Abaddon’s Gate is Literary Space Opera at its Absolute Best
by Andrew Liptak
June 3, 2013
Looks like somebody doesn’t know what “literary,” applied to a novel, means. Here’s the first page of Abaddon’s Gate by James S.A. Corey:
Maneo Jung-Espinoza—Neo to his friends back on Ceres Station—huddled in the cockpit of the little ship he’d christened the Y Que. After almost three months, there were maybe fifty hours left before he made history. The food had run out two days before. The only water that was left to drink was half a liter of recycled piss that had already gone through him more times that he could count. Everything he could turn off, he’d turned off. The reactor was shut down. He still had passive monitors, but no active sensors. The only light in the cockpit came from the backsplash of the display terminals. The blanket he’d wrapped himself in, corners tucked into his restraints so it wouldn’t float away, wasn’t even powered. His broadcast and tightbeam trasmitters were both shut off, and he’s slagged the transponder even before he’d painted the name on her hull. He hadn’t flown this far just to have some kind of accidental blip alert the flotillas that he was coming.
Fifty hours—less than that—and the other thing he had to was not be seen. And not run into anything, but that part was in las manos de Dios.
His cousin Evita had been the one who introduced him to the underground society of slingshots. That was three years ago, just before his fifteenth birthday. He’d been hanging at his family hole, his mother gone to work at the water treatment plant, his father at a meeting with the grid maintenance group that he oversaw, and Neo had stayed home, cutting school for the fourth time in a month. When the system announced someone waiting at the door, he’d figured it was school security busting him for being truant. Instead, Evita was there.
She was two years older, and his mother’s sister’s kid. A real Belter. They had the same long, thin bodies, but she was from there. He’d had a thing for Evita since the first time he saw her. He’d had dreams about what she’s look like with her clothes off. What it would feel like to kiss her. Now here she was, and the place to himself. His heart was going three times standard before he opened the door.
“Esa, unokabatya,” she said, smiling and shrugging with one hand.
“Hoy,” he’d said, trying to act cool and calm. He’d grown up in the massive city in space that was Ceres Station just the way she had, but his father had the low, squat frame that marked him as an Earther. He had as much right to the cosmopolitan slang of the Belt as she had, but it sounded natural on her. When he said it, it was like he was putting on someone else’s jacket.
“Some coyos meeting down portside. Silvestari Campos back,” she said, her hip cocked, her mouth soft as a pillow, and her lips shining. “Mit?”
“Que no?” he’d said. “Got nothing better,”
He’s figured out afterward that she’d brought him because Mila Sana, a horse-faced Martian girl a little younger than him, had a thing, and they all
And here is the first page of The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje, an actual literary novel:
She stands up in the garden where she has been working and looks into the distance. She has sensed a shift in the weather. There is another gust of wind, a buckle of noise in the air, and the tall cypresses sway. She turns and moves uphill towards the house, climbing over a low wall, feeling the first drops of rain on her bare arms. She crosses the loggia and quickly enters the house.
In the kitchen she doesn’t pause but goes through it and climbs the stairs which are in darkness and then continues along the long hall, at the end of which is a wedge of light from an open door.
She turns into the room which is another garden—this one made up of trees and bowers painted over its walls and ceiling. The man lies on the bed, his body exposed to the breeze, and he turns his head slowly toward her as she enters.
Every four days she washes his black body, beginning at the destroyed feet. She wets a washcloth and holding it above his ankles squeezes the water onto him, looking up as he murmurs, seeing his smile. Above the shins the burns are worst. Beyond purple. Bone.
She has nursed him for months and she knows the body well, the penis sleeping like a sea horse, the thin tight hips. Hipbones of Christ, she thinks. He is her despairing saint. He
Can we see the difference? Ondaatje prioritizes sights, sounds, physical actions and sensations. Corey favors exposition: every character is introduced with a name (it’s not until page 31 (!) of The English Patient that any character is given a name), and a relation to other characters. There’s not a lot of physical description—he has a blanket, but is it soft, scratchy, what is it made of, etc.—but instead, we get a lot of information. We know the character’s name, age, language, birthplace, sexual orientation, name of his ship, parents’ occupations, how he got involved in his business, i.e., through his cousin, we know her age, birthplace, body type, and what body types people from various places have in this future world. We’re told a good deal about what kind of technology they have: more advanced than ours, but not far-future, indistinguishable-from-magic advanced type technology.
In The English Patient we know someone has been badly burned, and there’s a woman, and they’re somewhere where it rains.
Corey knows to hold out a little on his* readers—don’t tell them everything immediately—but it’s hard for him to do. He doesn’t tell us what Ceres Station is the first time it’s mentioned, but the reader hasn’t even turned the 1st page before he feels compelled to tell him it’s a “massive city in space.” He also goes to great lengths to let the reader know his character is in dire straits, a desperate situation, a ticking time bomb. The first page makes the promise that the story will be full of what the Dogme 95 manifesto calls “superficial action,” i.e., the murders, bank robberies, car chases that comprise the bulk of the standard Hollywood movie. Superficial action is not what literary novels are about. Corey writes competently, but it’s not the best writing that could be. E.g., “busting him for being truant” should be “busting him for truancy.” In the flashback colloquy between Neo and Evita, notice how her dialogue is tagged “she said” whereas his is “he’d said”—one in the simple past and the other in the past perfect—why? But that’s all right, as Pritchard’s Law says the writing in a plot-heavy novel can never be considered as good as that of a novel with the ability to spend paragraphs or even pages purely on description and elaborate metaphors. N.B. the difference has nothing to do with one book containing spaceships or being set in the future, while the other is set in the past; it has to do with differing types of narration, esp. w/r/t the divulging of information.
In conclusion, Abaddon’s Gate may well be a great book—it may be the best book ever written for all I know—but it is no literary novel.
*It’s actually a they, but whatevs.