It strikes me that space opera is the epic fantasy of science fiction. That is, you expect vast settings and a large cast of characters, all moving about their little narratives that eventually get tied up by the end of the book/series and somehow weave together to overcome the threat that imperils the solar system/galaxy/universe. Even if you are fairly unfamiliar with either subgenre, you can most likely do a quick comparison of the Star Wars (I’m thinking of the original trilogy mostly) and Lord of the Rings movies in your mind. They both have their avatars of oppressive evil—Darth Vader and Emperor Palpatine versus Saruman and Sauron. They are both far-flung, moving through planetary systems quickly and several countries in Middle Earth respectively. They both have a number of characters whose stories have to be maintained and which come together at the climax to thwart the evil avatars and their attempt to dominate everything and everyone. Therefore it is something of a delight to find a novel that is clearly space opera, but succeeds in escaping these tropes to do something innovative. Leviathan Wakes, by James S. A. Corey (the pseudonym of Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck) is that novel, finding a crevice in the stalwart tradition of space opera and exploiting it with a compelling story.
While the scope of Leviathan Wakes is the entire solar system and while the threat does involve something extra-solar “invading”, the scope is smaller by magnitudes than the galactic milieu of most space opera and especially smaller than the universe-sized setting of the earliest space opera. The novel still makes it clear that we are talking about vast stretches of distance and time, larger than most people truly comprehend, but it also is satisfied to only deal with the solar system from the asteroid belt in. The novel also doesn’t posit a far-distant future where the science allows people to move freely around spacecraft that exceed the speed of light; rather, the science of Leviathan Wakes is not that far advanced from what we currently have now. This also results in delayed communication as participants in the conversation wait for their parts in a conversation to travel at light speed. Thus the setting that the novel inhabits is grand, but doesn’t require the suspension of disbelief of most space operas.
This realistic approach is enhanced by the novel’s focus on really just two characters, James Holden and Joe Miller. Holden is the executive officer on the Canterbury, an ice miner plying the asteroid belt. Holden is sent with a small crew to discover the source of a distress signal, but he ends up witnessing the destruction of the Canterbury by unknown forces. Joe Miller is a nourish private police officer on the asteroid Ceres, who notices strange goings-on among the criminal elements before being given a scut assignment to track down the missing heiress of an Earth industrial mogul. Both characters pull on the threads that are left to them as disaster after disaster strikes—a war breaks out between Earth, Mars, and the largely independent asteroid belt—and both characters try to minimize not only the damage around them but their own unexpected responsibility for the events shaping the war. While there are a few other minor characters that play parts in the ongoing story, Holden and Miller alternate the story’s point-of-view, even as they end up together on the same ship.
The two main characters are pretty deeply flawed, which is a twist on space opera’s general insistence on paragons, or characters who overcome their flaws to become paragons. This is not to say that Holden and Miller are not good people, because they are. But they are fully rounded characters, existing on a continuum rather than a binary. Holden is something of an idealist, expecting that people will do the right thing especially in the cold light of truth. Miller on the other hand is a cynic, expecting people to only act in their self-interest unless forced to do otherwise. This dichotomy causes real friction between them; even though they have the same goals, their respective methodologies disturb each other. And this lies at the heart of space opera—as humans explore the vast expanse of space, the very enormity of their endeavor highlights and intensifies the humanity of the characters. Paradoxically, it is against the largest setting, when individuals appear the smallest, do the characters excel the most.
The large backdrop also exacerbates the worst qualities as well. Given such a large arena in which to succeed, when failures happen, they are often spectacular. In Leviathan Wakes, it is human folly which enables the circumstances that drive the story: the war between the planets is a façade, a ploy setting ignorant militaries at each other’s’ throats in order to hide a corporate power grab, which in turn potentially endangers the entirety of the human race. This is the crux on which Miller and Holden’s differences lie.
Despite its differences from the stereotypes of the genre, Leviathan Wakes remains clearly a space opera. The action is relentless and on a large scale. The questions are big and the answers that Holden and Miller uncover in their search are bigger. And like well-written space opera, Leviathan Wakes is engaging and fun, difficult to put down once started. I’m pleased that there is a sequel and potentially a series.