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Thursday, June 10, 2010

LEVIATHAN By Scott Westerfeld. Illustrated by Keith Thompson. New York: Simon Pulse, 2009

Imagine a world in whuch Charles Darwin discovered DNA way back in the 19th century. It might be somewhat like Leviathan, an adventure set at the very beginning of World War I, in a world where genetic engineering is in full swing – but only in Britain and a number of other countries allied with it. Some prehistoric animals, such as woolly mammoths, have been brought back from extinction, but the genetic engineering has mostly been used to create living technology. Double-muzzled dogs are used to sniff for hydrogen in the giant living airships. “Mammothines” are used for transport. Krakens are useful to the British Navy.

Most impressive are the airships, created from whale DNA and home to an entire ecosystem that keeps them going and strange creatures from stingless bees to “flechette” bats, which eat figs containing metal flechettes and then excreting them to fight the enemy.

In the Austro-Hungarian Empire live the “Clankers” whose technology is more like our own, though they use “Walkers” that look more like something out of the Star Wars movies than like the tanks in our world.

The two protagonists are Deryn, a British girl who has disguised herself as boy to be able to join the navy and fly in an airship, and Alek, the (fictional) son of Archduke Ferdinand and his wife Sophie, whose assassination started the war in both universes. The two meet when Deryn’s ship, Leviathan, is grounded in the Swiss Alps. The two groups have to use their combined technology to survive, with the help of Darwin’s scientist grand-daughter (and yes, she was a real person, though she didn’t travel with a pet Tasmanian Tiger) who herself is on a secret mission. Be warned: it ends on a cliffhanger, with another volume promised.

I must say, Scott Westerfeld is one of the few writers who could convince me that this sort of technology would be around so early, but then, he was also the only writer who ever convinced me that vampires might be possible, if their condition was based on the real world of parasites. The idea of living technology is not original; Harry Harrison did it in his Eden series of novels, in which the dinosaur-killing comet never hit and the more intelligent dinosaurs developed their own civilization based on genetically-engineered living technology.

But the Eden novels took the ideas in a different direction. And this one has the charm of the steampunk genre, along with the alternative universe “what if one thing in history had been different…?”

This is a ripsnorter of an adventure, beautifully illustrated by Keith Thompson, who has contributed gorgeous plates of the kind produced in books published at the time in which the novel is set, and endpapers which feature an elaborate map of Europe, showing where Clanker and Darwinist technology is used.

I’m sure it will be fine in paperback, but if you can get hold of the hardcover for yourself or the young adult in your life, do so, for the full experience.

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