Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Behemoth - World War Steampunk

Scott Westerfeld has created a brilliant steampunk alternate history, where forces wielding darwinian monsters clash with mechanical monstrosities, in his new trilogy, which started with the 2009 release of Leviathan and continues with the 2010 book Behemoth. This trilogy has some valuable lessons about history, class structure, gender roles, biology, and mechanics. And, like Westerfeld's previous Uglies trilogy, it's a ripping good yarn ... although it takes a bit of build-up to reach that point.

It Starts with Leviathan

First, the backstory:
In the real world, there was this big war around the beginning of the last century which they called The Great War, but which we now call World War I. It began with the assassination of the Archduke of Austria-Hungary, Franz Ferdinand, on June 28, 1914, but there were a lot of secret treaties and things that played into the mix. Also assassinated on that date (though I didn't know it until reading Leviathan) was Ferdinand's wife, Sophie Chotek, who was not nearly as noble as the Archduke. They left behind three children.
That is pretty much where reality is left behind, because in this version of the story there is only one child, Aleksandar. After his parents are assassinated, he is secreted away in a giant war machine by his father's closest friends and allies, because it turns out that the Germans orchestrated the assassination of the Archduke in order to have an excuse for war. They want to put Aleksandar under house arrest and probably kill him. For reasons which are not clear until toward the end of Leviathan, it is vitally important that Aleksandar not be captured or killed, because he actually has the potential to end the war. I won't give it away, because it's a clever plot twist.

Meanwhile, there is a tangential story about a girl named Deryn who is impersonating a boy in order to join the British Air Service. She is stationed aboard a genetically-engineered living airship, the Leviathan, the largest airship in the BAS. The Leviathan sets sail to take part in the new war that's breaking out.

The most annoying thing about the first book is that it takes so long for these two divergent plot threads to connect together. Alek is running all over Austria-Hungary trapped in a tin can with legs while Deryn is riding around on a flying whale. War is imminent, shots have been fired, but neither seems in a position to really do much about it until the very end, when the two plot threads do come together.

Fortunately, the second book more than makes up for any frustrations in the first one ... but first, a side note on the setting.
Original novel artwork.
New artwork from paperback edition
is shown below.

Nature vs. Machine

As you may have noticed, I've dropped some phrases like "giant war machine" and "genetically-engineered living airship" as if they made sense, when obviously such things didn't exist in 1914. As Westerfeld explains in the "Afterward" to Leviathan, the first armored fighting machines (i.e. tanks) didn't actually enter the war until 1916. The versions in Leviathan don't run on treads, though, they're giant mechanical constructs that walk on two or more legs. Their aptitude at creating these mechanical creatures have resulted in the people of Germany and Austria-Hungary to become known as the Clankers.

The people of Britain, on the other hand, are Darwinists, who weave the "threads of life" (in other words, DNA) to create living machines, such as "message lizards" which can follow complicated commands and deliver a precise verbal message. The machines are not intelligent, not self-aware, but they are useful.

And they are also, to the Clankers, unholy abominations. The separation between the Darwinists and the Clankers is fundamentally a religious and spiritual one. The Darwinists view themselves as utilizing the scientific powers of nature in a noble way, while the Clankers think they're subverting the order of the natural world and defying God.

There are obvious parallels here with modern concepts of technological progress, genetic manipulation, bioethics, and spirituality, but they don't get belabored in the book and I certainly don't intend to belabor them here. I'll get into the sequel, after the official book trailer (which you may, of course, feel free to skip).



On to Behemoth

The first book ends with Deryn and Aleksandar both on board the Leviathan. (To find out how that happens, you'll have to read the book.) Alek knows, however, that he's technically an enemy, since he's an Austrian nobleman. The British need him (again, you'll have to read to find out why), but he's soon to outlive his usefulness, at which point he will be either sent back to England or at least be locked in a brig somewhere until the war is over.

The Leviathan heads to Istanbul (not Constantinople) to extend a peace offering to the sultan of the Ottoman Empire. See, Winston Churchill has commandeered a ship that was grown for the Ottomans, and they're not too happy about it. They have already paid for it, after all. (This is based on a real event, although in the real world it was a warship and not a genetic creation.)

Seeing his chance, Alek makes a break for it. In Istanbul, he is forced to really decide how he wants to approach this war, what side he wants to be on, and whether or not he's in a position to make a real difference. He also reveals all of his secrets to Deryn ... who is still keeping one rather large secret from him, in the form of her gender (and her romantic interest in him).

All of the groundwork that Westerfeld spent establishing the character relationships in the first book pays off in this the sequel. When I finished the first book, I honestly wasn't completely certain what I felt about it. It was good, but not phenomenal as a stand-alone effort. It established a rich world, full of potential, but I knew that the success of the trilogy hinged on the second book knocking things out of the park.


Behemoth takes this potential and leverages it into a wild ride through a dynamic world that contains both war beasts and combat machines, including strange devices like a Tesla cannon! It more than eliminates the doubts I had after completing the first book.

Honestly, after reading Behemoth my only complaint is that this is still being promoted as a trilogy, and I don't see how he can resolve everything in just one more book. Things just started getting good and I, for one, would like to see the concept drawn out a bit, the world explored in more depth. My vote would be for about 5 books.

(You don't want to stretch these things out too far, else you fall into the trap of Orson Scott Card's Alvin Maker series, which started in 1987, has 6 books out, and still isn't done.)

Conclusion

This is a rich series in fully-realized alternate history setting. It can be appreciated on a number of levels, and I personally think that this trilogy would be perfect to structure some sort of inter-disciplinary enrichment around. Students could read the trilogy, then have discussions about the historical and social aspects of the novels, as well as the literary ones. It's rare when a trilogy can spark discussions about the bioethical considerations in genetic manipulation and the morality of warfare at the same time.

Or, of course, you could just read the book and enjoy it, without going in for all of the subtext.

You could ... but why would you really want to?
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