So it’s not without some sense of shame that I say readingLeviathan Wakes by James S.A. Corey is the equivalent of eating a well-made meal. You don’t have to have a sophisticated pallet to enjoy it, but even a true food snob will find something to appreciate if in the right mood. Be warned, there are some pickles you’ll wish weren’t included & that’s where I’ll stop with the food metaphors! I read Leviathan Wakes when it was first released in 2011 and I remember enjoying it and while I managed to get through the first 3 books, I never finished the full series (now five books in length & counting). I recently reread the book with two purposes in mind. Firstly, to continue with the series, known as The Expanse, and secondly, the book has been adapted for television by the Syfy channel, and I wanted a refresh before the show begins this month.
I enjoyed my second reading of Leviathan Wakes just as much, if not more, than my first poke at it. I’m not surprised that The Expanse is the basis for a new Syfy television show & while a lot of advertising references it as “Game of Thrones in space” I much prefer the moniker – space opera. The plot is packed full of action and danger, and only a person with attention deficit disorder would find it slow moving.
Leviathan Wakes tells a story that takes in a future where humanity has colonized the solar system. It’s a throwback to futures imagined by the likes Bester and Clarke in the Fifties (acknowledged explicitly by Corey in this book’s sequel, Caliban’s War), but updated with modern sensibilities and contemporary science. There is enough specific detail and texture in the prose to make things feel real and lived-in, but Corey never sacrifices the momentum of the plot.
The intriguing and convincing political landscape, featuring a solar system divided into various factions, works very much in the book’s favour, giving the plot some real grist. Firstly, there’s Earth (and Luna), looking after the interests of the cradle of humanity. They have a soft alliance with Mars; a more technologically advanced and militarised society, as befitting a planet named after the Roman god of war. Lastly, there are the Belters who inhabit the moons, meteors and space stations of the Outer Planets, and who are viewed by Earth and Mars as a ragamuffin society of people almost no longer human.
The plot follows two men, one Belter and one Earther, on complementary and intertwined personal quests.
Detective Miller, the Belter, works for a security firm providing law enforcement on Ceres Space Station. When he is given the job of tracking down the missing daughter of a wealthy and powerful magnate from Earth he slowly becomes infatuated with the object of his case.
The Earther protagonist is James Holden. Holden begins the novel as the XO of an ice hauler, known as the Canterbury, working in the Outer Planets. When the Canterbury, along with almost all its crew, are destroyed in an apparent act of terrorism, Holden assumes command of a small group of survivors and seeks to uncover who or what was behind the attack and bring them to justice.
While I’ve said Leviathan Wakes isn’t a dumb book, Holden at various points in the narrative does some very stupid things in the name of freedom of information. He uses pirate broadcasts to make information public because he thinks people have a right to know. This has devastating results when incorrect assumptions are drawn from this public information. Holden’s defence? He just provides the information and people are free to make their own conclusions.
Miller sees Holden as stupid and naive. He is far more elitist. For Miller, information should be given to, and used by, those who can be trusted to do the right thing with it. It’s an interesting moral argument within the narrative that adds some hidden depth to the wham-bam space opera antics.
The book is also interesting in the way it explores contrasting notions of justice. Miller’s character lends the book a hardboiled crime flavor. He wears a porkpie hat. Humphrey Bogart wore a hat. It doesn’t get much more hardboiled than that. Besides the porkpie hat, Miller also embodies the sense of frontier justice often represented in hardboiled crime fiction. Miller’s cynical attitudes towards crime and punishment contrast starkly with Holden’s more idealistic approach, and this is another source a narrative and thematic conflict in the book.
It’s not surprising that the makers of the television adaptation have chosen to bring forward the character Avasarala, a feisty and potty-mouthed elderly female politician, from the second book of the series to feature in the first series of The Expanse. It also looks like the role of Julie Mao, the tycoon’s missing daughter, has been expanded to give her character more agency. If my impressions are correct, these are smart moves by Syfy, directly addressing one of the problematic elements in what is an already very fun and accomplished space opera novel.