Sunday, March 16, 2014

Empress of the Sun - Ian McDonald

Empress of the Sun is the third book in Ian McDonald's young adult series Everness. The books are a mixture of steampunk, adventure, strange vocabulary and quantum mechanics that is pretty hard to resist for the real science fiction geek. When starting out on this project McDonald set himself the goal of writing books that would keep boys reading beyond the age of twelve, when a lot of them give it up in favour of other activities. I'm a little too old to speak for today's twelve-year-olds and I certainly wouldn't go so far as to say they are not appealing to girls but I suspect he may well have succeeded. Although McDonald set up his world to be only limited by his own imagination and plenty of more stories are possible, it would appear that this book is the last one for the moment. I haven't seen anything that points in the direction of more Everness books in the immediate future.

Everett Singh may be a talented mathematician, even he can't keep track of all variables. A failure to imagine a world that's not spherical, has made the airship Everness crash on an unknown alternate Earth where dinosaurs did not go extinct and had 65 million years to evolve into something beyond the giant reptiles whose bones grace musea on Earth 10. The ship is badly damaged and they need to find a way to get it moving again before their enemies find them. The world they landed is far from safe either. Just about everything in this environment seems to have a ravenous appetite and fierce interspecies competition is the norm. With enemies approaching on all sides, Everett and his company are in serious trouble.

The structure described in Empress of the Sun is known as an Alderson disc. It's a hypothetical structure akin to what Larry Niven describes in Ringworld. Everett thinks of it as Discworld however. There are a number of references to Terry Pratchett's work in the book. It's probably the version of Earth that has diverged furthest from the world we know and illustrates clearly how much room to come up with alternative Earths McDonald leaves himself. The location the Everness crew finds itself in, is a jungle where the struggle for survival is both fast and violent. An intelligent species has arisen and created the disc but it has since been locked in a perpetual war for control, making them both ruthless and violent. Their preoccupation with each other might well be the only thing that keeps the rest of the multiverse safe from them. The arrival of the Everness has ruined the equilibrium and consequences of unleashing these creatures could be dire.

The relationship between Everett and Sen continues to develop. Despite the frantic repairs, dealing with the natives of this alternative Earth and having to fend off their pursuers,find time for romance. McDonald has made sure not to underestimate his target audience in these books but I was still surprised at the directness of the novel on such matters as procreation and warfare. Especially since he sold it to an American publisher. The inquiries of  Kax, one of the natives of the Earth the Everness crashes on, into the nature of the relationship between Sen and Everett will probably see it banned from more than one school library.

The novel follows two other story lines as well. The first is that of Everett's alternate Everett M - apparently a nod the Iain (M.) Banks -  who has taken his place on Earth 10 and is trying to keep it from being overrun by the intelligence that has taken over Earth 1. He is a very tragic figure, trying to save the world but unable to tell anyone. The temptation to do so is overwhelming at times and so he decides to push people away from him, adding to his loneliness. Where he appeared to be Everett's enemy in the previous book, their goals seem to align more in this volume. He appeared very cold-blooded to me in Be My Enemy. McDonald is clearly trying to show us a different side of this character in this book.

The second story line besides Everett's is that of Charlotte Villiers, the villainess in this series. We get to see more of her political manoeuvres and gain more insight in her motivation. Unlike Everett M, this doesn't make her more sympathetic however. She uses people and has a very low opinion of anyone who allow themselves to be used by her. People are pawns to her, useful at times but completely disposable. She does however, immediately see the danger the journey of the Everness poses to the panoply of worlds and her response to this threat is characteristically brutal. What I like about this story line is not so much the character but the fact that it shows the reader just how little Everett knows about the multiverse and how shaky the information on which he bases his decisions is. He doesn't see so himself but this is one aspect in which the very competent Everett is truly a teenager.

Although it is clear from the ending of the novel McDonald doesn't intend to stop here, the novel does provide a proper climax for the trilogy. Several story arcs are completed with one very obvious omission. Everett has made a new life for himself in a universe that is larger than he ever imagined. The Everness books are a wonderful ride among the parallel worlds. McDonald, who isn't lacking imagination in his adult fiction either, clearly went all out in this set of books. The result is a fast and fun read that should appeal to science fiction veterans as well as the target audience. The quality of these books has only increased since Planesrunner. I for one, wouldn't mind seeing an announcement that McDonald has sold a few more of these.

Book Details
Title: Empress of the Sun
Author: Ian McDonald
Publisher: Pyr
Pages: 283
Year: 2014
Language: English
Format: Hardcover
ISBN: 978-1-61614-865-2
First published: 2014

1 comment:

  1. "I for one, wouldn't mind seeing an announcement that McDonald has sold a few more of these."

    If I remember right, I heard McDonald say in an interview that there will be five books in the series...