Tuesday 31 January 2012

Book Review | Planesrunner by Ian McDonald

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There is not one you. There are many yous. There is not one world. There are many worlds. Ours is one of billions of parallel earths.

When Everett Singh's scientist father is kidnapped from the streets of London, he leaves young Everett a mysterious app on his computer. Suddenly, this teenager has become the owner of the most valuable object in the multiverse — the Infundibulum — the map of all the parallel earths, and there are dark forces in the Ten Known Worlds who will stop at nothing to get it. They've got power, authority, and the might of ten planets — some of them more technologically advanced than our Earth — at their fingertips. He's got wits, intelligence, and a knack for Indian cooking.

To keep the Infundibulum safe, Everett must trick his way through the Heisenberg Gate his dad helped build and go on the run in a parallel Earth. But to rescue his Dad from Charlotte Villiers and the sinister Order, this Planesrunner's going to need friends. Friends like Captain Anastasia Sixsmyth, her adopted daughter Sen, and the crew of the airship Everness.

Can they rescue Everett's father and get the Infundibulum to safety? The game is afoot!


"The multiverse, on your iPad." Can you imagine?

Luckily for the multiverse, Everett Singh out of Hackney can.

The young son of a brilliant theoretical physicist, a fine cook and a prize goalkeeper to boot, at the outset of Planesrunner Everett, momentarily helpless, sees his father Tejendra spirited away against his will in a long, dark car by long, dark men dressed in long, dark coats. The police are promptly called out, but they don't seem to take Everett's statement seriously, and when, days later, they return the blurry pictures he took of the incident - doctored so as to obscure any and all details that might aid an inquiry they seem oddly intent on arsing up - Everett realises that he's going to have to save Tejendra himself.

For all intents and purposes, however, his father has vanished without a trace. As the official investigation dead-ends into infinity, Everett's only clue is a file left anonymously on his drop box: it's called Infundibulum, and our little London lad realises Tejendra must have left it to him... him and only him. But what does it do?

Better to wonder what it doesn't do. The Infundibulum is thirty gigabytes of abstruse mathematics that even Everett has a hard time parsing. But thanks to his genius dad and his hacker DNA, he can, and he finds "a map to anywhere and everywhere. And it's much more than a map, it's a phonebook." A phonebook pre-loaded with the contact details for all the worlds in the Plenitude. Tejendra has only gone and discovered the existence of innumerable parallel universes!

And now Everett, following in his father's footsteps, is in possession of "the most important artefact in the multiverse," the selfsame program that he can only assume led to Tejendra's kidnapping. Someone wants the Infundibulum rather badly, Everett realises, but he isn't just going to hand it over to the people who kidnapped his dad. Somehow, he's going to figure out how to use it himself, to travel to another London... and another after that, and another, until in one - or another - his finds his father.
"It was a terrible plan, apart from all the others. But it was working. Little by little, clue by clue, it was working. It looked a lot more reasonable than taking the Ring to Mount Doom. Everett giggled. This was his very own dark tower."
And just think: the fun has hardly even begun.

From the get-go it's engaging, exciting — practically unputdownable. It begins with the rush of Tejendra's kidnapping, ends on an even greater high, and in the interim the pace rarely flags, as we travel with Everett to E3 in search of his father, a needle in a haystack full of needles with directions to other haystacks full of needles. There's not a dull moment as we hop around E3 on his canny coattails, from action scene to staggering set-piece and back just to start again from scratch.

It's a shame that McDonald doesn't give us the guided tour of a couple of other Londons than ours and theirs, which is all that Planesrunner entails, but the world of E3 is a winner in its own right: an eerily silent cityscape wherein humanity discovered electricity before coming to depend as we do on fossil fuels. 
"It was quiet. So quiet. Gone was the permanent internal-combustion growl of Everett's London, the shriek of brakes and the gasp of airbrakes. Here things hummed and purred on rubber-tyred wheels. [...] Electricity courses along the nerves of this London, through every city of this world, as the veins of Everett's home city were clogged with petroleum."
So E3 is a silent place, but not by any stretch a still city. Nor is it short of things with which to astound and amaze. There are pirates and airships and jump-guns and a sort of "United Nations for parallel universes," all rendered with such clarity that one begins to see pictures in place of McDonald's prose. Imagine the world of Chris Wooding's Tales of the Ketty Jay embellished with sparkling SF tech and an exquisite electropunk aesthetic; even then you're only coming close to the experience of E3.

In terms of character, too, Planesrunner impresses. Though he rarely puts a foot wrong, making this rather a linear narrative, admittedly, Everett isn't some superhuman saviour... just a geeky genius with tablet computer, some sweet software and a life-or-death impetus to make the right choices when crunch-time comes, as it does in every other chapter. In E3 Everett takes up with Sen Sixsmyth, the idiosyncratic daughter of the captain of the good ship Everness, pride of Hackney Great Port and the Airish. She is "a charmed child, a street saint," and though one immediately senses in her a love interest for Everett, thankfully McDonald is in no hurry to pair off his protagonists. Instead, Sen is in her free-wheeling element, leading Everett into and out of trouble with the Airish and the authorities alike. All heart and attitude and hard-won wisdom, Sen makes for an excellent counterpoint to Everett, who is contrast seems obvious, and methodical.

Planesrunner is but book one of Everness, and sometimes, sure, it feels like it. Several of its most promising story threads go nowhere - foremost amongst them the existence of a first Earth, or E1 in the lingo - and there are innumerable other instances of the author seeding this world of worlds with twists and intricacies as-yet untold. But you know what? Planesrunner is the first novel is a series, and if the second and the third and so on (and so fourth) are anything like as exhilarating as this, it's a series that stands to redefine award-winning author Ian McDonald's place in the multiverse of speculative fiction.



by Ian McDonald

UK Publication: January 2013, Jo Fletcher Books
US Publication: December 2011, Pyr

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  1. "and if the second and the third and so on (and so fourth)"

    heh. I saw what you did there.

  2. I've seen a couple of reviews of this book floating around, and the more I read about it, the more I wonder why it isn't gaining more hype and popularity, because it sounds like a really good read. I haven't read it for myself yet, but more and more I think I ought to! Thanks for the review.

  3. It sounds, and looks, very similar to Tron in a lot of ways! Dad kidnapped, son left with key, son goes to parallel (ish) Universe, bad people there want to run the world (girls!) ... and so on.

  4. @Everyone - Yup! It's a good un; lots of fun, and very well done. It's been... what? Two, maybe three weeks? And I've already trolled Amazon at least that often looking for news of the next novel in the series. The sooner the better is about the size of it. :)

  5. Now this one is what I've been looking for. Would be giving you credits on the way how you deliver this great insight. Such an interesting story.

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