Who could have foreseen that a Ruritanian dystopia written by an Edwardian clergyman and imbued with an English public school ethos of bullying contempt would become one of the most popular and profitable pre-tween multimedia franchises of the twenty-first century? Such is the unpredictability of posterity, such is the enduring appeal of locomotives. So perhaps it isn't that surprising to find Reverend Wilbert Awdry's creations persisting a thousand years into the future: "Mahalaxmi XXIII, Chief Executive of the Noon Family, Emperor of the Great Network, Master of the Thousand Gates, known to his adoring subjects as the Father of the Rails and to the less adoring ones as the Fat Controller" (p. 88).
As Philip Reeve tells it, Railhead, his nineteenth novel, is a shift of direction: "There have been a lot of dystopian and post-apocalyptic stories published for children and young adults over the past decade (some of them written by me), so I thought it would make a nice change to write about a more hi-tech future where technology has answered many of our present day problems." That parenthetical comment is a nod to his name-making Predator Cities series—beginning with his debut novel, Mortal Engines (2001), and concluding with A Darkling Plain (2006) which I reviewed for Strange Horizons—but Railhead will actually be pretty familiar for readers of those books: kids in peril, those in pursuit, ambiguity about sides and actions, love in times of adversity. The big change is the window-dressing. Like Awdry before him, Reeve has been ensnared by the idiosyncratic power of locos: "I started to realise that trains are far stranger and more romantic than any spaceship." Hence God-Emperor Mahalaxmi.
Zen Starling is a railhead, in love with riding ancient, sentient locomotives between the stars, through a network of K-Gates that have rendered spaceflight unfashionably archaic. Eschewing his station in life, Zen funds his travel (and his family) through his sticky fingers. After one particularly impulsive unpurchase, he finds himself trailed by a girl his age called Nova, who turns out to be a Motorik (a humanoid robot) with uncertain intentions. Fleeing her—and in the best kids lit tradition of leaping out of the frying pan straight into the fire—he comes into conflict with Malik, a rogue Railforce officer who is hunting the mysterious Raven, a many-lived criminal presumed dead by everyone else. Zen is caught up in some heavy shit so he takes a deep breath and sinks deeper.
Fundamentally, unchangingly, Reeve writes adventure fiction and, as such, he doesn't believe in starting slowly. In the first twelve pages there is a theft, a murder, a sort-of-femme fatale, plenty of family strife, half a dozen planets and some insectoid aliens called Hive Monks: "In the shadows of the hood there was a paper wasp's nest of a face, like a chapatti with three holes poked in it—two eyes and a ragged mouth, with shiny bug bodies crawling and seething in the dark behind. The voice that came out of the mouth hole was made by a thousand saw-toothed limbs rubbing together" (p. 9). Basically, Reeve has taken all the best bits of China Miéville's career—Perdido Street Station, Railsea, Embassytown—and fused them together into what I'm pretty sure is the first New Weird children's space opera.
Reeve and Miéville are an interesting pair. Two of the best British science fiction writers of the twenty-first century, they have both found mass appeal outside of the heartlands of the genre but have staked out very different positions. Reeve—with Frances Hardinge—is the defining figure of contemporary children's genre fiction and is entirely committed to that endeavour; Miéville, in contrast, is a dilettante. I don't mean this in a pejorative sense; rather, like Zen, he has restless bones and itchy fingers (although, undoubtedly, Miéville is sometimes more successful than others—he rather tripped over his own feet with Un Lun Dun, his first excursion into Reeve's territory).
But the fundamental difference between the two is that Reeve is more interested in story than Story. For example, you can't imagine him writing an opening as portentously encoded as Miéville's near namesake novel:
A meat island!
No. Back a bit.
A looming carcase?
I like my books to be icebergs: what is visible implies the weight of what is hidden beneath. Now, Miéville certainly has the depth to back up his in-your-face opening gambit but it is the literary equivalent of a flashing neon sign for the reader-mariner. If Miéville's games are near the surface, drawing attention to themselves, then Reeve prefers to submerge his. Or, at least, he did. Because having finished Railhead, I'm afraid it is more like a melting ice sheet: the reader must quickly hop from chapter to chapter without looking back, or else risk coming a cropper. So, if there is much that Miéville could learn from Reeve about the power of momentum, honesty, and understatement, here I wanted Reeve to find his inner Miéville.
Which is not to say that this is naive adventure fiction and nothing more. Zen, one of "the low heroes of this infinite city" (p. 2), is not unaware of the power of narratives:
The trouble with friends was, sooner or later he'd have to tell them about Ma's troubles and his life on Bridge Street, and those were sadnesses which he preferred to hold close and secret. It fitted the image he had of himself, too—the lone thief, all stray-cat-cool, walking solitary down some midnight street. (p. 19)
Raven has not despatched Nova to find Zen because he is the only thief or the greatest thief or—as is sadly not uncommon in both SF and children's literature—through sheer coincidence. No, Zen has something that is as powerful in the future as it is now: good genes. He turns out to be unknowingly an illegitimate scion of the mighty Noon Family, a relative of the Fat Controller himself. Raven persuades him, through pleasingly mundane means, to adopt the persona of Tallis Noon, one of the interchangeable rich kids who orbit the emperor's singularity: "You could see he'd never done a hard day's work. (Nor had Zen, of course. But he thought he could imagine what an honest day's work was like, and he was pretty sure Tallis Noon couldn't)" (p.56). His DNA gets him onto the imperial train, which contains an exclusive art gallery, which in turn contains the McGuffin Raven requires. But first Zen has to blag his way past various very distant relations who believe him to be merely a distant relation. Chief amongst these are the genuine rich kids who make up his erstwhile peer group: his cousin Thredony and her unloved betrothed, Kobi, who views Zen as unwelcome competition for the hand of his arranged bride.
So the first half of the novel is a caper. However, it is one which resolves itself in a planet-shaking act of terrorism. And it is here that I felt the difference between Reeve and Miéville most keenly, because Zen wears all this surprisingly lightly. He is complicit in terrible crimes but he barely acknowledges, let alone interrogates, his actions. Likewise, his actual family are central to the first half of the novel but are pensioned off at the mid-way point and thereafter ignored by both Zen and Reeve. Where is the context? I certainly don't want Railhead to be the start of a trilogy but it sits a little uncomfortably between First Act and Abridged Version. At one point, Zen reflects "He wasn't Raven, nor anything like Raven. But he wished he was" (p.202); Reeve just leaves this hanging and never unpacks it. Instead, we have one of the cliched truisms of literature:
"I'm not on any side," said Zen. "Just my own."
"Doesn't work that way," said Raven. Blood in his mouth; a cough clawing its way painfully out of him. "Comes a point, Zen, when you have to decide." (p. 290)
This is even more the case with what is usually one of Reeve's strengths. As the publicity quote at the beginning of this review suggests, Reeve is a romantic and that is one of the unexpected disappoints of Railhead. Not because romance is unwelcome—god knows, science fiction could do with a bit more of it—but because the romance is so attenuated. Reeve is the sort of writer who can get away with having a character say, "my heart is not made from self-repairing compounds" (p. 211). We can believe Nova in the moment but her romance with Zen is not particularly compelling. "He had loved Nova ever since he walked with her to the sea, that first day in Desdemor" (p. 293). But where is the evidence? Proximity is not sufficient (as should be tattooed on the forehead of every Hollywood screenwriter). Worse are Thredony and Kobi, whose hidden depths are so hidden as to be undetectable and whose political matrimonial match is implied to have taken on a dimension of genuine affection even when this hasn't actually been written.
In contrast to these undercooked heteromances, the background drumbeat of homosexuality is very pleasing. In a briskly economical aside, we learn: "Malik got a promotion. He got himself a husband, a house on Grand Central, a cat" (p. 71). Thredony happens to be straight but being gay would not have offered her a handy escape route out of her arranged marriage through ostracisation; sexuality, we are told, is unrelated to familial status and duty. Thankfully, such a position is taken increasingly for granted in contemporary children's literature, although obviously it is still welcome. Reeve perhaps goes further than other authors, however, by moving into gender fluid territory.
At one point Flex, a Motorik who presents more ambiguously than Nova, is questioned regarding its gender: "'Are you a boy or a girl? she asked it. 'Male or female? Most people are one or the other, in Cleave'" (p. 184). Most people in this particular culture; there is no sense of the universality of gender norms. Raven, pointedly described as being distinctive in terms of his appearance because he is white, is in love with an intelligence without gender:
The body that Anais Six wore was sexless, blue-skinned, with golden eyes and high golden antlers … In the years that followed, Anais came to him again and again. Sometimes its interface was female, sometimes male. Sometimes it was neither. Different bodies, different faces, but he always knew it. (p. 145)
Somewhere the Puppies are clutching their pearls so tightly at the indoctrination of youth that their knuckles are white. But this is not a social justice crusade, it is simply future-proofing. Reading well-worn copies of my favourite childhood stories to my own son, I'm often struck by how fundamentally the society they present is out of synch with the society in which we now live. The power of the stories persist but are tarnished by their propagation of a world in which men go out to work and women stay at home (or, as is the case with Thomas The Tank Engine, do not exist at all). Amplify that by several orders of magnitude when it comes to sexuality and race.
Does this mean that Reeve's proud demi-gods will persist in the imagination as long as Awdry's squabbling schoolboys? I doubt it. Though thrilling and humane, Railhead ultimately feels transitory—more style than substance. Perhaps it is more like the superior graffiti that adorns Reeve's immortal locomotives rather than the trains themselves:
The trains' maintenance spiders would usually clean the graffiti off before the paint got dry, but if the work was good enough some locos let it stay, and wore it with pride as they went on their way through the K-gates. Flex's stuff was more than good enough. (p. 20)
Reeve's stuff is more than good enough to read with pride but this time the ineffable is missing.
Martin Petto is an irregular reader, reviewer, blogger and critic. This is his first review for Strange Horizons, although he has written many as Martin Lewis.
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