Planesrunner - Ian McDonaldFew 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.

18 thoughts on “Planesrunner

  1. Pounding? Hmm, I did say there were many things to admire about Planesrunner. And there are, undeniably.

    The more I thought about it, the more I felt that the problem here was not Everett’s emotionality but rather the lack of emotional engagement with the plot. I can’t help but contrast him against Alex, the hero of Mike Mullin’s recent Ashfall (a book I’d recommend without reservations). Alex, like Everett, is talented, strong, practical and stoic–but the family that he’s been separated from remains primary on his mind, even as he’s frequently waylaid and diverted from them in his journey. In this way, he felt more realistic to me as a teenager. Everett, rather than simply setting his problems aside for other practical matters (as one would imagine the typical British boy might) often seemed to simply forget these problems in favor of more shallow, but fun, plot events. It all rang a little hollow for me–I wanted a story that cut deeper, especially in light of the vivid home life we’re introduced to at the novel’s outset–though I’m sure plenty of readers will have fun with it.

    As it is, though, I honestly don’t think it’s fair to reduce this to a matter of teen girls wanting “emo boys.” I’m not a teenage girl, and can’t speak for them; I do read plenty of YA, though, and honestly feel the average YA reader’s needs are a touch more complex than that.

    1. I absolutely agree that it would make for a better novel if Everett were more engaged with his emotional issues, and if you are right that this is what will sell best to the YA market then I’ll be very pleased because it means we’ve got a generation of very smart readers growing up.

      As for whether that’s realistic, I don’t know. I don’t have much contact with British teenagers these days. All I know is that when I was a kid boys did not show emotion, unless they wanted to get really badly bullied. That may have changed.

      What I’m more concerned with here, however, are publisher and author decisions regarding “what kids want”. I think there may be been a conscious decision here to go for a more Tom Swift-like boy’s own adventure. And whether it was conscious or not that’s what we’ve got. I’m interested to see how the market reacts to the book.

      1. All I know is that when I was a kid boys did not show emotion, unless they wanted to get really badly bullied. That may have changed.

        I suppose the easiest way to say what I’m trying to get at is that it’s not about showing emotion, but about feeling it–this is such close third person narration that I would expect that the reader be very attuned to Everett’s feelings, and I’m not sure that I had that experience in reading. McDonald cites the popularity of Doctor Who as an inspiration; I think young Amelia Pond is an interesting example of this sort of children’s/YA hero, who is not “emo” but where her emotions toward her situation very much inform her actions.

        I suppose we’ll see, though! I’m very curious to hear the reactions of the target audience.

        1. I see the distinction you are making, but if an author describes a character as feeling emotions then the author is effectively showing that character’s emotions to the reader. The reader may then see the character as someone who displays emotions.

          1. We might have to agree to disagree, then. To me, showing emotions in the way that you might get beaten up for them is very different than having those emotions narratively evident in a novel.

          2. I’m not sure we are actually disagreeing. To you as a writer, obviously those things are different. To you as a sophisticated reader, they are different as well. To someone who just wants a hero he can identify with, they may not be. Each reader approaches the book in their own way, and when I review a book I try to understand how different types of readers may react to it.

          3. Each reader approaches the book in their own way, and when I review a book I try to understand how different types of readers may react to it.

            Of course, that’s always my goal in reviewing as well. 🙂

  2. (You might also be interested in the review of Planesrunner over at the King of Elfland’s Second Cousin blog, which is why I decided to first pick it up. Chris raises some overlapping concerns about the handling of YA conventions there, particularly in the way that the plotline with Everett’s family is resolved.)

  3. I liked Planesrunner, but I’m sceptical of its potential success as a YA novel in the US for a couple of reasons quite other than Phoebe’s entirely reasonable concern about Everett’s emotional connection to events.

    Everett’s London felt well-realized to me, but I’m an adult life-long Anglophile. I think there’s a serious risk that, for an American teenager, Everett’s current-day London would feel just as other-worldly as E3, E4, and all the other Es that we’re likely to see as the series unfolds, thus failing to provide an initial moment of familiarity that could act as a hook and a point of orientation. I’m very glad that the book has acquired a UK publisher, so that it can reach an audience unlikely to have this issue. (I don’t, btw, think that American youth are unable to appreciate a book set outside the US, if the setting is established and developed for a significant amount of the plot. It’s the “right–that’s normal and contemporary established; now for strange!” snapshot that I think is likely to get a response of “but that’s ALREADY strange!.” My stepson adored Sliders, so maybe the concept alone will suffice to engage. (Can’t try this on him as a test audience, as he’s now in his late 20s–too old to be the target audience and too young still, I think, to be willing to read things aimed at a young audience from a pinacle of adult security. Maybe next year.)

    I’ve begun to read YA books with male protagonists with half an eye to whether they’d appeal to my 12-year-old nephew. At the moment, he really prefers first person narrative. He hadn’t been making a connection with independent reading that lay outside graphic stories until someone (bless someone!) gave him a novel written in first-person. Scenes where Everett’s perspective is strongly conveyed (and they exist) might bridge this gap, but there are plenty of scenes where Everett’s perspective feels more like a convenient camera location than an integrated and responding component of the story.

    The one thing that bothered me personally was that Everett seemed to notice details of female characters’ appearance equivalently, whether they were adults or girls his own age. I have never known a boy in his early teens who paid the slightest attention to an adult woman’s shoes or makeup, unless he had a frantic crush on her. McDonald bleeding through his viewpoint character a little here, I think, in aid of getting the description right. I’d have found those details less jarring if they’d come second-hand from Sen or the Captain: “She’s a bully, but her shoes are killer.” “Huh?”

    I have no problem at all with his hyper-competence. (The cooking comes specifically from cuisine nights with Dad. The mathematician-goalkeeper-planesrunner abilities are his core identity.) If he ever turns out to be a master gardener and quiltmaker, suddenly because those abilities are required by the plot, then I’ll complain.

    1. I appreciate that Planesrunner might struggle to find a mass audience, but if American readers find modern London too strange, what hope to they have of engaging with EmbassyTown?

      1. I don’t think McDonald’s adult audience will have any trouble at all. I think the issue would exist for a YA audience made up of YAs.

        Everett’s London lies outside the experience of most teenagers in the US. I’d think the first major hiccup would occur at the word “Mall”.

        I don’t think very many fourteen-year-olds are likely to cope with Embassytown, wherever they come from. As they aren’t it’s target audience, that’s hardly a problem for it.

        1. But isn’t what you are saying there is that the YA audience can’t read science fiction? Or indeed secondary world fantasy? I was reading historical novels when I was much younger than Everett precisely because of he unfamiliarity of the setting. By the time I was his age I’d already read Lord of the Rings.

      2. When I visited my local Barnes and Noble this evening, their complete inventory of Planesrunner had been moved from the YA section into the science fiction section.

        1. Now that’s data! It doesn’t tell us why the book isn’t succeeding as YA, but it does suggest that at least one store thinks it is an adult novel. I’d love to know if other cities in the US are seeing the same thing happen.

  4. I’m not sure that it tells us the local B&N thinks it’s an adult novel, but it certainly says that they think it’s more likely to sell there. (In that store, most YAs set up shop on the floor in the manga section, adjacent to the SF section. There they do homework, text people, and chat. The YA section is at the front of the store where these activities are less welcome or possible. I’ve never seen behavior that would lead me to believe the resident YAs slide over to the SF aisle and browse, however, so I think B&N must be relying on adults to buy Planesrunner.)

    The Amazon sales rank numbers are a bit dismal, but they’re much better than those for Karen Healey’s “The Shattering” which I admire greatly and wholeheartedly, and which takes place in its entirety in New Zealand. (And that’s an apples to oranges comparison, as Healey writes fantasy, which usually sells more robustly.) The Amazon reviews (7 currently) seem mostly to be by McDonald fans who are adults. If you look at any of the fast-selling YA novels (Daughter of Smoke and Bone, or Crossed, or even Blood Red Road) you see a high percentage of reviews by teenagers.

    I’ll be interested to know what’s happening in other B&Ns nationally, as I’m not likely to be able to launch a fact-finding tour on my own. (Sounds like fun, though.)

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