Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Leviathan Wakes - Worldbuilding

Leviathan Wakes (The Expanse 1)
Author: James S. A. Corey
Publisher: Orbit, 2011
Genre: Scifi

Humanity has colonized the solar system - Mars, the Moon, the Asteroid Belt and beyond - but the stars are still out of our reach.
Jim Holden is XO of an ice miner making runs from the rings of Saturn to the mining stations of the Belt. When he and his crew stumble upon a derelict ship, "The Scopuli," they find themselves in possession of a secret they never wanted. A secret that someone is willing to kill for - and kill on a scale unfathomable to Jim and his crew. War is brewing in the system unless he can find out who left the ship and why.

Detective Miller is looking for a girl. One girl in a system of billions, but her parents have money and money talks. When the trail leads him to "The Scopuli" and rebel sympathizer Holden, he realizes that this girl may be the key to everything.

Holden and Miller must thread the needle between the Earth government, the Outer Planet revolutionaries, and secretive corporations - and the odds are against them. But out in the Belt, the rules are different, and one small ship can change the fate of the universe.

Leviathan Wakes World-building

I’m a big astronomy fan, so much so that after completing the required Biology credits for my BA I went out of my way to take a core Bio/Physics class called Planetary Sciences. I aced it. Actually, I aced that one and got a C on an English class…My point is that my interest in space, the planets, and everything related to those topics is huge and it was just a matter of time until scifi invaded my stories.

Some months ago, I started working on a new project; a sci-fi short story full of spaceships, aliens, and futuristic gadgets. It was awesome, but I was soon out of my depth when it came to the world building. The truth is, as much as I love the topic I’ve never read much sci-fi except for a couple of YA novels. Leviathan Wakes was my first real taste of adult science fiction, and I took the opportunity to keep a close eye on the world building and dynamics of the genre.

The Future Cultures

Accustomed to out of this galaxy sci-fi, like Star Wars and Star Trek, I was surprised that James S. A. Corey’s novel keeps the setting in our Solar System. The inhabitants are either humans born on Earth, on Mars, or in one of the Belt asteroids, yet the cultures are still diverse. Humans might have gotten over the color of their skin and the difference in language and worked together to conquer the Solar System, yet once that goal was accomplished they found other ways to discriminate each other.

Racism and discrimination are two the issues Corey first addresses. The difference in gravity has created taller and thinner humans in the Belt, and that physical difference is one of the many things that creates tension between the groups. Belters are discriminated by Earthers and Martians for looking different and talking in their Belter creole (which is just mix of Earth languages). But there’s also discrimination for the place you were born. We hear about it the most in Miller’s chapters where Havelock is not accepted among the Star Helix police for being an Earther. Miller comments on how doesn’t matter if Havelock’s a good policeman or not, he won’t make detective because he’s not a Belter (Corey 21).

“Earth. Mars. They’re not that different,” Miller said.
"Try telling that to a Martian," Havelock said with a bitter laugh. "They'll kick your ass for you." (Corey 42)

Earth, Mars, and the Belters are also divided by politics and the economy. It’s mentioned several times how though they’ve expanded their territories humans still depend on Earth as the source of many basic products. This means Earth holds the upper hand in the economy, closely followed by Mars who’s developed the best technology. The Earth-Mars Alliance thus dominates the Belt and the outer planets. No one likes to be rules over so The Outer Planet Alliance (OPA), formed mostly by Belters, is against them. Instead of working together, the two alliances are at odds. The Earth-Mars Alliance doesn’t care about Belters—because they’re mostly lower class workers—and the OPA dislikes the inner planets because they’re a bunch of ‘rich guys’ who think of them as less. It’s no surprise then that a single misinterpreted message turns into the perfect excuse for war.

Corey’s use of universal themes like racism, politics, and economy keep the story grounded and believable in all the fantastic elements of this science fiction novel. These are things we can relate to in one way or another, because matter if it’s in space, in another planet, or in the real world, it’s always about who has the most resources, who has the fastest ships, who has more money.

The Science in Fiction

Science fiction wouldn’t be scifi without all the cool, futuristic technology and gadgets. As writers we love to invent new things and might be tempted to created very detailed explanations of said new things, but page after page of description on how things work would slow down the story considerably. Leviathan Wakes keeps things simple.

The technology was very easy to understand and not that far off from what we have now, like the hand terminals (Corey 23) they use could easily be smartphones and the spacesuits on the Roci that are less bulkier than real ones and have the very practical magnetic boots. They also use real details of the planets and the asteroids (Corey 19) and present future uses they can be put to, like mining ice from Saturn’s rings or terraforming Mars or setting asteroids to spin so they gain some gravity. These are all ideas that have been spoken of in theory. Plausible ideas. Believable. Yet even with the harder to believe details, like the tightbeam communication laser (Corey 95) or the Epstein drive, Corey still keeps explanations to a minimum. He tells us what the Epstein drive is capable of (Corey 7), but he doesn’t tell us how it works exactly.

There is a thing called hard science fiction (new term for me) which focuses on the scientific and technical details, but in an interview at the back of the book, Corey answers that Leviathan Wakes is not hard scifi (Corey 570). Leviathan Wakes is more about Holden and Miller’s story, not about the inner workings of the Rocinante or the atomic composition of the protomolecule. Corey sticks to explaining what’s important to the characters at the moment and not much more. The result is a fast-paced story with believable scientific elements.

The Little Details

Corey presents us with characters who need to eat, like to drink (and I’m not talking about water), and are thankful for having a showerhead (a luxury in space) on their ship. Holden has an insatiable love for coffee, Miller loves to drink even if its ‘fake’ vodka, Naomi likes to karaoke, Amos can’t live without sex, and Alex loves being a pilot. Simple, little details of each character that makes them relatable and real. The same thing happens with the world. The hydroponic grown food, the different types of ships, adjusting to different levels of gravity, the diversity of people, and the Belters creole.

Universal themes and keeping explanations to a minimum goes a long way to give the story some semblance of realism to the world and the characters. But what really grounds the story is the little mundane details.

The Realism Factor

Keeping things in the realm of the believable is one of the hardest things Scifi and Fantasy authors do, yet Corey seems to do it almost effortlessly. What is his secret? Well, Ty Frank spent three years creating the world of The Expanse and role playing that world (Frank) with friends before Daniel came along and convinced him to turn it all into a book. So he was extremely familiar with his world. And though there is a fantasy element to the story, a big part of it is just plain old humans doing what they do best; colonizing, fighting each other, and being too curious for their own good. It’s that drop of realism which ultimately makes the story not simply good, but great. Corey didn’t need aliens with complex cultures and customs to bring us an exciting sci-fi story; he just needed humans dealing with unknown things out of this world.
Corey, James S. A. Leviathan Wakes. New York: Orbit, 2011.
Frank, Ty. "Collaboration." Lizard Brain. 15 Sept. Web. 9 Sept. 2012.

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