The Big Idea: Scott Westerfeld
You can’t accuse Scott Westerfeld of not thinking big. When he put together his latest trilogy, of which his terrific new novel Leviathan is the first installment, he not only reordered history by providing an alternate version of World War I, but also also fiddled with biology, technology and indeed the whole general run of scientific advancement from the 19th century forward into the 20th, by positing the existence of both vast, clanking machines of war and amazing new genetically-designed creatures, also used for (you got it!) war.
And to top it all off — and this is something Westerfeld’s particularly proud of — he decided to reimagine the way people read novels here in the 21st century. You know, just for kicks.
How did he did this? Well, in this Big Idea, not only will Westerfeld tell you, he will show you.
A picture is worth a thousand words, so let’s start with this:
Okay. It’s night, and moonlight streams through the camouflage netting, suggesting hiding and sneaking. (And, cheating a bit, the caption says “Stealing Away.”) The spiked helmets tell us that it’s World War I. A pair of Iron Crosses suggest Germany, but then we spot a tiny Hapsburg crest, so it’s Austria-Hungary. A young boy is pulling on his glove, preparing to drive the HOLY CRAP IT’S A WALKING TANK.
That is, in a nutshell, what I’ve come to love about illustration: in one glance you can mix storytelling with world-building, the familiar with the outlandish, and the fastidiously accurate with the Just Plain Historically Wrong. Unlike linear text, images dump all their information all at once, letting the viewer “read” the result in whatever order their brain sees fit.
My new book, Leviathan, has about fifty of these visual info-dumps, all masterfully executed by Keith Thompson. Mind you, I didn’t start writing the trilogy with illustrations in mind, but about sixty pages in, I had a Big Idea.
In ye olden days—let’s say 1914, when Leviathan is set—most novels were published with pictures. Whether you were reading Charles Dickens, Jane Austin, or H.G. Wells, you expected to find a half-dozen plates among the pages. And these images had great power in shaping an author’s work. For example, Sherlock Holmes’ deerstalker cap does not appear in Arthur Conan Doyle’s text, only in Sidney Paget’s drawings, and yet it’s part of our iconic image of the character.
Why these pictures disappeared is open to debate. It may have been the explosion of cheap paperbacks, or the collapse of the illustration industry after newspapers, advertising, and mail-order catalogs started using photographs. It may have been changes in literacy rates, or the advent of film or comics as mass media. But for whatever reason, novels for adults gradually became illustration-free over the middle of the last century. Novels for teenagers followed suit soon thereafter.
(Dear pickers of nits: I am aware that graphic novels exist. But I’m talking about prose novels with illustrations, which are a different form altogether.)
The Leviathan trilogy is set in an alternate history with alternate technologies, so I thought to myself, what if novels hadn’t lost their images? What if, instead of shrinking to zero, the number of illustrations in the average book had increased to, say, fifty?
In the world of Leviathan, technology has split into two tribes: the Germanic Clankers, who are machine lovers, and the British-led Darwinists, who weave the life-threads of natural creatures into fabricated beasts. (To put it simply, in this world, Origins of Species was an instruction manual.) So I needed someone who could draw both fantastical machines and strange creatures. Keith Thompson fit that bill perfectly. He’s been a conceptual artist for films and video games (like Iron Grip and Borderlands), so creating new worlds has been his job for a long time. But what sort of new world?
Leviathan is often described as a steampunk series, and fair enough (walking tanks!). But it hews closer to alternate history than most steampunk, with the son of the Archduke Ferdinand a character, and the timeline for the early war matching our own history closely. But in a way, the most “alternate” thing about it for me was simply writing an illustrated novel.
For one thing, I had to become an art director. (To maintain creative control, I agreed to pay Keith with my own money rather than the publisher’s. This is not the usual way with an illustrated book.) This new role meant knowing all sorts of details that a prose novelist could ignore. Sure, before writing this series, I would often claim to have imagined every scene down to the last detail. But that was all lies! Turns out, I didn’t really know what kind of wallpaper was in this room, or what sort of boots that character had on at that moment.
And it’s not just the details; there are also big-picture issues to contend with. In Leviathan, the Great War is not simply between two treaty-groups of countries, or two ideologies; it’s between two technologies. So to represent them, Keith had to create two opposing aesthetics. As you can see from the Stormwalker above, Clanker design has that clunky futurist, WWI-tank look. The Darwinists are more organic and art nouveau. Take a peek at Captain’s Hobbes’ cabin, where a nautilus motif appears in the mirror frame, the fabricated-wood desk, and his cufflinks and hat. (All of that Keith’s idea.)
Every image has to help build the world, or it’s a wasted thousand words.
On top of all this art direction, illustrated books require a different pace of storytelling. The series I’m best known for, Uglies, has more hoverboard chases than slow conversational scenes. But with an image gracing every chapter, stuff really has to happen in Leviathan. And not only is action important, but my characters have to arrive at new and wondrous settings to keep the backgrounds fresh. (It’s just lucky they have an airship.)
And finally, there’s the technical side of illustration: the aspect ratio of the trim size effects every composition; there are contrast issues (can’t write too many scenes at night); and even the type of paper becomes important! Luckily, I had a very indulgent publisher who gave me seventy-pound paper (only thirty pounds short of cookbook weight) and an amazing design team. They budgeted for color end-papers, which allowed Keith an amazing allegorical map of Europe. The result is a beautiful book, and one heavy enough to stun a lupine tigeresque.
So let yourself imagine if technology really had taken a different turn, and no one had invented photography, or if cheap paperbacks, or comics, or whatever it was that killed illustrated novels had never appeared. All of us writers would be facing a different set of challenges every day, and making novels would be far more research-intensive and collaborative than it is today. Imagine how a cultural imperative of fifty pictures per book might have changed the works of Charlie Stross, Octavia Butler, Salman Rushdie, or Angela Carter.
Now that would be an alternate world worth visiting.
Visit the Leviathan page, which includes links to an excerpt, the audio version of the first chapter, read by Alan Cumming, and other goodies. Follow Scott Westerfeld on Twitter. See a gallery of Leviathan illustrator Keith Thompson’s work.