(2013) James S. A. Corey, Orbit, £13.99, trdpbk, 539pp, ISBN 978-1-841-49992-5
James S. A. Corey is the pen name used by collaborators Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck. Under that name they wrote Leviathan Wakes (2011), the first in a series called 'The Expanse', followed by Caliban's War, and this is the third book. Prior events have included war between Earth and Mars, a decisive space battle around Ganymede, and the activation of a part-machine, part-organic intelligence, dating back to the origin of the Solar System, which has taken over a large settlement on the asteroid Eros, crashed it on Venus, and re-emerged to build a huge ring-shaped artefact beyond the orbit of Uranus.
Now read on… as newspaper serials used to say, but this novel works better as a stand-alone than most components of series do. We plunge straight into the action, with the central character, Jim Holden, being haunted by the ghost of a detective called Miller, who died when Ceres hit Venus, and hunted by a woman once called Clarissa Mao, now Melba Koh, who blames Holden for the collapse of her family’s corporation and the imprisonment of her father after their failed bid to take over and exploit the alien 'protomolecule'. Numerous other characters have their own agendas, but the authors work all that into the early chapters with the required skill to get the even the first-time reader involved. Having dived into a number of series lately where that did not work for me, it is a pleasure to find a writing partnership who can pull that off.
That said, I did find Melba Koh’s character and motivation hard to accept. On the information given, her family and their corporation fully deserved their comeuppance and it is hard to believe a woman of her intelligence wouldn’t see that – she does eventually see reason, but only after killing so many people that her attempts at reparation seem trivial. Not long ago I reviewed Ben Bova's Leviathans of Jupiter in which a similar character's actions made still less sense to me, and it has dawned on me how many SF novel, serial and film plots turn on the actions of saboteurs among the crew, often motivated by revenge. The Lost World, Journey into Space, The Conquest of Space, Fantastic Voyage… and then I tried to think of actual cases in aviation, at sea, in mountaineering or polar exploration, and I could not come up with one. Either it has never happened, or the saboteurs have succeeded every time.
The book jacket tells us that Leviathan's Wake is 'as close as you'll get to a Hollywood blockbuster in book form', implying that this one is the same. It certainly has its fair share of explosions, wrecked spaceships and fire fights – but all of the action takes place in space, nearly all of it within a sunless space-time bubble where the ring and the sentient world at its core control the laws of physics, and I can see difficulties in portraying the action of invisible forces in darkness on screen.
Other reviewers have queried the physics of the space-drive that moves these giant ships around so easily, and got the answer that 'it works very well, thank you'. That line is usually attributed to a Paramount spokesman regarding the warp drive on the Enterprise, but I believe its first use was in Moscow, when a rightly suspicious Reginald Turnill asked for a precise account of Yuri Gagarin’s landing system. Generally in this book the propulsion systems didn’t bother me, except when a missile chases Holden's ship through evasive action, through a fleet of ships, through 31 minutes of acceleration, and when it is immobilised inside the ring, "the torpedo’s drive was still firing, its tail a furious white torch stretching nearly a kilometre behind it". The whole point about air-to-air and ground-to-air missiles is that they catch their target in one short burst of acceleration, and as David Langford pointed out in War in 2080, that makes their counterparts in space very short-range weapons. They cannot use aerodynamic controls to change direction, and every manoeuvre the target makes requires the pursuer to make a bigger one, all expending thrust. As Keith Roberts pointed out in one of the Retief stories, a spaceship, given enough warning, will almost always have the higher delta-v capability needed to outmanoeuvre a missile.
But apart from minor reservations about Melba and the missile, this is a thoroughly enjoyable novel which works successfully as a stand-alone book, and builds up to a suitably engrossing climax, with the survival of life in the Solar System at stake. As a space blockbuster, it is highly recommended.
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