One of the things Ty Franck and Daniel Abraham’s Expanse series of novels to date have done very well is to highlight the internal human conflicts which may or may not lead to physical violence. I wanted to write the words “racial tension” instead of “internal human conflicts”, but it’s a difficult thing to say given the fact the setting is in fact one big milieu of race. Belter, Martian, Terran—geographical lines not skin color are the social lines which have foremost segregated humanity on its march toward the stars, and attempts at coming to terms with a universe in which humanity is not the only sentient life. Emphasizing these social lines in a tightly confined, inhospitable setting is the Expanse’s fourth novel, Cibola Burn (2014).
According to wikipedia, Cibola is the Spanish name of the first region conquered by Vasquez on his bloody march across the Americas in search of gold. A portentous name for a novel, indeed the plot that plays out features a small but technologically advanced group arriving on the scene of a larger group of primitives. In Expanse terms, this equates to a UN scientific expedition, complete with a small security force, arriving on one of the new planets the protomolecule ring has given humanity access to and finding a small group of Belter squatters there mining lithium. Conflict erupting quickly on Inis/New Terra, James Holden (and crew, natch) are called in to mediate the situation as diplomats. Terrorist elements among the Belters and an antagonistic security leader ensuring tensions stay at peak, Holden has his work cut out for him. But pushing matters over the edge is that alien structures on the desert planet, thought long abandoned, appear to be showing signs of life.
If there is anything that is classic science fiction, it may be the setup of Cibola Burn; factions of humanity clash while a wild card of mysterious alien origin plays games, changing the rules of the human conflict as it goes. Such stories have been written for decades, and Franck and Abraham do a good job of keeping the human elements (i.e. the ideology of the conflict) realistic and relatable, while still allowing the mystery of the alien object to escalate plot into a unpredictable, dramatic climax.
As has been the case with prior Expanse novels, viewpoints are split among a handful of characters. In Cibola Burn, a couple side characters from prior novels come to the forefront, and a couple new characters are added. Miller’s sidekick in Leviathan Wakes, John Havelock returns as a security officer in Cibola Burn, and spends the majority of the novel in orbit above Inis/New Terra, watching his hostile security leader create more of a problem than solve. His son one of those killed by Dr. Strickland in Caliban’s War, Basia Merton has taken what remains of his family to Inis in Cibola Burn, hoping to make a new life for them. From his perspective, the UN science expedition threatens to take away everything he and his community have struggled to build on the planet to date. Elvi Okoye is one of the scientists arriving. An exobiologist, her passion for science is interrupted by the constant conflict around her, that is, until her knowledge actually has an impact on the situation. And of course, Holden, his crew, and Miller make a return. Everyday a struggle to remain impartial, Holden nevertheless proves he can wear a diplomat hat also, but not without a little help from what remains of the
The Belter-Martian-Earther conflict a constant source of conflict in Expanse novels to date, in Cibola Burn it comes front and center, providing the source of tension. A colonial story, an American story, and a Cibola story, it’s a fight over land rights, power, and authority akin to the British Empire, American government, and Vasqua de Gomez’s expansions. No group inherently good or evil, however, the UN believes it’s doing the right thing by prioritizing science on the new planet while the Belters are just trying to protect the source of their livelihood from what they perceive to be corporate interests. This and other layers of story allow Abraham and Franck to tell both sides of the classic colonial story without painting one side inherently evil.
In the end, Cibola Burn is a nice change of pace for the series. Most action occurring planet-side among a small, confined group of people, the massive space battles, super soldiers, and space station action which defined most of the prior novels are absent. Abraham and Franck instead nicely taking a classic sf scenario and playing it out in Expanse terms, they push the overarching story of the Expanse ahead by pulling back a little more of the veil over the protomolecule while continuing to feed my crack addiction (aka The Expanse series). Given the social conflict that is at the heart of the novel, not to mention the triumvirate of UN-Belters-aliens that exists, I would say the novel is extremely Le Guinian.