2013’s Abaddon’s Gate is the third volume in James S. A. Corey’s Expanse series1.
Perennial pain-in-the-ass James Holden, the man whose steadfast embrace of principle helped kick off an interplanetary war, is confronted with the consequences of his actions in the form of a lawsuit. While Holden claims ownership of the spacecraft Rocinante, the means by which he obtained it were somewhat irregular. Now the space navy from whom he commandeered the vessel would like their spacecraft back.
When opportunity offers Holden a convenient escape from the lawsuit in the form of an assignment in the outer solar system, where the vast, enigmatic alien Ring orbits, he accepts it. The timing is not as coincidental as it appears and Holden should have been far more cautious.
What exactly the Ring is or does is unclear but what is known is that objects that go in one side do not emerge from the other. The thrill-seeking pilot who tested the Ring did not survive the experience, but the instruments still functioning on his spacecraft have provided a certain amount of information about conditions around it. The Ring seems to be a gateway to another realm. With interplanetary war in the recent past, none of the competing powers are willing to trust the others not to try to unilaterally exploit the Ring, thus the flotillas of space navies clustering around the Ring.
Clarissa Mao’s sister Julie died in bizarre fashion (more or less), a victim of the alien protomolecule. Clarissa’s father was consigned to prison after his involvement in the protomolecule affair was exposed. Reduced from the loftiest stratum of society to mere wealth, Clarissa believes her family’s misfortune can be laid at Holden’s feet. She has spent all of her fortune preparing her revenge. Holden’s legal problems and assignment are elements in that trap.
Clarissa’s plan works — until she puts its final, most important, stage into action. She has covertly subverted Rocinante’s communications system. It will send out a deadly signal that triggers explosives planted on the spaceship Seung Un. The hacked system will then broadcast a fake claim, delivered by a simulated James Holden, taking credit for the explosion. The fake Holden will make grandiose demands that Clarissa is certain will end with Rocinante’s destruction. Holden will be dead long before anyone realizes that the message was faked and Holden was innocent.
Holden didn’t get where he is by being in any way cooperative. The Rocinante is not destroyed and Holden does not die. The ship flees through the Ring into a weird pocket universe created by the same long-vanished civilization that created the protomolecule. The flotillas pursue, fearing the consequences of leaving Holden on his own on the other side of the Ring more than they do following him.
Haunted by the avatar of the late detective Miller, a simulated ghost created by the alien mechanism that built the Ring, Holden learns vital info way way too late. The Ring is merely one station in a transportation network whose foundations were laid two billion years ago. Its builders are long vanished, the victims of something even more powerful than they. The pocket universe is a transportation annex, a sort of interstellar Paddington Station, into which a myriad of Rings lead. The other Rings are all closed (at the moment) but “Miller” can open them with Holden’s help.
Important questions remain unanswered. The Ring’s creators are long gone but what of their killers? Can Holden prove his innocence to the combined fleets of the Solar System? And most importantly, will simple human hubris and the pocket universe’s security systems combine to scour humanity and its home system from the face of the universe?
I have a great weakness for portal network novels in science fiction … and yet I was bit sad when this novel introduced a portal network to the Expanse series. Space operas confined to the Solar System are oddly uncommon and I was sad to lose the Expanse as an example. Ah, well.
Clarissa makes her debut in the novel with a brutal murder of a gangster and his mooks (they were conspirators who had become liabilities). Readers might quite reasonably expect her to continue to operate as an implacable engine of bloody vengeance, a sort of Count of Monte Cristo in space2. Not so much. While Clarissa has no problem killing people whom she knows to be morally compromised, it turns out that her plan requires the death of innocents. That does weigh heavily on her. It’s not enough to prevent her from killing people, but at least she feels bad about it.
In some ways, Clarissa and Holden are mirror images: both absolutely convinced that their actions, which have ranged from serial murder to inadvertently pulling the pin on Space War I, are justified by principle. There is one important difference between the two, however. By the end of this volume, one of them will be safely contained and the other free to continue kicking card tables over as their whim dictates. Note use of pronoun.
While the novel offers all the action and drama people demand from their star-spanning epics, readers may be surprised (in a pleasant way) with how much of the book is spent on the theme of redemption, contemplating under what circumstances it is appropriate and what steps people need to take to earn it. Clarissa, being completely wrong-headed about who to blame for her father’s downfall and how to react to it, is the focus of much of the relevant musing; she is a serial murderer whose ultimate fate is unlikely to be happy. Yet various characters persist in seeing hope for reform and in trying to convince her to change her ways. It is unusual to encounter this sort of theme in space opera (at least where the reform doesn’t take the form of a heroic sacrifice) but I welcome it.
1: My review of Leviathan Wakes is here..
My review of Caliban’s War is here..
2: Say, that wouldn’t be such a bad idea. Grand scale space opera in the solar system may be the best idea, but the Count of Monte Cristo in space would be even bester.