Review: Abaddon's Gate by James SA Corey

My Quick Take: The third book in The Expanse series takes the action from the large-scale to the personal, with an interesting exploration of characters' individual motivation and ways of coping.  

*There could be some mild spoilers here if you haven’t read the first two books, so you are duly warned.*


“The fear had become familiar. Almost expected. It should have taken the edge off the terror, and maybe it did, but what replaced it was a sense of being trapped. The assault could come at any time, and it could not be avoided.

It poisoned everything, even if it was only a little bit.

It felt like being haunted.”
And so begins Abaddon's Gate, Book Three in The Expanse series. I love that quote, because it applies to a lot of things these days. On the universal level, it essentially describes the human condition when we allow ourselves to think about it.

From the universal to the personal. One pertinent personal example: I have been tiptoeing around life so as not to get assaulted by COVID-19, feeling utterly trapped by it. It's everywhere and invisible. But I finally contracted the invisible pathogen. I don’t want to have COVID-19, but there is a certain comfort in confronting the boogeyman. Now, the SARS-CoV-2 virus is in my body, and I am the only one who can deal with it, whatever way it goes. And I can cope.  Granted, getting COVID-19 is not on the same scale as the entire solar system confronting the Expanse’s Protomolecule (PM), or individuals turning into vomit-spewing alien zombies. I’ll concede that point. 

I finished Abaddon’s Gate a few weeks ago and was already thinking about how different it is to Books One and Two. Caliban’s War was largely about the big picture: wars fought between Earth, Mars and the Belters; fear and politics; power and money. The universals. Abaddon's Gate turns us toward the personal.

These days, the crew of the Rocinante are making a living picking up transport contracts. The PM has evolved into a Ring, or portal, orbiting Uranus. Ships from all factions are gathering to monitor it, while still picking up the pieces from the last war. Everyone, including the crew of the Rocinante, has a reason to gather at the Ring.

In Abaddon’s Gate, there are few large-scale battles. The authors cleverly used the plot to literally slow the action down, so that governments, but also individuals, have to rely on more nuanced solutions to conflict. So, we see more deliberate violence on a person to person scale rather than a ship to ship scale. This intimate violence makes individual choices more painful, and the consequences arguably more traumatizing.

We are shown examples of how people cope with existential threat on a personal level, largely through new characters. Melba deals with her grief and fear by becoming consumed with revenge. It takes over her as she becomes increasingly dissociative as she kills, simply to cope. When feeling physically ill with the intimate act of killing, and anticipating all the death she will cause, she rationalizes, “Vengeance called forth blood, because it always did. That was its nature, and she had made herself its instrument.” She must dehumanize others to act, and revenge in turn dehumanizes her.

Another major theme is the use of faith and religion to cope with existential dread. Anna, a Methodist minister, clings to the idea of forgiveness and redemption, and active faith:
“She’d always found a deep comfort in praying. A profound sense of connection to something infinitely larger than herself. Her atheist friends called it awe in the face of an infinite cosmos. She called it God. That they might be talking about the same thing didn’t bother her at all. It was possible she was hurling her prayers at a cold and unfeeling universe that didn’t hear them, but that wasn’t how it felt.”
The real possibility of alien life raises a challenging question for her, and one she is eager to delve into: What does the PM imply about her God? “Theological anthropology is a lot simpler when humans are the only ones with souls,” she observes. A truly interesting question. Other religious leaders in her delegation don’t care, and take a decidedly darker, more fundamentalist turn, an all-too-familiar theme in our own world. It is their way of coping, too.

In the first two books, it was so clear that the anxiety caused by the alien life form led to aggression and fighting. Here, factions are forced to travel into the unknown together, work together, and face fear together. This uneasy cooperation between Earth, Mars and the Belters proves valuable, and leads to a better outcome. Facing your fear gives you agency, and that gives some power and hope, even if the outcome is uncertain.

So much about the alien species is revealed in Book Three! I loved one scene where Holden is given a brief glimpse of what is beyond our solar system. It is described as a Nirvanic experience: “He felt the stars within him, the vast expanses of space contained by him…He had become immeasurably large, and rich, and strange…And at his center, a place where all the threads of his being came together.” More religious imagery in a novel that abounds with it.

Near the end, the book grapples with the notion of choice and safety. Retreat, betting on lower risk and never knowing what is beyond our own galaxy, or take a risk and choose knowledge and exploration. There is no risk free decision. The characters weigh this, fiercely debate it, and battle for what they think is the best path forward. Perhaps the decision should be for the greater good, but it also comes down to the personal choice of a few.

We’ll see in Book Four (Cibola Burn) if the decisions have paid off. (Oh, and Avasarala, my favourite character from Book Two, is mentioned on the second to last page…I await her return!)


Read a Series: The Expanse 

Review: Caliban's War (March 18, 2022)
Review: Leviathan Wakes (January 29, 2022)


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