Author: James S.A. Corey

2011, Orbit

Filed under: Sci-Fi

In the middle of the solar system, a rattletrap ice-hauling spaceship called the Canterbury lurches to a stop so its shuttle can investigate a distress call from a dead ship. James Holden, the Canterbury‘s second-in-command, leads the shuttle team. As soon as the shuttle docks with the wreck, a stealth ship uncloaks, blows up the Canterbury, and hightails it.

Holden broadcasts the details of this deception to the entire solar system, and includes the fact that the fake transponder the Canterbury responded to—the bait in the trap—bears the insignia of the Martian Navy. And that’s how you accidentally start a war.

Meanwhile, on a space station in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter, an alcoholic cop named Miller gets tapped to investigate the disappearance of a rich man’s daughter. He soon finds that she had something to do with the Canterbury‘s destruction, and his fate becomes tied to Holden’s.

For 300 pages, Leviathan Wakes is grade-A science fiction: precise, entertaining, imaginative, and adventuresome. It flags a bit down the stretch with a relatively silly major conflict, and then it gets boring when the third act turns out to be one big drawn-out fight scene. However, if you’ve been looking for an engrossing, classically molded space opera epic, this is a solid one.

Leviathan Wakes is the first book in James S.A. Corey’s new Expanse series, founded on a simple but ingenious premise: instead of space travel being easy or normal or taken for granted, it’s agonizingly slow, precarious, and rife with dangers both man-made and environmental. As a novel, it’s also painstakingly gritty and realistic.

Guns fire plastic bullets, so as not to damage the delicate duct-work with metal shrapnel. The ships, as you can kind of make out in the cover art, are not aerodynamic or sexily designed, because there is no air and no need for curves. Instead, they resemble enormous office buildings which fly up instead of forward (relative to their passengers), and create gravity from the thrust of their movement.

The physics of frozen, vacuumous space often play a role in action scenes and tactical maneuvering, and the psychology of the centuries-long exploration is foundational to the people we meet.

The “expanse” of the series title is humanity’s spread throughout the solar system. There are no shortcuts in Corey’s world—no warp drives to wink ships between stars (though something called an Epstein drive makes travel between planets possible in a timely manner), no magical tech to terraform planets in the blink of an eye. The expanse as it is—a colony on Mars and a few major space stations in the “Belt”—has taken hundreds of years to establish, and figures to take hundreds more before it approaches stability. Each one of the massive space stations took decades just to spin up, in order to establish artificial gravity.

In the meantime, the children of the station settlers, known as Belters, became tall and thin growing up in low gravity. The three tribes—Earthers, Martians, and Belters—have grown apart, as evidenced by how quickly they wage war with each other.

All of this makes for a fascinating world in which to stage a novel, and if a few details aren’t actually feasible (like the fact that simple velocity wouldn’t create artificial gravity, only acceleration would, and the ships do not seem to accelerate infinitely), it’s mostly forgivable. At least, until the big scary monster comes along and explodes Corey’s careful verisimilitude.

During the lengthy climax, that monster can do whatever it wants. It can break the laws of physics and reality, and it does. That’s a shame, because without this carefully constructed, inventively realistic world, there’s not a whole lot else going for the Expanse series.

The characters are entirely geeked out: they have one or two exaggerated attributes—like a role-playing avatar—and little depth or charm. There’s Miller, the drunk, loose-cannon cop; Holden, the I-don’t-want-to-kill-anybody-ever space captain; Alex, the reckless (of course) pilot; Amos, the whatever-it-takes mechanic; and Naomi, the hyper-competent female, a staple in modern sci-fi. None of these is an attempt at originality, and none is particularly likeable or fun to watch—with the possible exception of Miller, who’s too generic

And that’s where Leviathan really falls short. Without fun characters, or a consistent world, or a consistently intricate plot, there’s just not enough entertainment value to sustain us on our grueling 600-page journey. There’s a good read, but nothing compared to what it could’ve been.

Similar reads: Retribution Falls, by Chris Wooding; The Glister, by John Burnside; The Passage, by Justin Cronin