Today we welcome back Scott Westerfeld, author of the Steampunk YA adventure books Leviathan and Behemoth. He’s written a variety of other YA books, including the Uglies series. Behemoth, book two in the Leviathan series, was released October 5, 2010.
Steampunk has been expanding steadily. Not just in the sense of visibility and sales, but in terms of settings, backdrops, and milieus. In other words, our sub-generic headquarters may still be found in London, but, like the Victorians themselves, we have outposts all over the globe. Cherie Priest’s Hugo-nominated Boneshaker is set in Seattle. Ten years ago Jan Lars Jensen’s Shiva 3000 featured steam-powered Hindu gods. Countless manga titles bring steampunk to Japan, and if you want see a great live-action Japanese steampunk film, check out K-20: Fiend of Twenty Faces. Readers of this blog can probably supply many more examples of steampunk’s promiscuous diversification in the comments.
But what has this to do with me? My Leviathan series is set in an alternate World War I, and all of book one transpired in Europe—namely London, Austria, and Switzerland. When the first book came to a close, however, our heroes were headed for Istanbul.
Turkey may be part of the European Union now, but in 1914 it was a different world. The Ottoman sultan was the Caliph, the secular ruler of Islam, and his empire stretched from Persia to (nominally) Egypt. The Ottomans had been at odds, culturally and militarily, with Christian Europe for centuries. By late 1914, though, both sides of the Great War had an interest in wooing the Ottomans over to their side. So I thought an airship trip to a steampunk Istanbul would be a great way to expand the world of the series.
For those of you who haven’t read Leviathan, the Great War is between the Clankers (Germanic machine users) and Darwinists (Charles discovered DNA in the 1860s, and created a sort of Victorian biotech). So we have steampunk mechanical walkers versus living machines like the eponymous airship, made from the life-threads of a whale. Leviathan is also illustrated, like any self-respecting novel would have been in 1914. The artist, Keith Thompson, created a style for each of the warring powers. The Clanker style is boxy and mechanical, the Darwinist style organic and sinuous. To show this distinction, I always use this Clanker walker compared with the captain’s desk aboard the Leviathan:
So when my characters traveled to Istanbul, Keith and I figured that the Ottomans needed their own style. Since they ultimately joined the Germans, we figured they had to be Clankers at heart. But they were on the fence for a few months in 1914, so I decided that Ottomans would make their machines in the form of animals, just to give the Darwinists a fighting chance. Thus the sultan’s power is based on an army of mechanical elephants:
This two-page image shows how rich Keith’s Clanker Istanbul is. We can see a minaret and mosque alongside the western-influenced residential architecture of the city, and in the background a pair of Iron Golems guarding a Jewish neighborhood. Istanbul in 1914 was a true multicultural city, so each religion has its own Clanker style. My favorite is possibly the Kurdish battle walker, based on the goddess Şahmeran, shown here in a Steamed World Exclusive!
One of the great things about illustrated books is how the themes in the text are reinforced by the art. In these last two images you can see the conflict that the Ottomans face: Are they steely, functional Clankers or sensuously styled Darwinists? They have bits of both, of course, so choosing sides in the great war won’t be easy.
Without being too spoiler-y, I’ll reveal that in the third book of the series, Goliath, His Majesty’s Airship Leviathan continues on its travels around the globe. There should be many more styles to discover along the way.