I was on vacation recently and managed to finish novels I couldn't help but compare: Leviathan Wakes by (pseudonymous) James S. A. Corey and Absolution Gap by Alastair Reynolds. I have been reading less and less recently as the medium of film commands more of my attention and critical resources, so reading something like Leviathan Wakes felt like a betrayal of my time; I could have been reading something better, something more rewarding, more challenging. Not that Absolution Gap was a quantum leap in quality, but at least I didn't hate myself by the time I finished it.
Leviathan Wakes (hereafter LW) is the first book in the Expanse Series. Originally designed as a trilogy, the series was expanded to encompass, at the time of this writing, five novels with a six in the chamber ready to be fired at the masses. Let me assure you, from the beginning of this review, that LW is aggressively middlebrow (something I concluded earlier this month) and has the stink of creation-by-committee. This is not a novel, but a pitch for a television series or anything else that will make money. As the Expanse series appears to be the only blockbuster selling science fiction novel, it behooves me to consider the state of science fiction of a genre using LW as the focal point.
LW imagines a universe in which humanity has colonized most of the solar system but nothing outside that territory. The colonies all rely on Earth to produce the raw materials that sustain life (food, water, air, etc) while the colonies in return produce the raw materials that sustain industry and capitalism. This differential of power and capital causes strain and political strife. Imagine the mini-drama of Paul Verhoeven's Total Recall, with its quite prescient points concerning the intersection between workers' rights and quality of life, but magnified to the scale of the solar system. While Total Recall has intriguing things to say about the rapacious corrupting nature of capitalism (ie Benny and his "five kids to feed"), LW is focused on ploddingly basic statements about how corporations are bad, man. The government of Earth and the Moon (the United Nations) are in conflict with the quasi-terrorist group, the Outer Planets Alliance. What exactly they are in conflict over is vague and meant more as setdressing than as any thematic interest. The major tension in the setting of the series is the pseudo-racial divide between Earth-born humans and "Belters," those raised in a different gravity and different social structure. Their bodies, shaped by the pull of a differing gravity, marks them as "Other" while their language, a creole of many languages and -- most importantly -- gestures (they work in spacesuits so gestures make the most amount of sense) further this divide.
There. I just told you about the most interesting thing in this novel. There is literally nothing else in this novel that could be conceivably called "intriguing" or "compelling." What makes this all the more galling is that this idea is exceedingly old hat if you read any New Wave sci-fi from the 60s or 70s. Ursula LeGuin carved a whole career out of this type of worldbuilding.
But this sort of echo represents the failure of LW quite well. LW is not a novel of ideas but a house of mirrors, all reflecting a facet of marketable science fiction, coagulated into a package easy for mass digesting. The plot follows two strands: Holden and his tiny crew of irascible witty ne'er-do-wells as they are bumped from one explosive setpiece to another, with little forward momentum in terms of narrative; and the hard-drinking detective Miller (divorced of course), who is tasked with finding a rich girl who abandoned her lifestyle to fight alongside the OPA. Both plots are old hat science fiction tropes as old as literature. This does not mean automatically artistic failure. If the authors can pull off the execution, any deficiencies in originality can be forgiven. Alas, the execution might be worse than the unimaginative concepts.
There is a tendency among "geek" culture, I've found, to try for witty dialogue. Witty repartee seems to be a very hot and trending element of geek culture. As somebody who adores dialogue, I believe that aspirations to wittiness are commendable. That being said, not every writer can be as witty as, say, Joss Whedon. Nor is every writer adept at varying how they use witty dialogue. Imagine then, a novel in which every line uttered by every character is a painful attempt at wittiness but without any wit. There, you've imagined LW and its fucking awful banter. It's like reading a Family Guy script. For some bizarre reason, the novel thinks anuses are funny and makes reference to them quite a bit. Here's an example:
“Something out there has a comm array that’ll put a dot the size of your anus on us from over three AU away,” Alex said.This isn't funny. Anuses are not inherently funny. You have to do something with the idea of an anus to make it funny. You can't just dump the word "anus" in a sentence and think it magically turns funny.
“Okay, wow, that’s impressive. What is our anus-sized dot saying?” Holden asked. (95)
The whole novel is filled with clunking plodding attempts at wit and it's interminable. LW is already overlong, but this awful dialogue just slows everything even further.
While the dialogue is atrocious, the narration isn't much better. There are all sorts of phrases and bits that stumble at the gate. Redundancy in prose always signals to itself, calling attention to the inattention of the author. It's also moderately insulting; I loathe when my hand is being held by the author as I prefer to think for myself. LW is full of these redundancies:
"Turn on the lights," Naomi said from behind them. Miller heard Holden patting the wall panel, but no light came up.Here is the information that we glean from the first two sentences: the lights are off, Holden attempts to turn them on, and this is a failure. Why then do we need Holden telling us that the lights are not working and why does the narration need to tell us that Holden said this? None of the information contained in the third sentence is new nor is any of it necessary. It's lazy and it's redundant.
"They're not working," Holden said. (244)
Maybe the authors are at least adept at the art of metaphor, symbolism, or any of the other tricks in the literary toolset? Not surprising: they are not. Here is a simile that I thought was a joke:
The moon itself -- Phoebe -- filled the frame, turning slowly to show all sides like a prostitute at a cheap brothel. (250-something?)Yuck. Perhaps this simile has meaning, though. Let's look at the constituent elements and see if I'm being too harsh. We have a moon turning in the sky and we have a prostitute turning around to display itself to would be customers. Thus, the comparison is implying that the moon is offering itself to exploitation. Perhaps, let's put the quote in context and see if it gives anything else up. Here is the relevant information:
"A small ice moon, the assumption was that Phoebe would eventually be mined for water, much like the rings themselves. The Martian government commissioned a scientific survey more out of a sense of bureaucratic completeness than from expectation of economic gain. Core samples were taken, and when silicate anomalies raised flags, Protogen was approached as cosponsor of a long-term research facility."A bit more context: the corporate stooge is providing exposition about the "protomolecule" that an alien civilization fired at the Earth to remake it in whatever shape they decided. The corporation discovered the existence of the protomolecule on Phoebe, which had been marked for mining and scientific study. The other bit of relevant information is that this comparison is being provided by Miller's perspective. Which is odd because he has shown himself to be diametrically opposed to the ruthless capitalist ideology expressed by the stooge. Why then would he imagine a simile that aligns with the idea that Phoebe is ready for exploitation?
The moon itself - Phoebe - filled the frame, turning slowly to show all sides like a prostitute at a cheap brothel. It was a crater-marked lump, indistinguishable from a thousand other asteroids and planetesimals Miller had seen.
This is just one example of the lazy prose contained herein. There are countless more. This is a lazy book, produced for the widest possible audience. It should be no surprise that the books have been turned into a TV series. I believe this is a strong choice, actually. LW is an overlong colossal failure as an aesthetic object or a "novel" (remember that the word "novel" means new) but its pleasingly accessible realism should translate well onto the screen.
Without getting too far into the critical theory, let's all remember that "science fiction" as a set of generic signifiers and "realism" as a set of generic signifiers overlaps. Science fiction trades the present day for another setting, often the future, and looks to extrapolate social, political, or technological possibilities from the present. Science fiction is more often about the current conditions of production (the present) than it is about the setting (the future). This is something it shares with realism as a genre. Realism is less about an objective reality and more about the novel's contemporary conditions of production. Realism doesn't tell us about the author's objective reality but about the author's perception of reality. And not just the author either. Good critics worth their salt use novels in the realism mode to discuss the values, dreams, hopes, wishes, etc of the society that it purports to depict. Again, the same is true of science fiction. Despite its far flung setting, science fiction tells us more about what the authors and their contemporary society believed than it does about the future. Realism is an important element of science fiction.
Some of the best science fiction uses the most basic tool of defamiliarization to express ideas; Darko Suvin refers to this as "cognitive estrangement". The alien species is the basic metaphor to discuss contemporary issues. The alien is the defamiliarized version of the Other, whether that be a marginalized people or a different tribe or group. An example of this process: the film District 9, displaced black peoples are imagined as Prawns, aliens that look like the aforementioned sea animal. How the fictionalized society treats the Prawns is a (super thinly veiled) metaphor for how (and this is the important part) Blomkamp the director imagines actual society treats black people in South Africa. That's an example of terrible science fiction. An example of excellent science fiction could be, say, Samuel R. Delany's Trouble on Triton: An Ambiguous Heterotopia or even better his Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand. In both cases, Delany uses the tool of defamiliarization to increasingly alienate the reader from contemporary society, or better yet, Delany's conceptualization of contemporary society. As a queer dyslexic black man from poverty during Jim Crow, Delany's perspective and background did not align with the traditionally straight white male of middle class background that dominated the field of science fiction. Instead of thinly veiling his metaphor, Delany chose to increasingly distance the reader from the contemporary. This increases static in the reception of the message (message meaning themes, ideas, concepts, characters, not necessarily a didactic message) and increases ambiguity. Delany's concepts and prose are dense and alien; all the better to use the tool of defamiliarization. He uses invented language, invented gender, invented worlds and unmoors them from realism.
Realism is a blight on contemporary fiction right now. It's the reason for the market's saturation of "relatable" characters and "realistic" scenarios. It's the reason why movies "based on true stories" win more acclaim than genre fiction does. [An aside: the term "genre fiction" drives me nuts. The term refers to the idea that it's not realism, not contemporary literary fiction, which is ludicrous, as both those things have generic signifiers unto themselves. "Genre fiction" encompasses science fiction, fantasy, Weird fiction, any thing that is supposedly not based in realism. The idea that there's a distinction is purely marketing, not aesthetic. Hence, my objection.] Realism's dominance in the market dictates sales and prestige, it seems. This is why we have shit like The Theory of Everything making oodles of money while films like It Follows makes barely enough to cover its microscopic budget. Allow me to quote the philosopher Michael Hofmann (again):
It is as though the contemporary novel – like film (4-D, coming soon to a cinema near you), like theatre, like so much else – is in competition with itself, falling over itself to offer you more interiority, more action, more understanding, more vision. But the form, the vessel, is an exploded form; it is basically rubble, fragmentary junk, debris. It’s not even leaky anymore; it can hold nothing.LW has the same problem that other contemporary literary fiction has: it's falling over itself to provide the audience with relatable characters, relatable situations, and relatable concepts that narcissistically congratulate the audience for their existence rather than challenging their most deeply held beliefs. Mass produced fiction is a warm blanket that comforts you with familiarity and whispers in your ear that you're so clever for understanding the plot. This sad state of affairs exists in "genre fiction" too. That's why we can ascribe success to terrible unimaginative shit like LW. Both lead characters are boring archetypes lifted from countless other examples of genre fiction (idealistic space captain, or even just idealistic sea captain, and fatalist world-weary noir detective with superfluous wisdom to share and nobody listening). It's fucking boring.
I am reading Peter F Hamilton's Judas Unchained right now and while it's only a slight step up from LW, at least there's a sense of wonder to everything. There's this weird interlude at the beginning of the novel (the second of two) in which the journey from one planet to another by two characters is provided in more detail than previous journeys. I found myself hugely entertained and awed when a character walked through a portal from one gravity to another and stumbled; the character looked up at the red sun sitting in the sky and realized how different everything was. This gave me a sense of wonder. The concept of wonder is integral to theories of the Fantastic, as formulated by the great Tzvetan Todorov. He writes about the interaction with the supernatural. If the encounter can be determined with rational thought, then this is the subcategory of the fantastic uncanny. If the encounter can not be rationalized, then it is the subcategory of the fantastic marvelous, and our law of reality must be re-written to accommodate this new information. It's the encounter with the new that reshapes how we perceive the world.
Darko Suvin talks about how science fiction has the "necessary and sufficient kernel" of "[c]ognitive novelty" or "conceptual promise" as Stanislaw Lem calls it. Suvin continues to explain:
the novelty has to be cognitively explained in each tale or group of tales in concrete (even if imaginary) terms, i.e. in terms of the specific time, place, cosmic and social totality within which it is acting, and especially in terms of its effects on the (overtly or covertly) human relationships upon which it impinges.Notice the emphasis on "novelty." Obviously, not all science fiction stories can be wholly original. And, as an additional caveat, some of the best science fiction is wholly derivative which Suvin hilariously refers to this as "old meat rehashed with a new sauce." Though, this "new sauce" is what I mean by execution, as aforementioned. The very boring stale nature of LW meant that I was denied any conceptual promise or cognitive novelty, either in ideas or in execution. I was denied my sense of wonder throughout. A ten page interlude in a 1,000 page novel provided more entertainment and more wonder than 600 pages of this overlong mess.
Let's continue with the fun Darko Suvin, though. He speaks of science fiction as the genre of "cognitive estrangement." There exists a spectrum, with "reality" on one end and the "novum" (a "strange newness") on the other end. In early science fiction (Verne, Wells, etc), the novum often manifested itself as an "over there;" characters would journey past an obstacle or over vast distance and witness an "over there" or an "over the range." Suvin says that which we meet "over there" represents a transformed version of ourselves:
The aliens—utopians, monsters, or simply differing strangers—are a mirror to man just as the differing country is a mirror for his world. But the mirror is not only a reflecting one, it is also a transforming one, virgin womb and alchemical dynamo: the mirror is a crucible.Here's where it gets tricky though. Since "realism" is an essential part of science fiction, Suvin refers to the genre as the "factual reportage of fictions." The narrators and characters of science fiction encounter the novum and reorient themselves to it. They take it as a given, as part of reality. Here's Todorov's fantastic marvelous again. This factual reportage of fictions takes two different sets of assumptions (the characters' original set of assumptions) against a new set of assumptions (the novum). These sets of assumptions (also known as ideologies) constitute their constructed reality. We know that the new set of assumptions is a "transforming" mirror of the original set of assumptions. This epistemological move is called estrangement and it comes from Brecht. He says that, "[a] representation which estranges is one which allows us to recognize its subject, but at the same time makes it seem unfamiliar." Suvin argues that this form of estrangement is at the heart of science fiction. In fact, he gives us a definition (in italics as an added bonus):
SF is, then, a literary genre whose necessary and sufficient conditions are the presence and interaction of estrangement and cognition, and whose main formal device is an imaginative framework alternative to the author's empirical environment.Leviathan Wakes then is a formal failure in addition to an aesthetic failure. Its rapacious replication of science fictional tropes is more market-driven than artistically driven. We remember that Jameson's diagnosis of the postmodern involves obsolescence:
the frantic economic urgency of producing fresh waves of ever more novel-seeming goods (from clothing to airplanes), at ever greater rates of turnover, now assigns an increasingly essential structural function and position to aesthetic innovation and experimentationThe replication of the tropes, without any possibility of the novum finds itself positioned against aesthetic innovation or experimentation. Obviously, as stated before, the presence of originality is not an automatic guarantee of aesthetic success, but it certainly fucking helps. Nothing in LW utilizes the novum in order to elicit a sense of wonder and/or estrangement. Rather, LW's reliance on realism and generic tropes functions in the opposite of estrangement. It's instead a comfort food.
I've banged on and on about demanding better of our entertainment. I want better for the world. I want better than this infantile pablum that confuses "complexity" with murder and terrorism, that believes "maturity" is synonymous with moral judgements a child could make, that utilizes women as objects for quests, that exoticizes and fetishizes racial differences. I want better than this.
I've barely talked about the plot of this novel because it's not really worth it. A woman is dead (because women are better plot devices than people, according to vast swathes of fiction) and it's related to an EVIL CORPORATION that wants to perform tests on humans that turn them into (massive fucking sigh) zombies or some bullshit. The plot takes 400 pages to get going and when it does, it's not complicated enough to sustain the remaining 200 pages. This was a short story blown up to 600 pages and I fucking hated it.
As a conclusion, let me say that I also read Andy Weir's The Martian yesterday (easy enough to read in one day) and thought it was okay. Aesthetically, I quite disliked the book, but Weir's command of pace and plot was enough to get me through it. Weir's novel is one of extreme estrangement. In taking his astronaut character and ripping all modern conveniences and privileges from him, he exposes how utterly safe and childlike his audience is. That's good estrangement.