#CBR5 Maneuver #25 – Leviathan Wakes
Profile: Science Fiction, Space Opera
After Action Report:
The Expanse has received a lot of attention, mostly from other authors, for being a fresh take on space-based science fiction. The books have also received high praise for their cinematic fight sequences and politically charged plot lines. The books are each fairly lengthy, sitting well over the 500 page mark, but manage to feel like much shorter novels thanks to brisk pacing and strong, dynamic characters.
In spite of the ‘space opera’ tag, the stories of The Expanse are really more like war stories, having more in common with John Scalzi than they do with Iain M. Banks or Alastair Reynolds. The scope of the setting is mostly limited to the solar system and there isn’t the same sense of wonder and discovery that has become associated with New Wave Space Opera. Instead, The Expanse feels like older styles of space opera that focused more on combat, and the brave actions of courageous soldiers against overwhelming odds and the threat of the unknown.
The soldiers in question are the crew of the Rocinante led by Jim Holden, a former Earth navy soldier, currently employed as a cargo hauler. At the beginning of Leviathan Wakes, Holden and his crew are caught in an evolving political and military standoff between Earth, the Mars colonial government, and the still-forming alliance of Asteroid Belt and Outer Planet colonies, Holden finds himself in possession of a dangerous piece of information that kicks off a hunt for a mysterious biological weapon. At the same time, Miller, a detective on the Ceres asteroid colony gets tasked with finding the daughter of a rich, inner planet megacorporation owner. The two men end up on the same trail when they discover that this girl may be the carrier of the most deadly and disturbing plague ever imagined.
Leviathan’s primary strength is its logistical writing. James S.A. Corey is actually a pen name for the collaboration between Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck, and between the two of them they have a good grip on the details of near-future space combat. Inertia is a well realized factor, but combat doesn’t drag into the plodding, near-luminal submarine battles that the later books of Alastair Reynolds’s Revelation Space series had. Instead we have interplanetary combat set to the steady thrum of point-defense guns and lots and lots of missiles. Even on the ground, the duo that is Corey adopts a very realistic squad-based military style for invading the cramped corridors of ships, asteroid colonies and space stations.
These strong combat moments help to hold reader focus and move us between the more sedentary infodumps that comprise the story. I actually find the political maneuvering to be as interesting as the combat, but these sections aren’t as well paced. They’re far from boring, but I can see how some readers would start glossing over them.
Unfortunately, this first book fails to really develop either of its protagonists. Both Holden and Miller have very strong starting personalities and equally prominent personality defects. But the authors seem content to let these default states drive both characters without letting either evolve. Holden’s unbridled and naïve optimism is great as a mechanism for kicking off the events of Leviathan, but it becomes incredibly tiresome even by the middle of the story. Miller’s obviously contrasting cynicism comes off as artificial, particularly when combined with his counterintuitive and obsessive pursuit of the missing daughter that eventually crosses the line into outright insanity and finally hallucinations. Miller is replaced in book two of The Expanse, Caliban’s War, by an equally obsessed but less morally compromised father, Praxidike Meng for a much-improved dynamic, but Leviathan really does suffer under the weight of its protagonists.
In spite of these flaws (mostly Holden), I still think Leviathan Wakes has a lot going for it. It sets up the rest of the series very well and more than earns its reputation for gripping combat and excellent pacing. Again, it isn’t really a space opera, not yet anyway, but the seeds of the greater unknowns of the universe outside our solar system have been sewn by the end of the book. If you’re looking for something to tide you over between releases of the Poseidon’s Children books, or just for a new SF series, Leviathan Wakes, and The Expanse, is a solid choice.