What Leviathan Falls tells us about confronting existential threats
I've argued before that anyone that cares about planet Earth should watch The Expanse, a space opera set in a future where humans have colonized the Solar System. Based on the hit novels by Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck, the Amazon show's thoughtful portrayal of the challenges humans will face adapting to life beyond Earth is a poignant reminder that our homeworld is key to our species survival. But if you're interested in science fiction that explores how, exactly, we can ensure a future for humanity considering our species' insatiable desire to, well, expand, you should probably read the 9-book series as well.
The last of those books, Leviathan Falls, ends with a fascinating reflection on the ways in which we can respond to massive, multi-generational threats like climate change. The decision that James Holden ultimately makes about how to save civilization from hostile beings beyond space and time says a lot about the difficult choices we'll have to make in order to save ourselves... from ourselves.
Warning: extensive spoilers for Leviathan Falls to come.
Leviathan Falls takes place a generation or so after humans discovered a galactic teleportation system, called the "ring network," that was constructed by a long-dead alien civilization called the Builders. The Builders, who appear to have shared a collective consciousness, used the ring gates to "jump" to different parts of the galaxy in an instant, eliminating light delay and allowing their hive mind to spread across the cosmos. Through an ancient infrastructure program that puts America's greatest public works projects to shame, the Builders constructed over 1,300 giant, floating ring structures within different planetary systems across the Milky Way (including one on the edge of the Sol system).
Then, the Builders vanished. The evidence pieced together by Holden, exobiologist Elvi Okoye and others suggest they were slaughtered by unknown entities that were angered by the construction and use of the rings, which might have caused unwelcome intrusions into a different universe. The entities began using the ring gates to shut off the Builders' collective consciousness in different systems until eventually, the hive mind collapsed entirely.
As details of this intergalactic apocalypse emerge throughout the series, humanity begins using the ring gates more and more. But the entities are still there, and they are not happy about this. They start to retaliate by doing weird and unsettling things, like fiddling with the physical constants of nature. Eventually, they begin sending more pointed fuck-off messages, even killing entire systems. By Leviathan Falls, it is becoming clear that humanity's use of the ring gates poses an existential threat to our survival and, perhaps, the galaxy itself.
While the drama at the heart of Leviathan Falls feels almost transcendental — a war with beings from beyond spacetime that possess god-like powers of destruction — the basic conundrum humanity faces is all-too familiar: We've grown dependent on new technology without understanding the risks.
In Leviathan Falls, the ability to move instantly between far-flung parts of the galaxy is the backbone of human civilization; without it, trade, travel, and even communication between worlds would cease to exist. Entirely colonies dependent on the Sol system and others for supplies would face imminent collapse. Billions of people would be cut off from their loved ones forever. And yet, if humanity continues using the ring gates, the fabric of spacetime itself might start to unravel, leaving the universe inhospitable to life as we know it.
People on Earth today know a thing or two about this sort of tradeoff: It's not unlike the one climate change has forced us to reckon with. Humanity's embrace of fossil fuel energy in the 20th century had a similar transformative effect as the ring gates have in the 24th: It allowed industries to rapidly scale up, accelerating innovation. It lifted billions of people out of poverty while enabling farmers to feed billions more. It connected the world like never before.
Today, the global economy is still deeply reliant on fossil fuels. And yet — as has been apparent to many scientists for decades and is now pretty much impossible for anyone to ignore — fossil fuels are killing us and wreaking havoc on our planet. And we likely haven't even crossed the thresholds, or tipping points, where many scientists fear that the risk of screwing up the climate system in permanent and terrifying ways rises dramatically.
In Leviathan falls, humans face a choice about how to confront the threat posed by the ring gate entities: We can try to fight them, or we can learn to live with the limits they impose. Winston Duarte, the totalitarian leader of the Laconian Empire, embraces the first approach. After augmenting his body with the protomolecule — a key bit of Builder tech that's used to infect and transform biological matter in order to create new hive minds — Duarte begins assembling a collective consciousness of his own. His idea: If he can bring all human minds under his psychic control, he'll be able to fight the entities more effectively. The problem, of course, is that in order for the plan to work, all individuality everywhere must be erased.
Holden, a lifelong opponent of oppressive regimes like Duarte's empire, opts for a different route. After defeating Duarte with some assistance from a disillusioned Laconian military leader, Holden needs to make a decision about how to fight the entities. Ultimately, he chooses to obliterate the ring gate network, sundering humanity's intergalactic civilization for the sake of saving our species.
I won't belabor the climate allegory much more, as the choice of hive mind versus total destruction of humanity's interplanetary highway system is at best a limited metaphor for solutions to our current crisis. It would be dangerous and inaccurate to suggest that in order to address climate change we'll need to embrace isolationism as Holden does, or make sacrifices that doom entire nation-states to collapse. But we will need to make sacrifices, or at least, accept that the way things work now needs to radically change. And if don't face that reality soon, we may reach a point of desperation where more radical, Duarte-esque solutions like geoengineering become necessary. If instead of learning to embrace limits and accept change, we choose to fight the atmosphere, perhaps we'll maintain an uneasy status quo for a bit. But the fight will never end, and some of the things we cherish most about this world could start to slip away.
Holden's decision alters the trajectory of human history forever. In the short term, it makes life more difficult for many. But as the series epilogue shows us, it also forces different planetary societies to develop on their own, leading to new cultures, languages, and technologies. Most importantly, generations to come still have the opportunity to create the world they want — instead of being born into a universe of harsh and limited choices dictated by the mistakes of their ancestors.