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Worldbuilding as Narrative in Scott Westerfeld’s Leviathan

Jones, CP (2017) Worldbuilding as Narrative in Scott Westerfeld’s Leviathan. Fastitocalon: Studies in Fantasticism Ancient to Modern, VII (1-2). pp. 79-92.

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Abstract

Scott Westerfeld’s Leviathan trilogy (Leviathan, Behemoth, and Goliath) is an alternative history of the First World War written for a Young Adult audience. It is an example of steampunk fiction, and as such makes numerous changes to historical fact. Chief among these is the division of much of the world along two axes, namely those nations who have chosen to pursue progress through mechanical engineering – known in the novels as Clankers – and those nations who continue to build on Charles Darwin’s discovery of genetic engineering to create new creatures that are employed in industrial and military capacities. Examples of Clanker nations are Germany and Austria, whilst Britain – thanks to Darwin’s pioneering work – is the leading Darwinist nation. Some powers want the best of both worlds, and so Japan as well as the USA show evidence of using both Clanker inventions and Darwinist creatures. For the most part, therefore, this division allows Westerfeld to map his re-imagined world onto the genuine antagonisms of the period surrounding the First World War. The narrative is based around the adventures of two young protagonists. His Serene Highness, Prince Aleksander of Hohenburg is the fictitious son of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, and is also a representative of the Clanker approach to progress. His counterpart representing the Darwinists is Deryn Sharp, who for much of the trilogy is disguised as a boy called Dylan, since this was the only way open to her to gain admittance into the Air Service. The changing relationship between Alek and Deryn – at first suspicious, then collegial, before transforming into love – is the backbone of the trilogy, allowing Westerfeld to weave numerous themes, such as gender and class differences, into his work. However, Westerfeld’s major goal is to build a world that, whilst originally based on open hostility between the mechanical and the organic, realises that its only opportunity for peace and progress will lie in a deconstruction of this division. In keeping with the steampunk agenda, and echoing Donna Haraway’s work on the cyborg, Westerfeld leads his readers to the point where a type of mechanical / organic hybridity is seen as the most desirable and optimistic solution not just for his fictional early 20th Century world, but also for our own early 21st Century.

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