I generally ignore review quotes on book covers. There’s always someone willing to say something good about a book (or something bad that be cropped into something good), no matter how awful it may be. However, when I ran across Leviathan Wakes by James S. A. Corey at the local B&N, I found the cover quotes a little more compelling than usual. When George R. R. Martin says a book kicks ass, I’m willing to pay attention. When another quote compares the book favorably to Peter F. Hamilton’s space operas, I take out my wallet. George did not steer me wrong.
The story is set several centuries in the future. Humanity has colonized the moon, Mars, the asteroid belt (aka the Belt), and several moons in the outer solar system. Spacecraft regularly travel between the various colonies, but inertia still limits acceleration to what a human can tolerate. The story opens with Julie Mao, forgotten prisoner of unknown aggressors. After eight days locked in a supply closet, she breaks out and finds her captors’ ship completely deserted. Eventually she makes her way to the reactor, where we see the first glimpse of the story’s central mystery – a mound of flesh with her captain’s face, begging for death.
Corey then moves on to the separate lives of James Holden, XO of the ice-hauler Canterbury, and Detective Miller of the Ceres Station police force. Holden and a small support crew are sent to investigate a derelict ship drifting in the Belt, hoping for salvage. As they poke around, a warship appears from nowhere and obliterates the Canterbury, casting Holden and his crew adrift and looking for answers. Meanwhile, Miller is given the task of tracking down and ‘legally’ kidnapping a girl named Julie Mao, the rebellious daughter of a wealthy citizen of Earth, so she can be shipped home to her parents. As Miller begins his search, Holden broadcasts the news of the Canterbury’s destruction to anyone who might be listening, implicating the government of Mars and inadvertently creating the possibility of system-wide war.
Holden’s announcement illustrates one of Corey’s major themes – how much information is too much? Holden is a firm believer in distributing all the facts and letting the public draw their own conclusions. Several times over the course of the story, he shotguns information throughout the system and assumes it will be received and acted upon by a rational public. It never seems to work that way, of course. There is a great deal of discussion between Holden and other characters about what the public should be told and when they should be told. Miller serves as Holden’s cynical antithesis on the issue. Corey certainly doesn’t come across as a Wikileaks fan, but the concept is handled well.
The design of Corey’s setting also leads to an interesting look at racial prejudice. Since technology has not overcome the limitations of gravity and inertia, humans living in low-gravity environments have been forced to adapt at a genetic level. Natives of the colonies are physically different (taller, thinner, larger heads) than Earth natives, resulting in a new concept of ‘race’ that goes beyond skin color. With the physical differences comes entirely different worldviews based on each individual’s home environment. Citizens of Mars and the larger moons can’t imagine life outside of a dome. Citizens of the dozens of settled asteroids have been forced to accept total dependence on outside support (water, air, etc.). Earth is grossly overpopulated and half its citizens are on welfare. All of these differences lead to new types of prejudice, always unpleasant though occasionally justified. Again, an interesting concept handled well.
The quote comparing Corey’s work to Hamilton’s is certainly valid. The scope isn’t quite as grand as Hamilton’s usual fare, with all the action restricted to our solar system and no truly amazing technological advances, but the mixture of social concepts with fast-paced action is definitely there. Holden also fills the dashing leading man role Hamilton favors, though Corey gives him a more interesting romantic foil than most of Hamilton’s sex-crazed leading ladies.
In general, Leviathan Wakes is an entertaining read with plenty of action and food for thought. The setting is well-realized and the science is sound. The answer to the central mystery borrows from ideas I’ve seen in other fiction, but Corey gives it a new spin and doesn’t give away too much. I give Leviathan Wakes an 8 out of 10. I bought and read the sequel (Caliban’s War) immediately and will now impatiently await the next installment.
Note: James S. A. Corey is the pen name of the writing team Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck. I referred to them as ‘Corey’ throughout to minimize confusion.