block, busted: reading Leviathan Wakes

A few weeks ago I finally gave in to the importuning of a friend and acquired the first book of The Expanse sequence, and in doing so managed to break a case of reader’s block that had been running for months. Perhaps there’s something about having a book chosen for you, rather than picking one from the ever-growing TBR stacks (with the accompanying sense that you should pick something worthy, and/or with some sort of professional value), that lets you just have a go, y’know?

I’m mostly glad I did—but there’s that “mostly”, there, which I’m aware is coming from a deep-seated snobbery that I’ve managed to internalise over the years. For better or for worse (and most likely more of the latter in this case) I think of myself as a reader of literature nowadays, and Leviathan Wakes is not literature in that sense— and nor should it be, to be clear. The io9 blurb on the front cover of my copy describes it as being “as close as you’ll get to a Hollywood blockbuster in book form”, and that’s spot on, and also exactly why I can’t help myself from being equivocal about a book that I finished, and finished quickly. I’m reminded of being taken, not entirely willingly, to see the latest Star Wars movie back in January, and getting exactly the same sense of having all my buttons pushed firmly in a sequence deftly optimised for the attraction of attention and the engendering of emotional response. The authorial amalgam that is Corey has learned this art—and it it is an art—and learned it well.

Propulsiveness and the escalation of spectacular conflict is popular for a reason, and it takes genuine skill to do it well. I was impressed by the way Corey manages to conjure a system-wide wind-up-to-war while limiting themselves to a tick-tock swap between just two limited-third narrative POVs, and some of the pivots between those POVs across a change of chapter are so smooth that you only notice them if you’re forcing yourself to pay attention to the technique rather than the tale. If you want to study pace, then this is a fine text to take as an exemplar.

I guess my literary pretensions really start to show when we come to the matter of character. I have no principled objection to the use of (arche)types—in fact, some of my favourite writers lean in hard to that approach. But the central-casting feel of the character roster here underlined that Hollywood-blockbusterness in a way I didn’t find pleasing: Holden’s crew, in particular, could be transplanted from (or into) almost any space-opera or mil-sf story; meanwhile Miller, while a bit too mild to be a proper noir protagonist, felt all the more sui generis for that). This is, of course, part of the appeal of the generic form—and Corey’s project is definitely not the subversion of genre, even as there’s some degree of cross-pollination going on.

(Though the horror-ish material, i.e. the stuff about the protovirus’s corruption of the people and environments it infects, seemed a little mild, a little too left-to-the-audience… or maybe not left to the audience enough? Or maybe I’ve just become inured to that sort of intergalactic bodyhorror, which someone like Al Reynolds or Paul MacAuley can make much more disturbing and compelling? I dunno… I recall saying to the friend that recommended it that Leviathan Wakes reminded me of early Peter F Hamilton, if early Hamilton had been less bloated in page-count and POVs, populated by more believable characters, and written by someone with a better grasp of the entangled dynamics of privilege and poverty.)

Credit where it’s due, though—central casting they may be, but I developed a relationship with the POV characters Miller and Holden very quickly. As I presume I was meant to, I found myself identifying with Miller’s cynicism and guilty-crusader schtick, and considering Holden to be a (self-)righteous dickhead; about 3/4 of the way through, it’s made very plain that Miller and Holden are of course mirror images of one another, and the bits I’d admired in Miller were effectively the same things I’d found contemptible in Holden. Of course, this is perhaps more revealing about me than it is about the book…

I think I’m no more likely to make the time to see any of the TV series as a result of having read Leviathan Wakes than I was before; much as I can respect the art and technique of this stuff on the page, I know I’m going to get pissed off very quickly by the lack of subtlety that television invariably brings to anything that needs a lot of exposition. (I’m told that the TV is fine spectacle, and I don’t doubt it—but that’s exactly what I don’t enjoy.) As to reading more of the books, I’m of two minds—and this is definitely that snobbery thing in action: because on the one hand, I rattled through this novel in little over a week, and admired both its technical deftness and its ability to transport me out of my reality (even as the themes of infection, quarantine and nationalism constantly reminded me of it); while on the other hand, I’m left feeling the literary equivalent of a sugar-crash. I find it very telling that immediately after finishing it I found myself with the urge to re-read Schismatrix—because that is a book which pioneered the small-stage space-opera genre that The Expanse has taken up, and raises far more interesting questions about the human condition in a far shorter number of pages. Which, to forestall any accusations of elitism, doesn’t make Schismatrix the “better” book; it’s just the better book for me, the one that does more of what I want a book dealing with such a setting to do.

But as empty as I feel its calories to be, I think I might well read at least the next two volumes of The Expanse; I suspect something about my pretensions to literariness makes it possible for me to just get on and read it without much attempt at analysis—and that’s a capacity that both academic reading and the practice of criticism have a tendency to ablate. Or, more plainly, it can be hard for me to just read the fuck out of something in the way I used to as a younger person, seeking little more from sf than an imaginative transportation out of difficult and straitened circumstances. I think there’s lessons in technique to be taken from it, too—but mostly it’s a credit to Corey’s skills at a form of storytelling which is very hard to resist, and harder still to dismiss as mere pablum. It may not be at all my usual bag, but it’s very, very good at what it does. I guess that even I am not immune to the thrill of being taken for a ride every once in a while.

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