Wednesday, June 9, 2010

The Collision of Animal and Machine

My son and I just finished listening to the audiobook of Scott Westerfeld's re-imagining of the outbreak of World War I, Leviathan. It's an alternate history steampunk version of the events in which the Germans are Clunkers, fielding Star-Wars-esque robotic striders and walkers, and the English and their allies are Darwinists, with militarized "fabs"--genetically fabricated animals--including small living airships called Huxleys and the bigger one of the title, Leviathan. Here's the capsule plot summary from Westerfeld's comprehensive website:
Prince Aleksander, would-be heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, is on the run. His own people have turned on him. His title is worthless. All he has is a battletorn war machine and a loyal crew of men.
Deryn Sharp is a commoner, disguised as a boy in the British Air Service. She’s a brilliant airman. But her secret is in constant danger of being discovered.
With World War I brewing, Alek and Deryn’s paths cross in the most unexpected way…taking them on a fantastical, around-the-world adventure that will change both their lives forever.
I loved the intrepid Deryn, whose bravery, ingenuity, and athleticism go way, way beyond mere pluck. (I especially liked her trademark swear, "Barking spiders!") and my son and I both loved the extremely well thought-out and described world of life aloft on the Leviathan, with its flechette bats and message lizards. At times you could almost trace the DNA of Patrick O'Brian's Master and Commander in the story.

One drawback of the audiobook version (besides having to hear poor Alek's Austrian accent, which I found distracting) was not being able to see the "Victorian manga" artwork by Keith Thompson. The stated aim, according to Westerfeld, was to invoke the richly illustrated books of the early twentieth century, and there is a hint of Arthur Rackham in Thompson's line. Love the "lady boffin," Dr. Barlow, with her thylacine. My son asked me wistfully if they'd "brought those back" and seemed quite disappointed that the answer was no.

What's interesting to me about Westerfeld's vision of animal-machines and machine-animals is the way that interface is actually playing out in science and engineering in our present. Engineers are looking to the plant and animal world for inspiration for all kinds of engineering dilemmas--visit the design portal to see some of the 1,400  examples, from self-air-conditioned buildings modeled on termite towers to electronic text displays based on the scales of a butterfly's wings. Robot designers are creating a stunning mechanical menagerie of animal-inspired machines, from jellyfish to penguins. It's hard to look at the footage of German firm (!) Festo's air penguins and not imagine them as commercial airships in what, 15? 20 years' time? I'll be in line for one of those tickets.

It almost makes the arrival of the Leviathan sequel, Behemoth, in October 2010, seem like a bearable wait. Almost.


  1. Wow! This is a fantastic idea!
    Great thoughts you got there, believe I may possibly try just some of it throughout my daily life


  2. I hear nothing but wonderful things about this one. I really need to get around to reading it.