I often like to read something a bit different at the beginning of the year, in the spirit of new-ness, and so on, though last year it didn’t happen until June. I’ve discovered some really excellent stuff this way, which I’ll talk about later in the week. This year, after coming across mention of the sci-fi series The Expanse, I decided to plunge into the first novel, and over the course of nearly three weeks of January, I’ve been enraptured by the whole thing! (I’m going to try to avoid spoilers here).
The Expanse is set in the future of mankind, where we have finally made it out from Earth’s gravity well and onto Mars, and from there to the asteroid belt. The first thing that struck me about this book is, while it’s definitely science fiction, it isn’t difficult to understand. I mean, some sci-fi I’ve read in the past has been a bit too “techy”, but it also employs a lot of ridiculous language, almost in an attempt to justify its existence and legitimacy. Whatever. Leviathan Wakes is fairly straightforward prose, which lets you concentrate on the evolving story much easier.
At around the 550-page mark, it’s a good chunk of book for your money, and feels just about right in terms of the pacing. A lot happens over the course of the book, and there are very few extraneous scenes, which I appreciate a whole lot! I’m a fairly slow reader, as I usually take the time to imagine the worlds laid before me, right down to the accents of the characters and whatnot. In terms of world-building, Leviathan Wakes builds itself alongside the action, which I appreciate because of the fact so many books seem to set aside a great chunk of space to building up the locations and situations, all while trying to be foreboding, but the general result is a very boring description of politics and so forth, with next to no action. Here, we learn as we go, and for something so simple, it’s really effective.
On the flip-side, there are still a lot of questions left unanswered at the end. First of all, we never see Earth or Mars in this time period (though we do have a couple of interesting snippets of info about what has happened to Earth). For me, one of the more interesting aspects of futurist sci-fi such as this is seeing what has happened to Earth, but we don’t visit. A tantalising mention if made of “turning the red planet green”, and we understand Mars to have some kind of atmospheric domes on its surface, but we also don’t learn much about the first colony, either.
What we do get, however, is a lot of the Belt. Ceres and Eros, in particular, with Tycho being a close third. Now, space has never been my forte, and when the story refers to “Ceres station” and so forth, I was envisaging a space station, like an oil rig floating in the void and so on. It wasn’t until quite later on in the story that I realised these are bored-out asteroids. Well, anyway. For the unprepared, some research might be useful!
The story, then, has a believable air to it, as we see what our future could very easily turn out to be. That is something that I particularly enjoyed, how much it was entirely possible. While the books take great delight in quoting George RR Martin, “kickass space opera”, I would not personally class this as such – Star Wars is space opera, where the limitations of physics don’t really matter. The Expanse is a series where people can’t travel at certain speeds unless doped-up with drugs (“juice”) to compensate, whereas Han Solo floors his way through an asteroid field while everyone just hangs about without so much as a seatbelt on. (James SA Corey is the pen-name for the writing duo of Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck, the latter is GRRM’s writing assistant. Just so you know.)
The book is told from two points of view, those of Jim Holden and (Joe) Miller. The former is an idealist officer on a water freighter, the latter is a jaded Belter cop. Holden and his small crew really go through the ringer on this one, but I consistently found myself irritated by him. Miller, on the other hand, while working through several cliches, actually ends up the more interesting character, in my mind. The supporting characters are all really well-drawn, if again a little stereotypical.
It’s Miller’s storyline that actually gives this book it’s must-read status, for me, and has been the catalyst to my recommending it to folks. There is a strong element of the noire-detective-drama to his story, which coupled with the setting make this book approach the realms of Philip K Dick. Of course, it’s not a Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, but it’s certainly somewhere in that family tree.
This brings me on to perhaps the biggest criticism I can make of this book. All of the ingredients are there, but the limitations of just two point-of-view characters have resulted in a severely handicapped storytelling canvas. The noire plotline is executed really nicely, with (I thought) an absolutely stunning conclusion. The inter-system warfare between Earth, Mars and the Belt has something lacking due to not seeing anyone in power on the two planets. We know what happens, but because of who we’re seeing it through, it all seems to be one big mess. I’d have preferred to have seen more of the politics involved from the two planets, which would also give a good look at the new governments and so on. And finally, we have the megacorp Protogen, but they’re almost a plastic villain, with disappointingly little developed there. However, these have all come to me after the fact, and certainly didn’t interfere with my enjoyment of the book at the time!
(Incidentally – I thought Miller did the right thing, which is what made Holden so much more annoying to me. You’ll know what I mean when you read this book!)
All in all, this book is awesome. The limitations I just mentioned are completely overlooked in favour of the fantastic storytelling that we do have. This is also the first book in a series, so it’s entirely possible this is merely setting something else up. Certainly, the epilogue has got me thinking several plotlines could be in the works next! Can Fred be trusted? Just what is happening on Venus?
If you’d like to read io9’s review, which is also quoted on the cover, check it out here.
For Geekritiqued’s review, the blog where I first heard of the series, take a look here.
Then head over to amazon and buy yourself a copy!