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Those of us who have been reading science fiction for a long time already know this story well: Boy Wonder with special abilities, entrusted with a Secret Formula the Super Villains will do anything to get their hands on, finds it necessary to assume the responsibility of saving his dad in particular (whom the Super Villains have captured and imprisoned) and the world in general from the greedy, nefarious designs of the Super Villains. In this case, Boy Wonder's special ability is what might be called Super Spatial Perception, and it's not only the world, but the multiverse that needs saving. Throw in an alternate London where airships rule, plastic doesn’t exist, and Boy Wonder earns his keep by whipping up culinary delights in the primitive galley of an airship even as he and his (female) sidekick, a teenager who pilots said airship, plot to rescue Boy Wonder's father, and you've pretty much got the Big Picture of Planesrunner. Sure, the book's got numerous lovely touches—using a smartphone and an electronic tablet the Boy Wonder has named "Doctor Quantum" to outwit the Villains' security thugs, for instance, or casting women for the roles of airship captain as well as Villain-in-Chief—but seasoned readers will recognize this story and know exactly where it will end. The point, perhaps, is that this is the kind of book many of us would have loved to have read as kids (say, as twelve-year-olds). Because what, when one was a kid, could be more fun than reading about another, fictional kid stepping through a portal leading from one version of Earth to another?

Planesrunner's Boy Wonder is Everett Singh, and his sidekick is Sen. The Secret Formula is called the "Infundibulum"—a map of the multiverse containing the addresses of a substantial portion of the 1080 parallel worlds that Everett's dad, a physicist, says exist. And as his dad's colleague, Colette, informs Everett, the Infundibulum is "the most important artifact in the multiverse" (p. 66). Winking to the reader, the narrative even describes the Infundibulum as "bigger on the inside than the outside" (p. 70). And the portal is the Heisenberg Gate. Thanks to the opening of the Heisenberg Gate, Everett's (our) Earth, known as "E10," has just joined the Plenitude of Known Worlds, which so far has a membership of nine. (E1 is a dangerous place to be avoided at all costs.) On E10, apparently only politicians (for instance, David Cameron) know that Heisenberg Gate technology and the Plenitude even exist. The Super Villain is Charlotte Villiers, of E3. When Everett realizes she's abducted his father and imprisoned him on E3, he gates himself there and sets out to find and rescue him. Before Everett can do this, though, he has to take his bearings and figure out how to survive in a version of London that but for a few monumental landmarks doesn’t much resemble the one he knows (though the language, fortunately, is intelligible to him). Checking this Earth out in an E3 public library, Everett realizes, "They had never had oil. An entire high-tech civilization had been built without liquid fuel. The coal age never ended. 'Steampunk. Cool'" (p. 94). And then, reading on, amends this to "Electropunk" (ibid.).

Everett's first few hours exploring E3 entertained me more than anything else in the book—particularly his perusal of its technological history. Everett learns that E3's age of electricity began in the eighteenth century and bypassed steam technology altogether. Instead of a Heisenberg Gate, E3 has an Einstein Gate—first theorized by Einstein in 1912, since "In this universe Einstein was a quantum theorist" (p. 95). (Einstein in our universe, of course, would roll over in his grave at the thought.) If Planesrunner had been written particularly for the reader I am, it would have been all about this alternate history—about the differences between E3's intellectual, technological, and therefore social, economic, and political history from E10's. And so I was mildly disappointed when the airship captain lists among the products she ships "wodka from Moscow and silk from Algiers. We got Seattle circuitry and Jerusalem jam; we got Jakarta gemstones and DeBeer diamonds and porn from Nippon would make your eyes water, Everett Singh" (p. 123). Circuitry from Seattle? I thought and sighed. E3 may be different from E10, but not all that different.

Like many juvenile adventure stories, Planesrunner adopts the familiar trope of children/teenagers assuming/being given the responsibility of saving the world (in this case the multiverse) because adults cannot or will not do the job themselves. During the denouement, villain Charlotte Villiers, ordering the airship captain to prepare to be boarded, sneers, "I have two squads of royal marines at my disposal. You have, well, we can see what you have. Children, Captain, children" (p. 255). Throughout the tale, the burden is on Everett to save his father (and keep the multiverse safe from the villains). Not being an adult, Everett isn't terribly conscious of the enormity of the burden. (If Everett had been written another decade or two older, his story might instead resemble that of a different tale of a son in pursuit his lost father elsewhen (rather than elsewhere), Charles Yu's How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe.) When I first began watching Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the first thing I recognized was the trope driving it—children saving the world—because Mr. Giles is conspicuously the only competent, reliable adult on the scene; Mr. Giles, called a "Watcher," who though he bears the full weight of responsibility on his shoulders, must necessarily rely on children to do the actual hard and dangerous work of saving the day as he, well . . . watches. Such a trope tends to portray children as being fortunately oblivious to the terrors and implications an adult (barring most superheroes, of course) in the same position would reel under. Everett does and does not know the implications. For him, it's a matter of getting his dad back (whatever that may take) and thwarting someone he recognizes as a bad guy. Angst just can't be part of this story. Naturally Everett receives a lot of help from his teenaged sidekick as well as some help from the airship captain and her henchman. But only he—with his super spatial perception—can save the day.

Many seasoned adults readers will inhale the crisply written Planesrunner, though their reading will likely involve a dual perception: on the one side, nostalgia, imbued with the hope of slipping back into the delights and pleasures recalled from childhood, on the other side in adult reading mode, always full of the hope of encountering something a little different, something that might appeal to a more mature palate. I found a little of the latter in the hints the narrative offers of what parallel earths with gate technology might look like. I found less than I would have liked in the ensemble cast we can expect to reappear in further installments, a cast that includes three major female characters and a main character who isn't a WASP. But a sidekick, however strong a character, is still a sidekick, and the story is still about a Boy Wonder saving the world (or multiverse). Nice to have a female airship captain who is competent, decent, and dominant, but the tale's female Super Villain is no more than a name characterized as a "Rock-Star Blonde" (p. 72), "icy" (p. 192), embodied by "vampire red lips" (p. 255) (or "glossy red lips" (p. 72)), wearing black high heels, a mere variation on a dark swarthy male twirling his mustache with an evil laugh. Still, for all the formula, I'm looking forward to the next installment. I'm expecting another adventure in a slightly stranger parallel Earth, explored by airship, in pursuit of Villiers and Everett's dad. It's bound to be a world where airships aren't exactly commonplace, right? And that can only mean fun, fun, fun.

L. Timmel Duchamp is the author of Love's Body, Dancing in Time, the five-volume Marq'ssan Cycle, and a lot of short fiction and essays. She has been a finalist for the Nebula and Sturgeon awards and short-listed several times for the Tiptree. She lives in Seattle.



L. Timmel Duchamp is the author of Love's Body, Dancing in Time, the five-volume Marq'ssan Cycle, and a lot of short fiction and essays. She has been a finalist for the Nebula and Sturgeon awards and short-listed several times for the Tiptree. She lives in Seattle. A selection of her essays and shortfiction can be found at ltimmelduchamp.com.
One comment on “Planesrunner by Ian McDonald”

I liked the book.
However, beyond the Rule of Cool, why were the airships of E3 run by a quasi-outlaw subculture with Gypsy overtones?
They're a capital-intensive, high-tech industry in a culture that's fundamentally Western and capitalist.
I'd expect them to be mostly owned by big corporations, and/or governments, tightly regulated, and dominated by a buttoned-down credentialist ethos.

 

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