Friday, April 28, 2017

Review - Leviathan Wakes by James S.A. Corey

Short review: Holden wants revenge for the destruction of his shipmates. Miller wants to find a mysterious missing girl. Their paths cross, and then lead to an alien threat that could destroy all humanity.

Naive idealist
And a hard-boiled detective
Join to save the world

Full review: The first book in the Expanse series, Leviathan Wakes is a kind of hard-ish medium future science fiction almost Space Opera story that feels a little bit like Firefly and a little bit like a Dashiell Hammett novel. The book is full of adventure, intrigue, and excitement, but it is the kind of industrial, oil-covered adventure, intrigue, and excitement that results in broken bones, bullet holes, and dead characters. Alongside the truckers and detectives in space in the book is just enough alien weirdness to shake things up and add a bit of inhuman horror to the impersonal dangers of living in a hostile environment that will probably kill you if you make a mistake.

Leviathan Wakes takes place in a future in which mankind has managed to spread out across the Solar System, but is still confined within its boundaries, although the Mormons have commissioned the construction of a generation ship to take them out among the stars. The book isn't really "hard" science fiction, but the human technology presented doesn't obviously break any known laws of physics, although the "Epstein Drive" that powers the spaceships used to flit about the void are improbably efficient. Having colonized Mars, the asteroid belt, and at least some of the moons of Jupiter and Saturn, humanity has split into rival factions. Earth is still the home to most of humanity, but it is overcrowded and its populace is regarded as decadent and lazy. Mars is in the process of being terraformed, and is on the cutting edge of everything. The "Belters" who live hardscrabble lives on the edge of human civilization are regarded as little better than savages by the inhabitants of the inner planets, which has resulted in the rise of a Belter political force called the Outer Planets Alliance that is, depending on who one talks to, a terrorist threat, a trade union, or a legitimate government.

One of the strengths of this book is how well it establishes its setting, and how well it gives it a real sense of place - Ceres, Eros, Tycho Station, and all the other places the heroes inhabit feel lived in, like a place one could go if one could just get the ship to take them there. All of this is accomplished skillfully via atmospheric storytelling, with a minimum of walls of exposition: In one scene, the rice and beans that someone is eating will be mentioned, in another the configuration of a character's miniscule dwelling will be described, and so on. Throughout the book, Corey fills the story with little details that give the reader the confidence that they thought about what living in and around the asteroid belt would be like, and even if the details wouldn't hold up to a detailed examination, they feel right, and that gives the book a solidity that is comforting at times, and incredibly disturbing at others.

The bulk of the story is told from the perspective of two viewpoint characters, bouncing back and forth between them each chapter. The first is Jim Holden, an competent and somewhat overeager idealistic and naive executive officer on the ice freighter Canterbury who leads an expedition to explore a derelict ship broadcasting a distress beacon that turns out to be a trap that results in the destruction of the Canterbury and the death of almost everyone he knows. While on the run with the tiny handful of survivors, Holden uncovers what he believes to be damning evidence about who attacked them, makes a couple of somewhat overhasty broadcasts and sparks a three-way interplanetary conflict of epic proportions. As the story progresses, it seems that Holden has a knack for taking a bad situation and making it worse for everyone outside of his little bubble, although he seems to fail upwards - winding up basically owning and captaining his own warship which, in a fit of literary symbolism, he christens the Rocicante.

The second is Joe Miller, a world-weary, hard-drinking, cynical detective working on the grimy and corrupt tunnels of his native Ceres who would have been comfortable sharing an office with Sam Spade, but starts the story saddled with a partner who is originally from Earth. This pairing is interesting, because it allows the authors to illustrate the tensions between the inner planets and the Belters in a fairly convincing manner without being particularly heavy-handed about it. Early in the book, Miller is handed a missing persons case that he first ignores, but as events unfold and he had time on his hands, he pursues long enough that he becomes intrigued, and then obsessed. Like Holden, Miller is a deeply flawed character whose own weaknesses result in him mostly reacting to events for a substantial portion of the book. In fact, neither character seems to really start to take the initiative until they are all out of other options and almost literally run into one another.

One might think that a book in which the main characters are driven forward for much of its legth by events beyond their control would seem somewhat unsatisfying. To offset this, Leviathan Wakes relies upon a cast of supporting characters that surround Miller and Holden and feel like they belong completely to this imagined future. The primary characters are all fleshed out entities in their own right, from Naomi the incredibly skilled engineer, to Amos the hard-nosed mechanic with a heart of gold, to Alex the daring pilot who looks like a schoolteacher, to Fred Johnson the leader of the OPA (or at least some of it). The secondary characters like Havelock the Earther detective working on the colony of Ceres, and Julie Mao the scion of a wealthy family who has left her privileged life behind are less fully developed, but they are presented in such a way that it seems as if what is shown is merely the tip of the iceberg, and lurking behind what is on the page are the details of an entire life that has been lived. Even the minor characters who don't appear in more than a scene or two feel alive - notably the ill-fated medic Shed, the wrong-headed captain Shaddid, the slang-slinging Belter assault trooper Miller strikes up a friendship with, and even the low-key missionary Miller happens across while taking a low-budget shuttle to Eros. All of these characters help drive the book forward, even when Miller and Holden aren't really seizing the initiative on their own, giving the pair others to bounce off of while they get their acts together.

The point at which Holden and Miller come together is where Leviathan Wakes really starts rolling, grabbing the reader with both hands and never letting go until the very last page. This is also the point at which everything around these two characters starts to go pear-shaped and the world starts to become pretty weird. Holden and Miller form an alliance of convenience, albeit one that is continually strained by their fairly incompatible personalities, and begin to try to push back at what the world has unleashed at them - which turns out to be the fruits of a sociopathic megacorporation playing around with alien technology they don't understand, but are willing to sacrifice the lives of tens of thousands of people to find out. At a certain point, the book starts to feel like a runaway train, as every time the heroes think they have found a solution to the current problem, they find a new, even worse problem behind it. Eventually, everything comes to a head and requires an extreme, and somewhat improbable sacrifice that puts things to rest for the moment, but leaves the world changes in rather substantial ways.

Leviathan Wakes is often described as a space opera, and it does have a fair number of space opera-ish elements, but to the extent this is possible, it is a gritty, semi-realistic feeling space opera. The book is an almost impossible mish-mash of influences that seems like it should be an unpalatable mess, but somehow this unruly amalgamation works beautifully, resulting in a thrilling ride through its pages that are full of intrigue, action, adventure, mystery, and wonder. In many ways, this story is one that really shouldn't work, and yet has been executed in such a fashion as to yield a finished product that is quite simply top notch.

Subsequent book in the series: Caliban's War

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