Review: Leviathan Wakes

James S. A. Corey Leviathan Wakes Orbit Books (2011)

I am by no means an expert when it comes to the genre of science fiction. In my extremely nerdy youth, I read a lot of the classic authors in the field (Bradbury, Asimov, Clarke, Heinlein, etc.). In college went through a phase of intense interest in Walter Jon Williams, and later I read a lot of the works of William Gibson, but I certainly don’t have the breadth of experience to qualify as anything approaching an expert.

Having disavowed any qualification to talk knowledgably about the subject, I thought I might talk a bit about James S. A. Corey’s Leviathan Rises. Corey’s book is the first in a series (of which the second, Caliban’s War, has recently been published). I first picked up this book because of a blurb on the cover from George R. R. Martin which read, “It’s been too long since we had a really kickass space opera.” Although I am in no position to evaluate the periodicities of the arrival of kickass space operas, I will say that this was intriguing to me. My relationship to the works of George R. R. Martin careens between enjoyment and intense irritation. I’ve taken the time (and time it certainly took) to read the first four volumes of the Song of Ice and Fire series. There’s a lot about it that I enjoy, and it does keep you stoked up with things to read. On the other hand, Martin has a penchant for including rather prurient details that leave me feeling kind of dirty. I understand that he wants to write swords and sorcery books for adults, and I’m not unsympathetic to this goal. I will say that J.R.R. Tolkien, who is for me that definitive artist in the field, managed to get through 2000+ pages without mentioning anyone’s clitoris, and I certainly don’t feel that this constitutes an excess of prudishness. Much as I have gotten a lot of enjoyment from Martin’s books, there are things written in them that I think I was too young to read.

To return to the topic at hand, I will admit that Martin’s remark piqued my interest. I’d recently reread Walter Jon Williams’s The Voice of the Whirlwind, and that had reawakened my interest in this sort of thing. I nonetheless embarked on Corey’s book with a bit of trepidation. I have trouble abandoning books, and Corey’s (which comprises more than 650 pages) involved a considerable investment of time.

I am pleased to report that it was time well spent. Leviathan Wakes has two major things going for it: it is well-plotted and the dialog is suitably hardboiled without descending into the realms of sophomoric cheese. Corey’s backdrop is a future in which corporate and planetary political entities are intermingled and comprise intense struggles for power and profit. His main characters, the XO of an interplanetary ice freighter and an ex corporate cop from an outer planet colony, are well crafted and believable. Corey does an excellent job of creating plausible motivational structures that keep that characters interacting in complex ways. Like Martin, Corey employs the narrative device of moving the point of view back and forth between the main characters (in Corey’s case just the two main ones instead of the ten or twelve that Martin lets us in on), and this creates interesting effects and the reader jumps back and forth between the different internal monologs.

The larger plot is compelling and Corey effectively unfolds his idea without the excess of foreshadowing that might tip the reader off too early. There is a certain similarity to Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash, particularly in terms of the larger scope of the plot. Corey does not quite have the sharp, slashing style that characterized Stephenson’s pre-Cryptonomicon novels, but his prose a slightly richer and his capacity for crafting a satisfying ending (even given that this is meant to be the first novel in a series) is, to my mind, superior to that of Stephenson.

Corey is a writer with a lot of promise. His novel is a model of pacing and noir-tinged dialog. His next installment, Caliban’s War, was published this summer and, if this is anything to go by, is worth the time it will take you to read 600 pages.

Magadh

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