Review: EXPANSE NOVELLAS by James S.A. Corey
While I was waiting for the arrival of The Expanse on tv, I decided to finally read some of the short stories written by James S.A. Corey (i.e. Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck) about this universe: for some reason I never got around to reading them, so that now seemed indeed the best time to start.
THE BUTCHER OF ANDERSON STATION
The character of Fred Johnson, head of the OPA (Outer Planets Alliance) always intrigued me: it would seem almost impossible for an Earth-born to reach such levels of power in Belter society, where outsiders are looked at with mistrust (and that in a best-case scenario), even more so considering the shadow cast on him by his past as an Earth soldier – and therefore the enemy, from a Belter point of view, the one who has been dubbed “Butcher” for his past deeds.
Much is explained in this story about how he gained that name, and we also get a glimpse of the beginning of Johnson’s “second life”: as the narrative opens, he’s in a Belter bar, standing out very much like the proverbial sore thumb in such a hostile environment and not, as one would expect, trying to draw as little attention to himself as possible, but rather looking for trouble. A series of flash-backs takes us to an operation on the titular Anderson Station, a supply base in the Belt that had been taken over by rebels: Johnson and his marines manage to retake the station but something does not add up and some evidence seems to indicate that the action was less of a military operation and more of an exemplary warning to all Belters.
This is indeed the most interesting part of the tale, the one that shows in no uncertain terms the history of the bitter hostility between the inner planets and their far-reaching colony: a video message from one of the rebels gives Johnson a new viewpoint on the situation, one that points to the ruthless exploitation of the Belt colonists, whose meager quotas of air, food and water are constantly reduced in the name of profit, a goal to be reached without thought for the suffering of one’s fellow humans. The reason for the revolt he was called in to quell came from a three percent increase on supply charges applied to already overburdened colonists, whose protests were dismissed with a careless exhortation about “working harder”, not unlike the alleged Marie Antoinette reply about eating croissants… As the recorded message from the now-dead Belter says:
“… what if you’re already running at the bare minimum? How about every year, you just don’t breathe for three days? That would about cover it. Or you don’t drink any water for three days. Or you don’t eat for three days when you’re already on the brink of starvation. When there’s nothing left to cut back on, how do you make it up then?”
This is a short but very intense story that literally begs to be read and gives you a deeper insight in many of the facets of this fascinating universe. To say more would mean to spoil its effect, or the emotional impact that it carries. Highly recommended.
After reading the latest book in the Expanse series, Nemesis Games, I gained a better perception of the characters of Alex Kamal and Amos Burton, who had until that moment seemed somewhat nebulous and even interchangeable: Amos’ figure was the one that gained a sharper focus after the last installment, so I was more than happy to discover that in this story the spotlight is on him and his past, something that has been shown only in tantalizing glimpses until now.
That past was spent on an Earth whose description reminds me of post-apocalyptic backgrounds: the city of Baltimore, and probably every other city on the planet, is divided between those who work for their wages, and possess a drive and energies for trying to create a better future for themselves, and those who live on basic – the government-funded welfare program that leaves them with a lot of free time on their hands, and here the maxim about the dangers stemming from idleness seems to apply most dramatically. On this future Earth, if you don’t work you give up some rights, like the freedom of having children, which does not stop people from birthing “unlicensed” offspring, individuals who are not in the system and therefore must survive on the fringes of society, where criminality is the way of life. Periodically, the authorities raid the warrens where these virtual ghosts live, and the aftermath of one such operation – aptly termed “the churn” – can bring great changes both to individuals and to criminal organizations.
This is what happens to a younger Amos and – without delving into details that might spoil the effect of this well-crafted and involving story – what contributes to shape him into the person we will meet later as part of the Rocinante’s crew, a man who can decide to kill you or lend a helping hand with the same kind of detached equanimity that makes him so powerfully scary, the man who is described as possessing “an amiable smile, an unpleasant past, and a talent for cheerful violence”. Despite that, he also comes across as an individual possessed of deep loyalty toward his crew-mates, and one who is also capable of offering second chances to old enemies, as he shows with Clarissa Mao in “Nemesis Games”: here, in this glimpse on his troubled past, we learn how he came to be the person he is, what shaped the future Amos and the reasons for his journey down memory lane in the last published book of the series.
The fascinating insights offered by this story and the equally intriguing twist at the end of it make this a must read for all Expanse aficionados: what I find most compelling here is the “special content” quality of the information provided, and the fact that the authors chose to provide it as an aside, without weighing the main story-line with too much detail. It’s a way of fleshing out this universe and at the same time keeping the interest in it alive that I find most satisfying.
THE VITAL ABYSS
This story does not focus on any of the known characters in the main work, and begins as a mystery: a group of people, we soon learn are scientist, is held prisoner in appalling conditions by what appears to be a group of Belters, and the initial description of their plight prompts compassion and a good measure of curiosity about the reasons for such inhuman treatment. Soon enough, though, through the “voice” of the first person narrator, Dr. Paolo Cortazar, we learn that this is the very group of scientist who first studied and then released the dreaded protomolecule on Eros station: this is the moment when all sympathy evaporates, leaving horror and contempt in its place.
Dr. Cortazar’s backstory, interspersed with the main narrative details, follows the same path: he grew up amid economic and social difficulties, and had to witness his mother’s slow death from Huntington’s disease, the very reason that prompted him to scrabble his way up the ladder through academic studies. Once he’s contacted by Protogen though, and participates in the experiments with the alien molecule, his total, chilling indifference toward his fellow beings comes to the fore, causing any empathy he might have engendered to vanish into thin air. Cortazar is supremely self-centered, thinking only about his own advancement first and, once he becomes a prisoner, about his escape – no matter what or who gets trampled in the process.
What I found fascinating here is the fact that he’s a compelling character despite his total failure as a human being, a testament to the authors’ powerful storytelling and skill with words: in true “mad scientist” fashion, Cortazar not only is able to observe the protomolecule’s destructive potential with a dispassionate eye, he admires the alien construct for its complexity and ability to adapt and evolve – the fact it does so by literally cannibalizing everyone it finds in its path is for him just a part of its fascinating nature. Much worse, though, is his attitude toward his fellow prisoners and particularly the one who becomes his lover during the long imprisonment: once given the chance to be freed in exchange for information on the protomolecule, he accepts these terms and leaves everyone behind him, not for one moment wondering about their feelings or plight, because, in his own words “in the end I didn’t actually care”.
So very chilling…