Friday, May 15, 2020

"Leviathan Wakes," by James S.A. Corey--Fiction Review

Happy Friday obscurists, it’s May the 15th —the 15th is always a happy day for me because it is always a new book(s) day for me. Today’s review is of the first novel in “The Expanse” series, “Leviathan Wakes” by James S.A. Corey, a science fiction space opera. There are arguments to be made that it could be classified as science fiction/horror, but I personally think of it as Space Opera with horror elements.  

James S.A. Corey


***The Non-Spoiler part of this review***


What I love about this book:

A lot—it’s in space, there are big titanic spaceship battles, there is a scary biological weapon that at first transforms people into zombie-like husks that mutate further into horrible glowy abominations. It’s got that “Game of Thrones” feel with several parties all following conflicting motivations/political machinations. Oh, and it’s quite funny here and there.

For this first book, there are only two perspective characters, and they have dueling outlooks on life. Holden is the idealist, and Miller is the pragmatist. I’ve only read the next three novels in this series as of today, but you never get that dichotomy again with the perspective characters. So in this first novel, since the perspective characters are separate at first, you get a feeling for the scope of the world and then that scope contracts—ironic for a series called “the expanse”—when they meet. After they part ways, the world opens up again, or you could say expands, get it—get it? No, that’s not why the series is titled that, but it’s a funny little observation.  

I love the attention to detail to the practical realities of life in space, especially over generations. People who were born in, and lived their entire lives in near null gravity, would be strikingly different in physiology to people who live on Earth. My admiration also extends to the realities of life on ships operating in space. Save for little details like the protomolecule or the Epstein Drive—not that Epstein—everything is presented hard science fiction style as practical outgrowths of technology we have today or can at least describe the mechanics of how they would function. There is no gravity other than what can be generated by either enough mass, constant acceleration, or spin—like reality, so far as we know.   


What I don’t love about this book:

Maximum pettiness here, but I hate the cover art, and I continue to hate the cover art for every subsequent novel in this series. The perspective is always odd, and I can never get a sense of what is going on, or the full definition of the objects shown. For me, if you’re not going to go with a clear moment from the story for your cover art, then make it meaningfully symbolic, or have a picture of a character so your audience can go: “hey, that’s so-and-so.”

Also, the ships are described as ugly, which is probably more of an accurate assessment of ship design in a zero-g environment than star wars’ x-wings. But still—I don’t like it, I like my sleek aerodynamic starships even though logically why would you design something to be aerodynamic when it operates in an environment where there is no air.

It may seem like I’m reaching for things that I don’t like about this book, and that’s because I am. “Leviathan Wakes” is one of those novels that hit on nearly every sweet spot for me for a story to have, so it’s a struggle just to find things I don’t like. There isn’t any element of the story that I hate. 



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***The Spoiler part of this review***
***Ye be warned to turn back now***


The quick and dirty synopsis:

The story starts with neither of the perspective characters, but with a woman named Julie Mao whose ship had been attacked and she was taken prisoner and stuffed into a closet for days. Eventually, she escapes and goes looking for anyone else on the ship, but everything is eerily quiet, and the ship seems to be abandoned. That is until she reaches engineering where there appears to be some fleshy thing growing around the core, then when the fleshy object moves, she spots a head, and realizes that whatever it is, it used to be human.

Then we jump into the next chapter where we meet James Holden, XO of the Canterbury, an old, giant ice hauling spaceship. The crew of the Canterbury detects a distress signal, and Holden and the Captain discuss stopping to assist, which will absolutely make them late for their delivery.

Holden leads a small group from the Canterbury over to the distressed ship via a shuttle. Where they quickly discover that the derelict had been left as a trap. The Canterbury is attacked and destroyed, leaving Holden in charge of the four remaining survivors of the Canterbury on a shuttle not designed to go far. This doesn’t stop him from broadcasting what he found on the derelict ship, which was used as bait, that the technology used to send the signal seems to have come from Mars.

With the destruction of the Canterbury, and James Holden apparently pointing the finger at Mars, the whole solar system braces for possible war. Then we meet the second perspective character of this novel, Miller, who is a cop on Ceres station. Miller is aggressively focused on the small picture of life, specifically his life as a cop on Ceres. He’s saddled with a partner who is from Earth, never popular with people who live in “the belt” as in the asteroid belt where Ceres station is located. But despite his lack of interest in anything beyond Ceres, Miller is tasked with finding a missing rich girl and shipping her off back home to Earth—Julie Mao.

Meanwhile, back with Holden and his crew, they eventually get rescued by a warship—a martian warship. So their saviors aren’t all that pleased with Holden because he essentially accused them of being murderers and pirates. While on the Martian ship, Holden finds out that it probably wasn’t Mars who attacked the Canterbury, but he doesn’t have much time to think about it because this ship also gets attacked by ships like the ones that killed the Canterbury. A large battle ensues, one of Holden’s little crew gets killed, and he with the rest of his crew barely make it off the ship alive with the help of some Martian marines, who die giving them the chance to escape on one of Mars’ state of the art frigates. 

Things get worse on Ceres station as unrest grows after another ship is shot out from underneath Holden, and still, no one is sure who are the aggressors. Miller becomes obsessed with the case of finding Julie, even though his superior, who gave him the assignment, told him it wasn’t a priority. Miller does eventually find evidence of her whereabouts on a ship called the Scopuli, but he’s ultimately fired from his job as a detective. He’s disillusioned to find out that he was only given the assignment because his superiors thought he’d screw it up. He was never meant actually to find her, and the fact that he won’t let it go makes him more trouble then he’s worth. 

Holden and crew, with a small swanky new warship of their own, find they have the problem of nowhere to go, but this only lasts until they get a message from one of the leaders of the outer planets alliance or OPA—Fred Johnson. From there, they are given the assignment to head to Eros station to make contact with a member of the OPA, someone they believe is the sole survivor of the Scopuli and who might know who really killed the Canterbury.

On Eros station, Holden and Miller meet up for the first time and find the disfigured body of Julie Mao. A biological weapon had killed her, and it’s at this point that Miller realizes that the “cops” on Eros are criminals from Ceres station that suddenly went missing. They had been hired by an evil corporation to set up an experiment using Julie Mao’s body, and the entire population of Eros station are their guinea pigs.

The biological weapon makes people into vomit zombies—way worse than the traditional bitey kind—but only at first, and eventually, they mutate into even more grotesque abominations. Miller, Holden, and Holden’s crew barely escape Eros with their lives and go after the evil corporation that released this bioweapon with the help of Fred Johnson. After the attack, they meet up with the head sociopathic scientist who pleads their murderous case, revealing that the bioweapon they were studying was something they found, as in it’s extraterrestrial. Miller shoots him several times anyway.

In the end, there is still Eros station to contend with as the abominations within it don’t just die off, they combine becoming one big life form. A desperate plan is formed to knock Eros station into a course where it will fall into the sun by ramming it with a large space ship, but unfortunately, it dodges—and then heads for Earth.

With everyone shitting their collective pants, with a revelation that an asteroid just came alive, and is in some alien way self-aware, Miller makes his way back into Eros station alone. He’s confronted by a grotesque menagerie of repurposed biology but ultimately realizes that Julie, in some way, is still alive. He finds her and wakes her up. As the original source of the infection of Eros station, she seems to have some limited control over the station. She had been dreaming she was on her old racing ship and wanted to go home—to Earth. Miller convinces her that they can’t go there and compromises with her to go to Venus instead, and she agrees. She asks him what will happen next, and he admits that he doesn’t know, but he takes off his suit and tells her, whatever it is, they’ll face it together.    


Analysis:

“Leviathan Wakes” is one of those epic science fictions that manages to hit on a lot of themes. Horror and war, political strife, the nature of people, and it even manages an odd romance at times. There is a lot to see in this novel, and its speculation on what the future might look like feels very authentic—minus the vomit zombies I hope. I thoroughly enjoyed getting lost in its world and spending time with the characters who inhabit that world. 

If I’m nit-picky, though, the relationship between Miller and Julie could only work in this specific way. Because if you change the element that she became patient zero to this alien bioweapon and was say—just fine—then Miller’s obsession with her is creepy. It’s still a little odd that this late-middle-aged detective gave up everything because he became obsessed with finding a young woman he never met before. He even thinks to himself at some point that he’d fallen in love with this dead girl. Again, he’d never met her before. They didn’t have a real relationship. It was just his job to find her and ship her off home.

However, to play devil’s advocate to my own point about Miller—during a conversation between Fred and Holden when they’re reminiscing about Miller, Fred describes him as a pain in the ass—not a hero. The point I guess is: the world is filled with flawed people trying to do their best, and in Miller’s case, he managed to save Earth, despite his flaws. 


Parting thoughts:

When I was younger, I would have found James Holden to be a bit too na├»ve and earnest—he’s space Jon Snow, if we’re keeping to the “Game of Thrones” references—but I’ve since changed my mind on protagonists like him. 

I used to be that person who was down on Superman, preferring Batman, and literally anyone other than Captain America in the Marvel universe. What I’ve found with a little more experience is: if every character is a disillusioned, cynical anti-hero, then the story becomes dreary if it goes on too long. I can only listen to so many diatribes on how everything sucks, and everyone sucks for so long before I inevitably burst out, “oh suck it up, you big baby, you get to fly around in space ships or have superpowers or whatnot.” Once I realized this, suddenly I saw Supes and Cap in a new light, and by extension, characters like them, such as James Holden. Their earnest, just want to do the right thing and believing in the better nature of people, provides contrast, that makes them hopeful leaders, which keeps things interesting.     

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