Mon
Jun 20 2011 3:00pm

Space Opera for the Masses: Leviathan Wakes by James S.A. Corey

Leviathan Wakes by James S.A. Corey

On the surface, Leviathan Wakes, volume one of The Expanse, appears like any other space opera—spaceships duke it out in the silent vacuum of space; down-on-their luck security officers spend their time policing backwater space stations; terrorist groups cause mischief in the name of freedom and equality; various factions exist within an uneasy peace, always on the edge of inter-planetary warfare.

So, Leviathan Wakes set itself apart not by its weird aliens, nor its so-cool-I-gotta-have-it technology, but rather by its lack of such genre staples. You see, instead of plumbing the depths of the universe and its trillion stars, author(s) James S.A. Corey (a pseudonym worn by Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck) decided instead to explore a future where interstellar-travel is still only a pipe-dream. Reminiscent of the long-dead population of Easter Island, humanity is stuck in a solar system-sized bubble and, as time ticks away, they can’t help but cannibalize everything good in their ever-failing quest to leave the solar system behind.

Many hundreds of years from now, humanity has spread out just beyond the reach of Earth, terraforming Mars and filling “The Belt” with space stations carved into hollowed-out asteroids. These three colonies, grown apart in both ideology, language and even physical stature, are at an uneasy crossroads in their history—each relies on the others, but independence, expansion and dominion (ever the human motivators) are on the minds of each. Such a setting is wonderfully refreshing and adroitly mixes both the familiar with the new and uncomfortable (squat Martians of Indian descent topped off with a Texan drawl, for instance) and forces Corey to look away from alien life as a constant source of conflict and instead search for it within the twisted politics of the various human factions. Early in the novel, one Earth-born character struggles with the racism he finds living in The Belt:

Havelock was sitting alone, with one thick hand wrapping a fluted glass. When Miller sat down beside him, Havelock turned toward him, ready to take offense, nostrils flared and eyes wide. Then the surprise registered. Then something like sullen shame.

“Miller,” he said. In the tunnels outside, he would have been shouting. Here, it was barely enough to carry as far as Miller’s chair. “What’re you doing here?”

“Nothing much to do at the hole,” Miller said. “Thought I’d come pick a fight.”

“Good night for it,” Havelock said.

It was true. Even in the bars that catered to inner planet types, the mix was rarely better than one Earther or Martian in ten. Squinting out at the crowd, Miller saw that the short, stocky men and women were nearer a third.

“Ship come in?” he asked.

“Yeah.”

“EMCN?” he asked. The Earth-Mars Coalition Navy often passed through Ceres on its way to Saturn, Jupiter, and the stations of the Belt, but Miller hadn’t been paying enough attention to the relative position of the planets to know where the orbits all stood. Havelock shook his head.

“Corporate security rotating out of Eros,” he said. “Protogen, I think.” A serving girl appeared at Miller’s side, tattoos gliding over her skin, her teeth glowing in the black light. Miller took the drink she offered him, though he hadn’t ordered. Soda water.

“You know,” Miller said, leaning close enough to Havelock that even his normal conversational voice would reach the man, “it doesn’t matter how many of their asses you kick. Shaddid’s still not going to like you.” (pp. 40-41)

I’ve often been hesitant to delve into some of science fiction’s contemporary classics, such as Peter Watts’ Blindsight or China Miéville’s recently-released Embassytown, for fear of the prospective challenge presented to the reader. You’re going to have to work to read this book. Your interpretation of life or communication or physics is going to be manhandled and left battered and crying in a corner. This complexity is appealing to some, but to this reader and his simple brain… it just seems overwhelming. Often, I just want to kick back and have some fun when I read, and Leviathan Wakes fits that mold perfectly. It takes a more accessible approach to science fiction, focusing on the “fiction” over the “science,” and sits comfortably alongside the novels of John Scalzi and Tobias Buckell, two authors who write rockin’ fun science fiction that always leaves me wanting more.

For instance, in an interview included at the back of the novel, Corey, when asked how the Epstein Engine (a nuclear-powered engine that enables interplanetary travel, but still confines humanity to the solar system) works, responds simply by saying “Very well. Efficiently.” It’s a tongue-in-cheek answer that perfectly captures the novel’s approach to its science. It’s there, it works, and that’s all the reader needs to know. Corey skips the theoretical physics lessons and turns all the attention to the various characters that inhabit the solar system.

And Corey’s humans shine. Structurally, the novel is split into alternating chapters from the viewpoints of Jim Holden, executive officer of a creaky ice miner, and Detective Miller, a washed-up detective serving on a space station named Ceres. The easy comparison for Holden and his crew of capable misfits is Captain Mal and the crew of Serenity, from Joss Whedon’s legendary (and canceled-too-soon) television series, Firefly. There’s an easy confidence and camaraderie between the crew which only grows stronger as the novel progresses; by the end, I cared as much about Amos, Alex, Shed, Naomi, and the rest as I did for Miller and Holden; even more in some cases. Like Firefly, there’s a healthy amount of one-liners and crew banter, and though it can sometimes fall into cliché, it never never loses its easy charm. It’s a difficult dynamic for an author to pull off, but it works here and forms the heart of the novel, for the conflicts would be nothing if the reader didn’t care for the characters. Even more importantly, perhaps, is that the characters genuinely care for and respect one another, an aspect that helps the reader suspend belief as the crew squeaks their way out of one stick situation after another. They complement each other in both personality and skillset in a way that places them among the best casts the genre has to offer.

Miller, a classic noir-detective, is, predictably, an absolute foil to Holden, a fact that Corey never shies away from. He’s a natural loner, and his search for (and eventual obsession with) Julie Mao is tragic, frustrating and utterly believable. He’s as emotionally damaged as necessary for the reader to buy into some of the reckless decisions he makes on his relentless hunt to find out the truth behind the mysterious disappearance of Julie Mao and its connection to Jim Holden—a hunt that both heals and further damages Miller before the turn of the final page. His calculating, obsessive nature is a constant source of plot and character development, instigating many of the more satisfying moments in his and Holden’s relationship.

The structure of the novel is interesting in that it allows the reader to see each of the primary protagonists through both their own eyes and the eyes of the other. Reading a chapter from Holden’s perspective gives the reader a particular insight into his often righteous and rash decisions, only to see that perception flipped entirely on its head during the next chapter when Miller reflects on Holden’s actions and shines a new light or perspective on the events. This is particularly effective when they’re both working toward the same goal but with different motivations fuelling them. It’s a wonderful good cop/bad cop relationship that adds a very enjoyable vitality to a sometimes sterile setting.

Normally I wouldn’t comment on the gender of the author(s), but in this case, the novel feels like one written by two men. A lot of the prose, while unobtrusive and easy-to-read, and despite a healthy cast of well-drawn women characters, can come off very masculine, especially in the dialogue:

“Something out there has a comm array that’ll put a dot the size of your anus on us from over three AU away,” Alex said.

“Okay, wow, that’s impressive. What is our anus-sized dot saying?” Holden asked. (p. 95)

It was a niggling bother when I began reading the novel, despite being male myself. At times it feels very much like a novel written by dudes for dudes; but (either through my becoming accustomed to the style or the authors’ becoming more comfortable with the characters) it’s an issue that tapers out as the novel progresses; not a deal-breaker by any stretch, but it was somewhat surprising coming from Daniel Abraham, who’s written such evocatively beautiful novels such as A Shadow in Summer. I’d be interested to hear a female perspective on this aspect of the novel.

I’ve always considered the best fantasy to be that which indirectly examines our societies and the histories that have brought us to where we are now. Fantasy allows us to recast those people, to retell their stories and to explore how history might be altered if different decisions had been made or different challenges had arisen. Science fiction, on the other hand, offers us the opportunity to look towards the future and examine the decisions we are making today. Corey envisions a future that sees humans paying for their lack of conservation and inability to work together towards a greater good. Hundreds of years might have passed, and we might have left planet Earth behind, but the state of our race is startlingly familiar. The prospect of fleeing our dying planet for the stars has long been dreamt of, but what happens when we can no longer run from our problems?

Leviathan Wakes is space opera for the masses—it asks for little from its readers other than that they show up and enjoy the ride, no doctorate in quantum mechanics necessary. The classic juxtaposition of Miller’s hard-edged noir narrative and Holden’s idealistic adventure are perfectly suited for one another and together they form the most enjoyable novel I’ve read so far in 2011. It’s fast, it’s fun and it’s escapist science fiction in the purest sense of the term. One can only hope that The Expanse is expansive, indeed.


Aidan Moher is the editor of A Dribble of Ink, a humble little blog that exists in some dusty corner of the web. He hasn’t won any awards, or published any novels. But he’s, uhh... working on that.

66 comments
Mike G.
1. Mike G.
"dpace opera"? That's a new genre :)

It does sound interesting, though - the kindle sample is on my electronic to-be-read stack.
Aidan Moher
2. aidan
Blame my editor! (Actually, don't. She's lovely and all embarassing typos are my fault.)

Also, just a heads-up, but if you buy the eBook version of Daniel Abraham's The Dragon's Path you get a copy of Leviathan Wakes for free! (Or vice-versa.) A killer deal for two wonderful books.

:)
Mike G.
3. Michael B Sullivan
This review suggests that the people of the novel are incapable of interstellar travel, and that's why they're trying fruitlessly to leave the Milky Way, but are stuck in our galaxy.

...Which is it? Solar system or galaxy? And did you by any chance write for Firefly?
Aidan Moher
4. aidan
Thanks for catching that, Michael. They're confined to our solar system, not the Milky Way. I've amended that sentence. And, I can only wish I'd written for Firefly!
Pseu Donym
5. Scotoma
Your post still contains a galaxy-wide bubble, which, considering the size of the solar system, is a bit off-scale.

So, is it mostly, old-school, non-transhuman/posthuman type science fiction?
Mike G.
6. Abu_Casey
The scope reminds me of McAuley's The Quiet War. I don't think there was any interstellar travel there either. He didn't emphasize the resource issues of being confined to the solar system yet desperate to get out. He also really, really likes to explain the sci in his sci-fi.
Mike G.
7. James Davis Nicoll
Is there a space opera intended just for the elite? Not a celebration of the glories of aristocracy but books intended for the right people and not the unwashed masses.


You see, instead of plumbing the depths of the universe and its trillion stars, author(s) James S.A. Corey (a pseudonym worn by Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck) decided instead to explore a future where interstellar-travel is still only a pipe-dream.


It used to be I'd go a year or more between seeing interplanetary adventures and even then if I did see one it would one of Ben Bova's gloom-fests or one of Varley Earth People Suck books but for some reason in the last few years this subgenre has really taken off. (I'll mention Saturn's Children here even though it's too early for what I mean because the author complained the last time I did this and didn't mention it). In the last nine months, I have seen the following interplanetary adventures:

Rocket Girls, Rocket Girls: the Last Planet, The Next Continent, The Ouroboros Wave, Platinum Moon, Leviathan Wakes, Back to the Moon, The Quantum Thief, Gardens of the Sun, Up Against It, Usurper of the Sun and Threshold.

I am sure I have forgotten some, too.

In fact, just in the latest stack of upcoming books I got to review, two of six books appear to be interplanetary adventures: The Moon Maze Game by Larry Niven and Steven Barnes and The Highest Frontier by Joan Slonczewski.

I don't know what changed, why I am seeing so many, but I approve.


Reminiscent of the long-dead population of Easter Island, humanity is stuck in a solar system-sized bubble and, as time ticks away, they can’t help but cannibalize everything good in their ever-failing quest to leave the solar system behind.

ObSF: SP Somtow's Mallworld stories, where aliens have tucked us away in a pocket universe that is about 20 AU across.

The solar system is actually pretty big, even larger than the Earth, which itself turns out to be huge (just look at a 1:1 scale map sometime). A Kardashev II civilization would have 4?×10^26?Watts to play with , and the material currently in eight planets and hundreds of moons to use that energy on. Assuming the same per capita energy use we see in the developed world (well, the same assuming the BOTEC I just did was right), that's enough energy for developed world prosperity for 2x10^23 people, and there's in excess of 445 earth-masses of non-stellar material to use it on (sadly, most H2 and He, so not as useful as it could be) or about 13 tonnes per person if there are 2^23 people.

Alexis Gilliland once pointed out that you can fit a surprising number of people in into small bodies of the sort that are quite common in the solar system: his example was Texas and I think a Phobos sized rock.

1: Even an Earth-based KI has 1.74?×10^17?Watts, around 10,000x time power currently used on Earth. How upsetting it is to see sunlight fall unused when every joule could be put to productive uses and charged for appropriately.
Mike G.
8. James Davis Nicoll
Also, although they're just trying to write space opera, Leviathan Wakes was in many ways harder than many supposedly hard SF books I see. Well, aside from how they seemed to deal with the lack of gravity on large subplanetary bodies (unless I misread the text): asteroids have essentially zero tensile strength so if you try to spin them up so that someone in a cavity within them experiences a gee of centrifugal force, the body will simply come apart about the time the centrifugal force exceeds the local gravity.

For an example of how real subplanetary bodies behave when you spin them up, see 2003 EL 61 AKA 136108 Haumea.
Mike G.
9. James Davis Nicoll
his example was Texas and I think a Phobos sized rock.

Although a quick BOTEC shows that you can store all Texas under reasonably humane conditions in a suprisingly small volume:

There are about 25 million Texans. Assuming each one masses 100 kg and that, being composed mainly of water as they are, their density should be around one tonne per cubic meter, the total volume is only 2.5 million cubic meters, the same volume as a cube 135 meters on an edge. You could almost store them on a football field.

Granted, you'd need feeding and waste tubes, and some way to manage the heat (25 million Texans give off around 2.5 GW of heat), cables for entertainment and such but even if we double the volume per Texan we're only talking a cube cube root two times bigger or 170 meters on an edge.
Mike G.
10. Scotoma
I dunno, space opera and the limited scale of the solar system always seem to be an oxymoron for me. A few manage to get epic even at that scale, but most don't.
Mike G.
11. James Davis Nicoll
the limited scale of the solar system

Our fastest spacecraft ever built, fast enough to leg it from Earth to Jupiter in about a year, is going to take from January 19, 2006 to July 14, 2015 to reach Pluto and Pluto isn't close to being the fathest known significant body in the Solar System.
Aidan Moher
12. aidan
@James — You just made my brain hurt.

;)

@Scotoma — There's enough threat from outside the solar system to, in my mind, cast the novel as a Space Opera, but your point is well taken. Is there another label you'd put on novels like this? Is James' 'Interplanetary Adventure' a suitable one?

Which novels/series would you consider to achieve epic nature within the solar system? I'd love more reading in a similar vein to Leviathan Wakes.
Mike G.
13. Scotoma
I'm not saying you can't have space opera admist a solar system setting, just that most novels with a space war in such a setting rarely feel space operatic enough. It's not like I have a exact measurement for that kind, thought I think Tony Daniels incomplete trilogy of Metaplanetary/Superluminal fits.

I'll give a counter-example. Right now I'm reading the Autumn Rain trilogy by David J. Williams, which shows a sort of second coming of the cold war of the 20th century going hot with future tech added, and althought it's great, it's not space opera. To limited scale, etc.
Mike G.
14. Scotoma
@James - As much as like hard SF, I never understand this obsession about minute details like this. When I'm talking about scale in space opera, I mean The Fall of Hyperion, Baxter's Exultant or Hamilton's Commonwealth/Void-series or Sean William's & Shane Dix Orphan's series. Compare these to something that takes place in the solar system and you'll understand where I'm coming from.
Mike G.
15. James Davis Nicoll
Reminiscent of the long-dead population of Easter Island,

Just on the off-chance someone there does not read it as I assumed it was intended (the unfortunate ancient Rapa Nuians, trapped in Jared Diamondesque Hell of declining resources and a population too large for the then-current tech base to support), Easter Island is not an uninhabited relic of human folly; about 5000 people live there.

Interestingly, while the doleful picture of ignorant natives annihilating their population base through mismanagement of local resources suits a certain sort of modern narrative, the event that really put the hammer to Rapa Nui was the arrival of Europeans. Thanks to a combination of slave raids and the introduction of new diseases to which the locals had no resistance , the population fell from around 3000 or more in 1722 to a low of 111 in 1871.


1: One series of raids succeeded in capturing and carrying off about half of the island's population.

2: One outbreak killed about a quarter of the population.
Mike G.
16. Madame Hardy
FTR, the indigenous population of Easter Island, although much-reduced, is very much alive. Contrary to Diamond, the population decline owes a very great deal to disease and slave-raiding as to overexploitation of land; although the population declined 80% from 15K to 2-3K before the Europeans, after the Europeans it declined 96% to 111.

Which is to say, It's Always More Complicated, as well as Not Dead Yet.
Mike G.
17. Madame Hardy
Or, as always, What James Said.

According to Wikipedia, the last blow to the population was that "In 1871 the missionaries, having fallen out with Dutrou–Bornier, evacuated all but 171 Rapanui to the Gambier Islands".
Aidan Moher
18. aidan
I'm aware that Easter Island is still populated, but chose to draw on the island and the popular belief behind its decline as a symbol for Corey's depiction of the solar system. Perhaps 'long-dwindled' would have been better phrasing?
Mike G.
19. James Davis Nicoll
the introduction of new diseases to which the locals had no resistance

This aspect of First Contact was behind a varient Traveller Campaign I never got to run: in 1947, the Vilani (descended from humans removed from Earth long ago) discover Earth. Sadly, because the Ancients didn't take what became domesticated animals with the humans back when and since alien diseases cannot infect humans for the most part, the Vilani Ziru Sirka was completely unprepared to deal with a hellworld of infectious diseases like the Earth. Even more sadly, the time to kill infected Vilani turned out in many cases to be longer than it took a starship containing infected Vilani from one star to another.

As a result, the US and their allies and the Soviet and their allies found themselves in possession of retro-engineerable starships and latchkey empires that had just suffered a humanitarian calamity that made the Black Death look like a summer cold.

Mike G.
20. James Davis Nicoll
Is James' 'Interplanetary Adventure' a suitable one?

I'd say Interplanetary Adventure and Space Opera are overlapping sets.
Mike G.
21. Madame Hardy
"Long-dwindled" would work for me, at least. "Not Dead Yet" is important to me when speaking of indigenous peoples -- unless, of course, they actually are extinct.
Aidan Moher
22. aidan
@James -- I agree.

@Madame Hardy -- That is an important disctinction that I failed to make with my analogy. Thanks for slapping me on the wrist about it.

:)
Mike G.
23. James Davis Nicoll
The prospect of fleeing our dying planet for the stars has long been dreamt of, but what happens when we can no longer run from our problems?

If it is the habit to use up planets and then flee, then unless you can arrange for the planets to be left fallow long enough to recover , what this accomplishes is a sphere of blight expanding out from Sol, with a shell of recently colonized worlds and an expanding core of dead or depleted worlds.

See Brin's Uplift setting, where worlds are allowed to remain fallow to recover from a civilization, or alternatively Hero! by Dave Duncan, where they are not.

1: Going by the rebound rates from the End Permian, this could be in the tens of millions of years.

2: Well, until we reach the limit imposed by the shape of the galaxy, after which point it's more of discy sort of shape.
Mike G.
24. James Davis Nicoll
When I'm talking about scale in space opera

Poul Anderson's Terran Empire controls a volume hundreds of light years across, containing millions of stars (of which about a hundred thousand have actually been visited). In human terms, that's huge. In galactic terms, it's tiny: you can fit up to 400,000 million-star empires into the Milky Way.

There's a scene I've mentioned before, where Flandry notices a small blemish on the image of the Milky Way on the obverse of an imperial coin. The blemish is tiny, hard to see, but covers a larger fraction of the image of the Milky Way than the Empire does of the real Milky Way.
Pseu Donym
25. Scotoma
Thanks, but no thanks for the lecture. I know how many stars there are in our galaxy.

My point was, and which you aren't refuting, that most science fiction that operates at the level of the solar system just doesn't convey the same scale than what is generally thought of as space opera. That's not a question of measurement. I get that the volume of space covered by the solar system is massive, from a human POV, but most science fiction taking place in the solar system gives the impression of small nations at conflict at most, not massive empires or whole civilizations at war. It's more a thing that has to do with style than actual size.
Mike G.
26. CarlosSkullsplitter
24: it never made much sense to me why humans didn't engage on very long-range expeditions in search of greater knowledge in the Polesotechnic setting. Human space travellers in that universe were deeply incurious sonsofbitches. (I know, Toynbee, depressive plots, etc.)
Mike G.
27. Julia Sullivan
To follow up on the "long dead population of Easter Island" bit---there are way more people living on Easter Island today than at its peak pre-European contact population, and all of them except the Chilean naval officers and maybe 50 people who have "married in" are descendants of the original Rapa Nui population.

Yes, there was a population crash and brutal, bloody war in the 1600s and early 1700s. However, what reduced the Rapa Nui population to under 100 wasn't either of those events---it was their abduction and enslavement by Peruvian and other slavers in the 19th century.

So your metaphor is both inaccurate about the current Rapa Nui and misapplied to this book, unless the reasons the human population crashed included their abduction and enslavement by other species.
Mike G.
28. James Davis Nicoll
most science fiction that operates at the level of the solar system just doesn't convey the same scale than what is generally thought of as space opera.

Part of the problem may be excessively effective propulsion systems; a setting where Neptune is less than 3 weeks from Earth may well feel small. As I recall the book in question, the Epstein Engine may work "very well" but it's still only used for delta vees of a hundred+ kilometers per second absent unusual demands, so the system still feels big.

Also, there's what TV Tropes calls Sci-Fi Writers Have No Sense of Scale, which is exactly what it sounds like. The worst offenders are people like Mike Resnick, who can make an entire planet feel as big as a back lot set at Paramount.

There's an interesting Jerry Pournelle essay from the Disco Era called "Those Pesky Belters and their Torchships", where he pokes fun at some inconsistent details of Known Space and then goes on to propose a class of settings I have not seen widely exploited in SF : if you assume rockets limited to merely extraordinary delta vees, then instead of one grand system wide government, maybe you get clusters based on delta vee. For example, it's easier to putter around in the Jovian moon system than to leave it; maybe that's a natural basis for a polity. Perhaps the asteroid belt would be like a vast archipelago of independent or semi-independent communities. Lots of room there for large scale events, in the hands of the right author but it's an idea that's mostly been ignored.

1: Although Michael Flynn's Wreck of the River of Stars does mention the essay in its acknowledgments, I think.

2: oberth effect! repeated over and over again until someone stabs me with a copy of Wege zur Raumshiffahrt".
Mike G.
29. James Davis Nicoll
The worst offenders are people like Mike Resnick, who can make an entire planet feel as big as a back lot set at Paramount.

Actually, on reflection I'd like to offer whichever Edmund Hamilton story it was where he had the entire galaxy at threat from collision with a comet whose inhabitants wanted to rub up against the Milky Way to build up a static charge which they would then exploit.
Pseu Donym
30. Scotoma
Actually, that sounds kinda cool. Is the Pournelle essay online?
Aidan Moher
31. aidan
@Julia -- That analogy may actually be fairly accurate in describing humanity's plight throughout the trilogy. The first volume certainly suggests it.
Mike G.
32. James Davis Nicoll
Not as far as I can tell. It's in the now quite venerable collection A Step Farther Out.

Winchell D. Chung jr.'s Atomic Rockets site touches on many of related issues at considerably greater length. I would link but I've never successfully linked to anything and had comment pass a spam examination; easy enough to google it, though.
Mike G.
33. James Davis Nicoll
it never made much sense to me why humans didn't engage on very long-range expeditions in search of greater knowledge in the Polesotechnic setting.

Something similar happens in Known Space: pre-FTL, humans settle every habitable planet within a dozen light years. Post-FTL, when you'd expect ease of travel to make things really take off, they seem content to paddle around in near-space, rarely venturing beyond (iirc) 30 LY from Sol.

Of course there there is a reason: around the time they got FTL, they ran into the Kzin (lunatic space barbarians), the Puppeteers (manipulative and very advanced), the grogs (planetary scale mind-controllers), and the Outsiders, who can drop the Earth into the Sun any time they feel the fireworks justify the cost. That's in our backyard; exploration risks running into someone as advanced as a Puppeteer, and as imperialistic as a Kzin. Best not to look until we build up our tech base some.
Mike G.
34. James Davis Nicoll
any time they feel the fireworks justify the cost.

Which could be a couple of minutes after they discover the connection between humans and Pak.
Sean Fagan
35. sef
Don't be silly, James... the whole Pak thing only makes sense if the Outsiders are the ones who moved them there and created the Tree of Life virus.
Andrew Love
36. AndyLove
Of course there there is a reason: around the time they got FTL, they ran into the Kzin (lunatic space barbarians), the Puppeteers (manipulative and very advanced), the grogs (planetary scale mind-controllers), and the Outsiders, who can drop the Earth into the Sun any time they feel the fireworks justify the cost.


Actually, the humans ran into the Kzin in the pre-FTL period. Defense expenses involved with containment of the Kzin (combined with the economic slump caused by the Puppeteer exodus) might have impeded exploration/colonization for a while.
Mike G.
37. Michael S. Schiffer
It's in the now quite venerable collection A Step Farther Out.

Available as a Kindle book for three bucks, btw. (And while it's out of print in hardcopy, it looks like the dead tree version is available used for less than a dollar more.)
Mike G.
38. James Davis Nicoll
You know, I am looking at my notes for this book and I don't see anything in them about the solar system being a Maltusian trap from which only interstellar travel can save humanity.
Mike G.
39. James Davis Nicoll
Speaking of Gilland, I wonder if naming one of the ships Rocinante is a reference to his Rosinante trilogy?
David Sooby AKA Lensman
40. Lensman03
James Davis Nicoll wrote:

There's an interesting Jerry Pournelle essay from the Disco Era called "Those Pesky Belters and their Torchships", where he pokes fun at some inconsistent details of Known Space and then goes on to propose a class of settings I have not seen widely exploited in SF...

First of all, nowhere does Pournelle's article specify Known Space. The "belter" culture, with asteroid miners as the primary occupation, can be found in various SF series, from Asimov's "Lucky Starr" stories to Randall Garrett's "Belter" stories-- from which Niven admits swiping his Belters. Pournelle also makes rather different assumptions for a "belter" culture, such as stating it would likely be centered on Mars. Contrariwise, in Known Space, Mars is considered a worthless bit of real estate, devoid of valuable mineral deposits.

Now, the weakness in Pournelle's article, in heaping scorn on the idea of an economically viable "asteroid miner" culture, is that he makes some assumptions which put a rather strict upper limit on the maximum delta-V a torchship can produce. "Another assumption, generally not stated in the stories, is that fuels are expensive and scarce, and the Belters have to conserve reaction mass... Unfortunately, asteroids are rocks, and rocks don't make very good rocket fuel." But if we use different assumptions-- that rocks can be used for "fuel" in a fusion rocket, and therefore fuel is cheap and easily available-- then all we need worry about is how much reaction mass our ship can carry. And indeed, assuming advanced, efficient fusion power and given that any mass can theoretically be converted to energy, why not assume rocks will work just as well as hydrogen or plutonium?

Another of Pournelle's assumptions is that exhaust velocity (and therefore a rocket's specific impulse) is rather limited; the upper limit on his chart is 28.8 million cm/sec, or about 1% lightspeed. Contrariwise, the "slowboat" fusion-powered interstellar colony ships in an early era of Known Space can reach perhaps as much as 40% lightspeed, strongly suggesting their fusion rockets are more than an order of magnitude more efficient at using reaction mass than Pournelle assumes as an upper limit.

Even Wikipedia's "Nuclear pulse propulsion" article proposes a "Medusa" system, which in theory could be built with today's technology, that may be capable of more than three times the upper limit given for specific impulse in the "Torchships" article.

I think Pournelle was being unduly pessimistic.
Mike G.
41. CarlosSkullsplitter
40: And indeed, assuming advanced, efficient fusion power and given that any mass can theoretically be converted to energy, why not assume rocks will work just as well as hydrogen or plutonium?

Because for many of us, the charm of science fiction involves things that are scientifically plausible. We know how fusion works. It does not work like that. This is why Abraham's joke: "Very well. Efficiently," is funny. He is letting us know that he knows this is a scientifically and technologically difficult (and perhaps impossible) thing that we will just have to swallow.

Just for fun, try running the numbers on a fusion drive that runs on iron, which is a primary component of many asteroids. Just the basic nuclear binding energy calculations will suffice. I'll wait.
Mike G.
42. James Davis Nicoll
We know how fusion works. It does not work like that.

In order of likeliness, we'd be talking

D+T fusion; D is easily enough to come by for anyone with access to Canada's tech back circa 1965 and this is the easiest fusion reaction to pull off (despite which we are still pretty far away from commercial fusion). Tritium has to be made; again, something we have a lot of experience doing.

(produces an absurd number of neutrons but you can stick the reactor far away from the crew section)

D+D: more demanding, but fewer neutrons

D+3He: induces non-lucidity in space fans; even demanding than D+D to pull off. Not actually aneutronic due to side reactions but can be marketed as aneutronic, at least until the operator's hair starts falling out.

p+11B: As close to aneutronic as we're likely to get and has the advantage that 11B is a very common isotope of a not particularly rare material. Difficult to pull off. Not terrible common in SF - The Jupiter Theft used it but I cannot think of a second example.
Mike G.
43. James Davis Nicoll
Because for many of us, the charm of science fiction involves things that are scientifically plausible.

See, for example, the bit in Usurper of the Sun where Nojiri says

While I tried to keep the science of space travel as realistic as possible, I admit there are a few spots that require readers to stretch their imaginations. One example would be the acceleration and speeds acheived by the ships in the story, which are nearly impossible even for a nuclear-poweed space propulsion system."

He's talking about delta vee of tens of kilometers per second but then, Nojiri worries about the plausibility details like that.
Pseu Donym
44. Scotoma
Yeah, but then he went and made his aliens deliberately stupid in a way I found quite implausbile, so there's that.
Mike G.
45. James Davis Nicoll
You say stupid, I say "easy enough to rid ourselves of while taking their stuff." Sure beats the ETs in Lord of the Sands of Time and All You Need is KILL.

It's odd how all through the Haikasoru line there's this running thread of "aliens advanced enough to get to Earth will almost certainly be huge jerks, some of whom won't even care that they're wiping us out." It's like their working model for first contact is based on memories of Admiral Perry. Or maybe the Mongol fleets.
David Sooby AKA Lensman
46. Lensman03
CarlosSkullsplitter wrote:

We know how fusion works. It does not work like that.

Some of us know that "how fusion works" includes stellar fusion producing stable reactions with hydrogen, helium, carbon, neon, oxygen, and silicon. I would think that it's also physically possible to fuse other, heavier, elements... altho there may be practical difficulties with fusing large quantities of them efficiently. And yes, I'm perfectly aware that fusing iron absorbs energy, instead of releasing it-- trying to fuse iron is what causes old high-mass stars to go supernova.

As I understand it, asteroids tend to come in two types: stony and metallic. (Well, also icy, but I'm ignoring those here.) Obviously, if we're throwing rocks into our ship's converter for reaction mass, we would prefer stony asteroid rocks, and not high-iron metallic ones. Stony asteroids contain high percentages of oxygen and silicon. Since we know stars can fuse these and release energy, obviously it's plausible to believe we can do the same.
Pseu Donym
47. Scotoma
Haven't read Lord of the Sands of Time and All You Need is KILL, but the aliens in Yukikaze sure fit that bill, allthought I liked those.
Mike G.
48. CarlosSkullsplitter
46: Since we know stars can fuse these and get energy, obviously it's plausible to believe we can do the same.

You might want to check the dictionary definition of the word 'plausible'. I myself don't find this line of argument -- "it exists in the universe, therefore it is something human technology will achieve" -- either credible or persuasive. Since I can do the calculations (and you apparently can't), I would have to say I have the advantage here.

Ask yourself: what sort of technology would one need to create a system that could extract energy from fusing silicon. Then ask yourself: is this level of technology consistent with a story about gritty asteroid miners?

Hint: Niven's technology did not make sense with his backgrounds. But Niven faked nearly all of his science. He was all about convincing science fiction fans with carefully placed words in evocative arrangements that he wasn't faking. And for about a decade, he was very good at it, so good that I still hear his misconceptions -- some made well before I was born -- repeated by fans.

And SF fans are often terribly gullible people, easy to convince the universe works in a way that it really doesn't -- witness the writer of the original post believing a bunch of untruths about Easter Island. Why? because it was a good story. I doubt the poor guy has any real interest in Polynesian settlement or even ecological outcomes.

So. Do you want to be gullible? Or do you want to learn how the world really works? Your choice.
Pseu Donym
49. Scotoma
All (science fiction) writers are faking it to some extend, none of them is all-knowing, at least I haven't met one yet.
Mike G.
50. James Davis Nicoll
There's not being all knowing and then there's SF books where 1 = 2 (1). Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck seem to have pretty good idea of where their blind spots are and write to make sure the plot doesn't depend on those (the rotation thing aside).

1: Helix by Eric Brown, in case anyone cares.
Mike G.
51. James Davis Nicoll
In All You Need is KILL aliens consider the issue of whether the planets they are sending von neuman machines to reshape might have native life, even intelligent life, and whether it's moral not to take care to preserve such things and then collectively decide ~ it's not essentially different from wiping out an anthill to make room for a mall and who really cares about anthills as long as the mall is really shiny?

Yes, yes; EO Wilson does . Aside from him.

1: Sorry, make that John W. Campbell Memorial Award finalist EO Wilson.
Mike G.
52. James Davis Nicoll
memories of Admiral Perry

Or possibly the Treaty of Ganghwa.

1: Commodore Perry, not admiral. *sigh*

In his defense, his visit went a lot better than the General Sherman's visit to Korea.
Andrew Love
53. AndyLove
There's not being all knowing and then there's SF books where 1 = 2 (1).


I've heard that Bob Shaw had a book with physics that only worked if pi was 3. In Ilium, Dan Simmons had a group that supposedly had a stable population, in spite of the fact that women were restricted to having only one child per lifetime - and although mothers had only one child, and identities of fathers were unknown, the society also had the concept of "cousin" for some reason.
Mike G.
54. James Davis Nicoll
I've heard that Bob Shaw had a book with physics that only worked if pi was 3.

Ragged Astronauts? As I recall it, it was the other way round: he knew the situation he had set up was unjustified under natural law as we know it so he signalled that it was set Somewhere Else for very Else values of Somewhere by mentioning that pi = 3.

I don't know why but I can hear mathematicians weeping.
Mike G.
55. James Davis Nicoll
Actually, the humans ran into the Kzin in the pre-FTL period.

That's why I said "around"; plausible deniability. Angel's Pencil runs into a Kzin ship in 2355 and in 2409, the Outsiders sell humans the hyperdrive.
Teresa Nielsen Hayden
56. tnh
James Nicoll, I just want to say that your comments about the volume necessary to store Texans have been memorialized in a forum thread.

As to why we're seeing so much more good space opera, I blame the Northerners (MacLeod, Stross, etc.) for getting that engine going again.
Mike G.
57. James Davis Nicoll
It's the resurgence of interplanetary adventures I'm am simultaneously pleased and puzzled by. It's not all one publisher so it's not a question of a single editor having a taste for the stuff.
Teresa Nielsen Hayden
58. tnh
Are we going to have to sort out exactly what we mean by "space opera" vs. "interplanetary adventure"? I thought I was talking about the same thing you were.
Pseu Donym
59. Scotoma
If we go by the definition laid down in the New Space Opera 1+2 by Dozois+Strahan, than anything taking remotely place in space is Space Opera. IMHO, not a very useful way to define it, but if you want to sell an anthology the way to go.

If we go by where it came from (Doc Smith) and what most often is categorized as space opera over the time until today, then it's about conflicts between players that operate on an interstellar scale (from a few star systems to the whole galaxy and beyond). IMHO, I think conflict is essential for space opera, something like Greg Egan's Incandescence, even if it has the right scale, isn't space opera.

Interplanetary adventure (not a term I've heard often used these days), probably is about stories that limit themselves to a star system (or maybe one to three at max), thought JDN seemed to like mostly those that take place in the solar system (something like R. M. Meluch's War Birds or Doris Egan's Ivory trilogy is interplanetary adventure, yet doesn't take place in the home system and falls outside the things he mentioned).
Andrew Love
60. AndyLove
I agree that conflict is a key element of space opera: as a rough definition, I'd say that space opera is science fiction that features interstellar conflict in which the actions of a relatively few individuals strongly influence the fate of substantial portions of space. By that standard, Vinge's Fire Upon the Deep is space opera, but Deepness in the Sky isn't, Asaro's Skolian books are space opera, but Honor Harrington generally aren't (Honor is an important figure in one of the organizations (the Manticoran Navy) that influences the fate of star-nations, but without her, the organization goes on - unlike, say, the Lensmen without Kinnison). But that's just my quick-and-dirty definition - others may disagree. Note that by this standard, Foundation is deliberately anti-space-opera, until the Mule comes along - because individuals (theoretically) aren't controlling the action, even when it appears that they are.
David Sooby AKA Lensman
61. Lensman03
A new proposal: "A Fusion Thruster for Space Travel".

...according to his calculations, improvements in short-pulse laser systems could make this form of thruster more than 40 times as efficient as even the best of today’s ionic propulsion systems that push spacecraft around.


Andrew Love
62. AndyLove
A new proposal: "A Fusion Thruster for Space Travel".


Ah. An example of the boron fusion mode that James mentioned. Maybe this article will prompt more use of the idea in SF
Mike G.
63. James Davis Nicoll
Aneutronic fusion, in which neutrons represent less than 1 percent of the energy-carrying particles that are the result of a reaction, is easier to manage.

OMFG! They acknowledge the side reactions!
Mike G.
64. James Davis Nicoll
But this bit

The specific power of the proton-triggered boron fuel would be so great that a mere mole of it (11 grams) would yield roughly 300 megawatts of power. (According to Chapman, using this aneutronic fusion technique with helium-3 isotopes would yield 493 MW per mole.

is broken. Someone somewhere is confused about power units and energy units, I think.
Mike G.
65. James Davis Nicoll
And now they've tried to fix it and are talking about "megawatts per second".

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Man, no wonder the US' infrastructure is crumbling; it's apparently possible to join the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (or at least write articles for them) without understanding basic units like Joules or Watts. No Iron Rings for them.
Mike G.
66. umbrarchist
Funny, no mention of zombies. I started this without knowing about the zombies. Really annoying.

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