Friday, February 24, 2017

Caliban's War by James S.A.Corey

Caliban's War
            James S.A.Corey

Caliban's war is the sequel to “Mr. Corey's” (it’s a pen name for two authors) rather amazing Leviathan Wakes. Caliban's War was published in 2012 by orbit publishing. I should note: I am about to spoil the hell out of Leviathan Wakes so stop here if you haven't read it yet. In Leviathan Wakes, Mr. Corey took us to the sort-of-distant future where humanity has colonized the Moon and Mars and is expanding into the outer planets and the asteroid belt. While the Earth is politically and economically unified, Mars has become a rival state and the outer planets/belt have evolved into a radically different culture with it's own language, customs, and mores from Earth or Mars. With the evolution of that separate culture has come resentment of the more powerful inner planets as the people of the outer system view them as foreign imperialists. This was all brought to a head when a cabal of corporate scientists began experimenting on an alien piece of biological technology known as the protomolecule. As an experiment they release it on a large and very densely populated outer system habitat. The protomolecule kills everyone and uses their biological mass to rewire the habitat and turn it into a spaceship on a ramming course toward Earth. The cover up leads Mars and Earth into the brink of a shooting war and it's only by heroic action that the protomolecule is diverted into Venus and war averted. Now the protomolecule is reworking Venus and what does the divided solar system do?  Start prepping for another war against each other of course!

Both Earth and Mars move to divide up the solar system between themselves while the Outer System resists both of them, tensions are simmering high and everything just needs a match. On Ganymede, which is the breadbasket of the outer system and the safest place to bear and give birth to children, that match gets struck. When Gunnery Sgt Roberta Draper's platoon of Martian Marines finds itself confronted by a monster of nightmare that just wiped out a UN Marine platoon and proceeds to tear them apart, their attempts to kill the damn thing kick off a mass fleet conflict that shatters Ganymede. Gunnery Sgt Draper, aka Bobbi, finds herself the sole survivor of a confrontation of what seems to be a weapon of war made from the alien protomolecule. However neither her government or the government of Earth seemed as interested in that fact, as they are interested in getting ready to blow each other to pieces.

Except for Chrisjen Avasarala assistant to the undersecretary of the executive administration of the United Nations. A woman who if she isn't the most powerful person on Earth, politically speaking, is certainly in the top five. When she gets involved in trying to stop a war from occurring and getting everyone focused on the fact that Venus is being rewritten into... No one knows what, she's finding a lot more resistance than she expected and finding out that she can trust a lot fewer people than even she thought she could. She's trying to piece together who is doing this and why before everyone is dragged into a shooting war that is going to benefit no one--not even the cockroaches--if things go wrong. This is because if whatever Venus is turning into is hostile, not even the cockroaches are gonna be around afterwards. It's not that no one’s paying attention to Venus mind, just about everyone is aiming telescopes, radars and more at the planet and watching as some alien technology thousands of years beyond our own is changing the very nature of the planet in months. It's just that everyone else is reacting by plotting to clunk their neighbors over the head so they can consolidate power in the face of this mind boggling event.

Meanwhile suffering the consequences of all this is Dr. Praxidike Meng, a biologist on Ganymede who before all of this cared about exactly two things. His daughter Mei; a toddler who suffers from a rare disorder which renders her immune system defunct unless she gets regular medical doses; and his research into growing better and stronger plants in low and zero g, so he can fed the outer system. All of that is torn to pieces when Mars and Earth start shooting each other in his home and he finds out that his daughter was kidnapped... Before the shooting started. His work is ruined, his home is a bombed out war zone and is slowly sliding into utter ruin but that doesn't matter. Doctor Prax has just one goal after his life has been shattered by forces outside of his control: find his daughter no matter where he has to go or who he has to go through and the only one who can help him is…

The one and only Captain James Holden. The maniac who inadvertently started the last round of shooting and helped saved civilization. When his boss (for a loose definition of the word) points him at Ganymede to figure out just what is going on, he sets Captain Holden on the trail of conspiracy to create the next revolution in warfare and to unify humanity under one banner, even if everything humanity has built has to be wrecked beyond repair first. Only Captain Holden isn't doing so hot, as what he saw the last time he confronted the protomolecule has scarred him for life and his attempts to ignore that or pretend it didn't happen are dragging him deeper and deeper into the rabbit hole. It's an open question as to whether or not he can tame his demons long enough and well enough to be of any use but if he doesn't everyone might end up paying for it.

Both Holden, Doc Prax and Bobbi are struggling with nasty cases of PTSD in this book and one thing I like is how Mr. Corey has them express it in different ways. Captain Holden growing more and more paranoid and prone to violence to solve his problems, something that hasn't escaped the notice of his engineer and girlfriend Naomi Nagata, who feels he's becoming more like the burnt out cop Detective Miller... Who didn't survive the last confrontation with the protomolecule. Doc Prax is suffering PTSD from being turned into a refugee and losing his daughter. Either one is something I can only imagine dealing with. I mean, imagine your home being turned into a bombed out ruin with foreign troops everywhere. Your friends are fleeing or slowly going insane and you're not much better but you can't leave because the only family you have left is missing and you have to find them. Meanwhile Bobbi has become withdrawn and rather obsessed with finding the monster that killed her Marines and killing it back. Interestingly enough, another crew member kind of steps up to the fore here, Amos Burton. Like Holden, Amos is from Earth but while Holden had a rather idyllic childhood being raised on a farm by his 8 parents (genetic engineering makes having children more interesting!), Amos had a much darker past and it gets brought to light here. Part of it is the rather odd connection between Amos and Dr. Prax, as Amos becomes rather committed to finding the Doctor's missing child himself. The stakes are both low and intimate with the survival of a single child and the sanity of her father at stake and high and frightening as things could spin out of control and start the most destructive and possibly last war in history.

I do have trouble with how eager some people are to start this war has well, because frankly this is like the US and the USSR in that no one can win it. Basically Earth and Mars can utterly ruin each other to the point of wrecking their planets for human habitation. Mars is still only habitable by dome and Earth has over 30 billion people on it. Both planets are basically a few high speed rocks away from utter collapse and with that wrecking civilization itself. I know I'm discounting the outer planets but I have doubts about their ability to keep a high tech functioning civilization going without the inner planet's resources and infrastructure. I'm not saying that such a group wouldn't arise or wouldn't try for it. The Soviet Union and the United States both had warhawk factions after all and frankly my thought is if you have leadership who thinks they can win a final confrontation with the enemy and achieve total control... Then sooner or later they're going to go for it. But you think more people would be saying “hey would there even be anything left on a meaningful level and would there be enough of that left to protect us from whatever is going on on Venus?”. The larger story here that the story of Prax's search for his daughter and Bobbi and Holden grappling with their traumas and losses threads through is how do civilizations deal with outside context problems and do you come together in the face of that problem or do you try and force everyone to follow your lead?

We also get to see Earth and get some interesting facts. For one thing Mr. Corey does try to address the objections to the population of Earth by pitching the idea the once everyone had reached a certain standard of living and most jobs were lost to automation that there was little else for most people to do but collect their government monies and make more people to collect government monies. It's a tidy answer, given to us by Bobbi so it also has a certain amount of deniability, because Bobbi could be wrong. On its own I don't buy it. What tends to drive birth rates is whether having children is economically viable or profitable. When the majority of people were farming for a living it made sense to have large numbers of kids, each child was another mouth to feed but you could turn them into additional farm labor pretty quickly and they would cost a lot less than hiring a non-related adult to help you on the farm. These days having kids is an economic net negative, ask any parent, kids are pretty damn expensive. Basically you need to make having kids not be a money pit. That said it's not a huge part of the setting and the rest of the setting is pretty awesome so I suppose I can let it go.

I also like how Mr. Corey treats the military in this book. There are military villains to go with our heroes yes, but the book is able to touch on the virtues displayed by members of every military involved as well as looking at the vices those same services have. The military as an institution is not mindlessly praised or disparaged, instead we are shown that the militaries involved are full of good people and bad people with many virtues and vices shared among them. Some of them are venial, selfish, short sighted or just mean, but we are also shown self sacrifice, loyalty, and a willingness to go beyond what is expected of you for the benefit of the group.

Caliban's War is a great book and shows just what great science fiction can be. Mr. Corey has given us a great story that builds on the last one and shows us the consequences of those actions. The story doesn't entirely work as a stand alone but honestly that doesn't bother me too much. I'm giving Caliban's War an A. This is one of the better books I've read this year.   

This review edited by Dr. Ben Allen.

So a note on what's to come. I got graphic novels spilling out of the box, so it's time go ahead and clear some of out. So next month is graphic novel month! I also want to give some time to independent writers so April will be independent novel month.

March 3rd - Vader's back!
March 10th - Dwarves vol I!
March 17th- Ravine vol II
March 24th- Monsters
March 30th Rurouni Kenshin Vol I

Coming up in April- State Machine, Warp III and Seedbearing Prince III! Keep reading folks and next week we once again turn to the Dark Side!

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