Sunday, October 23, 2016

Review of Planesrunner by Ian McDonald

As a grown man, I find myself occasionally dipping into the recent decade’s flood of YA genre fiction.  While I’m not always sure that the term ‘YA’ is being used along common lines (i.e. it seems a lot of books marketed for adults should be considered YA), the fact remains, as a youth I would have thoroughly enjoyed much of it.  Paolo Bacigalupi’s Ship Breaker is classic juvenile adventure updated for the 21st century.  Though a bit jaded, Andrew Smith’s Grasshopper Jungle has the right pique of humor and teenage male worldview.  And still others—Pratchett, Pullman, Gaiman, among them—write with sentiment and appeal I can easily see my younger self delving into, not to mention recommending to my children when they are old enough.  My most recent dip into YA is Ian McDonald’s Planesrunner (2011).

Planesrunner the first in the Everness trilogy, we meet Everett Singh walking down a busy London street with his father Tejendra, who is one of the world’s top physicists.  In the flash of an eye Tejendra is kidnapped, and Everett is left alone, holding a mobile phone.  Smart enough to remember to take photos of the black Audi as it drives away with his father, he meets with the police before heading home to re-think the incident.  No time to adjust, however, a strange email arrives quickly therafter, containing an unheard of thing called an infundibulum.  Seemingly a map to parallel worlds, it isn’t long before Everett is drawn into realities he never knew existed—a group of shady characters that want him for reasons unknown chasing him every step of the way.

Planesrunner is a science fiction thriller with strong elements of steampunk. Everett’s normal existence in our world is quickly turned upside down as he finds himself aboard a mighty zeppelin in a parallel world.  Adventure abound, Everett must stay one step ahead of the people on his tail—something made easier by the crew of the Everness, of whom the spunky Sen is pilot.  Airship battles, skyscraper heists, gateways to parallel worlds—Planesrunner is a load of fun.  Which leads to…

Writing YA must be a relaxing exercise for the ambitious writer.  Stereotypes waved through at the gate, no ticket needed, there isn’t any pressure to be as original as possible.  The writer is free to slip in and out of familiar territory knowing their (intended) audience just doesn’t have the same library of books under their belt to use as a foundation for comparison and criticism. Accordingly, there is much of Planesrunner that would be considered common at the adult level, yet disregarded, perhaps even unnoticed at the YA.  From the plot line (rescuing kidnapped father through a labyrinth of baddies in a strange new land) to the tropes (steampunk zeppelins, spunky female supporting character, rote dialogue, gifted young hero…), Planesrunner runs a familiar gamut.  And yet McDonald does it with aplomb.  Fully cognizant of the number of feet that have trod the path before him, he makes no bones about it, instead focusing on efficiency of prose, pushing the story ahead apace.

There are few occasions I’ve found parallel world stories to be engaging.  Robert Reed and Chris Beckett use the premise to nice metaphorical effect in “A Billion Eves” and Marcher, respectively, and there are a few others.  But largely the concept is used to provide an entertaining twist that is rarely explored, or worse yet, an irrelevant element of setting.  In Planesrunner McDonald takes a simple, logical approach to the concept.  Never letting the scope of possibility overtake his story, his parallel world scenario is portioned out, and with limits, thus maintaining coherency and relevance, and for me, engagement.

A writer who has written some of the best adult sf the 21st century (Brasyl, Necroville, and River of Gods), it’s interesting to see what McDonald can do at the YA level.  Something like Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island for the 21 st century, Planesrunner likewise explores new worlds among strange, idiosyncratic company.  It may get washed under given the era even as Treasure Island rides the tides of time, regardless, the two are in the same vein.  And for sure my thirteen-fourteen year-old self would have swallowed it whole, then went immediately searching for the next in the trilogy, Be My Enemy.


  1. This is one of those books that I wish was published when I was the age of the target audience. You can still see McDonald's adult work in it though. In some ways it's a lean version of his adult books. That is part of what I really liked about it.

    1. I like to think I'm screening titles for my son and daughter when they get older... ;) Planesrunner will be recommended over Harry Potter any day...