James S.A. Corey, “Abaddon’s Gate” (2013) (narrated by Jefferson Mays) – Book Three of the Expanse! It’s getting downright… expansive! That rascally protomolecule has set up a portal of sorts at the edge of the solar system. What’s on the other side of the portal? Is it a sort of… star… gate?
Forgive my levity! This is a pretty good scifi novel. It doesn’t try anything crazy or innovative but that’s basically fine- it delivers the good. The workaday, no-lightspeed-travel spacefaring world the Coreys (its two guys, it’s a trade name) set up threatens to become a little less workaday as a result of the doings of the protomolecule. The protomolecule started out as an alien weapon, first zombifying people, then becoming a weird space-station sized intelligence, then becoming a star gate. All the space navies of the system — Earth’s, Mars’s, the rag-tag Asteroid Belt — are there to try to figure out what it’s deal could be.
Of course, perspective-dullard Jim Holden and his crew get sent out to do a thing out there. It turns out it’s all part of some setup a new perspective character has to ruin his reputation and do him in! She has money, a willingness to murder many people, and special combat glands. But the universe — and the protomolecule — have plans of their own. Holden’s ship gets sucked into the gate, and a bunch of navy ships, including one with the perspective-villainess, follow.
“Time moves at a different speed in the nether zone,” as Jez put it on “Peep Show.” The gate turns out to be a kind of cosmic foyer. If you know how, you can use it to get to other solar systems. But you can’t fly too fast! There’s a sort of monitor-station in the middle that can alter the laws of physics. One rule is if you go too fast it stops you, hard. After trying to clear his name from the perspective-villainess’s frame up, some space marines shoot a grenade at Holden on the monitor station, so the monitor decides to slow down the speed limit even further, severely donking up all the ships and killing many.
No one knows what to do! Except the perspective characters and their friends, when put in combination. These include Holden, the woman trying to destroy Holden, a Methodist preacher-lady, and the security head on the biggest ship, an Asteroid Belt rebel ship they stole from some Mormon settlers. They’ve all got their own problems. Holden is always getting visited by the ghost of Miller, a grizzled cop protagonist from the first book whom the protomolecule uses as a messenger (Miller wasn’t that compelling the first time around, but whatever). Clarissa, Holden’s nemesis, has to try to kill Holden and then (spoiler alert) makes good. Ana, the preacher, and Bull, the security guy, deal with the grisliest beast of all- internal spaceship politics. Holden receives information from the interstellar civilization that made the gates and the monitor that if the humans keep fucking up, the solar system is toast. But of course, humans being human :world-weary, writerly sigh: they keep fucking up, and the protagonists need to stop them.
There’s a fair amount of cool stuff here. I like internecine struggle in space, the madness of type-A motherfuckers in tin boxes in a vacuum going nuts at each other over their desperate plans. The villains are ok, though I kind of spoiled it for myself by learning that the big villain was played on the tv show by David Strathairn, who’s great, but it’s definitely typecasting. The fucking-with-physics is cool, though goes against the “this is HARD scifi, no magic here!” thing the series’s boosters promulgate. The battles get a bit confused, trying to keep track of who’s where on this huge ship. The Coreys, like their maitre George R.R. Martin, are at their worst when they try to make points about humanity, but they don’t intrude too badly here. We’ll see how it goes with the next one, when humanity starts star-gating around. ****’