Monday, July 09, 2012

Barking Spiders!

So, after all this time, I finally finish Scott Westerfeld's Leviathan trilogy.

It started out a couple of years ago, when I picked up Leviathan from a library. I recognised the author's name, having read bits of his Midnighters series before (first and third; I never could find the second book). And the blurb was too interesting to ignore.

Then a couple months ago I decided to get the set as a birthday present for Ernest. It was during the Great Singapore Sale, and I realised that it was so worth it then I went back a couple weeks later to get it myself.

And I just finished the last chapter a couple hours ago.

The Leviathan trilogy is an alternate history set in the chaos of World War I. In this steampunk world, Charles Darwin not only theorised evolution, but discovered DNA, the "life chains" which form the basis of every living creature. A few decades later, Britain is a metropolis of genetically-modified creatures, replacing machines in almost every regard. In contrast, German scientists shunned treads when constructing their war machines, and instead developed walker technology. The two world powers, Darwinist and Clanker, are poised on the brink of destruction.

The assassination of the archduke of Austria-Hungary is enough to plunge Europe into war. On the night his parents are killed, young Prince Aleksandar of Hapsburg is smuggled out of the family home and into the wilderness, heading to the neutral territory of Switzerland. Meanwhile, in London, a young Scottish girl who wants to fly dresses up as a boy and joins the Royal Air Service as Dylan Sharp, and ends up aboard the pride of the British fleet, the Leviathan.

It's a fantastic set of books and probably the first steampunk setting I've plunged myself into. Without giving away too much of the plot, the story has everything, from secret romances to badass inventors, airship battles to walker revolutions, intricate politics to adorable lorises. Also, did I mention the giant freaking airship made from a genetically-modified whale, or the giant tesla cannon which was supposed to warp the Earth's magnetic field as a weapon?

Because it's the world that Mr. Westerfeld has created that has enthralled my imagination. From one worldbuilder to another, it's not easy to come up with a world that works on its own. Sure he had our history to guide him along, but the technology is so vastly different, it's life-changing. And he didn't have to just plan out one civilisation: Britain, Germany, the Ottoman Empire, America and Mexico are just a few places on the global tour.

And what's so great is that everything is so well thought out, like how well everything fits together in a system that works. What sold me, in the first book, was this small description about the signal system aboard the Leviathan, the giant whale flagship of the British fleet. The foundation of Darwinist technology, true to their name, is the use of fabricated creatures in lieu of the many machines we use today (or at least, in those days). And the Leviathan operates not just as a single creature, but as an entire ecosystem: kept buoyant by hydrogen, which is produced by bacteria in the whale's gut; the bacteria are fed organic food - honey, collected by the fabricated bees and game caught by the ships aerie of strafing hawks, which double as weapons against enemy airships and aeroplanes. This barely scratches the surface, but I want to talk about the signal system.

See, the bridge has to send signals to the engine pods to dictate the speed of the ship: full ahead, half speed, etc. So instead of the crank system that I keep seeing in ocean liners, they have a fabricated piece of cuttlefish skin on each end of artificial nerve wiring. A piece of coloured paper is placed over the one in the bridge, and the creature's skin mimics the colour, which is imitated by the other piece of skin over at the engine pods. That's barking brilliant, that is.

So, read Leviathan, and Behemoth and Goliath. Don't let the "young-adult" tag scare you off one of the best imagined worlds of all history.

Bella gerant alii, tu, felix Austria, nube.
Let others wage war; you, happy Austria, marry.
The Edna Man

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