Westerfeld came to my attention with his fantastic YA sci-fi series Uglies, which are some of the smartest, most compelling reads I’ve come across in a long while – YA or non-YA. A sort of Naomi Wolf’s Beauty Myth meets Blade Runner, the four novels examine a future society in which extreme surgical modification is the norm and notions of beauty are standardized and inscribed on the bodies of young people on their sixteenth birthdays. Sophisticated, smart, and ethically complex, Westerfeld’s series set a new standard – and a very, very high one – for YA science fiction.
Leviathan, the opening salvo in what promises to be a thrilling new series from Westerfeld, does the same for steampunk. Steampunk is a genre that plays with a synthesis of science fiction and historical fiction in which certain technologies develop with ahistorical rapidity to produce unique and marvelous creations. Think Jules Verne’s submarine, or those nifty zeppelins and three-wheeled cars in The Golden Compass movie. Westerfeld has outdone the genre by imagining two parallel and competing technological movements: the Darwinists and the Clankers. Darwinists use biotechnology to fashion animals into helping machines and weapons – from the tiny message lizards who can mimic human voice and recall short messages, to the massive Leviathan itself – an airship derived from a sperm whale that incorporates an entire ecosystem into its mass. Clankers, on the other hand, have developed machine technology (that intriguingly largely eschews the wheel) to produce monstrous walking vehicles of war (imagine the AT-ATs from The Empire Strikes Back on steroids).
Set in 1917, the Darwinist/Clanker divide falls out roughly along the lines between the allied powers on the opposite sides of that conflict, with England and Russia as the Darwinists, and Germany and its allies as the Clankers. The story follows Alek, the orphaned son of Archduke Ferdinand, and Deryn, a Scottish girl who has disguised herself as a boy to join the British air corps. Their paths collide aboard the titular airship, and mayhem ensues. The battle scenes crackle with intensity and the action moves along at a breathtaking pace. I like that there are both boy and girl protagonists – I’ve been complaining lately that too many YA fantasy and sci-fi stories favor girl heroes and boys get short shrift and are consigned to villain or sidekick roles (Cassandra Clare’s Mortal Instruments series being a notable exception). There are also intriguing adult characters who are essential to the story – wildcount Volger and Dr. Nora Barlow with her pet Thylacine are well developed characters in their own right and do more for the story than just act as foils to the child characters.
[As an aside, to me there’s something elegiacal about the presence of the Thylacine in the novel. In real history, at the time the novel is set the Thylacine was only two decades from extinction, so seeing one as a pet in the novel forces the realization that, though Darwinists exploit animals on a magnificent scale in the story, real history has not dealt kindly with animals, either.]
The novel is illustrated by artist Keith Thompson, whose vivid black and white plates draw the reader into the text. There’s a good deal of humor in the novel, and Thompson captures that, particularly in his portraits of Deryn. The animals and machines come to life in the illustrations in a way that is allusive, inspiring the imagination rather than dictating to the reader how these creatures and creations might look.
As in the Uglies series, Westerfeld is preoccupied with the ethical issues surrounding technology in ways that would be fruitful for scholars of technodeterminism, animal studies and eco-crit to explore. I say preoccupied, but these philosophical considerations in no way hamper the narrative. Even so, during the most intense of the battle scenes,Westerfeld makes the reader feel each little death as the crew of the animal airship hurls bats and hawks against Clanker airplanes, and he makes sure we see the damage the enormous walking machines cause to field and forest. The roles of the cross-dressed protagonist and the lady scientist would also be interesting to gender studies scholars, and there’s something Shakespearean developing as the cross-dressed Deryn’s attraction to Prince Alek emerges that could appeal to queer theory buffs, but that’s still nascent in this volume – we’ll have to wait for the next installment to see what happens.
Leviathan confirms Scott Westerfeld’s place as one of the smartest authors working in YA literature. The intelligence and complexity of his narratives, and the ethical questions his stories foreground make his books excellent pedagogical texts, and thoroughly worthy of scholarly consideration. There’s a book of essays about the Uglies series, Mind-Rain (ISBN: 9781933771342), but a quick search in JSTOR and Project Muse only uncovers one non-review essay that mentions Uglies: Jennifer Miskec and Chris McGee’s “My Scars Tell A Story: Self-Mutilation in Young Adult Literature” (Children’s Literature Association Quarterly, Volume 32, Number 2, Summer 2007, pp. 163-178), which deals briefly with the Cutters. So Westerfeld’s works remain a largely untapped resource for literary scholars.
Teachers who bring the novel into the classroom would be wise to encourage students to read the author’s afterword in which he makes clear some of the historical changes he has made (this is, after all, an alternate history), and might incorporate some of the maps and other information on the author’s blog at scottwesterfeld.com into discussion of the story.
Scholars of early American literature and eighteenth century literature like Karen Sanchez-Eppler, Patricia Crain, and others have begun pairing considerations of children’s books and pedagogical texts with their analyses of canonical texts in ways that illuminate both adult literature and children’s literature. Scholars of contemporary literature should take a cue from their antiquarian brethren. Pairing Westerfeld’s work with Philip K. Dick, J. G. Ballard, Kathy Acker or William Gibson could be intriguing, and thinking about the way subjectivity operates in relation to technology across works for different age groups could make for innovative scholarship.
Here’s the web-trailer for Leviathan:
Now go buy the book, and the audio book, too! And then write about it.