By James S.A. Corey
Take a space opera setting designed as a role playing game. Take a pair of talented writers. Take a cast of interesting characters and put them in space. Add in the greatest war in human history which as started due to a mystery. Now add in something worse. That's how you get Leviathan Wakes, a science fiction novel published in 2011, nominated for the Hugo in 2012 and the Locus Award in the same year. The book also serves as the basis for setting of the television show The Expanse, which I haven't seen... Yet, but it has been well received.
James S.A Corey is a pen name used by Daniel Abraham and Ty Francis (fun fact, the S.A in the name is actually the initials of Mr. Abraham's daughter). Ty Francis first worked out the setting of the Expanse as a pitch for an MMO game, but the company folded. It was possible that the setting would have been folded up and put in the back of a mental closet if not for Mr. Francis' sister who while taking a creative writing course asked him for a story idea and (as any writer would have told him would happen) wrote it wrong. So he rewrote it to match his idea and sold it. Mr. Francis would then go on to run the Expanse as a RPG setting on a message board where the inspiration for many of the characters would take root (being derived from characters people made for the game) but the game ended before they could get anywhere really interesting. It looked like the Expanse was heading for that mental closet expect for a meeting with Mr. Abraham. Daniel Abraham, who had been writing since a young age was at this a veteran writer. He had written fantasy, urban fantasy and wrote the science fiction novel Hunter's Run (along with George RR Martin). They both cemented their friendship when Mr. Francis was hired to work as Mr. Martin's personal assistant (I would like to take a moment and point out that Mr. Martin has helped a number of writers over the years and deserves nothing but credit for that). One of the things they did has friends? Role play in the Universe of Expanse.
While Mr. Francis had no great ambitions for a novel, Mr. Abraham did and saw that the Universe of the Expanse would make a great one. They worked alternating chapters and editing each others work (Mr. Abraham wrote the chapters following Detective Miller, Mr. Francis followed Captain Holden). So, the two of them set out to do the one thing that everyone warns you not to do, don't adapt your old campaign (everyone says this, with good reason, but it's amazing how many fantasy and science fictions start out this way).
The setting is what many traditional science fiction writers would consider an in between setting. It is not the 20 minutes into the future of Cyberpunk and it's related genres. It is not set in some far distant future where humanity has scattered itself across the galaxy. Instead humanity has taken space, but not yet the stars. The Moon and Mars have been settled. Mars is independent and working to terraform the planet to be capable of supporting life. Meanwhile humanity has also spread across the asteroid belt and into the outer planets. Wedging themselves into stations and hollowed out moons and worldlets driven mostly by Mars' need for resources to drive the terraforming process. The Belters has they call themselves have lived out nearly beyond the light of the sun for generations now. Developing a distinct appearance based on growing up in a low gravity and a distinct culture based on their cramped living spaces and being so on the edge of disaster that someone who lived their entire life on a planet, an environment that is not constantly trying to kill you, cannot really grasp it. This is reflected in the language that has developed in the belt, a mash up of dozens of languages and as many different grammar rules. A Belter can often have an entire conservation in this slang ridden patois that no one from the Belt could even begin to follow (this makes the Anthropologist in want to tackle the nearest Belter character and demand they do their duty to humanity and help me compile a grammar of this shit, because this shit is a cultural event!). This growing cultural separation is fueled by the resentment that the Belters feel towards the people and governments of the inner planets who frankly use them as cheap labor and do little if anything to address their concerns. As a consequence of this, revolutionary groups have sprung up across the outer system, uniting under the banner of the OP determined to stand up for the rights of Belters and stick to the inner system man. Meanwhile Earth and Mars, while allied for decades have their own divisions and resentments bubbling away under the surface. The whole system is a giant pool of gasoline and some jackass decides to go ahead and start lighting matches. As they always do.
The story itself centers around two men that are incredibly alike despite being different in every way. Detective Miller is a cop on Ceres, a hollowed out worldlet that is policed by a security corporation on contract. He's jaded, tired, divorced and a barely functioning alcoholic, who despite this is actually a fairly decent cop if he can unfuck himself for 20 minutes. Detective Miller is slowly and quietly working and drinking himself to death because he can't bring himself to care about much else. Things take a strange turn however when his captain assigns him a little side job. There's a rich family on Luna with an estranged daughter named Julie Mao. She's disappeared. Detective Miller's job is to track her, find her and get her back to the inner system, no matter what Julie Mao has to say about it. I've known men and women like Detective Miller, people who have without ever discussing it with themselves or admitting it, have decided to just let themselves slide slowly and unavoidably into a moldering death. Often because things have fallen apart and they no longer feel they are strong enough to pull their lives together, or sometimes because they can't bring themselves to care. More than often then I'd like, there is simply nothing to be done and no way to bring out of their slow, lazy spiral into the end. But sometimes, sometimes what they need is someone, or something that latches on to their focus and turns them from a drifting, sputtering glider, into a high powered guided missile. When that happens you have three choices, help, get out of the way or follow behind them. Because they will not stop and they will go right through you, if need be, no matter the cost. Detective Miller has just become a high powered, human missile that will not stop until he finds Julie Mao be she alive or dead.
Holden born on Earth, dishonorably discharged from the Earth Navy is the XO of a water hauler that comes down with a terminal case of exploded. Finding himself the Captain by right of survival and now responsible for the well being of a number of crew men (and women) who have also survived this attack. Captain Holden is younger, idealistic, believing all he has to do is discover the truth and get it out there and people will Do The Right Thing. He's also angry at a system that has both been failed by him and failed him and determined not to let it happen again. Like Miller he was mostly drifting through his life, not circling the drain but floating along comfortably. Content to simply slide through. Life however decided to smack him in the nose with a hammer and scream wake up at the top of it's metaphorical lungs. Captain Holden is going to find the people responsible for killing his old ship. He's going to keep his crew mates alive and he's going to get to the Truth and get it out to everyone, even if it kills him. Working with and for him are a couple of interesting characters, from the medic Sled, Amos the space mechanic (who is my favorite), Naomi the Belter engineer and Alex the Martian Redneck pilot. The by play and interactions of the crew are great and I really enjoy them. Captain Holden is a man who believes in right, truth and doing your damn job and he's going to do his level best to live up to those ideals. This honestly makes him a more likable character then Detective Miller and a vastly more relatable on a lot of levels. To be fair on the day I start feeling more like Miller then Holden, that may be the day I need to go in and talk to a shrink or 5.
You may be wondering about the remark I made earlier about this these two men being very alike despite having nothing in common. Captain Holden and Detective Miller have incredibly different life experiences, different world views, different ideas on how society and people work, on everything really. Boil that all away and you get two men with the same core however, men who want to do their job to the best of their ability and want everyone to just deal with each other decently. Detective Miller has been beaten down by life to stretch out his definition of decently and Captain Holden idea of doing his job well drives other to the edge of madness at times but that's what it is. There's also a lurking anger in both of them as they have been repeatedly denied the very simple things they want and while they express it in different ways, it's still there. As you might guess those shared personality traits only make things more difficult for both of them.
That said it's not a perfect ride, the transition between chapters gets a bit choppy at times. The rpg elements tends to peek through from time to time. Some of the actions scenes feel more like fights lifted from a rpg game then a written scene, those scenes are a minority though so the book manages to push through that. I also felt that more time could have spent on the complaints that caused the division between humanity in the first place. Still the setting and the characters get me through that. While the setting isn't hard science ficton, it feels like it could be. I really enjoy the setting and the divisions and how they're played out on the ground level as opposed to the top `10% of humanity that a lot of space opera focuses on. The characters don't explain why the tech works but they do have to deal with the effects of the tech working and the more time spent on the implications of technology as opposed to dry numbing recitation of how it works the better. All these things considered this is good space opera and good story. It's also despite being the first book in a series a complete story in and of itself. If I were to put this series down right here... I'd still have a full story that ends on a satisfying note. I'm giving Leviathan's Wake by James S.A Corey a B+. In all honesty I'm really interested in this story now and I'm pretty sure the series is going no where but up (especially with more of Holden's crew).