• Published a book you want to tell us about? Uploaded a YouTube video you want to share?

    Normally you'll need 100 posts to self-promote, but with an upgraded membership you can do so with your first post.

    Find out more here: Become a Supporting Member

Leviathan Wakes, James SA Corey

iansales

Well-Known Member
Joined
May 8, 2006
Messages
3,447
12th February 2012 02:12 PM

Ian Sales



Leviathan Wakes, the first book of the Expanse series, landed with a substantial thud during the summer of 2011. According to George RR Martin, it is a “kickass space opera”, a quote prominently displayed on the front cover. There is another approving quote by Charles Stross on the back. It received good reviews on a number of websites, and every book shop in the land boasted large numbers of the novel on their shelves.

And why not?

Space opera is popular at the moment. Further, the publishers have made no secret of the fact Corey is a pseudonym shared by Daniel Abraham, whose fantasy novels have been well received, and Ty Franck, George RR Martin’s assistant. Leviathan Wakes is a sf novel which should do well.

So it comes as a crushing disappointment to discover that Leviathan Wakes is completely regressive. It’s written as if British New Space Opera never happened. It reads like the sort of space opera prevalent in the late 1980s and early 1990s, with all the attitudes and sensibilities implicit in that. The world has moved on since then; the world of Leviathan Wakes has not.

Much has been made in reviews of the level of world-building in Leviathan Wakes, and for good reason. The two authors spend much of the early part of the novel setting out the Solar System they have built for their story. Unfortunately, it’s far from convincing. We’ll ignore for the moment the traditional science fiction approach to space travel used throughout the book, despite it being set less than two hundred years from now and trying for a realistic hard sf feel. It’s the societies in the Asteroid Belt with which I have the biggest problem.

There are some 150 million people living in the Asteroid Belt. The greatest concentration is six million in the tunnels inside the dwarf planet Ceres. There is no diversity. There is passing mention of nationalities other than the authors’ own – and a bar the characters frequent plays banghra music – but the viewpoint cast are American in outlook and presentation. Ceres itself is like some inner city no-go zone, with organised crime, drug-dealing, prostitution, under-age prostitution, endemic violence against women, subsistence-level employment… Why? It’s simply not plausible. Why would a space-based settlement resemble the worst excesses of some bad US TV crime show? The Asteroid Belt is not the Wild West, criminals and undesirables can’t simply wander in of their own accord and set up shop. Any living space must be built and maintained and carefully controlled, and everything in it must in some way contribute. A space station is much like an oil rig in the North Sea – and you don’t get brothels on oil rigs.

Further, what does all this say about gender relations in the authors’ vision of the twenty-second century? That women still are second-class citizens. One major character’s boss is a woman, and another’s executive officer is also female. But that female boss plays only a small role, and everything the XO does she does because she has the male character’s permission to do so (and it’s not even a military spaceship).

For the past twenty years, British space opera writers have been putting diversity, gender equality and some degree of realism into their space opera. They kept the Big Dumb Objects and the gosh-wow special effects, but they stopped treating women like part of the hero’s equipment. They created characters from cultures other than their own, and made an effort to present them authentically. They created space opera universes that were as diverse as our own world is now – if not more so. Leviathan Wakes is a step backwards. It is Old Space Opera, with all the criticisms that implies. Of course, it doesn’t goes so far as to have EE ‘Doc’ Smith’s planet of evil naked lesbians who only need the love of a good man to become useful members of the galactic “fraternity”, but in this day and age its world-building is no less regressive.

As for the plot… it has its moments, but it too hinges on an action which is so unbelievable, so difficult to swallow, despite repeated protestations in the prose itself, that suspension of disbelief is entirely lost. In a nutshell, two separate and different characters – a hard-boiled cop and an idealistic spaceship captain – stumble across a conspiracy, which subsequently triggers a war between Mars and the Asteroid Belt. The conspiracy centres around the discovery of a “protomolecule” (whatever that might be), which proves to be an alien invader from two billion years previously and which can infect, subsume and re-build human tissue – a sort of cross between The X-Files black oil and Lovecraft. The two protagonists eventually discover that behind all this is a corporation, which has been testing the protomolecule on unsuspecting human guineau pigs. A methodology which culminates in the deliberate infection of the one and half million inhabitants of the asteroid Eros.

I don’t believe it for an instant. There is no situation in which a corporation could plausibly consign so many people to a fate worse than death in the name of research. But just look at history, some people will say. It has happened in the past – in Nazi Germany, for example. Except history is not just a narrative of past events, it is also a learning process. We realised that slavery was morally wrong, for example, and we outlawed it. And two hundred years from now, if we are capable of building a space-based civilisation, we will have certainly learned that such actions as described in Leviathan Wakes are so wrong they are unthinkable.

Given all this, it seems churlish to complain that Leviathan Wakes‘ presentation of space travel and spacecraft owes far too much to present-day naval ships and not enough to what it might actually be like. While Abraham and Franck get the physics mostly right, it’s all far more like traditional science fiction than the story’s purported setting suggests. Even though a little authenticity in this area wouldn’t have impacted the “alien zombies in space” plot.

Most definitely not recommended.

The next book in the series, Caliban’s War, will be published June this year. I will not be reading it.
 

biodroid

Expensive Gadget User
Joined
Oct 11, 2007
Messages
2,496
I heard a lot og other reviews make it out to be good even GRRM says it's what Space Opera should be.
 

Werthead

Lemming of Discord
Joined
Jun 4, 2006
Messages
2,038
It's entertaining fluff. It doesn't take on board all of the strides made in Space Opera over the last 20+ years (mostly by British authors, indeed) but then very little American SF has. Dialling down expectations when confronted by an American space opera novel is very much par for the course these days.

I find Ian's suggestion that it is impossible for another Holocaust to take place because humanity has learned better from history to be preposterous, however. If that was the case we wouldn't have had ethnic cleansing in Bosnia, atrocities in Darfur, civil war in Rwanda and the massacres and the religious strife in Iraq. In addition, the overwhelming lesson of history is that people don't learn from it, only what they've experienced themselves. After the Napoleonic Wars and WWI, it was vowed never to let such a devastating conflict happen again, and both times it did. Maybe television and film depictions of WWII and the Holocaust would serve better to educate people and prevent something similar happen again, but given that millions of people in the world believe the Holocause never happened in the first place despite the titanic and overwhelming evidence to the contrary, I fear not.
 

tonphil1960

Member
Joined
Feb 12, 2012
Messages
16
Good book yes, nothing to write home about though. Let's see if the sequels are any better.

T
 

iansales

Well-Known Member
Joined
May 8, 2006
Messages
3,447
I find Ian's suggestion that it is impossible for another Holocaust to take place because humanity has learned better from history to be preposterous, however.
What holocaust? I'm not talking about one nation going to war and committing atrocities, or one group of people committing atrocities on another. In the book, a single executive decides to test an alien virus on one and a half million people - and no one tells him this is a remarkably stupid idea? Imagine of the director of R&D for ICL decided to test a new poison by introducing it in to the water spuply of Birmingham?
 

spider from mars

Active Member
Joined
Mar 23, 2009
Messages
26
Yeah Ian to be honest I was following your review without problem until you got to the holocaust bit. Not only do I find that an exceptionally naive view of history, I also think that if an author wants to introduce an amoral corporation or individual into their narrative then why the hell not? Sure I guess we've learned certain things, but a lot of the atrocities in Nazi Germany were down to the personality of Hitler himself - not particularly far fetched to imagine that another psycho gains some sort of authority (if you look back at Stalin, Pol Pot, about 2/3 of the Roman emperors...). And we've had all kinds of horrible, horrible events since then. (And I don't even want to get into some of the stuff done in the name of profit for the big companies over the years). I don't think that one guy going rogue in the future is beyond the realms of possibility.
 

iansales

Well-Known Member
Joined
May 8, 2006
Messages
3,447
Hitler - and it was not him alone - created a political environment in which certain actions not only became acceptable but desirable. Being at war certainly helped. A corporate director who will perform a fatal experiment on an unknowing public is another matter altogether. Given present legislation, safeguards, and public values, the president of Glaxo SmithKline would never consider secretly adding some drug to the water supply of New York City which would likely kill everyone. A terrorist, perhaps. But an executive? For profit?

But it's not just the lack of plausibility in the action, it's that the authors decided to use it in their story. They invented a one-dimensional villain, a cartoon Hitler, to drive their plot. And that's a failure of craft.
 

Werthead

Lemming of Discord
Joined
Jun 4, 2006
Messages
2,038
It's a cartoon exaggeration, sure, but then it's also a deliberately old-school, soft-SF space opera, more STAR WARS and STAR TREK than Alastair Reynolds or Paul McAuley. Villains have done worse in that field before.

And we do live in a century when the heads of tobacco companies went to vast lengths and spent billions of dollars trying to bury the truth that their products killed people, in order to ensure their profit margins were maintained. We see the same now going on with some oil companies desperately trying to halt all attempts to crack down on pollution and global warming so they can continue making profits, regardless of what happens to certain low-lying areas of the planet, endangering a lot of lives.

Given the parameters of the story and the setting (these execs can sit on remote space stations and do things to people in a constained asteroid on the other side of the Solar system), the ambitions of the villain are not entirely implausible. Exaggerated and outrageous, sure.
 

iansales

Well-Known Member
Joined
May 8, 2006
Messages
3,447
Interesting analogies but I don't think they quite map onto the situation given in the book. Cigarettes - and alcohol, for that matter - are detrimental to your health, and people die from diseases caused by them. But they are not 100% fatal. And if they had been, no amount of money would have kept the cigarette companies in business. (For one thing, their market would have died out very quickly.)

The same is true of Union Carbide, who ignored a report by a safety engineer, didn't make the proposed change to their plant, and as a result thousands of people were poisoned and died. Not fixing that valve did not make it certain that people would die, only that if something happened, the valve would fail and the gas would leak.

In the book, the corporate executive hires mercenaries and gangsters to seal the asteroid so he can then release the alien virus - which he knows to be 100% fatal. This is akin to Philip Morris International spiking all its cigarettes with cyanide just to see what happens, and if they could perhaps profit from it.

As for the book being old school space opera... Why write old school space opera? What's next? Someone writing a racist, sexist spy thriller like Fleming did back in the 1950s?
 

Werthead

Lemming of Discord
Joined
Jun 4, 2006
Messages
2,038
Why write old school space opera? What's next?
Why not? At the basest level, it's where the money is: old-school US space opera authors like David Weber make much, much more money than any British 'new space opera' author bar Peter F. Hamilton. Certainly that's the reason to write it for any author starting out in the field (like Ty Franck) or who writes to feed himself, like Daniel Abraham, especially after the bombing of his fantasy series showed what happened when you try to write a more original, possibly even experimental work rather than something commercial (though Tor's inept marketing didn't help; it's gone down much better in the UK with a more competent publisher at the helm).

Also, it was probably not quite right for me to call LW totally old-school. It's clearly not in the same far-out space fantasy sphere as the likes of Weber. It may not be as 'realistic' as say Reynolds, but with its non-use of FTL and its restriction to only the Solar system, it's clearly nodding a bit further towards that end of the spectrum than a lot of the American space opera stuff.

Someone writing a racist, sexist spy thriller like Fleming did back in the 1950s?
Well, someone did just publish a new JAMES BOND novel. Whether it had sexism/racism in it, I don't know.
 

iansales

Well-Known Member
Joined
May 8, 2006
Messages
3,447
The lack of FTL doesn't qualify as old school - the Lensman series had Kimball Kinnison flitting all over the galaxy via hyperspace. If anything, it's more of a nod towards hard sf than space opera. But in attitudes and sensibilities, then yes, LW is certainly old school - cf Smith's planet of evil naked lesbians who only needed the love of good men to become nice ladies.

I think the latest Bond book was by Jeffrey Deaver. Before that, it was Sebastian Faulks. But there have been 007 books going back decades. John Gardner wrote loads of them. I suspect most of them feature the sensibilities of the time they were written. I've read some of the Gardner ones, and they were ordinary 1990s thrillers and nothing like Fleming's originals. I also have the Faulks one on the TBR, so I guess I'll find out if that one's regressive.
 

belowforty

New Member
Joined
Feb 28, 2012
Messages
2
If you like Space Stories, Leviathan Wakes is a write book for you. The author James A. Corey creates a epic story in a reasonably near future, with an excellently conceived of environment and a fun story that is both action packed and thoughtful. Leviathan Wakes is the embodiment of what good space opera should be: there's a bit of a scientific background that helps to inform the plot, but the focus of this story is on the characters and major events that blast the story forward. Truly I like the book.
 

Kamosis

Active Member
Joined
Apr 3, 2012
Messages
29
I liked this book specially for the detective side of it, but can anyone recommend me a good "new space opera" for comparison?
 

iansales

Well-Known Member
Joined
May 8, 2006
Messages
3,447
Try Seeds of Earth by Michael Cobley or Stealing Light by Gary Gibson. Or any of Iain M Banks' Culture novels - the most recent two were Matter and Surface Detail. Alastair Reynolds is closer to hard sf than space opera but is also definitely worth reading.
 
Joined
May 29, 2012
Messages
20
You make some good points in your review, iansales. But I have to say, I really enjoyed Leviathan Wakes.
To me, it was just a blast to read. It's hard not to enjoy a book in which "The Mormons are going to be pissed" are the last words of a chapter. I eagerly await the second of the series, which is due out in a few weeks, I believe.

(please let me know if this is too big of a bump. I'm new here- still figuring out the etiquette.)
 

iansales

Well-Known Member
Joined
May 8, 2006
Messages
3,447
Yes, but just because you enjoyed a book doesn't make it a good one, and certainly doesn't make it an award-worthy one. If it did, then all McDonald's outlets would have Michelin stars...
 
Joined
May 29, 2012
Messages
20
Yes, but just because you enjoyed a book doesn't make it a good one, and certainly doesn't make it an award-worthy one. If it did, then all McDonald's outlets would have Michelin stars...
Obviously what makes a book "good" is subjective. Leviathan Wakes, to me, was pleasurable to read. Is the delight one receives from a book not a factor in whether one considers it "good"?
Why should I not consider something I like "good"? Because you don't like it? Because you don't think it should win awards?
Certainly Leviathan Wakes isn't ground-breaking literature, nor is it innovative science fiction. But it made me smile, made me laugh, and was quite entertaining. To me, such pleasure, among many other things, is good.

EDIT
By the way, I liked your metaphor. But we can't eat at five-star restaurants for dinner every night, can we? I know I can't.
 
Last edited:
Top