RogerBW's Blog

Leviathan Wakes, James S. A. Corey 20 February 2016

2011 science fiction, first in The Expanse series. With the asteroid belt colonised, tensions are rising between Belt, Mars and Earth. When ships start getting destroyed, war is inevitable; but who actually kicked it off, and why?

This is that rare modern thing, a "big" space fiction story that tries to be at least vaguely plausible about its technology. Yes, there's a magic drive which lets ships sustain multiple gravities of acceleration for extended periods, and I'm sure the orbital dynamics haven't been worked out in any sort of detail, but there's no FTL, it still takes a while to get anywhere, and there's a very 1970s Pournelle feel about the vast distances, isolation, and pressurised asteroid habitats. It's space fiction about the working stiffs who end up doing neat stuff, rather than about the big gaudy heroes.

But this is still a modern book, and the politics get rather more complex than Pournelle ever allowed. The two principal characters are James Holden, idealistic XO on an ice mining ship that hauls water to Ceres for the millions of people living there, and Miller the burned-out noir detective who tries to keep that society running. Holden's ship gets destroyed while he's away from it on a rescue mission; Miller gets the job of tracking down a missing rich kid from Earth whose family wants her back. It all gets much more complicated. The characters have arguments where it's not at all clear who if anyone is in the right. More importantly, although these principals are obviously well-worn stereotypes, they manage to feel at least a bit fresh, with some original twists that turn them into actual awkward people. It's an unabashedly sentimental book, where the authors expect the reader to care about who wins and indeed who survives.

There's actual sense of wonder here too, neat ideas that are written in such a way as to generate at least a little awe (even if some of the big reveals fall a little flat to the experienced SF reader), as well as daring space battles and all the rest. Actually the daring space battles are mostly cramped, uncomfortable, and over lethally quickly, but people still get to be heroic in them.

One failing is that this future doesn't always feel very future-y. Yes, all right, human nature says that there will still be corrupt politicians in the future, but the corporate-run era of democracy is relatively recent and it would have been a reasonable extrapolation to have changed it to something else by the unspecified date that must be a fair way into the future. The most significant female character may be competent, but she's still a love interest. You could shift the story to the Pacific during the Cold War, and it wouldn't be all that hard to make it work.

This is a remarkably long book, over 160,000 words, but it justifies its length; there isn't much in the way of padding, and even when the action pauses for a while things are still happening. The writing style is casual, sometimes even sloppy, and doesn't aspire to literary greatness; the book's a fast read even at this length.

There's a lot of retread here, but it's good retread. This book is the literary equivalent of a meal at a greasy spoon where they know what they're doing: it's not the Really Good Stuff, but it's the same old stuff done really quite well. Followed by Caliban's War.

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