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Highlights: Leviathan Wakes and Caliban’s War

While being a fan of well-written, hard science fiction, it has always been tough for me not to love a good space opera. The “good” part of that tends to be the hitch. The most enjoyable ones I have had the pleasure of reading include Dan Simmons’ Hyperion Cantos, John Scalzi’s Old Man’s War (debatable whether or not this is actually space opera), and a number of Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan Saga. Most recently, I have had a difficult time getting into Iain M. Banks’ Culture Series and gave up on Alastair Reynolds’ Revelation Space series after the first book. I did not even get 150 pages into Kevin J. Anderson’s Saga of the Seven Suns.

So when Leviathan Wakes popped onto the scene last summer, I was hesitant. It took a good six months for the internet to convince me that I absolutely had to read this novel and I think it mostly lived up to the hype. Caliban’s War was a spectacular follow-up that improved upon almost everything in Leviathan Wakes

What makes this novel remarkable is the world-building. Science fiction series tends to be either focused on Earth and a near future or a fairly distant future (or if not that, a near future that is very different). Space operas in particular tend to be somewhat far-flung across space, time, and different races/aliens discovered. The only notable exception I am coming up with off the top of my head is Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars Trilogy. The Expanse Universe (the setting for Leviathan Wakes and its sequel, Caliban’s War) takes place in between, where mankind has mastered the solar system, but not the stars beyond. This is a point highlighted by the authors (James S.A. Corey is a pseudonym for Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck) and their effort really comes through. There is an emphasis on biological adaptations to outer space, high G space travel, and the physical characteristics of living in space stations on moons and asteroids. It is the type of stuff that is often overlooked by run of the mill space opera.

The plot elements of both books consist of noir mystery/horror, politics, and military action/adventure. Leviathan Wakes does this combination well, but Caliban’s War blows it out of the water with compelling characters that represent many of these elements without being complete caricatures.

If Leviathan Wakes had a weakness, it was some issues with the characterization of the two lead protagonists. At some points, it was fairly obvious that two different authors were writing the two different narratives throughout the novel. It worked well before the characters’ paths intersected because the characters were meant to have different lives that shape their outlook, mission, and manner of handling situations. When the chapters involved both characters but the narrative mostly focused on one of the characters, the momentum was a bit more inconsistent. In Caliban’s War, there are more main characters with narratives, but the characterizations are significantly tighter and more consistent.

I think one part that is often overlooked is accessibility. Science fiction, for all its presence in all forms of media, is not an easy genre to get into in the print medium. I doubt the Corey duo sat down and decided to make the books accessible, but these books are exactly that without sacrificing too much in the way of realism. The noir elements and the not-inconceivable solar system settings are welcoming in this respect. Highly recommend for anybody looking for good novels to bite into for the end of summer.

robert charles wilson and gypsies

I would put Robert Charles Wilson as one of my top five authors in any genre. I would put him at number one for being strangely low-key and under the radar for how good he is. The guy has put out some of the most accessible character-driven, high-concept science fiction for about two and a half decade; but he barely registers a blip even among the genre fans with whom I’ve spoken. I’ve gone as far as to give away my own copies of his easier to find books (Spin and Darwinia, in particular) to people hoping to get them to read his stuff. This is all made stranger by the fact that he’s actually very positively reviewed in the professional and semi-pro critics’ circles (the Indelible being JV).

In an attempt to complete my collection of RCW books, I looked for the out-of-print ones the old fashioned way, scouring the shelves of second-hand bookstores in at least six major cities over the past three years: Boston, New York, DC, San Francisco, Denver, and Nashville. I was relatively successful with the exception of two of his earlier works: Gypsies and The Harvest. After failing in Nashville this November, I relented and used the wondrous Amazon marketplace to complete my collection in time to read Gypsies over the winter holiday.

Gypsies by Robert Charles Wilson

I wasn’t let down. A hallmark of Wilson’s work is stories about broken people. When I began reading his work with Spin, he had this motif more or less polished. In Gypsies, the plot revolves around three siblings (Laura, Karen, and Tim Fauve) who suffer from three particular fatal flaws that make them very broken people in their own ways. Oh, and they can all open doors into parallel universes. This power is limited by their flaws; for instance, one of the siblings can only open doors to parallel worlds that are distinctly dark and dreary; another can barely use it because of her flaw. Despite the fairly significant power and all the hokey possibilities that come with it, Wilson handles it with poise and grace. The story is really more about the flaws of those three characters, how they came about (daddy issues, mostly), and how the combination of those flaws affect Michael, the son of Laura, who also manifests the gift. Michael may seem like the focal point in the story (and some reviews I’ve read make it sound that way), but it is really less about him than the previous generation.

Within the story, the “ability” is often discussed as seeing “angles” and “dimensions” in the fabric of reality that others cannot see. I note this because it’s an interesting way to describe Wilson’s work in this novel and all of his other ones — you think you know what you’re going to get if you see the plot overview, but this author continually approaches his stories at angles unique among science fiction authors, adding some unforeseeable depth and dimension to his stories. His work, both in terms of ideas and character growth, is food for the imagination and sense of wonder shared by everybody, not just fans of science or speculative fiction.

the postmortal

Drew Magary is a blogger best known for his work on Deadspin and Kissing Suzy Kolber. If I’m a little bit biased in this review, it’s because I’m an admittedly big fan of his dick jokes work at these two rather irreverent sports blogs. But I won’t be biased. I promise.

At first blush,  The Postmortal is simple enough. Magary utilizes the soft science fiction device of “What If…?” while keeping everything more or less recognizable to our world — in this case, “What if we all lived forever?” To begin answering this question, the primary action of the novel begins in the very near future and introduces a world that has discovered the pharmaceutical fountain of youth. Through the rediscovered digital journal of John Farrell, encompassing a period of 60 years from 2019 AD to 2079 AD, the social, psychological, economic, religious, and political implications of eternal youth are explored.

In most minds, eternal youth seems to go hand in hand with every concept of an utopia (along with golden toilet seats). Like a number of speculative fiction authors before him, Magary does an excellent job of turning a simple assumption on its head, and does so by infusing tragedy, comedy, and some downright horrifying things into his tale. The concepts are well thought-out, the technological development is realistically paced and believable, while the characterization is consistent.

The Postmortal does a lot of things well in terms of story and characterization, but it falls short on a few other fronts. It’s always easier to criticize, so here goes:

This is a frame story. You are reading a man’s journal in the year 2090 AD, and the individual posts cover 60 years. I was never particularly sold on the “blog” format. They rarely read like blog posts. Some just read like regular narratives with too many details for the chosen frame.  The blog format could have been used to tell the story in a clever manner, but it really seemed as if the author just wanted to tell his story and the frame was an afterthought. It is also stated that the “text files” have been formatted for the reader to skip over certain things. That could explain the gaps where the story flashes forward  anywhere from a decade to multiple decades, but I have a hard time believing nothing significant happened in the meantime that our prolific blogger main character did not blog about.

The gaps lead into the second issue I had with the book — the pacing always felt off. It does not feel like the first part of the book was really written with the ultimate object of the second part in mind. Some things went really quickly, some things dragged on. For instance, the pacing might have felt off because the tone shift felt too quick and never settled completely in the second part.

Finally, the twist with Solara Beck (a character mentioned in the opening pages), was a little contrived. I can’t really go into it without spoilers, but the outcome felt forced and out of place considering the context and history.

Overall, the book is an excellent and very readable first effort. I think Drew has some great potential as an author of speculative fiction. Lucky for him, he has the intangibles down — he can conceive a story and he can make it interesting. The story falls short on the things that promising authors tend to improve upon on their following efforts.

3/5