Thursday, May 20, 2010

Can a whale zeppelin be steampunk?

I just listened to the audiobook of Leviathan by Scott Westerfeld, and though it was an interesting bit of alternative historical fiction and a fine adventure, I don't know if I'd call it steampunk. It's 1914, and the Germans and Austrians (what the British call "clankers") have created big, noisy, awkward, and powerful machines that run on things like kerosene. Because Darwin managed to figure out how to splice DNA back in the 19th century, the British can fabricate strange creatures that they use as vehicles, weapons, and communications devices.

Alan Cummings' narration was fine - he did a German accent for Alek and his companions, while Deryn had an appropriately urchin-y Scottish accent. I often find male narrators' female voices to be a little off-putting, as they can sound so much like female impersonators - sort of plummy and annoying - but it kind of worked with Dr. Barlow, the posh female boffin.

Still, I really wish I had read this, because I didn't get to see the absolutely awesome illustrations by Keith Thompson which which the book is liberally sprinkled. While listening to the audiobook, I couldn't quite understand how the whale zeppelin and the medusa air balloon were supposed to look (usually I'm good at this, but my imagination kept showing me stuff that just didn't work). But now that I've seen the illustrations, I get it. And I have to say that these creatures, all coils and tentacles and with gondolas hanging off them, do look pretty steampunkish, even if they do run on biological energy, not steam energy.

Check out Thompson's Leviathan artwork here to see what I mean.


  1. Yes, this book didn't live up to it's hype, at least for me. The art was phenomenal, and the way it interplayed with the text reminded me of the Larklight series.

    Bio-engineered technology is a pretty steampunkish trait, at least I thought. Dystopian and squidgy (not in a cute way!)

    I'd recommend this for readers who aren't quite ready for Philip Reeve's Hungry City Chronicles.

  2. I know what you mean about male narrators and female characters. I recently listened to "The Fairy Tale Detectives" on audiobook, and the narrator drove me crazy. Why would you have a male narrator when the three main characters are female? I couldn't get into the story at all.

  3. "Dystopian and squidgy" - excellent description of this technology; I am convinced of its steampunk creds!

    About male narrators of female characters - I love Alan Corduner's narration of Garth Nix's Keys to the Kingdom series, but his female characters do sound exactly like Monty Python's female characters - totally ludicrous!