Friday 31 May 2013

Book Review | Abaddon's Gate by James S. A. Corey

For generations, the solar system — Mars, the Moon, the Asteroid Belt — was humanity's great frontier. Until now. The alien artifact working through its program under the clouds of Venus has now appeared in Uranus's orbit, where it has built a massive gate that leads to a starless space beyond. 

Jim Holden and the crew of the Rocinante are part of a vast flotilla of scientific and military ships charged with studying the artifact. But behind the scenes, a complex plot is unfolding, with Holden's destruction at its core. As the emissaries of the human race try to decide whether the gate is an opportunity or a threat, the greatest danger is the one they brought with them.


Having plumbed the depths of the known solar system, explored the various ramifications of the existence of aliens, and exploded a whole bunch of stuff in the interim, James S. A. Corey — a collective pseudonym for co-authors Ty Franck and Daniel Abraham — shows no sign of slowing down in Abaddon's Gate, the third volume of the fantastic Expanse saga.

If anything, this is the best book in the series so far, and it's been a superb series: an accessible, spectacle-heavy space opera with an expanding cast of characters and a massively ambitious narrative. And this time, the depths are even deeper. The ramifications are far grander. And the explosions? There are oh so many more of those.

Abaddon's Gate picks up a couple of months after the events of Caliban's War, with the human race in disarray after the recent crisis on Ganymede:
Between Protogen and Mao-Kwikowski, the order and stability of the solar system had pretty much been dropped in a blender. Eros Station was gone, taken over by an alien technology and crashed into Venus. Ganymede was producing less than a quarter of its previous food output, leaving every population center in the outer planets relying on backup agricultural sources. The Earth-Mars alliance was a kind of quaint memory someone's grandpa might talk about after too much beer. The good old days, before it all went to hell. (pp.22-23)
Times have thus been tough for some. Not, however, for James Holden and the close-knit crew of the salvaged shingle Rocinante. Since cutting ties with the Outer Planets Alliance, he and Naomi — alongside Amos and Alex — have been operating as space-faring freelancers, the upshot of which is they're now ridiculously rich. Their ship has been refitted from bow to stern, upgraded according to a wish list of sweet new weapons and tech; they've gone on an all expenses paid galactic gambling break; and even then, "they still had more money in their general account than they knew what to do with." (p.13)

But money isn't everything, is it? You've got to have a place to lay down a heavy head at the end of the day, a home to harbour your heart, and when Mars initiates legal proceedings in order to take back the Rocinante, the possibility that they could lose everything they've gained of late becomes very real indeed. The only available way through the rising red tape is to take a documentary team out to the Ring, the self-assembled alien artefact around which Abaddon's Gate revolves, and which Holden and his crew had resolved to stay as far away from as possible.
The structure itself was eerie. The surface was a series of twisting ridges that spiraled around its body. At first they appeared uneven, almost messy. The mathematicians, architects, and physicists assured them all that there was a deep regularity there: the height of the ridges in a complex harmony with the width and the spacing between the peaks and valleys. The reports were breathless, finding one layer of complexity after another, the intimations of intention and design all laid bare without any hint of what it all might mean. (pp.136-137)
Before you know it, the Rocinante is leading a shaky coalition of ships from Earth, Mars and the Outer Planets right into the Ring... into one side, and out the other, by way of a strange region of space where the rules of physics and relativity are evidently no more important than notes passed back and forth in class in the past.

Stuck in the so-called Slow Zone with Holden and his, a number of new narrators, including Pastor Anna, an ambassador interested in how the Ring might affect the religion she represents, and Bull, an Earther aligned with the OPA, acting as security chief on the Behemoth, "a marvel of human optimism and engineering [...] with mass accelerators strapped to her side that would do more damage to herself than to an enemy." (pp.52-53)

Most notably, though, we meet Melba, a terrorist:
She had been Clarissa Melpomene Mao. Her family had controlled the fates of cities, colonies, and planets. And now Father sat in an anonymous prison, living out his days in disgrace. Her mother lived in a private compound on Luna slowly medicating herself to death. The siblings — the one that were still alive — had scattered to whatever shelter they could find from the hatred of two worlds. Once, her family's name had been written in starlight and blood, and now they'd been made to seem like villains. They'd been destroyed. 
She could make it right, though. It hadn't been easy, and it wouldn't be now. Some night, the sacrifices felt almost unbearable, but she would do it. She could make them all see the injustice in what James Holden had done to her family. She would expose him. Humiliate him. 
And then she would destroy him. (pp.39-40)
With that, the many pieces of Abaddon's Gate are in place, but as limitlessly ambitious as this book is, the well-oiled machine known as James S. A. Corey makes it all seem simple, somehow. I'd still advise newcomers to start at the start of the saga, but if you have either or both of the previous books in the series behind you, you're as good as guaranteed to have a hell of a time with The Expanse's first-class third act. In fact, looking back, Leviathan's Wake and Caliban's War feel — for all that I enjoyed them — like building blocks, paving the way to this pivotal place in time and space.

The decision to yet again expand The Expanse's cast of characters is slightly off-putting, initially, but the ends almost immediately justify the means: between the calculated physical and political action of Bull's chapters and Pastor Anna's nicely measured perspective on the interorganisational stand-off that informs the bulk of this book, Corey cannily counterbalances the potential problems of a story more focussed on gung-ho, know-it-all Holden — though he too is changed by the end of Abaddon's Gate.

Melba, meanwhile, makes for a neat interweaving of protagonist and antagonist. She does something truly terrible early on, outright rejecting the reader's developing affections at the outset, and falls further and further down the old rabbit hole as Abaddon's Gate goes and goes. The co-authors walk a fine line with respect to Melba, certainly, but they walk it very well. It's almost as if they do this sort of thing for a living!

In any case, these new names and faces bring an array of fresh elements to the table, helping to enliven an otherwise familiar framework. That said, what has become familiar over the course of The Expanse saga remains appealing, if inevitably less than it was once, leaving the story's original elements to steal the spotlight, which they indubitably do.
"The problem with living with miracles was that they made everything seem possible. An alien weapon had been lurking in orbit around Saturn for billions of years. It had eaten thousands of people, hijacking the mechanisms of their bodies for its own ends. It had built a wormhole gate into a kind of haunted sphere. [...] If all that was possible, everything was." (p.223)
Speaking of the story, Abaddon's Gate surprised me — pleasantly, I should stress — by closing out aspects of the overall arc begun in book one. Indeed, Corey answers enough questions that I finished this second sequel feeling like the series could very easily, and very pleasingly, end here.

It won't, of course. Certain doors are literally left open for further adventures in the supersized galaxy of The Expanse — adventures I'll happily have, because Abaddon's Gate is absolutely great. Courageous and audacious, with short chapters, smart characters, and a snappy narrative, it's leaps and bounds bigger and better than the vast majority of space opera.

And the fun is undoubtedly far from done.


Abaddon's Gate
by James S. A. Corey

UK & US Publication: June 2013, Orbit

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