Social Inequality in “Leviathan Wakes”

“‘Ladies and gentlemen,” he said, “We stand at a crossroads.  On one hand, there is the very real threat of mutual annihilation.  On the other…’ He paused for effect.  “On the other, the stars.”

– James S.A. Corey

[Spoiler’s Ahoy: read at your own risk!]

In an attempt to read all the Hugo nominees for best novel before voting happened at the end of July, I tackled “Leviathan Wakes” by James S.A. Corey after “Among Others.” Although this book didn’t charm me like “Among Others,” there is a great deal to analyze from a sociological perspective.  This book is the first in a trilogy.  The second book, “Caliban’s War,” is out, but I haven’t had a chance to read it yet.  Hopefully, I’ll get a chance to read it later this year.  Once I finish my review of “Embassytown,” I plan to review books outside of the sci-fi and fantasy genre.

One of the reasons that I love reading science fiction is that it deals with differing cultures and conflicts between them.  “Leviathan Wakes” doesn’t disappoint in this regard, but its real strength lies in the fact that it is set only centuries in the future. A great deal of science fiction tends to either be set so far in the future as to be unrecognizable in how it relates to our society today, or it is set in the immediate future.  This means that in Corey’s universe, many of the conflicts faced are familiar and relevant to today’s struggles in a globalizing world.

Humans have colonized Mars, moons, and asteroid belts, but they have not been able to venture farther due to technological limitations.  Many advances in science and medicine have occurred compared to our current level of understanding.  However, for all the advances, many of the same problems that plague us today still exist including potential war, mutual annihilation, inequality, inappropriate use of science and technology, among many other problems.  As a species, we still face boundaries, although they are outside of Earth’s atmosphere.  There are still limited resources.  The general structure of the book is a space opera, and the characters spend a great deal of time swashbuckling in space.  Similar to our world, there are conflicts between cultures on the different planets and asteroids.  Corey portrays inequality in the midst of the action.  You get to see how people of different social classes live.  It seems that capitalism and trade have continued into the future.  Money continues to relate to power and inequality.  There is a great deal of tension over resources, especially in the Belt.  The interplay between governments and different organizations in the book was fascinating.  This book would work well if a social-conflict theorist wanted to point out how inequality privileges some while disadvantaging others.

There are two main point of view characters whose experiences throughout the duration of the book lead to a better understanding of the universe.  One, Holden, is originally from Earth, and he is an executive officer on a spaceship called the Canterbury.  (The naming of ships in this books seems significant.  The Canterbury originally transported immigrants from colonies, and in Holden’s time is a transport for a corporation selling water.) On the other hand, Miller favors a noir detective, and he helps the reader understand what life is like for people on the Belt.  These characters eventually come together, and they are used well by Corey to show how two men from different cultures will react very differently to the same events.  What seems like villainy from one context might seem like heroism from another.  Many of the characters are practicing ethnocentrism, judging situations based on their own cultural context, without considering how another would view the situation from a different culture.  Environment plays a huge role in shaping culture.  On a planet with (relatively) unlimited resources, the cultural values will be shaped differently than on a space station where all there is complete reliance on trade for survival.  I thought that Corey did a fantastic job of illustrating this through interactions between the characters over unfolding situations in the plot.

Although this book was set in the future, I felt that many things may have been too similar to our society. (Or perhaps, I hope that in a few centuries, less inequality would exist.) For example, gender roles seemed very similar to gender roles today.  Competent women did seem to be more accepted by the society, but the main pov characters were both men.  Naomi, although I loved the character, fulfills gender roles as a love interest for one of the main characters.  However, she is a competent character who, at many times, makes better decisions that Holden.   Since the book was going for a space opera and noir feel, I understand these choices, too.  On the other hand, Julie Mao, the young woman that the detective is hunting for seems like a compassionate, competent woman who stands up to her wealthy parents and tries to live a different life. She’s off-screen for most of the book, though, so I still have some of the same points as I did for Naomi.

“Leviathan Wakes” is a fast paced romp that manages to be a space opera while also covering important societal issues.  I would highly recommend this book, and I look forward to reading the next book in the trilogy.  I think that in a different field of contenders for the Hugo, I would have selected it.  However,  “Among Others” and “Embassytown,” also explored fascinating ground.

Recommended for lovers of: sci-fi and fantasy, space opera, noir, detectives, adventure, culture, inequality

Questions that I’m left with:

(1) Are my critiques of gender in the book fair?  What do you think?

(2) Is Corey right that we would continue to have the same problems in our human cultures if we were able to go to space?  Is inequality inevitable?



Filed under Book Reviews, Science Fiction

4 responses to “Social Inequality in “Leviathan Wakes”

  1. Okay, I’ll swing at it. 🙂

    1) Yes, your critiques of gender are fair, but they are also at least in part a consequence of having two male protagonists. You should probably read Caliban’s War at some point to see how the authors address female protagonists.

    2) One of the underlying messages not only of LW but of the whole Expanse series is that, if we ever go to the stars, the biggest problems we have will be the ones we packed with us. I believe that as long as wealth is defined on a relative scale (ie that humans *feel* better off not by having enough, but by having more than everyone around them), in equality is built into the organism. I respect dissenting opinions, but it would be hard work convincing me, right? 🙂

    Regardless, thank you very much for the time and attention you gave to the book, and for talking about it in public.

    And as a very last note, Among Others is a totally lovely book, isn’t it? I just love that one. And Jo Walton’s other work is also brilliant, though very, very different.

  2. (1) Thanks for your response to my blog post on “Leviathan Wakes.” I’ve just started this blog so I’m excited to receive a comment, particularly from one of the authors of the book. My spouse and I were just in Barnes & Noble discussing how we’re both looking forward to reading “Caliban’s War.” In “Leviathan Wakes,” I enjoyed how the characters had major realizations about themselves throughout the book, particularly Miller. I can’t wait to see how female protagonists are addressed in the next book.

    (2) While I like to leave room for the idea that maybe some day we will get past inequality, I actually agree with you. I think you are exactly right about “the biggest problems that we will have are the ones that we packed with us.” One of the keys relates to our cultural values. Particularly in the U.S. right now, one of our top values is wealth and materialism. Wealth is seen as a zero sum game, in which we can’t all be “winners”. I like to hope even if it isn’t in our lifetime that perhaps people will find a way in the future to change that cultural value. Unfortunately, it’s built into the structures and organizations around us, too. It’s been a long time since I read about it, but there is some social psychological research that suggests that people prefer distributive and procedural justice. If this preference for fairness is true, what convinces people that they feel, or are, better than those who have less? It seems to me that there is something going on in the culture and the organizational structures around us that continue to perpetuate the inequality. I can’t wait to see where you go in Expanse series. I really enjoyed how you evaluated inequality in social class, in addition to looking at the structures and situations from which the inequality arose.

    Thanks for your response to my post, and I look forward to reading more of your work!

  3. Pingback: Squee: The Expanse Series on Syfy | Jackofallbooks

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