Cibola Burn Re-Read Guide: Act 2 – Playing With Corpses

Hi all, and welcome to part 2 of 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 2: Chapters 16 – 28
Act 1 can be found here
Act 3 can be found here

The Plot

Act 1 ends with two events taking place, the awakening of some artifacts on the planet’s surface, and Murtry tasks Havelock with training a new security force. Even as the planet comes to life in a new way, Murtry is preparing for more conflict with the Belters. All of this acts as a starting flag for Ilus, with one of the central ideas of this part of the book being discovery and acceleration. As more information pours into the reader’s lap the planet begins to become a much more clear, and upsetting, picture. This isn’t a paradise, it is an alien planet that was not meant for us. This corresponds with everything getting faster.

These elements are exemplified in the actions and traits of our POVs. Elvi starts making discoveries with dire implications, Havelock begins to train a militia whose purpose can’t be good, Holden is rapidly losing control of all the situations he was supposed to mediate, and Basia is trying to right his wrongs without fully coming to terms with them. Each character begins to feel like they are building to something going horribly, horribly, wrong – which it eventually does when the ocean explodes at the end of Act 2.

Central Themes

As mentioned in the plot rundown, the major idea of the second act of Cibola is discovery and acceleration. The machine has turned on and systems are starting up, which catalyzes tons of events both for Ilus and the cast. One of the things that struck me as I reread Cibola is that there is definitely something lost. I still love this book immensely and consider it one of my favorite reads of all time, but you can’t put the lightning back in the bottle. There are so many cool discoveries in Cibola with huge reaching implications for the rest of the series. It sets the stage for all five of the books that follow it, and you, unfortunately, cannot experience that thrill of new knowledge a second time.

The adrenaline from watching things begin to cascade out of control, however, is still very much there on a second read. Control, or the lack of it, is a very big talking point for both the primary and supporting cast and through this portion of the book. You have the UN, Mars, and OPA trying to control a situation that has a lag time of a year. Basia thinks that if he can just right the ship and achieve some arbitrary goals that he will be able to hold on to his future. Holden was sent to use his winning personality to put things on lock and has to watch things slide through his fingers like water. Havelock is trying to maintain normalcy so that he feels like something around him is under his control. Elvi is trying to explain to people making sandcastles in a rising tide why her experiments need a level of control that she is never going to achieve. Murtry thinks that if he just murders everyone that there won’t be any more control issues.

The Value of Life

Murty sees life as a coin to be spent in the name of his crusade, but he isn’t the only character that talks about the value of life. Basia’s POV has many settlers talking about the power and message of lives lost and what they can do in the name of their cause. Holden on the other hand talks about how life is priceless and that no lives should be taken, even as Amos talks about how simply killing Murtry would save lives in the long run. However, it is Elvi who actually has the most powerful take on the value of human life. She talks about how Ilus doesn’t care what humans ascribe to the value of a life; the planet ecosystem simply sees people as a pool of resources to be exploited. It cares not for the gods and ideals of man.

This foreshadows a lot of the issues that the cast will need to tackle in Act 3, and it’s an interesting reiteration of one of The Expanse’s bigger macro themes – the inconsequentiality of an individual person in the face of an infinite galaxy of random chance. Elvi’s observations cut through the talk of ideals and conflicts like a knife and it exposes the other character’s opinions as shortsighted and self-serving. Yet, at the same time, it’s easy to see that Elvi’s goals aren’t quite altruistic because she also holds her own work as needing to be the most prioritized. All of this boils down to the idea that man might ascribe greater value to their existence, but to the universe, we are nothing but a bunch of water and minerals. 

Murty, Angel of Cops

Thrust amongst all of this confusion and mess with its blurred lines we find Murty, Cibola’s antagonist and a self-proclaimed arbiter of law, justice, and death. Something that stood out in the reread of Cibola was Murty’s dualistic nature. His extreme interpretation of the world and his unyielding worldviews result in a character that is extremely consistent but takes on different guises to the people of Ilus/New Terra (at least in the first act). To the RCE he is a guardian angel, their bastion of strength and the thin line keeping them from death. To the settlers, he is an angel of death raining down terror with the power of a natural disaster that feels impossible to fight against. Murtry has one of his most iconic quotes in the first act, “[there is] Dignity in consequences,” meaning that for every action there is a reaction and there is beauty in that even when the reaction is bad. It is an ironically (for Murty) good representation of what is happening on Ilus/New Terra as every choice that the characters make has wild repercussions that begin to bring both fantastical discovery and life-threatening disaster.

Stuck in the Middle

Act 2 puts Holden and crew in a profoundly bad spot. Often they are the targets of the larger governments because he’s always seen as running around with a match in a munitions store. The Corey Duo tends to highlight his celebrity as an obstacle, not an advantage and it serves a similar purpose here. After confiscating the belters mining explosives (which were previously used for sabotage), Holden is alerted by Basia that the more militant OPA members plan to have him killed. While it’s not necessarily a new situation, it’s different as his crew is split up, and Holden is far more protective of his individual crew members than he was before. What makes this predicament more interesting is Holden’s usual go-to of exposing the problem, leads to drastic action on the part of Murtry. Murtry in some sense saves Holden from the plot against him, but through the open assassination of several belters in the middle of town. 

What is particularly poignant about this interaction is that Holden’s actions have always had consequences, but usually they were on a solar scale. Often the larger implications were just set off by his small event, the natural explosion of years and decades of built-up tensions. But here, in the dirt, Holden has to listen to people die. Granted, Murtry was planning to do it already, but Holden can’t do anything about it, he’s stuck in the middle. Acting one way or the other would make him even more isolated than he already was, and break his mission of neutrality. And while this act does not unglue him from his principles, Holden starts to take more risks with the human powers that be so he can hopefully concentrate on getting everyone off the planet before something terrible happens. It’s interesting how Cibola has the smallest micro conflict out of the four books thus far, but it still maintains that macro-level of importance through symbolism and messaging. 

Per Aspera Ad Astra

Something particularly fascinating that I noticed on my second reread through Cibola is that the majority of the cast all make the same observation. At some point in time, each of them remarks that they can’t help but find themselves staring at the alien night sky looking for familiar constellations, even though they fully know they won’t find them. There are a number of interesting implications here to break down. The first thing in my mind is that the Corey duo is speaking to the human habit of searching for the familiar even when we know we won’t find it. It’s a macro form of confirmation bias that is running as a defense mechanism to protect the minds of a lot of people who feel they are up shit creek without a paddle.

Additionally, the lack of familiar stars reinforces two surface-level themes. First, that the cast isn’t in Kansas anymore; subtly reminding the reader to remember that they gaze on the unfamiliar and unknown. Second, harking back to the idea of sailors looking to the stars for orientation and guidance – signaling that these poor saps are in an ocean of weirdness without a map.

Legal Violence 

Another thing that stood out this read-through Cibola was a particularly well-timed passage. Havelock is training several engineers aboard the Edward Israel and while going over the mistakes of a recent training drill two conversations happen. One in which the engineers talk about developing an algorithm for clearing hallways, doors, and corners. The other wherein they discuss the possibility of assaulting the Rocinante instead of the Barbapiccola. The first one seems funny at first, but when you give it another second you realize they are trying to maximize killing while minimizing casualties while assaulting a civilian vessel. Havelock himself shares in the joke giving it a cold distant feeling. Immediately after that, they talk about assaulting the Rocinante, something that would have legal ramifications due to its nature as a neutral envoy sanctioned by several interplanetary governments. However, those rules would not transfer to assaulting the Barbapiccola. Havelock points out to his new gung ho engineering buddies that they would be able to argue they were legally in the right due to their U.N. sanctioned mineral rights.

Making these conversations even more haunting is the fact that they occur immediately after Murtry’s assault on the group of OPA belters, highlighting the kind of language and mental gymnastics people will go through when conducting violence. Language has been used to indicate where people stand in the series for a long time, and it’s no different on Ilus. But there is a decided change in Murtry’s language as he really starts to box himself and the RCE away from the belters. The word “terrorist” is blatantly used in this instance to make the OPA belters less human and in need of permanent removal. The fact that both situations stem from the RCE and are carried out under the pretense of “enforcing the law” feels very apt, trying to add order to chaos in the name of profit and science. 

The Shoe

One of the clearest and loudest themes of Act 2 is waiting for the shoe to drop. Almost all of this act is in the service of building tension for a climax. Heightened conflict, increasing danger, dwindling supplies, terrifying discoveries, personal breakdowns, and rising stakes combine with a growing attachment to our cast and their families until you are horrified at the idea of something bad happening to them. Which is of course, why it is so gripping and engrossing when the literal ocean explodes and signals the start of Act 3.

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