RogerBW's Blog

Abaddon's Gate, James S. A. Corey 19 July 2019

2013 science fiction, third in The Expanse series. The mysterious plot-device-producing alien supertech has built a ring out past the orbit of Neptune, which seems to be a gate to Somewhere Else. In spite of his best efforts, James Holden will get involved again.

It's documented that this setting was originally designed as the background for an MMORPG, and reading the book I couldn't help seeing it as the log of a role-playing campaign. There are four viewpoint characters again, and three of them are interesting. Carlos "Bull" de Baca is a sensible Earther-turned-Belter pushed out of command of their rickety but huge warship by politics, but left on as the security chief; his job is to give the right advice, and to be ignored. Anna Volovodov, Methodist preacher in the civilian contingent brought along for show on the investigative mission, is there to be ethical and forgive everybody. Melba Koh, with a fake identity and bent on revenge, is there to move the plot along… none of these people is particularly well-developed, but they all have challenges to face, hard decisions to make, difficult moral questions to consider.

And then there's James Holden. In the imaginary game of which this book is the write-up, James Holden is clearly played by That Player, the one who didn't bother to read the background briefing, the one who carefully avoids the clearly-signalled plot unless he's forced into it, the one with no impulse control who always does the first thing he thinks of, and then gets surprised when there are negative consequences. But for some reason the GM has to keep him happy. Maybe he's the only player with a house big enough for them all to meet in.

So while those three people are trying to have their serious science fiction story, Holden gets into fights, talks with a ghost, shoots his mouth off, and expects people to like him 'cos he's just so charming. He's an asshole. But the GM keeps twisting the narrative so that his assholishness turns out retroactively to have been the right thing to do. Holden is a narcissist who builds his life on the premise that everything which happens is about him, and because the GM puts up with him the world acts as though that were true. I thought in Caliban's War that he was starting to get some self-awareness, but here each time someone calls him on his bullshit he says "yup" and goes right on doing it. What his crew sees in him is a mystery to me.

The plot isn't exactly the same as last time, which is refreshing. I mean, sure, it's still about humans poking technology they don't understand and suffering the extensively-described and bloody consequences; but it's not specifically about an attempt to turn alien tech into a weapon against other humans, like the last two. Melba has a scheme for revenge against Holden, which raises her in my favour, though she doesn't worry about collateral damage; and various plans collide to make bad situations worse.

In some respects it's barely science fiction; nobody cares about how, say, the speed limit of space has been changed in the area beyond the gate, it's just a thing that happens (and causes lots of gory damage when it decelerates things suddenly). It only works on the hulls of ships, and not on things inside the ships (such as bullets); nobody speculates on what sort of means of action might be involved. One might as well say that a wizard did it.

I find it mildly unusual to have a significant religious element in a modern SF story; it's much more unusual that all of the people who express a religious inclination are entirely genuine about it. Nobody's doing it because it's more convenient than not (there are plenty of people who have nothing to do with religion at all and don't suffer by it), or to get a political advantage: they are all, good and bad, utter believers.

And almost everyone is good or bad; there's some lip-service paid to moral ambiguity and one person takes a while to work out which side they're on, but Team Good comes together out of disparate factions far too easily.

Followed by Cibola Burn but although I enjoyed the first two books I find in myself no inclination to continue.

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Previous in series: Caliban's War | Series: The Expanse

  1. Posted by Sean Cardus at 01:45pm on 19 July 2019

    RE: The slow-zone bullet thing, I'm fairly sure it was established that only stuff that the station perceived as a threat to itself was subjected to the speed limit.

  2. Posted by RogerBW at 01:51pm on 19 July 2019

    Well, up to a point. I think one can construct an explanation for why it works that way (although it seems to me that if you're magically changing the speed limit for everything bigger than photons it would be simpler to change it for everything); my argument is that nobody in the book particularly cares, or is curious about it.

  3. Posted by Nick at 05:14pm on 19 July 2019

    This is an excellent summation of the many problems with this series - I did go on and read the next book in the series and the problems remain; in fact they get worse. When you’re rooting for one of the Good square to die because that might actually stimulate something in the way of character development, then the book has failed, really. Thankfully the TV show does a lot to introduce some friction into the group and reduces the regard the crew inexplicably holds Holden with in the books, although it shares a few of the problems because it doesn’t fundamentally change the plot.

  4. Posted by Owen Smith at 06:24pm on 20 July 2019

    I've been watching the TV series without having read the books. I recognise some of the problems you list. However the visuals are stunning, some of the best representations of space I've seen since Babylon 5 and the rendering quality has improved since then. Also they generally get the physics right, though the occasional howler really jars me out of my immersion. For example if you blow up an orbital mirror apparently all the pieces fall onto the moon it was orbiting - er, no they damn well don't!

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