PROS: Strong beats of plotting; appealing Heinleinian protagonist; wide variety of interesting characters; plenty of stuff for non-YA readers to enjoy.
CONS: Perhaps too tight a focus; world doesn’t feel like it extends far beyond protagonists.
VERDICT: Ian McDonald seamlessly switches gears to a rollicking YA adventure.
Ian McDonald is a name that many science fiction readers have heard of. Although he’s been writing for much longer than that, over the last decade, he has been building a resume of impressive novels and stories, most recently in his Hugo award-nominated The Dervish House. I personally loved his River of Gods. His work is a strong component of why I think we are in a
Golden Rainbow Age of Science Fiction and Fantasy these past few years.
Now, with Planesrunner, his talents have turned to something that is on the face of it completely in a different portion of the football pitch of Science Fiction and Fantasy: Young adult fiction. SF Signal’s own Charles A. Tan interviewed Ian McDonald about Planesrunner and YA fiction at SF Signal in December.
Planesrunner, the first in a series called Everness, is the story of teenager Everett Singh. Son of a divorced Dad, he is a football (soccer) goalkeeper, as good as or better than this father at mathematics, and a tech nerd. He also cooks! He is a character driven to excel in everything he puts his mind to.
Fellow SF Signal people like Jamie Todd Rubin and Fred Kiesche will recognize what I did: Everett Singh is very much like a Heinlein juvenile protagonist. And that is the Rosetta stone to what Planesrunner is for me and to me: its a deliberate attempt by the author to rub that particular itch, to fill a void once filled by novels like Rocket Ship Gailieo and Have Spacesuit will Travel.
The plot of Planesrunner is relatively linear, but that is in keeping with the cool, lean lines to appeal to young genre readers to keep them interested. Everett’s Dad is kidnapped, and by a sequence of events, Everett learns that not only has his father been working with a project to contact other worlds, but also other Earths. The trick is, his father has developed something called the Infundibulum, and it’s a quantum leap ahead of anything the other Earths have — something big enough that his Dad sends it to him before he is kidnapped and forced to reveal its secret. Unlocking that secret (something not even his Dad could do), Everett manages to transport himself to the world where he is convinced his father is being held. And then he meets Sen and the crew of the airship Everness. They might be able to help him, but have problems of their own first.
Since I cut my teeth early on the Zelazny’s Amber Chronicles, Castle Perilous, The Coming of the Quantum Cats, and lots of other novels, stories and media revolving around alternate Earths and universes, Planesrunner as a high concept appealed to me immediately. Given that my last read that uses this concept was disappointingly weak, I was curious what the author would bring to this particular favorite sub-sub-genre of mine.
Besides a Heinleinian protagonist (whose cooking skills do come in handy, by the way), the cast of characters, major and minor, are a highlight of the novel for me. Everett’s Dad is a cipher, but he only gets the briefest of time on the page. He’s really one of the two MacGuffins of the book anyway. I like to think of Sen, teenaged pilot of the Everness, and a tarot card diviner, reader (and creator!), as “a lost daughter of Prince Martin of Amber”. Add in a no-nonsense female Captain, and a colorful crew. Set against them are a diverse set of antagonists, starring Charlotte Villers, the designated Villainess of Planesrunner, and if I am any judge, most likely the entire series. And even with that, there are glimmers and intimations that she is doing what she is doing for the best of reasons. I trust the author will bring more of this to light in subsequent volumes. The antagonists of the crew of the Everness are a little more stereotypical and not so well-rounded, but are by no means an undercard for Everett and company to deal with.
Language is another strong highlight of the novel. Everett talks like a teenager would and should, rather than just being a short adult. He throws the reader into the deep end in giving the Airish (airship folk) of the world he drops into a dialect that is nearly extinct here. He trusts the reader, like his protagonist Everett, to pick it up as one goes along, although he does explain its origins and more in an afterward glossary. And even beyond Palari, McDonald has a great “inner voice” for Everett in the third person viewpoint. Consider this scene between Everett and the ain antagonist:
Rock-Star-Blonde woman didn’t look any less elegant for having been woken in the dark before dawn. Or any less deadly. Supervillains like her probably never slept anyway. She’d swapped the Renault for an S-Class Merc. Tasteful. No need to blend in with the background now. And Skinhead-in-a-Suit didn’t look any less like a thug. His chauffeur cap added an unsuspected hint of stupid. Everett watched him slide up into the disabled parking bay outside the coffee shop. He opened the rear door. He had the boots and britches, the high-collared jacket, the string-back driving gloves. The lot. Rock-Star-Blonde set one black high heel onto the curb, then the other. She was tall. She moved like a golden silk scarf falling through water. Her skirt was calf-length and tight, her jacket nipped at the waist, flared at shoulder and hips. She wore a little round pillbox hat at a stylish angle, with a scrap of veil. She looked killer.
But I have something you need, Everett thought.
The slacker students, the coffee-shop coolios, the hip kids, the guy with the Mac writing his Oscar-winning screenplay all looked up and could not look away as the woman entered and stalked up to Everett’s table.
“Everett.” Her lips were glossy red.
“I’m him.” Everett stood up. Tejendra’s family had been very strong on good manners, but he would have felt compelled to stand anyway. The woman commanded by her presence. The tightest smile played across the woman’s lips.
“I am Charlotte Villiers. I am plenipotentiary of the world designated E3. We have a matter to discuss. Shall we?” She nodded very slightly towards the car and the waiting chauffeur. Everett was very glad he had sneaked away from the general post-morning-assembly milling around and changed clothes in the toilets before slipping out and away from school. You could not credibly play this wearing a school uniform. Charlotte Villiers flared her nostrils at the glowtubes attached to his waterproof. Everett scooped up his backpack and left a few pounds of coins on the table. He’d always wanted to do that, like they did in Tarantino movies—just throw some money down and walk.
“Sit with me, Everett,” Charlotte Villiers said. The central locking clicked. The car moved off into the traffic. And all Everett’s bravery faltered. Plans made in the dark before dawn look cheap and rickety in the morning light. Get the Infundibulum to the gate. The rest he would make up as he went along. He had always prided himself that he could see the ball coming. What if this time he couldn’t? What if there were people as good as him? Better than him? His stomach lurched in fear. But they weren’t better than him. They weren’t even as good as him. He’d woven together the Infundibulum. None of them had, in ten Earths full of people, not the Moorish Britain of E2, not the identical-twin E4 where something had happened to the moon, not the E1 they didn’t talk about, not the E3 of the elegant Charlotte Villiers. Only Everett Singh—and his father Tejendra Singh.
Charlotte Villiers—she was one of those people who could only be known by both her names—looked out of the rain-streaked window. Her scarlet lip was curled in disdain at the street people in their heavy winter coats and hoodies and bum-freezer jackets.
This is my home, these are my people, Everett thought. You don’t look at them like a tourist.
The car headed north through rain and heavy traffic, following blue signs for the M25. “We’re not going to the university?”
“That’s correct,” Charlotte Villiers said. She opened her small handbag and surveyed her face in a compact mirror. Everett glimpsed dark metal, an ivory handle, an engraved barrel. A gun. Satisfied with her appearance, Charlotte Villiers put away the compact and clicked the little bag loudly shut. You only did that little act so I could see what you have in there, Everett thought.
The alternate world of the Earth of the Everness is an interesting one and not the usual suspects. An early discovery of the practical uses of electricity has lead not to steampunk but rather, Electro-Carbonpunk! Coal is king in this world, and McDonald cleverly explores the idea, leading not only to airships rather than airplanes, but carbon technology more advanced than anything we have now. We get hints and ideas about what some of the other worlds contacted are like, but for the most part they are drawn only in hints, rather than full-fledged visits and portraits. The author appears to have taken to heart the lessons of the best animated “Children’s” films: Keep the tone and focus for the target audience, but provide enough good stuff for older viewers to keep them coming along too. Planesrunner is replete with side references (many I didn’t get, not being a Brit) and allusions that kept me amused. I really didn’t need them, but they were like bonuses for me as a reader to find.
The one thing I can ding the novel for, and it feels somewhat churlish for me to do so, is for the reason why I like novels that explore the multiverse: Seeing lots of alternate worlds, and seeing lots of stuff inside of those alternate worlds. Planesrunner has such a tight, sculpted focus that sometimes I didn’t get a sense that the world of E3 extended far beyond what Everett could see at any given time. That does have the salutary effect of increasing the intensity and strength of Everend of the imagination sometimes felt like it wasn’t there. The rest of the “E” worlds are mostly ciphers, as well, with one notable set-piece exception. I wanted more.
If I was 12, I would love the hell out of this book. I’m more than three times that age, and I still loved the hell out of this book. I can see why Pyr has grabbed this series and made it a tent pole of their efforts to expand into YA fantasy and science fiction. More than just being one of the best YA novels I’ve read the last couple of years, its one of the best science fiction novels of 2011 that I have read, period.
So when’s the next one coming out, Mr. Mcdonald? There’s an infinite number of worlds out there…