Ian McDonald is one of my more recent discoveries. Ever since reading his collection Cyberabad Days (2009), I've been a fan on his work. I very much enjoyed the kind of near future, technologically and culturally complex stories he creates as well as the beautiful prose he uses to tell this stories. His work as fanned my interest in more recent science fiction and caused a notable shift in the direction of my reading. A new novel by McDonald is pretty much guaranteed a spot on my highly anticipated reads list. Even when it is a change of direction for the author. Planesrunner is McDonnald's first foray into YA fiction so anticipated or not, the novel was a bit of a gamble for me. It was written for a new YA line for American publisher Pyr and American ideas of what constitutes suitable reading for teens (I won't call them young adults, the name of that particular genre label is completely misleading) rarely match my own. Fortunately McDonald managed to come up with a book that I would have loved to find in the library when I was a bit younger than the main character.
Fourteen year old Everett Singh, Londoner of mixed English/Punjabi decent, is waiting for his father, a quantum physicist, to attend a lecture when he witnesses him being abducted. After reporting the kidnapping, Everett becomes increasingly suspicious. When he catches them at a lie and his father's former boss shows more than a little interest in anything his father might have left behind. In fact, his father did leave something behind. A map, the key to accessing parallel universes. Possession of this map, offers Everett a chance to find his father but also exposes him to the attention of a group of people who feel they are much more suitable to handle such sensitive information. Everett's universe has just become an awful lot more complicated.
McDonald's novels are usually quite complex tales, often told from many different points of view. In Planesrunner, he sticks to just one; Everett is the focus of the story. It makes Planesrunner a very fast paced novel. Although the author does add some more reflective passages to the narrative, it is a novel that allows itself to be devoured by the reader. One of those books you can read in one or two sittings. I must admit I thought Everret a bit too perfect to be entirely believable though. I doubt it would be a problem for the potential reader but I feel the author could have gotten away with a slightly less brilliant main character too.
One of the pitfalls of writing for this particular age group is underestimating their intelligence. That is one thing McDonald clearly kept in mind. I don't think many authors would consider quantum mechanics, which is often so counter intuitive that not many people can wrap their heads around it, a suitable subject for a young adult novel. McDonald bases the whole concept of what is written to be a multi-volume series on the many worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics. This theory implies many alternate versions of the universe, giving the author a gigantic sandbox to play in. The theory was first formulated by Hugh Everett in 1957. The main character is named after him. There is math, physics, gravity and computers in this novel, what more could a young geek desire? Or a science fiction fan for that matter? McDonald packs in enough science to fuel more than one Wikipedia reading session.
The author makes full use of this huge potential of his creation by dragging his main character to a world where oil is not available and the industrial revolution has taken a different course. A lack of plastics and combustion engines being the most notable one. Air traffic is conducted through that Steampunk favourite, the airship, one of which, naturally, becomes a second home to Everett. Although the lay-out of this alternate London doesn't differ as much as one might expect, McDonald does include a few other exotic experiments. The crews of the Airships for instance, speak a kind of slang known as Polari. It is pretty well known in England, a kind of slang used in the gay community among other things. I've only recently heard of it though the third episode of Fry's Planet Word, Uses and Abuses, which includes a brief item on it (and should be watched by everyone with an interest in language). McDonald is very liberal with Polari words but a lot of the meanings were obvious from the context. I think I'd have more trouble with the spoken variant. For those unfamiliar with Polari vocabulary, the author has included an appendix.
The language and structure of the story may be a bit simpler than what he uses in his adult novels, there is certainly no shortage of science, technology or cultural oddities. In terms of ideas and the scope of his universe, McDonald challenges the young reader to embrace it in all its diversity. I guess that is what I like most about this novel. It takes the reader seriously, doesn't dumb things down or omits 'unsuitable' topics. I understand there will be at least two more books in the Everness universe. It is quite clear that McDonald could take it far beyond that if he wants to. In a recent interview with SF Signal, McDonald mentioned that he had aimed to write books that could keep boys reading beyond the age of twelve, when most of them drop books in favour of other activities. I guess you need to be a twelve year old to really have a good feel for it he has managed this, science fiction is not a genre that is wildly popular with large groups of readers after all. Personally, I think he is heading in the right direction with this first volume and I certainly hope young readers will agree with me.
Author: Ian McDonald
First published: 2011