James S.A. Corey
Part of the fun of science fiction, or any large-scale, creative community, is watching the trends evolve over decades; the movements, counter-movements, neo-movements, parodies, ironic self-references, and earnest revivals. The Expanse, Corey’s ostensible trilogy that was recently expanded to six books, is an unabashed throwback to the door-stopping SF epics of the 1970s. It merrily follows in the footsteps of what were either bloated, mindless extravaganzas (if one is a grumpy New Waver or cyberpunk) or widescreen, visionary blockbusters (if one is a neo-Campbellite entertainer). Abaddon’s Gate is the third book in the series; I looked at Leviathan’s Wake here, then read but didn’t write about Caliban’s War. I will say at the start that I enjoyed Gate the most of the books I have read, mostly because the authors seem to have found their groove now after some experimentation, but admit that other reviewers have said exactly the opposite.
Some details first for those who haven’t read the book yet, with a lengthier discussion later. Gate more directly connects to Leviathan Wakes than Caliban’s War. The latter is necessary to understand Gate but takes the story in a different direction than the former, useful more as a broader look at the Solar System than a continuation of the protomolecule plot line. The protomolecule spends the entirety of the second book safely ensconced on Venus while the geopolitical difficulties between Earth, Mars and the Belt are fleshed out. This is fine for those interested in Corey’s world building (and it’s a fine story in its own right), but leaves all the vomit zombie fans in the lurch. Abaddon’s Gate is all about the protomolecule, which made me happy. I remain a sucker for Big Mysterious Objects.
As in the second book, James Holden & Co. are the only holdover characters. Mention is made of past favorites, but (with one strangely reanimated exception) they are only name checked. This time around, we have a crazy chick with temporary ninja powers, an aging security operative, and a female Russian pastor who happens to have a Ugandan wife and adopted child. Corey never fails to provide a salty bunch for us. I was lukewarm for the first third of the book, wishing that less attention be paid to the characters’ angst and general human crappiness, and more time spent on the protomolecule now hovering out in the far reaches of the Solar System. Things got more exciting for the second third, as Corey slowly unpacks some of the history and secrets of the protomolecule. In the end though, this is all about the regular folks, with attention returning to the foibles of the human condition for the finale. I didn’t mind by then, since everything was very slam-bang and exciting. Still, one can hope that the next book opens up the horizons a bit more.
Another bonus of this third installment is its willingness to dive into thorny topics. Anna is the simplest vector for this sort of thing, being a pastor and all, and provides a surprisingly even-handed look at how religion might function in our future. Much of science fiction betrays a clear rooting interest in the centuries long conflict between church and scientist; there is nothing like some sort of cult or intolerant religious offshoot for a go to bad guy. Real life does little to dissuade these tropes, but there are churchy types out there who don’t think Adam and Eve rode dinosaurs, so it’s nice to read a book that includes their viewpoints. Of course, I am favorably disposed towards Corey from the start, since his (their) background treatment of Mormons is both hilarious and (more or less) accurate. Nothing keeps me laughing like Angel Moroni paintings on the walls of a converted battleship. (The humor is probably lost on 99% of his (their) readership.)
Religion is also slips a foot in the door for pacifism, a surprising inclusion considering all of the Martian battlesuits, vomit zombies, and severed limbs in the series. Things drift inevitably back into violence at the end, but there are aspects of the resolution that leaven it all with peace and cooperation. I rather wish that the author(s) went all the way with this, rather than caving a bit to Hollywood convention, but even having Anna present, demanding that all these soldiers and privateers at least consider the non-violent option without her being denigrated as a spineless idealist, is a brave gesture. It is all too easy in these sorts of stories for the brave, muscular, fighting men to mumble, “That sort of thing is nice in your pretty dream world, missy, but this is a man’s story and we gotta do what men do,” before blowing a whole bunch of crap up. Anna is at least accorded respect and a voice in the conversation before crap blows up.
I don’t know if the team behind James S.A. Corey is consciously modeling themselves after another powerhouse duo in spectacle-driven SF, but The Expanse hits a lot of the same beats as the 1970s Niven – Pournelle collaborations. Gate reminded me particularly of The Mote in God’s Eye, probably for the addition of a religious angle and the unflinching look at societies. Also noticeable in the book is the Clarke-ian sense of humanity’s insignificance in a vast, cold universe and the on-again off-again fear of massively powerful aliens. The strongest influence I felt was from Pournelle’s CoDominion universe, with its run down, lived in atmosphere. There is high tech in Corey’s Solar System, but there is a whiff of Rust Belt in Space as well.
In the end though, what really locks in the nostalgia is the tech levels in the book. There is scant nanotech, no real AI or uploaded personalities, no quantum mechanics, and no Singularity. This is old-fashioned stuff, the physical side of science fiction that we don’t always see anymore. Nothing in the books would be out of place in a Golden Age novel, except maybe the multi-ethnic, lesbian preacher. I suspect that much of the series’ appeal is linked to the fun of reading the sort of story that many of us grew up on, with a future easier on our addled brains than, say, Hannu Rajaniemi or Greg Egan. It is certainly simpler to empathize with characters who aren’t all that different from us, in situations that are, if not similar to our own, at least easily imaginable.
Gate cleanly wraps up the first set of books, while leaving plenty for the next three to explore. I don’t doubt that people will snap up the next few volumes as well, so here’s hoping that the Corey team can keep it up. As I said in the beginning, I liked this book the most of the three; my expectations are high for the coming adventures. In fact, now that all the preliminaries are out of the way, I’m hoping the authors will really open it up and let Holden strike out for parts unknown. The Solar System is nice, but with superpowerful aliens and exploding suns in view, I’m ready for new scenery.