Review: Tiamat’s Wrath by James S A Corey (Expanse Book 8)

[Some spoilers for Book 7]

The minds behind James Corey are the masters at the obvious-in-retrospect plot twist. Each of the Expanse books never quite goes the way you expect it might but there is a common sense to the events. It is a feeling of realism rather than any deep commitment to realistic science fiction. The background setting has evolved from a gritty tale of social conflict among asteroid miners to interstellar travel, aspiring galactic empires and not one but two sets of enigmatic aliens.

There’s never been many fundamentally new ideas in the Expanse series but rather it has pieced together familiar science fiction elements to tell a serial epic story of politics and protomolecules. Which of the two themes dominate in a story varies but the implications of more science fictional events always ripples out politically. Likewise, the factional manoeuvrers of the political stories gang aft a-gley as ancient alien legacies do their own thing.

Tiamat’s Wrath is the direct sequel to Persepolis Rising, in which the serial jumps forwards several years to first show a new normal for the solar system and humanity’s colony planets only to be disrupted by the return of a breakaway faction of the former Martian Navy. Dubbed the Laconians, they have formed a militaristic society under the leadership of “High Consul” Duarte (a background presence in earlier books). Armed with technology derived from the protomolecule, the Laconians stomp all over everything. By the end of the book, the protagonist crew of the Rocinante are scattered and their captain, Jim Holden, has been captured by the Laconians.

The end of the last book marked out what to expect from the next one: a tale of dogged resistance against the fascist Laconians as Bobby, Alex, Naomi and Amos each find ways to fight back against the growing tyrrant. Put another way, it looks like we were going to get a more political rather than protomolecule book. When there is expectation to zig, Corey inevitably zags. Life and the universe is fickle and Duarte’s plans for galactic domination face threats more complex and incomprehensible than a resurgent Belter resistance.

As always, there’s a mix of point-of-view characters. Of the establish cast, Alex, Bobby and Naomi take centre stage. The character-returning-from-a-previous-book-that-you-had-forgotten-about is Elvi, the scientist from Cibola Burn who is now working for the Laconians investigating the remains of the alien civilisation that built the hyperspace gateways. The newer pov character is Teresa, the daughter of the High Consul.

There are plots, schemes and intrigue aplenty as Naomi attempts to coordinate a scattered resistance and Alex & Bobby try to work out how best to use their stolen Laconian warship. Holden is a secondary character, kept as an open prisoner on Laconia but running schemes of his own as best he can. Meanwhile, the lingering mystery of ships that disappear as they pass through the gates comes to the fore, setting off catastrophic consequences for everybody.

By the end, there have been multiple epic space battles and at least one person reanimated from the dead by alien technology and everything has changed again. Disruption as the only normal is the recurring theme of the Expanse books, the authors notably skipping a few years between book 6 and 7 when they needed a period of relative calm to have existed.

I gobbled up this book in two days. Bring on the finale.

How to blow up the Death Star and/or other doomsday weapons but mainly the Death Star

I don’t always sleep well but when I do suffer from stress induced insomnia it’s never at the initial falling asleep stage. One excellent talent I have is falling asleep. I’m very good at it but it’s not a skill much celebrated.

If I do wake up in the middle of the night (and some claim that’s a normal sleep pattern) the trick I’ve found for getting back to sleep is finding something that is both complex enough to be distracting from more stressful thoughts but so inconsequential as to not be stressful itself. Anyway, I woke up last night worried about multiple things that the long-suffering meat robot has to deal with when Monday comes around. So many things in fact that I spent the darkest hours plotting how to blow up the Death Star in some detail.

The canonical method for blowing up the Death Star was determined by two factors. The first was George Lucas wanting to fit in a sequence based on WW2 movies, in particular Dambusters and 633 Squadron. The second was to give Luke a specific heroic feat to conclude the story of the first film. I’m not going to gainsay those aesthetic choices.

However, as a piece of problem solving the whole strategy is less than perfect.

  1. Huge numbers of people are killed. Sure, it’s war and self-defence but the people killed are also people enslaved by an evil empire run by a mind controlling space wizard. Fewer deaths would be inherently good.
  2. A large proportion of the Rebellion’s pilots are killed in the attempt. There are deaths on both sides and while the bulk of the casualties are on the Imperial side, the proportional cost to the Rebellion is huge. We know they are short of pilots because they happily let Luke Skywalker fly an X-Wing.
  3. The plan can’t actually work. To be fair, the Rebellion doesn’t know this and they also have very little choice. In the end though, the plan ONLY works because Luke has hitherto untapped force powers and because he gets in-flight advice from a Jedi space-ghost.
  4. The plan is last ditch in terms of timing. The Death Star is destroyed just at the point at which it could destroy the Rebel base. Some margin of error in the timing would have been better as a plan (although less good dramatically).
  5. The Rebels have no idea what a safe distance for blowing up a Death Star is. For all they knew, the explosion could have destroyed them or at least what remains of their fleet. The Death Star has enough power to blow up a planet, turning it into a bomb is less than wise.

Point 3

I’d like to deal with point 3 first mainly because the plot manoeuvrers the Rebellion into the position where it apparently has no choice other than a last-ditch attack using small fighters. The issue is that they can’t actually land a bomb into the magic vent despite it’s resemblance to a womp-rat.

Is there a better option? Instead of firing a bomb into the vent, wouldn’t it be better to place the bomb manually? In terms of war films, think The Guns of Navarone instead of 633 Squadron. No time to infiltrate the Death Star, I hear you say? We’ll get back to that but for the moment we don’t need anybody to get into the Death Star as the vent is on the outside. Drop off some commandos into the trench and they can plant the bomb.

Too hard? Too much of a suicide mission? Well, it is even easier than that. Astromech droids are designed to crawl about on the surface of space vessels and interact with devices on the surface. Drop an R2 unit equipped with a bomb into the trench and let them beep-boop its way to the vent. The tie-fighters will try and blow it up but now they will be the ones trying to hit a small target in a trench while the x-wings attack them.

It would be a noble sacrifice by droid but the Rebellion doesn’t otherwise show much respect for the lives and autonomy of droids. This plan doesn’t address the huge number of casualties but arguably it would lead to marginally fewer x-wing pilot deaths.

Obi-Wan’s commandos

I couldn’t think of a better solution than R2-commandos without there being a bit more space in the plot. Infiltrating the Death Star with demolition experts is a safe plan all round but the story gives no time for that to happen. We do know that it is possible to infiltrate the Death Star as the crew of the Millennium Falcon manage it somewhat unwittingly, earlier in the film (to what extent Darth Vader lets them is another matter).

To fit a commando raid into the story would require Obi-Wan to access the plans to the Death Star in R2D2, make sense of them, understand the weakness and assemble a team to do the job. None of which happens or has time to happen.

However, assuming that Obi-Wan could do all that, then points 2, 3, 4 and 5 can be dealt with. Plant a bomb and blow up the Death Star from a safe distance.

There’s got to be a better way

I know I’m a bit R2 fixated, but the plucky little droid can do an awful lot. Noticeably, when he is aboard the Death Star he manages to gain control over the station’s computer systems. R2 has the whole place hacked. The simplest (but least dramatic) solution to the Death Star problem would be for R2 to introduce a virus or exploit some other IT vulnerability in the Death Star.

Ideally, once compromised, the Death Star could be set to self-destruct (all spacecraft have self-destruct sequences by the fundamental laws of space-opera). With sufficient notice, the Death Star could be safely evacuated thus minimising loss of life except for the weird monster that lives in the trash compactor.

Speaking of which…I don’t know if there is a way of getting that trash compactor monster to destroy the Death Star but it would be worth having a sub-committee look into it.

Using non-Star Wars technology

I guess a computer virus is not really in keeping with Star Wars, even though there is no way they couldn’t exist in that universe. What other SFF technology could dispose of a Death Star more safely?

  • Nanobots. Get some nanobots on that thing and let them feast on all that tasty, tasty technology. The whole thing gets nibbled to death.
  • Trap it in hyperspace somehow. We don’t see it use hyperspace in a New Hope but it must get around somehow. Trapping the Death Star in another dimension sounds plausible but as we don’t know how hyperspace is supposed to work, this isn’t much of a plan.
  • Use the force. When Alderaan is blown up, the loss of life is felt across the universe as disturbance in the force. Maybe, if they all concentrated really hard when the Death Star appeared, they could have rotated it just a bit so that it missed. With the Death Star rendered tactically useless by the sheer force of will of whole planetary populations not wanting to die, the Empire would be forced to retire the whole project.
  • Teleport the Death Star crew off the station. This requires the Rebellion to have Star Trek teleporters but the Empire not to have protection from Star Trek teleporters.
  • Go back in time and not let Palpatine become Emperor. A more elegant solution than a blaster.

Around about this point I drifted back to sleep.

Hugo 2019 – Looking at Fanwriters Part 2

I wanted to do this in two parts, first to look at the packets and then try and look beyond that.

One approach to ranking a set of fanwriters for the Hugo Awards might be to pick the example in the packet for each writer that you thought was the best example of their work and then rank each of those exemplars against each other. I think if I did that, I’d probably put Alasdair Stuart or Foz Meadows highest. But…it doesn’t feel right as a way of evaluating the finalists systematically*.

It fails in a couple of ways:

  • Reviews: longer critical essays or essays with personal insights will on a piece-by-piece comparison win out when judging writing. A good functional review will adopt a more ‘objective’ style of informative writing, which is technically hard to do but whose qualities are less obvious.
  • Broader aspects of fan writing: Elsa Sjunneson-Henry included a link to a Twitter thread in her packet contribution and it is a good example of how fanwriting also includes commentary in formats other than essays. Compiling news, parodies, event comments on other sites are part of the mix.

With reviews in particular both James Davis Nicoll and Charles Payseur write a lot of what I call broad-survey reviews of short fiction. Those are styles of reviews that provide core details about the work, plot summaries and then some insight into the story. With so much short fiction available, this is the kind of fannish work that’s both vital and also runs the risk of being seen as gatekeeping. Delivering reviews that are both fair and informative and in sufficient number to be useful to a reader looking for stories to read, is a difficult task. I look at the scope of what sites like Rocket Stack Rank (for example) manage to review and I don’t know how people manage it. I can barely find the time to read the stuff I’m actively wanting to read!

This kind of review writing comes down less to individual examples and more to the broad brushstrokes — something which is true when considering Best Fanzine also. How effective are these reviews to me as a reader to finding works I want to read? Note, that reviews and essays that border review and criticism often play a quite different role: that of being part of a conversation about a story. The emphasis then is more on a shared experience between the writer and the reader who may have already read the story.

Of course, that particular set of tunnels in this particular rabbit hole I’m in doesn’t get me much further as I don’t think I can rank the broad-survey style reviews of the finalists any better!

The sense of fanwriting as being something that extends beyond essays and reviews is also important. I concluded my other post on the finalists with a conclusion that the packet process itself may distort how we see fanwriting.

  • Bogi Takács — I mainly read eir Twitter account and the insights that gives into somebody participating in fandom with experiences and perspectives different from my own. I think that’s an important kind of fanwriting.
  • Foz Meadows — As well as Twitter has a Tumblr that often looks at fan-ficition and the issues around it. Again, not always SFF neccesarily but another important aspect of fanwriting.
  • James David Nicolls — His Young People Read Old SFF is always entertaining. Now, the bulk of the text in any entry is quotes from the people who read the story, so I can see why he didn’t include an example in the packet but as a project it is an excellent example of fanwriting as a kind of social glue that helps join fans together.
  • Elsa Sjunneson-Henry — I’ve already mentioned twice her Twitter thread on eugenics in SFF. Other media platforms encourage different styles of writing but also disseminate ideas in different ways.
  • Alasdair Stuart — He’s involved in some many things that I’d worry I’d miss one. I haven’t read his newsletter but that’s another interesting alternative approach, which carries with it some of the classic elements of fanzines (i.e. a subscriber base).
  • Charles Payseur — Drunk reviews of classic Goosebumps! Fanwriting should be fun (at least sometimes) and reflect the many ways we engage with stories whether critically, emotionally or sometimes intoxicatedly.

Oh and am I any closer to ranking these writers? Nope. The dilemma of a strong field is that in the end ranking s come down to small, possibly trivial differences.

*[Also, there is nothing at all wrong with just going with your gut. I’m just heading down my own overly analytic rabbit hole here.]

Apologies

I’m sorry but I was trying out some new hi-tech wizadry and may have accidentally created three Timothy/Penguin chimeras. Nothing to worry about. It will all sort itself out I’m sure. Let’s just pretend it didn’t happen.