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Abaddon’s Gate by James S. A. Corey

September 7, 2013 Leave a comment

Corey_AbaddonsGate_TP

Abaddon’s Gate by James S. A. Corey (Orbit, 2013) The Expanse 3 sees us reaching the end of the first narrative arc (apparently the publishers are sufficiently impressed to commission more). Co-authors Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck have pushed on through all the tropes based on alien invasion, and now come to the BDO. For those of you not into acronyms, this is a Big Dumb Object that humanity is required to confront. As you would expect, this “thing” is really, really big and, for want of anything better to fear, we have to go and investigate to see whether it’s likely to exterminate us or ignore us. In most examples of this trope, a hand-picked team of scientists and soldiers gets to approach the object and, in most cases, find a way inside. There will always be at least one spy and/or saboteur and/or thief who’s out to steal as much of the advanced technology before attempting to destroy it so no-one else gets any of the high-tech gizmos. Think Ringworld by Larry Niven and Rendezvous With Rama by Arthur C Clarke. For a closer match to this book’s object, think Spin by Robert Charles Wilson which introduces the Archway — a variation of the Stargate film and television series.

The new wrinkle on the gateway theme has the alien protomolocule turn its attention away from having fun on the surface to build a BDO out Neptune way. Not surprisingly, the three armed forces from Earth, Mars and the Outer Planets Alliance set up watch around the object and try to figure out what it does and, of course, prevent the other two from sneaking a march by turning it into a WMD capable of wiping out life on one or more planets. In a sense, everything has entered a period of stability in this version of a Mexican stand-off when a young thrill-seeker decides to sling-shot himself through the centre of the object. When his on-board cameras send back pictures of a rather large space inside, scientists are fascinated and military strategists are alarmed. So all available resources converge just outside the apparent reach of the object to discuss what should be done. Needless to say, this discussion hardly has a chance to begin before a large monkey-wrench is thrown into the diplomatic works and all the key players end up going through the gateway into the “space” beyond.

Daniel Abraham

Daniel Abraham

The essence of any good thriller, whether it be set on Earth or in some other place, is to take a small group of characters and put them in danger. In this case, we have representatives from the three formal groups at daggers drawn with James Holden and the crew of the Rocinante acquiring universal hatred. Even in planetary space, this would be likely to produce a shooting war but, when you take this trigger-happy group and dump them inside a BDO, they suddenly find there may just be something more dangerous than each other to confront. More importantly, this more or less completely dumb object gets the impression the warring humans are a threat to it and so it takes measures to protect itself. Since it controls the physics inside itself, this means a large number of people end up suddenly dead or seriously injured. This gives the other POV characters a chance to shine: Annuska Volovodov, aka Pastor Anna, Clarissa Mao aka Melba Alzbeta Koh who’s out for revenge, and Carlos de Baca aka Bull, an Earthman brought out of retirement to work on the OPA’s largest spacecraft as a professional soldier to counter the less experienced Captain and XO.

Ty Franck

Ty Franck

In a way, this is a story about redemption, not in the overtly religious sense even though one of the main POV characters is a Pastor. At different times and for different reasons, each of the POV characters has to make choices, moving out of their more usual comfort zones into unexpectedly dangerous circumstances. Pastor Anna, for example, has left her family behind to come on this trip but, until quite late into the plot, she’s never completely honest with herself as to her motives. For someone used to being supportive and mildly proactive in her religious role, she’s slowly forced to acknowledge the political context for the behaviour around her and to understand how little she’s done to interact with the crew in a way that might help them. She has a lot of catching up to do. Bull is the other way round. From the outset, he understands his role is highly political and that he needs to build support among the OPA crew. Sadly he can’t be everywhere and so the situation does get away from him. Now it’s a case of rebuilding and trying to recapture the lost initiative. Then there’s the trigger for this situation. Clarissa is on a mission to kill Holden which, morally speaking, sets her off on the wrong foot. Were it not for her, hundreds of lives would not be lost. But equally, it’s her action that triggers what may be Earth’s most important discovery.

The Big Object proves to be pretty dumb as readers might expect but there’s plenty of excitement among the humans as they flex their muscles and get down to mutiny and countermutiny. I’m still not a fan of the overlap in situational descriptions when switching from one sequential POV to another but, other than this, this is a very smooth piece of writing. I’m not sure it’s quite as good as Caliban’s War, but Abaddon’s Gate certainly does deliver real space opera style with a lot of pizzaz.

For reviews of other books by Daniel Abraham, see:
An Autumn War
A Betrayal in Winter
Caliban’s War written under the pseudonym James S. A. Corey with Ty Franck
The Dragon’s Path
The Incident of the Harrowmoor Dogs
The King’s Blood
Leviathan Wakes written under the pseudonym James S. A. Corey with Ty Franck
Leviathan Wept
The Price of Spring
A Shadow in Summer
The Tyrant’s Law.

Jacket artwork by Daniel Dociu.

Caliban’s War by James S. A. Corey

September 4, 2012 Leave a comment

By way of introduction, I need to remind myself of the definition I use for space opera. When I was young, I read through an uncountable number of pages filled with “wow factor” fiction. That’s the technical term for essentially stupid things happening on a vast, not to say unimaginable, scale. It’s not due to chance that the opening words of Star Wars resonated with those of use who had grown up during the so-called Golden Age. “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away….” Never mind the lack of any scientific explanation for what was happening. It was all Boy’s Own adventure fiction transferred to outer space where rampaging evil could be thwarted only by the gismos dreamt up by superscientists like Captain Future in their shiny laboratories or wunderkind throwing random stuff together in their bedrooms. This was all about “going out there” to confront foes unimaginable and still be home in time for tea. And therein lay the problem. When you’re placing your characters against a background of colliding galaxies and you only have fourteen hours to save the Earth, it’s difficult to come up with a plot that’s operatic enough to fill the stage and keep us occupied for however long it takes to read the book. Those of you old enough will remember there was a myth floating around the publishing houses that no author could write intelligent space opera. The moment people started actually thinking, this became serious SF and so no longer fun. To be space opera, like B movies, the work had to represent the lowest possible common denominator of old-style shoot-em-up Westerns transferred to outer space.

Daniel Abraham — regular guy and top-notch writer

Then along came Consider Phlebas by Iain M Banks, Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card, Hyperion by Dan Simmons, and so on. This is a much more ambitious approach to the notion of what should constitute contemporary space opera. The books still ignore the laws of physics and lack realism, but continue with the “wow factor”. They are imaginative but have an underlying political context and economic logic. More importantly, they also have a certain optimism. Whereas steampunk looks to the past with a nostaligic eye and shakes its head in sadness that we didn’t have proper Babbage Engines crunching numbers for us back in Victorian times, new Space Opera reaches for the stars and thinks about the possibility the human race can set aside its tribal differences and built an interstellar culture. For all enemies may lurk in the darkness, we’re never without hope. No matter what the difficulties, we strive to overcome them. It’s inspirational stuff.

Ty Franck explaining how the books came to be written

All of which brings me to Caliban’s War by James S. A. Corey (Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck) (Orbit, 2012) Book 2 The Expanse. I confess to being unimpressed by the first half of Leviathan Wakes. Yes, it was nominated for the 2012 Hugo for Best Novel but I’ve never been afraid to disagree with the masses. I was, you will understand, still sufficiently interested to read this second volume and I’m glad I did. If ever you needed a book to hold up to the world and say, “This is new Space Opera!” Caliban’s War is it. Although the action is limited to our own solar system (sadly, no colliding galaxies in this one) the threat comes from “outside” and is building up rather nicely. The feature that makes the book so entertaining is the predictable infighting between the different human factions, the most aggressive believing they can control the threat to make super weapons. This has to be the ultimate head-in-the-sand approach to fighting an alien invasion. First study the composition of the alien and, when you vaguely understand it, weaponise it and use the results to start a war. Obviously, when the different factions have finished fighting each other, there won’t be many left to fight the aliens but that’s not such an important factor in this pissing contest. Needless to say, the voice of sanity trying to keep the testosterone levels under control is a supergranny who pulls the strings inside the UN, while the self-righteous Jim Holden is once again going the best of three falls to decide the winner in his fight to save everyone from themselves.

Although there are two slightly overlapping interludes when point-of-view switches between characters, it’s less jarring than in the first volume and, more generally, the prose reads with a pleasing fluency. So what we have is a genuinely exciting read with the appearance of an alien monster setting the UN and Mars at each other’s throats, while the Belters look on with interest and whoever released the monster waits for the benefits to accrue. I have the sense that Ty Franck has settled into the team and is improving in the craft a converting a gaming manual into a novel. For once I’m probably going with the flow and rate this as one of the best SF books so far this year. It’s certainly up there with the Culture novels by Iain Banks as being one of the leading space opera books of the last decade.

For reviews of other books by Daniel Abraham, see:
Abaddon’s Gate written under the pseudonym James S. A. Corey with Ty Franck
An Autumn War
A Betrayal in Winter
Caliban’s War written under the pseudonym James S. A. Corey with Ty Franck
The Dragon’s Path
The Incident of the Harrowmoor Dogs
The King’s Blood
Leviathan Wakes written under the pseudonym James S. A. Corey with Ty Franck
Leviathan Wept
The Price of Spring
A Shadow in Summer
The Tyrant’s Law.

Jacket artwork by Daniel Dociu.

This novel has been shortlisted for the 2013 Locus Award.

 

Leviathan Wakes by James S. A. Corey

October 10, 2011 Leave a comment

This is slightly more complicated than usual so, to clear the decks for action, let’s get a few facts on the record. When you pick up Leviathan Wakes, you see the author’s name as James S. A. Corey. This is another of these team-writing combinations involving Daniel Abraham and [a partner], in this case, Ty Franck, this being his first appearance in novel form (click here for Ty Franck talking about the genesis of this book). Second, this is the first of a planned trilogy (de rigueur these days for any “author” who wants to be taken seriously in these quantity-over-quality times) titled The Expanse. For those who like forward planning, the remaining titles are Caliban’s War and Dandelion Sky.

Daniel Abraham is discreetly chic in black and white

Well, as those of you who read these reviews will know, there are occasional times when I give up and throw a book across the room in disgust. I came very close to doing just that with this book. No matter how interesting a book may later become, this starts out in a completely leaden style. It’s also grossly overwritten with a morass of detail bulking out the length to no good purpose. If there’s an attempt to engage the reader, it passed me by. I felt no emotional investment in any of the characters on display and nothing of interest seemed to be happening apart from a possible rerun of The Thing towards the end where the human and alien bodies blend together as a single organism in some mysterious way. Great, I thought, science fiction meets horror without any brains. However, I kept going just long enough to become interested in the plot. I can’t honestly say the writing style improves to any degree but, as a big SFnal idea, this proves to be quite good. So having listened to Ty Frank’s description of how this trilogy came to be written, I can explain matters as follows.

Leviathan Wakes has a clever central idea and the politics of the response to it are well worked out. Insofar as it’s also a detective story, the way the investigation proceeds also shows good logic. The psychological make-up of the detective may not be very credible but, in the end, I forgave his shortcomings because he does manage to get to the right place at the right time to get a reasonable outcome. To that extent, the plot is realistic in that we end at a state of balance. Nothing is immediately resolved, but there are opportunities for a negotiated settlement. This shows a cool and logical mind at work in producing a gaming scenario. The mistake was in involving him in the writing. I have great respect for Daniel Abraham as a solo writer. His previous team efforts have also been impressive. Shame about this unless you want to read it purely for the ideas.

Ty Franck keeping a low profile

Structurally there are also oddities to come to terms with. The point of view in each chapter alternates between the detective Miller and a righteous space captain called Holden. In some handovers, there’s an overlap so we get the preceding chapter ending replayed from the other point of view in the new chapter. Similarly, we get loose ends hanging in the plot because the point of view doesn’t show us anything about what’s happening out of the sight of the primary protagonists. For example, when Holden and Miller meet up in Eros, what happens to Inspector Sematimba and how can the Meatgrinders (with or without the guidance of Protogen) be so successful in their takeover unless there are no conventional police responses?

So this is a difficult one. Looking back from the end, Leviathan Wakes is a reasonably good story, but getting to the end is a bit of a struggle. Ask yourself why you read SF. If it’s just for the ideas and you don’t care whether it’s well written or not, this is for you. Otherwise, this is probably not for you.

For reviews of other books by Daniel Abraham, see:
Abaddon’s Gate written under the pseudonym James S. A. Corey with Ty Franck
An Autumn War
A Betrayal in Winter
Caliban’s War written under the pseudonym James S. A. Corey with Ty Franck
The Dragon’s Path
The Incident of the Harrowmoor Dogs
The King’s Blood
Leviathan Wakes written under the pseudonym James S. A. Corey with Ty Franck
Leviathan Wept
The Price of Spring
A Shadow in Summer
The Tyrant’s Law.

Jacket artwork by Daniel Dociu.

For the record, Leviathan Wakes has been shortlisted for the 2012 Hugo Awards for Best Novel and the 2012 Locus Award for Science Fiction Novel.

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