This is the book I was most looking forward to this year, and I’m very happy to showcase it as my last review for 2016: The Expanse is without doubt one of the best space opera series currently running, its pacing and storyline a constant progression that shows no slumps or uncertainties, so that I feel I’m closing this blogging year with a proverbial bang.
Speaking of which, I was aware that the momentous events of the previous book, Nemesis Games, might have created some expectations of a more… active story, but this is a very different one, a transition story rather than one purely based on action. The devastation visited on Earth has not only created countless deaths and massive environmental upheavals, but also huge shifts in politics, alliances and perspective: what happened on the home planet is not affecting only its inhabitants, but the whole Solar System. From the need to relocate the staggering number of refugees, to the loss of irreplaceable materials that only Earth could provide to its outlying colonies, the actions of the Free Navy, far from freeing the Belters from their subordination to the inner planets, had a negative influence on all of humanity and its future.
This must be the main reason that compelled the authors to shift from the tighter focus on the Rocinante’s crew to a wider cast of characters: much as it happened with the second book in the series, Caliban’s War, the overall scope has now become too big to be observed solely through the eyes of Holden & Co., it needs other points of view, different tiles in the mosaic, so to speak. Therefore, events also unfold from the standpoint of well-known figures like Avasarala or Bobbie Draper, combined with those of returning characters like Michio Pa, Clarissa Mao or scientist Prax, and the addition of newer ones like Anderson Dawes, Marco Inaros and young Filip.
This choice felt quite appropriate to me, because instead of subtracting precious “screen time” from the Rocinante Four, it put their actions and choices into a wider perspective, and ultimately enhanced them: when it was only (so to speak…) a matter of chasing the trail of the protomolecule, it was good and right to follow the story from the angle of a handful of characters, but now that the trouble has expanded system-wide and could extend to the newly-founded colonies beyond the alien gate, the story needs to broaden its horizons. What started as the tale of four people thrown together by dramatic occurrences and slowly coalescing into a family, has now become the saga of humanity, its reach into space and the choices that need to be made to keep this larger family alive and thriving – because, to quote from the book, “ash and misery had made a single tribe of them all”.
The core theme of Babylon’s Ashes is indeed this, the need to understand that the differences that have divided humanity – political, religious, racial, whatever – are nothing but distractions on the road toward the stars: if the threat of the protomolecule was not enough to drive this message home, the damage inflicted on Earth could (and should) be the means to overcome those differences. Despite the dramatic events unfolding before our eyes, the still ongoing strife and battles, the political and military posturing, there is a subtle thread of hope woven throughout the narrative, the evidence that humanity holds the potential for building a better family out there, one that can look beyond our divisions, recognizing them for the red herrings they are, and come together in times on need.
These changes are mirrored in the characters as well, both the old ones and the new. Holden is not the idealistic do-gooder he was at the start of the story, nor does he make his decisions on impulse anymore: he has learned how to include some political expediency in his planning – probably due to the influence of Fred Johnson, and certainly having had to live far too often with the consequences of his rashest actions. More than that, what happened in the course of Nemesis Games brought home far more clearly than in the past that everything and everyone he holds dear is far too fragile to be risked without thinking about the short- and long-term effects of his choices: not that he never considered this in the past, but recent events showed him how clear and present is the danger of losing the people that have become his family. Naomi still labors under the burden of guilt that resurfaced with a part of her past, and of the hard decisions she had to make then and in more recent times: she is not on stage as much as she was in the previous book, but here you can see she is still evolving, and that the process is both painful and enlightening – she is still growing as a person, and acquiring more depth and substance. And Avasarala…. Well, it’s no mystery I greatly enjoy her as a character, and here we see even more facets of her formidable personality, her powerful determination even in the face of harrowing personal loss: strangely enough, the brief moments in which her granite façade crumbles are the ones where her strength comes across more clearly, showing that nothing can dent Avasarala’s resolve in a permanent way. Or exhaust her bottomless well of profanities…
This novel is not just about the “good guys”, though, and I’d like to spend some time with the story’s main villain, Marco Inaros, self-styled commander of the Free Navy and liberator of the Belters, the man responsible for the apocalyptic attack on Earth. At first he looked to me as the proverbial mustache-twirling baddie, and I was saddened at the apparent waste of potential he represented, but I should have trusted these authors more, since they never disappointed me in the past – and neither did they now. After a while I understood that Inaros represents a case in point for what happens with revolutions born out of profound injustice and moving forward on a wave of unthinking violence: in those cases it’s far too easy to lose sight of the original motivations for the rebellion, and lash out blindly with little or no thought about long-range consequences or collateral damage. Marco Inaros is the kind of man who emerges in such circumstance, one who can give voice to festering hostility held in check for too long: a man who can make himself known for blatant acts, or “grand gestures” as they are defined at some point, but far too focused on himself rather than the people he pretends to be helping. He’s not inherently evil, but more simply, and more tragically, in love with his own image, and unable to see – or foresee – his mistakes.
The best picture of the man comes from his son Filip, when he considers that “..he had two fathers now. The one who led the fight against the inners and who Filip loved like plants love light, and the one who twisted out of everything that went wrong and blamed anyone but himself”. And in that consideration there is definitive judgment as well: Inaros is ultimately a figure of tragedy, not in the sense that he should be pitied, but rather one whose blindness and self-absorption are the cause of widespread heartbreak.
Young Filip is also one character who, though still in continuing development, promises to be an intriguing one, should he return in the next installments: all throughout his journey in search of recognition, of the parental love he needs and is denied for a series of reasons as complex as he is, he goes through several stages that are often quite difficult to witness. He was the object of my compassion, because I could feel the pain underlying his brash attitude and the cloak of hate he wore as a coat of armor: there is hope, though, in the identity choice he makes at the end of his last p.o.v. chapter – a choice that might signal an important course change, one I hope to see as the story progresses.
There is much to look forward to for the next three books of The Expanse: there is still a sample of the protomolecule at large, for example, and the former Martian Navy’s ships that passed through the Laconia gate constitute an unforeseeable danger for the future. And who knows what other troubles the authors will decide to visit on this not-so-distant future version of our system. This series has been steadily growing and branching off in new and compelling directions, and I for one cannot wait to see what the next books will bring.