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Thursday, June 30, 2011

Leviathan by Scott Westerfeld

This genre falls outside my usual fare. It’s known as “alternative history.” For the most part, it’s an excellent ambassador book. I would try the genre again after this book’s introduction.

The time period in which it is loosely based is World War I. The archduke of Austria and his wife are murdered, setting the stage for war. His son, Alek, escapes with the help of Count Volga and is on the run toward a safe place: a castle stronghold. He is escaping with a crew of loyal men in a “clanker” which is an armored, walking, war-machine.

Simultaneously, a young girl named Deryn joins the British air force posing as a boy. The British air force has benefitted from the work of the Darwinists, who have designed flying machines that are living, replicating, and self-repairing entities.
While Alek escapes in the walker and holes up in a castle that Volga and Alek’s father prepped for the purpose, Deryn proves herself an able pilot, meets up with Darwin’s granddaughter and is aboard when the mighty airship, Leviathan, crashes in the Artic. The Leviathan is a fabricated animal that the British Darwinists created. It’s an amazing airbeast.

Deryn and Alek meet up when Alek tries to help Deryn’s injured crewmates. Together (and apart) they brave battles, hoist up the collapsed walker using the Leviathan, and have some rocking adventures until Derynn reveals her identity and Alek also reveals his identity to the famous and valuable scientist, aka Darwin’s granddaughter. All of which sets up the end for the sequel.

At the end, the author chimes in and clarifies some historical facts and liberties he took with them.

Other than an over-use of the word “barking” that became quite annoying, the writing in this one is decent. The action is believable and engaging. It’s a well-told story.

I was baffled by one event. The archduke was married to a commoner; as a result, his children were not allowed to inherit the throne. In the book, this was apparently solved because the Pope granted a dispensation and the paper was given to Alek, who didn’t question it.

Maybe I misunderstand dispensations or even the book since I listened to it on audio and don’t have the text to refer to; however, dispensations are granted prior to a wedding if a Catholic is marrying outside the Church. I’m unclear how a dispensation paper would help after the fact. An annulment might be more pertinent… if Popes could “grant” them. They only may make a judgment that a sacramental wedding did not take place… which should be a rare event and certainly wouldn’t be historical. Maybe there is more to a dispensation than I know.

I've noticed that frequently, authors seem to wax enthusiastic over Darwin and evolution. This novel’s got that subtext going on.

Much ink has been spilled on this topic, and a mere book review need not add to it. But I will address, briefly as I can, how I see it in this story.

Evolution really must be defined, and that simply can’t be done quickly. Summarizing Pope John Paul II as best I can: evolution is a complex topic unable to be addressed in a sound bite. We must engage in the intellectual work required in order to understand the complexity of the topic. (This, of course, immediately cuts out most the media and a good portion of the population). We Catholics may NOT link it inextricably to the philosophy of materialism or secular humanism (this immediately knocks out the majority of academia).

So does this author buy into the popular close-minded myth that the Church is against science, or does he respect the intellectual engagement re: evolution as explicated by the Church who birthed to scientific revolution?

I think his subtext is that the Darwinists are superior scientists who are ahead of people like Alek (ostensibly an Austrian Catholic), who have clanky, heavy war machines and are suspicious of the marvelous Darwinists’ creations.

When, for example, Deryn shows Alek with the eggs that makes up the next potential Leviathan airship and refers, breathlessly, to the incredible threads that contain the instructions for life does Alek respond intelligently, say, with a question like… Who designed the threads of life? How did they get there?

Nope. We get the backward exclamation,”Godless!” (which he repeats... a lot). As educated Catholics know, humans are made in the image of God… not animals. Animals show the beauty and goodness of God’s creation, but they can’t be godless because they are animal souls. No Catholic would say that. And, sorry, but a prince of Austria back then would have been educated in the Catholic faith. So, I conclude there is a bias here.

You might consider it a good teaching opportunity or you might skip it. I do think it’s worth reading along…



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