Friday, November 27, 2009


by Scott Westerfeld

Deryn and Alek, the two heroes of Scott Westerfeld's new young-adult steampunk adventure, Leviathan, try very hard to be seen as normal teenage boys. This isn't easy, because Deryn, who longs to fly for the British Army, is a young woman, and Alek is the son of the recently-assassinated Archduke Ferdinand, leader of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

I haven't read a lot of Steampunk--the basic idea is to splice technology from our present (or even future) onto the Victorian or Edwardian eras, and see what that very different culture would have done. In Leviathan's timeline, Darwin not only developed the Theory of Evolution, but also discovered DNA and learned how to manipulate it. So, while Austria's Imperial-Walker-style robots are fun, the real thrills come when you follow Deryn into the British Air Service, which uses Darwinist beasties of all shapes and sizes, whole engineered ecosystems in the sky. Westerfeld's details, both biological and mechanical, make this bizarre alternate history come alive, and Deryn and Alek are smart and lively characters. Though the ending sets you up for a sequel, it's also very satisfying on its own. Highly recommended.

Homer & Langley

by E. L. Doctorow

One of the great benefits of fiction is the ability it gives the reader to slip into the skin of someone else, to temporarily inhabit another soul and body. Even more remarkably, the subject doesn't need to be someone like you, or even someone you'd ever thought you'd be able to relate to. With Homer & Langley, for instance, E.L. Doctorow brings you into the mind of an kind, well-educated man who, by the end of his life, was seen as some sort of monster or freak.

Homer Collyer tells us, in his inimitable voice, that he is one of two brothers, the blind one. We learn how he lost his sight, the world slowly growing darker and less distinct. Despite this, Homer is a vital soul and makes the most of his other senses, learning to navigate using his hearing, his sense of smell, even his sense of air pressure around him. His brother Langley, who takes care of Homer after their parents' death, is an iconoclast, railing against authority figures of all kinds. We see Homer and Langley journey through the 20th century without often leaving their 5th Avenue brownstone. Their family fortune enables them to opt out of the working world, though they remain reluctant to spend much, eventually letting their servants go. It soon becomes clear that Langley is an eccentric, so fiercely independent that he sees no reason to pay utility bills or even the mortgage. He buys newspapers from all over town and debates with Homer about the horrors of the day.

The brothers aren't unfriendly--Homer has a job playing the piano at a silent movie house, the scenes whispered into his ear by a lovely girl he develops deep feelings for; the brothers befriend a gangster charmed by Homer's abilities; they hire a Japanese couple to clean their house in the year leading up to Pearl Harbor; they're adopted by hippies who see them as longhaired counter-culture gurus.

By the end of their lives, the Collyer brothers were famous around New York, and even worldwide, as compulsive hoarders, recluses living amidst tons of their own garbage, never opening the black shutters over their windows. I'm not sure anyone but Doctorow could have made these two human lives so relatable, so tragically beautiful. As extreme as these two brothers were, they bring up basic truths of life: our struggle between independence and community, our tendency to accumulate possessions and detritus over a lifetime, and the eventual loss of everything we hold dear. Homer's story deeply touched me, and also made me want to clean my basement.