The Girl in the Seven Trillion Tonne Refrigerator

Leviathan Wakes — James S. A. Corey
Expanse, book 1


I remember 2011’s Leviathan Wakes, the first book in the currently ongoing Expanse series by pseudonymous author James S. A. Corey, as a welcome breath of fresh air and a refreshingly upbeat novel. (I will return to the “upbeat” thing later.)

While Jim Holden’s job is suitably SFnal, the XO of the interplanetary ice transport vessel Canterbury, Detective Miller languishes in a far more mundane position, as a cop on the beat in Ceres. He’s that detective on the force with whom nobody wants to partner. This is not because he’s the kinda can-do guy who doesn’t let the rules get in way of justice, but because he’s long past his best days. He’s on the fast-track to career oblivion and obscurity.

Then Miller is handed the seemingly low-priority job of finding the vanished heiress and political idealist, Julie Mao. It is a case that will ensure that everyone in the Solar System knows Detective Miller.

When Canterbury detects what appears to be a distress call from a derelict space craft, orbital dynamics prevent the vast craft from investigating the call in person. Instead, a small crew commanded by Holden is dispatched in a smaller vessel, the Knight (effectively a captain’s launch). Holden and crew eventually realize that the derelict is a trap, but not in time to save the Canterbury from total destruction. Their ship is blown apart by a stealthed space craft that has apparently been waiting for someone to home in on the signal.

Holden doesn’t have a clue about what would make such an elaborate trap worth the effort. What he does have is a single piece of evidence, in the form of a bogus distress beacon, which contains parts stamped with serial numbers implicating the Martian Congressional Republican Navy. And because Holden is Holden, he makes sure, as quickly as he can, that he and his fellow survivors are not the only ones in possession of the contents of the manila envelope of plot device. Not only does he share the information, he shares his information with as many people as possible.

Holden, alas, has not thought things through. The Solar System is divided between Earth (old, rich, and in possession of a vast, although run-down, space navy), Mars (young, ambitious, and in possession of a smaller but shinier space navy), and the eager nationalists of the Outer Planets Association (youngest of the political factions; seen by some as political activists and by others as terrorists). Until now, rational self-interest has barely managed to keep deep seated rivalries from breaking out into open violence. Making that broadcast is the equivalent of emptying a pistol into the Archduke and his wife.

As people across the Solar System get pointed lessons in the reasons why people who live in delicate life-support systems shouldn’t energetically poke holes in their apparatus, Holden and his dwindling circle of survivors run from crisis to crisis, attracting carnage and chaos as they flee.

Miller, meanwhile, presses on with the search for Julie Mao. Early official indifference to the case is followed by open hostility once it becomes clear that Miller isn’t the incompetent he was assumed to be when the case was assigned to him.

Miller’s search for Julie Mao and Holden’s quest for answers intersect deep within the old colony in the asteroid Eros. Sorry, that should be “the old and completely doomed old colony in the asteroid Eros.”


On second reading, I can see why I thought this was a breath of fresh air—stories set in interplanetary space were very rare back then, although there has since been a major renaissance. But I must confess that I find it hard to remember the context that made a book featuring vomit zombies and megadeaths appear comparatively upbeat. Actually, I’m curious enough about that to look though my old reviews.

Oh yeah. 2011 was the year I started trying to cheer myself up with homilies like “at least [whichever book I was reading that day] didn’t have any plucky and sympathetic transsexuals tortured, eaten and killed—in that order—by cannibalistic Koreans.” This was the year when (to pick an entirely different book than the one with the plucky transsexual) The Drowned Cities, the Bacigalupi novel about two American kids trying to stay alive in the shambles of America was NOT one of the three most depressing books I read in 2011. Not only that, it wasn’t even one of the three most depressing books I had read in the previous four days. 2011 was a gloomy year in SF [1].

But onwards to critique. I shall respect tradition by taking the bad first, then the good. There *is* good.

This is a pretty guy-focused book. For example, Julia Mao exists mainly to motivate other people, principally Miller. What little we see of her suggests that she would have made an interesting protagonist. Nope, we get the far more conventional choice of Miller and Holden.

While the two men behind James S. A. Corey (Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck) have a pretty good sense of what they don’t know and when they should be vague lest they highlight the holes in their knowledge—a rare talent—there were a few moments when I may have howled like the damned when I encountered certain details.


The subject of stealth in space is an often contentious one. There is stealth in space in this book, but the stealth in this is fairly marginal and doesn’t work at all once the rockets get turned on.

The authors believe that it’s possible to spin up asteroids to create centrifugal effects, so that people living within hollows inside the asteroids will have what appears to be gravity. This is an old idea, one that goes back at least as far as Cole and Cox in the 1960s. What Cole and Cox had in mind was using modified metallic asteroids. That might just be feasible, though I am still pretty skeptical that it would work as described. But somewhere along the line, SF authors got the idea this was practical for any asteroid. The problem with that is that most asteroids are made from materials that have essentially no tensile strength. They would explode. This goes double for the asteroids that are flying aggregates of rubble … spin them up and you don’t get a habitat. You get an expanding cloud of shrapnel.

This is what asteroid Haumea looks like; it spins, but not quite enough rapidly enough to make it come apart:

My second major peeve is water.

The Canterbury ships ice from Saturn’s rings to the Belt. There are a couple of problems with this plan.

The first is so intuitively obvious that I hesitate to mention it: Saturn’s rings are rings because they’re within Saturn’s Roche Limit. Saturn is the second most massive planet in the Solar System. I won’t insult you by explaining the delta vee implications of those two facts. I will admit that the authors may be tipping their hat at Asimov’s The Martian Way, but the idea was pretty stupid even when Asimov did it. Yes, The Martian Way is a classic but SF is full of classics that are, when one looks at them dispassionately, too stupid for words.

The second is the assumption that this plan is needed at all. For reasons I have never been able to determine, a surprisingly large fraction of SF authors are under the impression that water is much rarer in the Solar System than it is. The Canterbury is shipping ice tightly held in Saturn’s gravitational arms (at great cost in fuel and time) to Ceres. Ceres is estimated to contain something along the lines of two hundred million cubic kilometers of water (in the form of ice). TWO HUNDRED MILLION CUBIC KILOMETERS OF WATER!!!!! This isn’t a secret. It! Was! In! The! News!

The reason these details bug me is because I see them repeated over and over in science fiction; just wait until I get to Up Against It or Titan. It’s like a bruise that people insist on punching again and again.


Intrepid ship captain Holden holds tightly to his belief that information should be free. What he doesn’t often ask himself is: in whose interest is it that Holden should end up in possession of the information he is so eager to share? Holden has a rare talent for sharing knowledge that is truthful but misleading. He gets points for ambition but massive demerits for the incredibly destructive consequences. He also doesn’t seem to learn from experience.

As for the other protagonist, poor Miller: he would like to think he’s a battered but basically competent detective. He is unpleasantly shocked when he works out that he was trusted with the Julia Mao case because he was a hapless nonentity. Miller is, however, remarkably determined, the sort of fellow to whom one could hand a spoon, point him at the Rocky Mountains, and leave reasonably assured that he would do his best to move them. He’s also the protagonist with enough insight to give Holden a much-needed The Reason You Suck speech.

At the risk of quoting the venerable space police procedural Star Cops yet again, Leviathan Wakes (and the Expanse series in general) exemplify star cop Nathan Spring’s lament:

You leave Earth and anything you forget to bring with you will kill you. Anything you do bring with you which doesn’t work properly will kill you. When in doubt, just assume *everything* will kill you.

A shooting war in an environment where life support depends on a complex, fragile infrastructure is an astonishingly bad idea. While it’s true that there’s a political splinter group at work who think that their means are justified by their desired end, the idiocy of Earth and Mars in what amounts to stockpiling hatpins for use on worlds made of soap bubbles is would be too stupid to believe … if only there were not loads of historical precedent showing that such idiocy is perfectly believable.

Leviathan Wakes and the series of which it is a part are a nice lesson in why War! In! Space! May be a bad idea.

Speaking of things that are bad ideas, this book and the series in general take a very dim view of treating humans like fungible resources, of experimentation on unknowing victims, of murder, mass and otherwise, and of dealing with ethical concerns by deliberately engineering sociopathy [3]. These are interesting creative choices because by taking these stances, the authors immediately lose about 27% of their potential audience. It’s an interesting position for American SF authors writing during the US’s War of/on Terror [2]. Such idealistic views must have put them on any number of alphabet-soup-agency watch lists. I found their humanitarian views a refreshing change .

Leviathan Wakes is available from Orbit.

1: 2007 offered gloomier stories but the second half of 2011 offered an almost unrelenting stream of crap to go with the hair shirts. I’ve been a professional reviewer for fourteen years and I have never seen anything like the second half of 2011. I hope I never do again.

(Of course, I was seeing novels in MS six months ahead of publication so for everyone else it would have seemed like it was the first half of 2012 that was filled with poorly written gloom.)

2: Back in 2002 or thereabouts, I was being sent books whose central thesis was “the menace of weaponized squirrel brains means that the US needs black-budget spy agencies that are above all civilian oversight.”

3: The author’s speculation that people might be turned into sociopaths is interesting. Can it be reversed? Holden does at one point try to make the people who kill the Canterbury feel bad by explaining who all the dead people are. I am boggled every time I read that that. How could he think that would be effective? But if you could take a killer, dial their empathy up to eleven, and then tell them about the lovely people they killed …

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