Caliban’s War by James S. A. Corey
By way of introduction, I need to remind myself of the definition I use for space opera. When I was young, I read through an uncountable number of pages filled with “wow factor” fiction. That’s the technical term for essentially stupid things happening on a vast, not to say unimaginable, scale. It’s not due to chance that the opening words of Star Wars resonated with those of use who had grown up during the so-called Golden Age. “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away….” Never mind the lack of any scientific explanation for what was happening. It was all Boy’s Own adventure fiction transferred to outer space where rampaging evil could be thwarted only by the gismos dreamt up by superscientists like Captain Future in their shiny laboratories or wunderkind throwing random stuff together in their bedrooms. This was all about “going out there” to confront foes unimaginable and still be home in time for tea. And therein lay the problem. When you’re placing your characters against a background of colliding galaxies and you only have fourteen hours to save the Earth, it’s difficult to come up with a plot that’s operatic enough to fill the stage and keep us occupied for however long it takes to read the book. Those of you old enough will remember there was a myth floating around the publishing houses that no author could write intelligent space opera. The moment people started actually thinking, this became serious SF and so no longer fun. To be space opera, like B movies, the work had to represent the lowest possible common denominator of old-style shoot-em-up Westerns transferred to outer space.
Then along came Consider Phlebas by Iain M Banks, Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card, Hyperion by Dan Simmons, and so on. This is a much more ambitious approach to the notion of what should constitute contemporary space opera. The books still ignore the laws of physics and lack realism, but continue with the “wow factor”. They are imaginative but have an underlying political context and economic logic. More importantly, they also have a certain optimism. Whereas steampunk looks to the past with a nostaligic eye and shakes its head in sadness that we didn’t have proper Babbage Engines crunching numbers for us back in Victorian times, new Space Opera reaches for the stars and thinks about the possibility the human race can set aside its tribal differences and built an interstellar culture. For all enemies may lurk in the darkness, we’re never without hope. No matter what the difficulties, we strive to overcome them. It’s inspirational stuff.
All of which brings me to Caliban’s War by James S. A. Corey (Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck) (Orbit, 2012) Book 2 The Expanse. I confess to being unimpressed by the first half of Leviathan Wakes. Yes, it was nominated for the 2012 Hugo for Best Novel but I’ve never been afraid to disagree with the masses. I was, you will understand, still sufficiently interested to read this second volume and I’m glad I did. If ever you needed a book to hold up to the world and say, “This is new Space Opera!” Caliban’s War is it. Although the action is limited to our own solar system (sadly, no colliding galaxies in this one) the threat comes from “outside” and is building up rather nicely. The feature that makes the book so entertaining is the predictable infighting between the different human factions, the most aggressive believing they can control the threat to make super weapons. This has to be the ultimate head-in-the-sand approach to fighting an alien invasion. First study the composition of the alien and, when you vaguely understand it, weaponise it and use the results to start a war. Obviously, when the different factions have finished fighting each other, there won’t be many left to fight the aliens but that’s not such an important factor in this pissing contest. Needless to say, the voice of sanity trying to keep the testosterone levels under control is a supergranny who pulls the strings inside the UN, while the self-righteous Jim Holden is once again going the best of three falls to decide the winner in his fight to save everyone from themselves.
Although there are two slightly overlapping interludes when point-of-view switches between characters, it’s less jarring than in the first volume and, more generally, the prose reads with a pleasing fluency. So what we have is a genuinely exciting read with the appearance of an alien monster setting the UN and Mars at each other’s throats, while the Belters look on with interest and whoever released the monster waits for the benefits to accrue. I have the sense that Ty Franck has settled into the team and is improving in the craft a converting a gaming manual into a novel. For once I’m probably going with the flow and rate this as one of the best SF books so far this year. It’s certainly up there with the Culture novels by Iain Banks as being one of the leading space opera books of the last decade.
For reviews of other books by Daniel Abraham, see:
An Autumn War
A Betrayal in Winter
Caliban’s War written under the pseudonym James S. A. Corey with Ty Franck
The Dragon’s Path
The King’s Blood
Leviathan Wakes written under the pseudonym James S. A. Corey with Ty Franck
The Price of Spring
A Shadow in Summer.
Jacket artwork by Daniel Dociu.
This novel has been shortlisted for the 2013 Locus Award.