Leviathan Wakes

James S. A. Corey
Leviathan Wakes Cover

Leviathan Wakes


The Epstein Drive has given man run of the solar system, although they are still bound to their home star.  James Holden, the executive officer on an ice hauler in the outer solar system, is witness and survivor of a horrific crime, and his broadcast of a system-wide indictment sparks tension and war between the inner planets and the more independent colonies of the outer system.  Holden soon realizes he has made himself the system’s most valuable witness and/or its biggest target, depending on who catches up with him first.   Miller is a cop on a large space station in the outer belt, and he’s been tasked with finding a rich mogul’s runaway-turned-revolutionary daughter while also attempting to keep the planetary war drums from causing large scale rioting in his jurisdiction.  While at first it seems like a throwaway case, Miller finds that the case of the missing girl has more connections to the war than he first realized.

My overall evaluation is that even though the book uses a lot of stock elements of science fiction (military, space opera, colonization, etc.) and even common character archetypes (the upright commander and the traumatized cop) it does so particularly well, giving the book an old-school science fiction feel along with one of the better uses of alternating third-person viewpoints I’ve ever come across in the genre.

What Leviathan Wakes Does Well

Leviathan Wakes is structured by a third-person viewpoint that alternates between two primary characters. The first is James Holden, and he comes off at first as a typical man-of-honor type character: uncompromising, plagued with the usual concerns of being a good and honorable leader, and fairly predictable. The second primary character is Miller, and he in many ways is a stereotypical cop-drama character: a middle-aged, divorced, borderline alcoholic, whose experience has caused him to see the world in various shades of gray.  At first blush, neither of these characters sound particularly new or interesting, but to the authors’ credit they use these stock characters as two points of ethical comparison as the entire solar system is plunged into a jingoistic war sparked by a conspiracy that conceals something much, much worse. As the story alternates between the two, we get to experience a kind of dialogue between the logic and morals of both the upright Holden and the moral grays of Miller.  The book uses a third-person limited viewpoint, so we get to be within the head space of each character enough to where we know them and can easily see where their perspectives on similar events differ, but the switching isn’t awkward of jarring.  This adds nice depth to the story in that it allows for no easy answers to some of the important situations the characters encounter.

The other main, supporting characters are competently drawn overall.  Like with Holden and Miller, a great deal of characterization is done via contrast.   The contrasts between people who grow up in the inner planets and the viewpoints and commonplaces of those who grow up on the off-world colonies, for example, becomes an important element of the book.  The people of the outer planets grow up taller and thinner due to the lower gravity, have a fierce streak of independence due to the self-reliant nature of living on space stations and constantly having to worry about things Earthers take for granted like air, water, and raw materials for survival.  The authors have even paid attention to more subtle, but equally telling features of life and culture in the outer colonies like the mish-mash of languages, the strong ethnic mixing, and gestures and turns of phrase (such as shrugging with one’s hands instead of one’s shoulders to make the gesture understood when wearing a space suit).  All in all, I have the sense of a rich and detailed universe, filled with believable people trying to make what they can out of the hard, off-planet life, that I look forward to learning more about in future installments.

This book is also an interesting mix of different genres. Space opera might win out as the dominant genre, but it has elements of the hard-boiled detective story, military science fiction, some social science fiction, and the first-contact story with a little bit of horror thrown in to the mix. This means that the book has plenty of guns and ship-to-shop battles  for the action junkies and military SF fans, but also enough variation to please a variety of audiences.  For space exploration/colonization buffs there is lots of discussion of the effects of gravity in space travel, space tech, and the mechanics of inter-planetary flight.  The dose of horror isn’t unwelcome or overwhelming.  Finally, while I was skeptical of it at first, the detective element is competently done and integrated well with the rest of the story.

All of these diverse elements come together pretty seamlessly and naturally, and they give the book old school science fiction feel, the reasons for which were hard for me to pin down for a while.  If I had to use one genre category to describe the book it might be space opera, but that’s not an exact fit since it’s not the grand, galactic-scale stuff that Peter Hamilton or Ian Banks write, but about our own solar system and the everyday slobs who inhabit it.  Given the solar system civil war and the big, ugly, old space ships that look more like buildings tipped on their sides, I felt two strong influences from Bester’s The Stars My Destination and Alien here, and I was gratified to learn that they had indeed be influenced by those while writing this novel as indicated in the following excerpt from an interview found on SF Signal:

SF Signal: Space opera has a rich history, from stories like Asimov’s “Foundation” to Lucas’s Star Wars. In particular, I was reminded of the television series Firefly. What influenced you when writing this novel?

Ty Franck: I doubt that anyone writing character based space opera today isn’t going to get some Firefly comparisons. And Daniel and I are both big fans of that series. But my personal biggest influences are the movie Alien, and the classic novel The Stars My Destination, by Alfred Bester. Bester’s novel takes place in a solar system that is fully colonized. He doesn’t explain how it got that way, it just is. I wanted that same freedom. I’m not going to tell you why millions of people live on Europa, they just do. And Gully Foyle, the protagonist of that book has a lot in common with the crew of the Nostromo from Alien. They’re just truckers in space. Not sci fi superheroes with half a dozen Phd’s and an answer to every problem, but electricians and pipefitters and computer programmers. The kind of people who actually do the jobs on modern seagoing ships. And I wanted that same gritty, real-life feel that Alien delivers.

Daniel Abraham: I grew up on Arthur C. Clarke and Larry Niven and Harry Harrison, so all of those are etched in the back of my mind. Always will be. And yes, I’m a big Firefly fan. And Babylon 5. But The Expanse is also an odd duck. We absolutely wrote it to be a space opera, and I think we did it. But now that it’s done, I don’t actually know what it’s like, if that makes sense. I feel almost like we wrote our platonic ideal of a space opera. It’s made up entirely of familiar characters and places and situations, but I really can’t think of another book – or movie – that it’s the same as. I’m nor sure what to make of that.

So the novel has a lot of pieces from different genres, and they are all put together pretty well so that there is a bit of something for everyone in this novel.  While I feel all the parts it appropriates from different SF genres are used particularly well, none of it is exactly new and some readers may feel like the book is trying to do too much or is relying too much on well-worn conventions. It’s not a big idea novel, but it is a fun ride.

Where Leviathan Wakes Could Have Been Better

What I have just cited as a strength of the book can just as easily be seen as a crippling weakness by readers with other tastes.  The book does try to take on a lot in terms of genre elements and themes, so I can see other readers finding the book to be biting off more than it can chew or being schizophrenic in its choice of genre conventions.  There are even places where it feels like a fantasy novel and the co-authors’ investment in that genre comes through, and while it didn’t bother me that may be one piece too many for some readers.  It’s also a long book and while I wasn’t bored after it got going I can see fatigue setting in for other readers before the third act, readers who don’t feel they are getting the kind of grand scale story they would want in Space Opera or the more focused experience they would get if the book decided to dwell within any one or two of its constituent genres instead of the whole closet full.

While the book has plenty of travel within the outer reaches of the solar system–and does a great job in constructing the people and cultures of those outer asteroid colonies–it could have done more with the people and governments of Earth and Mars.  These people are mainly characterized in contrast to the colonists of the belts instead of standing on their own.  Sure, we have Holden who was born on Earth (and part of a group family that brought to mind The Moon is a Harsh Mistress), and we know that the Earth is overcrowded, but its politics and people and customs felt vaguely described.  In a way, the people of Earth were Othered in the narrative instead of standing as an equally well-defined point of comparison like the morals and worldviews of Holden and Miller.

I also had an issue with what appeared to be the most accommodating and permissive revolutionary leader ever.  For those of you who’ve read the book, let me know if you think Fred was too lenient.

Concluding Thoughts

I can easily see why this book made the short list for the best-novel Hugo: it embodies a great deal of SF genres well and brings them together for a fun and engrossing ride.  In its way it’s an homage to lots of different SF sub-genres and exemplars without being derivative.  While the final product is not a big idea book like Embassytown, it’s a coherent and entertaining one with enough depth (mainly via the world building and the ethical contrasts provided by the alternating viewpoints) to make it worth reading beyond its entertainment value.  I enjoyed it a great deal and look forward to picking up the next book, Caliban’s War, which comes out this summer.

I experienced this book as an unabridged audio recording available on Audible.com.  The narrator, Jefferson Mays, does a very credible job with the material. He has often subtle but distinguishable variation between voices and keeps it interesting. I would definitely listen to him narrate the second book, Caliban’s War, without hesitation.