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A Welcome Return to Old-School Space Opera
on 1 June 2011
It is entirely justifiable to call Leviathan Wakes one of the most hotly anticipated titles of the year. Touted by George R.R. Martin as a `kickass space opera` James S.A. Corey's debut is a return to the old-school form of space opera, but souped up to satisfy modern tastes. Delivering on Martin's promise of a kickass story, Corey makes every effort to mix together a crime plot with that of a tense struggle and an armed interplanetary conflict.This sprawling start to the aptly named `The Expanse' is a triumph of science fiction entertainment and fine writing.
Corey sets out both a creative view of humanity's future and a starkly realistic one. In his vision, humanity - at sub-light speeds - has extended its reach to the far ends of our solar system, establishing itself on Mars, the moons of the outer gas giants and on many of the larger components of the Asteroid Belt. Though not at all a hard SF novel, Leviathan Wakes does try to get some of its facts right, and its depiction of interplanetary travel and life outside of the homey confines of Earth reflect that, even if they are, in the end, purely fictional imaginings.
Brilliantly, Corey makes use of certain of these scientific `restrictions' as catalysts for conflict. So the `belters,' humans that were born and have lived in the Asteroid Belt have developed differently physically from their Terran and Martian cousins because of the low-gravity environment in which they subsist. These differences, much like our issues of race today, are sources of friction between the different factions of the solar system and eventually lead to greater conflict in the novel.
With this setting as a backdrop, Corey forges a twisted mystery that seems to weave in and out of the main characters' lives and connect every event. Leviathan Wakes, in its early stages, bears resemblance to pulpy, noir crime fiction, but does not let itself be bogged down in that atmosphere. Indeed, the immediate setting is always changing due to the breakneck pace at which the story unfolds, transitioning from one intriguing setting to the next, giving us the welcome opportunity to visit a good deal of the future of our solar system under Corey's care.
But at the heart of Leviathan Wakes are its characters. The telling of the story alternates between the view points of its two main characters, Miller and Holden. The former offers the perspective of the tired, post-prime detective who retains enough experience and street-smarts to still be of value, while the later represents the hopeful idealists, the do-gooders, those whose actions are dictated by higher morals whether they want to or not, and who is trapped in circumstances with no options that satisfy his moral restrictions. The contrast between these two characters is evident and, I assume, very much intentional as the tensions and moral differences play a big part in the book's conflicts.
Supporting these two colorful characters is an interesting bunch of secondary characters. Most notable are the members of Holden's crew aboard the Rocinante, who bring a brilliant dynamic to the novel as well as some well-placed comic relief and, at times, serve as emotional anchors for their Captain. The chemistry between all of the novel's characters - be that because of their tendency to be archetypical or not - is fabulous and a pure joy to read.
Leviathan Wakes is an exorbitant collection of all the elements that make old-school space operas so great. The Daniel Abraham - Ty Franck duo hiding behind the James S. A. Corey monicker succeed in bringing to life boisterous characters in a thriving vision of our future. The worst that can be said about the book is that the constant movement and the speed at which events unfold, though mostly outrageously fun, can sometimes be tiring and leads to some of the plot resolutions feeling a bit rushed and too convenient. That's it. Apart from that, Leviathan Wakes is a surefire way of getting your quality science fiction fill. Needless to say, this first book in `The Expanse' is highly recommended. The second novel, Caliban's War, appears to already be nearly completed so should be expected for next year.