Space is a damn big place.
Which means that if you’re going to tell a story set in the far sprawling reaches of said space, it needs to be big enough to fill the available real estate.
Which is exactly what Leviathan Wakes by James S. A. Corey – a pen name used by collaborators Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck – the first book in their The Expanse series, is in every way, right down to is booming drums of war, rivalries between inner and outer planets, and larger-than-life aliens.
Cleverly though the book starts out small, building its galaxy-gobbling narrative in small character-driven chunks, stacking events one on top of the other so deftly and carefully that by the time you realise there’s the mother of all Jenga-like space opera plots towering about you, you’re so consumed by it that you’re entirely happy if it never ends.
And fortunately being the first book in a series which now has five volumes to its name, and the kind of world building and assiduous plot stacking that lends itself to endless more volumes, you may well get your wish.
But first things first.
For a book that encompasses all kind of great big important existential questions – Why does humanity always self-destruct on the point of greatness? Is there life out in those vast “empty” galaxies” beyond us? What is it that drives people to sacrifice their fellow men and women in the pursuit of money and power, and then rationalise their actions as some sort of noble endeavour? – it begins with one wayward heiress, Julie Mao, fighting for her life on a small spaceship in the depths of space.
She has fled a life of suffocating privilege on Earth, for the Belt, a region of space humanity has colonised around Jupiter, Saturn and the Asteroid Belt, where life is precariously beholding to the provision of water, air and food, way beyond most peoples’ control.
But million live there, and love it, relishing the chance for new starts, independence, and the ability to be their own boss.
They aren’t of course since humanity has a way of creating power rivalries and controlling hierarchies wherever it goes, but the illusion of being free of the inner planets hegemony – Mars is a powerful world unto itself now, a rival to Earth which is still the centre of a galaxy humanity has yet to find a way out of – is enough for most people and they guard this freedom, real or imagined, fiercely.
Just how fiercely they will fight is revealed when when two polar opposite men – Detective Miller, a cop on a space station carved out of Ceres, a dwarf planet which sits nestled between Mars and Jupiter, who learnt a long time ago that morality is relative and you do what you need to do to get the job done, and Jim Holden, an officer on an ice miner who is described by everyone who knows him as “righteous” and upstanding – separately discover than life as they know it is threatened by forces both beyond anyone’s imagining, and all too grubbily human.
The stakes are high and the action epic but here’s the thing that makes this book so remarkable – Leviathan Wakes manages to take all this galaxy-spanning narrative bigness and hand it to us in ways that instantly relatable.
There may be war in the offing, behemoth-sized corporations may be engaged in world-ending skullduggery, lives may be lost in the millions, and it’s all winningly, impressively and never less than engagingly dramatic, but because it’s all broken down into the lives of its key players, it’s feels like an intimately personal tale.
That’s quite a skill and one that only a handful of authors such as Peter F. Hamilton seem capable of managing.
But Leviathan Wakes does it with gripping aplomb, layering each new development upon the its predecessor with enthralling intent while never once losing sight of the fact that, at its heart, its a story about people trying to live their lives as best they can.
And fighting to preserve what little they have with everything they’ve got.
Yes they are caught up in machinations far, far greater than themselves, and yes the odds are stupendously stacked against them with no guarantee of success, but they fight on because it matters to them personally.
In the end, while all the great big narrative loops and swirls are as compelling as you could ask for, and the fate of the galaxy hangs in the balance, what matters is these people we’ve come to know and how these larger-than-ordinary-life events are affecting them.
It’s not an easy balance but James S. A. Corey manages it and in such a way that you can well understand why syfy decided to make TV series out of this enormously cinematic literary creation, which winningly balances space opera of the highest, most adrenaline-pumping order, and the most intensely, intimately human storytelling, you could ask for, in this galaxy or the next.