Cibola Burn Re-Read Guide: Act 1 – Tragedy On New Terra

Hi all, and welcome to The Quill to Live and Orbit reread of Cibola Burn – the 4th book of one of the best space operas to grace the page, The Expanse. We will break this reread into three parts to discuss the various acts of the book, its themes, and the statements it makes. We will also talk about the implications of Cibola on the larger Expanse series. Finally, we will review the book at the end of the week.

If you are new to The Expanse or haven’t gotten this far in the series yet, these reread sections are not for you. We’ll place a disclaimer at the top for each of these, but the review will be spoiler-free. These pieces will heavily feature spoilers for the story, so we very much recommend you do not read them until you have finished the book. You could also read them after you’ve finished the particular range of chapters while everything is still fresh in your mind, but that gives us too much credit. 

Recommended chapters for Act 1: Prologue – Chapter 15
Act 2 can be found here
Act 3 can be found here

The Plot

The first three Expanse books open with a bombastic prologue. Something is off within the solar system, and humanity has started to pick at the seams with a fervor of an impatient child. Cibola Burn is a quieter opening, following Bobbie as she starts to see Mars empty itself. With a whole galaxy and hundreds of planets at their disposal, humans are setting out in search of new lives, no longer immediately confined to the dead rocks they are attempting to bring to life. It doesn’t take long, though, for the story to begin in earnest, as the small events are bookended by the massive implications that the gates hold in store. 

Immediately, the reader is thrown into the lives of refugees from the destruction of Ganymede. They are scraping a living out of the depths of Ilus, a planet inconceivably rich in the rare metal lithium. This new venture, a way to take back what was owed to them after the negligent destruction of their home, their way of life, and the second-largest breadbasket in the system is immediately threatened by the Royal Charter Energy, a company given the mineral rights to the planet, named New Terra, by the U.N. So how does one prevent such an intrusive clampdown after finally finding some autonomy? By blowing up the landing pad, and accidentally while the RCE shuttle is attempting to land. 

To mediate the conflict, U.N. general secretary Avasarala sends Holden and his crew, hoping in some ways they will cause an issue that nobody will be happy with. Murtry, the head of security for the RCE group on New Terra, is in charge after the shuttle crash kills the governor sent by the company. He makes no qualms about how he feels the operation should be run, and how the belters are in violation of clearly delineated property rights. Meanwhile, the scientists that came with the RCE group, and the Belters who are just trying to live their lives are causing friction amongst each other, while the environment of the planet itself looms in the background. 

Central Themes

Act 1 spends a lot of time setting up the conflict, aided by the extremely long distances involved in space travel, and the slow burn of high tension relations. The Corey duo cleverly sows the earth with the seeds of discontent that only barely start to puncture the topsoil that is the book. The layers unveiled within the first act are numerous and it’s really hard to pin down how far it’s worth it to go as a reader. They are surface-level enough that a casual reader will pick up on them but start to pull at the threads, and Cibola Burn becomes a tapestry of incredible magnitude and majesty.

Much like the rings, Cibola Burn is the gateway to the rest of The Expanse. It is a leaping-off point pulling the series into the future, resetting the clock only to realize that it’s attached to an even bigger bomb. It’s a story about new beginnings grinding against old baggage. The book has this powerful ability to encapsulate and engross the reader in the power of discovery and the unknown as an allegory for the American frontier. However, despite the shimmering newness of the world, the characters are focused on the ideas and ideals that they brought with them from the old world. A story that is almost as old as time. 

What would the “new world” be without the paradigms of the old? Oftentimes, stories about new beginnings show how messy it is to start over when you’re programmed in the old ways of thinking. It’s not hard to look at American history and gauge how different things would have been had the settlers who “escaped” England for being too repressive been given a chance to design and forge the “new world.” Cibola Burn doesn’t necessarily try to solve this dichotomy, so much as describe it and set it up for future books to come. It explores the nastiness that comes with expansion, regulated or not, and tries to understand it from a historical perspective instead of focusing on the sole idea of “humans bad.” It’s not the most clever of ideas, but the Corey duo explores it with gusto, and goes to great lengths to make this theme apparent to the reader. Characters talk about it both openly with dialogue, and the authors sprinkle it like fairy dust across character identity and naming conventions.

What’s In A Name?

Before leaping wholeheartedly into these gargantuan themes, I think it would be important to set the stage by dissecting the names of the ships, characters, and the planet. It’s possible to dive into it all without this, but the fact that these are so front and center, so in your face at the beginning of the story, we should just knock a couple out of the way and dig into the meat of the story and themes as it expands from there. The first four we should explore are Cibola, the Edward Israel, Royal Charter Energy, and New Terra. Though to be honest, I think New Terra is a little too on the nose to get too deep into, so just let it sit there, nestled in your brain as you take in the rest. 

Let’s start with the name Cibola. It is a region home to seven famed cities of Gold, sought after and never found by Francisco Coronado, one of many Spanish Conquistadors. The tale was a distraction, conjured by the native peoples being killed by Coronado. A way to keep invaders from doing damage in important places while they squandered their time looking for a paradise that didn’t exist. The Corey duo could have easily used El Dorado and called up similar feelings for this book while keeping in line with their excellent titles. However, choosing Cibola, a name I had never heard in any of my history classes, forced me to look into the myths, and start to drawstrings on a corkboard to every other name involved. It also highlights a different version of events, a small way to highlight some of the agency those ancient people possessed in their attempts to ward off the Spanish conquerors. El Dorado, from what I could find, was a myth born out of Spanish mouths, a man, then a city, then a country that could fulfill all their greedy desires. Avoiding El Dorado feels deliberate, pushing the reader to see the redirected greed. It could be a hint that the solar system’s woes will not be solved with more treasure, only exacerbated. After all, the resources will not be distributed evenly, it’s a matter of power. 

Next would be Edward Israel, the name of the RCE chartered ship that carries the scientists, engineers, surveyors, and security team that is given the rights to New Terra. Edward Israel, in our own history, was both an astronomer, and an explorer of Antarctica. He was a member of the Lady Franklin Bay Expedition that was charged with creating an astronomical laboratory. Several lists I perused of polar explorers don’t mention him, the only one being the index on Wikipedia that seems to cover as many people as we know about. The expedition failed not through much fault of their own, so much as that of extreme nature. Their second annual supply ship sank before it made it to their camp, dooming Israel, but not the whole camp. The one easy pull from this name would be the death that comes with the exploration of places we don’t belong. An easier one, which shows itself through the series is the death of exploration itself. 

And finally, there is the Royal Charter Energy company. Royal Charter Energy. It’s impossible to overstate how hard I could feel Corey yelling at their readers through this book. For those wondering, a royal charter was basically a king-issuing law, whether it be the Magna Carta or the recognition of a corporation. Naturally, they were used in great numbers to form the corporations that would explore and colonize the “new world” and the various regions of India, Asia, and Africa the British deemed fit for their purposes. It’s really as simple as that, and of course, that would naturally lead to New Terra. Need I say more?

As one can see, the metaphors for what America did to the “New World” are thinly veiled and heavy with impact. It’s impressive how conversations about who has a right to the land demonstrate the absurdity of land rights in America both when it was originally settled and when the frontier expanded. Cibola Burn does a lot of work trying to capture this cycle and mostly succeeds, by placing those conflicts front and center, having those conversations play out in violent ways. The Corey Duo cleverly navigates this space by not really highlighting either side as a new way of relating to the world or portraying either side as correct. Sure they choose a side to empathize with, and more often than not, centers their particular struggle because it feels more right than the other side. However, there is a clear undercurrent that implies that all sides are missing the point, and only Miller has a better idea of what is going on because he is the only character who has the full 10,000-foot view.

I Call Dibs

A lot of the conflict between the Belters of Ilus and the RCE stems from the idea of who has “dibs” on the planet, and its possible resources. We’ll dive further into the language when it comes to what is “owed,” and how people find ways to collect on debts they believe are owed to them through the suffering they have endured. So before that, let’s just dive into the nature of “dibs” as presented by Cibola Burn and the conflict at hand. The Belters claim their position as being the “first” ones there. RCE claims that their ideas are bunk because they have been granted the planet, along with the rights to exploit its resources, while conducting scientific surveys of the land. While the book doesn’t necessarily buy into the Belters’ claims as being correct (the former alien presence is a major argument against them), the book highlights the RCEs claims as being wrong in some fashion, or if not wrong, irrelevant. 

It doesn’t come right out and say that property rights laws are bad (though they are), but that they don’t account for the human lives that are shut out Cibola Burn also just seems to go to great lengths to highlight their presence as anachronistic (more on that in Act 3) RCE is just there to exploit the planet in the “right way”, by removing the undesirable, putting up clean domes that supposedly don’t interfere with the life on the planet, and conducting business as usual. They are following the law, and the refugees of Ganymede are in the way. It’s not fair they were there first because we have a royal charter that states we are in control.

Act 1 condenses all of this into the space of 157 pages. The tit-for-tat ways that the more violent belters engage with the RCE security forces reveal all of the above. The way both sides argue about what is fair and just for either side and how their stated missions mirror each other, just with different intentions. It’s a land grab either way, and the Corey duo provides an excellent look into the minutiae of such a scenario. Holden doesn’t even arrive on the planet until page 120, letting the pot get close to boiling. We see the planet first through the eyes of belters, then the scientists, and finally the view from above, and Murtry’s eye in the sky, Havelock. Even then, Holden’s first chapter isn’t until after the Investigator has their say first. In my opinion, it’s the authors stating that Holden won’t count for this conflict, but he’ll be there for the alien stuff. He can’t solve classism, racism, or colonialism, and that feels like the point.

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