Abaddon’s Gate by James S. A. Corey
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.
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.
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
The Price of Spring
A Shadow in Summer
The Tyrant’s Law.
Jacket artwork by Daniel Dociu.