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