Is This the Future of Humanity? Maybe. – A Review of Leviathan Wakes by James S.A. Corey

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In the last few months or so, there’s been a lot of buzz on the podcasts I listen to about two topics: asteroid mining, and privatized space travel and exploration. While I do listen to quite a few science-centric podcasts, the greatest excitement on these two subjects has come largely from the sci-fi contingent – no surprise there, because space exploration is one of the “holy grails” of sci-fi. Anyone who has seen Star Wars and Star Trek (or at the very least Avatar), or read Dune, knows that a great big hunk of science fiction is built on this idea that, if humanity had the right technology (and, to a degree, the right mindset), it could expand its frontier beyond even the confines of our species’ home planet. Whether or not there are aliens out there is a matter of conjecture; either way, what’s most important is actually getting out of Earth, first.

And, based on what the sci-fi folks are chattering about on the podcasts I listen to, that might not be so far off, after all. First, there’s the concept of asteroid mining, which involves sending manned or unmanned teams to the asteroid belt and mine the rocks there for various minerals which are growing more and more scarce on Earth. This used to be the sole purview of science fiction, until a company called Planetary Resources decided to figure out a way to make science fiction into science fact. If one gets the impression that this is an idea that will die quickly for lack of funds, that’s not likely to happen: the founders include James Cameron and Larry Page, both of whom are financial heavyweights with enough money to throw at this thing and make it work.

But in order to make this happen, the cost of space travel has to go down first. Anyone who has paid close attention to the various government space programs may have noticed that it usually takes bilions to get anything into space. If Planetary Resources were to rely on these government programs (NASA, in their case), the idea of asteroid mining becomes far too expensive to be practical. However, a company called SpaceX may be able to provide the solution Planetary Resources needs: relatively cost-effective spacecraft. It was SpaceX, after all, that made and launched the Dragon spacecraft, which just last May became the first spacecraft made by a privately-held company to send cargo to the International Space Station. What’s interesting is that the Dragon spacecraft was made cheaply, especially in comparison to the spacecraft used by NASA.

Needless to say, the idea of SpaceX and Planetary Resources working together is absolutely dynamite in the minds of sci-fi fans and writers everywhere, because of what that partnership promises. A permanent lunar station is the first step, to act as a staging-ground for future launches to Mars and beyond, towards the asteroid belt. More stations will have to be built on Mars and maybe on its moons, too, again to act as waystations and staging grounds for spacecraft. It may eventually become feasible, even necessary, to set up a permanent Martian colony (which is exactly what Elon Musk, the founder of SpaceX, wants in the first place). All of this might become reality in the next ten to twenty years – well within my lifetime. And if all of that comes to pass, well, what’s next? Perhaps the moons of Jupiter and Saturn, perhaps even farther beyond. No one can say for certain. All that matters is that outer space – or the solar system, at least – is within reach.

Science fiction has, of course, a great many stories about what happens when humanity is no longer limited by Earth’s gravity, but an overwhelming number of them take place in “a galaxy far, far away:” too far for the immediate future. However, when I found out about Leviathan Wakes by James S.A. Corey, and the promise that it was “space opera within the bounds of the solar system,” I knew I just had to read it. While the setting of the story is set several hundred years into the future, the fact that it takes place within the solar system, and also gives asteroid mining a prime place in its world-building, made it practically irresistible to me after everything I’d been hearing on the podcasts about SpaceX and Planetary Resources.

In this particular version of the relatively-near future, humanity has managed to escape the gravity well of Earth thanks to the invention of a small and super-efficient fusion drive called the Epstein drive, after its inventor. It doesn’t allow faster-than-light travel, of course, but it does allow for the production of a great amount of power in a relatively short time, and for relatively cheap. Thanks to the Epstein drive humanity has managed to colonize the entirety of the solar system, with the most important planets being Earth, Luna, and Mars. The asteroid belt, or the Belt, is something of a buffer zone between the inner and outer planets. In the present of the story, there is conflict between the people of Earth and the people of Mars, a conflict that could easily lead to all-out war. In the meantime, the OPA, or Outer Planetary Alliance, seek independence for the Belt and the outer planet colonies, and are currently in the midst of a war for freedom (or a rebellion, from the perspective of Earth, Mars, and their adherents). The situation is a tinderbox of tension, to say the least, ready to blow up at any moment.

And then, all of a sudden, it does. A ship called the Scopuli disappears somewhere in the Belt, and when the crew of an ice hauler called the Canterbury finds it and are themselves blown up save for the team sent out to investigate the wreck of the Scopuli, tensions escalate into all-out war. Caught up in the middle of this are Jim Holden, XO of the Canterbury and then the captain of the team of survivors; and Miller, a detective on Ceres who is made to look for a woman named Julie Mao, daughter of the owners of a notable Luna-based company who’s joined the OPA. Their stories start out separate, but eventually come together towards the end, leading to an answer to the question that has partially fueled humanity’s drive to go into space: are we alone?

Although the novel is generally described as a “space opera,” I rather hesitate to call it such. It has none of the grand, sweeping vistas of space operas (like Iain M. Banks’ Culture series), nor does it have that “expansiveness” which characterizes the genre. There aren’t any alien species in this one, either, given that humanity hasn’t made it beyond the solar system, although that does change quite quickly later on in the story. In fact, there isn’t much that’s truly “epic” about this novel – all of its concerns are very close to home. And it is precisely this closeness to home that I really like about the story.

One of the interesting things about other space operas is that race is no longer a factor. In Star Trek, for instance, the color of one’s skin or one’s preferred religion doesn’t really matter much at all in the long run; more important are one’s skills in a certain field, or one’s personality. However, this is a very idealized view of the future: truth of the matter is, humans can and will continue using things like physicality, place of birth, and religion as markers to determine who is “in” and who is “out.” For instance: “Belters” versus “Inners,” the former being a reference to anyone who was born in the Belt or in the outer planet colonies, and “Inners” referring to people born on Mars, Luna and Earth. Belters are often thinner, leaner, and taller than their Inner counterparts, mostly because many of them are born in stations that have a weaker gravity than the inner planets, and spend most of their life in spaceships and zero-g. Inners, since they are born in planets or colonies (such as Luna) where they are capable of replicating the gravity of Earth, are shorter and squatter compared to their Belter counterparts.

The terms “Inner” and “Belter” also signify something else: economic status. Being an “Inner” means that one has power and privilege, since it is at Mars and Earth that most of the economic and political power of the solar system are concentrated. Belters, on the other hand, are from the “detritus” of humanity: immigrants, refugees, people who have nowhere else to go because the inner planets are too expensive, or are unable to find work anywhere else because they do not have the skills or the education necessary to make it into the mostly white-collar jobs available at Mars or Earth or Luna. The frontier nature of the Belt, and the difficult conditions associated with living there, have given the Belters a unique paradigm that is very different from the one held by the Inners. In fact, that paradigm is so different that many Belters feel they are a separate entity entirely – and thus must cut loose from the inner planets and go independent.

All of this, of course, makes perfect sense to me. Just because humanity is expanding into space doesn’t mean that issues of race and social class will disappear. They will, as is made clear in the novel, simply take on different forms, and all the old conflicts we’ve come to associate with those divides – including revolution and war – will simply change as well to match the technology and new circumstances of this new territory. Perhaps someday we shall get to the point of Star Trek and Star Wars where race and even species no longer matters, but in the meantime, while it’s just humanity in the game, those differences can and will continue to manifest themselves and influence the way politics and power are distributed and redistributed.

Nowhere is this difference made more clear than in the storyline involving Detective Miller and his partner, Havelock. Miller is a Belter through and through, having lived most of his life on Ceres, an important colony on the dwarf planet of the same name. Havelock, on the other hand, is a Martian and therefore an Inner. On Ceres, this makes him an outsider, someone who is not to be trusted. Miller tries his best to be nice to the guy, but it’s obvious that, no matter how hard he or Havelock try, Havelock will always be on the outside. And when the Canterbury is blown up and the Martian navy is accused of having done the deed, Havelock really has no choice but to leave Ceres and go elsewhere to look for work. It’s either that, or be killed, because out in the Belt, the laws of Mars and Earth most certainly do not apply at all times.

Now that I mention Miller, I think it’s time I got into the characters, and how those characters have been shaped to a great degree by where they start out in the story, which in turn has influenced the general tone of their individual storylines until they meet in the middle (sort of). Miller is a cynical, rather angry individual, who fights crime any way he can because it’s the only way he and others like him can keep order – it’s either that, or let all of Ceres descend into utter chaos. He is, in other words, a classic noir protagonist, and his storyline fits many of the tropes of a noir storyline, except it’s all set in space and there’s a lot of zero- or minimal-g. Throughout the story, his actions are guided by this cynicism, by his belief that no one in the universe can be trusted with anything. The world’s screwed him over many times over, so he’s not about to go trusting anything or anyone in it – except he’s also smart enough to know that, sometimes, he can’t really even trust himself.

The other storyline features Jim Holden, who couldn’t be more Miller’s opposite even if he tried. Born in Montana and therefore an Inner, he has the privileged background that Miller does not have. He even got dishonorably discharged from the UNN (United Nations Navy, the interplanetary military arm of Earth’s government) for disagreeing with a superior officer because he thought what said officer was doing was wrong. He’s an idealist, a firm believer that the world works just fine the way it is, that it always plays by the rules that it’s set for itself. He always tries to do “the right thing,” because he thinks that if he just does so, everything will be better. The only problem is, sometimes doing the right thing leads to all kinds of wrong things happening. Twice in the book Holden does what he thinks is “the right thing,” and every time he does so things get worse. He is a walking illustration of that saying about the road to hell being paved with good intentions.

What makes these two characters work though, and what makes their storylines work when they finally meet and come together, is that neither Holden nor Miller really changes much. Miller still remains a cynic, and Holden still remains painfully idealistic, and this causes a lot of interesting friction between the two of them, especially when it comes to the answer to the question of what happened to the Scopuli and Julie Mao. Holden wants nothing more than to broadcast it to the system at large, believing that when the secret’s out, it’ll stop all the violence that’s been going on up until that point. Miller, on the other hand, believes the exact opposite: information as big as that shouldn’t be broadcast all over the place, because it’s only going to lead to more violence and kill even more people. Miller believes (rightfully so, at this stage) that Holden’s idealism needs to be broken before he can even begin to truly appreciate the consequences of his actions, and while he manages to do so, it comes at a great price.

As for the main plot itself, it’s an interesting blend of science fiction and horror. The answer to the question of whether or not humanity is the lone intelligent species in the universe is gradually revealed through both Miller and Holden’s stories, and the answer is perfectly chilling. Stephen Hawking once warned anyone eager to make contact with aliens that said aliens might be “just like us:” violent, greedy, and more than willing to treat us the same way the Spanish treated the Aztecs, or the way the early British colonists treated the Native Americans. Neither of these situations, as everyone knows, was in any way a peaceful encounter, and this appears to be the case with the entity in the novel. It’s also an interesting entity, a truly “alien” thing in that it’s not recognizably humanoid in any way, shape, or form; this is shown in a few utterly horrific scenes that will likely turn the stomachs of those with powerful imaginations but weak constitutions. It’s precisely because of those reasons that I really, really like the entity – not because of the grossness of the scenes, but because of how truly, utterly alien and strange it is as to produce revulsion and fear in me while I read about it.

There is one little thing about this plot that I didn’t particularly care for: zombies. To be sure, I find zombies interesting, even enjoyable to read about in the right kind of story, but in this case I found the use of the term “zombie” to refer to what might otherwise be described as a disease vector rather jarring. I can’t say for sure why I felt that way; it might be because of the futuristic setting, or it might be because I was just tired of zombies being in almost everything I read. I know there was a reason for using the term, but I still didn’t care for it while I was reading, and I wish the term “vector” had been used instead.

Despite that one little gripe, though, Leviathan Wakes is a fantastic novel. The term “space opera” is a little misleading, but such misdirection should not be a deterrent to enjoying this novel. Aside from the fact that it presents a future much closer to our current present than anything in Star Trek or Star Wars, that future is one that supports interesting characters and a fun plot that has quite a few nifty twists and turns to keep the reader going. It takes a while for the plot to build up, but once it starts going, it really goes. Finally, it’s a great reminder that, though humanity seeks to expand its reach to the stars, humanity is still very, very much human. This is a very promising start to what is hopefully an excellent series, and I cannot wait to grab a copy of the next book, Caliban’s War, as soon as it’s available.

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