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The Expanse #5.5

The Vital Abyss

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From New York Times bestselling author James S. A. Corey . . .

Somewhere in the vast expanse of space, a group of prisoners lives in permanent captivity.

The only company they have is each other and the Belters who guard them. The only stories they know are the triumphs and crimes that brought them there. The only future they see is an empty life in an enormous room.

And then the man from Mars came along . . .

Set in the hard-scrabble solar system of the Expanse, The Vital Abyss deepens James S. A. Corey's acclaimed series.

71 pages, Kindle Edition

First published October 15, 2015

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James S.A. Corey

61 books19.6k followers

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 770 reviews
Profile Image for Kevin Kelsey.
398 reviews2,164 followers
April 14, 2017
A terrific character study. It's equal parts terrifying, humbling, and humanizing. I thoroughly enjoyed what this novella had to say about empathy, mental illness, love, and the horrors that we are all capable of, given the right/wrong situations and stimuli.

The chronology of this one is all over the place. As always, I recommend reading The Expanse in order of publication, but this especially shouldn't be read any earlier than Abaddon's Gate as it would spoil some major events in that book.
Profile Image for Karl.
3,258 reviews256 followers
October 25, 2018
James S. A. Corey is the pen name of fantasy author Daniel Abraham, and Ty Franck. These two men have created a franchise known as the "Expanse" which is a science fiction series that takes place in the near future concerning a conflict between Earth and Mars and a group of working poor known as the "Belters" (a combination of both planets) who mine the asteroid belt.

The Sci Fi television channel has recently begun airing season 2 ,consisting of 13 installments (January/February 2016), season 1 had 10 episodes, and there are also a series of novels (six to date) and a number of shorter works. There exists a wiki of the "Expanse" universe that currently runs about four hundred pages.

"The Vital Abyss" is one of the shorter works and marks the first to be released as a printed companion, the rest are e-reader accessible. "The Vital Abyss" concerns a group of scientists that now live in permanent captivity due to events earlier in the series, and is pretty much a standalone entry in the Expanse Universe although taking place between novels one and two.

The series incorporates science, space battles, politics and human drama making this a fun and enjoyable series, consisting of the novels:

Leviathan Wakes (2011)
Caliban's War (2012)
Abaddon's Gate (2013)
Cibola Burn (2014)
Nemesis Games (2015)
Babylons Ashes (2016)
Persepolis Rising (2017)

and the shorter works:

The Butcher of Anderson Station (2011)
Drive (2012)
Gods of Risk (2012)
The Churn (2014)
The Vital Expanse (2015)

An enjoyable series.

Update: Season 3 of the SyFi series of 13 programs has now completed with critical consensus giving the show high marks.

I understand that Jeff Bezos announced that Amazon picked the series up for additional
televised seasons.
Profile Image for Trish.
1,847 reviews3,363 followers
November 2, 2018
This is a story playing devil's advocate. It is about a group of scientists who caused the death of many Martians on Phoebe station with the Protomolecule to study the effects. They are currently imprisoned and ... maybe we were supposed to feel pity for how they've been kept captive, but I couldn't bring myself to doing that. Or maybe the story is also meant to show us how certain people tick and what they are willing to do in order to get what they want (ruthlessly stepping over one dead body after another).

What made this good was the claustrophobic feel. It was very much a creepy story that would have fit perfectly for Spooktober as the scientists slowly lose their minds. their condition in the holding complex was quite "unappealing". *lol* They deteriorated not only physically (growing unkempt hair and such) but also mentally. However, as that can be explained by how and where they are being kept, it is nothing compared to what kind of people most of them already were before or compared to the people visiting them.

Thus, we learn what experiments these scientists conducted, why and how they thought about these experiments and the results. We also get the background of one or two people but like I said: I didn't really warm up to anyone here. Not that it was necessary, but having known events from other people's perspective coloured my outlook certainly.

Anyway, even in such a confined space with so little going on, the authors managed to still convey important information and to make it a quite compelling addition this universe.

I do wonder now if we'll see at least one of these scientists again in one of the upcoming novels though ...
Profile Image for Bradley.
Author 5 books3,846 followers
November 2, 2018
Well worth reading. I liked seeing the sociopathic-altered scientists getting their own novelette. I can't say that the main character was especially likable, but I did feel some sympathy for him.

He really was f***ed over. Repeatedly. I almost agree with his decision to cut his empathy centers out of his head. :)

Profile Image for Justine.
1,103 reviews294 followers
July 21, 2021
A great character study of Paolo Cortazar, the scientist who literally sacrifices his moral compass in order to focus fully on his study of the protomolecule.

I initially thought about skipping this, but I'm glad I didn't. It turned out to be an interesting backstory, and definitely adds to my overall appreciation of Cortazar's character.
Profile Image for Sanaa.
405 reviews2,571 followers
March 5, 2016
[3.5 Stars] This was a good novella, not anything crazy amazing, but good. I loved the narration (listened to the audiobook) and getting to know more about these people. When you finally realize whose perspective you're reading from, it's a pretty cool a-ha moment! That being said, I don't think this novella is a necessary read, and honestly at times I was just like meh okay I don't care. That's why it got 3.5 instead of 4 stars. It was good, but a bit forgettable.
Profile Image for Algernon (Darth Anyan).
1,463 reviews927 followers
August 13, 2019

Word of the Day: Astounding
As in the title of the classic pulp magazine that has set so many kids dreaming about the stars. The tradition is carried forward by the creative team behind the pen name James S A Corey with one of the best contemporary space operas. The present title is one of the novellas that fill in some of the gaps left in the main storyline. Since I am not reading these shorts in the correct order, I should put a warning here to readers who want to avoid spoilers:

It’s better to read this after book five in the series, but my own impression is that the episode works very well as a standalone, showcasing the gritty setting, the richness of the scientific details and the focus on conflicted, morally ambiguous narrators.

What astounded me was that the cutting edge of human knowledge was so close. Before I educated myself, I assumed that there was a great depth of science, that every question of importance had been cataloged, studied, that all the answers were there, if only someone could query the datasets the right way. And for some things, that was true.

Paolo Cortazar, our narrator, is a self-made man, born into impoverished tenements on an exhausted Earth controlled by the United Nations but unable to provide for the ten billion inhabitants. He is a typical hardscrabble kid, up until his mother shows symptoms of an incurable disease. (Type C Huntington) . The trauma of having to deal with an implacable fate motivates the young man to study medicine.

“I want to understand,” I told him.
“Understand what, Paolo? The mind of God? The reason for suffering?”
“Just how things work,”I said.

The thirst for knowledge is an admirable trait, and is the main engine for our technological progress, for reaching to the stars. There is a caveat though: how far is one willing to go in the quest for knowledge? Does the end result justify throwing all moral scruples overboard?

That is the question at the core of the present novella. The reader is asked to decide if Cortazar is a genius savant or one of those monsters that thrived around concentration camps, experimenting on prisoners. The answer seems pretty obvious, given the fact that Paolo and the surviving members of his research team are currently imprisoned in a maximum security location by Belters. A series of flashbacks guide us through the developments that landed our man in prison.

We were a community of thirty-seven people living under the eyes of cold and unsympathetic jailers.

All of them were part of a multinational (Protogen) corporation that carried secret studies of the protomolecule – an alien spore accidentally discovered on Titan in the first volume of the series. All of them were offered a ‘red’ pill (as in Matrix) upon recruitment: a genetic alteration that inhibited their sense of right or wrong, their empathy. All of them took the pill willingly. Readers who already finished the first novels in the main series know what Protogen and the team of scientists on Phoebe station achieved. We now have the chance to examine the same events from the perspective of the Frankenstein savants themselves.

Morality as we had known it no longer applied to us. We had become too important for consequences.

It’s not a pretty picture. Even in confinement, the altered scientists engage in backstabbing and devious plots to sabotage their peers and to somehow get back in the game. The plot, such as there is one in the novella, revolves around a Martian visitor asking for advice on new developments in the study of the protomolecule. Paolo Cortazar and his peers see this as an opportunity for one of them to be released from the prison, and they will do literally anything to be the chosen one.

The million dollar question, the one left unasked is: who is the mysterious visitor who is willing to use what amounts to war criminals for his own secretive purpose? If Cortazar or somebody like him is released and given access to new research, what sort of monsters will be unleashed on the Expanse next? Is there any possibility of redemption for a man who sold his soul to the Devil in exchange for knowledge?

We argued whether something as inert as a spore might be intelligent, at least implicitly, but without coming to a conclusion. The first evidence of a tree of life apart from our own enchanted and confounded us. Me.

Great stuff!


bonus review : The Butcher of Anderson Station

This story is much shorter than “The Vital Abyss” but it packs a heavy punch, especially to readers who just finished “Babylon’s Ashes”, like me. Chronologically, it is the second novella in the Expanse universe, and should be read earlier than I did. Like the other short stories I’ve read recently, its purpose is to fill in some gaps in the main storyline and to give the ‘origin’ or background story for one of the main players.

Colonel Fred Johnson is pissed, looking for trouble in a rundown Belter bar. He knows he is famous throughout the Solar System for killing more than a thousand civilians, leading an expedition from Earth against a rebellious station. Alternating between flashbacks of the military action against Anderson Station and the current interrogation of Fred Johnson by the Outer Planets Alliance rebels, the story puts the reader on the jury bench at the trial of an active officer.

This is another case of those BIG questions the James Corey team seem to like so much : Hero or mass murderer? At what point do you stop following orders and answer to your conscience?


Reading the Expanse novellas was a worthy pursuit: my interest in the main series is rekindled. I have already finished “Babylon’s Ashes” and I hope the momentum will carry me to the next episodes.
Profile Image for Ashley.
2,552 reviews1,633 followers
February 10, 2017
This one was just straight up neat.

The first of anything in The Expanse universe to be in first person POV, this novella opens with a man and his fellow prisoners, who are being kept in a locked room somewhere in the solar system, and they are kept there for years. It slowly trickles out as to why they're there, who they are, and who our main character is in particular. It's a dark character study, and it gives us insight into a pivotal moment in the history of the Expanse universe.

It's really very well done. I listened on audio, and it made a particularly good audiobook, especially since this is the only novella my preferred narrator Jefferson Mays was involved with. The others are narrated by Erik Davies and best experienced on an e-reader, or in the eventual novella bind-up that is due out sometime in the next couple of years, after the remaining two Expanse novellas are published.
Profile Image for Daniel.
746 reviews72 followers
February 22, 2016
Prica koja pokriva nastanak protomolekula, odnosno kako su se rasirile i prica o zivotu jednog od inzenjera zaduzenih za projekat. Fina karakterna studija ali u sustini jako malo novih informacija sto je razocaravajuce. Ali opet fino napisano i daje nam malo uvid u druge prisutne kulture koje nisu opisane u glavnim knjigama.

Za fanove samo.
Profile Image for Jamie.
1,124 reviews94 followers
January 21, 2020
A bit of a chilling side story of one of the key corporate researchers of the protomolecule who, along with his research team, has had his brain chemistry altered to effectively neuter him of morality. He shares some fascinating insight into the structure and possible ultimate purpose of the protomolecule.
Profile Image for J.   ¯\_(ツ)_/¯.
1,196 reviews45 followers
June 4, 2021
Haven't read. Just offsetting the 2 poor reviews that contain no text on why it was such an awful, unreleased book.

Update: Really? I got 15 likes for this? You guys are going to feel pretty stupid when I do my actual review of this book and it's something along the lines of "Five stars! Unless compared to Twilight, in which case -10 stars."

UPDATE: The Review:
Just a reminder that the 'likes' received by this review were for the above statements.

I love James S.A. Corey and the universe they have created with The Expanse.

After the catastrophe that was Erik Davies' narration of book four, I'm thrilled anytime I hear the words "narrated by Jefferson Mays". As usual Mays did a fantastic job.

However, I was rather turned off by this book.
Profile Image for Adam.
168 reviews37 followers
December 9, 2021
Review of the audiobook narrated by Jefferson Mays.

The Expanse is my favorite series so not loving one of the books (as I have with all of the other books, including the novellas) comes as a surprise. There are some important tidbits to fill in the overall picture, but The Vital Abyss is weighed down by a confusing storyline and not nearly enough action or suspense. Taking up 1/2 of an entire novella in just character building didn't do it for me. I also found the jumps between Poalo's past and present to be unclear, making the book hard to follow.

This is the first novella that the narrator for the main books in the series, Jefferson Mays, also narrates. It's hard to judge a performance of just a couple hours (around the time when you've settled in with a narrator in a full length audiobook), but he does well enough.

Final verdict: 3 star story, 4 star narration, 3 stars overall
Profile Image for Kemper.
1,388 reviews6,651 followers
December 15, 2019
Sociopaths doing scientific research? Why not? We already put them in charge of the government.

Another one of the The Expanse short stories tie-ins gives us the scoop on another piece of the story that wasn’t explored in the main novels. This time out we learn about the research team that unleashed the protomolecule from one of the people involved. His backstory as one of the regular folks desperately trying to escape the level of Basic assistance on Earth gives us some more detail on another aspect of society. His account of willingly being turned into a member of a team of sociopaths so that they’ll be willing to break many an egg to make the perfect omelette his chilling, and the story of what happened to them after the events of the earlier books also leads into some of the later story threads.

As usual, it’s not critical to the overall Expanse story, but as bonus material it’s pretty interesting. It’s also worth noting that they used this story as part of the TV series.
Profile Image for Tudor Vlad.
327 reviews72 followers
March 1, 2017
Ok, so this is a The Expanse short story that I read this year, even if a couple of weeks ago. I wanted to read it last year but I somehow forgot about it (I don't why and how), but then season 2 happened and it introduced a character which is actually from this short story which made me feel kind of bad for forgetting to read it.
The story centers around Paulo Cortazar, one of the scientist from Toth Station. It follows him from his childhood, showing what lead him to work for Anthony Dresden. Part of this book also take place around the timeline of Nemesis Game so I'll refrain from talking about that.

Three stars because it was kind of slow.
Profile Image for beentsy.
424 reviews9 followers
October 27, 2015
I think my favourite thing about these books is how seamless and well written movements through time are done. The going back and forth from the current time/story and into character's back stories is so well done. Not clunky or annoying. You don't start resenting one story or wishing they would just move on with the fore story. Both are equally good and hold my interest completely.
Profile Image for Niki Hawkes - The Obsessive Bookseller.
710 reviews1,147 followers
September 27, 2017
Vital Abyss is the novella I'll remember most from The Expanse for its exploration of human motivation. Everything about this story was interesting and I found myself pondering the events long after putting it down. I'd recommend all of the novellas, but I think this one was my personal favorite.
Profile Image for Oleksandr Zholud.
1,012 reviews90 followers
June 12, 2020
This is a novella set in Expanse universe. It takes place between Nemesis Games and Babylon's Ashes, but actually has a flashback to Caliban's War. I read is as a part of the ongoing buddy read of the Expanse series in June 2020 at Hugo & Nebula Awards: Best Novels group.

The story starts with a group of people held by unknown (to them) captors, told from POV of one of the prisoners. Quite soon we find out that these are scientists from Protogen lab on Phoebe, who were captured during the assault described in Caliban's War. the protagonist, Dr Paolo Cortázar was born on Earth and his mother suffered from a debilitating illness, which made him study hard to understand micro-working of a disease. His predisposition, plus possible trauma and tinkering by Protogen made him a sociopath. He even distances from his human self, saying ‘I am research’. He is a genius, who was able to deduce some properties of the protomolecule.

A nice short piece to broaden the universe.
Profile Image for Jim C.
1,474 reviews24 followers
July 9, 2018
Actual rating is 2.5 stars.

This is a short story that reads more like a prequel instead of its actual placement in the series. In this one, we learn how a certain scientist becomes involved with the protomolecule and Eros project. I strongly suggest one needs to read at least the first book before this short story.

I have enthusiastically stated how much I love this series with my reviews and in person. Unfortunately, this one was a little bit of a letdown. The problem for me was the story and its placement. After the events of the fifth novel, I felt like this one was a step backwards. It does nothing for the series story line. Although we do see an old character and he might be back in the game. I just could not get involved in this story as I was wondering what is going on with the current state of affairs. The writing as always is top notch. I did think the second half was better than the first half and that part did perk up my interest. That is why I went halfway with my rating.

This wasn't my favorite offering from this series. Actually, it was probably my least favorite. That being said, this series is that amazing if my least favorite offering is considered average.
Profile Image for - Jared - ₪ Book Nerd ₪.
227 reviews96 followers
March 9, 2017
Okay, so I know that this book was only a novella in the series but it was very entertaining to me and it really provided a lot of biological and scientific insight into the proto-molecule that is a major part of the main story-line! It had just enough of real science to make it very believable which, to me, made it a bit better that some of the previous books.

This novella is an awesome dark character study on It has, very seamlessly written, intermittent flash backs and forth as the story progresses.

Because I like character studies and technical sci-fi, I absolutely loved this little novella and it was a definitely a riveting read that kept me deeply engaged. You should read at least the first 3 books before jumping into this one or you may notice some spoilers. If you're a fan of the series, you like character studies, and you like really good sci-fi, then do not skip out on this book!
Profile Image for Efka.
444 reviews251 followers
May 31, 2016
This short story sheds some light on the events of first and second books of the series, but in a nutshell its JUST.NOT.INTERESTING.ENOUGH.
Profile Image for Tony.
389 reviews3 followers
December 18, 2022
The Vital Abyss is well written and fairly interesting. However, it focuses on a character that I do not even recall from the prior books in the series. So, either this character will have future importance or this novella is the deepest of deep dives into The Expanse universe.
Profile Image for Skylar Phelps.
236 reviews30 followers
November 9, 2017
A powerful piece of science fiction. Enlightening and relevant to the series itself while still being extremely entertaining. I felt the execution of the idea was award worthy and the result is a fantastic novella.
Profile Image for Lee.
351 reviews189 followers
September 25, 2018
This was a bit of a slow burn, but I did enjoy. I have always had a interest in how the experiment on Eros with the Protomolecule came about and the conditions the research team must of been under to run a trial with a couple of million people, knowing what the outcome was likely to be. There isn't much in this area in the series, so I did like reading the back story here. So if you are into that part of the story you might enjoy understanding how the Eros experiment came about.
Profile Image for Julie.
932 reviews240 followers
May 9, 2019
Another Expanse novella, this time concentrating on the scientists who conducted the protomolecule research & experiments wayyyy back in Leviathan Wakes. The chronology see-saws back and forth between Dr. Paolo Cortázar's backstory growing up in South America, the formative influences that led to his wanting to study biochemistry & genetics; then it bounces between that and their present-day captivity (its horrifying isolation, the lack of actual due process for their crimes, the sense that they've been thrown into a pit by their captors and forgotten about).

The scientists of the Research division have literally been neurologically altered in order to remove their sense of empathy, making them sociopaths for the sake of more efficient research -- which explains a bit of how Eros even happened in the first place, how human empathy was cut out of the equation. Maybe a little implausible as a procedure, sure, but it makes sense in-universe and I buy it for how ambition and obsession and intellectual curiosity drove them to this point. Mainly, I just keep thinking of that Ian Malcolm quote from Jurassic Park: "Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether they could, they didn't stop to think if they should."

And yet, Cortázar is still a sympathetic narrator: you understand how he came to that point, the relatable forces driving him. Really, really good stuff. I love these tie-in shorts.

ps. The Expanse list I'm working from listed this novella as #4.5, rather than #5.5, so I messed up!! I'm hoping that the positioning of this novella -- set at this point, so many books after their initial capture -- means that we'll see this character again eventually.
Profile Image for Oliver.
224 reviews33 followers
June 29, 2021
The Vital Abyss follows a row of Expanse side content that is mildly interesting but in the end, just feels like a lesser version of the full novels

This statement takes together what I am feeling for most of these stories I have consumed. The short-form pieces aren't really bad per se but I just cannot help feeling like they are bits of worldbuilding that were not good enough for the main books and are used to build up interest before the main entry releases. The Vital Abyss was actually one of the more interesting ones but still a far cry coming from something like Nemesis Games.

All of the shorts connect to events in the main books and I can see them being somewhat interesting if we focus solely on what they depict but they mostly seem to fall into one of two categories. Events that could have easily been depicted or mentioned in the main series or stuff that should have stayed unpublished. There is very little here that would make the Novellas worth consuming on their own merit. Now I will mention that if you as a reader had no issue with the previous novellas then The Vital Abyss will not change anything for you as it is still an okay read. It is just the point where I realized that the direction the authors are going with these won't change in the long run.

Taking these factors into account I think these side-trips bring down my enjoyment of the series too much for me to continue consuming them and I will just be reading recaps of them in the future to make sure I do not miss any relevant information while focusing on the books I actually like.
Profile Image for Stefano G..
187 reviews7 followers
September 9, 2020
*** 3.5/5 Stars ***
An ok novella from the perspective of Dr. Cortazar, a former Protogen scientist trapped in a Belter prison. I liked that we got to read a bit more about these messed up human beings and how they were manipulated into working for Protogen…

On the other hand, the story was kind of slow and a bit complicated as it’s not really clear what’s happening or the purpose of the story. By the end you are still confused, though the events in the novella start bringing light to some dubious Belter-Martian scheming that is highly unexpected…
Profile Image for David.
Author 17 books333 followers
January 18, 2016
This novella (or maybe really more of a novelette) is one of several that the authors of the Expanse series have written, fleshing out the minor characters and events that were mostly off-screen in the main novels.

The Vital Abyss is a sort of a prequel to the series, filling in some backstory. In the opening, we are introduced to the main character, who as a first person narrator describes being imprisoned in some station somewhere by Martians. We don't immediately know why he and his fellow scientists are imprisoned, but when their jailers begin asking questions and looking for someone with the scientific know-how to answer some mysterious question, our protagonist begins scheming his way out, no matter what the cost. So does everyone else, and this is when the clues that have been dropped begin to fit together.

The narrator interleaves his current situation with his upbringing, and how he became the amoral sociopath he is today.

It's an interesting story, though really only for the Aha! moment when you realize where this fits into the Expanse timeline. But I can't say it was above average, as it didn't tell us anything new about the universe and the protagonist is not the sort of person whose fate you're likely to care about. Still, anyone who's already a fan of the Expanse series should enjoy this.
Displaying 1 - 30 of 770 reviews

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