Scott Westerfeld is an extremely popular author of young adult literature. I recently dived into his “Leviathan Trilogy,” a series that tells an alternate history of World War I as steampunk. What is steampunk? Well… it’s hard to sum up, but for those not in the know, check out Wikipedia’s description. In this alternate history, the powers that split the world are aligned as either Clanker (using machinery, guns, and the like) or Darwinist (using genetically modified creatures to do battle). There will be SPOILERS for the series in what follows.
Honor and Nationalism
The series begins with Prince Aleksander of Hohenberg, the son of the Archduke in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, being spirited away at night because people who do not want him to have any chance of becoming the Emperor are after him. Count Volger is one of those who have conspired to whisk him away. Volger’s character is interesting because although he is portrayed as largely unlikable from the perspective of Alek [Prince Aleksander], he is one of the most honorable characters in the series.
Volger acts as a kind of moral voice, but one which is strongly tied to nationalism. Volger’s honor provides a framework for Alek to learn from, and he does so spectacularly when he acts rightfully to stop a potential mass destruction later in the series (see below regarding Tesla). However, Volger is not infallible, and his moral compass appears to be inherently tied to what is good for the Austro-Hungarian Empire and what he perceives is good for Alek. This is in contrast to a wider, broader vision of moral action which would allow for self-critique on a national level as well. Volger at points seems to see how his moral/nationalist vision puts him at odds with what he thinks is right and wrong, but his commitment to that system makes it difficult for him to get beyond it.
Even if the reader thinks Volger is wrong, however, the honor he shows throughout the novels is something to be admired. The way that he acts selflessly at multiple points throughout the trilogy is noteworthy, and sets a strong moral example throughout the books. Again, this is interesting because from the narrator’s (Alek’s) perspective, Volger sometimes seems an insufferable grouch. However, Alek ultimately realizes the goodness of Volger, much to his own benefit.
These reflections lead naturally to a kind of self-examination for those who tend to think of their own nation in exceptionalist terms. Although exceptionalism is not, in and of itself, a moral wrong, it can very easily lead to the pervasive, systematic injustice. Volger’s character allows readers to examine this kind of thinking in a fictional setting, which makes it safer to think about while still engaging the reader on a deep level.
War and Justice
A central aspect of the trilogy as it plays out over an alternate World War I is the unity and disunity between the concepts of war and justice. In Leviathan, Great Britain seems to enter the war purely due to some perceived obligation–it doesn’t want to see the “Clankers” win. By the time we get to the third book, however, the depth of the discussion is much greater. Tesla has apparently developed a weapon capable of wiping out entire cities. Is it just to use such a weapon to bring an immediate end to the war, if that means sacrificing millions of lives to save tens of millions?
Thus, there are numerous questions about war and justice raised throughout the series. Some of these remain open questions–such as whether Great Britain in this example was right to wage war–while others are explored more thoroughly. One of these is Tesla’s attempt to use a weapon that allegedly can destroy entire cities. When he attempts to do so, Alek rushes to stop him, resulting in Tesla’s death. Here we see an act that might normally be considered a wrong–causing the death of another (though the moral status of its intent is something worth contemplating as well)–ends up being, ostensibly, a good. Ironically, Tesla’s weapon did not actually have the power he thought it did.
Deryn Sharp has to pretend to be a boy in order to pursue a dream of serving in the air force of Great Britain. The subtle criticisms of male privilege found throughout the series is worth commenting on. One wonders whether we have actually overcome some of the clear biases against the capabilities of women that are mentioned throughout the Leviathan Trilogy. For example, resistance to women as firefighters, police officers, and the like persists in our time.
Scott Westerfeld’s Leviathan Trilogy is a thought-provoking set of novels. It is also a beautiful story of love and adventure, with wonderful illustrations found throughout. It’s the best kind of story: one that makes you think.
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Thankfully, a slew of science fiction films are being released this year. “Pacific Rim” has generated quite a bit of buzz. I recently had the chance to view the film and will here offer some reflections from a Christian perspective. I feel obligated to put a disclaimer here: I realize this film is 99.9999% about blowing things up. I still think that a saying I often use is correct- there is no such thing as a film without a worldview. There will be SPOILERS in what follows. I do not offer a plot summary, as one can be found easily.
Master of the Storms?
Early in the film there is a scene in which Raleigh Becket, a Jaeger (think giant mech-tank) pilot, is marching out into a storm to fight a Kaiju (think Godzilla). As one watches this epic man-made titan march out to fight a monster, one is struck by the hugeness of it, the power of it. If humans can make this, what next? Raleigh discusses how once, humans were afraid of storms like hurricanes. Now, given the might of their creations, they need not fear a hurricane.
The quote seems impressive. After all, many today hope that humanity will reach heights like this. One day, we may be able to face down a hurricane and laugh. The powers of wind and rain may be overcome. But what then?
Interestingly, in the film the very next scene is that of a Kaiju absolutely beating down Raleigh’s Jaeger.
What? That’s not how the story is supposed to go. The story is supposed to show how we have finally transcended ourselves. But that is not the reality. The reality is that a giant Godzilla beast can still destroy even these hurricane-defying machines.
It is ironic, really. In the context of humanity’s defiance against the storms given their machines, another, greater challenge is thrown out there. One can almost imagine people railing against God once more. Why have we been left to fight this world on our own? But then one must remember what God has said:
[The LORD says:] “Can you pull in Leviathan with a fishhook
or tie down its tongue with a rope?
…Will it keep begging you for mercy?
Will it speak to you with gentle words?
Will it make an agreement with you
for you to take it as your slave for life?
Who has a claim against me that I must pay?
Everything under heaven belongs to me.” (Job 41:1, 3-4, 11)
Ultimately, God is in charge. Our attempts to control the seas, the storms, or the leviathan do not match up to God’s sovereign control over all creation.
The film does nothing to explore this avenue, but one can wonder: what of humankind’s efforts to try to best God? It seems that the answer is: it’s not going to happen. There is always a bigger Kaiju. There are always larger storms. Our fascination with these powerful aspects of creation may itself be a reflection of the Creator.
In the film, of course, humanity triumphs. As in all good action movies, the good guys win (no, I do not like sad endings for movies). But one can only wonder: if the Kaiju could come; what next? The God who rules the storms is the same God who can draw the leviathan with a hook.
Mind and Evolution
How much can our minds handle? In the film, the mental strain of piloting a Jaeger is too much for one person to handle. How do minds work in this context? Somehow they manage to create some linkage between two humans’ minds and create some kind of mental pathway such that the people are able to integrate and work together. What does that mean? I don’t know. It is techno-babble for an action flick. But suppose we were able to do this. What would it imply about minds? Well, no more than what we already know, it seems: our minds are connected to a physical reality. We as humans are grounded in embodiment.
The Kaiju turn out to be clones. I found that pretty surprising given the immense diversity of the creatures. Some had wings; others spit acid; still others had huge hammerheads to use as weapons. What kind of genetic diversity would have to be included in their DNA in order to allow for such radical diversity. I am absolutely not a geneticist–and this movie is absolutely not an attempt to portray anything scientifically accurate–but I wondered about this as I watched the movie.
Let’s be blunt. “Pacific Rim” is a movie for those who want to watch giant walking tanks fighting Godzilla clones. There is a plot to be found, and there are some themes involved–as in any movie–but at its heart, this movie is a pure action flick. That said, there were a few things to reflect upon, such as the notion of humanity trying to overpower God or the forces around us.
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Did you like Pacific Rim? Check out John Carter.
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The preceding post is the property of J.W. Wartick (apart from citations, which are the property of their respective owners, and works of art as credited) and should not be reproduced in part or in whole without the expressed consent of the author. All content on this site is the property of J.W. Wartick and is made available for individual and personal usage. If you cite from these documents, whether for personal or professional purposes, please give appropriate citation with both the name of the author (J.W. Wartick) and a link to the original URL. If you’d like to repost a post, you may do so, provided you show less than half of the original post on your own site and link to the original post for the rest. You must also appropriately cite the post as noted above. This blog is protected by Creative Commons licensing. By viewing any part of this site, you are agreeing to this usage policy.