Thursday, May 11, 2017

Review - Abaddon's Gate by James S.A. Corey

Short review: The alien protomolecule has placed a Ring in the outer reaches of the Solar System, so humanity naturally has to go and screw around with it. Of course, they also bring their warships to threaten each other as well.

Beyond Uranus
The Ring sits, waiting for who?
Ants play with fire

Full review: Abaddon's Gate is the third book in the Expanse series of space opera-ish novels by James S.A. Corey. After a strong start with Leviathan Wakes, the series slumped a bit with the slightly disappointing Caliban's War, so one might be concerned that the series would continue to slip in this volume. Such concerns are unfounded, however, as this installment takes the solid foundation laid by the earlier books and uses it as a launching point to jump off to even greater heights. While the earlier books have mostly involved the internecine squabbles of humanity with the inchoate menace of the alien protomolecule lurking in the background, this volume sets the inscrutable and nigh incomprehensible alien technology front and center, forcing the characters to deal with both the opportunities and the threats that flow from its presence.

The central feature of this volume is the mysterious alien Ring that was formed when the protomolecule concluded its programming on Venus and launched itself into the outer reaches of the Solar System, taking up residence near the orbit of Uranus. Once there, it sits unmolested but carefully observed until a joyriding teenager looking to make a name for himself aims his "slingshot" craft at the Ring and goes through, with not entirely expected, not entirely clear, but quite obviously messy results. This seems to spark all three of the major powers to send expeditions to study the structure, and sets the plot of the book in motion.

As with the previous novels in the series the story is told from a perspective that rotates among a group of viewpoint characters. Holden returns once again as a viewpoint character, bringing with him the rest of the crew of the Rocinante, no longer connected with Fred Johnson or the OPA in any official manner. The deceased Miller has continued to visit Holden as he did at the close of Caliban's War, making Holden leery of the idea of going anywhere near the mysterious Ring. Now that they are a crew of freelancers, Holden and his compatriots have contracted to carry a shipment as far away from the Ring as they can go, but find themselves unable to do so due to their embroilment in a legal dispute with the government of Mars over the ownership of their ship. This dispute that is temporarily put on hold by the intervention of the reporter Monica Stuart, but at the cost of accepting her contract to transport her and her film crew to the combined fleet of Earther, Martian, and OPA ships gathering around the Ring.

The other viewpoint characters in the novel are all new, starting with Bull, one of Fred Johnson's trusted lieutenants in the OPA, who is a tough and competent ex-Marine, but unfortunately is originally from Earth. Unwilling to be left out of the investigation into the secrets of the Ring, the OPA has taken the recovered Nauvoo, armed it with some missiles and railguns and rechristened it the Behemoth before sending it out to meet the other fleets. Because of his birthplace and at Captain Ashford's insistence, Bull is demoted from his projected position of Executive Officer of the Behemoth, and is instead assigned as Chief of Security. Much of Bull's part in the story involves him butting heads with the officious and incompetent Captain Ashford and the suspicious by capable Executive Officer Pa - conflicts that result in disastrous consequences for pretty much everyone. Much as with Havelock in the first book, Bull's experiences illustrate the persistent prejudice Belters hold against Earthers, and the effect of those prejudices is to cause many of those around him to lose sight of his basic competence, to their own detriment.

Also taking position as a viewpoint character is Pastor Anna, a Methodist minister of Russian ancestry working on Ceres. She is invited to accompany the U.N. expedition to the Ring as part of its complement of religious leaders that are more or less supposed to find "meaning" in the enigmatic structure. Anna is almost wholly a good person, which is a type of character that has not shown up in the series thus far. She loves her wife and child, and always tries to find the best part of everyone she meets. She is caring, kind, and generous, even in the face of open and deadly hostility. This sort of character is often hard to write - they can feel either hopelessly and unrealistically naive, or wind up being so sickly sweet that their mere presence is cloying. Corey's presentation of Anna in the book manages to avoid these potential pitfalls, and she emerges as the moral center of the book. Having Anna in the book also allows the authors to  highlight a number of secondary characters, such as a U.N. naval officer, a poet travelling with the U.N. contingent, and a hard-nosed and somewhat sourly disposed marine, as she becomes something of a focus for the various "ordinary" people in the crew to reach out to in times of need.

The final new viewpoint character in the novel is Clarissa Mao, the younger sister of Julie Mao, recently consumed by the protomolecule, and the daughter of disgraced industrialist Jules-Pierre Mao. She has identified Holden as the source of her father's downfall and spends much of the book implementing a complex and murderous plan of vengeance. Like Anna, Clarissa is a type of character that has not been used as a viewpoint character before. Unlike Anna, Clarissa is unique in that she is essentially the villain of the story, which is a perspective that readers of the series have not had previously. One might also note that Clarissa isn't entirely a mirror image of Anna, because while she is a homicidal villain, she is not wholly evil, but is rather merely mostly evil but possibly redeemable. This is not to downplay the horrific actions she engages in, but there are hints in the story that her father may have been so controlling during her childhood that his actions amount to abuse, resulting in a child who grew up to be a borderline sociopath willing to do anything to please the man who raised her no matter the cost.

Whereas the previous novels leaned heavily on the excellently drawn characters to keep the book going when the plot faltered and lost its way, Abaddon's Gate takes these characters and puts them into a story that is strong in its own right. Once Clarissa puts her plan into explosive action, everyone is essentially forced to confront the alien artifact in all of its inexplicable and ultimately incredibly dangerous glory - and even when confronted by an almost inscrutable enigma that clearly demonstrates that it has the power to casually kill every single human in its vicinity, the various factions present can't seem to stop trying to hurry that process along by killing each other. To be blunt, the thrust of the plot of this book is that when confronted by an alien power that is potentially hostile, and is at least unconcerned with human life, at least some humans will respond by shooting their fellow humans in the face over petty, internecine squabbles.

One of the most difficult things for a writer to successfully pull off in science fiction is to portray something that is truly beyond human experience. When presenting something intended to be alien and unknown, one runs the risk of either making it too alien, and as a result incomprehensible to the reader, or not quite alien enough, and thus making what should be enigmatic and mysterious seem boring and mundane. Corey manages to provide something that strikes the delicate balance between these two traps in large part by having Miller serve as the bridge between the alien artifact at the heart of this story, and the humans who are floating about it with as much understanding of what it is and what it is for as a colony of ants have for the lawnmower upon which they are crawling. One of the ways that they make the artifact both cryptic and intriguing is Miller's own incomplete ability to explain it - he is able to describe some of the things it does, but not how it does them, and more importantly why it was built and who built it. In this way, the reason for the "slow zone" beyond the gate is explained, but how such a zone is created is not. The existence of the alien creatures that created the protomolecule and all of the other alien technology in the books is acknowledged, but what happened to them remains unknown. And so on. This book is, in large part, about how humans react to something entirely mystifying, and the authors make that work by having a quite mystifying centerpiece to the entire book.

Putting the alien artifact literally at the center of the action sets up the main conflict, which is not between the various competing political factions, but is rather a philosophical battle between Pastor Anna and cynical televangelist Hector Cortez. Anna always tries to see the best in all humanity, and her reaction to the awe inspiring albeit deadly dangerous potential of what lies beyond the Ring proceeds accordingly. Cortez, on the other hand, only sees the danger this new reality poses, and sets about organizing a faction dedicated to putting an end to that danger, even if it is at the cost of the tantalizing possibilities that are offered alongside it. The mutual distrust and outright hostility exhibited by the Earthers, Martians, and Belters towards one another is still the engine that drives much of the action forward, and their actions are what draw the increasingly lethal responses. The savage gunfights and desperate struggles between the various players are interesting and exciting, but in a very real sense, they are a sideshow. The real question at the heart of this book is whether humanity will face the alien and unknown with hope or with fear, and that is pretty much the definition of big idea science fiction which is what sets this book apart from the two previous books in the series.

Abaddon's Gate represents a turning point in the Expanse series. In the first two books, the meat of the story was the conflicts that arose among humanity flavored with a taste of alien weirdness in the background. To the extent that humanity's story intersected with the alien presence, it was more or less akin to a monkey poking a dangerous piece of lab equipment with a stick. The protomolecule was something one screwed around with at their peril, and the best option a person had was to simply run from it and things produced by it, and just hope to be able to get away and remain alive. In this book, humanity still doesn't really understand any of the alien technology they are confronted with (and that lack of understanding is certain to have terrible consequences in future books), but humanity has a choice as to how to interact with it that amounts to more than "keep a wary distance or probably die a horrible death". As a capstone to this sudden agency on the part of humanity, the book also hands one of the most terrifying twists to the story that it could, but it is a twist that is so incredibly subtle that it takes a bit to realize just how awful it truly is. The Expanse was already a pretty good series, but with Abaddon's Gate it steps forward, opens the story up to greater horizons that were possible before, and develops into a great series.

Previous book in the series: Caliban's War
Subsequent book in the series: Cibola Burn

2013 Locus Award Winner for Best Science Fiction Novel: Redshirts by John Scalzi
2015 Locus Award Winner for Best Science Fiction Novel: Ancillary Sword by Ann Leckie

List of Locus Award Winners for Best Science Fiction Novel

2014 Hugo Award Longlist
2014 Locus Award Nominees

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