Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Leviathan Wakes by James S. A. Corey

Leviathan Wakes (The Expanse, #1) Leviathan Wakes is book one in The Expanse series written by James S.A. Corey, which is the pen name of the writing duo consisting of Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck. (Query: Why do authors use pen names when everyone already knows their real names? This is a legitimate question. I really want to understand the reasoning behind this choice) The story is a mash up the science fiction and mystery genres set against the back drop of space. I loved it! 

Humans have colonized Mars and an asteroid belt located between Mars and Jupiter. Sufficient enough amount of time has passed that generations have been born and grown up on the asteroids and on Mars. Martians and belters think of themselves as separate and distinct from Earth. Not in the sense of being a different species, but in the sense of being citizens of different nations. This is especially true of the belters who because of growing up in the lower gravity of asteroids tend to be taller and thinner and have larger heads than humans from the inner planets of Earth and Mars. 

In one sense Leviathan is a story about global politics and scarce resources. Instead of Earth bound nation-states the superpowers are planet Earth and planet Mars. Earth has the things humans need to live - namely air, water, and soil where things can grow. Mars has the superior military force but its people live in domes because Mars's atmosphere is not yet suitable for human life outside of a dome. Belters are the poor colonials caught in the middle and at mercy of the inner planets. They depend entirely on Earth for oxygen, water, food – basically everything humans need to live. With a press of a button or maybe it is the turn of a knob, Earth can ration the amount of oxygen Belters breathe.

The story is told primarily from the points of view of two men: Jim Holden and Detective Miller. Miller has been assigned a missing persons case. He is tasked with finding a missing woman named Julie Mao. Julie left her wealthy family on Earth to live and work among the Belters. Her parents want her back home on Earth. Meanwhile Holden, a former soldier, works on a commercial vessel hauling water around in space. That he works on a water hauler is apt in part because the law of space is not unlike the law of the sea – if there is a distress signal and your ship is the closest then you are duty bound to come to the aid of the distressed ship if you are able. So when the Scopuli sends out a distress call, Holden and his shipmates go to help only to witness a disaster. In alternating chapters Miller searches for a missing girl while Holden and his crew try to figure out what secret is worth killing over and who was willing to do the killing. Eventually Miller's and Holden's stories intersect in an interesting way.

Effortlessly Diverse as It Is Entertaining  

In December 2015 The Expanse, a science fiction series, began airing on the SyFy channel. I originally bought this book with the intention of reading it before the show started but that never happened. One of things I noticed immediately on the show was its racially and ethnically diverse cast.  I wondered if that was due to a conscientious casting director. It is not, or at least that is not the only reason for the diverse cast. Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck imagined a future that includes not only White people but also Asian people and Black people and all kinds of other people. Even better, the characters of color read like fully realized people. Personally in my experience, and I realize other people's experiences may differ, science fiction seems to assume a world where diversity means a mixture of blonds and brunettes or if there is a person of color in the story, there is only the one. It was incredibly refreshing to find something different in Leviathan Wakes. Yes and thank you people writing as James S. A. Corey.

Trying New Things: Hard Science Fiction 

I have a confession. I like the idea of science but am not particularly good at it. While I don’t purposely avoid it, it is not something I seek out either. When I read a book that for one reason or another has a lot of science (or complex math) my brain might initially try to decipher the science but eventually my eyes glaze over and my brain treats the science as magic and therefore as something that will never truly makes sense to me. What can I say other than I studied social sciences and humanities in college and graduate school, not the physical sciences. Admittedly part of this laziness on my part. Part of is not having the necessary background knowledge and taking time to acquire the background knowledge would take me completely out of the story. So I accept the science as magic and quickly move on. 

Leviathan Wakes is what people refer to as hard science, meaning a lot of the science in the book is real. I knew that going to it but read it anyway. Surprisingly I didn't mind the science. I was constantly looking stuff up to get a better understanding of things like gravity and its effect on the human body and what the deal is with asteroids. Overall the science was manageable. It was even interesting. Before reading Leviathan Wakes I thought of space the way I think of Antarctica – an exotic locale that looks pretty in pictures but that I will probably never visit and will spend little time thinking about. This book made me actually interested in space and the planets in a way that I have never been particularly interested. Not that I will ever go to space but I’m interested in learning more about it.

Yes It Is Really that Good 

My copy of Leviathan Wakes is an oversized paperback, really the size of a hardback only with a soft cover, and is 561 pages long. Between the length of the book and the hard science, I expected to spend at least two weeks reading it.  Instead I tore through it in about a week and the only reason it took that long was because there were two or three days when I wasn’t able to get any (or almost no) reading done at all due to other obligations. Getting through a 500+ page book in a week is a sign of good book in my opinion. Luckily it is part of a series. So I have more books to read. Also, The Expanse the television series based on the books is fantastic too. I am eagerly looking forward to season three.

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