Editor’s Pick: Leviathan Wakes

Leviathan Wakes is the first novel in The Expanse, a science-fiction series penned by James S.A. Corey (a pseudonym for authors Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck).  Evenly split between the points-of-view of Joe Miller (an aging, has-been police detective on the asteroid Ceres) and Jim Holden (a handsome and “righteous” former navy officer now serving as XO of an ice-mining vessel), Leviathan Wakes is a riveting book, the sort of adrenaline-charged, politically savvy, intensely human tale that I love to stumble across. 

While constraining themselves by the realities of actual physics (there are no force fields or FTL drives in Leviathan Wakes: a few hundred years from now, it takes months to get from place to place in our very claustrophobic, very dangerous solar system), the authors play with the sort of horror tropes that made 80s sci-fi films like Alien and The Thing so viscerally terrifying.  The genre-bending goes further, however: though set against a lightly sketched socio-political backdrop (Mars and Earth are nominally allied; the Asteroid Belt is a sort of quasi-independent group of territories; the those living near the outer planets despise those further “down the well”), the book is largely a futuristic noir, a hard-boiled “cherchez-la-femme” mystery unraveling itself at the dawn of humanity’s steps beyond the strictures of its sun. 

As the surviving crew of the Canterbury struggle to discover who destroyed their ship and why, the broken Miller (feeling freshly emerged from the work of Hammett or Ellroy) sticks to his investigation into the disappearance of the daughter of a wealthy corporate magnate despite every obstacle thrown in his path.  Their searches draw them together, and insanity (literally) ensues.  Holden and Miller (whose off-kilter bromance is one of the finest written out there) alternatively complement and grate against each other, and the act that pulls their entwined stories apart sets the stage for some really powerful, quality explorations of ethics.

The twist in the final chapters makes Miller’s ultimately the most satisfying strand of the book; since there are two more volumes planned for The Expanse, I am looking forward to seeing how the outlines of system politics are more fully developed and how Holden and his crew continue to grapple with the implications of the frightening discoveries in Leviathan Wakes.

Strengths:

  • Incredible dialogue. Gritty, real. This is how people actually talk to each other.
  • Very realistic technology and living spaces. The careful attention paid to how our biology will respond to living in space is also great.
  • Well thought-out political divisions among humans. Though they were not always as culturally diverse as I might like, their political differences were clear and expertly established
  • Exciting battle scenes. These ships kill each other. There are no magical forcefields to protect them from enormous, Teflon-covered balls of metal flung at great velocities.
  • Two engaging protagonists
  • Viscerally disconcerting antagonistic forces

Nitpicks (that don’t really detract from one’s enjoyment of the book):

  • Two-dimensional supporting characters. Totally awesome, somewhat Whedonesque characters, but not round. I want to get inside Amos, Alex and Naomi’s heads in later books.
  • Relatively static protagonists (Holden remains righteous; Miller is broken and flawed to the end)
  • Weak multiculturalism:  there is a tendency to marry a first name of one ethnicity with the last name of another as a inefficient shorthand for actual cultural evolution.  Everyone feels pretty much American (with a few exceptions). Part of this might be due to the limitations of two white male points of view making up the entire book. We don’t get to peer into other groups through a member’s eyes (and I’m sorry, though Miller is a Belter, he feels pretty much like a present-day American).
  • Belter argot: I know I studied linguistics, so I’m not the average reader in that respect, but…I’m sorry, there is also a precise science of linguistics that describes how languages in close proximity develop into pidgins and then creoles. Sticking entire phrases in several languages in a sentence is not even remotely realistic as an actual hybrid language.  One syntactic system will tend to dominate, and one phonological system will warp the words from the different tongues into nearly unrecognizable form. I’m sure most people won’t even notice this, however.
  • Speaking of languages, “Carne Por la Machina” isn’t good Spanish, Portuguese, or any other Romance language I’m familiar with.  If it were Spanish, then it would be Carne para la Máquina (meat for the machine).  Even if the writers corrected the spelling of *machina, you would have Carne Por la Máquina, which literally means “meat through the machine” or “meat by the machine.”  Perhaps they can correct this in future editions.  Unless it’s from some hybrid Romance language.  That would be cool.  But it should be explained, even in a throwaway comment.
  • The acceleration of ships and gravity…a little wonky in spots. Ship acceleration causes gravity, but once a ship reaches a certain speed, the pilots aren’t going to keep accelerating. They will coast, which will keep them going a very long time given the dearth of friction in the vacuum. It isn’t always clear that the authors are keeping this in mind. In spots the ships appear to keep accelerating for entirely too long, and the ships themselves are built like office buildings to use thrust as gravity. But most of space flight would probably be zero-gee coasting after initial thrust, so that seems weird. And in the final chase, Holden cuts the engines of his ship and a UN Navy ship following him asks, “Why are we stopped?” No, you aren’t stopped (or shouldn’t be). You are still hurtling toward the sun at the velocity you achieved with your crazy acceleration. They should have had to decelerate using braking thrusters or something like that. But it’s really a minor quibble. Edit: Ty Franck explains pretty clearly in his comments to this page that the ships are using a “burn and flip” system of constant acceleration (flipping halfway through the journey to accelerate in the opposite direction, effectively decelerating without losing thrust-generated gees). I stand corrected! Thanks, Ty.

Overall, I highly recommend this book to fans of engaging, adventurous science fiction with a realistic, political flair.  You won’t be disappointed.

Rating: 4.5 on a scale of 5.

 

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