The Expanse: James Holden’s Character Fails

The Coverage So Far…

We’ve talked a lot on this podcast about The Expanse. Five episodes so far with a sixth on the way in January of 2024. We liked the first book so much that we read the second book. We liked the second one far less. I think that’s really interesting and prompts the question: why? Why did we like one book so much and its sequel, by the same authors in the same universe, so little? The answer to that question… is not addressed here in great detail!

No, instead I want to talk about the persistent problem of The Expanse that seems to just be getting worse with each installment. I’m talking about our main character: James Holden. While I didn’t like him in the first book I could understand his inclusion and what he brought to the table. Then he didn’t go away and we had to spend more time with him which only made his flaws more apparent

In this blog I’m going to tackle a few things. First I’m going to dissect Holden’s character and motivations. I’m going to soak my hands in his juicy guts and wriggle them around to really get to the meat of who he is and how he relates to the rest of the universe. What makes him work? What makes him not work? I’m going to really just dive right into this man’s meaty bits and swim around until we know for sure.

After that I’m going to address how he ruined The Expanse and turned me off from wanting to proceed any further into the story. Finally I’ll address some random miscellaneous things that I saw around the internet both defending and condemning Holden. At some point I’ll probably meander around to get all my thoughts out and you’ll learn an important lesson in editing.

Ten Pounds of Ice Cream, One Pound of Shit

Some background: The Expanse is a book series by the fusion of two authors into one being that goes by the name of James S. A. Corey. It’s a nearer-future science-fiction novel. It’s an interesting universe and something rarely looked at in “mainstream” sci-fi. Normally, I expect to see some far-flung future like Star Trek, something that’s straight up science-fantasy like Star Wars, or something that’s closer to the present like Neuromancer. The Expanse is none of those things, being further out than Neuromancer while being closer to the present day than Star Trek. At the same time it attempts to be more realistic and grounded than Star Wars (or really any of those named properties). It scratches an itch that most sci-fi tends to gloss over.

That last point is really important. There’s a realism and grittiness to the world that’s very important for the setting. For example: much of the food is grown from genetically altered crops and fungus. Everything is recycled. Water is used for crops and drinking, of course, but it’s also used for its hydrogen and oxygen components out in space. High speed space maneuvers require medicine and technology to prevent the human body from turning to jelly. It’s this kind of attention to detail that helps give the universe its identity. 

That’s not to say that everything is grounded and realistic. There is one thing that isn’t seemingly set in our human world of physics and science. A creature or being of some kind that doesn’t follow the rules that we thought governed the universe. An unknowable alien construct which defies all human logic and reasoning. Something that taints and transforms everything it comes in contact with and twists them to its own horrific purposes. His name is James Holden. 

There’s a lot I like about The Expanse. Even if I thought Caliban’s War was a weak book, I could get behind the idea that maybe the third book is still worth reading and that’s just the one not-so-great one. That line of thinking all goes out the window (or the airlock if you want to be thematic) when I realize that James Holden (and his crew of enablers) is the only consistent POV character from book to book. James Holden is the one pound of shit in this ten pounds of ice cream. No matter how good the rest of the series is or isn’t, knowing that I’m going to be experiencing it through the eyes of an insufferable idiot has destroyed much of the enthusiasm for the series.

The James Holden We Need, But Not The One We Deserve

Leviathan Wakes stars two main characters. One is a grizzled, alcoholic detective who lives in The Asteroid Belt and feels like he’s a part of a world that has existed for a while. The other is our man James Tiberius Copperfield Holden.

Holden has a fine enough backstory. He grew up on a farm with 8 biological parents as part of a taxation scam. I’m not exactly sure how you get the genetics to work that way but I give that a pass because we’re talking about future tech and that’s mildly cool. Also the Earth may be overcrowded? I don’t know for sure but if it is overcrowded, then it’s kind of funny that there was 22 acres of farmland in Montana that nobody owned.

Kidding aside, that’s not a bad set-up for Holden’s upbringing. It’s a solid contrast to rough-around-the-edges Miller. After that, Holden joined the United Nations Navy where he washed out for being insubordinate and attempting (and failing) to punch a superior officer in the face. I don’t think he spent time in military prison but I also don’t want to keep harping on the authors’ lack of military experience or research. For future reference: if you assault a superior officer you’re going to spend some time in jail. You don’t just get discharged for that. I’m not here to cover the entire story though, so let’s keep the focus solidly on Holden and his character (it’s also possible they covered why he didn’t go to jail in a later installment).

When we meet Holden for the first time he feels like he’s a part of the world in the same way Miller is. These two characters feel like they live in this world and follow its rules. They also give the sense that this world has existed for a while and they’re both small parts of it. Holden is on an ice freighter and has been for the last 5 years. He hauls ice from the rings of Saturn back to the belt then he goes back to Saturn to do it all over again. It’s not a glamorous job but it is an authentic job and somebody has to do it to keep things running.

During his time on the ice freighter he’s worked his way up to the position of second-in-command. He started bonding with the crew, which includes having a sexual relationship with a girl named Ade. Ade doesn’t want to make this a romantic thing, much to Holden’s displeasure. He seems to want more out of life and Ade is part of that equation, but he hasn’t had that push to make a real change. I would say that at the start of the book it is pretty clear that Holden is just kind of drifting through life right now. He’s alive but not really living if you catch my meaning.

This is all great (in theory) and let’s talk about why. It fits the farm boy aesthetic, and having such a large family means he’s different from most of the people in this world. He grew up with a lot of loving support and “good family values.” It’s very Superman/Clark Kent (or Hercules as told by Disney). It’s supposed to explain Holden’s “being a good person” schtick and “doing the right thing”. It’s the foundation that his supposed righteousness is built upon. Again he contrasts really well with Miller. Miller is a jaded cynical alcoholic who expects the worst out of everybody. Holden is a principled man who cares deeply about his friends, his family, and the common man (again, in theory).

The former military rank is also a solid choice – despite the lack of jail time – because he needs to have some sort of combat skill when adventure comes calling. If he were just a loser on some ice freighter then it wouldn’t make sense for him to do the action stuff he does later. It wouldn’t make sense for him to become the captain of any sort of military vessel or even be the second-in-command of this ice freighter. This is good storytelling .His later heroic actions will naturally stem from his background and upbringing.

Finally the “drifting through life” phase that he’s in now is perfect for setting up an arc. You’ve got a guy who tried to be more, failed, and basically gave up without realizing it. This is perfect for having an inciting incident jolt him out of his apathy and getting him to realize his potential. Again, this is all standard storytelling stuff and theoretically it’s really good. It gives him a baked-in arc and explanations for why he is the way he is.

Let’s see how long that lasts.

Holdviathan Wakes (to the Smell of His Crew Burning to Death in a Nuclear Explosion)

On the podcast we talked about how much Ben hated Holden in the first book. How it completely and utterly ruined the book for him. I didn’t feel the same way. I didn’t think Holden was that bad. He could be highly annoying, but I think that I at least kind of understand what the authors were going for. That being said, his characterization and decisions in this book lead to some pretty glaring problems just one book later. Let’s look at the first book shall we?

We all know the story. Holden goes and finds a fake transmitter and watches as his crew explodes in a nuclear explosion. Then he stupidly sends the terrorists a transmission with the entire biographical information of his crew as if that would make them feel remorse and they’ll stop their murderous terrorism.

I assume this is more of a victory lap for the terrorists. Like “wow look at all the people we just massacred! Oh my God did you know most of these guys have families that will be grieving for them? Score!” It’s not exactly a smart decision but that’s okay with me. This gets a pass because Holden is in shock. Humans aren’t perfect logic robots and actually more often than not will make an emotional decision rather than a well-thought-out logical one. So, this dumb and irrational decision makes total sense to me.

Then he broadcasts on all frequencies that Martian equipment was found on the decoy ship and the implication is that maybe the Martian military had something to do with it. Again, another stupid decision. Again, I give it somewhat of a pass. He’s in shock and he fears he and his crew are going to be finished off. There are no good options here that guarantee their safety. Yes he talks about “everyone should have this information” and I’ll get into that (and how stupid it is) but this time I can give him a pass.

He also might not understand the gravity of the situation. As we see a chapter or so later Havelock, a competent security guard from Earth, does not understand that Holden’s broadcast is essentially a declaration of war. He’s ignorant of this because he’s not a Belter. Holden might be the same way. Naomi is a Belter but I can head-cannon that she’s in shock just like Holden so that’s not my issue here. These people are acting stupidly but it’s understandable stupidity.

My immediate problem is an issue with the world rather than Holden and I admit it’s kind of a minor gripe. How easy is it to broadcast on all channels? How often do people do that? Is there any censorship here? Or a regulatory body that doesn’t allow you to do that?

If this is something people don’t do very often – why not? I have a hard time believing people wouldn’t constantly be blasting the airwaves (space waves? Space air waves) with memes, vlogs, and everything else we throw up on the internet on a regular basis. Flying through the air could be really boring, why not tell the entire sector about the latest flavor of mountain dew you drank in half a G? 

How did anyone, let alone millions of people, see his video and take it at face value? There would be so much crap on the airwaves it would be hard to see something like that from a relative nobody. He would gain about as much traction as a conspiracy theorist saying 9/11 was an inside job. Yes we know that he’s telling the truth. His ship was blown up and he found a dummy distress beacon. Why would anybody receiving his transmission believe that?

Or is there a regulatory body that would prevent something like that? Or a censorship board that would censor what amounts to an active declaration of war? You could justify it by saying that people like Admiral Nguyen (not mentioned in the first book) are trying to start a war behind-the-scenes on Earth. Heck you could even say that Protogen bribed people to let that message through. I think the only thing that really ought to have been mentioned if that were the case is Miller thinking “I’m surprised that message got past the censors” and we the reader can fill in the gaps that there’s a shady conspiracy operating behind the scenes.

Again this is just a minor issue and not something I even cared about or thought about until after I read the second book and started looking back at the first. There are any number of explanations here that could fit and I don’t think this is some sort of world-breaking issue. What it is, which gets highlighted as we move forward in time, is that the universe appears to have a Holden-shaped hole in it that only James Holden can fill. The universe of the book is well-crafted, full of interesting well-rounded people, and is grounded in science and technology that makes sense. Then there’s an asshole who flies all over this world and breaks it like a murder-hobo in an RPG and the beginning of that murder-hobo-ing starts right here with this transmission to the entire sector.

I Rolled A Nat 1 For My Wisdom Check

That murder-hobo spiel was clever foreshadowing on my part. Really genius-level stuff I just did there. Because The Expanse was originally a TableTop RPG like Dungeons and Dragons. One of the writers that make up James S. A. Corey was the DM and the other was a player character. That’s my understanding of the situation, at least. No, I’m not doing any further research.
After knowing that it made a whole lot of sense. The characters that feel part of the world feel that way because they were written to be NPCs. They’re literally part of the world. Whereas the main character over here is a completely different entity entirely separate from the world. This will explain a lot about how he interacts with the rest of the universe and how he keeps being thrust into the center of the action despite the fact that nobody with more than two brain cells would reasonably want him to be there. This will also explain how everybody, literally everybody, will think or comment on how much they hate James Holden and how stupid he is while doing nothing to stop him. After all, the DM shouldn’t outright kill his players unless they’re doing something exceptionally stupid, right? The story has to continue so we just have to roll with everything as it comes and improvise! Hopefully not into a corner though, right? Right?

Salvage Rights! Or why James Holden Isn’t “Goddamn Righteous”

Holden is constantly being called a righteous man. I suspect because he had to put an alignment on his character sheet and so the player put “Lawful Good”. Just so I’m clear on what that means I took the actual definition from the dictionary: (of a person or conduct) morally right or justifiable; virtuous. He is talked of like he’s a guy who always does the right thing and has a set of ideals and principles that guide him. On paper… great! I’m all for it. In practice? Well….

We’re going to fast forward through to Holden and crew (sans Shed, RIP) taking a Martian warship out of the Martian capital Ship as the latter explodes in a ball of fire. This in itself isn’t a problem. The choice was between life and death, the ship would have blown up if he hadn’t stolen it, and technically he was given the ship by a Martian officer. I see nothing wrong here. Taking the ship was the right call and doesn’t conflict with his moral fiber. Keeping the ship is an entirely different story.

Holden says it’s legitimate salvage rights. If that’s true and he is a righteous man, why not prove that it’s legitimate salvage rights? Lawyer up, have Earth (not on good terms with either party at the end of this book) or Fred Johnson arbitrate the proceedings and let the law decide if he has a legitimate claim to the ship through the law of salvage rights OR surrender the ship.

Just for the record: I wouldn’t. I would 100% keep this ship. Here’s the difference: I also wouldn’t paint myself as a righteous paragon of virtue and neither would anybody else. I’d just take the ship, say that it’s mine by salvage right, but not-so-deep down know I was full of shit.

Holden doesn’t ever think that last part though. He never once questions if not returning the ship is wrong. He never lets on to the people he trusts most (his crew) that he is conflicted about continuing to possess an awesome Martian warship. But, then we are expected to believe that he is a righteous and just man. That he has principles and ideals that define who he is. That he’s on the right side of the law when he keeps this ship and that Mars is wrong to come looking for it. But he never once makes any sort of move to make it legal. If anything he makes several moves to hide his ship’s origin so that it’s less likely to be repossessed. He obeys the law, but only the laws he wants to obey. Only when it’s the laws he feels are fair to him.

My problem here is how clunky the characterization is. If Holden at least thought in his own head that he was full of crap and could at least admit to himself, or even doubt himself for a moment, it would make more sense. I wouldn’t like him more but at least he’s more aware. Instead everyone keeps telling me he’s righteous (the author does a lot of telling and not showing in these two books). Then he has the gall to use his non-existent moral high ground as a weapon against….

Miller, That Jerk!

I mentioned in the podcast that I got Batman/Superman vibes from these two leads. That’s not a 1:1 comparison mind-you but I got the idea that Miller was supposed to be the shady, unhinged, play-by-his-own-rules type that acts as a foil to play-by-the-rules-good-boy James Holden. Miller would shoot a man in the face if he felt he needed to and lives on the edge of both society (at least when he loses his job) and sanity. Holden is a good boy who grew up on a farm to multiple loving parents who refuses to kill like a comic book superhero. Until later when he kills all the time, but that’s another problem for later… we’re not talking about that just yet.

Holden can’t believe Miller casually shot people in a hotel who were shooting at Holden. This was after Amos pulled out a gun to threaten that same person, yet Holden doesn’t once criticize Amos. Furthermore Naomi, the supposed voice of reason, doesn’t mention that he’s showing any kind of favoritism toward his crew by not criticizing Amos. Holden also does not bat an eye when Miller uses his connections on the station to cover up the firefight, where a righteous paragon of virtue would turn himself in for questioning to clear it all up. After all that’s hiding information, right? Put a pin in that.

Then when the station is irradiated there is a man who is infected with an alien bio weapon. He’s puking his guts out, his body is going to be ripped apart and turned into some alien construct, and he’s probably wishing he were dead right now. Miller pulls out a gun to mercy kill this guy… and Holden tells him not to. That would be wrong. You can’t just kill people even if they want to die. It’s not right, Miller.

Finally we move to Space Mengle, a piece of shit who just sacrificed an entire human colony to a space virus in order to “see what happens”. Miller shoots this man in the face when it seems clear he’s convincing these morons to let him go. Holden yells at him that he was supposed to stand trial. Do I have to point out Holden is avoiding trial?

So let’s recap the moral compass here. Starting a fire fight? Good as long as you’re the one doing it – not some strange guy you don’t know. Suppressing a fire fight? That’s fine because you’re on a top secret mission for space terrorists (the OSA who are definitely space terrorists). Killing a man who is going to die horribly? Bad, you can’t just kill people. Killing a space nazi scientist who committed atrocities we don’t have names for? Unacceptable because he needed to stand trial. Avoiding trial so you can keep your super cool space ship? Salvage rights! Salvage rights! You can’t take it because it’s mine!
Holden’s moral compass would be fine if it at least made sense and if at least someone commented on how skewed it was. Neither of those are the case. The best example of his compass not making sense is where Amos started a fire fight that he criticized Miller for. The example of nobody calling him on his shit is… well the entire universe. A total lack of consequences (put a pin in this too). I got the sense that he just didn’t personally like Miller rather than actually having his own principles and morals

Not My Powder Keg, Just My Match

Going back to Holden and his broadcasting of sensitive information to everybody in the Solar System. Holden broadcasts the information about his ship blowing up but chooses to highlight a very important piece of information that implicates the Martian military. He didn’t send out the raw data. What he did was analyzed the data, drew his own conclusion, and sent out that conclusion. He did this knowing that The Belt and the Mars/Earth alliance were at odds. I gave this one a pass earlier because he was in shock. I can’t give the two other times he did this a pass.

Righteous James Holden thinks that everybody should have access to all of the information. We wouldn’t fight wars if we were just all honest with each other 100% of the time and we always had all the facts. James Holden is a dumbass and he’s demonstrably wrong.

What more can I say about that one? He’s just plain wrong. Period. I could point to all of human history that having all the information doesn’t matter. Joseph Stalin was still blindsighted by the Nazi invasion despite having all the information that an invasion was imminent. Plus having all the information doesn’t mean conflict won’t arise, just that the participants are more aware of the conflict. If everyone had the knowledge that early 20th century Germany wanted to start a war sooner rather than later to prevent Russia from becoming too powerful, does that mean they would back down and sort things out? I don’t think it does. 

Another question that arises is obvious. Does the internet not exist in The Expanse? Has he never spent any time online? Information is mixed with mis-information and dis-information all the time.. We still don’t all agree that 9/11 happened as a result of terrorists under orders from Osama Bin Laden.

I agree with Miler’s stance 100%: most people are way too stupid to have all of the information and use it in a meaningful and correct way. He also made the brilliant point of “maybe we should wait until we’re sure before we go broadcasting everything rather than spewing every piece of information we come across.” Because again, they don’t have the whole picture and haven’t determined what is mis/dis-information. My only criticism of Miller is that he wasn’t harder on Holden. He didn’t mention that Holden highlighted certain bits of the information that skews you toward one conclusion or another but I’ll give him a pass there because this isn’t about Miller and he’s supposed to be highly flawed/

Miller in this book and Avasarala in the next both call Holden a dumbass who keeps starting wars. They wonder how he can live with himself for causing all the death and carnage he caused with his broadcasts that keep escalating these conflicts. His response? “If you weren’t all ready to kill each other this wouldn’t be happening.”

Okay James let me grant you that. If tensions weren’t at an all-time high then a crazy space Mengele couldn’t take advantage of said tensions to cause a massive war that kills millions of people. You’re totally right. But they are at an all-time high. People are ready to start a massive war. You knew this! Even if you somehow didn’t know it the first time you sent your broadcast you definitely knew it by the time you did it again. Or a third time! And you don’t take any responsibility? Not even a little?

Here’s where Holden really becomes a problem. We see inside his head. I don’t have a problem with him telling Miller or Avasarla that it’s not his fault if he can admit to himself (or even show extreme denial to himself) that it is his fault that this happened. I get it. I do. Gavrilo Princip was interviewed and did not take responsibility for starting World War I. I also don’t think every single person killed in World War I was on Princip’s head. A lot of other cogs had to turn to make that war machine go but he was responsible on some level.

But the authors are also trying to paint Holden as a just and righteous man. And when he is confronted, over and over again, with more and more destabilization and death as a result of his dumb broadcasts, he never once thinks he has any guilt or blame in this whole situation and maybe he should stop sending out stupid broadcasts (although credit where it’s due he doesn’t send out a fourth broadcast but he already started the largest war in human history so I don’t think it would matter).

This isn’t what a righteous man does, this is what the villain does. This is literally the villain’s plan after all. Start a giant war so everyone is distracted from his evil schemes. He wanted everyone at each others’ throats by implicating that each side shot first. The villain wanted to ignite a powder keg and Holden did his exact plan for him. The villain also, exactly like Holden, felt no remorse for what he set into motion.
This doesn’t make me think of a righteous man trying to do the right thing. This makes me think of a crazy person who wants to start a giant war. Mostly because this was a plan concocted by a crazy person who wanted to start a giant war and James Holden played directly into their hands. That he feels no shame over this, no guilt, nothing, is disgusting. That people keep calling him righteous is deplorable. In fact I would say that is my biggest problem. The world is crafted as being realistic and full of consequence… except for this one guy. People still treat Holden like a big damn hero just trying to do the right thing. Fred Johnson should have locked down his ship and thrown him in a cell forever.

Breaking A Man’s Sanity Like a Hero

Moving back to Miller again. Holden throws Miller off his crew for shooting a man in the face who should have stood trial. Then he and his crew systematically destroy what was left of his sanity and his will to live by shunning him and saying he was wrong to kill Space Mengele. Holden is really hung up on this “he had to stand trial” thing. Miller becomes suicidal and decides he’s going to go out in a blaze of fire. Naomi, who gives Miller shit and is not guiltless in all of this, does tell Holden that he was in the wrong. By the time she says this, and Holden agrees, it will be too late for Miller. This alone is awful. We’ll see how it is so much worse when we get to the end of the next book where Holden does the exact same goddamn thing.

I Love You! You’re My Silver Medal!

I also wanted to briefly talk about Holden’s love life. Holden is the Big Damn Hero I guess and so he needs to Get The Girl. Except the girl he wanted to get, Ade, is dead. She exploded in a nuclear inferno as part of the inciting incident and he thinks of her maybe once or twice more before he moves on. Well I guess this is just a book where the hero doesn’t have to get with a romantic partner as part of his victory. That’s refreshing and… say… Naomi is a girl right? Problem solved! Holden can just hook up with her! Whew that was close.

That’s about how it comes off. Holden wants to take things to the next level with Ade and she doesn’t want to. She shuts down his advances and wants to keep it as just friends-with-benefits. Then she dies. Then Holden wants to hook up with Naomi. Her only reservation is that she wants to know if this is lust or love. She doesn’t really care which as long as she knows. She’s willing to jump on him regardless.

What am I supposed to draw from this? Holden isn’t endearing and just started the largest conflict in human history but here this woman is throwing herself at him, genitals-first. Again a large chunk of this equation isn’t just Holden, it’s that everyone constantly reacts to Holden in a positive manner.

As for characterization: his fling with Ade, who turns him down constantly, makes him seem like kind of a desperate loser. Jumping to Naomi, the only other available woman around, only reinforces that notion. That he’s calling this some deep and profound love is ridiculous with how sudden the relationship comes on (I know they’ve known each other a long time but he shows no interest in her prior to nearly dying). Then he constantly thinks about how lucky he is to be breathing the same air as her. I agree, by the way, that you are lucky to still be breathing. But this level of affection toward someone he didn’t give a rats ass about prior to his real love interest dying just hits wrong.

I guess the question emerges is whether or not Ade needed to exist? As written this makes Holden seem really shallow and pathetic. He begs to take the relationship with Ade to the next level even though she’s pretty clear she doesn’t want that. Then he jumps from one woman to another once that woman becomes permanently unavailable. Holden could be improved (marginally) by just removing Ade from the story or replacing her with Naomi to begin with. Unless the purpose was to make Holden look like a gross loser which I can’t buy.

Solar War One? More Like Solar War FUN!

I originally typed all of this in my first draft and put it on the shelf for almost a year. I was still trying to centralize the theme (which I may or may not have accomplished) and I wasn’t really sure what I wanted to do. I hope this has all come out okay. Because now I want to bring up something I totally forgot to talk about. Holden steals a bunch of nuclear weapons and hands them to Space Al Qaeda!

Okay calling the OSA Space Al Qaeda is a little dramatic. That being said, they’re definitely viewed as terrorists and/or dissidents by the Earth and Martian governments. They’re not a major faction and won’t be if the major powers have anything to say about it. So when James Holden steals a bunch of nuclear weapons and gives them to the OSA that should make him Public Enemy Number 1.

At this point in the book James Holden has caused The Belt to be in a potential shooting war with Earth and Mars. Then he causes the Earth/Mars alliance to ACTUALLY escalate into a shooting war. He’s made enemies of the two largest powers in the Solar System. Mars doesn’t like him because, obviously. Plus he stole their ship. Earth doesn’t like him, I’m sure, but doesn’t have a personal vendetta against him… so he steals their nukes and gives them to Space Al Qaeda. This would only escalate tensions and cause any potential future war (that he would no doubt be part of) to involve even more people than it already did. Thanks Holden!

I changed my mind after reading this. They wouldn’t put Holden in a cell. They wouldn’t throw him out the airlock. They wouldn’t even repossess his ship. Earth and Mars would pull together Seal Team Six and gank him. At the end of this story there exist fancy cloaked ships. You cannot tell me that the governments would not field some of those (or regular ships, whatever) out in The Belt with the sole purpose of killing Holden. Even if the OSA could or wanted to protect him (which they would at this point in the story) I can’t imagine they would be able to protect him from a covert military operation taking place with the express purpose of eliminating a viable threat.

Holden My Breath

So that’s the conclusion to the discussion of Leviathan Wakes. Holden has a solid backstory on paper but in execution he falls apart. On paper it seems like he and Miller are foils for one another. One is a street-wise cynical cop who lives out in the wild west (aka The Belt) and understands The Belt culture. The other is an Earth boy who grew up on a farm full of hope and is supposed to be idealistic. He answers the call of adventure when it presents itself and becomes a leader and hero while Miller self-destructs his life with drinking and failure. Holden doesn’t like to kill and only ever fires a weapon in self-defense while Miller will shoot first and ask questions never. The two are at odds but have to work together to save the day. That’s how I think it’s supposed to come off, at least.

In reality Holden does way more harm than Miller ever does. He never directly kills people but he sure does indirectly cause the deaths of far more than Miller ever has in his entire life, comparable only to the villain of the book. Most people who do what Holden did don’t get a fancy warship and a girlfriend. They get a cramped jail cell followed by an open airlock into the void.

That’s to say nothing of the fact that he and his crew systematically destroyed Miller’s sanity for doing nothing wrong. I would argue (and this is a point for another blog) that Miller had the arc here. He was in a bad place, he decided to try to do the right thing even when it cost him his job, and he stopped the bad guy. Then uh… Holden ruined Miller’s arc by condemning him even though Miller was right and Holden’s crew (and eventually Holden) agree that he was right.

When confronted about all the destruction he does he shrugs it off and blames everyone else. He’s a righteous and idealistic man in his mind. If people weren’t ready to kill each other, then his ideals wouldn’t have started a war! Never once does he feel any remorse for what he’s done. Never once does he even think maybe he was wrong. He doesn’t even clear the dissonance between his idealized utopian world and the actual world he inhabits. He just keeps starting wars even after he’s seen that his actions have very dire consequences for billions of people.

This is a villainous line of thinking. When you believe your ideals and morals are the correct ones and justifiable at all times and you make decisions for everybody else because you know better than they do. The problem is Holden isn’t portrayed as a villain. Everyone in the system seems to look at him as a dumb-but-righteous man who is trying to follow his ideals in a solar system that doesn’t care.

Despite all of my griping I loved Leviathan Wakes. The world was amazing and well-developed. The technology is well-grounded. The gradual unraveling of the mystery at the heart of the story gives the author a chance to explore various aspects of this world and really make it feel lived-in (to say nothing of the Noir aspect). Miller was a solid character albeit crazy and getting crazier. I didn’t even dislike Holden’s crew despite their one-dimensional nature (in this book at least). My only issue was Holden and I was able to overlook that because I was enjoying the ride so much.

So where do we go from here? Caliban’s War has the chance to start anywhere in this story it needs to. We could see this world from the perspective of any number of new characters. A space pirate? A Martian soldier? A farmer on a distant outpost? Maybe someone lost amongst the throngs of the overcrowded Earth? Plus we could fast-forward any amount of time we want. Maybe we go forward four years? A decade? Show all the consequences of the actions in this book? The possibilities are endless!

I’m sure it won’t be a throwaway book that advances the plot in the epilogue and otherwise jogs in place for 600 pages. That would be crazy!

Nate Creed

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