Wednesday, May 11, 2022

Review of Memory's Legion by James S.A. Corey

Just as methodically and competently as Ty Franck and Daniel Abraham published the Expanse novels, they likewise put out a similar rhythm of short fiction. Adding layers of lore that fans of the setting and characters can appreciate, the stories perform a number of functions, including shining further light on characters, giving more background for particular settings, and telling stories that characters in the novels occasionally menionted but were never put on the page. These eight stories have been brought together in one place as a coda to the Expanse series, Memory's Legion (2022).

Amos Burton has always been reticent about his past, and in “The Churn” the reader learns why (not to mention the reason behind the tattoo over his heart). A stab at noir given the manner in which Abraham and Corey crank up Amos’ signature reticence, Burton's tale is of turbulent times in Baltimore’s (future) history, and the role the young man played in organized crime and the people closest to him. An event referenced numerous times in the novels, “The Butcher of Anderson Station” finally tells what happened to Fred Johnson during his time in the UN Navy to cause him to be such a polarizing figure—OPA leader despised by the UN. As good a story as one might expect Franck and Abraham to write given the fictional hype, the reader can finally decide for themselves whether Johnson is villain or victim.

Another element commonly referenced in the Expanse novels is the famed Epstein drive, and the story simply titled “Drive” tells of its semi-accidental origins. One of the weaker stories in the collection, the title becomes a bit ironic given its greater expository rather than “dramatic” feel. Moving to Mars, “Gods of Risk”gives readers as deep a look as they've ever had into Martian domestic life. The story tells of Bobbie's nephew Davey, and the trouble he gets into helping a local drug dealer/gangster with supply chain. A good student with ambitions, Davey is eventually caught between his two worlds, and his seat-of-the-pants solution may not be the answer to the problem, or is it?

Surrounding known events known while the core remains unknown, “The Vital Abyss” tells how the scientific investigation of the protomolecule happened the way it did. From the point of view of one of the scientists, Dr. Paolo Cortazar, the narrative oscillates between Cortazar’s life before and after the destruction of Eros—the events that led to him being able to turn a blind eye to mass-murder in the name of “science”, and what happened after Miller killed Dresden. Franck and Abraham do a good job structuring the story and laying out Cortazar’s backstory in effective terms, but struggle trying to balance his humanity with the needs of the overarching (read: genre) plot.

The title awkward (but fitting once you’ve read the story), “Strange Dogs” tells of one girl’s experience playing in the woods of Laconia, her accidental discovery, and the strange impact it has on her and her family. While playing with the idea of mortality and the importance we place on it, it ultimately leans a little too far into the trappings of the latter three Expanse novels (i.e. zombie Amos) and not close enough to what made the core series consistent. Readers who enjoy a touch of horror, however, may enjoy it. A second short story set on Laconia, the events of “Auberon” occur in a corrupt, minor city on the planet, and begin with the arrival of the new governor, Biryar, to take power. Biryar immediately challenged by the incumbent warlord, a one-armed warlord named Erich, what follows is a subtle cat and mouse between the two men as Laconian values are forced upon the people. Inherently an examination of the morality of Laconian rule, “Corey” shows its duplicity through both the suppression and support of corruption.

The collection closes on a sentimental story that answers the question: what ever became of Naomi's son, Filip? “Sins of Our Fathers” picks up the young's man's life on a distant planet after the events of Leviathan Falls, i.e. stuck on colony world with no way of connecting to the rest of humanity through the warp gates. The small community of people around Filip find themselves in a state of ecological emergency: the location they've chosen, while close to water and other resources, likewise happens to be in the migration path of a large and aggressive species of animals, one of which attacks the colony in the opening scene. A man from the group rising to the occasion to kill the animal, he likewise uses the opportunity to throw his hat into the ring as colony leader. A fracture in the community appearing thereafter between those who want to move to new ground and those who want to stay and defend, Filip finds himself playing a critical role, not in the debate, but in keeping the social fabric intact. But at what cost?

In the end, Memory's Legion is indispensable for fans of the Expanse. As stated, it does its part to paint a more complete Expanse picture. Is it critical to understanding the Expanse series—do fans need to read it? A good question. There are some who might say 'yes' given how many back stories and gap-fillers there are. It does create a complete picture. But of course, no book is unmissable. I would only say that, unlike many writers who publish short fiction in the same world as larger series, this one, more than most, occupies the interstices—even functioning as cement, in some places. It goes without saying that readers who finished the series and are looking for more will find “more” here.


The following are the nine stories collected in Memory's Legion:

Drive

The Churn

The Butcher of Anderson Station

Gods of Risk

The Vital Abyss

Strange Dogs

Auberon

Sins of Our Fathers

3 comments:

  1. Now the series has finished, it would be interesting to read a review of the series considered as a whole. Your review of the first book suggests it's solidly done space opera, breaking no new ground but doing what it does very well (in a sub-genre that perhaps doesn't attract the greatest of writers). However, I've avoided your reviews of the later books for fear of spoilers, so I'd be keen to hear what you think now the series is complete. I get the sense that a series like The Expanse is one in which the value of earlier books is in part determined by how the whole ends up unfolding. Is the whole greater than the sum of its parts, or is there a case that ten books of competently done material is perhaps too much of a middling thing?

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    1. Is the Expanse whole greater than the individual volumes? Even if you've read only a few of the books in the series, then you're already aware of the episodic nature of the series. It isn't like each book ends on a cliffhanger resolved by the following book - a great chain of extended story that leads to a giant bang. They are largely contained stories in an extended setting.

      Is there an undercurrent, some mystery or question needing to be answered, that pushes through the series? To some degree, yes. Who are the gate builders and what is their purpose. But is that the driving focus of each novel? Not really. Human concerns greatly impact the plotline of each novel, just as much as alien, if not at times more.

      Another way of asking the question is: did Abraham and Franck have an underlying theme they were trying to push through the series and then drive home in the final volume? I imagine readers could come up with some ideas common throughout the series - the importance of relationships, humanity's penchant for authoritarianism, us vs them thinking, etc., etc. But those are all very operatic in nature, and perhaps just an indirect result of the focus on plot and character, not a literary ploy to examine or expose something more profound. Space opera is by default, after all, a limited genre when it comes to expressing the human condition.

      I don't remember reading any interviews with Abraham and Franck, so I'm completely spitballing to say this, but my guess is that the main thrust of the series, from the writers' point of view, is to offer would be readers a triumvirate of engaging story, sympathetic characters with a degree or two of realism, and a colorful imagining of humanity's population of the solar system. In other words, quality space opera. No grand theme, no secret mission (pardon the pun), no grand twist to spring on readers after eight novels. No meaty dive into the human psyche. If that indeed was their aim, they seem to have hit the nail on the head. With the exception of perhaps Nemesis Games, which feels more forced than the others, each book is quite consistent, delivering expectations and surprises, elading up to a proper ending that doesn't exceed the bounds of the setting.

      In terms of space opera, The Expanse as a whole is about as good as you can hope for when taking a chance. There are only a few writers/books I would put above it, for example Iain Banks Culture novels, M. John Harrison's Viriconium & Kefuthatchi (something like that), Dan Simmons' Hyperion books, and a couple others. I would put the Expanse on par with Herbert's Dune books, much of Jack Vance' ouevre, a lot of Ken Macleod's books, Ian McDonald's Luna series, Allen Steele's Coyote novels, etc. And "Corey's" series is bettter than John Scalzi's works, EE Doc Smith's books, Neal Asher's sci-fi, Alastair Reynolds' Revelation Space novels, Peter Hamilton's doorstoppers, Pierce Brown's color coordinated cheese, and Lois McMaster Bujold's neverending space opera saga.

      How's that for context? :)

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    2. Thanks Jesse, this is very helpful indeed! Space opera is a sometimes frustrating sub-genre; whilst it doesn't reach the levels of sophistication of literary SF at its best (and by its nature doesn't aspire to, so this isn't a criticism), sometimes you just want to get lost in a gripping page-turner. But I still want those pages to be written by an author who understand the mechanics of good writing, pacing and plot and so often space opera fails to clear those hurdles. The Expanse sounds like a welcome addition to the shelves.

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