Fiction Reviews

Babylon's Ashes

(2016) James S. A. Corey, Orbit, hrdbk, £20.00, 536pp, ISBN 978-0-356-50426-1


Since I reviewed Abaddon’s Gate here in 2014, favourably, and went back to read Leviathan Wakes, the series has moved on – Babylon’s Ashes is the sixth in the series. Not having read the intermediate ones, how does this novel works as a stand-alone? Again, I have to report that it does – but in the sense where one might read World War II books on the Battle of Britain and Dunkirk, then turn to one on D-Day. Although it is complete in itself, it is impossible to read it without being aware that a great deal has happened in the meantime, and there’s more to come.

Relationships between the characters have altered: the central character, Jim Holden, is no longer haunted by the ghost of detective Miller, or pursued by Melba Koh, whose campaign against Holden took up so much of Abaddon’s Gate, though she’s still on the warship Rocinante under her old name of Clarissa Mao. Holden is now partnered with Naomi Nagata, ex-lover of Marco Inaros, leader of the Free Navy of the outer worlds and the new villain to beat. Fred Johnson, once Outer Planets Alliance spokesman, is now head of Tycho Station on the Moon and reviled by the Free Navy as a turncoat.

As in Abaddon’s Gate, I have a little difficulty with the motivations of the major characters. Marco Inaros is bombarding Earth with asteroids, ruining the ecology and the economy so that Earth can no longer supply the outer worlds with the exports needed out there for life-support. The Free Navy has turned to piracy on outbound ships, bound through the alien matter-transmitter ring on the edge of the Solar System to colonies in the other star systems with which it connects. But those hijacked cargoes are nothing like enough to beat the shortfall, and although Inaros talks a grand vision of the Asteroid Belt and the outer settlements being self-supporting, he’s doing nothing to bring it about and mass starvation is looming. The rebellion of Michio Pa, once his trusted follower, is one of the major supporting plotlines of the novel.

But Inaros seems blind to the consequences of his actions or the inevitable collapse of his support, and although it’s never quite made explicit, his main motivation for mass murder seems to be revenge on Holden and Naomi. Holden, for his part, has Inaros in his sights at one point and holds his fire because it would mean killing Filip, Naomi’s son by Inaros, and instead he lets father and son go to cause still more deaths. I found myself comparing that with Ericson’s depth-charging of survivors in order to attack a fleeing U-boat in The Cruel Sea, on the one hand, and with Picard in Star Trek: The Next Generation letting the Crystalline Entity go free to devastate more worlds, only because it has helped to solve a relatively minor problem on the Enterprise. As I said at the time, at least James Kirk would have known where his duty lay.

One issue I have at least partly resolved, queried by other reviewers when I was writing last time, concerns the Epstein space-drive which moves the giant ships of these novels around so easily, at 1g acceleration and higher values when required. Initially Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck, who together make up ‘James Corey’, were refusing to be drawn on it, but in 2012 they published a short story called ‘Drive’ in which the system was explained to be ‘modified fusion’. Ion-drives, other forms of electric thrusters such as arcjets, solid-core or gas-core fission reactors and continuous fusion reactors all produce too little thrust, and both fission and fusion drives would require too much reaction mass, for the Continuous High-Aceleration Transfers (the late Kurt Ehricke’s classification) which are portrayed here. Only the pulsed fusion of the British Interplanetary Society’s (BIS) Project Daedalus could do it. The BIS study envisaged using 50,000 tons of deuterium and helium-3 to accelerate 40 tons of payload to 12% of the speed of light, over 18 months, at 0.1g acceleration. But that means it could move a 500,000 ton space habitat from here to Mars in under a month, expending only 100 tons of propellant; as Gerry Webb of the Daedalus team said when I queried that, “Within the Solar System, Daedalus is pure Flash Gordon in its potential.” So with masses of up to 10,000 tons, equivalent to large modern destroyers, the warships of the Expanse novels could achieve the higher accelerations and short transit times depicted without having to carry huge external tanks like the Daedalus vehicle. Quite how the huge Daedalus engine bells and massive shock-absorbers have been fitted into the hulls is another question (advances in magnetic field containment?), which I am sure some enterprising designer will tackle if it has not been done already.

I have perhaps been a little unlucky in reading Abaddon’s Gate and Babylon’s Ashes successively, because there are similarities in plot structure – a single main enemy, with personal motivation paramount, and a resolution which turns on another aspect of the alien ring’s technology, discovered just in time to save the day. Nevertheless, it works – read as one episode in an ongoing war, as I said above. It is not over yet: Filip Nagata had also walked out on his father, before the final battles, and begun to build a new life for himself, incognito, in the Callisto settlement which he helped to devastate before he saw the error of his ways. Obviously, he will be back.

Duncan Lunan

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