The Short Version: After the protomolecule had its way with Venus, it launched something out into orbit in the outer reaches of the planetary solar system. Nobody has yet gone through this Ring, but when a rogue spacecraft does and discovers something on the other side, humanity’s interest is piqued. And of course, James Holden and the crew of the Rocinante find themselves in the midst of it all – but this time, they have to figure out how to battle back humanity’s worst impulses while figuring out how to make sure the Ring isn’t the threat it might appear to be…
The Review: I loved the smash-bang debut of Leviathan Wakes and even though Caliban’s War definitely rehashed several of those plot points, it expanded the world of this series in a way befitting the series title. But it has been an implicit promise, from pretty much the beginning, that this series would focus on the moment when humanity pivoted from thinking about the solar system as a home to thinking about the universe as one – and I was intrigued to see how Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck would tackle such a moment. They’ve already proved to be keen observers and prognosticators of what a system-inhabiting human race might look like – from the racial tensions to the economic ones, not to mention the general myopic inability to consider a situation and see the possibilities there, instead seeing danger and reacting catastrophically accordingly.
And if there’s one thing that I love about this series, more than just about any other sci-fi series I’ve encountered, it’s that the authors really do capture both the best and worst of humanity. They’re not afraid to point out how monumentally stupid we can be – while also delivering, without being preachy or saccharine, a realistic look at the best parts of our nature. Jim Holden is a classic hero in the John McClane school, not without his flaws and not even the smartest guy in the room – but he has his heart in the right place and is willing to try to be better, always. But he doesn’t feel like the hero he’s become; he feels like an ordinary, slightly loveable, slightly more aggravating pain in the ass who just so happens to also have a strong moral compass. To steal a line about a different complex character, he’s the sort of ‘hero’ we need, far more so than the sort we deserve.
Because this book shows that we probably deserve way, way less. It’s a weird thing to’ve been reading this book that talks about interstellar annihilation when we face several forms of more down-to-earth destruction (Drumpf, climate change, terrorism) – and to see that, even many centuries from now, when human beings have done incredible things and find themselves offered a chance to go out and play among the stars… that our inherent flaws will make it so that we nearly get blown off the damn map before we even step two feet out the door. I wanted to scream at Cortez and Ashford, their various brands of bull-headed idiocy feeling too close to home and also, being fictional, the kinds of people you can scream at without fearing repercussion.
But even as this idiocy hit home, the authors take pains to look at the possibility for humanity to be good. There are lots of questions about our place in the universe and I found myself wondering along with these characters about how I — and others — would react to the definitive proof that we are not alone in the cosmos. Anna, for example, is a pastor – and while I’m not at all religious, I was moved by the way she attempted to bring her religion into line with this universe that can have such things that are far larger than we can even really imagine. There are those who use their religion to darker means in this book (as, of course, there would be/are in the real world) but it was Anna who gave me hope.
The other thing that gave me hope, other than the indomitable spirit of the likes of James Holden and his crew, was the humor. This book is absolutely hilarious, at times side-splittingly so. A scene between Holden and [the ghost of?] Miller in the Hub is played for almost single-camera office-comedy laughs while still desperately intense and remaining grounded in reality. Even this idea of Holden as the fuck-up-good-guy is entertaining and the authors have relaxed into the spirit of the thing, not taking themselves too seriously while also making sure that they take the world incredibly seriously.
Rating: 5 out of 5. There were things that, of course, I found to be a bummer in this novel. I missed Avasarala and Bobbie, even with the introduction of great new characters. The final showdown goes on a bit too long and has a few too many apparent climaxes that actually aren’t. And there are some ridiculous reaches in some of the machinations of plot that various characters engage in. But none of this really matters because Franck and Abraham have made good on their initial promise: to show us the moment when humanity turns and truly begins to look outside our solar system. They do it with heart, with humor, and with truth. I can’t wait to see where we go, both in the real world and in these books. I hope – oh god how I hope – that I get to see a moment where we do start to look out beyond ourselves… and that it might look half as palatable as it does here. (And, remember, it’s not a walk in the park in these books, either.)