What if World War I was fought with giant walking machines and genetically modified monsters instead of airplanes and ammunition? What if, instead of telephones and radios, long-distance communication was carried out by talking lizards and trained birds? What if our version of history was somehow turned on its head and futuristic tales were spun instead?
This is just what happens in Scott Westerfeld’s exciting new novel for young adults, Leviathan. Westerfeld treats readers to a captivating story about a young boy in the early 1900s, who happens to be the orphaned son of Archduke Ferdinand. History teaches us that the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand and his wife ignited the sparks that led to World War I. In Leviathan, this bit of history remains the same, but the details of the war are dramatically different: Britain and her allies are armed with a fleet of Darwinian-created “beasties,” including a flying, hydrogen-burping whale, while Austria and her allies fight with enormous “clankers” made of metal and gears, and run by classic engines.
For Westerfeld, whose previous works for teens include the Uglies and Midnighters trilogies, writing in the genre known as “steampunk” has been an interesting challenge. “It’s about rewriting history in an alternative way—and making it better,” he says in a telephone interview from New York, a day after arriving in the city from his native Australia. Westerfeld and his wife Justine Larbalestier, also a successful YA author, divide their time between the two locations.
Although steampunk has been around for awhile (think H.G. Wells and Jules Verne), it gained notoriety in the 1980s and ’90s. The genre gets its name from the time period in which most stories are set, the Victorian era, when steam power was king. Westerfeld became aware of the genre when he came across a role-playing game called Space 1899, in which players explore futures that could have been. “That was the first time I realized that people were really doing this stuff and thinking it through,” he says.
Westerfeld especially enjoyed researching and writing about the technology of the era. “Everything looked weird at the time, sort of clunky and fantastical: airplanes had three wings, tanks looked like boilers on tractor treads,” he says. He particularly liked researching zeppelins—both the original giant flyers and his own genetically fabricated creations. “I have a big airship fetish,” Westerfeld admits, “and thought a living airship would be a kind of fascinating thing.” To do research, he and Justine went to the headquarters of Zeppelin Corporation in Switzerland, where a smaller version of the historically giant airships are still being produced. “We got to go up in one and that was cool,” Westerfeld says.
He also drew a bit of inspiration from the biological sciences: Darwin and his true-life granddaughter Dr. Nora Darwin
Barlow play major roles in the book. “Scientists of that era were the original action hero-adventurers,” Westerfeld explains, “and I thought it would be fun to make Darwin a character.” Indeed, the author takes Darwinian philosophy to a new level, creating a world in which Darwin has discovered DNA threads and has been able to manipulate them to create hybrid animal species: jellyfish that float through the air like hot air balloons, lizards that talk like parrots, and of course, the title creature Leviathan, the aforementioned flying whale.
To help us visualize these fanciful creatures, Westerfeld enlisted the artful talents of Keith Thompson, who created more than 50 illustrations for the book. “It was a very collaborative process,” he says. “He did with the pictures the same thing I was doing with the text. It was like being a novelist and an art director at the same time.” After Thompson drew the magnificent creatures and ornate machines that Westerfeld had imagined, the author edited the text to reflect the details that Thompson had added.
Westerfeld’s exuberance for the technology of the era—and beyond—comes through clearly in his writing. From mechanized horses to metal-eating bats, eight-legged battleships and light-producing earthworms, he has created a world where technological and biological sciences collide. “It’s a war between two completely different world-views,” he notes.
The same could be said of the early 20th century, and the events of the era created fodder for Westerfeld’s storyline. “The great thing about doing historical research is that you can look back and say, if they had only done this it could have all been different. It’s a fascinating perspective.” By creating the alternate reality of Leviathan, Westerfeld is able to inspire his readers—young and old—to think about what really did happen at that time in history, how close we might have come to the fictional story, and how the fate of the world can hinge on seemingly innocuous events.
Heidi Henneman writes from New York.