Steampunk Week 2012

The Manual of Aeronautics: The Art of the Leviathan Trilogy

I was at a reading for Scott Westerfeld’s Leviathan when he mentioned off-hand that it would be a trilogy… with an illustrated guide to the world he was building, in the style of the Arthur Spiderwick’s Field Guide to the Fantastical World.

Now, there are a lot of reasons that I liked the Spiderwick guide—I’m a big fan of Tony DiTerlizzi, for instance—but the deep reason is that I’m gonzo for apocrypha. Those sorts of bits and extras that deepen worldbuilding, whether they are art books like Avatar: The Last Airbender: The Art of the Animated Series or in-world mythology like The Tales of Beedle the Bard. The icing on the cake with The Manual of Aeronautics is that Keith Thompson does the art for it, as he did for the series.

The meta-fictional element—that these books are books that exist inside another book—appeals to same post-modern geek in me that Homestuck and Community do. It just hints at a great depth, an ocean of verisimilitude. That might just be the roleplaying geek in me. Keith Thompson is an amazing artist; I was a devotee even before the Leviathan Trilogy. In fact, speaking of being a roleplaying geek – I’ve used not a few of his illustrations as props while running my RPG campaign.

I am a fan of coherent settings; I like when a world has enough different facets that it can take intense scrutiny. I’m of the Weta Workshop school of thought. Creating an incredible level of detail can seem like overkill—what if the runes carved on a prop don’t show up on screen?—but it really adds to the overall milieu. It creates a context, a foundation, making whatever follows have all the more impact. It reads as real, because it hangs together.

The Manual of Aeronautics shows that Westerfeld and Thompson brought that same philosophy to the Leviathan Trilogy. Reading through it, you’ll see detailed anatomies: the eponymous Leviathan is shown in cross section, and the “life threads” of a number of other species are discussed, from tiny messenger terns and flechette bats to giant mammothine and elephantines to the enormous krakens and the Behemoth.

As the World War in the trilogy is divided between Clankers and Darwinists, so too is The Manual of Aeronautics split between those mechanist and biological factions. The Clanker section is, as you imagine, full of cool pictures of mecha and their inner workings. The Stormwalker is the combat mech that the Leviathan Trilogy focuses on the most, and seeing it in both the imperial and standard model really brings the division between the Hapsburg aristocracy and the rest of the citizens into stark relief. They have their own bipedal tanks! Looking at the guts inside really radiates claustrophobia; you can imagine the hot engine running, you and the rest of the crew desperately loading and firing artillery shells as the fabricated Lovecraftian horrors of the Darwinists come upon you… Gives me the shivers.

Of course, things are not always as clear cut as “Darwinists versus Clankers.” The Ottoman Empire, for instance, uses mechanics to duplicate fantastic animals and mythological creatures. Giant clockwork scorpions are all well and good, but it is the various ethnic minorities’ mecha that take the cake: the Jewish Golem, Kurdish Şahmaran, Greek Minotaur, and Arab Djinn are all really lovely pieces, from concept to execution. America and Mexico are even more cosmopolitan; buoyant giant manta rays with engines strapped to their backs, Clanker mechanics turned into Hollywood camera platforms, the New World is flush with innovation, even as the Old World is locked in battle. A battle that the submersible water-walkers are trying to bring to America….

That really only scratches the surface; the book is a slim volume, but manages to pack a lot of bang for your buck. Come on, I know you like Nikola Tesla – who doesn’t want to see an enormous Tesla cannon mounted on a warship, complete with a cross section to show how the bits and pieces fit in below decks? Or for that matter, the almost encyclopedic deck plans for His Majesty’s Airship Leviathan? I mentioned the sharp divide between the ruling families of the Clanker nations, but the contrasts between the British officers (who are allowed to take baths) and the common crewmen (who sleep on the top deck of the gondola, so they can constantly check the rigging) are just as pronounced. The section on uniforms—Darwinist and Clankers—makes it even more distinct. Really awesome fashion across the board, though.

Besides those class divisions, it is mesmerizing to look at how Thompson and Westerfeld have crammed everything into the HMA Leviathan: the various beasties and creepy crawlies are just as likely to live in cages as they are to exists in a symbiotic ecosystem within the body of the skywhale itself. The bridge, engineering, navigation, recon – there are many different sections of the ship, all of which need to work in concert, and The Manual of Aeronautics displays the layout. A mixture of ladders, messenger lizards, passageways and cuttlefish-derived control panels that use chameleon-like colour changing to display information.

The book ends with a brief biography of the heroes of the Leviathan Trilogy, complete with cameo-style portraits, for those of us who couldn’t get enough of Wilcount Volger’s awesome helmet or Doctor Barlow’s pet thylacine. I for one will never get enough of this sort of stuff; if they published a sequel I’d snap that up, quick as you please.

Mordicai Knode is torn between a fondness for the kaiju critters of the Darwinists and the marvelous mecha of the Clankers. Luckily, he can have his cake and eat it too. What do you prefer? Let him know on Twitter, or find him on Tumblr.


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