James S. A. Corey, “Leviathan Wakes” (2011) (narrated by Jefferson Mays) – I figured I’d give the Expanse series a try. People recommend the tv show to me but I wanted to try the books first, and I do make some cursory efforts to “keep up” with what’s big in scifi. At this rate it’ll be years before I get to the show, especially if my work tasks change again and I can’t do audiobooks, but we’ll see. I haven’t got much time for hour-long tv shows these days anyway.
In any event, this wasn’t great but it was good. It’s written by two dudes (“James Corey” is a “house name”), one of whom was George R.R. Martin’s personal assistant. It appears they learned much from Martin: short chapters alternating viewpoints (with the viewpoint character’s name right up top), idealists becoming more worldly and cynics learning to believe in something, blood splashed liberally around, detailed and interesting (if not mind-blowingly original) worldbuilding.
The two main characters are Miller, a world weary cop on a habitat in the Asteroid Belt, and Holden, an idealistic officer on a merchant spaceship (truth be told, the authors kind of slather the idealism on heavy towards the end to give their duller character a personal crisis). A cluster of murders, crises, and general fuckery set the Solar System on a collision course towards war, unearth ancient evils, and of course bring the two characters together to fix things.
The Expanse takes place a few centuries from now, when Mars, much of the Asteroid Belt, various moons are settled by people (but not terraformed). There’s no “faster than light” technology propelling us to the stars- everything takes place with the good ol’ solar system. It resembles, in many ways, the workaday space setting of the “Alien” movies: megacorporations, polyglot proletarian communities of spacers, confined utilitarian environments, etc. I like that sort of thing, though I do think the authors could have mixed it up a little more. Maybe it’s just the historian in me but I’m a little irked that they depict the community feeling of “Belters” (residents of Asteroid Belt stations) as basically the sort of nationalism we see on Earth, just cut and pasted onto outer space. Especially given the ways they distinguish Belters from “Inners” (people who live on the inner planets) — they’re physically different in some ways, speak their own patois, developed a culture around the harsh necessities of space habitation — you’d think there’d be a good opportunity to see how different ideas of community might develop…
This pattern repeats itself in a few places. There’s some (rather pro forma) invocation of the wonders of space travel, but this is no final frontier and there’s nothing really that imaginative, in either the world or the plot. The closest is an ancient evil non-human intelligence that “infects” a space station and gives it an eldritch consciousness. But in the end, that mostly amounts to an opportunity for some creepy H.R. Giger-inspired body horror and a very human-scale redemption narrative. The characters are also pretty by-the-numbers. Space cop is “in love” with a dead (conventionally attractive, natch) girl he’s meant to find. Space officer/dad of misfit space family has to learn to be more flexible but not give up his moral compass. Gruff space men are gruff. But the book hits the old beats enjoyably enough, like a well-practiced barroom rock band. I’m willing to try out the next one. ****