Humanity has always been fascinated with outer space. As long as people have looked to the sky, we have imagined what life would like up in the black, bouncing from star to star. Even before a man-made object first left atmosphere, stories were written about aliens coming down from the sky. With the advent of space travel, stories have leaned towards humans leaving Earth and meeting the aliens on their home turf. For the most part, these stories all portray extraterrestrial life in similar fashions. They are older, wiser, more technologically advanced than humans. Many wish to impart their knowledge down to us, to elevate humanity. The Expanse series does no such thing. Alien life is long gone, but their inventions and structures remain, hidden on far off planets, waiting to wake up and pick up where they left off.
Persepolis Rising, by James S.A. Corey, is the latest novel in The Expanse series, published earlier this December. As book seven out of nine, it places the reader deep into the mythology, world, and characters that Corey has spent the last several years crafting. With the first few words, however, Corey pushes us thirty years farther into his future . These are no longer the younger adventurers of the first few books. Joints ache, old injuries flare up, their ship is aging, and life has gone on. Book six, Babylon’s Ashes, ended with peace between the various human factions in the solar system. Persepolis Rising starts with an exploration of that peace and the infrastructure it has created to hold civilization together. Main characters Jim Holden, Naomi, Amos, Alex, Bobbie, and Clarissa crew the Rocinante, a still powerful gunship they have lived in for nearly forty years. Since the start of the series, alien life has been discovered in the form of the protomolecule, a tool left over by an ancient alien empire. Using that tool, humanity found their way to a hub network of planetary systems, the slow zone. Thousands of gateways opened up, leading to thousands of planets, with millions of human colonists migrating to new soil.
Corey has done a wonderful job of building the world of The Expanse. At the start of the series, humanity was split between the asteroids and moons, Earth, and Mars. Each of these regions had very different cultures and societies, to the point where people’s bodies began to change depending on where they lived. Belters, a term used for anyone who lived or was born outside the gravity well of Earth or Mars, have a very different dialect than anyone else. Close quarters has forced languages together, creating a Belter creole which Corey does not translate for the reader, encouraging us to learn their language. Their bone structure also changes, a result of living in microgravity for much of their lives. Yet, even among the Belters, there are massive differences. Those who live on the moon Ganymede lead very different lives than those on the asteroid Ceres. In exploring the differences, Corey keeps each character unique. No one is typecast. This is a series that has always prided itself on realism, both when it comes to technology and civilizations.
The actual plot of Persepolis Rising focuses on war between human factions. Thirty years before the start of this novel, during a different war altogether, a third of the Martian military broke away. They financed terrorists, provided them with ships and armaments, and set them loose in the solar system to cover their own escape. While this new military force battled with pretty much everyone else, Admiral Winston Duarte took his fleet through the gateways to a distant planet. For the last thirty years, no one has heard from this group, though the planet has since become known as Laconia. Until, one day, Laconia returns. They send two ships through the gate and manage to conquer all of humanity. Duarte fashions himself an emperor, and is determined to establish all of humanity under his rule. To that extent, he has experimented with alien technology, creating a fleet of ships more powerful than anything Corey has previously thrown at the characters. Duarte has also experimented on himself, grasping for immortality. As he believes, the only reason empires fall is because their founders aren’t around to keep the vision true. Only he can remain immortal.
Facing Duarte is the rest of humanity, with the story focusing mostly on Holden and Bobbie as they try to lead an insurrection in the war. However, calling this conflict a war seems disingenuous. The space station our main characters call home is conquered in a chapter. There are no grand space battles here, just hiding in forgotten passageways, planning attacks on occupying forces, and looking for an escape to free space. Duarte’s appointed governor, Santiago Singh, presents himself to the people of the station as a benevolent ruler. He talks about a great empire of humanity, everyone working together towards the goal of elevating the human race and Laconia. The same man also threatens entire planets with annihilation if they do not bend the knee. What sets the main characters apart is their ability to see past the benevolence to the occupation. Life is perfectly fine, as long as you obey the new rules to the letter. However you lived your life before is irrelevant. Now, you get to live how we tell you to live.
Persepolis Rising is an exploration of conquest. Corey wants to look at the people who create empires, the people who believe that they have a superior vision for the world. Duarte is nothing new. Genghis Khan, Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar, Adolf Hitler, and countless others have tried to bring every human around to their way of thinking, to fashion civilization to fit their mold. It never holds. The difference between these men and Duarte is the existence of a real threat. Alien life capable of eradicating humanity from the stars in a moment. In the face of such tremendous power, is it right to conquer humanity? Is it moral? To bring all of civilization together in order to ensure the survival of the human race? Persepolis Rising does not answer these questions, but you can be sure Corey will return to this in the last two novels. The conquest may be over for now, but the storming of heaven is yet to come.
Persepolis Rising can be found online, in store, or wherever books are sold
Total read time: 9 days
Next on the list: A Man of Shadows, by Jeff Noon