This book has zombies in outer space, and that should be all I have to say about it. That should tell you what you need to know about what you're getting in to when you open up this book, something fun, fast, and not too serious. So many of the books nominated for the Hugo lately have been 'The Dervish House' or 'Anathem' or 'Iron Council,'all good books, but their serious nature and dense writing style can make a book like Leviathan seem like a breath of fresh air. Great SF doesn't have to transcend the genre to be great, sometimes an author can just play around with the conventions that are already there.
Science Fiction was built upon space opera, series like 'Dune' or 'Foundation' are pillars of the genre, and laid the sort of galaxy spanning, universe altering template for many novels to come. What Corey (who is actually a pseudonym but I'll talk about that) is doing is placing his space opera in the solar system only, which is actually quite fresh for the genre. It has become commonplace to begin one's novel with man already spread throughout the galaxy; use some creative license, throw in some faster than light travel and BANG, you're off and running. Corey places his characters in a world where space travel to the outer planets is possible, but time consuming, and travel outside the solar system is almost unheard of. He confines the novel to an area small enough that he can explore it fully, but large enough that it still has scope. This is a refreshing take on what usually happens in SF, and a completely different area than most authors explore. C.J. Cherryh in her novel 'Downbelow Station' completely skips over this hypothetical point in space exploration, covering it in the prologue.
By placing his characters in this setting, no faster than light travel, space exploration inside the solar system only, no contact with extraterrestrials, Corey is able to put his characters under a completely different strain than the normal Galactic Space Opera can. For one the human beings in this story are faced with the very real possibility of extermination by the alien(s) they encounter, and two, he is able to show the reader the true vastness of space. For a novel as fast paced as this one his characters spend a fairly large amount of time wandering in space or traveling to certain areas.
The characters in this novel are tried and true cliches, not only of the SF genre but pulled from all over literature. There is the hard boiled detective, the lovestruck but hardassed pilot, the noble captain, the dangerous mechanic. Really the entire crew of the Rocinante could be assembled out of the left over characters from genre fiction, but somehow Corey makes it work. Other reviewers have complained about this, but it never bothered me that much. A lot can be forgiven if a novel is fun to read.
I like that Corey confines himself to the two POV characters of Holden and Miller. They provide a good contrast to each other, both in characterization and structure. Holden provides the more classic SF structure, and embodies the sort of noble hero that we are all familiar with. Miller is a more modern anti-hero, and his story up to the point where he meets Holden is more of a detective story than anything SF. The two different characters provide a good back and forth while keeping the story interesting. It also helps to confine the novel, while we are witnessing this wide ranging story, we experience it through the eyes of only two men, allowing Corey to slowly build this world into something the reader can understand.
For a genre award that started with space opera SF, the Hugo really hasn't handed out many awards for this type of fiction in the last decade. The last Hugo nomination for a true space opera novel that didn't go to a writer named either Scalzi or Bujold was probably 1997's Hugo Award winner 'Blue Mars' by Kim Robinson. But the Mars trilogy this is not. While both books cover near future space exploration and ostensibly show how that could lead into the sort of galactic exploration more common to classic SF, Leviathan concerns itself more with telling a compelling story than getting it's facts straight. Not to say Corey doesn't begin his novel with good science, but that the point of the novel is more to tell a good tale.
While the Mars Trilogy went in depth on terraforming and showing step by excruciating step how man might progress from simple space flight to exploring the galaxy at large, Leviathan shows us how an invasion by an alien life-form might provide the push that a stagnant humanity would need to propel themselves outward into the galaxy. It's tough to say how this series of books might end, but that's the direction I see it going. Why else would he name the series 'The Expanse?'
I don't usually like to talk about an author when I review a novel, I think the work should stand on it's own and not be influenced by who the author is, or what they do. However, I feel I'd be remiss if I didn't at least mention the author in this instance. James S. A. Corey is actually the pseudonym for two men, Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck. It's impressive how well the novel flows considering there were two authors, I've read a few collaborations before, but nothing as polished and slick as this novel. Both of these men have worked either with or for George R.R. Martin and it shows. Both in following what he does well, (building a complete world and inhabiting it with real characters) and avoiding what he does poorly, getting books out on time (the sequel was finished and published one year later and the third book in the series will be hitting shelves in June 2013).
This novel was nominated for a Hugo Award but missed out on the Nebula. I'm fine with that, I loved it, it was one of my favorite novels of 2011, but an argument could be made that there were some books that were more deserving of a Nebula nomination. But too often these days the Hugo voters forget that books can be entertaining and fun to read, and end up snubbing books like Leviathan that are just fantastic, and really the reason a lot of people got into the genre in the first place. I loved this book so much I went ahead and got the sequel, 'Caliban's War,' and if that novel doesn't get a nomination as well I'm going to review it anyway and put it on my page for snubbed books.