past the square, past the bridge, past the mills, past the stacks

A very cool thought which occasionally occurs to me: in a world which contains both the Channel Tunnel and the Trans-Siberian Railway, I can hop on a train on any station in Britain and, eventually, find myself in any other station in Europe and Asia, without ever leaving the railway network. And Railhead, the forthcoming book from the explosively talented Philip Reeve, is that thought writ on an enormous scale, where you can get on a train and find yourself on the other side of the galaxy.

It’s a return to more grown-up books for Mr Reeve, whose work over the last few years has been aimed at younger readers, with the jolly good (if snot-focused) Goblins series and the even younger, wonderfully illustrated collaborations with Sarah McIntyre (Oliver and the Seawigs: recommended even if you aren’t 8). Mortal Engines, which came out a bit before either the “YA” or the “steampunk” trends really took off, has been retroactively pigeonholed into both of them; arguing about genre is the dumbest thing ever and I won’t do it, but Railhead is Proper Sci-Fi by anyone’s definition (and presumably to be marketed as YA, because there’s murder but not sex), set in the future with spaceships and robots and stuff. A lot of modern science fiction trying to set space opera in The Future has been caught slightly flat-footed by how, between various bits of microtechnology and the internet, the modern world has basically become science fiction, and so needs to make up alternative histories to keep things analogue enough to force Star Wars into – but Railhead deftly builds on what we have now (drones and miniaturised terminals, the Datasea and its “spam-sharks that would hack your mind and fill your dreams with adverts”) without letting it get in the way of being a great big space opera where things explode excitingly and the right man in the wrong place can make all the difference in the world.

There’s a great cast of major and minor characters: our hero, Zen Starling, a thief trying to be tough but who really doesn’t mean badly; the magnificently named Threnody Noon, a thoroughly sympathetic spoilt-heiress type who develops hugely over the story; Flex, a gender-fluid graffiti artist who reminds me of Tim Maughan’s fantastic very-near-future science fiction; terrifying killer trains (you read that right), burned-out cops, monks made of insects, nuanced aristocrats, a man in black looking to pick a fight with the gods themselves. And the sense of detail and texture is superb: every concept has an underlying story, every glum little failed economy sits on a well-told history of how it ended up that way. This is (thankfully) not one of those books which has capital-T Themes, but touches quickly and convincingly on lots of them – automation and androids destroying jobs and livelihoods; great economic forces washing over worlds and societies, chewing through them and abandoning them; a power vacuum and the subsequent politicking between factions, shot through with the uneasy relationship between civil legitimacy and military force. Which makes it believable, because even when it’s about galactic emperors and hyper-intelligent close-to-goddesses, you can see echoes of the real world underneath.

And it’s full of great little Reeve-isms, double meanings and references to books and old bands and everything else. Robots are called Motorik, which sounds good in its own right, has a lovely double meaning if you know what it means in German, and an even better triple meaning if you know far too much Krautrock-related terminology. (Or Google it, as I did.) That sort of namedropping often comes off as a bit smug and trying-too-hard-to-be-clever in books (and especially games), but here, like in Mortal Engines (with “is this your first time on a harvester?” and an airship called Idiot Wind) it all fits seamlessly into the worldbuilding and adds texture and detail despite being a reference. A logo consisting of a pair of rails crossed by a lightning bolt carries a joke that will sadly be lost on non-Brits, but is still a perfectly good symbol for a future police force patrolling the rails. What I’m getting at is that this is a universe where trains are the most important form of transport, ruled by someone nicknamed the Fat Controller, and it’s a good nickname and gives the reader something even if they didn’t catch the joke.

 

I won’t spoil the plot (any more than the above vague allusions already have) but it’s very satisfying, twisting and turning without losing momentum, and culminating in the best sort of climax, a great explosive set-piece of resolutions and revelations where you can’t be sure, from page to page, who will come out on top – or who you really want to.

It’s due to arrive for real in October. I hope there’s another one along soon.

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