Leviathan (by Scott Westerfeld)

11 02 2012

In Uglies Scott Westerfeld showed us his take on (dystopian) speculative fiction. It may not have been very original, but the result was action-packed, driven and actually led to something, despite also being part of a series. Leviathan, first published in 2009, is apparently a prime example of another sci-fi subgenre, called steampunk.  However, contrary to the Uglies series, the cat just couldn’t get into the book: too much mechanics, not enough emotional drive nor serious criticism, and a way too abrupt ending (it ends where it should have begun!) spoiled this one for her.

In steampunk, the setting is usually the  Victorian era in Britain or the “Wild West”-era in the United States (both of which were steam-driven societies). At the same time, however, novels of the steampunk genre blend sci-fi and even fantasy elements with this more or less accurate historical setting. The result is often a novel with lots of anachronistic bits of technology, all very mechanical-looking, bordering on the futuristic when looked at from a Victorian point of view. Machines like in the works of Jules Verne, clocks, time machines, flying machines etc. are often featured in this type of work.

Westerfeld sets his Leviathian a bit later, namely at the very beginning of the First World War, and puts 2 different views of the world to the fore. On the one hand the British Darwinists, who believe in a biologically-enhanced reality and on the other hand the German/Austrian Clankers who believe in a man-made mechanical world. The two worldviews are presented by the two protagonists. First there’s Deryn, a 15-year-old girl who pretends to be a boy just so she can join the Air Service. Then there’s Alek, the son of Archduke Franz Ferdinand who just got murdered, together with his wife Sophie, which led to the Great War. In reality, the Archduke didn’t have a son called Alek, of course, but it’s a sign of what steampunk attempts to do: alternate versions of history, fusing the real historical, with the hypothetical and the might have been.

As far as story goes, this book is a typical “ first in a series book”, which actually annoyed the cat quite a bit. A first in a series can of course end in a cliffhanger, but as a reader you should still have the impression that you’ve actually read something that means more than an introduction to what is yet to come. It is not because your story is the first in a series, that you shouldn’t commit completely to it. That is one of the many reasons why Patrick Ness’ The Knife of Never Letting Go is such a brilliant book, and not just a brilliant first book in a trilogy. Leviathan isn’t. Not a brilliant book, and not a brilliant first book. Westerfeld chose to focus on the machinations and the workings of the Beasties (like the Leviathan) and the Walkers, and neglected to really paint a picture of the worldview of Darwinists and Clankers, which would have made for a far more interesting book. If you pick a historical era and decide to ‘alter’ this a little bit, it might be a good idea to establish what exactly is going on in that world, show reasons for doing things, what are the opposing forces doing exactly and why? There was a lot of background information missing in favor of straight up no nonsense action it seemed… I guess that’s good for some, but the cat wants a bit more than that. The whole concept of ‘steampunk’ is so full of possibilities, and the premise of Leviathan is so promising, that it’s a pity that Westerfeld decided to focus more on mechanics and action than on historical relevance or the philosophical undertones of what he is undertaking. Because that’s exactly what it would take to lift ‘steampunk’ up to something more than derivative action writing: a combination of criticism and action-packed errr… action.

It is hard to care just for the action of a story when as a reader you don’t exactly see what the point of it all is. Though the characters seem to have an interesting enough background, Westerfeld doesn’t use them enough, favoring descriptions of machines and beasts, rather than exploring internal motivations of his protagonists. So many possibilities, so little result… a pity.

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