Saturday, December 17, 2016

Chicago Nerds- Leviathan Wakes

For the last 2016 meeting of the Chicago Nerd book club, we discussed Leviathan Wakes (2011) by James S.A. Corey, the first book in "The Expanse", an on-going series that is also going into its second season as a SyFy television show.

Leviathan Wakes is set in a fairly-near future where humans have colonized chunks of the solar system using an extremely efficient new impulse engine, but have not yet moved on to interstellar exploration. At the book's start, there's a bit of three-way political tension between Earth, a partially-terraformed (and militarily well-equipped) Mars, and the inhabitants of the outer asteroid belts, moons, and dwarf planets. The novel alternates viewpoints between James Holden, who becomes captain and unwitting political player after his original civilian ship is destroyed, and Joe Miller, a detective on Ceres whose hunt for a missing young woman leads him to a plot that killed Holden's ship and threatens the solar system.

Notes & possible spoilers below!

One of the things we liked most about the story is the level of detail given to the Belters—more use of hand gestures to compensate for the restrictions of pressure suits, the bits of patios & dialect, and the general cultural split between Belters and "free breathers"—Belters, growing up in a completely unforgiving environment, take threats much differently than Earth-born humans. We also liked some of the small social flourishes, like Holden's octoparental arrangement—although we also noticed that conditions on Earth are very much off-screen throughout this.

Also: Space-Mormons. Good stuff.

Something we really praised about the novel is the way it blends three or so different modes—space opera of the "familial crew" type, noirish procedural, and horror. They all click together quite well, and Corey uses tropes wisely, using our familiarity to move the plot forward without getting bogged down in exposition. The protomolecule is pretty cool; Corey uses our experience of things like zombies, the Alien movies, or the Borg to get the protomolecule quickly and effectively in play.

For me, one of the stranger things about the novel is the way it's kind of "medium hard" SF—it's more tech & science-savvy than most, but still has some odd physics blindspots. For all the talk of variable G concerns, Corey doesn't seem to think much about acceleration/deceleration flips, and while I'll give "crazy-efficient Epstein drive" a pass, he still seems to skip lightly over the actual transit-time issue for ships restricted to human-survivable g-forces. See for instance something like Williams' "Dread Empire's Fall" series (2002-), which tries to take that seriously.

Or there's the whole "spinning Ceres for pseudo-gravity", which REALLY has me scratching my head—Ceres being a moderately large sphere, spinning it would only yield usable areas in a narrow disk, or a cylinder, neither of which seems efficient (or likely; without getting really into it I highly suspect it would fly apart under those kinds of rotational speeds, or at least lose huge amounts of valuable mass, particularly ice.)

Backslash END NERD ALERT. None of those physics issues actually *bothered* me in the reading, it's just odd to me how "The Expanse" is in this middle-ground between believably hard SF and willy-nilly space opera, which makes it a little hard to judge how seriously to assess its in-world risks and decisions.

Much of our discussion was spent comparing and contrasting Holden & crew with Miller—whether we find Holden's idealism compelling or annoying, and what to make of Miller. We've been burned before on noir crossovers, but while we did find Miller a bit trope-tastic (the hard-bitten alcoholic cop on the downslide who latches on to one last case, etc.), we found it worked for us here, helping to move the plot along, with not too bad a case of "poor man's Philip Marlowe". The moment when Miller realizes that he's "that guy", that when you have a case you don't want solved you "give it to a fish", and he's the fish, is an interesting turn.

Miller also epitomizes some aspects of Belter culture and consciousness, which is a nice touch—especially when contrasted against the "moral" Holden. The rest of the Rocinante's crew, as well as Miller's storyline, do a good job of roughly filling in a picture of the various solar system cultures.

Was pointed out that the little political/philosophical coda about how to publicly remember Miller is another great little encapsulation of Belter pragmatism and realpolitik vs. Holden's idealism.

Incidentally, Leviathan Wakes reminded me, intensely, of Cherryh's early SF, especially the often-overlooked Heavy Time (1991) and Rimrunners (1989), which look at space-borne military and civilian cultures in this very compelling nuts-and-bolts way. Highly recommended if you're looking for character-driven SF in this vein.

We didn't come to a consensus on Holden, with some of thinking he's basically an idiot the whole way through. While the near-final moment where the Rocinante might have to go on fatal autopilot—accelerating past human limits—is an effective moment, some of us also thought it indicative of Holden's cowardice/hypocrisy that he won't risk his crew, given that he's directly contributed to the war starting with his earlier, unconsidered broadcasts.

Dinner scenes good.
We definitely liked the crew dynamic, too, with the several meal scenes being among our favorites. Those who've read further into the series confirmed for us that we get more Alex, Amos, and especially Naomi, which is a good thing. We noted that this installment is fairly lacking in women characters, although we hear that gets better in later books. Also, we laughingly noted that the novel does pass the Bechdel test, but only because of a completely disposable scene that feels like it might have been shoehorned in just to pass it. Talking about Bechdel dynamics led us into a head-shaking discussion about notably weak representation in SF, with particular shout-outs to Ringworld (1970), Stranger in a Strange Land (1961), and "the Dresden Files" (2000-).

Before I forget, some book recommendation/connections:
  • McAuley's The Quiet War (2008) and related stories are quite close to "The Expanse", while reading very differently (much grimmer). Realistic in-solar-system, intrigue-heavy stuff, lots of attention to extraterrestrial human cultures & technologies.
  • The Belter freedom movement brings Heinlein's The Moon is a Harsh Mistress (1966) to mind, as well as McDonald's recent response with Luna: New Moon (2015)
  • Lots of great in-system space SF going on lately. Besides the works already mentioned, highly, highly recommend Kim Stanley Robinson's 2312 (2012). KSR came up in conversation about Leviathan Wakes, actually, although it was in the context of his rebuttal to Elon Musk—we are not going to terraform & colonize Mars anytime soon, and definitely not as a solution for Earth's problems.
  • Leviathan Wakes is also a cool example of how cyberpunk is just part of the palette of SF now; while nothing here is super-cyberpunk or anything, bits of Gibson's Neuromancer (1984) and other classic works kept coming to mind throughout.
Good read, good discussion, and both the SyFy series and the rest of the novels come recommended—the sixth book just came out in print.

For January, the Chicago Nerds are going classic, discussing Le Guin's The Left Hand of Darkness: not only a great read, but very wintry. Keep up with CNSC on their website and Facebook page.

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