Few things make me miss having a regular reviewing gig more than having to see Gary Wolfe, Jonathan Strahan and John Picacio tweet excitedly about a new Ian McDonald novel for months before I am able to buy it. Were they right? Is Planesrunner utterly wonderful? Of course it is. But then I love Ian’s writing. Let me see if I can convince you.
As you probably know, the book is based on the many-worlds interpretation of quantum theory pioneered by Hugh Everett. The central character, Everett Singh, is actually named after the great physicist. That’s because his father, Tejendra, is also a quantum geek. The book is set in a parallel world very similar to our own, the only principle difference being that in the world of the book someone in the British government still believes in the value of fundamental scientific research. As a result, Singh senior and his colleagues have not only discovered that parallel universes to exist, they can communicate with them, and even travel to them. There is, naturally, some sort of United Universes organization, and our world (or rather the world of the book) is represented by David Cameron. You can see that this isn’t going to end well, can’t you?
Naturally there are bad guys, and also gals. In particular we have Charlotte Villiers, the plenipotentiary of Earth 3. She’s something straight out of Iron Sky: she’s tall, blond, severe, ruthless and possessed of the sort of attitudes and fashion sense that would make her a fortune in porn movies aimed at right wing politicians and business leaders who feel themselves in need of a little discipline and correction from someone way too cool to dress in leather unless it is an army greatcoat. It turns out that Tejendra Singh has invented something that none of the other worlds have, and consequently Ms. Villiers and her thugs kidnap him. We never get to see what our government makes of this, but I have this vision of Cameron doing a remarkable Nick Clegg impression.
So the book opens with Everett seeing his dad kidnapped and the police deliberately doctoring evidence to pretend that it never happened. At this point we meet Everett’s mother, and discover that his parents are divorced. Laura Absolutely-Not-Singh Braiden is a fairly stereotyped hysterical divorced mother whom I would like to feel some sympathy for except that it seems that the main reason why she can no longer stand her ex-husband is that she’s heavily emotionally invested in social conformity and he doesn’t care. She should have married a banker, not a physicist.
Tejendra, it turns out, is well aware that something bad was likely to happen to him, and has taken precautions. A key piece of software turns up in Everett’s email. When he installs it on his iPad he finds that he has The Infundibulum, a map and navigation system for the multiverse. Armed with this, he sets off to rescue his father.
This takes us very quickly to Earth 3 where Everett ends up in Hackney Great Port and gets a job as a cook on board the airship, Everness. She’s that world’s equivalent of a tramp steamer, flying around the world picking up cargo where and when she can, and delivering it come hell or high winds. Airship crews, it turns out, form a vibrant, multi-ethnic community much at odds with the stern Aryanism of Charlotte Villiers. They are somewhat-anarchist, somewhat-piratical, and very steampunk. Adventure naturally ensues. Planesrunner is one of those books that can be fairly described as a “romp”.
That means that there has to be one or two comedy characters, and McDonald does not disappoint. We have the ship’s weighmaster, the shotgun-wielding, Bible-spouting Miles O’Rahilly Lafayette Sharkey, an adventurer from the Confederate States of America, who will be a great part when the book makes it to the silver screen. And there’s Mr. Mchynlyth, the Punjabi-Scottish engineer who at one point in the book actually says, “Captain, I canna get full power where there’s no engine…” Yes, it is meta, we can do these things these days.
Above all, however, there is Captain Anastasia Sixsmyth (“Annie” to her crew, though normally “Captain” to her face). Here’s how she is introduced:
She wore a man’s — a man in this world’s — ankle-length greatcoat smartly tailored at the waist, lapels embroidered in twining floral patterns of gold thread. A white shirt, high collared, tan riding breeches tucked into boots with lots of buckles and straps. At first Everett thought she was bald, then saw that the woman’s hair was cropped within millimetres of her skull. Her left ear was hooped with piercings from top to bottom. Rings on every finger and both thumbs. Silver bangles around both wrists. Her skin was the deepest black, her eyes the largest Everett had ever seen, but they did not seem soft and trusting. They were wide to everything in the world; they missed nothing; they saw and judged all.
What is more, McDonald knows that all of the best naval people, Caribbean though their ancestry might be, have some connection with the West of England. Here’s Annie’s origins:
I’m not from here, I’m not a Hackney polone; I’m Western Airish; I was born in Bristol Great Port, within the sound of the bells of St. Mary Redcliffe. You should see the ships, lined up nose to nose along the Floating Harbour, all the Transatlantic Fleet. Quebec, Boston, Atlanta, Miami; Havana and Caracas and Recife and Rio; Montevideo and Buenos Aires. I knew what ship flew where, and who flew her.
Does Ian know that BristolCon takes place next door to St. Mary Redcliffe? I rather suspect that he does. I wonder if he has seen the cover of Dark Spires?
Polone? The Airish speak a modified version of Polari.
Sadly I don’t have the skin for it, and no way am I cutting my hair, but I do want an Anastasia Sixsmyth costume. She is totally awesome.
As this is a book aimed at the YA market it also needs to have a teenage girl character. She is provided in the shape of Sen, Captain Sixsmyth’s adopted daughter and the pilot of the Everness. Sen is brave, adventurous and streetwise, but possibly the least vivid major character in the book. That may be because her strange affinity for Tarot cards is something that will not be fully explained until later on in the series. However, the banter between Sen and Everett seems to work reasonably well, at least for me.
This brings us to the 64 million dollar question: does the book work as YA? The book got a bit of a pounding for YA writer, Phoebe North over on Intergalactic Academy. That was partly because of race issues, which I’m not really qualified to comment on, but mainly because Everett is a Campbellian Competent Man (well, boy) hero, not an emo teenager. It is certainly true that Everett is exceptionally good at rather a lot of things: he’s a genius at math and physics, a brilliant cook, and a top quality goalkeeper as well. On the other hand, aside from his mother, who is nothing but a bag of emotional problems, Everett gets to display more feelings than most of the characters in the book. He worries about the jewelry that he stole from a friend’s mother so as to have something of value when he got to Earth 3, and he worries that he left his mother and little sister without so much as a goodbye. What he doesn’t do is obsess over these things. He’s an old-fashioned British-Indian bloke, he doesn’t do emo.
Whether this is a problem or not, I don’t know. It may well be that teenage girls will, on average, prefer to read books about emo boys, whereas teenage boys will, on average, prefer books in which the boys are more heroic. Certainly most of the SF aimed at boys when such things were last saleable featured very competent heroes. Everett is a character more in the Tom Swift mould than, say, Todd Hewitt, and I’m pretty sure that the heroes of the Heinlein juveniles were pretty competent too. On the other hand, this may be a generational thing. Perhaps Phoebe is right, and Planesrunner is a book written by and for old, male science fiction fans. There’s some interesting discussion of the issue between Phoebe and Niall Harrison over at Strange Horizons. I guess only time will tell.
What is interesting, however, is that the book has taken a long time to get a UK publisher. Thankfully, according to the January Locus, Jo Fletcher has recently picked it up for her new imprint, so hopefully it will be generally available over here soon. Planesrunner is a very British book. It is set mostly in London (in both worlds). It is probably just as well that it has come out in the US from Pyr, with the excellent Lou Anders in charge. I can see some US editors wanting Everett to be half-Hispanic rather than half-Indian, and to have him play gridiron at school rather than soccer, so that American readers can relate to the story more easily. I like to believe that American readers are better than that, and don’t need their books set either in America or a Disney version of a foreign country. We shall see.
I should note, by the way, that Ian is a life-long Manchester City fan. I cannot imagine how much teeth-gritting it took him to have Tejendra and Everett heap so much praise on Tottenham Hotspur, even if they do have Gareth Bale playing for them.
But I digress. Whether or not Phoebe is right about the book’s appeal to teenagers, she is absolutely right about its appeal to old, male science fiction fans. Thanks to Anastasia, I think it will have plenty of appeal to old, female science fiction fans too. And of course it is only the first book in a series. There are plenty more books to come. I’ll be buying them all.