I was surprisingly disappointed by Leviathan Wakes, which is the first of a series of books now headed to tv on the US SyFy channel as “The Expanse”. They characterize the show as a Game of Thrones set in space, so that gave me all kinds of expectations of an array of interesting characters and a chessboard of players vying for power in a politically-complex, imagined future. A Game of Thrones‘s author, George R.R. Martin himself has given this book some heady accolades — I must be missing something. I’ve read reviews that credit this book’s world-building and blockbuster action, neither of which I really saw happening until the last quarter of the book, at best. The story focuses mostly on two characters: Holden, a space-ship captain with a strong belief in the truth, whose own crew narrowly survive repeated attempts to eliminate them; and Miller, a detective who becomes obsessed with a missing-person case which leads him to uncover the threads of a grand conspiracy. The setting is our solar system, several centuries into the future where humanity has spread out, and political lines are drawn between Earth (“old money”, the people who stayed behind to keep what they had), Mars (“new money”, the people who successfully built on the new future), and “the Belt” (the slums, people living on ships and asteroids beyond and between the planets trying to keep themselves afloat). After Holden’s ship is destroyed, he broadcasts a message implicating Mars, igniting an interplanetary war that wages as he and the survivors on his crew try to figure out who is doing all this bad stuff to them. Miller, a “belter” who is working on a case to find and retrieve a runaway rich girl, Julie Mao, finds a number of clues that point him towards things not being what they seem (and people not wanting him to find the truth). Eventually his path converges with Holden’s as they try to unravel a conspiracy that has harmful intentions for the entire human species.
Any time I try to summarize this story (especially if I don’t want to reveal too much), I can see how it might sound as epic and as juicy as the reviews all suggest. However, what they aren’t saying is that the experience of reading this story (or in my case listening to it) doesn’t really match up. For starters, most of the action takes place on one ship or space station after another, so everyone is speaking some kind of military or space-nautical lingo. Not only is it difficult to follow at times, it’s also difficult to tell one crew member from another (until they start eliminating them all down to a small crew), so it was frustrating to know who to pay attention to and who to dismiss as expendable. Another frustration was that the “big” action — wars and politics — took place almost completely off-stage. Holden would make a broadcast, then you’d hear about Mars going to war. We are still with Holden and crew, so we’re not directly involved in the war and we just get news reports or hearsay about what’s happening. Narratively, we are still in a relatively “small” world. Yes, it’s kind of exciting to be with them as they run from one attack after another, but that’s something that really works better on screen where it can be easily visualized. Miller’s plot line had an equally slow start, with its cop lingo (which is bad enough in contemporary novels, but in futuristic novels it can be even tougher to follow — you don’t know which terms and names you should understand and which ones are throwaway) and various clues and side-characters, I kept waiting for someone to tell me what was the important part.
Some of you reading this review are probably thinking that I just don’t “get” good sci-fi — and that might be true. Frankly, I have watched a lot of sci-fi, but have not read nearly as much. Still, even though a lot of stuff might go over my inexperienced head, I do know enough to admire creativity and imaginative writing when I read it (give me credit for my complete admiration of Dan Simmons’s Hyperion, which to me was light-years better than this book). Anyway, it definitely wasn’t all bad. The last quarter was not only exciting, but I could see how it all came together into something that was impressive and cinematic, and occasionally well-written. I liked it a lot more when the story gave readers the character’s thoughts about some bigger issues such as the future of humanity or the morality and responsibility of choosing individual interest vs the good of humankind. Corey’s writing was best when it got philosophical. Not that the dialogue and characterizations didn’t paint vividly, it’s just that I didn’t find the characters very interesting.
Again, if you haven’t read the book you’re probably really confused by this review. You can’t really tell what this book is about and whether I like it or not. Sorry about that. Bottom line, I don’t really like this book or the universe that it’s created. It had its moments, and the plot got good at the end, but it took way too long to get there (about 15 hours of listening). I didn’t find the ideas in this book particularly fresh — at least as far as sci-fi is concerned. However, if after that I can still say that the actual writing wasn’t too bad, consider it said. Plus, I already bought the second book, so at some point I’ll have to revisit this universe and maybe I’ll enjoy it more then. In the mean time, I will also watch the TV series to see if it improves my opinion on the universe of “The Expanse”. (3.5 out of 5)