Tuesday, 10 January 2017

Book Review | Babylon's Ashes by James S. A. Corey

A revolution brewing for generations has begun in fire. It will end in blood.

The Free Navy—a violent group of Belters in black-market military ships—has crippled the Earth and begun a campaign of piracy and violence among the outer planets. The colony ships heading for the thousand new worlds on the far side of the alien ring gates are easy prey, and no single navy remains strong enough to protect them.

James Holden and his crew know the strengths and weaknesses of this new force better than anyone. Outnumbered and outgunned, the embattled remnants of the old political powers call on the Rocinantefor a desperate mission to reach Medina Station at the heart of the gate network.

But the new alliances are as flawed as the old, and the struggle for power has only just begun. As the chaos grows, an alien mystery deepens. Pirate fleets, mutiny and betrayal may be the least of the Rocinante's problems. And in the uncanny spaces past the ring gates, the choices of a few damaged and desperate people may determine the fate of more than just humanity.


The Expanse made a tremendous first impression, and the next novels in the blockbuster space opera Leviathan Wakes started went from strength to strength, knocking the overarching first contact narrative out of the park at the same time as remaining satisfyingly self-contained. But then there was a wobble—a wobble of opportunity squandered that nearly drove this reader from the series. It fell, finally, to Nemesis Games to right not a sinking ship, but one that was at least listing.

I was delighted that it did. By contracting as opposed to expanding—by firmly and finely focusing on the characters that had been at its heart from the start—Nemesis Games recaptured the intimate magic that The Expanse's latter chapters lacked, and although it didn't address the presence of the protomolecule, something dramatic did actually happen in book five: something that completely changed the state of play across the Milky Way.
The Belt had finally shrugged off the yoke of the inner planets. They had Medina Station at the heart of the ring gates, they had the only functioning navy in the solar system, and they had the gratitude of millions of Belters. In the long term, it was the greatest statement of independence and freedom the human race had ever made. (p.18)
Said statement came at a cost, of course. You don't just get to declare that you're done with the people who've been keeping you and run off with their resources—not now and not in this near-future milieu. If no one's listening, you have to force the issue. You might even have to fight for that right.

Unfortunately for a huge hunk of humanity—for the folks who've made their homes on Earth and Mars and the Moon—the Free Navy didn't care about collateral damage when they conspired to fire asteroid fragments at the planet their oppressors were arranged around:
There had been thirty billion people on the overcrowded Earth, dependent on a vast network of machinery to keep them fed and hydrated and not drowning in their own waste. A third of those, by the more pessimistic estimates, had already died. Holden had seen a few seconds of a report discussing how the death count in Western Europe was being done by assaying atmospheric changes. How much methane and cadaverine were in the air let them guess how many people were rotting in the ruined streets and cities. That was the scale of the disaster. (p.33)
Essentially, it's the end of the world as we know it, and Marcos Inaros, the man behind it, feels fine.

Energised, even. He's made history, and in the eyes of the masses of not necessarily helpless Belters behind him, the charismatic figurehead of the Free Navy can do no wrong—although some of those nearest to their leader are less than convinced by him. His son, say, has a sinking suspicion that his father doesn't actually have a plan.

Michio Pa, for her part, signed up because she dreamed "of a Belt for Belters—a life that didn't depend on being used and exploited by the larger powers in the system." (p.407) Very reasonably, she wanted to help her people. But when one after another of Marcos' oh-so-sneaky schemes endangers the very individuals she meant to protect, she breaks away from the Free Navy to become something of a "pirate queen." (p.120)

Alas, redistributing aid that would go to waste to those in real need makes her an enemy in Marcos' eyes, and Marcos is a man who'll stop and nothing to make his enemies pay, as evidenced by the devastating damage the Free Navy has already done. The whole system is in disarray at the outset of Babylon's Ashes, and somehow, UN Secretary-General Chrisjen Avasarala has to make sense of it:
Her mind danced across the solar system. Medina Station. Rhea, declaring against the Free Navy. The food and supplies of Ganymede. The starvation and death on Earth. The Martian Navy divided between the mysterious Duarte and his black market Free Navy and Smith. Now Richards. The lost colonies. Fred Johnson's OPA and all the factions he couldn't influence or command. The colony ships being preyed upon by the Free Navy pirates, and the stations and asteroids gaining the benefit of the piracy. And the missing ships. And the stolen protomolecule sample. (pp.108-109)
Needless to say, there's a lot going on in Babylon's Ashes. Narratively, it's the polar opposite of its predecessor, which breathed in where this book breathes out. Same goes for the characters concerned: rather than casting the core four—Holden, Naomi, Amos and Alex—as our central perspectives, as in Nemesis Games, the sixth in the saga explodes outwards to include more narrators than The Expanse has ever had to handle, as if to say: this isn't just about our jokers any more. This is about Bobbie and Fred; Filip and Clarissa; Dawes and Salis and Nanamo. "No matter the shade of their skin or the texture of their hair, ash and misery had made a single tribe of them all." (p.3) They are humanity writ large in the stars, and the scope of the story as a whole must swell as well.

It's a credit to James S. A. Corey, then, that Babylon's Ashes is as compelling and as accessible as the earliest chapters of The Expanse. Perhaps that's because the stakes are so great. Perhaps that's because Nemesis Games made it personal again. Perhaps that's because this book has it all, from the large scale to the small. But I put to you that Babylon's Ashes is a success in large part because the wheels of said series have suddenly stopped spinning. There's a sense that we're moving towards something now, not just killing time till the next adventure. As the Butcher of Anderson Station says:
Earth's broken. It will be for generations. Mars may or may not collapse, but there's still the gates. Still the colony worlds. Still all the pressures that keep the Belt on the edge of starvation and even less of what makes it valuable. There's no getting back to status quo ante. We've got to move forward. (p.178)
But towards what? That really remains to be seen. Consider this, though: thus far, The Expanse has given us a brilliant beginning, and a difficult middle. Now that it's come out of that stage swinging, what's left other than an ending?

As a matter of fact, before Orbit acquired another three novels in The Expanse series, Babylon's Ashes was to be this vast narrative's last chapter. As it stands, it's only the start of the last act, but it brings resolution to so many lengthy threads and tangled webs that it could conceivably be viewed as a conclusion. It isn't, obviously. But although Babylon's Ashes is not the end of James S. A. Corey's story, it certainly does portend.


Babylon's Ashes
by James S. A. Corey

UK & US Publication: December 2016, Orbit

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