Book #134: Leviathan Wakes (2011)

author: James S.A. Corey
language: English
length: 19 hours and 8 minutes (1,148 minutes)
finished listening on: 3 May 2017

I got this audiobook on the recommendation of a coworker or manager, I think, when I mentioned I was into sci-fi and looking for a new book to read. So I decided to get it sometime during April, and was listening to it when I went cycling. I had planned to go on something more like a cycling trek during April, but sickness and injury stopped me in my tracks somewhat. But this book was still a nice companion to long bike rides, when I got the chance. It took me a long time to finish, of course – the last audiobook was A Symphony of Echoes, a whole month before this one.

The author, James S.A. Corey, is actually the pseudonym for two authors, Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck, which is a bit confusing. I’m not sure why they didn’t just use their own names – maybe it makes it easier to publish, or something. They wrote alternate chapters of the book, which are from the point of view of different characters.

It took me a few listens to twig that alternate chapters were from disparate points of view. The universe set up by the book is pretty grandiose, and it took a bit of getting used to. The two characters, Holden and Miller, meet up and get split up later in the book, but at first they don’t know each other. And the story takes a while to really get going.

The book is set in a colonized solar system – faster than light travel is impossible, but there’s some kind of constant-thrust drive that makes quick travel easy. This is actually a fairly common idea – it was also in We Are Legion (We Are Bob), for example, although if you’ve been keeping up with my reviews you’ll know I didn’t like that book much, or in Ultima – in those books there was some kind of infinite-like supply of energy that was used to travel interstellar distances. It was also used in The Adventures of Tintin, back in the 1950s, and the effects of gravity on humans reminded me strongly of what happened in the Moon expedition comics. This also made clear one of the other problems with We Are Bob – Bob could go up to 10 g or more without any issues, as he’s a computer projection, but in general the human characters in Leviathan Wakes can only go up to 3 g safely, and have to take a dangerous cocktail of drugs to stay awake and alive at higher thrust levels.

This level of realism made it feel a lot “harder” than the other sci-fi I’d been reading – and in general, gravity is very important to the story, reminding readers of this constantly. There’s rivalry between stocky inner-planet types, who “grew up in a gravity well”, and taller, more spindly types who grew up in the asteroid belt. That brings me to the other thing I liked a lot about this book, which is that it’s very realistic racially and linguistically. The “belters” have a special argot or pidgin that they use to communicate, which is difficult to understand when it’s being read aloud on the audiobook, but lends a special level of realism to the book. I was also glad to see that not everyone speaks English – Russian, Bengali and Hindi at the very least are mentioned a lot during the book.

As the story develops there are a couple of revelations that stretch the boundary of what I’d consider “hard” sci-fi, but this allows the book to also have a mystery feel to it, and even have a few straight-up zombie horror scenes. I imagine it would look exciting on film – and indeed, there’s apparently a TV series, called The Expanse after the name of the book series. I guess I’d better get my act together and try to watch that at some point. I’m not that up-to-date with TV.

Anyway, there are a lot more levels to this story, such as the character Miller’s attachment to Julie Mao, a girl whose disappearance he’s been investigating. And stuff is generally set up and foreshadowed well. So in general, although it took a very long time to finish this book, I enjoyed it a lot and have now downloaded the next book to listen – as of writing this, it’s the next in my queue of things to listen to. But I’m a few weeks behind on reviewing, so it’ll be a while before I get to reviewing it!

Has anyone else read this? What did you think?

Book #112: The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet (2014)

lwsmaauthor: Becky Chambers
language: English
length: 941 minutes (15 hours 41 minutes)
finished listening on: 16 September 2016

I chose to listen to this audiobook after Audible kept pushing it on me, basically, but I’m glad overall that I chose it. It also coincided with me getting on my bike more often as the weather mellowed out at the beginning of September, and my sore wrist started healing well enough that I could get on my bike again, so thinking about the book reminds me of going out on my bike and listening to it.

It’s a space opera in the traditional sense of the word, a soap opera in space – it calls to mind things such as Star Trek, and many have compared it to Firefly… but its alien species are much more inventive than either of those (did Firefly even have aliens, come to think of it?). You can do a lot more in book form than it was easy to do on TV in the 20th century without CGI.

Here we have bipedal giant lizards, insectoids, and these blob-shaped things who need mobility scooters and are somehow in effective control of the galaxy. I’ll come back to them later. Having done a bit of cursory research, I’ve realized that I don’t know how to spell any of the names of the aliens (Aandrisk, Aeluon, Quelin, instead of Andrisk, Aluon, and Quellin as they were in my mind), however, and probably most of the characters too – I know at least that the main character is Rosemarie instead of Rosemary. Such are the risks of going with the audiobook version of something.

It follows the story of a “tunneling” ship, whose job it is to create hyperspace links between different parts of the galaxy. They get the job of a lifetime, but it’s going to take them a year to get there. The aforementioned Rosemarie is a new addition to the crew, which is why I think of her as the main character – we’re introduced to the assortment of other characters through her eyes, after all – but each character gets in the limelight eventually. The number of characters is manageable, and they’re all fully fleshed-out by the end of the book. I’m glad the author managed to avoid introducing too many characters. That said, the two “techie” characters blended in my mind, and the narrator wasn’t always good at distinguishing characters by voice, so I still lost track sometimes.

Overall it focuses on these characters and their interactions rather than the grandiose galactic politics going on in the background, and this also worked well in its favour. It does raise some interesting questions using its characters – identity politics is front-and-centre, as it seems it’s not easy to adopt a new identity in this world, and there are other questions raised by interspecies romance (interspecies lesbian romance also features, which is nice!), and even human-AI romance. There’s also a religious question with one species. The author is sending out a message of tolerance, which is nice. She’s also obsessed with sex, I think – so much of the novel is devoted to the different sexual mores of the other species.

I liked it, and I enjoyed the road-trip, episodic nature of it, although (spoilers!) the climax was a bit… anti-climactic. I liked seeing all the different species and I also thought it was good that they didn’t all speak the same language – the main characters speak “Clip”, and the others don’t necessarily do so. Something else I read recently was guilty of using “universal translators”, which might as well be magic. I also liked that it fits into a wider sci fi canon – it uses “ansibles” (a kind of hyperspace communicator), popularized by Ursula LeGuin way back when and used by many other authors since (Orson Scott Card, for example). I liked the glimpses we got into how the culture and technology has changed since the present day, like “scribs”, the author’s word for iPad-like tablets (I’ve noticed these show up in a lot of sci fi recently, and no authors seem to want to call them tablets), although she abbreviates “ansible” to “sib”, so this was confusing for me, as the words sound the same.

I did have a few problems with it, though. First off, the “human culture” that she describes (averse to touch, likes handshakes, and all that) is very America-centric. True, humans don’t go to the extent of her Aandrisks, who are more like bonobo chimps in their sexual proclivity, but it was that and a few other points that made me want to introduce the author to cultures outside her own in the real world.

Similarly, the term “solar year” should be “Earth year” or “terran year” or something – the main character Rosemarie grew up on Mars, so her solar year should be different. It’s a minor point, but it bothered me. The book has its own calendar, using “GC standard years” (GC is… galactic core?), but it’s never explained what this means other than that it’s longer than an earth year. It uses “tendays” instead of “weeks” and “months”, which I think would look good in print, but is often ambiguous when said out loud (the narrator reads “tendays later”, with a meaning like “about a month later”, the same as she would say “ten days later”). That said, the author uses new words relatively sparingly for a sci-fi novel, and it’s easy to get used to the new words.

The bigger thing I had a problem with was the treatment of gender across different species. The author and some reviews have made a big deal of the use of gender-neutral pronouns (xe and xir, or something like that). I’m ambivalent about these in real life anyway, as I don’t think they sound natural, and the narrator stumbled over them a few times. Most places where they’re used it’s in a place where it’d be more natural in English to use epicene “they” – but “they” is reserved for a character who considers themselves an amalgamation of two minds. I got a bit annoyed by the idiosyncracy here, really, but I don’t really mind, because they’re not supposed to be speaking English, so this is like a translation-convention kind of deal.

OK, so that’s fine, but I was expecting there to be a stronger motivation for having a separate epicene pronoun in the first place, and it turns out all of Chambers’ alien species had male/female dichotomic sexual reproduction. Even the insectoids and the aliens that look like blobs. Some transferred from female in earlier life to male later, and one has parthenogenesis in some females, but I found that the few times the epicene pronouns were even used, it was the situation where the other characters didn’t know their gender yet. The situation where modern English always uses “they”, even transphobic grammar-nazis. Honestly, I’d have liked to have seen an alien species which genuinely had no genders.

There was a point when the author pointed out in-story that, yes, all her species are based on DNA, and I think sexual reproduction was probably part of that package. I think this was so that she could work in a familiar framework when designing new species, and so that they could all eat each other’s food, but that doesn’t have to mean a binary gender system for everyone. For all the inventiveness of Chambers’ biological diversity, the lack of diversity in gender and sex systems bothered me more than just the use of invented pronouns, which is a really minor thing.

But even that’s pretty minor. The book is fun, and there’s a lot to like about it. As I mentioned above, I liked a lot of things about it. I think it’s a strong debut from the author, and I hope that some other people have read it. I have more thoughts about this that I don’t really have space for, by the way. I’ve already said enough – it’s always the ones I like that I write more about, after all. Maybe we could discuss it – leave your thoughts down below if you agree/disagree!