Steampunk is a much-overlooked literary form of science fiction that many science fiction fans find themselves drawn into. It’s often presented as a look at what-might-have-been through the eyes of technological progress if Tesla and Volt had instead been workers of mechanics and steam instead of electricity and magnetism. In his book, Leviathan, Scott Westerfeld presents an alternate history where not only do steam-driven gas-and-fuel machines dominate the skies but so also does the science of biology.
The Leviathan itself is an amazingly described creature of scientific progress, produced by the Darwinists through genetic manipulation (so-called life patterns) by mixing the patterns of a whale with that of other organisms to create a blimp-creature that fills itself with hydrogen like a dirigible. The opposite faction, the Clankers, use heavy machines and mechanisms where the Darwinists harness life itself to create new fantastic beasts—including the Leviathan.
The book takes place right before what would be World War I in this alternate history where the countries that would fall into the war in Europe lay upon factional lines between the Clankers and the Darwinists. Terrible portents light the path as a diplomat from the Austrian-Hungary Empire is slain in an assassination attempt and blamed on another country in the opposing bloc. Giant monarchies and world powers poised to attack each other… And thus the stage is set.
As a book, Leviathan is very plot-driven but the characters themselves are directly related to the world affairs. The first, an Austro-Hungarian prince (a Clanker power) by the name of Alek finds himself pulled into a world of fear and intrigue when his parents are assassinated. He is forced into flight underground as Germany—an erstwhile ally of his people—seek to kill him to prevent him from taking any sort of political power. England, a Darwinist power, watches the Clankers carefully, wondering what this might mean and if it will plunge the world into war. Alek is a young, arrogant boy who has lived his life in pampered luxury now thrust into a fight for his life.
Much of Alek’s narrative is about trying to stay inconspicuous, else the Clankers kill him or the Darwinists take him hostage as an enemy.
The other main character is Deryn—going by the name Dylan in order to join the air forces of her home country of England. As a Darwinist power, England harnesses the lifepatterns of beasts to create fantastic monsters and use them for its military might. The Levithan is one such monster-ship, but we also see that they have kraken (giant octopus) for taking out water ships as well as flying blimps. In fact, one type of floating-flying creature is named a Huxley, probably after one of Darwin’s friends when he was a young naturalist first discovering how life itself waves and evolves in forms.
Much of Deryn’s narrative all about trying to pretend to be a boy (lest her beloved British Air Service kick her out.)
Deryn finds herself aboard the Levithan quickly in the book and for the reader this is an amazing experience of description. Although Deryn well-knows much of what being part of the air service is, the reader still needs to be introduced to all the strange creatures that Darwinists create. The Leviathan isn’t just a giant blimped-out-whale, but an entire ecosystem of organisms that keep the ship running. Bees gather honey from the land and birds and bats in the hold eat insects and meat; all of them have hydrogen-producing bacteria that fill the gasbag of the blimp. The bats themselves are a type of weapon the blimp can use to defend itself; even the birds are trained to trail metal nets to slice through the wings of attacking Clanker aircraft.
The plot of the book follows events what precipitated World War I, but it does so through the eyes of youngster Alek and Deryn—on opposite sides of the upcoming war. Leviathan is a young adult book, so the two main characters are only about 15 years old and it shows to an extent. This shouldn’t be a turn off even for adult readers of this book and its subsequent series. There’s a lot to enjoy in the fluid prose of the book and the interesting world building that it presents.
How would World War I have changed if it were fought between biology-loving Darwinist powers and steampunk Clanker powers? In fact, the Clankers don’t just build engines and steam, they also make walkers—that is tanks with cannon that stand on two feet and stomp across the countryside. If that’s not enough to melt the science fiction lover’s heart—as if the Levithan didn’t already—then there may be no hope for this genre anyway.