Most of the reaction I have seen to Leviathan Wakes being on the Hugo ballot has been of the form of, “oh, it is a fan choice, good old-fashioned space opera, rollicking adventure”. As a result I approached the book with fairly low expectations. Perhaps that was a good thing, but equally I should probably have more faith in one of my favourite writers.
As I think most of you will know by now, James A. Corey is a pseudonym behind which hides two people: Ty Frank and Daniel Abraham. I don’t know Ty at all, but I do know that he works for George Martin. Abraham is also a friend of Martin’s — indeed he is scripting the Game of Thrones graphic novels. But he should be more famous for writing one of the best epic fantasy series I have ever read. It is scandalous that writing as good as that in The Long Price Quartet hasn’t won major awards, but there are good reasons why such works don’t feature in an awards system geared to individual years’ output.
So where does Leviathan Wakes fit in all this? Well to start with it is only space opera in the very loosest sense of being an adventure story set in space. Traditional space opera is supposedly painted on the broadest of canvasses. It should feature galaxy-spanning empires and an ever-escalating series of gosh-wow technology. Leviathan Wakes, on the other hand, is much like one of the solar-system-based stories in the newly popular style of The Quiet War, Blue Remembered Earth and 2312. It doesn’t have anywhere near the gosh-wow factor of the Robinson book, let alone that of a Culture novel. Then again, Charlie Stross calls the book space opera in the back cover blurb, and who am I to disagree?
Leviathan Wakes is, on the other hand, an adventure story featuring an unlikely cast of misfits. People who like to draw such distinctions will doubtless label it “American” because of the focus on ordinary people thrust into the middle of important events and doing their own thing. It would be wrong, however, to assume that such vigilantism is universally praised.
The book has two main viewpoint characters. Joe Miller is a hard-boiled detective. His wife has left him, his bosses are corrupt, his only real friend is a bottle of whiskey, and because he lives on Ceres that’s actually synthetic whiskey-like substance. To keep his nose out of things he might screw up by having scruples, he’s assigned to a missing person case. Julie Mao is a little lost rich girl who has left her privileged family to play social revolutionary amongst the Belters (inhabitants of the Asteroid Belt). Mummy and Daddy want her back. But having read the prologue we know that Julie is in far more trouble that anyone suspects. Miller, being a hopeless romantic, falls in love with his quarry.
Jim Holden is almost as much of a basket case as Miller. He’s the Executive Officer on an ice hauler that mines water in the rings of Saturn and brings it to asteroid colonies like Ceres. He has that job because he’s too uppity and self-righteous to hold down a place on any ship with a serious command hierarchy. Early on in the book he runs into the same sort of trouble that afflicted Julie Mao, and as a result he plunges the solar system into war.
This is where we get to the interesting thing about the book. Holden reminds me a lot of the sort of person who reads an outraged rant on the Internet and immediately goes into overdrive supporting it without trying to find out whether it is true, or thinking about the implications. He’s the ideal mark for someone who wants to start a fight by framing someone else. Eventually, of course, he’ll wise up to how he has been had. By that time, millions of people might be dead.
The trouble with a space-based civilization is that it is unbelievably fragile. Indeed, once any group of people gets the ability to pick up big rocks and throw them around the solar system, even planets aren’t safe. We are back in a world of Mutually Assured Destruction. All it takes for things to fall apart is for one side to start shooting.
Now of course, when the stakes are that high, you need a very powerful motive to get people to fight. That’s where a small bit of space opera creeps into the story. It seems likely that later books in the series will be a lot more baroque. But I’ve probably told you quite enough already. There’s plenty more to come, but equally Leviathan Wakes works well on its own. Hopefully it will also cause its readers to ponder the value of radical transparency. It is, in part, a book about Wikileaks and similar organizations. If a book leads people to think that some things are more complicated than they seem on the Internet, I’m all in favour of it.
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