Hi all, and welcome to part 3 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.
A tale of two crises. Act 2 ends with a literal bang on the other side of the planet. A massive shockwave and storm begin to travel around the circumference of the planet, and as Alex witnesses it from above, Holden scrambles to get the people on the ground somewhere safe. Everything is left behind as everyone shuffles to the alien ruins seeking some semblance of shelter. Not long afterward, people begin to die to local fauna and lose their eyesight as planetary bacteria starts to populate in everyone’s eyes. With the camp wiped out, Murtry sees this as an opportunity to seize control as Holden asks him to start pulling people off the planet.
Meanwhile, in orbit, Naomi goes on a spacewalk to disable the offensive shuttle that Murtry commanded Havelock has outfitted. She’s caught by chance during the spacewalk drill conducted by the engineers. With Holden unable to negotiate for her release through Murtry, Alex and Basia begin to hatch an escape plan. During all of this, as Edward Israel sends down supplies, the alien planet’s orbital defense system powers up and shuts down all of the ships’ reactors. It’s only a matter of time before the 3 ships’ orbits degrade and they start scraping the atmosphere. No one knows what to do.
And in the aether, the investigator rummages through the refuse of his forebears, longing to have one last chat with his pal Holden. The planet continues to awaken and we learn about the true purpose of Ilus, and what shut it off.
When Orbit asked me which book I wanted to cover I knew I wanted Cibola. It’s such a powerful book, particularly thanks to the third act that profoundly changes the future of the series as a whole. Up until chapter 29, Cibola has been a very low-stakes story for humanity. Worst case scenario, everyone dies, we lose something like 200 people and it’s a sad news story and a warning about quick colonization. To put that into perspective, Leviathan Wakes is about a protomolecule that is trying to end all life in the solar system. So Cibola feels small, tiny, and contained – which is why the third act and its universe of game-changing discoveries feel like such a powerful reveal. The third act of Cibola is a gateway that profoundly changes what the story is about. Previously, the first three books had been about human conflicts on a human scale and how new alien technology changed the balance of power. Those elements are still very much there, but Cibola pushed the entire conversation onto a galactic stage and scales up the conflicts to match it.
One of the best things that this part of the book grapples with is the idea of an excession event, or an experience/problem so outside the realm of understanding that there are literally no existing examples to draw from when trying to solve it. In Cibola’s case, it’s the discovery of the bullet that killed god. Until now, the alien race that built Ilus had been so mysterious and so powerful that they might as well have been akin to gods. Then we find out that those protomolecule aliens, who we don’t understand one iota, were something like cavemen to a different alien race that wiped them from the galactic stage. It evokes a feeling similar to looking up at the night sky for the first time and starting to understand the scale of existence, and realizing you really don’t matter in the scheme of things.
The Beauty Of Ilus
Something that mirrors this is the surprising beauty of Ilus. As we talked about in both Act 1 and 2, the importance and power of names is a recurring theme with Cibola. No place is this more apparent than when looking at how characters project their desires onto the identity of the alien planet. So many characters talk about what they want Ilus to be. A new paradise, a trove of scientific learnings, a chance at vengeance, a monument to greatness, or a recipe for disaster. But in the third act, we step back and start to learn what Ilus was built for. It’s an interdimensional gas station, which feels like irony on a cosmic level, and it has seen better days. We also get a touching observation from Elvi and Fayaz that the planet is surprisingly beautiful in its own way. Without the conflict that the cast brought to the planet, there are worse places for a honeymoon.
Are We The Baddies?
While everyone is trying to deal with Murtry and Ilus shenanigans, Basia and Havelock are having existential crises of faith. Each of these characters spends time during this act contemplating their morality and if they are on the right side of history – and both realize no, they aren’t, eventually. But, they do it in very different ways. Basia is about independence and self-reliance, so his crisis mostly takes the form of an internal audit. He takes a step back and reassesses his actions and realizes that he has been spending lives in the name of a cause he doesn’t fully believe in and that he no longer thinks is realistic. This causes an extreme panic and begins his growth arc that will culminate with a powerful conversation with Alex that we will talk about in Act 3.
Havelock, on the other hand, is not really a freedom fighter. In fact, he’s quite the opposite. As a slave to authority, Havelock realizes that he likely is in the wrong but is having trouble breaking away from his cop daddy Murty. He finds his salvation in Naomi, a second source of authority that gives him permission to change course. By getting approval from his new scrap mommy, Havelock is able to begin actualizing the change he wants in his life and start walking down what he considers the right path.
Punching the Ocean
Act 3 is when Murtry starts to go off the rails. He finds himself in a situation where his laws and methods do not apply and his solution to this is to double down. This is a disastrously bad idea, but it does speak volumes to the themes of this part of the book. For starters, we have the futility of trying to fight the forces of nature. Murtry sees himself in a war that he can strategize his way to winning, except his opponent is a planet-sized tsunami. This has the double effect of first showing the absolute impossibility of this task and exposing how unhinged Murtry’s unbending ethos is. Murtry sees a mass grave with a flag planted in the corpses as a victory, which is a strong sign he isn’t the side you want to be on.
Elvi has a very powerful condemnation of Murtry’s actions when she points out how the security forces are treating opinions and laws like they are physics. They treat their decision to die on Ilus as unavoidable when nothing is stopping them from working with the other parties to all get out together. Murtry’s counter-argument to this is that civilization has a “lag-time.” He argues that their seemingly suicidal decisions are required because progress is built on the backs of innocent lives sacrificed to make things easier for humanity. He makes a compelling argument, but it does more to make humanity seem like a bunch of monsters (what a surprise) than convince anyone to his line of thinking.
Basia, being one of the new characters has a lot of weight to pull, and the book starts off with him strongly, centering his anger on his inability to save his son (a victim of experiments in Caliban’s War). He takes it out on those around him in self-destructive ways, without really harming them directly. He seals himself off, dedicated to his pride and need for extreme measures. Once on the Rocinante though, Alex, and occasionally Naomi, start to show him that his self-pity is unproductive, unhelpful, and most of all, unhealthy.
There is an incredible moment where it’s just him and Alex, alone on the Roci as Naomi is captured. Basia is feeling powerless but wants to strike out. He needs to do something to protect his family. And Alex talks to Basia about his own past, and how he ruined his relationship with his wife and son. About the rift, he created because of the lure of piloting through space, and the shitty ways he hurt his family so he could be himself. Unmoored and free-floating. And how he was able to learn to come to terms with it. Basia really takes this to heart and really starts to reconcile who he is, with who he thought he was and tries to make up for the debt he’s accrued to himself.
Okoye breaks out
Elvi Okoye is a woman apart through most of the story. She prefers her relationships to imitate the interactions on her Petri dishes, isolated from the world around her. She’s constantly worried about the planet’s biosphere interacting with the humans on it and pushes for domes that would separate them. She’s concerned with the life on the planet, and what it means for the other planets they may encounter and wishes to keep it pristine. She spends a major portion of the story enamored with Holden, despite not really knowing him. He’s an ideal, but she’s in love with him, or at least she thinks she is.
However, in Act 3, Elvi starts to break down those barriers and realizes that she can’t hold back the world in order to witness its scientific beauty. The bacteria has entered her own eyes, and she’s racing to figure out the solution to the problem. But she can’t focus and feels she has to tell Holden her feelings in order to get her head on straight. However, her friendly neighborhood lab partner, Fayez, convinces her that’s not really the case and in her own words sums up his argument as “you’re telling me…I just need to get laid?” It’s not played for laughs, but it does break the ice between them a little bit as Fayez breaks down her refusal to connect wait humanity, and humanity’s need to connect.
So of course they do have sex, but it kind of does change Elvi’s mind about a lot of things, but it shows her opening up to the idea of no longer being a passive observer, locked away in her lab. She solves the blindness issue and even participates in the climax, becoming Miller’s final escort as she dives deep into an alien underground superstructure. She learns that observation leads to interaction, no matter how hard she might try to hold herself apart. Is the metaphor a little obtusely handled? Sure, but she opens up and synthesizes her curiosity with other human instincts to be an active scientist that explores the reactions, instead of trying to contain them.
Havelock learning to buck authority and seize agency
One of the reasons I like Havelock is that he’s an easy character to understand. He clearly has two different sides to him, the person and the cop, and the cop is more often front and center. He takes orders with creative gusto. He is proud of his service as a corporate cop amongst the different stations and the different corporations he’s served. He’s a little indulgent when it comes to violence and bravado. But there is also a part of him that feels a little skeptical about what he’s there to do aboard the Edward Israel. His language switches back and forth, not a lot, but a couple of noticeable times.
True, it isn’t until Murtry’s death drive rears its ugly head that Havelock truly starts to break away, but his time with Naomi starts to show some of who he thinks he should be. He knows to ask questions, and he often does with Murtry but is often shut down with easy answers, and orders that are even easier to follow. But Naomi shows him that there are always more questions. In the climax of the story, he chooses to side with Naomi and Basia, fighting to get her to the Rocinante so that she may be able to solve the engine problem. He actively takes to the fight against the engineers he trained, but approaches it in a non-lethal way, and weirdly uses his skills to educate the men while he’s outwitting them.
He breaks away from Murtry slowly, and then all at once, embracing the fact that there aren’t any rules, and his sense of doing better takes hold. He becomes someone who wants to protect people, not property. I don’t know if I would go so far as to say that he throws his badge away on an emotional level (he never mouths ACAB), but he realizes that maybe his job doesn’t need to be the end all be all. That his conscience does need tending in order to do his work right.
Holden becoming Holden
Holden’s character arc is a lot slower than the others, which isn’t surprising given he’s the throughline for the entire series. In Cibola, he struggles with a number of different elements and we start to see the beginnings of major character evolutions for him. Previously, Holden has had an unwavering moral compass, a burning desire for the truth, and a strong sense of direction. We start to see him considering the world in more shades of grey. He begins to question his actions and slow down and take in more facts and ideas before acting. We see him acknowledge that the world is a lot messier than he previously thought and that there might not be a single correct answer to any problem.
Additionally, we start to see Holden move off the stage a little bit. He is still extremely important to the narrative, but he is becoming more of a witness to events than an agent of their actualization. He struggles at his lack of agency to change the world with his actions and begins to learn how to influence the other people around him with his ideas. This trend will continue further in Nemesis Games and the following books, but it’s important to note that Holden never quite leaves the spotlight. He is a prisoner of his celebrity, but it allows him to grow as a leader who understands the strengths and weaknesses of those around him, instead of doing everything himself.