Leviathan Wakes: redux

I have the fourth book in the Expanse series waiting to be read… but I haven’t read the other three in a long time, and then only once each. So, yes, I am re-reading. And I’m now going to do a Le Guin and REDUX my review of Leviathan Wakes.

levThe inner solar system is quite well colonised, and humanity is beginning to move out into the outer reaches as well. Unsurprisingly, there is friction between the planets – and the asteroid colonies – in some of the same ways, I feel, as there was in Africa when European countries decided they wanted to establish colonies on that continent (without, happily, the mitigating issue of prior occupation). Who should have control – the people in the area or the people back home? How do you make decisions when communications suffer a significant lag – and when the conditions there are significantly different from the conditions here? And then you add in travel time, and rogue elements care of capitalism and free enterprise, and you have a rather chaotic system. On the scale of the solar system, even if you restrict yourself to the asteroid belt and in, that’s a very messy situation indeed. I really, really enjoyed the world-building here. The description of the living situation on the asteroids in particular was very compelling, and the way in which – for example – relying on external sources for all of your air and water would change people’s attitudes towards those fundamentals, and the corresponding cascading effects, was beautifully drawn. I also enjoyed that the focus was largely off-planet; it would have been a very different story had it been slightly more, well, grounded.

There’s nothing controversial here. How sad. I still loved the world-building; the intimate descriptions of Ceres were awesome, and Corey has clearly done deep thinking about how the colonisation of these dwarf planets and asteroid would have been achieved. I love that Mars is still in the process of being terraformed – that’s never going to be a quick process. There’s a definite element of realism here, which is a bizarre thing to say about a novel set a few hundred years into the future and contains the threat of an alien protomolecule, but it’s true. 

The notion of Earth/Mars rivalry is not a new one, of course; many authors who have suggested planetary colonisation have imagined at least political disputes, if not war, over issues such as governance and resources. Here, though, it is not the focus of the plot; more the background, and the catalyst, and eventually the binding factor in two quite different narratives. One of those narratives is a detective yarn that owes a lot to the noir: grizzled cop looking for missing girl, ends up getting involved in something much bigger than he expects. The other narrative is of a space-lovin’ ship’s captain who stumbles across the wrong derelict, and ends up getting himself chased from one end of the system to the other because of some rather delicate intel that he accidentally gets his hands on. Miller, the cop, and Holden, the captain, trade chapters throughout most of the book – although it’s all in third-person, so there’s still a barrier between reader and character. Their stories start in quite different places (literally and metaphorically), and spend the novel (550-odd pages) merging and twining and departing in clever and intriguing ways. James S.A Corey is actually Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck writing together (quite why you would go with a nomme de plume and then tell absolutely everyone about it confuses me; were they told that collaborations didn’t sell, or was it whimsy?), and I wonder whether each of them was largely responsible for one narrative – not that I could pick a difference in writing styles.

I think I was wrong about the Earth/Mars thing not really being the focus, and you can see that in that paragraph already: it can’t be the background and the catalyst and the binding factor without being at least one of the foci. Silly PastMe. I think, having read the next two, it’s more obvious that the politics are a significant issue that Corey is exploring. I do stand by the idea that politics don’t subsume the personal, though. This is absolutely a very personal story about Holden and Miller. One thing I didn’t say is how much I enjoyed the banter between Holden and Miller, and their relationship overall. Such different men, such different backgrounds; I loved that they did not become Riggs and Murtaugh, because this was absolutely only a relationship of necessity. It’s another element of realism. 

I had one big problem with this novel, which colours my view of it, and that was Miller’s developing preoccupation with Julie, the girl he is tasked with finding. Some of the reasons for why he might become obsessed with her are developed along the way, but it made me feel quite uncomfortable, and additionally I did not feel as though that discomfort was part of the intended effect. While other characters acknowledge that Miller has taken it a bit far, quite how creepy and weird that is is not made explicit. This was problematic for me, although not enough to make me stop reading.

Not sure whether I agree with this still. Of course, I knew it was coming this time and maybe that made me more complacent, but I was not made uncomfortable on this reading. Sad for Miller, yes. He is aware that his ‘dream’ Julie (which makes it sounds squickier than it actually is) is not the real Julie, but when everything else is taken away it’s what he has left to focus on. And I think he does know that that’s sad. 

My view, then, of Miller is tainted by his (non-)relationship with Julie. Overall he is one of those not-necessarily-likeable characters whom a reader nonetheless can (perhaps grudgingly) admire and appreciate (caveat above in mind), making hard choices and occasionally getting them wrong but standing by them, and his own morals, through various tribulations. And I did end up overall admiring him. Holden is a very different character, as is appropriate for a multi-point of view novel. He tends more towards action, although to say that one is brain and the other brawn is doing both a disservice. I think Holden is easier to like, as a person, although he certainly has his own faults. This may partly be because we see Holden interacting more positively with more people, particularly the crew of his ship, whom we also get to know somewhat; Holden’s story is largely theirs as well, and they are a disparate and motley group indeed. Their banter, and their cooperation, helped make Holden’s sections of the story more enjoyable for me than Miller’s.

One thing I was bemused by this time is the description of Holden as ‘righteous’, by his crew. I’m not sure I entirely buy that; it certainly doesn’t feel like he’s been shown to be especially more righteous than his crew by the time the statement is made. I still like Holden a lot, but I seem to have developed a deeper appreciation of Miller on this reading. The discovery that you’re the object of derision and contempt is horrific, but he doesn’t simply give up. He becomes obsessed, yes, but with something greater than himself. 

The cover of my paperback has George RR Martin proclaiming this book as “Kickass space opera” and, much though I hesitate to quibble with GRRM, I feel I must. An enjoyable piece of SF, absolutely. I’ll probably read the sequels (this is the first of a trilogy, and it ends with a really awesome twist). While I am not especially one to quibble over sub-categorisation, for me this was not space opera. It was not… operatic enough. Not grandiose enough. The distances involved were too small, the plots too petty (in the sense of petite, rather than mean), the scope and implications not wide enough for it to count as such. Still, it was an enjoyable ride and it will be interesting to see where Corey/Abraham/Franck go with the story in the rest of the trilogy.

Yeh I got over the quibble about it not being space opera. I think that’s partly from having read more of the series (not a trilogy!).

Still a wonderful read. 

2 responses

  1. […] review will contain spoilers for Leviathan’s Wake, the first in this series. As with that book, I’ve just reread this one, so this is the […]

  2. […] spoilers below for Leviathan Wakes and Caliban’s War. READ […]

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