Review of Leviathan Wakes and Caliban’s War, Books One and Two of The Expanse

Cover image of Leviathan Wakes, by James S. A. Corey
Leviathan Wakes, by James S. A. Corey*

These books are the inspiration for the new SyFy series The ExpanseA few hundred years in the future, humanity has colonized Mars, the asteroid belt, and the moons of Jupiter. Tension among Earthers, Martians, and Belters erupts into all-out war with devastating consequences after unknown forces nuke the ice hauler Canterbury. The five remaining crew members  find themselves at the center of the conflict, driven from one disaster to another on the salvaged Martian warship the Rocinante as they attempt to determine the origins of the attack that killed their crewmates. Meanwhile, a detective on Ceres Station tracks a disappearing heiress and unravels a conspiracy that spans the solar system. The two plot lines converge on Eros, where an alien infection kills the entire population and threatens Earth.

One of the interesting subtexts of these books is the arbitrary nature of human prejudice. In the future, people of different skin colors and national origins freely mix and gender roles have largely disappeared, but it’s no utopia. Instead, the racial fault line falls between Belters and “inner planet” types. Belters’ lives in low gravity cause them to grow taller and skinnier than their counterparts from inside the gravity well and make it impossible for most of them to set foot on Earth or Mars. They’ve even developed their own argot, a mash-up of multiple earth languages plus hand gestures developed over generations of communicating inside space suits. As the Belters struggle for self-rule from the inner planets, these racial divides widen.

Cover image for Caliban's War, by James S.A. Corey
Caliban’s War, by James S.A. Corey

Caliban’s War continues in the tradition of Leviathan Wakes, following the adventures of disparate characters whose stories converge over the course of the book. An attack on Ganymede — breadbasket of the Belt — kills an entire platoon of Martian marines, leaving Gunnery Sergeant Roberta “Bobbie” Draper as the sole survivor. In its aftermath, a father searches for his missing daughter as the colony slowly dies around him. James Holden and the crew of the Rocinante soon join in the search.

I’m in love with the crew of the Rocinante, who emerge as an unlikely family after their adventures in Leviathan Wakes: idealist captain James Holden, genius engineer Naomi Nagata, cowboy pilot Alex Kamal, and battle-ready mechanic Amos Burton. Ceres detective Joe Miller lends a touch of noir to the action-oriented story. Chrisjen Avarasala, the potty-mouthed UN power broker in the orange sari, is another favorite. And it’s a joy watching Bobbie Draper, the six-foot double-wide Martian marine in the power armor kick ass up and down the solar system.

This series reminds me of Dune with its grand sweep, but with more hard science and a touch of noir and horror. These stories explore how human curiosity and ingenuity go hand in hand with human fear and aggression. When should you negotiate and when should you fight? Is alien technology inherently evil or do we simply not understand its context? What happens when you try to harness forces you don’t understand? Is it better to release information to everyone or to withhold it until you understand its implications? The book offers no answers but shows the repercussions of different characters’ answers — all while delivering kick-ass action and satisfying character development.

* James S.A. Corey is actually the pen name for writing partners Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck.

Review of The Dispossessed by Ursula LeGuin

Image of a book cover for The Dispossessed by Ursula K LeGuinArguably my favorite book, unarguably my favorite author, The Dispossessed tells the story of a brilliant physicist born and raised in a colony established on Anarres, the barren red moon of Urras, a blue planet that bears a striking resemblance to late-19th-century Earth. LeGuin’s Hainish cycle often explores socio-political issues at play in our own society, and this book is no exception. The Dispossessed describes what might have happened if a group of anarcho-communists (Odonians) had been able to establish and develop a society in isolation from the hierarchical, capitalist world that rejected it. I appreciate LeGuin’s evenhanded presentation of each world: the egalitarianism and austerity of Anarres, and the lush abundance and injustice of Urras.

Shevek leaves Urras because his work as a physicist isn’t considered “central” by Odionian society, but he struggles to maintain his ideals and his identity on a planet that grants him luxury and wealth while forcing others to live in hardship and poverty. As Shevek travels between the two worlds, his journey sheds light on the wonders and flaws of each.

On Anarres, it is an insult of the highest order to call someone a profiteer. In her 2014 acceptance speech for the National Book Award, LeGuin used the word “profiteers” to refer to the increasingly money-focused publishing industry. Anyone who’s read The Dispossessed will recognize the philosophy of the Odonians in the following excerpt from that speech:

“We need writers who can remember freedom: poets, visionaries, the realists of a larger reality. Right now, I think we need writers who know the difference between the production of a market commodity and the practice of an art. Developing written material to suit sales strategies in order to maximize corporate profits and advertising revenue is not quite the same thing as responsible book publishing or authorship.”

View the full speech via this link, or embedded below:

[A previous version of this review was posted on November 3, 2009 on Goodreads]

Review of Sky Coyote by Kage Baker

Image of the book cover of Sky Coyote by Kage BakerBaker’s flip, hard-boiled voice offers a pleasant counterpoint to the ageless characters that inhabit The Company novels. In the 24th century, a mysterious entity known as Dr. Zeus, Incorporated (aka The Company) has discovered how to travel back in time. In order to save on the prohibitively expensive cost of time travel, The Company recruits young humans to undergo extensive surgical enhancement that transform them into immortal cyborgs to do their bidding through the ages.

Baker’s books offer both lucid prose and deft storytelling. She achieves the difficult task of delivering self-contained story arcs in each book while also enticing the reader to follow the thread of a longer-form plot, one that stretches from the dawn of humanity to the 24th century. Who are the mysterious forces behind The Company, and what is their eventual endgame?

In this installment, cyborg “Facilitator” Joseph embarks on an assignment in pre-Columbian Alta Calfornia. His job: to convince a Chumash village to abandon their ancestral home before white settlers wipe them out. To give his story credence, he appears to them as Sky Coyote, patron god of the tribe. Baker’s well-researched facts (she’s a native Californian and worked with the Living History Centre) lend verisimilitude to the fantastical story lines that might prove unbelievable in less skillful hands.

Review of Midwinterblood by Marcus Sedgwick

Image of the book cover of Midwinterblood by Marcus SedgewickMidwinterblood by Marcus Sedgwick is a lyrical, haunting book which I devoured in a single night. It was shelved in the science fiction/fantasy section of my local bookstore, but the novel really defies genre. It’s more in keeping with the Gabriel Garcia Marquez tradition of magical realism than the stereotypical pulp fiction often found in the sci-fi aisle.

I love narratives that challenge the linear nature of time and push at the edges of everyday reality, especially when they incorporate beautiful language and recurring motifs. This novel does all that and more.

Set on the same island in seven different time periods, the novel explores the themes of love and sacrifice as it weaves together characters who recur in different iterations and permutations. “I might be lots of people […] Why do I have to be just one? I am lots of people and I love all of the and they love me.”

Sedgewick drew inspiration from a painting in the Swedish National Gallery called Midvinterblot (Wikipedia link here). His vivid description of the painting and the way he brought its narrative to life inspired me to research it further. This passage from the book echoes its real-life reception, which relegated it to the dust-heap of history until almost a century after its creation:

“Sacrifice. That’s a somewhat… outdated… notion, isn’t it? In this modern world?”

“Outdated?” echoed Eric. Suddenly, he felt very old. He felt that he didn’t understand.

“The theme is old, but not outdated,” he explained, feeling bewildered. “And it refers to the island, whose very name is written in blood!”

“Really?” said one of the men.

“Indeed. People think the name of this island means ‘blessed,’ and so it does, but ‘blessed’ does not mean what people think it does. In the old tongue it was blestian and before that blotsian, and before that, just blod. It means sacrifice.”

“Sacrifice.”

“To bless means to sacrifice, and in blood.”

There is a pause. A long pause.

Then, “Good. Well, thank you for your time here today, Mr. Carlsson.”

With that they left.

[ NOTE: This review was originally published at Goodreads on 7/18/2014. ]

Media Recommendations: Kate Nash, Anne McCaffrey, Marion Zimmer Bradley, Ellen Kushner

Kate Nash. Like Laura Viers, she’s one of those female artists they play on WERS but utterly fail to promote. Mabye I’m a tad sensitive or maybe shit is still broken and needs fixing, but I do wish I could go a day without noticing how many more MALE artists get major promos — in music, in the visual arts, in poetry, in the mainstream book publishing world. Anyway, Kate Nash. After hearing her song “Foundations” for like the hundredth time and wishing they would tell me who the hell was singing it, it finally stuck in my head. Thank God/dess for Google solving the search problem. Wikipedia entry here, official website here. (I’m not linking to the Myspace page because Myspace hurts my designer’s eyes. It buuuuurrrns!!) I went ahead and gave Universal Music all my personal information so they can spam me incessantly and get free market demographics data. In return, I got a music download and a peek at the video for “Foundations”.When I listened to her song on the radio, I had this image of Kate Nash as a tough Londoner, possibly of color, the kind of woman who wears jeans and leather jackets and yells really loud at soccer matches and can kick ass if she needs to. Turns out she’s actually super-feminine, curvy, given to wearing girly dresses with puffy bodices in ice-cream colors. The video is extremely well-done. In very detail-oriented sort of way, it does an excellent job of evoking the general sense of wrongness that accompanies the end of a relationship.It reminded me of a moment when Army Guy and I were walking through the Pru. A woman at one of those little carts stopped me to demonstrate a little device I’d heard about that gives your nails a shine without the use of nail polish. I’m a sucker for personal care products, especially if they’re made with natural ingredients, and I’d been meaning to seek out exactly what this woman was selling. Of course, she was offering it at a tremendous markup (I got the same thing on eBay for less than $10 later). But I digress. Army Guy patiently waited because he’s a sweetie like that. When I showed him my new, shiny thumbnail, his reaction clearly showed that he didn’t see much of a difference.

Continue reading “Media Recommendations: Kate Nash, Anne McCaffrey, Marion Zimmer Bradley, Ellen Kushner”