Leviathan Wakes: A Bleak Expanse

02 Feb

Hard Sci Fi. I’d be the first to admit that I’m susceptible to the idea that ‘scientifically accurate’ in sci-fi goes hand-in-hand with ‘boring.’ The restrictions of real laws of physics tend to place limits on things like speed and range of places that can be visited.

I think that the reason for this is that I’ve read a lot of such stories that felt more like textbooks on how life in space would really be rather than being actual stories about people living in that. Honor Harrington occasionally becomes a borderline example of this, but I do recall some others.

A while ago I was involved in a conversation about human evolution, where it was wondered aloud if humanity could ever diverge again into separate species. I remarked that it would only be possible if separate human population were isolated for a very long period, such as if we were dispersed among other planets. At this, a colleague commended to me a book that, in part, depicts exactly that.


Leviathan Wakes is the first in the Expanse series, which has apparently also given rise to a new television series.

In it, humanity has spread throughout the Solar System. Mars and the settlements on the large bodies of the asteroid belt have become semi-independent nations. ‘Belters’ regard those from ‘down the [gravity] well’ as arrogant, exploitative and dangerous. People have been living in low gravity and pressurized environments for so long that their physique and culture have developed accordingly.

Holden is an officer on a comet-mining ship who loses friends in a violent attack. He openly declares his suspicion that Mars has committed an atrocity against the Belters, and thus gets drawn into the escalating Cold War between the ‘well’ and the ‘belt.’

Miller is a police detective on Ceres Station in the Belt. He’s put on a quiet little favour-job for one of the corporations that runs Ceres to track down their daughter, who has run away on some idealistic crusade. His investigation is thrown upside-down by the esclation of the interplanetary conflict.

Miller, Holden and his crew, each beset by tragedy, end up following their respective, intertwining paths to discover the root of the events that are causing this potentially cataclysmic conflict between worlds: the conflict is merely a by-product of a discovery that will shake every kind of humanity to its core, and threaten its soul.

Over the Christmas break I finally watched Blade Runner end to end, and it struck me that this is what life off Earth would probably be like in that world. The Earth is described as overpopulated and exhausted, but powerful. Corporations, not governments, run the Belt stations like Ceres and Eros. Food is synthesized from non-photosynthetic sources like yeast and fungi – reminiscent of the protein rations used on Firefly as well.

Speaking of Firefly, lived-in, dingy, used-future aesthetics are in full swing here. Quarters on stations are called ‘holes,’ if that gives you some idea.

The futuristic science is awesome without breaking too many rules that I can spot: artificial gravity is only possible with certrifugal force or acceleration – and that’s usually really unpleasant for all concerned – weapons and ship-to-ship combat rely on acceleration, pressurized compartments, and guided missiles, and isn’t fought at whites-of-their-eyes close quarters, much like in Honor Harrington.

At the same time, unlike several sci-fi properties out there, technologies appear to have advanced apace with each other. Everyone has a ‘terminal,’ somewhere between a smartphone and the omni-tools of Mass Effect, and medical science has achieved immense precision and idiot-proof applicability. There’s a chapter where Holden and Miller both cop a huge radiation dose, and they have to be hooked up to a machine that spends hours stamping out the nascent cancers around their body, which it does flawlessly. There are also cocktails of drugs used regularly for mitigating accleration g-forces.

As for the story itself, apart from being in space, it is an awful lot like a noir detective story or political thriller – Holden being the everyman sucked into something bigger than himself, and Miller the jaded, hardboiled detective who finds his emotions consumed in a seemingly ordinary case.

Then the twist happens, and what I suppose must be the groundwork for the rest of the series is duly laid, which ties all the seemingly disparate threads together, and kicks this story up into Lovecraftian levels of disturbing.

The intricacy and cleverness of the plot further allows us to visit a number of facets of the civilization these people live in. It’s a somewhat bleak depiction, making us seem rather petty, not to mention tiny and vulnerable, but still makes the case for the better angels of our nature, especially via Holden.

I like Leviathan Wakes for its worldbuilding, themes and atmosphere. It left me emotionally drained and satisfied. And yet, strangely enough, I found I don’t have a powerful urge to read the rest of them. Maybe to watch the TV show, but not much.

This puzzles me. Maybe I’m still in the post-holiday funk, but more than that I find that, despite the rich and detailed world – worlds – the characters themselves are strangely boring.

Miller’s sort of the same-old jaded, over-the-hill cop who can’t seem to make a difference. Holden’s the more idealistic and appealing of the two of them, but the idealist looking into the abyss is likewise a bit tired to me.

There’s also something about the way the book treats women that I find subtly icky. The relaxed, rational attitudes about interpersonal relationships are kind of nice, I guess. Nonetheless, the only two women Holden has on his crew he ends up sleeping with, and one of them dies to give him the old woman-in-a-proverbial-fridge to avenge. And getting together with his comrade Naomi seems like the standard hero’s reward that’s danced around until the usual boxes of dramatic tribulations are ticked. If he’s a very good hero, he gets the sex. Ho hum.

Miller is even worse, in a way. He’s sent to track down this runaway rich girl basically to kidnap her and send her home; in piecing together her life and fate, he claims to have fallen in love with her, and sees a vision of her that talks to him as his obsession grows. You can’t fall in love with someone you’ve never met. Miller’s meant to be a broken man, but this kind of pedastalling of a woman comes across as far more creepy than tragic to me. While it’s sort of understandable since he’s a jaded old cop and all, I also find it faintly obnoxious the way he persistently refers to the sex workers he encounters on his regular beat as ‘whores.’ Call me a Social Justice Warrior, but I’ve always thought that a word better suited to the mouths of villains. And when he finally tracks the rich girl down the ensuing discovery is so grotesque as to almost constitute gore porn.

So Leviathan Wakes is a beautifully conceived setting and plot, which kept me guessing right until the end, but as much as I enjoyed it, the characters inhabiting it feel like they could have been written decades ago with no appreciable difference, and lot of things a story should have in this day and age, this one doesn’t. And this costs the book the sharpness or spark that would have taken it from ‘functionally good’ to ‘outstanding,’ if you see what I mean. I shall learn from it what I can, but having done so, I feel I have very little use left for it.

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Posted by on February 2, 2016 in Book


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