For a while now, I’ve had this sci-fi series called “The Expanse” recommended to me. Sci-Fi and fantasy have always been my jam, but I had been on a binge of miserable, grim fantasy novels, so I had been putting off reading what sounded like the sci-fi equivalent because of that for the longest time.
After “A Song of Ice and Fire”, I needed a break from misery, alright? After some time busying myself with other pastimes like having phone fun playing blackjack real money games, I went looking, and I found something else. Well, after plunging into the Stormlight Archive and binging Smallville, I finally felt ready to jump back into something more serious. What I was promised was “Game of Thrones” in space– and that’s what I got! Sort of.
Setting the Scene
The year is… er, the future. Thanks to the invention of “The Epstein Drive”, humanity has been able to spread out across the Solar System. Humanity now has several interplanetary government bodies and corporations that run most things.
Earth is now governed by the United Nations, Mars is run by the Martian Congressional Republic, and both share allied control of the people in the Asteroid Belt. This third group, known colloquially as “Belters”, live their entire lives in low gravity and grow tall and elongated as a result, with knobbly joints.
The Outer Planets Alliance (the ODA), which is a collection of small militant factions that share the name, wants to break off from the “Inners” and become autonomous.
Life in the Belt is hard. Living on space stations and ships means constant scrounging for resources. Collecting ice from Saturn’s rings is a vital job to supply the Belt with drinkable water.
This is the life that our protagonist, Jim Holden, finds himself in as the Executive Officer on board the Canterbury. While on a return run, the ship picks up a distress beacon from a ship called The Scopuli, and the Captain has Holden take a team to go investigate. What they end up finding is a Martian beacon, an empty ship, and more questions than answers.
Then, when unidentified ships turn up out of nowhere and nuke the ever-living-s### out of the Canterbury, this kicks off an interplanetary chain of events as the powers-that-be try to figure out who’s responsible and throws Earth, Mars, and the Belters into the biggest Mexican Standoff humanity has ever seen.
Our second protagonist, a Belter named Joe Miller, is a cop that has lived his whole life onboard Cere’s Station. He’s an alcoholic with a failed marriage under his Belt but is exceptionally perceptive when he’s put together. He’s been noticing some strange comings and goings, however, like when all the organized gangs that usually demand protection money vanish.
Things get stranger when he’s assigned to track down a girl named Julie, a rich kid estranged from her Earther parents and now possibly involved with the ODA. What’s even more strange is that the last recorded place Julie was listed was onboard The Scopuli.
These events send the lives of Holden and Miller into a collision course as they race against the clock to try and prevent interplanetary war and find what the hell is happening.
I’ve got to praise James S.A. Corey (which I know is a pseudonym for two different men, hush) for his worldbuilding. Within one novel, you really get a feel for three different but massive political factions and their relationships with one another. Earth and Mars feel like the political behemoths that they are, while the ODA is small, with a loud voice.
At the same time, the worldbuilding isn’t overdone, with a gazillion made-up proper-nouns, technobabble, or space magic. These things have their place, but after reading so much about Aes Sedai, Isildur, Midichlorians, and Muad’Dib, reading about characters named Joe and Jim is kind of a breath of fresh air, you know?
Prose and Pacing
Going into “Leviathan Wakes”, I was expecting a Space OperahTM. Long, plodding delves into the financial systems of martian colonies and how that relates to the ecological problems of Venus. That sort of thing.
I’m pleased to say that that’s not the case. “Leviathan Wakes” keeps a tight grip on the pace and feels almost like a Hollywood thriller as characters race against time to keep ahead of their invisible enemies. In fact, it’s so fast that some of the time, skips are quite jarring. Characters will casually mention how a trip just took them three weeks or that it even happened months ago, and my reaction was always, “Wait- what? But that was one chapter ago!”
Yet, good worldbuilding cannot carry a plot with bad characters. Thankfully, “Leviathan Wakes” doesn’t have that problem. Holden and Miller have a sort of yin-yang situation going on. Holden is the optimist, the idealist, who holds his crew together no matter how dire the situation is and always (almost instinctually) tries to do what is right in every situation.
Miller is a cynical pragmatist who prefers to keep his cards close to his chest and solve his problems with bullets and booze. This divergence in ideals leads to some significant conflict throughout the story, and both get opportunities to demonstrate the advantages and disadvantages of their worldviews.
Holden’s crew is there, too, I suppose. There’s Naomi, the chief engineer, Alex, the ex-Martian pilot with a Texan drawl, Amos, the engineer, and, lastly, Shed, the medic.
Joe’s partner, Dimitri Havelock, is an Earther who bears the brunt of the anti-Earther bigotry in the story, to the point where he’s been passed over for promotions because of it.
The long story short is that “Leviathan Wakes” is a tight-paced action-thriller set against the backdrop of a very divided picture of humanity. While it’s hardly “hard sci-fi”, the story is still far more grounded than even something like Star Trek.
While the execution of “Leviathan Wakes” is worth reading through for its own sake, this lacks much of the style and iconic aesthetics that other sci-fi has. Star Wars tech is almost instantly recognizable because of how iconic Star Wars designs are, right? That’s what’s lacking here.
While that’s far from a dealbreaker, it does make Corey’s universe not stand out in a way that others do. Nevertheless, if you’re in the market for strong science-fiction shenanigans, I still highly recommend “Leviathan Wakes”.