Friday, May 30, 2014

Leviathan Wakes by James SA Corey

The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction defines Space Opera as "colourful action-adventure stories of interplanetary or interstellar conflict." Space Opera concerns Big Events, action done on a big scale. Whenever I picture Space Opera, I think of a Star Wars poster by John Berkey I had as a kid. It's likely what drew me to James SA Corey's Leviathan Wakes, since Daniel Dociu's cover art echoes Berkey's work. The cover blurb was just as inviting, including this crucial line: "one small ship can change the fate of the universe." 

Leviathan Wakes jumps back and forth between the limited third-person perspectives of Jim Holden, the reluctant captain of that small ship, and Detective Miller, a cop looking for a missing girl. Their paths are obviously set to converge, and when they do, they not only find the missing girl, but an alien technology that threatens to destroy the solar system. And while Leviathan Wakes has fine moments of interplanetary  political manuevering and Machiavellian plotting, it is more interested in the view of those bigger movements by the small people those events are focalized through.

This is the major theme of Leviathan Wakes, and requires spoilers for me to illuminate further, so if you haven't read the book, it's time to jump ship and take my recommendation that every Hugo, Nebula, and Locus nomination this series has received is fully deserved. It's the space opera any child who read books on our solar system and its planets and dreamed of what it would be like live in the Asteroid Belt, or on one of the moons of the gas giants, has been waiting to read.

Now for the spoilers, and the discussion of how Leviathan Wakes addresses the theme of the individual human in the big wide reaches of space. While the fictional devices of alternating between the limited third-person perspectives of Holden and Miller serve to subtly convey the small, unreliable perspective of Big Events encompassing multiple planets and the civilization living in the asteroid belt, it is Leviathan Wakes' finale that drives the idea home.

Miller's search for the missing girl and Holden's quest for revenge intersect in the discovery of the protomolecule, an alien technology discovered on one of Saturn's moons. Originally destined for earth, the protomolecule has been locked in the ice of Phoebe for millions of years. Protogen, a powerful corporation, hopes to use to protomolecule to evolve human physiology, thereby finally giving the human race the ability to reach the stars. Juliette Mao was one of the people caught in Protogen's experiment to determine the effects of the protomolecule on the human form.

Mao, infected with the protomolecule had fled to Eros, one of the Asteroid belt stations, where she apparently died of the subsequent Bosch/Giger-painting inspired transformations. The protomolecule is then deliberately, systematically, fed into Eros' system, thereby infecting thousands of people, who are transformed into a protean biomass. Miller, detective that he is, discovers the interface between Mao's desire to go home and the protomolecule's original programming have this monstrous entity on a catastrophic collision course with Earth.

The conversation between Miller and the infected and drastically transformed Mao brings the story of two small men trying to make big changes to a climax. When Miller reveals that many people on Earth are certain to die if Eros does not change course, he convinces Mao to set her will against the collective entity that is Eros station. Like Miller and Holden, Mao becomes a type of David in the valley of Elah, set against the giant of Goliath, or better yet, the biblical allusion in the novel's title: Leviathan, the great sea serpent. Mao overcomes the Leviathan and sets Eros on a new course for uninhabited Venus.

In the wake of Miller's resultant death and with the solar system in a state of unstable peace, Holden is in conversation with a leader of one of the solar system's political factions: he recommends that Miller be remembered as a flawed individual - a real person with a real history. The political leader rejects this in favor of making Miller a symbol of people living in the asteroid belt, in a bid to earn respect for "Belters" in the eyes of Earth and Mars, once again underscoring the tension between the reality of the individual against the press of Big Events: "I know it's hard, but we don't need a real man with a complex life. We need a symbol of the Belt. An icon," the political leader tells Holden. Holden replies, "That's what got us here . . . Icons. Symbols. People without names. All of those Protogen scientists were thinking about biomass and populations. Not Mary who worked in supply and raised flowers in her spare time" (559). It was Miller's refusal to treat Juliette Mao, missing girl, as anything less than a human that ultimately saves the day - it is a surprisingly peaceful solution in a book that has been constantly poised on the brink of war.

However, this is not simply an optimistic look at how one person's actions have ramifications on the Big Events; earlier, when Miller and Holden are involved in a hostile takeover of Protogen's secret lab, Leviathan Wakes explores the dark side of how one person can make terrible changes. They find Antony Dresden, Protogen's executive vice president of biological research as the mastermind behind the experimentation with the protomolecule. Like any good villain, Dresden gets the opportunity to monologue, to wax eloquent on the reasons why mass murder in the name of scientific progress is justified: the protomolecule could render humans capable of working in space without wearing a suit, capable of centuries-long hibernation on colony ships. "We decide what we want to be, and we reprogram ourselves to be that . . . You think it's monstrous, but . . . I am giving humanity the stars" (419-20). Miller shoots Dreden in the head to silence his convincing rhetoric, but muses later that he didn't do it soon enough. There are hints that others were influenced by these ideas. And with the rejection of Miller as a real person interested in individuals, the book darkly concludes, with the statement that on the one hand, humanity is faced with the "very real threat of mutual annihilation. On the other . . . the stars" (561).


There are so many, I can't begin to enumerate them, but Miller seems a likely reference to the golden age of SF, when detectives were to be expected, as in Asimov's Robot stories. The protomolecule is the SF version of Lovecraftian horrors and their descendants, such as Carpenter's The Thing, the Alien design by H.R. Giger (and much of his art in general), and the dark liquid of Ridley Scott's Prometheus. The book certainly has more horror elements than I'd expected.

Secondary Sources:

Pringle, David. "What Is This Thing Called Space Opera?." Space and Beyond: The Frontier Theme in Science Fiction. 35-47. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 2000.

The Expanse Wiki - everything you need to know about the details of the Expanse trilogy.

Teaching Tips: 

Leviathan Wakes is too big to use in a survey course on Science Fiction, but one might form a discussion around the ideas I've outlined above by putting chapters 41, 53-54, and the Epilogue on e-Reserve. They comprise 37 pages out of 560, which still leaves room to include another chapter of your choosing to help students understand the plot (copyright with e-Reserves allows for up to 10% of the work). I don't know that Leviathan Wakes is the best example of space opera, but it certainly would provide a contrast to earlier examples found in good SF anthologies (My recommended anthology for teaching SF is Heather Masri's Science Fiction: Stories and Contexts, though sadly, it looks like it's currently out of print).


Speaking of Space Opera, you've likely already seen this, but the National Post's favorite tweets from Peter Mayhew candids from the set of Star Wars are lovely nostalgia for the SF fan. Aside from my inner adolescent's glee at a few pics of Carrie Fisher in the iconic metal bikini, I love seeing behind-the-scenes--these photos show more than just the "making of." Seeing these actors and crew having a blast making these beloved movies has a strong nostalgia factor that goes beyond scholarly interest, back to the childhood roots of why I study SF and fantasy.



  1. I LOVED this book. It gave me back my love for space opera. And sci/fi in general. Which has been lacking these many years. I just started the second one. Then a friend of mine gave me a China Mieville (Perdido Street) for Christmas. Now I have a dilemma.

  2. Alicia, I really enjoyed Perdido, but save it for a sunny day, when all is right in the world and you feel spectacular. It's a great book, but it can be relentlessly bleak at times. I'd read Caliban's War NOW. It has one of the best foul-mouthed characters in Science Fiction. I'm going to be starting Abaddon's Gate any day now.