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Ian McDonald
Pyr, 269 pages

Ian McDonald
Ian McDonald was born in 1960 in Manchester and moved to Northern Ireland in 1965. At present, he lives in Belfast with his wife, Patricia. His debut was the short story, The Island of the Dead, in the British magazine, Extro. His work has won the Philip K. Dick Award for best original SF paperback, the Locus poll for best first novel, and several nominations for the Arthur C. Clarke Award.

ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: Planesrunner
SF Site Review: The Dervish House
SF Site Review: The Dervish House
SF Site Review: Cyberabad Days
SF Site Review: Cyberabad Days
SF Site Review: Brasyl
SF Site Review: Ares Express
SF Site Review: Sacrifice of Fools
SF Site Reading List: Ian McDonald

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Paul Kincaid

YA is the new black. At least, within science fiction more and more authors are writing YA novels, and YA novels are attracting more and more attention within the genre. What is it that we say to a YA audience that we do not say to an adult audience, or vice versa?

Judging from Ian McDonald's first venture into writing a YA novel, the answer seems to involve, perhaps unsurprisingly, complexity. But it is not simply that one form is more complex than the other. Planesrunner lacks the consciousness of the social, political and economic structure of the world that underlay novels such as River of Gods or The Dervish House. The political and economic realities that we encounter in Planesrunner are far more broadly drawn and more simplistically structured. In contrast, the plotting of Planesrunner is considerably more complex. In the adult novels, there are large casts of characters each interacting in ways that elaborate our knowledge of the world, but there is not the rapid succession of incident, the deft way that the resolution of one action precipitates the next.

Consequently, River of Gods, for example, is an immersive novel that we move through slowly intent on learning what is revealed on the edges of the action; while Planesrunner is a breathless novel that keeps us eagerly following the incidents with the surrounding world of interest only to the extent that it shapes the action. To that end, River of Gods has a plethora of viewpoint characters whose very multiplicity directs our attention outwards to their world rather than inwards to their doings; while Planesrunner has just one viewpoint character who is only inexactly aware of the outside world so that our attention is always directed inwards to what he is doing.

Planesrunner opens as it clearly means to go on: Everett Singh, standing waiting outside the ICA in central London, watches his father being bundled into an anonymous black car and kidnapped. From that first scene, Everett is inevitably off-balance and has no time to stop and ask questions, he can only run; and we are borne along with him. We learn the essentials: Everett's father, Tejendra, is a theoretical physicist who is separated from Everett's mother. But we don't learn much more until it becomes part of the action. Everett has a very powerful hand-held computer (this is science fiction for the iPod generation) and Tejendra has sent him a complex program, the Infundibulum (one of several oblique references to other science fictions); Everett doesn't know what the Infundibulum is or does, but he guesses pretty quickly that it's the reason Tejendra was kidnapped. And since the police dismiss his story, Tejendra's slimy boss keeps coming round asking if they've got anything, and there's a hard-faced woman called Charlotte Villiers who appears on the scene with a couple of thugs in tow, Everett soon works out that the authorities are in on the kidnapping so he's on his own if he's ever going to rescue his father.

Now Everett has a distinct advantage in what would otherwise be a very one-sided struggle: he's a geek superstar. He's a scientific whiz who instinctively understands the mathematics of Tejendra's research better than his father does; he's the hero goalkeeper of his school football team because he can always visualize the trajectory of any ball the other team kicks towards him; and he has an uncanny ability to think of exactly the right action in any situation. Brilliant, athletic, heroic, oh, and a great cook; wouldn't we all just like to be like Everett, even though we know that in reality no-one ever is. But this unlikely combination of talents makes Everett an adept protagonist in this fast moving tale.

When he discovers that Tejendra's team has managed to open a Heisenberg Gate to several parallel worlds, it is a matter of moments for Everett to work out that the Infundibulum is a map to the multiverse. After that it takes only a few brief hours for him to do what no-one in any of the multiple worlds has so far managed to do: discover how to read the map. Reasoning that his father is being held in one of the parallel worlds, and it is most likely the one that Charlotte Villiers comes from, Everett daringly surrenders himself to the authorities then, just as he is on the point of explaining how the Infundibulum works, he dives through the open Heisenberg Gate into that very world.

In truth, we don't get a very detailed picture of this world but rather an impressionistic series of flashes that add up to something intriguing but somewhat incoherent. All we see in any detail is that tiny portion of this alternative London that directly affects Everett's quest. So we have a world in which there is no oil, and long-haul travel is conducted by airship. Having entered the Heisenberg Gate in abandoned workings near the Channel Tunnel, Everett inexplicably emerges on one of the upper levels of a soaring international airship terminal in the city centre. But this world of glittering high rises is soon abandoned for a grittier, more Dickensian East End where the gypsy operators of freight airships have their base. It's a world of dark pubs, narrow streets, crowded markets and colourful characters who speak 'palari,' a mixture of thieves cant and homosexual slang (for Brits of my generation, think of Julian and Sandy in "Round the Horne"). Here, thanks to what is probably the biggest coincidence in a coincidence-laden book, Everett is taken in by Captain Anastasia Sixsmyth of the airship Everness.

With Anastasia and particularly her adopted daughter Sen (perhaps the most attractive and engaging character in the book), Everett finds himself caught up in an apparently endless sequence of adventures, including street brawls, rooftop flights, and a spectacular airship duel. Along the way he is able to find out (with surprising ease) exactly where Tejendra is being held, and plot a rescue mission. Of course, this is only volume one of the Everness series, so Everett, Sen and Anastasia don't have a neat solution to everything this time out. Nevertheless, by the time this volume draws to a close you're pleased that there will be more adventures with three likeable characters. And you know that if McDonald can maintain this pace of plotting then you're not really going to notice how little we learn of what is outside the narrow focus of the action. It's pace and plot that keep us turning the page, and if the whole thing feels skimpier than his other recent novels, then the subtle delights of worldbuilding don't really seem to matter when we're swept along on a heady race through story. Maybe that's why YA novels are enjoying this vogue within the genre.

Copyright © 2012 by Paul Kincaid

Paul Kincaid is the recipient of the SFRA's Thomas D. Clareson Award for Distinguished Service for 2006. His collection of essays and reviews, What it is we do when we read science fiction is published by Beccon Publications.

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