PROS: Excellent evocation of classic Space Opera; excellent action sequences, technology and extrapolation.
CONS: Some of the characterization and character beats feel a bit off.
VERDICT: A fun Solar System space opera that earns its 2011 Hugo nomination.
The Solar system of the medium-term future has been transformed by one key piece of technology: The improved fusion engine known as the Epstein Drive. The Epstein Drive has not given Humanity the stars, but rather has firmly given humans the solar system. Earth, Mars, and the loose alliance of the asteroids and Outer Planets are in mutual opposition as they move to acquire resources, flex their muscles and continue to grow their power through the solar system. And all it will take is a match, a spark, to set these opposing factions into conflict. But when the spark turns out to be a cover for a deep secret, it will soon emerge that war is the least of problems facing not only the protagonists, but the entirety of humanity.
Such is the matter of Leviathan Wakes, a space opera by James S.A. Corey. Corey, is, no secret, a pseudonym for the writing team of Daniel Abraham (see my review of his The Dragon’s Path) and Ty Franck. Both gentlemen are perhaps best known and most visible as being in the orbit, so to speak, of the formidable George R.R. Martin. Although Abraham has written other fiction, of course, this is the first work from Franck.
Space Opera in this weight class and somewhat retro style is fairly thick on the ground but has not gotten a lot of critical love in recent years in genre. Things like the New Space Opera movement or the literary approach of writers like Kim Stanley Robinson has gotten much more respect within the genre in terms of awards and literary recognition. More mainline traditional Space Opera has not been so critically appreciated in recent years. Leviathan Wakes changes that. I was surprised when I learned it had reached the shortlists both for the 2012 Hugo Award for Best Novel and the 2012 Locus Award for Best Science Fiction Novel. As I said, this is not the type of novel that usually gets so much acclaim these days. But my surprise at its inclusion on these short lists really ended when I began to read it.
Let’s start with the terrain the novel lays out. Leviathan Wakes’ solar system is a masterpiece of world building. It’s not the strange alien solar system of, say, The Quantum Thief, or the radical societies of John Barnes’ Jak Jinnaka series, but it is rather a more traditional solar system–Earth, a terraforming Mars, asteroids and stations in the deeper solar system. The spaceships feel right and are not interchangeable clones of each other, either.
So why is it a masterpiece? Because Leviathan Wakes gets it all right. From the variable pseudo-gravity found in the various asteroids to the feel of life aboard various spaceships, Leviathan Wakes puts you there and makes it feel real. There’s a Babylon 5-like feel to the stations and spacecraft in that the characters inhabit very real feeling spaces. I’ve read and seen stories set in space in other media where the stations and spaceships have little or no character to them as environment. Not here. And for the spaceships and stations that we do see, there are plenty more that are only mentioned or described that I’d love the authors to explore, too. And there is even a Big Dumb Object (under construction) that becomes one of the largest Chekov’s Guns I’ve seen in Space Opera.
The plot is a mystery within a mystery; a missing girl and a ship massacre turn out to be not only intimated connected, but also only the top layers of deeper plans. The conspiracy encompasses a number of space opera tropes and it would definitely be spoilery to reveal some of what the novel has in store. The authors seem to be of a mind not to skimp on the good stuff and they fill the novel with lots of ideas, tropes, motifs and science fiction goodness.
The characters are relatively standard…from the war-veteran turned politician, to the junior officer suddenly thrown into a command, to the weary detective who has decided to see his case through no matter what. They didn’t truly stand out for me. Too, some of the beats of the character development and characterization, I admit, didn’t feel quite right either. I don’t know if it was that the character development didn’t feel natural and felt more in service of the plot, or if the character development and beats weren’t sold to me.
The action sequences of the novel are where the writing shines nearly as well as the worldbuilding. Rather than either space fantasy Star Wars style physics and combat, or high precision and dry depictions of space combat, the authors have taken a middle course in terms of the technical accuracy and the technical feel of space combat. Both combat between spacecraft and tense firefights on stations are on the action menu in Leviathan Wakes. In doing so, the action beats are extremely well done, entertaining, feel right and even give the characters some depth. And it might be a mild spoiler as much as a tantalizing teaser to say that the solar system is permanently changed by the conflicts in the novel.
But what this novel has most of all is simple: it’s fun! It knows how to bring the entertainment to the reader and never fails to deliver. The novel runs a bit long but before any complaining or wondering when a scene would end, it would be off again to the next scene. Reading fiction should not be a chore, it should be a way to entertain the reader. Leviathan Wakes entertains, with some truly excellent set-piece encounters and situations. And the ending is a stinger in the tail that I am certain is going to bite hard in subsequent novels.
Leviathan Wakes is fun and high class New Old-School Space Opera and Space Adventure. It’s an ecological niche that, although full of books and authors has not gotten a lot of wide respect for a long time. Now, it seems Abraham and Franck, with their Hugo and Locus nominated novel, seem intent to change that. I applaud their efforts and I want more.