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Leviathan Wakes, James SA Corey

iansales

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But that's just it - "good" is not subjective, it's objective. "Enjoyable", however, is subjective. As Adam Roberts has said, "aesthetic judgement is not an exact science", but nonetheless there are commonly accepted standards which are used to determine the literary quality of a piece of text. It's perhaps best to list those qualities which are indicative of bad books, such as: cardboard cutout characters, idiot plotting, recycled ideas, lack of rigour, clumsy prose...

I had no problem with the prose in Leviathan Wakes - while it wasn't bad, it never rose as high as good. But I did think the world-building and plotting were implausible, not to mention derivative in parts. To my mind, that's two reasons why it isn't a good novel. This in no way affects people's enjoyment of the book, however. But for a book to be short-listed for an award, I believe it has to be more than merely enjoyable.
 
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But that's just it - "good" is not subjective, it's objective. "Enjoyable", however, is subjective. As Adam Roberts has said, "aesthetic judgement is not an exact science", but nonetheless there are commonly accepted standards which are used to determine the literary quality of a piece of text. It's perhaps best to list those qualities which are indicative of bad books, such as: cardboard cutout characters, idiot plotting, recycled ideas, lack of rigour, clumsy prose...

I had no problem with the prose in Leviathan Wakes - while it wasn't bad, it never rose as high as good. But I did think the world-building and plotting were implausible, not to mention derivative in parts. To my mind, that's two reasons why it isn't a good novel. This in no way affects people's enjoyment of the book, however. But for a book to be short-listed for an award, I believe it has to be more than merely enjoyable.

Yes, "good" is absolutely subjective. The quality of the world-building and plotting-- those are subjective judgements of a book. As are the quality of the characters and quality of prose. It all depends on what works for the individual.
That's not to say I thought that everything about Leviathan Wakes was "good," per your terms. I think it has some flaws. But, nonetheless, what I might see as a flaw, another might see as a valuable aspect. It's subjective. If you aren't willing to accept that, I suppose we're at a stalemate.
 

iansales

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Purely subjective? So the craft, the art, the talent a writer puts into their book means nothing? So there's no point in a writer improving, because they can't get better because every such judgment is subjective and entirely personal to the reader? What about classics? Why are books chosen as classics? Is it because those books meet everyone's subjective determination of what makes a book good? And is every book prize given based entirely on the subjective judgment of the jury? Why bother selecting jurors who are writers or critics or who know something about literature? Why not just pick a random person off the street? If all judgments of quality are subjective, what are the point of experts?

You cannot make useful value judgments on books - on anything - without some form of generally-accepted standards of quality.
 

HareBrain

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If I might stick my nose in here, I think "good" is too vague a word to judge quality. An elephant can sling paint onto a canvas in such a way that the result might, by chance, appeal to some people. Does that make the painting "good"? Some would say yes, some no, but that's just so much blah unless they can also say why.

I think one more objective way to "grade" a book is to look at what the author has acheived in the light of (a) the goals he seems to have set himself, and (b) the goals that authors of that kind of book in general set themselves. If (a) and (b) clearly conflict, then discuss.
 

The Judge

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I haven't read Leviathan Wakes so I can't comment on it, but I have to say, Ian, that I find it strange you're recommending Seeds of Earth, presumably on the basis that it's a "good" book, when to me it was anything but. I certainly agree that there may be criteria we use to judge quality, but I think those criteria are internalised to a great extent, so that what you may have appreciated as eg world-building in SoE I found intolerable and irrelevant info-dumps, and what I thought were cardboard characters you found engaging and well-rounded individuals.

Anyway, although it's certainly an interesting discussion, it's perhaps better suited to a thread of its own if someone wants to start one, rather than taking up a review thread.
 

iansales

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I think one more objective way to "grade" a book is to look at what the author has acheived in the light of (a) the goals he seems to have set himself, and (b) the goals that authors of that kind of book in general set themselves. If (a) and (b) clearly conflict, then discuss.
Except "the author is dead" :)
 

Connavar

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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.
I just read your review and i was wondering which other modern Space Opera would you recommend ? Banks i will read and the others i might check out except Reynolds lost with Hard SF writing that wasnt good enough for me.

Is there other quality so called British New Space Opera in your eyes ?
 

iansales

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Good question. In the front rank, you have Banks, Baxter, Hamilton and Reynolds. Then there's Paul McAuley, who never quite made the leap to their level; and Ken MacLeod, who these days mostly writes near-future sf. Next is Gibson and Cobley and Jaine Fenn, and more recently Gavin Smith or Marianne de Pierres.
 

Connavar

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Good question. In the front rank, you have Banks, Baxter, Hamilton and Reynolds. Then there's Paul McAuley, who never quite made the leap to their level; and Ken MacLeod, who these days mostly writes near-future sf. Next is Gibson and Cobley and Jaine Fenn, and more recently Gavin Smith or Marianne de Pierres.
Im actually reading Ken Macleod 1995 The Star Fraction as my first book of his. After Reynolds was a dissapointment Macleod book gives me hope i will like the other similar british SF authors. He writes with good prose,characters smart,political SF in near future that is exactly the kind of good SF i expect but then near future SF is the kind i read the genre for mostly.

I dont like those scientist turned SF author which Reynolds was too much of atleast with Revelation Space. I like that book in first half and then i couldnt finish it.

Paul McAuley seems to be rated for SF thrillers that sound like Richard Morgan books so i wont bother with his Space Opera books anyway.

I want to find out if Space opera kind written today is for me or not. I enjoy the classic,50s-60s Opera kind those were less science and more story,social SF in space.

Hamilton isnt he some popular brick books ? fluff? I didnt know he was rated critically for his Space opera.
 

iansales

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I wouldn't say Hamilton was critically rated but he's the biggest selling sf author in the UK. I'm surprised you didn't like Reynolds. Perhaps you ought to give him another go - perhaps try one of his short story collections, Galactic North or Zima Blue. McAuley has written a couple of sf thrillers, but he's primarily a hard sf author - his last three books, The Quiet War, Gardens of the Sun and In The Mouth of the Whale are all hard sf. But some of his books are New Space Opera, like Eternal Light, or the Confluence trilogy.

And if you don't like too much science in your story, you wouldn't like my book :)
 

Connavar

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I wouldn't say Hamilton was critically rated but he's the biggest selling sf author in the UK. I'm surprised you didn't like Reynolds. Perhaps you ought to give him another go - perhaps try one of his short story collections, Galactic North or Zima Blue. McAuley has written a couple of sf thrillers, but he's primarily a hard sf author - his last three books, The Quiet War, Gardens of the Sun and In The Mouth of the Whale are all hard sf. But some of his books are New Space Opera, like Eternal Light, or the Confluence trilogy.

And if you don't like too much science in your story, you wouldn't like my book :)
Hey i like Hard SF ,science oriented stories but the prose and storytelling must be good too. Ian im trusting your knowledge,critical eye on good SF i dont care Hamilton is the most popular UK writer. I was wondering about critically rated SF space operas. Otherwise i would read weak,fluffy like you call the book in this thread ;)

McAuley i have read his Second Skin story and i like Hard SF,SF thrillers more than Space Opera so he is naturally more interesting to me.

I have just gotten A Player of the Games by Banks and then it is Hard SF by McAuley. Reynolds i saw promise early in that book and i will give him a last,second chance later on but not before more interesting British SF authors like Banks,McAuley,Meaney.
 

biodroid

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I tried to read about 30 pages but could not do it anymore. You were right iansales, sorry you had to read the whole thing.
 

CDKelley

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Shakespeare in Space
Possible spoilers follow:
The authors, Abraham and Franck, filled their novel LEVIATHAN WAKES with plenty of classical references. These allusions weren’t obscure or sparsely scattered like so many bread crumbs scattered on a bakery floor. What the authors gave readers were plenty of cookies, those super-sized ones as big as dinner plates. This should add an element of fun for any reader with knowledge of Greek and Roman mythology and of William Shakespeare’s plays.
First consider Julie Mao’s full name: Juliette Andromeda Mao. The name Juliette suggests a reference to Shakespeare’s ROMEO AND JULIET. The pieces fall into place after the connection to the play is made. Earth and Mars mirror the Capulet and Montague families with their long-running feud. Miller plays Romeo to Julie Mao’s Juliet. Miller even has his Rosaline. Holden, described in the novel as a righteous man, closely matches Friar Laurence. Fred is the Prince of Verona. And so on and so forth, many of the LEVIATHAN WAKES characters have counterparts in Shake’s play. WAKES narrative roughly follows the events in ROMEO AND JULIET. For example, misunderstandings rekindled rivalries between old antagonists, planet Mars and planet Earth, much as random street violence reignited the blood feud between the families Capulet and Montague. After events play out between Miller and Dresden (a Tybalt-like character), Miller is banished from the presence of Holden and Fred. Like Friar Laurence, Holden’s misguided attempts to help end the crisis he played no small part in creating usually made matters worse. The two meetings between Miller and Julie recall the tragic scene when Romeo enters Juliet’s tomb without prior warning that Juliet had taken a drug which only simulated death.
Next consider the authors use of named planets and asteroids in WAKES. Their choices have deeper meanings in the narrative. Recall Apuleius’ tale of Eros and Psyche. The god Eros, or Cupid, falls in love with a human woman named Psyche. Eros’ mother, the goddess Venus, hates Psyche at first. But after some nastiness on her part, Venus relents. Eros convinces the gods to allow Psyche to partake of the ambrosia (think of the Brown Goo spewing Vomit Zombies here) which would morph her into one of the gods. The words “psyche” and “Andromeda”, Julie Mao’s middle name, refer one way or another to the mind or brain. And remember Eros and Psyche produced a child named Hedone—the source of the word “hedonism”. In WAKES, Space Station Eros is all about hedonism. Abraham and Franck choose Canterbury, Rocinante, and Scopuli to name some of the ships in WAKES further hinting at deeper meanings to be found by the careful reader.
LEVIATHAN WAKES gets two stars, with a third star added for including some amusing and thought provoking cookies.
Hooray for cookies.
In June, 2012, the next book in the Expanse series comes out. The name, CALIBAN’S WAR, suggests an allusion to Shake’s play The Tempest. Political intrigue plays an important role in The Tempest. The authors of CALIBAN’S WAR have hinted at a similar theme in the new novel. Taken together, WAKES and CALIBAN’S WAR, should make for entertaining, light, summer reading without trying the reader’s patience with too much psycho-babble or techno-babble.
 

Werthead

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The Expanse #2: Caliban's War by James S.A. Corey (Daniel Abraham & Ty Franck)

An alien protomolocule has taken root on Venus. Earth and Mars are in a shooting match over an incident on Ganymede. The Solar system is moving towards all-out anarchy and war, and it falls to a well-meaning meddler, a canny politician, a Martian marine and a grief-stricken botanist to try to stop the descent into madness.

Caliban's War is the second novel in The Expanse series, following on from last year's well-received Leviathan Wakes. This is old-school space opera, featuring the crew of a spacecraft as they attempt to save the Solar system from an alien menace. The series features some nods towards serious science - the ships work strictly by Newtonian physics and there is no FTL travel, with the scope of events being limited (so far) to the Solar system alone - but it's certainly not hard SF. The emphasis is being on an entertaining, fast-paced read, and the book pulls this off with aplomb.

The cast of characters has been expanded in this volume, with only Holden returning as a POV character from the first volume. Unlike the first novel, which had a grand total of two POVs, this second volume features four: Holden, UN politician Avasarala, botanist Prax and marine Bonnie. This means that the authors have three major new characters to introduce us to, as well as continuing the storyline from the first novel and evolving the returning cast of characters (Holden and his crew). This results in the pace being marginally slower than in Leviathan Wakes, although certainly not fatally so. Indeed, Abraham and Franck imbue the new characters with interesting backstories, motivations and quirks. It's also quite amusing that the most enjoyable character in an action-packed space opera is a 70-year-old politician with a potty mouth.

There's some major shoot-outs, a few big space battles, a close encounter with a rampaging monster in a zero-gravity cargo hold and other action set pieces that are handled well, but the book falters a little in its handling of politics (which are fairly lightweight) and the characterisation of the bad guys, who never rise above the obvious.

Caliban's War (***½) is not as accomplished as its forebear but is still a page-turning, solidly enjoyable read. The novel is available now in the UK and USA.
 

Galacticdefender

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Yes, I know, this thread is a bit old, but I'm posting my comments about the review here. Also I'm quite enjoying Caliban's War.

Well, I thought it was a good read at least. Space Opera is by far my favorite genre, and Leviathan Wakes is a pretty good space opera in my opinion. The whole “Ceres is filled with criminal scum” thing got to me a bit too, however. If this story was set say, 600 years in the future and the entire asteroid belt was completely self-sufficient, then maybe, but it kind of irritated me.
Also the fact that the crewmembers hijack a military vessel and know exactly how to fly it was a bit strange.
I really don’t know where you are getting the whole sexism thing from. There were plenty of female characters that were portrayed well enough. I highly doubt there were any intentional messages against women.
The characters weren’t that interesting, Holden was alright, and so was Miller, but the other characters were kind of just cookie-cutter space opera characters.
I quite liked the setting though. Having a space opera that loses no sense of scale despite being set in our own solar system was pretty cool.
Anyway, it was an entertaining read, and I would recommend it. I’ll definitely be reading Caliban’s War.
(Also I think this book was nominated for the Hugo award. Not sure if it deserves praise that high, but it was a pretty good book)
 

Nerds_feather

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I'm resurrecting this thread from the dead because I've just finished Leviathan Wakes and have some criticisms that complement Ian's.

Namely, I felt the characters were stock cardboard and unfortunately familiar, the future envisioned was overly American and the book was overly deferential to (pre-British New Wave) libertarian space opera traditions.
 

Werthead

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The Expanse #3: Abaddon's Gate

A mysterious alien artifact - a gateway - has been constructed beyond Uranus's orbit. Its purpose is unknown. Representatives from Earth, Mars and the Belt are rushing to investigate, among them, reluctantly, Jim Holden and the crew of the Rocinante. The artifact holds the key to the future of the human race, an opportunity to spread mankind to the stars...but it is also a weapon that could incinerate the entire Solar system if it falls unto the wrong hands.

Abaddon's Gate is the third novel in The Expanse series by James S.A. Corey (aka Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck), which is expected to run to nine novels (and "Will soon be a major television series"). This book picks up after the events of Caliban's War, although unfortunately some of the more notable characters from that book are missing. Instead, we have a number of new POV characters joining the returning figures of Holden and the Rocinante crew.

The book initially opens with the different factions racing to the gate with their own agendas and goals in mind. There's a murderous character plotting vengeance on Holden in a (not very convincing) way of getting him involved in the plot. There's tensions on the Belter command ship between the psychotic captain and his more reasonable executive officer and security chief. There's a religious-but-non-fanatical leader who couples pious morality with hard-headed practicality. And so on. It's all reasonable enough, until the crew arrive at the gate and pass through it into a strange sub-pocket of space where physical rules can be rewritten and an ancient intelligence uses the form of Detective Miller to speak to Holden.

At this point things take a turn for the bizarre and it feels like The Expanse is about to break out into a fully-blown hard SF novel. The "slow zone" of the gateway space feels like a nod to Vernor Vinge, and the limitations of slower-than-light travel when the laws of physics keep changing is the sort of thing that would earn an Alastair Reynolds nod of approval. It's all nicely set up for The Expanse to move away from its MOR space opera roots and turn into something more than explosions and gunfights.

Except that doesn't happen. The novel soon falls back into its comfort zone of explosions and gunfights, with the major characters all forced into choosing sides between the psychotic captain of the Belter command ship and his other senior crew. This would have more resonance if we'd had the mad captain set up a bit better, but he isn't. It just feels like he's there and mad and antagonistic because, well, the book wouldn't have any conflict without him.

The action set-pieces are generally well-handled, there's some very nice zero-gee combat scenes and Abraham and Franck don't let up on the pace until the last page. There is no denying that there's fun to be had here. But it also feels a bit shallow, and it reinforces the feeling that The Expanse is SF with the training wheels left on. Abaddon's Gate feels like it should have been allowed to make a turn into crazy hard SF weirdness, but instead it's shoehorned back into being an action story. A very nicely-done action story, but there is military SF around that does this stuff a lot better.

As it stands, Abaddon's Gate (***½) ends up being just another readable, fast-paced and entertaining instalment of a readable, fast-paced and entertaining series. Which is fine, but there is definitely the prospect here, between the authors' excellent worldbuilding and solid prose skills, of elevating things onto another level. Hopefully later instalments will deliver on the promise of the series, which is so far tantalising but unfulfilled. Abaddon's Gate is available now in the UK and USA.
 

Vertigo

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I've just finished this and I'm afraid I largely agree with @iansales:


Following all its glowing reviews Leviathan Wakes was a huge disappointment. The main ideas of the book are good and interesting; a three way political stew coming to the boil with a massively destabilising discovery adding spice. All this had great promise but it sadly failed desperately in its execution – at least for me. I can see how many might have enjoyed it, as the writing itself is really quite good with excellent pacing keeping the pages turning, well written action scenes, good dialogue, albeit heavily laced with clichés, and the use of some well proven tropes. Those last two points however are at the root of much of my disappointment; well proven tropes are always likely to result in popular acclaim, but for me at least these ones are far too well proven and just plain worn out.

The two main characters are the main guilty parties, though the supporting characters are almost as bad. We are presented with Miller, a recently divorced, burnt out cop who used to be good but is now viewed by his colleagues as a bit of a joke and just beginning to realise it himself. Think a mix of Deckard (Harrison Ford) from Blade Runner/Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep (more the film version than the book) and Doyle (Gene Hackman) from The French Connection (Miller even wears a porkpie hat, for goodness sake). This is such a worn out trope my heart fell as soon as it became apparent it was being used for one of the major characters. Then we are given the righteous Holden (note that these are the only two significant characters always referred to by surname – maybe for a touch of gravitas? – all others are referred to by first name). Holden is righteous ex-military officer who was dishonourably discharged for attempting to strike a senior officer, for very good and very righteous reasons, of course, and is now XO of a tramp ice transporter. He has major self-doubt issues but, as we are constantly reminded by various characters throughout the book, he is so righteous (and, yes, they use that word at least as much as I have) that all his well-meaning screw ups can be forgiven (and he makes plenty without apparently learning from them). Oh and he’s just so good looking that a broken nose received later in the book can only enhance his sex appeal.

If those two tired tropes aren’t enough we have the female interest; an initially strong seeming tom girl chief engineer who we are told, again repeatedly (how many times do these authors have to tell us stuff before they believe we’ll remember it?), that she can fix anything and who refuses to carry a gun and hides her head in her hands when bullet start flying, giving lots of opportunity for Holden to provide manly (righteous!) protection. Then there’s the ex-military pilot who is fine when he’s flying a spaceship in a desperate action but turns into a gibbering wreck in any other kind of action and, of course, finally we have the tough, beer (and anything else) swilling, brawny, rock solid, dependable ex-military engineer. I mean, all we’re really missing is an old wise wizard and a teenage kid who doesn’t know how special he is… oh, sorry, switched genres there!

I could go on about the noir Blade Runner/Cyberpunk style criminal-centric worlds of the asteroid belt but I grow tired and I’m sure you get the idea by now. I could also go on about the numerous small plot holes and implausible plot driving decision made by the characters but enough already. Leviathan Wakes is so full of cliché’s it’s frankly embarrassing to read at times. The punchy writing did keep me reading until the (very predictable) end but I can’t see me going on to the other books in the series.
 
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