My recent re-engagement with the works of Andre Norton, and something of a re-awakening of an only slightly dormant infatuation with Golden Age Science Fiction couldn’t have come at a better time. My brain was in just the right condition to receive Railhead, the new novel by Philip Reeve. Longtime readers of the blog will know that Reeve is one of my favorite contemporary writers. I first discovered him through his juvenile Jules Verne style romp Larklight, but really came to be a fan with his book Mortal Engines and its follow-ups. With those books, he delved into a lot of the ‘big idea’ Science Fiction spirit I love so much. And he has returned to that with Railhead, a very big idea, Golden Age soaked adventure yarn. A galactic railroad network, threading through stargates, taking humanity from world to world; all under the watchful eyes of ancient AI. Excellent.
What Reeve does that was less common during the era of Asimov, Norton, Heinlein, and others, is populate his wild settings with interesting, nuanced, challenging characters. In Railhead, Zen doesn’t always make great choices. He doesn’t always do the right thing. He’s not a perfect young man. And he’s not alone. Are the villains really villains? Are the heroes heroes? Or are they just people trying to do the best they can with the things they’ve got? Whatever the case, I really like reading about Zen. I love Flex, Gentlemen Take Polaroids, and Nova. I was curious to find out where the Threnody Noon story would go. And the Guardians? The Hive Monks? I want more.
This is the beginning of a longer story; that much is kinda obvious. There are a lot of things introduced, and not all of them are explored to satisfactory degrees. But there is a satisfying story arc to the book. While leaving things in place for events to continue, I like that there is some closure, some resolution. And I’m certainly looking forward to finding out what happens next.
Also, and you’ll know this if you’ve read his other Young Adult novels, Reeve is one of those authors who seems to delight in abusing his characters, and yes, killing them off...especially if they’re one of the ones you really love. This is something that I find thrilling. Knowing that any character, at any time, could get snuffed out makes the reading more intense. And it challenges me, in my own writing, to be more daring; to remember that in life and so in stories, stuff happens. People get hurt, they die, they come into sudden fame or glory or infamy, they fall in love with the wrong person, that make the wrong choice, they find unexpected beauty.
Like Heinlein’s “juvenile” books, and a lot of others from the Golden Age of Science Fiction, Railhead features some young protagonists and there’s no explicit sex. Otherwise, it’s written as though for adults, without condescension or the accepted lowering of writing standards frequently found in young adult fiction. This is a good book. And it happens to be appropriate for teenagers. Sci-fi readers of all ages should check this out. And of course, go back and read Mortal Engines and the other books about the Predator Cities. Great stuff. Hester Shaw, man. One of the great characters.
-Matthew J. Constantine