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.)


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?

Monday, January 03, 2011

2010 Reading List

As always, I like to recap the year in the form of the books that I've read, which often provide some indication of how my year is going and how my thinking has been transformed over the year. I read 21 books and also listened to 39 audiobooks, for a resounding 60 books consumed.

  1. Life After Death: The Evidence by Dinesh D'Souza (audiobook)
  2. The Third Jesus by Deepak Chopra (audiobook)
  3. Super Freakonomics: Global Cooling, Patriotic Prostitutes, and Why Suicide Bombers Should Buy Life Insurance by Steven D. Levitt & Stephen J. Dubner (audiobook)
  4. The Lost Symbol by Dan Brown (audiobook)
  5. Excuses Begone by Dr. Wayne Dyer (audiobook)
  6. The Biology of Belief by Bruce H. Lipton, Ph.D. (audiobook)
  7. The Secrets of an Inspirational (In-Spirit) Life by Dr. Wayne Dyer (audiobook)
  8. The Generosity Factor by Ken Blanchard & S. Truett Cathy (audiobook)
  9. Giving: How Each of Us Can Change the World by Bill Clinton (audiobook)
  10. The Compassionate Instinct: The Science of Human Goodness edited by Dacher Keltner, Jeremy Adam Scott, and Jason Marsh
  11. The New Earth: Awakening to Your Life's Purpose by Eckhart Tolle (audiobook)
  12. Thank You Power: Making the Science of Gratitude Work for You by Deborah Norville (audiobook)
  13. The Secret by Rhonda Byrne (audiobook)
  14. God Has a Dream by Desmund Tutu (audiobook)
  15. The Power of Giving: How Giving Back Enriches Us All by Azim Jamal & Harvey McKinnon
  16. How to Change the World: Social Entrepreneurs and the Power of New Ideas by David Bornstein
  17. Uglies by Scott Westerfeld (audiobook)
  18. Pretties by Scott Westerfeld (audiobook)
  19. The 8th Habit: From Effectiveness to Greatness by Stephen R. Covey (audiobook)
  20. Born to Be Good: The Science of a Meaningful Life by Dacher Keltner
  21. Wicked Lovely by Melissa Marr (audiobook)
  22. Play Money: Or, How I Quit My Day Job and Made Millions Trading Virtual Loot by Julian Dibbell (audiobook)
  23. Specials by Scott Westerfield (audiobook)
  24. From Eternity to Here: The Quest for the Ultimate Theory of Time by Sean Carroll
  25. WWW: Watch by Robert J. Sawyer
  26. Extras by Scott Westerfeld (audiobook)
  27. The Power of Serving Others: You Can Start Where You Are by Gary Morsch and Dean Nelson
  28. Ink Exchange by Melissa Marr (audiobook)
  29. Fragile Eternity by Melissa Marr (audiobook)
  30. Leviathan by Scott Westerfeld (audiobook)
  31. The Magicians by Lev Grossman (audiobook)
  32. Identity Theft and Other Stories by Robert J. Sawyer
  33. The Shadow Effect by Deepak Chopra, Debbie Ford, and Marianne Williamson (audiobook)
  34. New Rules for the New Economy by Kevin Kelly
  35. Philanthrocapitalism by Matthew Bishop & Michael Green
  36. Singularity Sky by Charles Stross (audiobook)
  37. The Age of Empathy by Frans de Waal
  38. Mendela's Way: Fifteen Lessons on Life, Love, and Courage by Richard Stengel (audiobook)
  39. Iron Sunrise by Charles Stross (audiobook)
  40. 29 Gifts by Camille Walker
  41. Spook: The Science of the Afterlife by Mary Roach (audiobook)
  42. The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson
  43. The Girl Who Played with Fire by Stieg Larsson
  44. The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Next by Stieg Larsson (audiobook)
  45. The Amber Spyglass by Philip Pullman (audiobook)
  46. Boneshaker by Cherie Priest
  47. Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void by Mary Roach (audiobook)
  48. The Grand Design by Stephen Hawking & Leonard Mlodinow (audiobook)
  49. The Mermaid's Madness by Jim C. Hines
  50. God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything by Christopher Hitchens (audiobook)
  51. The Portable Atheist: Essential Readings for the Nonbeliever edited by Christopher Hitchens (audiobook)
  52. Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know -- and Doesn't by Stephen Prothero (audiobook)
  53. Star Wars: The Force Unleashed by Sean Williams (abridged audiobook)
  54. Star Wars: The Force Unleashed II by Sean Williams (audiobook)
  55. Keeper of Dreams by Orson Scott Card
  56. Clementine by Cherie Priest
  57. The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins
  58. Matched by Ally Condie
  59. Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins
  60. Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk by David Sedaris (audiobook)