The Reading Canary: The Leviathan Trilogy

by Alasdair Czyrnyj

Scott Westerfeld's alternate history steampunk YA trilogy would've been more enjoyable if he'd left out the alternate history.
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This thing has haunted me for months. I've been trying to put together something about it since November, but every attempt has just resulted in me losing the thread and sputtering out after about four paragraphs.

It isn't that I can't think of any objections to these books; Lord knows that's not the case. Conversely, these books don't make me mad enough that I'm rendered incapable of thinking coherently about them. If only that was the case; then I could just snarl out a review and have done with it.

At heart, the problem is that I feel like I'm the wrong person to write about these books. All these books want to be is a fun steampunk adventure romp in the style of the interwar classics, perfect for a YA reader. By contrast, I am a twentysomething with a BA in History (with a particular concentration in early 20th century Europe) who has a congenital inability to enjoy adventure stories of any kind. Every time I start writing about these books, I just end up feeling like I'm picking on them, that I'm being unfair to them by not reading them as they were intended. It also doesn't help that most of my objections are thematic and historical in nature, rather than being focused on the mechanics of plot and character or on the gender and ethnic dimensions of the novels.

And yet, I can't let these books go. I can't, because deep down I feel as if this trilogy is a failure, a great symbolic failure that illuminates to a serious problem lying in the heart of steampunk today. What's worse, these books are that particularly maddening type of failure that contains all the elements of greatness but fails to put them together.

Leviathan and Behemoth - Initial Promise, Guttering Out

The Leviathan trilogy, consisting of Leviathan, Behemoth, and the forthcoming Goliath is set in an alternate version of World War I. It's never made clear precisely what happened to make this timeline branch off from ours, though there are a few references to Charles Darwin discovering the structure of DNA around the middle of the 19th century. Over the course of sixty-odd years, the discovery is expanded and further exploited, resulting in a biotechnological revolution in Britain, with great biologically-augmented lifeforms forming the backbone of the Empire's industrial and military might by the beginning of the 20th century. In response, the empires of Central Europe begin to hyperindustrialize, fielding great walking machines in their militaries. By August 1914, Europe is divided into two camps; the biologically-armed "Darwinist" powers, consisting of the historical members of the Triple Entente (Britain, France, Russia), and the technologically-minded "Clanker" states of Germany, Austria-Hungary, and the Ottoman Empire. (Oh, and Italy is a Darwinist power too for some reason.)

Now, strange as it may sound, this setup didn't bother me. Sure, it's completely faffing ridiculous that any of this fantastic technology could be invented with a early industrial knowledge and infrastructure base, let alone foster an identical grouping of alliances as we got in the actual war. However, this sort of thing isn't unique to the Leviathan books. Most published alternate histories work on a similar basis, preferring to imagine a weird new world and backfill the history books rather than posit a change and painstakingly work out all its implications. It's just one of those necessary suspensions of personal disbelief that saves the author from wasting all his time researching and reworking historical minuate that will only be of interest to specialists. Besides, it's sci-fi; you're allowed to make shit up.

Anyway, the thrust of the first book, Leviathan, is the outbreak of war and the fleshing out of the Darwinists and Clankers. To this end, we are given a viewpoint character for each side. We first get a look at the Clankers with the introduction of Alek, the allohistorical son of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and the Duchess Sophia (their three other children handwaved out of existence). Alek starts the book with a nasty shock, learning that his parents narrowly survived an assassin's bullets while on a tour of Sarajevo, only to be poisoned the following night. Given rumors that German agents had the archduke and his wife killed as a pretext to start a general war, and feeding fears that Alek's dubious position within the Austrian succession would make him a target, Alek is bundled off in the night with some trusted friends of his father's, and they make a break for Switzerland in a confiscated Imperial Stormwalker (sort of a short, clunky version of the AT-ST from Star Wars).

Meanwhile, the Darwinists are represented by air cadet Deryn Sharp. A girl who has always loved the skies (a love shared by her late father), but who is bound by the social conventions of her time, Deryn's story opens with her preparing for basic training in the Air Service, safely disguised as Dylan Sharp. Unfortunately, an accident with a Huxley (a jellyfish-like creature that works mostly like a hot-air balloon) soon leaves here stuck on the HMAS Leviathan, a giant British airship made out of a bioengineered whale that is serviced by an entire ecosystem of genetically modified creatures. Given the state of emergency, Deryn is quickly integrated into the crew and put to work as the Leviathan sets sail on a mysterious diplomatic mission in Istanbul.

Now, even halfway through the first book I was starting to have problems. The biggest, for me, was that both the characters and the plot were dripping in cliché. As the novel progresses, Alek settles into the typical role of sheltered prince who is cast out into the world and must make a man of himself. Deryn, by contrast, is the standard Sweet Polly Oliver in an airship story, which is basically a high-seas adventure story for the early 20th century. It's not that I'm intractably opposed to seeing these stock story elements (heck, I liked Kenneth Oppel's Airborn, which is probably the best airship story out there), it's just that there's something disappointing about seeing these elements played out without an aversion, subversion, deconstruction, or even any sort of acknowledgment that even the basic way of telling pulpy stories has changed since 1910.

Naturally, the plot develops as you'd expect. Alek and his associates make it to a villa in the Swiss Alps, where they plan to stay until old Franz Joseph dies and Alek can challenge the succession. Meanwhile, the Leviathan gets into an air battle with the Germans and gets brought down a few kilometers away from said villa. Naturally, Alek chances across it, the protagonists meet, the two groups work together to get the ship back in the air before the Jerries return, there's a battle, a quick escape, and the novel ends with Alek and Deryn en route to Istanbul.

Now, when I finished the book, I was somewhat disappointed for reasons I will get into shortly, but there was some cause for optimism. The real energy of the book is spent in the description of the weird new world created by the new technologies utilized by both sides, and there were scenes and throwaway lines here and there that suggested possible avenues of exploration into the intellectual background of this world.

At least, that was what I thought until I read the second book.

Behemoth kicks off right at the end of Leviathan, with the titular ship flying peacefully over the Aegean. There's a bit of a rough spot near the beginning, when the ship is menaced by the Tesla cannon of a nearby German cruiser, but other than that there's nothing but smooth sailing until Istanbul.

Istanbul is another place made stranger by Westerfeld's new technologies. In this world, the Young Turks' 1908 revolution failed, leaving the Sultan firmly in charge as absolute ruler of the empire. Naturally, there are plenty of groups upset about this state of affairs, including the pro-German Young Turks and the pleasantly multicultural Committee Of Union and Progress. As in our world, modernization followed an odd path; most of the Ottoman industrial base is Clanker-derived, but the machinery is styled with animal forms.

After arriving in Istanbul, a power struggle begins between the Leviathan and the German representatives to the Ottoman court, as each side tries to convince the sultan to throw his lot in their respective faction. There's ceremonies that go awry, offers to cede ships to the Ottoman navy, heavy-handed manipulation by the Germans, and so on. Meanwhile, Alek and his associates decide to sneak off the Leviathan and get out of the empire before the Germans find them. Alek manages to escape, only to wind up in the hands of the CUP, and...

And that was where I gave up.

I gave up, because I could predict the ending. There's be chases, a little gunplay, maybe a betrayal or a romance or two. There'll certainly be big-ass impractical machines that go boom. And, at the end of the day, the Germans will be sent packing, the Ottoman government will become more amenable to the interests of the CUP and certainly more amenable to those of the Darwinist powers. The Dardanelles will be kept open, Russia will stay well-fed and in the fight, and with any luck the whole war will be over by 1915 in the third novel.

And no one who reads these books will understand anything about World War One.

Telling The Wrong Story

The reason I'm slamming these books is, ironically enough, the same reason I started reading them in the first place. As I implied in my little steampunk bibliography, I have something of an obsession with the First World War. Not so much on the mechanics, the kings, dates, and battles part, but more on what the whole conflict meant. What, exactly, compelled Europe to beat itself to death for four years? Why did people keep doing it, even start to enjoy it? What did the war do to the people and nations it touched? Why is it so hard to explain in any satisfactory sense?

While looking for answers to these sorts of vague ruminations, I also started to look at how the First World War has been handled by the fantastic branches of literature, reasoning that more fanciful works might be able to grapple with issues that conventional novelists have had difficulty in capturing. Of course, this was just a self-serving rationalization for hunting down alternate history stories involving WWI, but even there I found a few surprises. Compared to WW2, the American Civil War, or even the Napoleonic wars, World War I is barely used in alternate history. There's only a handful of stories out there that imagine a German victory, and almost none that imagine different outcomes to any of the major battles. At the same time, the specter of the war seems to haunt the subgenre. Anytime there's a world with rapidly-industrializing set of societies, a WWI-type conflict inevitably occurs, whether it's in a steampunk-flavored Europe, a Britain run by industrialized magic, or part of a civilizational struggle between the Islamic and Chinese worlds. It's almost as if the First World War wasn't a conflict caused by specific historical factors, but a structural flaw in any industrializing family of nations that is bound to erupt sooner or later.

All these questions and incongruous responses to the war spurred me on to find more answers. Finally, in a review of a book chronicling the interruption of WWII by the lizard people, SF critic John Clute offered this:
World War One had its points, for the fantasist...World War One had ghost spies; deserters who shapechanged into ghouls who lurked in underground redoubts in hellish nomanslands and who ate soldiers; flying submarines and land ironclads; the Finland Station and Stamboul; a sense of the huge intricacy of the fantasy edifice of the trench system; a more general sense that the whole conflict was a Revel, a Saturnalia which might never end, never release its captured souls from Hell. In the end, however, the fantasist who wished to use World War One had to fight against a sense that the conflict represented an intolerable Thinning of the round world, where tales could be told of heroes against backdrops that breathed the soil. Ultimately, World War One is not storyable. Any fantasist who paid attention to the conflict would tend...to treat the 1914-1918 apocalypse as a Night Journey of the Western World that did not earn out, a vigil with only failures at the exam, and a dawn which opened onto desertification of the water meadows. WWI, in the end, over and above the astonishing savage deadly stupidity represented by the sclerosis of the Western Front, does not feed the imagination. It is a great stupor of the western mind, an endless exsanguinating danse macabre on the lavatory wall, as though God - to whom both sides prayed - had gotten Its typewriter stuck.
Ironically, that paragraph cleared up a great deal for me.

The problem with WWI is that you can't construct anything positive out of it. So much suffering was inflicted, and so little was gained by any of its participants, that even today it is still hard to wring anything constructive or enjoyable out of it. There is some room for lighthearted stories, particularly involving the air and naval aspects of the war, but even those are overshadowed by the Western Front. That's why the only branch of fantastic literature that feels comfortable in using the tropes and images of WWI is horror, for it is also a literature of loss and estrangement. It's why writers treat the war like a natural disaster, for imagining anyone willfully bringing such an event into being is unthinkable. It's why writers like Tolkien and C. S. Lewis, both of whom served in the trenches, eschewed referencing the war directly in their fantasies.

It is for this reason that I dislike the Leviathan books. In both of these books, there is no sense that there is a tragedy unfolding, that the future will be less than the present, that man will be met with a suffering unknown in modern memory. No, it's just princes and airships and rayguns, in a sort of Platonic summation of Catherynne Valente's objections to steampunk. If the books had been set in a wholly imaginary realm, or if the conflict had been placed in the background, the books might have been bearable. By placing the books directly in the war, only to treat the historical background cavalierly, the Leviathan series reduces WWI to little more than a bag of tropes, devoid of historical context, to be used and referenced by steampunk writers with nary a thought. However, World War One is not a colony of steampunk; it is where steampunk ends, and where our own world pokes its head into the light of day. There are no last-minute rescues at the Somme.

(For what it's worth, Clute also talks about the Second World War in the same review. He notes that that war tends to be remembered more as a melodrama, thanks to the dynamic pace of combat, the machinery, and the personality of Hitler and the Third Reich, but also notes that a tension exists even in lighter stories between adventure and the war's darker aspects cannot be avoided forever.)

Unforseen Complications

The worst part of it, for me, is that the world Westerfeld has created in these books is perfect for all manner of grim explorations of the cthonic heart of the 20th century. Indeed, in most of the fanciful technology Westerfeld dumps in his Europe, I kept finding potential for insight into the way war has changed under the influence of science and industrial mass production.

Take just the general machinery of the war. In the illustrations done by artist Keith Thompson, the weaponry is all as big, grotesque, and over-the-top as the best steampunk can offer. However, there's never a sense in the books that anyone has figured out how exactly to use this machinery in combat. What sort of tactical doctrine do you use for a flying whale? How do you coordinate a walking land battleship with infantry? It's a problem that occurred a lot during the actual war, one compounded by the fact that all the participants entered the war expecting a speedy rehash of the Franco-Prussian War. Everyone flailed trying to find some new weapon that would break the stalemate, while the weapons that had accelerated the push to war were barely used during the conflict and became obsolete shortly thereafter. (Truly, the battleship should go down as the most overrated weapon of the 20th century.)

To makes matters worse, the basic level of armament in this alternate Europe suggests potential devastation even worse than that experienced in our Great War. Near the climax of the first book, there's a scene where heavily armed German soldiers are rappelling out of an assault zeppelin to seize the wrecked Leviathan. When I read this, it reminded me not of World War One, but of Vietnam. Indeed, both sides in this world have enough advanced weapons in place to fight WWI as WWII. Both sides have air forces, so urban bombing is all but inevitable. It would be war on a true continental scale, combining the breadth of the second war with the incompetence of the first.

Now, there are a few crumbs of speculation in the books as to how Europe has been shaped by these new industries. Indeed, as the Steampunk Scholar notes, there is quite a bit of discussion of how Darwinist Britain is enthusiastic over something that resembles modern ecological thinking. However, such speculation is strictly limited. Newer ideas seem to have completely replaced ones contemporary with the period, even in areas where the new sciences would have allowed these ideas to thrive. Eugenics, that great fad borne out of the public health and science-minded futurist movements of the late 19th century, seems to have been averted by a single word of prohibition from the lips of Darwin. Indeed, I would be quite interested in reading a story set after this war, when Europe sees the rise of totalitarian nations who not only have the desire to reengineer the human community from top to bottom, but who now have the technology to do so.

The point is that there are literally hundreds of ways this setting could be examined that both acknowledges the wound World War One left on our history, and explains why history after the war turned out the way it did. Instead, all we got was a silly little adventure story, suitable for the pulps and nothing more.

What a shame.
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Comments (go to latest)
Come to think of it, the only sf/f WWI story I know of is Baltimore, or the Steadfast Tin Soldier and the Vampire - which is pretty grim, and probably qualifies as horror. The war as a vampire plague sucking the life out of Europe was quite horrifying, anyway.
Alasdair Czyrnyj at 01:45 on 2011-02-08
Oh, indeed. Fantastic WWI settings seem to have an affinity for vampires. Off the top of my head, I can name Baltimore, Kim Newman's The Bloody Red Baron, the video game NecroVisioN by The Farm 51. I think there's even an Angel tie-in prequel set in the Western Front.

For myself, I've always found it really interesting when authors start adding old SF tropes to the war, or reimagining the conflict in the style of an interwar SF author. Stephen Baxter does a great job with this in The Time Ships, which is sort of an extended WWI informed by Wells' "The Land Ironclads," The Shape of Things To Come, and The World Set Free. I haven't read it yet, but Brian Stableford tries something similar in The Carnival of Destruction, which has an extended alternate-history sequence set after a German victory that seems to ape Olaf Stapledon.

I'm not sure what the attraction is, in all honesty; simple pomo kitsch, certainly. But I've always found stories like that have a odd power, as if the impulses powering the old SF were the same ones driving the rest of the world at the time, even the war itself. I suppose that was one of my other many disappointments in the Leviathan books; the German mechs and the British cryptids (for lack of a better word) are products of 21st century imagination rather than 20th, so that connection with SF's past is lost.

BTW, I like your livejournal. :-)
Arthur B at 10:33 on 2011-02-08
There's also Michael Moorcock's Oswald Bastable stories, which follow the meanderings of a pre-WWI British army officer through various alternate histories. The apocalyptic wars Bastable stumbles into tend to be fought with technologies reminiscent of turn of the century SF, but there's often also something of WWI about them - as though something like the Great War was always going to happen as the end result of imperialism and colonialism, regardless of the specifics of how it comes about or how it is fought.
Ooh, lots of interesting-looking titles there which I'll have to add to my to-read list! And a good reminder to update my LJ more often ;-)
Wardog at 10:16 on 2011-02-17
I've have these books on my "maybe I should read these" list for AGES now, and this review - coupled with the fact I've just read Uglies - has dissuaded me. A lot of your early criticisms about the texts themselves I found also in Uglies. It was generally pretty readable, and I romped through easily enough, but, despite what could have been interesting themes, it also felt rather shallow to me. I don’t have your issues with rompish adventures stories and I don’t mind if books use their premise largely as a springboard for Airship Battles, in Leviathan’s case, or survival adventure, in Uglies. BUT I did feel quite cheated by Uglies, in the sense that it seems to be promising one thing, almost a political thriller I guess, which seems quite sophisticated and challenging, but actually delivers something pretty banal. I guess there’s something quite similar in Leviathan again – obviously I wouldn’t have been looking for deconstruction of the first world war or anything, and I’d therefore be less disappointed I didn’t find one, but there is something about Westerfield’s writing that is all promise, no delivery.

I do think that’s basically an execution problem. His writing style is pedestrian at best and despite his best efforts to JERK ME AROUND (ending Uglies on a blatant and unapologetic cliff-hanger) I won’t be reading the next book. I can’t quite put my finger on what’s wrong with the books but I suspect it’s partly because characterisation takes a backseat to action and, as you point out, there's no tension in the action. There was nobody I particularly liked in Uglies – all Uglies are the same, and all Pretties are the same, and all Specials are all the same. Maybe that was a cunning and deliberate device but it does leave you with very little motivation to go on reading, because you don’t care about anybody.

But to return to your actual criticisms - I'm not sure if there's not a wider issue at stake here about the literisation of history (ouch, what a phrase). I mean you argue that (I think?) that the failure of Leviathan is that it doesn't actually get its setting in any meaningful sense - but then you take as your starting point the notion that a inspiration taken from the first world war cannot be anything other than "there is a tragedy unfolding, that the future will be less than the present, that man will be met with a suffering unknown in modern memory." The main device, as far as I see it, of steampunk is transforming history into a bag of aesthetic tropes – I’m not sure the fact that WWI was, y’know, bad and ended badly, is by itself sufficient argument that you “can’t” use it as window dressing for a an adventure story of airships. Whether it’s appropriate or sensible is another matter entirely. I'm not, I should emphasise, arguing that the first world war is *not* those things, and we should basically get over ourselves about it - but what is it about WWI that inherently forbids the prioritisation of princes and airships over, y'know, trenches, industrialisation, death death death.

I guess this might be a glib point but we are one generation ahead of the target audience for these books. WW1 and WW2 cast long shadows over Europe but the only reason I’m remotely sensitive what happened over and above my reaction to other historical events (e.g. the English civil war which was also pretty damn devastating at the time) is because a) I’m English and b) my Grandfather fought. But I genuinely have no idea how an American teenager might respond to the first WW1, especially if they don’t have any family members who lived through it, as might be the case, to be honest. I mean, perhaps it would be no different an historical event to any other, and just as remote and outlandish – and therefore perfectly acceptable window dressing for a story about airships.
Arthur B at 10:34 on 2011-02-17
Hm. I seem to remember that The Risen Empire seemed a bit meatier and more satisfying than the way you've made these sound, Alasdair, and the way Kyra's described Uglies. Maybe it helped that it was intended to be a standalone book (and indeed was sold as one in the UK) so there weren't any spurious cliffhangers, and he was better able to bring in some actual tension and uncertainty - because he didn't need to keep any part of the setting intact for the sake of a sequel, there weren't any safe harbours and anything could happen.

On the other hand, I can recall precisely nothing of what happened in it, can name none of the characters, and have only the haziest recollection of the premise. Considering that it's 700-odd pages long, that's pretty pathetic. You'd think something memorable would happen in the middle of all those words.
Niall at 11:21 on 2011-02-17
he only reason I’m remotely sensitive what happened over and above my reaction to other historical events


I don't know; previous wars were devastating, certainly, but doesn't the scale and extent of WWI mark it as something new under the sun? And even if it's not, shouldn't there be a basic acknowledgement that terrible historical events were real and terrible? Not all serious all the time, just not all glib all the time.

That is, I'm quite in sympathy by Alasdair, to be honest; I remember reading Lev Grossman's review of Leviathan:

If it poses a big question, that question would be, Wouldn’t it be cool if the First World War had been fought with genetically engineered mutant animals, against steam-­powered walking machines like the ones from “The Empire Strikes Back”? And the answer is, Yes, it would.


And thinking: no it bloody wouldn't. I was and am a bit surprised at the vehemence of my reaction to Grossman's description, actually; as I say, I'm not against a bit of historical playfulness, it's just the idea of that and nothing else that grates. Of course now that I've typed this I will shortly think of a novel that is nothing but historical glibness that I nevertheless love.
Arthur B at 11:33 on 2011-02-17
I don't know; previous wars were devastating, certainly, but doesn't the scale and extent of WWI mark it as something new under the sun? And even if it's not, shouldn't there be a basic acknowledgement that terrible historical events were real and terrible? Not all serious all the time, just not all glib all the time.

I think there's definitely a statute of limitations on any war really hitting us in the gut the way WWII evokes strong feelings and WWI still kind of does but to a lesser extent. The fact is, WWI is right on the cusp of no longer being in living memory; almost everyone who actually fought is dead. In 20 years almost everyone who was even alive when it happened will most likely be dead too.

Yes, people will always acknowledge how terrible WWI was. They also acknowledge how terrible the Napoleonic Wars or the American Civil War were. But let's face it: facts in a history book feel vastly less immediate than something you actually lived through, or something someone you have met and talked to has lived through. Almost nobody is baying for French contrition for Napoleonic war crimes, and whilst the US Civil War still raises strong feelings, it only does so to the extent that the issues it was fought over are still kind of a big deal in American society.

To be fair, WWI might retain its immediacy for a bit longer than the Napoleonic Wars or the Civil War did, because we don't really have that much in the way of film footage of those two. Pictures and photos are one thing, but there's nothing quite like a moving image to remind you that those were real people actually dying out there. But even so, sooner or later we as a species are going to do something sufficiently major and idiotic that WWI ends up completely overshadowed. (Arguably we already have; WWII is examined far more widely, especially in popular culture, than WWI is, even though you can't understand WWII without examining the prequel.)

Yes, there are a few people who are still properly willing to shed blood and claim it's in the name of centuries-old conflicts; both sides in Northern Ireland did precisely that. But let's face it, people aren't radicalised or emotive about things that happened centuries ago; they're radicalised or emotive about things that are happening right now, and events from history resonate with them emotionally to precisely the extent that they can draw links between their current situation and what happened in the past.
Wardog at 11:39 on 2011-02-17
I know I'm essentially arguing from the perspective of a complete dick here, who wants to trivialise WWI :(

Emotionally I think I'm with you and Alasdair, but I can't help but wondering if it's reasonable to expect writers to treat one historical event differently to another, even if the historical event was bigger, faster and more destructive. The thing is, I think it probably is *right* in some way to draw line, but is that aesthetic, is it moral, and how do you draw it? Is it actually right?

I mean is it just proximity to events that makes the difference - in 100 years time, are there going to be adventurous YA novels about feisty kids stopping suicide bombers crashing hijacked planes (or, y'know, blimps or whatever) into famous landmarks.
Niall at 12:03 on 2011-02-17
Arthur:

I think there's definitely a statute of limitations on any war really hitting us in the gut the way WWII evokes strong feelings and WWI still kind of does but to a lesser extent.


And Kyra:

The thing is, I think it probably is *right* in some way to draw line, but is that aesthetic, is it moral, and how do you draw it? Is it actually right?


Yeah, I don't know. I don't feel a particular personal connection to WWI, the connection I have is already mediated by literature -- specifically, war poets for GCSE English -- and despite the strength of my response, I don't think my "should" position is really sustainable. There will be individual works that take too many liberties for individual readers, but I don't honestly know that it would do much good to try to generalise about which works those are, and I don't even know that we could.
Arthur B at 12:37 on 2011-02-17
Closest connection I've ever felt to WWI was doing a school history project and digging out a deceased relative's war medals. The thing which struck me wasn't really that he got the medals, or that according to anecdote he had facial burns for life from a mustard gas attack, but that he also had campaign medals from that weird abortive expedition the allies sent into Russia after WWI ended to fight in the Russian Civil War. At which point I was suddenly more interested in the Russian Civil War than WWI. Everyone had relatives who fought (and, often, died) in WWI, after all, but the Russian Civil War was special! It was all cult and obscure, unlike WWI, which was totally commercial and mainstream.
I genuinely have no idea how an American teenager might respond to the first WW1, especially if they don’t have any family members who lived through it, as might be the case

As someone who was an American teenager not too many years ago, I can tell you that I don't recall any of my schoolmates having much of a reaction at all to it. It was kind of a blip, and everyone memorize that it was terrible and gave Europe PTSD for the test, but that was about it. My teacher got a bit choked up while reading "In Flanders Field" and "Dulce et Decorum Est" to us, but then, he seemed to have about the same reaction to "The Charge of the Light Brigade," so I don't think it was necessarily a reaction to that war in particular, just tragic wars in general. (And most of my classmates were going, "Bzuh? Crimea where now?" Right, Florence Nightengale!")
Alasdair Czyrnyj at 02:11 on 2011-02-18
I'm not, I should emphasise, arguing that the first world war is *not* those things, and we should basically get over ourselves about it - but what is it about WWI that inherently forbids the prioritisation of princes and airships over, y'know, trenches, industrialisation, death death death.

That is a question I've wrestled with time and again, and I still don't really have a satisfactory solution for it. Part of the reason I sat on this review/ramble so long was that I felt like I was bullying a bunch of books that only wanted to be lighthearted adventures. It also doesn't help matters that I'm also a fan of alternate history (which does this sort of stuff all the time) and an aficionado of Soviet history, which for me is a constant balancing act between the imperative to judge the state for its crimes and the desire to understand the system on its own terms, all of which of course has its own issues of individual guilt, responsibility, personal sympathies, and so on. Given my own wildly differing opinions as to how historical events should be judged or not judged (all without any sort of proper logically consistent system by which I can comfortably judge, naturally), I was tempted to just bin the whole thing, and it was only the fact that my personal objections to the books kept running through my head that convinced me to finally get them down on paper and out of my system.

For what it's worth, the only belief I stand unequivocally firm on is the belief that if you're just want to make a silly piece of entertaining fluff, you should not try to evoke actual tragedies to give it a "depth" the material does not warrant. To me, that means no vivid depictions of mass executions of civilians in your silly little "North Korea invades America" video game, and no machine-gun battles in the gulag to spice up your secret Soviet nerve gas terrorist cells plot, just off the top of my head. It's always going to be a personal judgment call where the line is drawn, but you should at least not pretend that the line does not exist.

Upon reflection, I suppose I was more strident in my opinion over WWI's depiction in my argument than I needed to be. As I mentioned in the review, my area of study focused more on Europe in the early 20th century, and some of the books I read on the period have stuck with me, so I tend to be picky about the "correct" way to interpret events. On the other hand, I have read quite a bit of sf/f deals with allohistorical WWI-type conflicts that tends to evoke more of the traditional trench imagery, and I had a very hard time understanding why Westerfeld's books would ignore it entirely, despite being set in the actual war. (I suspect that there may be an ethnic component to the issue. Westerfeld is an American, while everyone else I've read has been British. According to Wikipedia, all of them are also between 20-30 years older than us, which doesn't give much correlation for generational differences.)

@Niall: This review of Behemoth over at io9 was the one that set me off, mostly for the fact that they praised the book's "escapist" nature. It's just...unexpected to hear that WWI is the event the reader is escaping to rather than from.
http://cammalot.livejournal.com/ at 17:26 on 2011-02-18
I've lurked and lurked on this one, thinking it over, because I just finished "Behemoth" recently.

I liked both books, let's just get that out of the way right now. And they did serve an escapist purpose for me (very much needed at the time). And a goodly percentage of the appeal was the art.

That said, I did find the characterization a bit thin, and the story a bit light. And reading this article, I did wonder (if not decide outright) that the issue here is that the author is from the U.S.

I'm from the U.S., and in retrospect I find my historical education kind of appalling. Now, my education wasn't exactly typical (there was a lot of moving around and starting from scratch, and a lot of very-small-church-affiliated schooling in there as well, which has an impact on budget and materials). So my basis for comparison is limited and I wouldn't try to speak for every American. But I feel like most of what I learned about the two world wars, I learned on my own: through films, or documentaries, or raiding my mother's stash of Holocaust literature. We did pretty well on social studies, and I'm old enough to have done geography pretty thoroughly (although at age 10 I do remember having a map of Africa that contained Rhodesia -- this was the mid-80s, so...yeah. Budget). But as far as history goes, we always started with a myriad very boring explorers and maybe by the end of the year made it as far as the U.S. Civil War, in American History Class; World History was mainly Mesopotamia, Greece, Rome, summer vacation.

To be quite honest, what I know of the particulars of the first World War I've learned in the past five or so years, and far too much of that from DVDs of "Upstairs, Downstairs" and "Edward the Seventh."

I remember touching upon it in classes, especially in college, but that was mainly through Lit class, framed by poetry. "Dulce et Decorum Est," and so on, and so we learned that war was horrible and futile, but not so much about the details of what prompted each poet. (Memorial Day is a day to put up a flag on your lawn -- and not a lot of people in my immediate area do that, unless they have a veteran in the family -- and take a day off work. I suppose there are ceremonies held around plaques with lists of names on them somewhere, but I have never seen it in the U.S. I've seen plaques and statues, but they are not as ubiquitous, and I've never seen a ceremony except on television. Nothing like the center-of-town-square setup I've seen in many UK and French towns.)

The literature on WW2, in contrast, was always very detailed, and the emotional impact it was meant to deliver was put more in context, in sense of place and time, in demonstrating the involvement between the powers and between East and West. There are even translated manga series on WW2 available for extra POVs. One of the nicknames of a major tv station, "The History Channel," is "The Hitler Channel," they run so many documentaries on WW2. (Also, the political divisions from WW2 are not as hugely different on our maps.) The impact of the second war on the popular imagination is just stronger here (I would say in large part because of the development of the movie industry and other visual media).

So for me -- okay, the Leviathan books are not filling any vast gaping holes of knowledge for me anytime soon, of course, and I've always been aware of that. (Possibly the books' target audience would be less aware -- I'm in my mid 30s.) But I was drawn to them more than any of Westerfeld's other work explicitly because of the WWI theme, and I did find that they were effective, for me, in developing that sense of place and time that that war has lacked for me.

In particular, I appreciate his taking into account the Ottoman front. I’m still working on how to say the following properly:

I don’t want to say unequivocally “there is,” so I’ll say “I have perceived” a tendency in the American mindset to put this big black line of demarcation (and invisibility?) between the Western European world and the Ottoman/Byzantine/Eastern European/Middle Eastern world, to forget that they are really freaking close to one another, overlapped immensely in the past, and have, and do still, interact rather a lot -- political and religious differences finagled into stark differences of race and DNA, when in fact there is a much more subtle gradation of change across the region. I’m speculating wildly now, forgive me: I feel as if there is perhaps there is a tendency to see the history exclusively in the context of colonial relationships, as opposed to the parts where there were contesting yet more or less equal-in-their-own-eyes empires.

All this to say I was pleased to see the area being not only mentioned but visited and explored in the text, and Turkish people in all their variety being treated as equals, and perceiving themselves as equals in plotting and negotiation. The characters here might be underdogs NOW, but that is not their preordained lot and nature; they haven’t internalized horrendous things. I am still not sure I said all that properly. (Should I point out that I am Afro-Caribbean, now?)

My overall point being, yes, I agree there is an emotional impact missing in these books, and I wonder if that's attributable to that U.S. point of view that the author might well have, and more excusable/palatable to U.S. readers? Or is it simply an attribute of Westerfeld's writing style? (I haven't read anything else by him and can't judge.)

I'm also under the impression (I don't have the books in front of me to reference) that the series is set at the very beginning of the war, before the worst excesses took place, so perhaps there will be more reflection of that reality in the next (last?) volume?

Or perhaps it's all building up to a finale that saves the heir and restores the empire to sanity and peace, earlier than in our timeline. (Which might be sweet, if cliche.)

I also find that the main characters act very young, which might contribute to that “lightness.” I’d take them for 13 or 14 at most, but I believe they are meant to be around 17. I get a very ageless, Narnia-type vibe from them. But then, I do find myself reading the books rather the same way I read Narnia: a not-quite-real, sort of antiquated, “cozy” children’s-lit tone.
http://cammalot.livejournal.com/ at 17:37 on 2011-02-18
(It's actually the past couple seasons of Doctor Who and Torchwood that have really made it concrete to me what an large and important WW1 still has on the British imagination, and it makes me feel like I should apologize to someone! Martha in that weep-tastic closing scene with the kid who's now become and old man, standing there with the poppy on her jacket -- I don't know that a majority of Americans really know the significance of the poppy. The harshest portrayal of WW1 I've seen this side of the Atlantic was "Legends of the Fall," and the characters went there on a whim -- they were thousands of miles away and their parents tried to discourage them from going. It was presented as emphatically Not Our Business.)
Alasdair Czyrnyj at 01:27 on 2011-02-19
Thanks for commenting, cammalot!

As I mentioned a few posts above, I do think there is something to the American angle. There was definitely a body of American literature from the interwar period that did talk about WWI in terms akin to those European authors (just take a look at the works of F. Scott Fitzgerald), but memories of that war have been mostly overshadowed by WWII, which not only had more Americans actually fighting in it, but also had a conscious effort by Washington to foster a strong national community (through propaganda and other means) that would support the war effort over a period of years, something that didn't really appear in America in WWI for very long.

I will agree that Westerfeld does deserve praise for his portrayal of the Ottomans. On the flip side, I was rather disappointed with his decision to depict the Germans as faceless minions of evil who are solely to blame for starting the war. I mean, I know a good adventure story needs villains, but could they at least be complex villains?
http://cammalot.livejournal.com/ at 16:41 on 2011-02-24
This is true.

I'm hoping that this is only because the two main point-of-view characters really haven't interacted much with the Germans (especially Germans of their own age, which would be a prerequisite for getting any real characterization in this sort of book). I’ll see if that gets addressed in the third installment.
I'll back cammalot up on the History/Hitler Channel - it gets so repetitive! Why can't it be the Kaiser Wilhelm Channel for a few weeks for a change?

The Ottoman front aspect sounds interesting, and now I'm kind of curious to read it and compare to the portrayal of the Ottomans in Naomi Novik's Black Powder War. Which was... I thought a bit shallow, though sort of understandably so given that they basically dropped in and spent most of the visit locked up in one tiny bit of a palace. (Empire of Ivory was a much cooler book, imo.)
http://cammalot.livejournal.com/ at 21:47 on 2011-02-25
(Well lately it's been the "Giant Freaking Nightmare-Inducing Prehistoric Centipedes the Size of My Mom" Channel, so I think they're trying to mix it up! And yes, I am terrified and sleep-deprived. ;D)

I can't remember which was the last Temeraire book I read, which makes me sad; I liked them, but I've heard rumors of them going downhill. Was "Black Powder War" the first one that came out in hardcover?
I'd noticed a sudden increase in megafauna! It is a nice change from all the military history (which is fine, but there are other kinds of history, TV people!), but it would be nice to see, I don't know, something about the Haitian Revolution or Queen Liliuokalani. Probably they will just run the programs about the Little Ice Age and the Black Death five more times instead.

I don't remember Black Powder War coming out in hardback, though it might have in Britain. It's the third one, and most of what I remember is that they travel through the desert etc. from China to Istanbul, get put under house arrest, and then sneak out in the middle of the night. Also Izkierka the would-be pirate dragon hatches. Empire of Ivory is #4, and I think was the best one in the series, so it went uphill after BPW (can series go uphill?). #5 was okay, and had Temeraire leading his own dragon regiment and Napoleon invading England, but it's a bit hazy in my memory. I've heard #6 is not exceptional and feels filler-ish, but haven't read it yet myself. So I guess I'd graph the series as a bell curve so far :D
Wardog at 15:53 on 2011-03-06
Oooh, shameless self-promotion - I think I reviewed the Temeraire books a while back, although I mention it largely because I often can't remember what I thought of a book until I look back a review. I know, pathetic. Hmmm, I seem to have been largely positive about Black Powder War, but not positive enough for me to read any further in the series. I genuinely can't remember why I gave up, although I think it might have been a waiting-for-paperback issue.

I think I got a bit of sick of exotic-location road-trippin. Also I think the first one was so awesome it set the bar a bit high for sequels. On the other hand, if you remember Empire of Ivory being particularly good I could certainly add the series back to my "maybe you should read this" list.

Sorry, I hijacked Alasdair's srs WWI thread to talk about dragons :/
Robinson L at 22:00 on 2011-06-08
I've read both books so far (made sure to finish Behemoth before reading this article). I just accepted them as they are – adventure fluff – and enjoyed them for it, though I probably wouldn't bother with them if they weren't available on audio (ditto Uglies, come to think of it).

I also enjoyed the way Behemoth takes place in Istanbul – especially since I was in the city last year, and actually visited e.g. the Hagia (pronounced EYE-yuh for the benefit of anyone who, like me, wouldn't have known that to look at it) Sophia, though not the Hotel Hagia Sophia. So it was fun comparing those portions of the book to what I learned on my trip.

I also really liked this quote from the Wild Count, upon learning of Alek's Alliance with the Committee: “So he's fallen in with anarchists, splendid.”

Deryn, by contrast, is the standard Sweet Polly Oliver in an airship story, which is basically a high-seas adventure story for the early 20th century. It's not that I'm intractably opposed to seeing these stock story elements (heck, I liked Kenneth Oppel's Airborn, which is probably the best airship story out there), it's just that there's something disappointing about seeing these elements played out without an aversion, subversion, deconstruction, or even any sort of acknowledgment that even the basic way of telling pulpy stories has changed since 1910.

Westerfeld actually plays around a little with the Sweet Polly Oliver scenario further into Behemoth:
Westerfeld set up Deryn to expect think the beautiful young Committee member has a crush on Alek. I was completely drawn in and resigned myself to an irritating Love Triangle – then Alek explained that actually it's Deryn's male alter-ego she fancies. Sure, having the crossdresser hit on by a member of the same gender is another staple of crossdressing stories, but coupling it with the Love Triangle cliche struck me as pretty entertaining, though hardly subversive. (I'll be interested to see what happens when straight authors who write about crossdressing discover queer sexualities.)


The issue of whitewashing history didn't even occur to me. As another American who was a teenager not many years ago with no familial connection (that I know of) to the war, I never used to think much about it. I've learned more about it since I discovered an interest in history (especially subversive history) – but to me the war is just that: history. I don't feel any visceral sense of connection to it.

Er, yeah, so, not sure if that was apropos of anything.
Alasdair Czyrnyj at 01:14 on 2011-09-21
In case anyone cares, the third book in the trilogy, Goliath, has been released. I will not be reading/writing about it, but one thing caught my eye while I was skimming it in the bookstore.

The crisis driving the plot this time around concerns the activities of Nikola Tesla, who in the course of the book actually manages to get his teleforce weapon built and threatens to obliterate Berlin with it in order to stop the war. Admittedly I didn't do a very deep reading of it, but it seemed to me like the discussion of the weapon was strongly based off the common tropes of nuclear weapons, mostly in terms of its potential effects and the complexity of its construction. If this book had been written in 1981, I'd have said the teleforce weapon was intended to be a consolatory fantasy, a reimagining of nuclear arms as a singular creation of one errant Serb whose threat to civilization can be ended forever by the destruction of said Serb, rather than a massive undertaking encompassing the efforts of hundreds of millions in the creation of weapons whose use is monitored by theories so subtle and rarefied as to place them beyond the control of "ordinary people", thus neatly sidestepping any unpleasant questions about the self-destructive nature of modernity and/or humanity in general.

Of course, this book was written in 2011, so I have no idea what the teleforce weapon is supposed to symbolize. Probably nothing, really.
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