Books: Leviathan Wakes

Lately I’ve been trying to do a bit more reading. I spent the better part of the pandemic mostly either 1.) working or 2.) vegging out in front of the TV. I’ve always enjoyed reading, but lately I’ve found it difficult to read for pleasure since, at any given time, I have so many things that I feel like I should be reading for work. Reading something for fun feels wrong, like I’m wasting time where I could be reading something more “productive.” This, of course, makes exactly zero sense when, instead of reading for pleasure I end up just watching TV or playing video games instead.

A few weeks ago I read the classic Lolita for the first time. Rightly deciding that I needed something a bit lighter to read after that, I decided to crack into Leviathan Wakes. The ebook had been sitting in my Google Play Books account for years; I bought it during some sale or another since I thought it looked interesting and then proceeded to never touch it. It’s the first novel in the Expanse series, which was originally picked up as a television series by Syfy before being dropped and then rescued for Amazon Prime Video. In the time since I purchased the book, I’ve streamed all seasons of the television show, and I’m eagerly awaiting the release of the final season.

One of the most interesting things about Leviathan Wakes is the setting in the overall context of modern science fiction. Most SF novels I’ve read over the years focus on the far-flung future of the galaxy — or even universe — as a whole. Whether travel is gated by a spice-fueled evolutionary offshoot of humanity such as in Dune or grounded in slightly more relatable concepts to modern science like the writing of Alastair Reynolds, the end result is that traveling across the galaxy is typically feasible even if it’s not necessarily common. In Leviathan Wakes, humanity has access to the solar system, but nothing beyond it. I know from the television series that this will change later on, but it’s still an interesting take on humanity’s expansion. Everything is about the scramble for resources in an expanded yet enclosed system, from setting up farms on Ganymede to mining water from the rings of Saturn.

The factions humanity breaks into within the diegesis of Leviathan Wakes is also interesting, with the 3 major powers — some more major than others — being Earth, Mars, and the Belt. The Belt in particular provides an interesting look at the development of humanity from the perspective of entire generations being born and living in low gravity, low oxygen environments. The entire setting is just extremely interesting, and it provides such a good baseline for the plot.

Speaking of the plot, the first season and a half of the show sticks fairly closely with the first novel. The major difference is that the show has much more character development with a greatly expanded pool of characters. While the show follows the crew of the Rocinante, detective Miller on Ceres, Secretary General Avasarala on Earth, and Martian Marine Bobby Draper, the novel focuses exclusively on the storylines of the Rocinante crew and Miller — which eventually merge about two thirds of the way through Leviathan Wakes. While this gives the plot a bit more focus, I did find myself missing the different perspectives happening during some of the major events of the story; the characters I mention from the show but not in the novel don’t even exist in the novel. With this in mind, I also found it interesting that several major players from the show who are in the book were little more than bit characters in the novel, such as Anderson Dawes, the OPA operative on Ceres played by the terrific Jared Harris.

All of that being said, after reading the novel I have to give kudos to the casting and writing of the show for absolutely crushing the portrayal of the characters. Their personalities and behaviors seem to map perfectly to the novel. Holden in the novel is just as annoying and self-righteous as I’d come to expect, while Amos is still as on-the-nose and terrific. I do find the portrayal of the Belters to be better in the novel, with their much more pronounced differences from lives in low gravity making the “us versus them” attitude all the more apparent; I understand, though, that it’s not feasible to cast only lanky, 7′ tall actors for Belters, and I don’t think they could’ve found anyone better than Thomas Jane for Miller regardless.

The plot itself is a nice melting pot of sub-genres within science fiction. Miller’s story arc as a detective gives vibes from the Robots series by Asimov. The Rocinante provides action, with hallmarks of classic military scifi and space opera. The protomolecule, which I won’t go into the details of to avoid spoilers in case anyone hasn’t either read the novel or seen the television show, provides a hint of horror accompanying humanity’s first contact with extraterrestrial life.

The novel certainly ends on a “we’re safe for now but what the heck is going to happen next?” note, so I’m excited to read the next novel, Caliban’s War. I do have to question if I’d have been sucked in quite as much by the book if I hadn’t seen the show first just because I didn’t quite feel like it hit me as hard as I expected it to. That being said, it’s also the first novel in a 9 book series. A lot of setup has to go into that, so similar to how A Game of Thrones wasn’t the most engaging novel in the Song of Ice and Fire series, I only expect the books to get better in the Expanse series… And unlike A Song of Ice and Fire, the Expanse novels are actually getting written, with the final book due out in November.