"Apocalyptic explosions, dead reactors, terrorists, mass murder, death slugs, and now a blindness plague. This is a terrible planet." -- James HoldenAfter three novels taking place inside asteroids and moons and space stations and vast bizarre alien artifacts, and aboard spaceships plying the void between all of these things, at last we come to the surface of what most people would think of as a planet. There's breathable atmosphere, sort-of-normal gravity, a close-to-normal day/night cycle, something like plants and animals, and even buildings and food.
Only it's not Earth. Or Mars. Or something settled via a generation ship like the Mormons were building in the first Expanse novel. Oh, no.
It's in another star system altogether. Only we don't really know how far away it is. Or how the technology that gets us there works.
So now we're sort of in Frederick "Heechee" Pohl territory as events unfold in Cibola Burn, the fourth Expanse novel by the two-headed alien we call James S.A. Corey. And we have the protomolecule that has wreaked havoc in three prior novels back in our good old Sol system to thank for it, but that's all we know; we done passed through the gate that was built for us, but when we got to where it led us, there was nobody home. Ruins that might be described as Lovecraftian if not Cyclopean, yes. Aliens (except for the flora-and-fauna analogs found on the first planet we settle), no.
It's refreshing, this being on a planet business. But lest we think this is just going to be a novel of exploration and discovery... Have you read the other books in this series? Or at least the epigram above? Yeah...
So this planet, called New Terra by the Earth-based corporation that claims to own it but Ilus (as in an early name for the city of Troy) by the people who first settled it* is quite a place, but not a great one for human habitation for all its abundant clean, breathable air and fresh liquid water. The local life forms' biology is incompatible with ours, for a start (much is made early on of bugs that persist in biting people, only to drop dead minutes after feasting on human blood). Crops have to be grown in soil imported from our system, etc. All in all, seems like more trouble than its worth, except for two things: scientific curiosity and mineral wealth in the form of vast and easily mined deposits of lithium (the stuff that makes the batteries in most of our consumer electronics work).
Before you can say "space opera", Ilus is at the center of a major conflict, as the colonists try by various and violent means to fend off the corporate/scientific mission that is just landing there as the novel opens. The colonists don't want to lose their colony; the scientists don't want to lose the opportunity to study a fresh and uncontaminated new ecology (oops); the corporation wants to assert ownership and control.
Enter the crew of the Rocinante, whom our old friends, UN muckty-muck Crisjen Avasarala and Outer Planets Alliance honcho Fred Johnson, have dispatched to mediate between these parties because Holden is the only moral high-horse riding uncompromising asshat for the job, they both agree. Holden is not thrilled with this, but the protomolecular ghost of [REDACTED] wants him to go, too, and is capable of haunting even Holden's dreams, so yeah, off they go.
All this alone would make for a pretty interesting story, especially with its two new viewpoint characters, colonist-turned-reluctant-terrorist Basia, corporate security dick and former partner of [REDACTED] Havelock, and brilliant biologist Elvi** keeping things interesting, but this is an Expanse novel, so it's never just going to be about human politics. The protomolecule is still very much a thing, and the long-vanished aliens who made the protomolecule also made the gate through which everyone gets to Ilus -- and left a lot of ruins on the planet.
And a lot of stuff inside it as well. Stuff that is triggered by the arrival of Holden and protomolecular puppet [REDACTED].
Cue epic shitstorm eloquently described by Holden above. It's a terrible planet, you guys.
I'll confess to having occasionally been annoyed at some aspects of Cibola Burn, most notably how the vast world of the Expanse still seems to contain a paucity of characters. Did [REDACTED]'s old partner really have to be the guy on the corporate spaceship? Wouldn't it be more probable that an entirely new guy held that role, since there are billions and billions of humans out there now? Of course, by that same argument, mightn't that vast human Expanse also contain someone more qualified and capable than Holden, Amos, Naomi and Alex to handle the powder keg of politics on Ilus? Not that I don't love these guys. It's just getting increasingly less probable that these same four people are at the center of every major develop in human history, over and over again. But I accept that this is a probably a bow to the necessities of series writing; few readers, I expect, would want to read a series that realistically kept throwing new figures into the forefront with every plot development. We read sequels for the characters, most of us, way more than for the world-building. What happens to so-and-so next is more important to us than what happens to all of humanity next. We're just wired that way. Dickens knew this without having been told by science. So do we.
Now the Rocinante and the rest of humanity is poised for yet even more difficulty and adventure. That gateway didn't just offer up Ilus to us, but thousands of other planets. All of which, as Avasarala points out, don't need to be terraformed to be habitable, like poor old Mars. Who's going to want to stay there now that it's so easy to go somewhere with free air and water and shelter from radiation? But then, what happens to Mars' formidable arsenal of heavily armed spaceships and missiles and nukes when there's just a skeleton crew left behind on Mars to govern them and their use? Collapse of the USSR anyone (insert your favorite Red Planet joke here)?
So yes, onward to Nemesis Games very, very soon.
*Who are themselves refugees from the disaster on Ganymede that was the centerpiece of the second Expanse novel, Caliban's War, refugees who were turned away from every human population center they tried to stop and and so finally just sailed on through the gateway and started their own illicit colony on this new planet.
**Which, I've run into a lot of reviews online in which people complain very loudly about Elvi, because she is portrayed as falling hard for Holden and letting it cloud her judgment to a dangerous degree. They don't like that she has this weakness and regard it as regressive and anti-feminist that so much of her story seems to revolve around this. And I can see their point, as I rolled my eyes a bit at her, too (even though she fully recognizes her feelings as dangerously distracting and unprofessional). But I say this rounds her out nicely. AND I'll point out that, as a friend of hers correctly diagnoses, what is really going on isn't that she's fallen in love with Holden, but that she's spent two years on a spaceship without receiving any physical affection (by her choice; she's declined to participate in the partner swapping and teepee creeping behavior of her fellow scientists) before crash-landing on an alien planet just in time for ALL THE CRISES TO HAPPEN and, being a mammal still, what she really needs is some intimate human contact. Which her friend is happy to provide. Which clears her head just in time for her to do the important work, have the important breakthroughs, that basically save the day. In conclusion, I'd like the point out that this is pretty much exactly the same situation Randy Waterhouse finds himself in, in Cryptonomicon, and nobody complained about sexism or stereotypes or regressive gender attitudes in that book.