Well, this concludes my reading of this year’s nominees for the Hugo Award for Best Novel, and I’m struggling to decide which, if any, I should support. Last year The Dervish House hacked my brain and made it an easy choice. This year, not so much. Of all the nominees, however, I think Leviathan Wakes comes closest—it’s certainly the novel I enjoyed the most. (A Dance with Dragons is probably the second choice, but it just didn’t live up to my expectations.)
Leviathan Wakes has a lot to get excited about: scattered and sprawling humanity still confined to the solar system, an evil corporation (TVTropes) meddling with something better left alone, heroes on the run from pretty much everyone, and a noir murder mystery that turns into an obsession. It sounds like it could be a mess, but thanks to tightly twinned perspectives and a good eye for pacing, James S.A. Corey (i.e., Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck), manage to make it work.
People often speak of their “beach reads” or their “guilty pleasures”, books that they turn to when they want comfort and fun more than, say, thought-provoking or challenging reading. I know what they mean—space opera is kind of like that for me. I still read it actively and critically, but these are the kinds of books that I turn to when I need something fun and hopefully good. Reading the other Hugo nominees has been fun, but for the most part they have been somewhat heavy-handed (Embassytown) or just not that good (Deadline). Because when I come to these books, it’s not the action that I crave—though that helps—it’s the application of fascinating SF concepts.
I love space opera so much, and I also love hard SF, and I think I’m not alone in conflating the two terms. It doesn’t help that hard SF has two contradictory meanings, and that we tend to equivocate between them unconsciously. On one hand, hard SF refers to science fiction that attempts to extrapolate plausibly from the science and technology available today or projected to be available in the future. This emphasis on plausibility means that, proportionally, hard SF spends more time talking about and explaining its technologies instead of just handwaving them away. Hence, on the other hand, hard SF has become kind of synonymous with any story that pays a lot of attention to the gritty details of its technology. A lot of hard SF these days is actually just science fantasy masquerading under very good technobabble.
There’s a sweet spot, of course. Those science fantasies of nanotechnology and wormhole drives are often born out of the author’s desire not to just make up a “warp drive” and be done with it. They see that space travel is hard and then look at possible ways to get around that. This nexus of creativity from the ashes of cynicism is what I love about space opera/hard SF. You still need a good story to go with it, but if you can find a compelling idea and figure out what you want to say about it, then you are on your way to a good space opera.
I often tend to neglect near-future space opera for its more dazzling, somewhat sexier posthuman cousins, like Singularity Sky or Revelation Space. Leviathan Wakes is set close to our time. Humanity has colonized parts of the solar system—particularly the asteroid belt—but hasn’t quite made it out of the system yet. When they do, it will be in generation ships, the first one apparently crewed by Mormons. It’s a picture of the future that, assuming we ever get off our societal asses and start actually flying beyond low-Earth orbit again, is all too realistic of how we might end up; throughout Leviathan Wakes there is a constant subtext that humans aren’t really cut out for living in space, but we’re doing it anyway. I love that, because it contains something that’s true (living in space is hard) and something I hope will be true soon (we’re going to do it anyway).
There are two main characters in this book: Jim Holden, XO of the ice hauler Canterbury; and Miller, a detective/cop on Ceres. Holden and Miller and diametric opposites in many ways. Holden is a diehard optimist when it comes to human nature; he believes that, given enough information, people can make the right, rational choices. Miller, on the other hand, is more tight-lipped. He has a darker view of human nature, one he believes comes from growing up as a Belter and serving on the somewhat lawless Ceres base. When he and Holden meet and circumstances dictate that they work together, watching them work out these conflicting worldviews is very interesting.
The plot of Leviathan Wakes comprises two mysteries that are pretty obviously one big mystery. Holden and his crew stumble onto what looks like a plot to get Mars fighting the Belt. (Ironically, his attempt to get “all the facts” out there is the proximal cause of Mars attacking the Belt.) They end up on the run, hurt and scared, turning to a semi-terrorist organization of dubious character to protect them while they figure out their next move. Meanwhile, Miller gets a case he isn’t supposed to solve about a girl he isn’t supposed to find. He ends up falling in love with someone he can’t ever meet and learning that Julie Mao was in the wrong place at the wrong time.
There are fight scenes. There is epic spaceship brinksmanship and posturing. There is plenty of exciting discussion of acceleration and g-force, of oxygen deprivation and radiation exposure and rail guns. Leviathan Wakes definitely reads like a cinematric thriller. But it’s more than that, because it goes deeper, exploring the rifts created in human society by our colonization of the solar system.
Perhaps one of the reasons I enjoyed this book is that it draws upon a lot of the latent, half-formed ideas and thoughts about near-future space colonization that are floating around in my head. (What? I read a lot of science fiction.) One of the more pragmatic but somewhat disturbing consequences of colonizing our solar system would be the speciation through specialization of the human species. That is, we might begin altering ourselves—probably through genetic engineering—to better suit the particular environments we colonize. The human body evolved to work well on Earth at about sea level. As the elongated bodies of natural-born Belters attest, that doesn’t work so well in lighter gravity or microgravity. So the views expressed by Mr. Dresden in this book are somewhat extreme but not all that wrong, even if his methods are disturbing and unacceptable (which is why Miller does what he does).
Speciation might be a necessary adaptation if we are to survive outside Earth’s biosphere. Corey reiterate that, despite having spread throughout the system, losing Earth would still likely be a mortal blow to humanity. But preserving Earth could be difficult. Environmental catastrophes aside, humanity is not exactly a united species. In the future of Leviathan Wakes, Earth and Mars are nominally allies but have a lot of bad blood because of Mars’ bid for independence. Similarly, those two inner planets are not friendly with the more anarchic Belt. This atmosphere of animosity and distrust is exactly what the bad guys need to draw attention away from their master plan, and it’s the powder keg that Holden ignites with his first broadcast. And these are just differences between different pockets of humans. Imagine what it would be like if we started diverging as species!
Corey don’t go quite that far in this book, which is fine. But it’s clear they’ve thought about such wider implications. The ultimate threat in Leviathan Wakes hints that humans have bigger problems than their own internal struggles. I love how Corey throw in mentions of relativistic warfare without bothering to stop and explain it to the reader; I think it speaks of a certain amount of trust in one’s audience. Some readers will know already that accelerating something (like an asteroid) to a significant fraction of c and then aiming it at a planet (or a ship) is a good way to kill the target. Those who don’t aren’t missing out on much, and of course, the real threat is more than just a rogue asteroid. It involves the possibility that we aren’t alone in the universe, that our neighbours know we are here, that they don’t want us here, and that they have a three-billion-year head start. Yeah. I don’t want to think about it either.
Look at me, I’m not even talking about the book that much any more. It’s a fine plot, entertaining, and the characters are pretty good. But it’s just a story. Whatever—the fact that it has inspired me to go off on all these tangents, has given me that prompting I need to start rambling about space colonies and alien threats and relativistic warfare, should be enough to attest to how much Leviathan Wakes got under my skin in the best way possible. If, like me, you geek out about all these ideas, read this book.