Science fiction fans had a lot to be happy about in 2011. Publishers Weekly listed Triptych as one of the best of the year and fantasy godfather George R.R. Martin positively glowed over Leviathan Wakes in his recent blog post. Both deal with interesting possible futures incorporating plausible science in a fictitious world. Only one can win.
Leviathan Wakes (Expanse #1)
by James S.A. Corey
Paperback, 561 pages
Published June 2nd 2011 by Orbit
Leviathan Wakes, the first of a 5 part series, is a classic space opera ala 2001: A Space Odyssey. This is meant in the most endearing way possible, as both took space seriously and made space travel seem a real and viable possibility in our foreseeable future. A lot of science fiction takes the future and molds it into something so fantastical nobody can relate. While tantalizing, part of the fun of science fiction is imagining such a reality taking place. There are countless classic science fiction novels (I’m looking at you Isaac Asimov), that take science seriously. Some of the best moments in Leviathan Wakes take the time to explain the science and that only improves on the story.
One such moment explains how a human being could travel at high speeds through space that would otherwise kill a person today:
Going on the juice was pilot-speak for a high-g burn that would knock an unmedicated human unconscious. The juice was the cocktail of drugs the pilot’s chair would inject into him to keep him conscious, alert, and hopefully stroke-free when his body weighed five hundreds kilos.
Later the book explains the body’s physical reaction to G-Forces:
…the problem with extended exposure to high g was that the constant pressure on the circulatory system would begin exposing weaknesses. Have a weak spot in an artery that could turn into an aneurysm in forty years? A few hours at seven g might just pop it open now. Capillaries in the eyes started to leak. The eye itself deformed, sometimes causing permanent damage. And then there were the hollow spaces, like the lungs and digestive tract. You piled on enough gravity, and they collapsed.
Sometimes it’s little things like this that immerse the reader and make it all that much more believable. Things are very grounded in Leviathan Wakes, a story about Holden, the captain of a ice mining ship who’s sole job is to drag ice to colonies in the asteroid belt. When he and his crew come across a secret that pits them between the warring colonies of Mars and the Belt all Hell breaks loose. At the same time the book flips between Holden and Detective Miller, an ex cop trying to find a kidnapped girl. The book delivers facts to both parties which allow the reader to slowly piece things together that are unbeknownst to the main characters.
There are no laser guns or aliens walking around with 5 arms. The book remains inside our solar system utilizing space ships that need welding and people that are very much flesh and blood. The science doesn’t get too complicated though, so if you’re a mech nut or into Alastair Reynolds look elsewhere. The science is realistic, but the characters are what make this book come alive.
Holden is a natural leader who cares about his crew even more than the mission. He only wants to do the right thing. If he wasn’t a ship captain he’d be a priest in another story. He keeps the story grounded and on the philosophically perspective of Aristotle’s virtue ethics.
At one point Holden watches a man get shot point blank in the face and says:
‘What the fuck was that?’ Holden said through his blood-plugged nose. ‘You shot him in cold blood!’ Holden shook his head. ‘What about a trial? What about justice? You just decide, and that’s the way it goes? Are you even human anymore?’ Holden looked to [Greg] to [the assailant] to the still-dying man. His jaw was set with rage.
[Editor’s note: names were changed to prevent spoilers.]
Miller works on a large space colony station and he has seen how awful human beings can be. While Holden is Aristotle, Miller sees the world as his philosophical progenitor, Immanuel Kant. Stated by Kant, “Punishment must always be inflicted upon the criminal only because he has committed a crime.” If you do wrong you are given justice not for your own good or the good of society but because punishment is a cancellation of crime and restoration of right. Miller, unlike Holden, doesn’t see society as being all good or worth protecting.
At one point Miller sips his coffee and observes children playing. Typically children make you think of positivity, but Miller thinks to himself,
He thought of them as children, though he remembered thinking of himself as an adult at that age… The boys spoke in loud, angry voices about tyranny and freedom. The girls watched the boys strut. The ancient, animal story, the same whether it was on a spinning rock surrounded by hard vacuum or the stamp-sized chimpanzee preserves on Earth. Even in the Belt, youth brought invulnerability, immortality, the unshakable conviction that for you, things would be different.
It’s these conflicted points of view that keep the reader philosophically satiated throughout the book while the mysteries are uncovered. Written by two authors, I can’t help but think these different points of view come through in the narrative clearly because they imbue distinct philosophical points of view. The book ends with an interesting twist on aliens, and will most likely be the focus in the next novel in the series. I can’t wait to read it.
by J.M. Frey
Paperback, 286 pages
Published April 9th 2011 by Dragon Moon Press
Triptych is an opera, but not a space opera, a soap opera. It’s your typical love triangle between man, woman and alien. Has that been done before? A triptych is a work of art (usually a panel painting) which is divided into three sections. In the case of Frey’s Triptych three beings are made one, a saucy perpetual threesome without all the nasty “jealousy” stuff getting in the way. You see in the alien’s culture a relationship between 3 is the norm and equivalent to what we think of as marriage. It’s never been done so romantically human and alien (Sorry Captain Kirk), and that at it’s core is why this book is so interesting and enjoyable.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. It’s the not too distant future, aliens have come to our planet after their own was destroyed. Refugees from a far off land, humans have set up institutions simply to understand and break down the alien technology. The world is very much what it is today. The book balances issues of racism and bigotry as Gwen, Basil and Kalp are targeted to be assassinated for being married. Kalp is an alien who feels lost and disconnected from human culture, and as the plot unfolds a wedge is slowly driven between the more tolerant humans and their alien guests.
Frey does the most sensible thing with these characters and allows each to have a third of book inside their heads. The book is broken down into three sections: back, middle and after. Probably the most interesting is Kalps section, as we see how difficult it can be to be an alien refugee. This book deals with advanced technology, but the real science fiction is observing the world through an aliens eyes. Much of the book focuses on the domestic life between the three characters. It makes it hard though, when Kalp needs to slowly learn human behavior. For instance, humans convey emotions through facial expressions, whereas the aliens are touch and sound sensory. At one point Kalp thinks,
So many little nuances, inflections and expressions that he’s had to memorize, had to learn to mold his facial muscles and mouth around. Humans spoke all over the register, high voices for excitement, loud for anger, but sometimes loud was for excitement as well. They were so similar, so many inflections were so alike that it took careful parsing of the expression to even begin to understand.
Frey consistently makes the characters and their interactions surprising and interesting, this coming from a book that starts near its end. The book actually opens in the past but after the characters have met. Later the book goes back in the stories timeline, but into the future. Time travel is a big part of this book, but it isn’t handled in a heavy handed way. Frey explains it more of a happy accident the humans discovered by using alien technology. The characters feel genuine after zapping back in time to 1970, mostly because Frey and the characters approach time travel with a sense of humor. Yes it’s hard to believe, even for the characters, which makes it easier to accept. After explaining to Gwen’s parents where they are from, and that they have to protect the time continuum Gwen’s mother says,
‘And you’re…you can’t get back to the future?’ Evvie asked, trying to clarify, to quantify, to (accept) to understand. Gwen and Basil snorted and giggled again…Mark narrowed his eyes, ‘What’s so funny?’
‘The…Back to the Future,’ Gwen began, then stopped, gasping in a breath and floating it out in a chuckle. ‘Never mind. Classified. Sort of.’
It also helps how grounded and real these characters come across. Of course once married and Kalp, Basil, and Gwen end up having sex, it’s an awkward and strange turn of events. Frey attempts to make an alien threesome sound totally natural, but at times I couldn’t help but thinking that a really cool fantasy in someone’s head… was just kind of unsettling.
…before somehow Basil’s hands are on Kalp’s buttons and Kalp’s tongue is back in Gwen’s mouth and Gwen’s fingers are on Basil’s fly. There is a moment when Basil has to stop to stare at Kalp’s naked body, to investigate and touch Kalp’s genitalia.
It gets much more graphic from there, poking, prodding and discovering. These moments are short, and really not the point though. The point is the emotionally bond between the three. It’s all very interesting to read, as if you’re a voyeur fascinated with the subject but know it’s a little wrong to keep looking. You feel a little dirty, but it only brings the readers in deeper and makes the book feel that much more real. It’s proof that Frey can write when a scene can make the reader uncomfortable this much.
So Who Wins?
I liked both books a lot. Leviathan Wakes is an epic story that has it all. Lots of action and adventure while bringing up thought provoking arguments. On the other side though, Triptych embodies what science fiction should be; a reflection of our own reality through the guise of an alternative reality. It is a mirror of what reality could or what will be.
The characters in both books feel real and genuine, but I have to give Leviathan Wakes credit for creating a science fiction world that is much more believable. Triptych utilizes interesting alien behavior to analyze human behavior, but its set in a world that was created from a snap of the fingers. Triptych is a future of “could be” where amazing aliens appeared and it speaks to how it would change us. Leviathan Wakes is a world that very well may be our future. Leviathan Wakes wins for giving us that mirror, but at the same time enthralling us with action and adventure.
Sean Connery from 1974 science fiction film Zardoz will see you out.