The last line of Caliban’s War was an absolute killer, because I read it when it was first published which meant that the next book was about a year away and GOODNESS ME it was a cliffhanger. So I preordered this as soon as I could and happily, it arrived about a week before I went on holidays. I very carefully put it on a shelf where it wasn’t tempting me to read it… and then this week, on holidays, I cracked it open and devoured it in one day. And it was worth the wait. Oh yes. Thank you, James Corey.*
At the end of Caliban’s War, the protomolecule has been doing weird things on Venus, the Mao-Kwik company has been busted for attempting to weaponise it, and Miller – who died, going with the protomolecule to Venus – has just appeared to James Holden, who has once again (somewhat accidentally) been fundamental to saving the universe (well, the solar system). The conclusion to the series has the protomolecule and its… construction project… out near Uranus’ orbit (it’s basically gone on its own little Grand Tour of the system… and now I’m imagining the Ring being made out of Lego. Oops). Earth and Mars are once again sitting in an uneasy truce with each other, with the Outer Planets Alliance (OPA) not sure where it fits. Meanwhile James Holden is almost happy with his crew (but we all know that won’t last)…. While some of the early story takes place on-planet (or moon), most of it happens on board space ships of varying sizes, which is a big change from the earlier two where Earth and Ganymede in particular played important roles. Much of it also happens a significant time-delay away from official decision-making bodies, highlighting the issues of merely light-speed communication when people are many light-hours apart.
As with the first two books, this is told from multiple perspectives. The only one that is continuous across the three is Holden, master of the Rocinante (and OH! I just GOT the name, in making sure I was spelling it correctly. Don Quixote’s horse!!) and generally known across the solar system as a truth-telling, occasionally annoying, bad-ass. I love Holden. He is far from perfect, but he does the very best he can by his crew – who have, as a group, come a delightfully long way from their dysfunctional beginnings in Leviathan. (They’re still somewhat dysfunctional as individuals, but they work exceptionally well as a team.) He’s finally it together properly with Naomi, he’s getting good above-board work to keep the ship flying (… hmmm. It now occurs to me that there are some distinct similarities between Holden and Malcolm Reynolds. Huh.), and he really is trying to leave his solar-system-shaking days behind him. Honest. The fact that Miller – ghost? or something? – keeps bugging him… well, that’s a sign he’d rather ignore. Pity we all know that’s not going to work.
There are three other narrative streams, and (as with the other books) they have distinctly different parts to play in the story. Melba – not her real name – has one driving ambition, and it is not a nice one. Hers is a really interesting exploration of how an individual impacts on wider events. Holden’s story does, too, except that the way he impacts on wider events is usually accidental – or at least begins that way, as he is driven to bigger events, all to get back to his nice comfortable leave-me-alone life. Melba, though, doesn’t really care what impact she has on other people as long as her goal is achieved. Her development over the novel is the greatest of any character – or perhaps it just seems that way as the reader gets deeper into her head over the course of it.
Melba’s opposite in many ways is Anna, a Methodist minister who’s been out on a Jovian moon with her wife and daughter for two years. Let me say here that one of the most awesome things about this story is the way it takes religion seriously, and as a genuine force to be considered in medium-term science fiction. The religious figures are not perfect, and nor should they be – Corey is representing humanity in its fullness here. But Anna has conversations about the spiritual impact of the protomolecule’s existence, about what it means if there are aliens for those who hold to Christianity (are they fallen, like humanity? if so, does that mean that Christ died for them?) – and that’s fine, that’s acceptable. I can’t express how happy it makes me to see religion acknowledged like that. Anyway – Anna ends up on a ship heading out to the Ring. She gets to play a really important role on a personal level with a lot of people, but she herself basically stays the same over the course of the events.
Fourthly, and acting in some ways as Holden’s opposite, is Bull. An Earther in service to the OPA because of the charisma of its leader, Fred Johnson, Bull is on board the OPA ship going to investigate the Ring as security chief. I really like Bull. He is honest about himself and his limits, he tries hard to get the job done, and he’s willing to take the consequences when they’re in service to a worthwhile cause. It was a small event concerning Bull that brought a tear to my eye, which is not something I expected in a grandiose space tale like this one. Bull has a very tough job, especially as an Earther in charge of a largely Belter (that is, people from the asteroid belt, not from Earth or Mars) crew.
This issue of racism is an intriguing one throughout the series. I think (in my whitey-white way, I hope) that Corey* has done a very good job of showing the colonisation of the solar system as a multi-ethnic business; there are a few lines where someone is described along the lines of “if he was from Earth, he’d be [X]; here, he was a Belter.” The names are a delightful mash of multiple European, Asian, and African backgrounds (maybe South American as well, but I have less familiarity there and can’t be sure to pick it up). Sadly, but realistically, there is still xenophobia – and it’s based largely on where you were born. Planetary birth? You’re a duster, to a Belter. Born in the asteroids or on a moon? You’re a skinny, to an Earth- or Mars-born. And given the political situation – two wars between Earth and Mars, the Outer Planetary Alliance only recently (and that sketchily) graduating from terrorist organisation – place of birth can still be seen as having a significant impact on your politics and views on a range of important issues, like who gets to be boss of the inner solar system. I think Corey does a very good job of showing these issues in a sympathetic, not condemning but not condoning, manner.
This is a brilliant end to an exciting series. There is action, there is drama; there are explosions and chases, personal confrontations as well as planetary ones. Women and men both play important roles, the solar system is not white, and James Holden finally find out what the hell Miller wants with him.
You can get Abaddon’s Gate from Fishpond.
*Yes, I know that James Corey is actually two people.