on a fool’s mission. They hoped he’d fail, and it’d be a warning to the many settlers watching the events unfold. On the other hand, success on New Terra would leave Mars at a huge disadvantage because who would want to live on Mars, when one could find planets more similar to Earth that didn’t need terraforming. And with people leaving Mars, Mars would then turn to its one resource to sell: the weapons of war. Thus, people like Avasarala wanted New Terra to be a failure. Although the heroics of Holden and others saved the day, it turns out that it may have brought about an even worse breakdown of human civilization.
In terms of recommending this book, I found it to be a good read. I didn’t enjoy it as much as the third book in the series, but it deals with some important issues and sets up further adventures. All in all, I’m looking forward to where the adventures of Holden, the Rocinante, and the human race go next.