Cliffhangers and Character Arcs: Adapting Abaddon’s Gate

Abaddon’s Gate is the third novel in James S.A. Corey’s Expanse series. The powers-that-be here at Tor.com asked me to revisit it in advance of the premiere of the television series based on the books. To talk about the good, the bad, the ugly, and the adaptable…

In my case, though, it’s less revisit than visit for the very first time. I’ve only just read Abaddon’s Gate, and I haven’t yet made it to books four and five. What long threads does Abaddon’s Gate lay down that will be taken up later on? I don’t know. But I do have opinions on what should come out of this section of the narrative arc in a television adaptation—as well as rather less optimistic opinions on what we will, in the end, eventually see.

Some series/book spoilers.

Like its immediate predecessor, Abaddon’s Gate uses four difference points of view to tell the story of how the three different factions of humanity—Earth, Mars, and the Belters—react to the latest development in the solar system: a ring created in the outer solar system by the alien protomolecule that has, in the course of its brief presence in the solar system, dissolved some humans and transformed Venus. An Einstein-Rosen bridge: a wormhole to somewhere else, where whatever made the protomolecule still exerts some kind of control over local conditions. Naturally, not one of the factions wants to let the others investigate What This Means without their presence…which, considering the general political tensions, makes the investigative flotilla an explosion waiting to happen.

The main characters this time out are James Holden, who’s been around from the beginning; Bull, the Earther chief security officer on the giant Belter ship that’s joining the investigative expedition, whose job is to keep things running smoothly despite the captain’s ego; Reverend Anna, a Methodist pastor and deeply committed priest recruited as a minor part of the Earth diplomatic effort; and Melba, AKA Clarissa Mao, who has concealed her identity and taken a job as a technician with the investigative flotilla in order to carry out her plan of destroying the man she blames for ruining her family: James Holden.

Melba’s plan involves committing an act of terrorism, framing Holden for it, and making sure that he dies. It’s not enough to just kill him: she wants him utterly destroyed. It’s a cunning plan. Unfortunately, it doesn’t quite work out as planned. Holden and his crew escape through the Ring. The flotilla follows. Up-close encounters with mysterious and dangerous alien tech happen. So do Bad Things.

Since Abaddon’s Gate is written as a series of cliffhangers, with the pacing of a series of tightly-linked action films, I’m not all that worried that a television adaptation will manage to lose its solid pace and lingering tension. I do wonder how hard, by the time the adaptation reaches the events of Abaddon’s Gate, it will lean on the pervading sense of horror that underlies so much of the first three novels of the Expanse: the fear of the unknown and unknowable, the dread of the unstoppable and destructively inhuman, that lies behind so many of these characters and their motivations. Because that horror? Exerts a palpable pull—a gravitational pull, even—on the narrative. The fragility of life and the enormity of everything that humans don’t know seems to me to be one of the underlying themes of the series so far.

But the characters, now… I’m worried about how those will fare in the adaptation. I imagine we’ll see quite a bit of Holden. I’m not all that thrilled with Holden as a character. Holden is fairly bland, kind of boring, and rather irritating in his righteous conviction that he knows what the right thing to do is. But a good deal of Holden is probably inevitable, and his encounter with the alien station should at least make a visually interesting set-piece.

Bull, on the other hand, is not quite as bland as Holden. Almost, but not quite so bland. He’s not as inevitable, either: I confess to hoping the adaptation spends more time on Sam and the ensemble of characters on the Belter ship than the novel does, especially as the conflict that breaks out on board plays such a key role in the climax.

I wonder if the adaptation will still give us Anna. She seems, on first glance, to be a character who has very little to do, a character who could be replaced with someone more active and forthright—like Avasarala, for example—but who on closer examination is revealed to be the emotional (even, dare I say it, spiritual) centre of this part of the narrative arc. Anna knows how to forgive. Anna cares about people. And Anna can look out into the vast depths of the unknowable, and asks, “But what does it mean?” not in fear or horror, but in wonder and hope. Anna should be front and centre in this narrative arc… but I deeply fear she won’t be. Or that if she is, that her faith and compassion aren’t given the depth and respect they need to carry her through.

I also rather fear what the adaptation will make of Melba. Melba’s the most fascinating, and the most damaged, viewpoint character in the series so far, I think—though it is possibly I’ve something of a narrative weakness for desperate young women who’ve convinced themselves that they have to do terrible things. The book manages the difficult feat of making her sympathetic and understandable while never losing sight of the fact that her actions are unjustifiable and terrible, and that she herself is really fucked up. I’m really dubious about a television adaptation’s ability to pull that balancing act off: so much will depend on the casting and the acting, and how intelligent the script will be.

All things considered, I’m cautiously hopeful for the television series. Maybe not optimistic—we’re talking about Syfy and Hollywood here, after all, and my expectations aren’t very high—but cautiously hopeful.

The actors are interesting to look at, at least.

Liz Bourke is a cranky person who reads books. She has recently completed a doctoral dissertation in Classics at Trinity College, Dublin. Find her at her blog. Or her Twitter.

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