Ian McDonald
Planesrunner Cover

McDonald's Y.A.

Scott Laz

Planesrunner is the first novel in Ian McDonald’s projected Everness series, which is being marketed in the“young adult” category. After also reading Paolo Bacigalupi’s young adult novel Ship Breaker this year, I’m starting to get an idea of what to expect from modern “young adult” science fiction: a single-viewpoint narrative (both McDonald’s and Bacigalupi’s recent “adult” novels contain more complex multiple character viewpoints); a teenage protagonist challenged to do the right thing under adverse circumstances; and science fictional themes taking something of a backseat to the action-oriented plot (again, in comparison with the authors’ “adult” work). Both stories are based around journeys to new and unfamiliar places, precipitated by events, and both of these journeys can also be related to coming-of-age issues—family, relationships, individual morality—but maybe this is inevitable in a story with a teen protagonist. (And, of course, nothing too “inappropriate” in the story, although some of the violence in Ship Breaker was a little more extreme than I would have expected.) I would probably normally be put off by the YA category, but with two of my favorite current SF authors jumping on the bandwagon, it was time to give it a try… After reading both, my general reaction is that, while I prefer the authors’ more complex adult novels, both Ship Breaker and Planesrunner are well-written, exciting and (though to a much lesser extent than The Windup Girl and The Dervish House) thought-provoking reads. I can only hope that these books really do help attract younger readers into science fiction.

Our teenage protagonist in Planesrunner is the absurdly competent Everett Singh who, along with being a genius when it comes to math and physics problems, is a superb soccer goalie and a great cook. All these skills, of course, will serve him well at various points in the story. Everett witnesses his father’s kidnapping at the beginning of the novel, and later receives an e-mail pointing him to a software download that turns out to be the Infundibulum—a map of the multiverse. Everett’s father is a prominent quantum physicist and expert on the many worlds theory concerning the possible existence of multiple parallel universes. Everett’s receipt of the Infundibulum leads him to the realization that his father and some colleagues have actually learned how to communicate with and travel to alternate Earths, and that the Infundibulum technology is the reason for his father’s disappearance, as well as the tool needed to find him. He ultimately uses it to follow his father’s trail to “Earth-3”, where he arrives in an “electropunk” parallel London where advanced technology has developed using coal-fired electricity instead of oil for its energy needs, and cargo and passengers are typically transported by airship. The world of Earth-3 is brought to life through examination of its customs, clothing, architecture, and language.

Everett falls in with an airship crew (including a teenage girl named Sen, who he is increasingly intrigued by). Gradually, beginning with Sen (who, of course, is increasingly intrigued by Everett), he enlists his new friends to help him in his mission to locate and rescue his father. To do so, they must triumph over colorful villains, led by the impeccably dressed Charlotte Villiers, who are members of a sort of United Worlds diplomatic corps that has been set up to foster relations between the various parallel worlds as more and more parallel Earths discover the “gate” technology allowing communication and travel between them. Out of the infinite possible alternate worlds, only a few have so far developed gate technology. But the discovery of the Infundibulum unleashes a power grab, since it makes it possible to travel to any spot in any universe, providing whoever controls it with a potentially powerful weapon. By contrast, the existing gate technology only allows travel between the gates, and thus only to the places and worlds where gates have been built. The villains are determined to acquire the Infundibulum, and have kidnapped Everett’s father in an effort to get it. Now they are after Everett for the same reason. Exactly what they plan to do with the Infundibulum is not entirely clear, but it can’t be good, and this is a plot that should develop as the series continues.

The physics of parallel worlds and the “rules” of travel between them is of interest, but the story is really an adventure romp, and that is its main attraction. There are chase scenes as our heroes escape the villains out to capture Everett and the Infundibulum, attempts to rescue Everett’s father and, best of all (though with no real relevance to the larger plot conflict), an airship duel! On Earth-3, the cargo airships are owned and run by families and crews with a culture similar to 18th or 19th-century seafarers, who sometimes engage in antagonistic rivalries culminating in occasional duels in which rival airships try to knock each other out of the sky. Economically, it’s hard to see how such a transportation system would develop, but I suppose anything can be posited in a parallel world (and we don’t learn much about its history, so maybe McDonald does have a plausible explanation for why what would seem to be massively expensive airships are in the hands of a despised social class—the “Airish”—who are willing to engage in livelihood-destroying battles over personal grudges). McDonald probably just thought it would be fun to write about airships duels (and it will make a great scene if anyone decides to make a movie)! We probably shouldn’t examine things too closely (it spoils the fun), but it’s a little surprising from an author known for his carefully thought out and plausible futures.

The structure of the series should allow McDonald to continue to have fun, as he explores alternate worlds that we haven’t seen yet. the premise ensures that the possibilities are endless. Although I look forward to his return to the sophisticated social and technological extrapolations of his last few novels, following Everett and crew as they explore the multiverse and try to save it from the bad guys is something to look forward to in the meantime…