Thar she blows!, a space whale of a tale
In springtime, a young book group’s fancy turns to thoughts of love, and what could be more romantic than a book featuring a love interest named Juliette and a voyage including stops at Eros and Venus? Well, despite the allusions that would make Cupid blush, Leviathan Wakes, a space opera with a full cast, did not necessarily strike the Beamers as a “date” book, even if, as Liz noted, it is a story of “two become one”. (But not in the Biblical sense.)
Bigger on the Inside
Leviathan Wakes, the first in a space operatic saga called The Expanse (and basis for a television adaptation under the same rubric), is a collaboration of Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck, writing as “James S. A. Corey”. In alternating chapters, the book follows Jim Holden, surviving executive officer of a destroyed ice freighter, and Josephus Miller (never called by anything but his surname, in the best noir tradition), a washed up cop from Ceres, as they try to uncover the conspiracy that led to the destruction of Holden’s ship along with the disappearance of Julie Mao, runaway heiress.
Outer space is big, as Douglas Adams liked to remind readers of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, and “Corey” seems determined to prove that assertion, sending characters all throughout the Asteroid Belt, to the moons of Jupiter and Saturn, and into the Inner Planets (Mars, Earth, Venus). A complicated political system verges on all-out war, military maneuvers and tactical space battles occur, and ultimately, humans meet alien life in the form of a biological technology that just escapes being weaponized. And the Mormons lose a generation ship and a trip to Alpha Centauri.
The More, the Merrier?
This book is big (580 pages) and it thinks and acts big. There are dozens of characters who intersect with Holden and Miller for both short and long story arcs. Holden, as ranking survivor, is faced with being a ship captain and leading (and caring for) a crew. Miller, though fired for digging too deeply into the mystery of Julie Mao (again, classic noir fate), becomes fixated on her life and death and is prepared to follow her trail, no matter where it leads nor with whom he must work. And that multiplicity was our first issue with the book.
Donna felt that the book nearly requires a reader to have a list of characters, either printed in the text or created by hand, a sentiment that I shared, at least in the early chapters. Then, through a combination of author skill in making characters stand out or, as Jon pointed out, in making them die off (“Darwinian fiction” in action), the recognition problem does alleviate.
In This Corner, Weighing in at Some Length …
In any case, the book focuses on two (or maybe three) characters: Jim Holden, idealist; and Miller, pragmatism. The chapters alternate viewpoint in both a structural and in a thematic sense. When we are with Holden, the rules are simple and straightforward: tell the truth, accept the consequences. No surprise he names his commandeered corvette the Rocinante, after Don Quixote’s horse. However, with Miller, things are more complicated, truths come in various shades, and consequences are to be avoided much more than accepted.
The Beamers split right on this dichotomy, with some (Team Miller) arguing that Holden was simplistic and to blame for the eruption of conflict by his constant broadcasting of every suspicious piece of evidence uncovered. The rest (Team Holden, a smaller squad, to be sure) thought that transparency is not a poor policy, nor is a lack of self-control a reasonable excuse for hiding or eliminating unsettling facts or folks.
Just the Facts, Ma’am
Despite the moral quandary, we did agree on Miller being the more interesting character. Kathy responded to the tragic nature of his destiny, finding/losing/finding emotional connections in a pattern that she felt was self-inflicted. His unexpected acceptance by the crew of the Rocinante, and the subsequent rupture in his budding partnership with Holden, struck her as a moment of poignancy amid the helter-skelter of the space adventure and political machinations. I liked the slow reveal of Miller’s detective work on both Julie’s life and his own, with the reader coming to the realization that Miller is regarded as “deadwood” on the Ceres security force only as he, himself, sees the truth of his position. Whether his eventual union with Julie is a triumph or another tragic step is a decision for the individual reader to make, as we were split over the nature of his fate.
Everybody Listen to Me, and Return Me My Ship
Jim Holden, on the other hand, was not as well regarded, with much of the reluctance to embrace him centering around his position as the “righteous” character, a term that is very polarizing. It can be a term of approval (as the military and his crew tend to use it), but it can also carry connotations of arrogant or unsympathetic demeanor. Given our own tendency to analyze, it is perhaps natural that the Beamers would not warm up to a character who resists being confused by complications and instead sticks to basic principles. Worse, Jon argued that Holden was unnecessary to the plot of the book, which would have exploded in much the same fashion once any random character was to trip over the triggering planted “evidence”. (Jon was awarded the Amy Farrah Fowler Trophy for eviscerating a character in the manner of Big Bang Theory’s takedown of Raiders of the Lost Ark.)
When Enemies Try to Become Friends
The matter comes to a boil, both in the book and in our meeting, over the fate of the corporate baddie, Dresden, whose calm logic of why infecting unsuspecting humans with alien DNA and turning them into “vomit zombies” is a rational act, frightens Miller enough to shoot Dresden dead. That summary execution turns Holden against Miller, as it did Beamer against Beamer. Was the killing a righteous act or a self-righteous one? Nick argued that, like the shooting of a death camp guard, it was justifiable, but I countered that killing prisoners is a war crime, no matter how heinous the preceding behavior. Much debate ensued, with no determination of consensus, much like the book itself (a choice that we did applaud as being more realistic than a “kiss and make up” reconciliation).
Party of the Third Part or Kind?
And were there three main characters? Some Beamers argued that Julie was at least as intriguing as, if not more, than Holden. This, despite only appearing for the first few pages and then effectively disappearing for much of the rest of the story. Still, a portrait of Julie emerges as Miller investigates her disappearance, much like Laura in the Gene Tierney movie of the same name, as Donna suggested. And what we find out about her (her rebellious attitude, her dedication to her principles enough to forego family fortune for freedom, her training to be self-sufficient and independent) made us admire her and wonder what her story would have been like from a more internal point of view. But, instead, like the Janet Leigh character in Psycho (as Liz pointed out), we get a bit of information and a lot of misdirection. There is another story being told and it’s not Julie Mao’s.
[Postscript: In an interview about the female characters of SyFy’s adaptation of The Expanse, Daniel Abraham had this reply to a question about Julie Mao –
SWM: Is Julie Mao an interplanetary siren?
Abraham: And also Gene Tierney in Laura.
Score one for Beamer Donna!]
In Space, Everyone can Hear You Cry, “Foul!”
Another issue with the book is the amount of plot involved and the sheer amount of coordination and synchronicity that needs to take place to ensure that the conspirators (Mars? Earth? Protogen Corp.?) succeed in setting off a Solar System-wide conflagration. My defense of the Necessity of Jim Holden almost centered around the need to have an idealist willing to broadcast damning evidence at every single point of exposition in the book. Jon did not deny that requirement, only that Holden being the futuristic Wikileaker was just the authors being economical with the cast (“Darwinian fiction” strikes again!) And it did seem unfortunate, for the wealth of backstory that the book has and could have is impressive, clearly avoiding the “Planet of Hats” monoculture (all Martians wear berets and mustaches and are haughty, for example) that plagues sf of various media.
Of the book’s various shenanigans with the laws of orbital mechanics and conservation of momentum, perhaps it is best to pass over them in silence. The authors recognize their (intentional?) weakness here, a point echoed in the interview afterword, where the question of how their space drive works is answered with “Very well, efficiently”. Lampshades were definitely being hung, a fact that did not upset all Beamers, like Kathy, who stated a preference for wonky science/in-depth characters over real science/cardboard characters.
But, it did pain several of us when an asteroid “ducked” an incoming Mormon spaceship. As well as a few minor points that peeved, like the constant misuse of “ordinance” (laws) for “ordnance” (bombs), a lack of proofreading that reminded Fran of recent books that had characters who returned to the “next” instead of “nest” and who “fived” when they should have “lived”. Such is the understaffed nature of publishing these days, we lamented.
Still, we tended to award the book decent marks, and Chris, who purchased a boxed set of the first three (of seven) volumes, felt that he would look forward to reading more if any of his reading groups were inclined to schedule them. For the Beamers, though, with a lot of other sf and fantasy on the event horizon, that time may take a while to arrive.