Leviathan Wakes, James SA Corey
Leviathan Wakes, James SA Corey
Orbit, 561pp, £12.99
Leviathan Wakes, the first book of the Expanse series, landed with a substantial thud during the summer of 2011. According to George RR Martin, it is a “kickass space opera”, a quote prominently displayed on the front cover. There is another approving quote by Charles Stross on the back. It received good reviews on a number of websites, and every book shop in the land boasted large numbers of the novel on their shelves.
And why not?
Space opera is popular at the moment. Further, the publishers have made no secret of the fact Corey is a pseudonym shared by Daniel Abraham, whose fantasy novels have been well received, and Ty Franck, George RR Martin’s assistant. Leviathan Wakes is a sf novel which should do well.
So it comes as a crushing disappointment to discover that Leviathan Wakes is completely regressive. It’s written as if British New Space Opera never happened. It reads like the sort of space opera prevalent in the late 1980s and early 1990s, with all the attitudes and sensibilities implicit in that. The world has moved on since then; the world of Leviathan Wakes has not.
Much has been made in reviews of the level of world-building in Leviathan Wakes, and for good reason. The two authors spend much of the early part of the novel setting out the Solar System they have built for their story. Unfortunately, it’s far from convincing. We’ll ignore for the moment the traditional science fiction approach to space travel used throughout the book, despite it being set less than two hundred years from now and trying for a realistic hard sf feel. It’s the societies in the Asteroid Belt with which I have the biggest problem.
There are some 150 million people living in the Asteroid Belt. The greatest concentration is six million in the tunnels inside the dwarf planet Ceres. There is no diversity. There is passing mention of nationalities other than the authors’ own – and a bar the characters frequent plays banghra music – but the viewpoint cast are American in outlook and presentation. Ceres itself is like some inner city no-go zone, with organised crime, drug-dealing, prostitution, under-age prostitution, endemic violence against women, subsistence-level employment… Why? It’s simply not plausible. Why would a space-based settlement resemble the worst excesses of some bad US TV crime show? The Asteroid Belt is not the Wild West, criminals and undesirables can’t simply wander in of their own accord and set up shop. Any living space must be built and maintained and carefully controlled, and everything in it must in some way contribute. A space station is much like an oil rig in the North Sea – and you don’t get brothels on oil rigs.
Further, what does all this say about gender relations in the authors’ vision of the twenty-second century? That women still are second-class citizens. One major character’s boss is a woman, and another’s executive officer is also female. But that female boss plays only a small role, and everything the XO does she does because she has the male character’s permission to do so (and it’s not even a military spaceship).
For the past twenty years, British space opera writers have been putting diversity, gender equality and some degree of realism into their space opera. They kept the Big Dumb Objects and the gosh-wow special effects, but they stopped treating women like part of the hero’s equipment. They created characters from cultures other than their own, and made an effort to present them authentically. They created space opera universes that were as diverse as our own world is now – if not more so. Leviathan Wakes is a step backwards. It is Old Space Opera, with all the criticisms that implies. Of course, it doesn’t goes so far as to have EE ‘Doc’ Smith’s planet of evil naked lesbians who only need the love of a good man to become useful members of the galactic “fraternity”, but in this day and age its world-building is no less regressive.
As for the plot… it has its moments, but it too hinges on an action which is so unbelievable, so difficult to swallow, despite repeated protestations in the prose itself, that suspension of disbelief is entirely lost. In a nutshell, two separate and different characters – a hard-boiled cop and an idealistic spaceship captain – stumble across a conspiracy, which subsequently triggers a war between Mars and the Asteroid Belt. The conspiracy centres around the discovery of a “protomolecule” (whatever that might be), which proves to be an alien invader from two billion years previously and which can infect, subsume and re-build human tissue – a sort of cross between The X-Files black oil and Lovecraft. The two protagonists eventually discover that behind all this is a corporation, which has been testing the protomolecule on unsuspecting human guineau pigs. A methodology which culminates in the deliberate infection of the one and half million inhabitants of the asteroid Eros.
I don’t believe it for an instant. There is no situation in which a corporation could plausibly consign so many people to a fate worse than death in the name of research. But just look at history, some people will say. It has happened in the past – in Nazi Germany, for example. Except history is not just a narrative of past events, it is also a learning process. We realised that slavery was morally wrong, for example, and we outlawed it. And two hundred years from now, if we are capable of building a space-based civilisation, we will have certainly learned that such actions as described in Leviathan Wakes are so wrong they are unthinkable.
Given all this, it seems churlish to complain that Leviathan Wakes‘ presentation of space travel and spacecraft owes far too much to present-day naval ships and not enough to what it might actually be like. While Abraham and Franck get the physics mostly right, it’s all far more like traditional science fiction than the story’s purported setting suggests. Even though a little authenticity in this area wouldn’t have impacted the “alien zombies in space” plot.
Most definitely not recommended.
The next book in the series, Caliban’s War, will be published June this year. I will not be reading it.
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