James S.A. Corey
Leviathan Wakes is a smashing debut novel that made numerous Best of 2011 lists, but isn’t actually a debut. I have no idea why an amply published author and a famous author’s assistant, Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck respectively, chose the Corey pen name, or, having chosen it, made no attempt to pass said Corey off as a real person, but I am sure there is a very good reason for it all. Authorial semantics have no bearing on the quality of the book however, which deserves all of the praise it received. Most of the commentary I have seen on Leviathan can be compressed into the phrase, “gritty throwback space opera,” though what exactly this means and whether or not this isn’t just a contradiction in terms gets my thinker thinking. (Yes, rather than reviewing a book, I am pondering a review of reviews of a book. This may just be grad school coming back to haunt me.)
“Gritty” is currently my favorite Power Word in book and movie world. (For those who aren’t up on Mormon sarcasm and my unilateral expansions of it, Power Words are terms that, by some unexplained consensus, have to be used all the time in whatever discourse one is involved in. For example, one does not say “rain” in the Mormon world, but “moisture.” Likewise, nobody “sends an email” at work, but “reaches out.” These are Power Words.) I’m not sure how we selected grit as something to be quantified and described in our books, but there it is, and it has nothing to do with books being published on sandpaper. Leviathan‘s paper is just as smooth as any other book. It does, however, involve numerous descriptive narratives of character demise, at least one anti-hero variation, moral conundrums, and scenery with a certain level of trash and pollution. I propose the following equation to measure grit: sg(bk+gr)/sr=GI where the Grit Index (GI) equals the sum of bloody killings (bk) and garbage and rust (gr), multiplied by the number of shades of gray in the story (sg), all divided by successful romance subplots (sr), because we all know that true love isn’t gritty. Bonus George R.R. Martin points for killing off popular characters.
Leviathan would score fairly well on the GI, but most especially for the settings. There is a certain amount of Jetsons style futurism, and one imagines that the military spaceships are by necessity clean and shipshape, but the asteroid settlements, mining freighters, and Belter ports of call are pleasingly crusty. This is definitely the science fiction aesthetic one sees in the Alien movies, rather than Star Trek. It carries over into characterization as well, with a ragtag assortment of cops, miners, Belter revolutionaries, and slimy corporate types populating Corey’s Solar System. There’s something to be said for noir-ish griminess of the cop storyline and the held together with spit and duct tape mining world of the other.
The “throwback” part is the most puzzling. When I was reading reviews and comments that talked about how Leviathan reminded them of classic SF from the 70s, I nodded my head and agreed. Thinking later about it, I’m not entirely sure what that’s supposed to mean. Obviously, Leviathan isn’t much like Golden Age SF, but I’m not sure what about it feels like the 70s rather than now. The book’s attitudes about race, gender and society are much more in tune with now; the characters aren’t all competent white men acting in Adam Smith approved idioms. I suppose Leviathan is what some might call “good, old-fashioned storytelling,” but what does that really mean? Telling stories hasn’t gone out of style, unless one is willing to forget John Scalzi, Karl Schroeder, S.M. Stirling, and countless others who put the story before science, or at least next to it. (Heresy!) And if we’re talking about experimentalism, didn’t the 70s involve New Wave, Dick, Delaney, Ballard, and lots of other crazy stuff? So while I find the assertion that Leviathan is somehow bringing something back that has been lost in whatever it is that’s going on now superficially appealing, I really can’t figure out what that something might be. If one were to name a specific author and call out influence and homage, I can accept it. The whole of an era, though, is more complex than basketball players putting on short shorts, Converse All-Stars, and replica uniforms for a night.
Finally, this term “space opera” makes an appearance. Everyone is calling Leviathan a space opera, so I am too, but I think I need to define for myself what space opera really means. Leviathan feels rather like a space opera, with its semi-epic narrative, heroic characters (warts and all), and large scale conflict. But when I think more about it, the setting pushes me towards “General SF.” Leviathan takes place in that slightly awkward time in between brave pioneers exploring the Solar System and humanity spread throughout the stars in some form of empire(s). The system-wide society is well thought out and worthy of in-depth storytelling. Though I have a certain fondness for near-space tales, my image of space opera tends towards galactic conflict, aliens, cursory views of multiple planets with an unreasonable number of suns or moons, and making the jump to light speed. Then I remember, say, Buck Rogers, and have to revise my estimates yet again. (Some of the franchise is better taken as pulp, but the SSI Gold Box games are Solar System space opera through and through.)
I wonder too about the nature of the action. Leviathan has an intricate, wide ranging plot that covers murder mystery, abandoned space hulks, conspiracy, system-wide politics, revolution, vomit zombies, Mormons, and possible alien incursion. (Some reviewers have made a big deal of the zombies. I kind of rolled with it, since they seemed to flow well with the rest of the plot.) There are space battles and large armadas, but the action stays focused on a small group of people. No admirals surveying their array of capital ships or vast alien menace, which seems like it should be required or the subgenre. I will give credit for excellent use of Mormons though. One of these days I’m going to produce the definitive survey of Mormons in SF, but not today. So what do I think about space opera? Hard to say. I am inclined to file this more under General SF, but that’s something open to much debate.
Whatever the book is, I’m looking forward to the sequels. I like the world building, most of the characters, the vague threat of alien menace, and even the vomit zombies. I’m excited that a large part of the book takes place on what is basically the Reno, NV of outer space. Some of the pacing and organization felt a bit off, but considering the scope and ambition of the book, I’m not sure I can think of a better way to handle it. Definitely a top read from 2011.
Rating: Manchester City of the same year. Not quite immortal, but the pieces are in place for a memorable run.