Thursday, August 25, 2011

Leviathan Wakes - James S.A. Corey

Leviathan Wakes is the first novel in a space opera trilogy named The Expanse by James S.A. Corey. Corey is a pseudonym for authors Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck. I am familiar with the work Abraham published under his own name, some of which is very good indeed. Corey is his third pen-name. He also writes an Urban Fantasy series under the name M. L. N. Hanover. With ten novels under his belt, Abraham is definitely the more experienced of the two. I haven't read any of Franck's writing yet. I know he has contributed to the latest Wild Cards volume Fort Freak, which is still on the to read stack. Other than that, I only know him as George R.R. Martin's assistant. I didn't know what to expect of this novel, it is quite a departure from Abraham's previous (novel length) work and a new adventure for Franck. As it turned out, Leviathan Wakes is a very readable bit of science fiction. One that might appeal to a larger crowd than just the hardcore SF-fans.

The novel is set in a future where humanity has ventured beyond Earth and colonized Mars as well as a whole host of moons and asteroids. Humanity's cradle is still essential to the survival of the species however, the source of many materials that simply can't be produced in any meaningful quantities elsewhere. Its power is only rivaled by Mars, one of the few other places in the solar system to house a significant number of people. Further out, are the miners of the asteroid belt, people confined to small bubbles of air and artificial gravity in the the vast emptiness of space.

Jim Holden is the the executive officer on an ice miner, making runs between the Jupiter's rings and the asteroid belt. It's a dead end job on a rickety old ship and usually quite uneventful. Until that is, they come upon the derelict ship Scopuli, emitting a distress call. What they find on the ship draws the crew into a spiral of violence that almost inevitably seems to lead to war. In the meantime on the asteroid turned space station Ceres, detective Miller is on a missing persons case. Although the police force on Ceres has more than enough problems on their hands once the political instability of the solar system is exposed and Miller is told to let go of the case, he can't shake the feeling there is something fishy about it. Miller digs deeper, at great personal expense.

In there is one thing I admire about the book is the way that Corey has managed to make it a science fiction novel that has so many elements of other genres and sub-genres besides space opera in it that it has a much wider appeal that a hard science fiction novel would have had in today's market. That is not to say there aren't some classic science fiction elements in the tale. Corey spends a great deal of time on the effects of gravity (or the absence of it) to the human body, to the operation of space stations, to warfare etc. There is definitely a bit of Rendezvous with Rama in this novel. There are some nice references to things like space sickness and the trick of deciding which way is up in an environment without gravity that a hard science fiction fan will appreciate but doesn't take a vast knowledge of physics to understand.

On the other hand, the story line of Miller also injects a dose of police procedural into the narrative. It's a combination that can work very well, as Alastair Reynolds showed us in The Prefect, a novel I still consider his best. Miller's past and personal problems are woven into the case he is researching. He's increasingly unable to keep his job and his private life separate, or in fact, keep reality and illusion apart. He's clearly a man headed for self-destruction. Holden on the other hand, is a man who has a completely different way of getting into trouble. Besides being rather direct, he feels qualified to decide which information should be shared with the entire solar system and which shouldn't. Much to the disgust of Miller, who blames him for starting a war. The authors have stated it was not intentional but the parallel with Wikileaks is almost inescapable.

Although the story in Leviathan Wakes is essentially complete, the way the novel was written leaves a lot of possibilities for a series that goes well beyond the planned trilogy. There is quite a bit of attention for world building, an aspect that gives the whole novel an epic fantasylike quality. In this novel, the two main characters are far away from the places where the big political decision are made. They deeply impact the story but the real motivation behind them remains mostly guesswork by the main characters. Throughout the novel you can sense that there are layers of events and decisions that have yet to be revealed. It would be nice if the authors paid a bit more attention that than in the next two books. The action we get to see now is set at the fringes of human expansion but what is going on 'down the well', as the Belters refer to the inner solar system, sounds like it is worth a few pages more than are dedicated to it in this novel.

Leviathan Wakes is a novel that achieves what it sets out to do very well. Entertain the reader. It is a novel that is clearly meant to be a fun ride, without too many complications or being too demanding on the reader. As such, I enjoyed it a lot. It's fast paced, very careful not to let itself get distracted in grand descriptions of the solar system or futuristic technology. Many of the elements in this novel will be familiar to the experience science fiction reader, it is not shockingly original. It is however, a well written adventure with plenty of opportunities for an equally enjoyable continuation of the series. I look forward to reading the second volume, Caliban's War, scheduled for publication in the summer of 2012, already.

Book Details
Title: Leviathan Wakes
Author: James S.A. Corey
Publisher: Orbit
Pages: 561
Year: 2011
Language: English
Format: Paperback
ISBN: 978-1-84149-988-8
First published: 2011


  1. Sounds good, another one to add to my ever increasing list! I tend to read a lot more fantasy than sci fi, but I dabble a little, and this one sounds right up my street.

  2. I just finished this one and, yeah, it was pretty fun. I also liked the injection of the different genres into an overarching work and it didn't feel forced or awkward. It did have a fantasy-ques tinge to it in places: we have our powerful steed, our quest, our all-important item, and our monsters. Aside from Fred being one of the most permissive militia leaders in history, I thought all of the characters were well fleshed out too. I can easily see why this one got on the Hugo shortlist. It does have Rendevous with Rama esque features, but with real characters and not just whitebread, by-the-book astronauts.

    1. It's not something I'd pick for a Hugo personally. Good book but not quite that good. I'm not surprised it got nominated though. This book got a lot of positive reviews all over the place.