Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Railhead by Philip Reeve

Zen Starling is a small time thief and a railhead. He snags valuables from shops in distant towns and cities where no one knows his face. To get around, he rides the rails which take him from planet to planet across the galaxy.

In Zen’s universe, humanity has dispersed throughout the galaxy, but it hasn’t done so by space travel. Instead, trains link planets together. On each planet the trains travel as normal trains do, on tracks over ground, but when they pass through K-Gates they carry their freight and passengers to different worlds.

After riding the rails, Zen returns to his backwater home planet of Cleave, where he fences his ill-gotten goods to Uncle Bugs, a local junk shop proprietor who happens to be a swarm of intelligent insects within a vaguely humanoid frame. He uses the money he gets to help his sister Myka support their mother who, debilitated by extreme paranoia, can do nothing for herself. It’s not a happy existence and Zen uses the trains as much for mental escape as to get around.

After one simple heist, just some jewelry, Zen is pursued by a destructive drone and an odd-looking girl. But it turns out they don’t want to arrest him or exact revenge. They work for a shadowy figure called Raven who travels the galaxy on a half-insane train over long-abandoned rail lines. Raven wants to hire him to steal something, a piece of art, from the most powerful family in the galaxy.

This synopsis doesn’t do justice to the masterful world-building in Philip Reeve’s Railhead. Zen’s universe is populated with nearly omniscient artificial intelligences, nearly human androids, genetically recovered prehistoric creatures and genetically engineered monsters. And through it all travel semi-sentient, semi-anachronistic train engines.

After 200 years of industrialization, trains are still the richest technological symbols we have. Trains have always represented exploration, discovery, new horizons, but paradoxically they also represent dependence and confinement — anyone on a train can only go where the train goes and the train itself can only go where the rail has been laid. Railways extend to the horizons of both our future and our past.

Reeve exploits all of this beautifully. The rails in Railhead are controlled by decadent capitalist interests. Wherever they lead, whole worlds get mined, exploited and polluted until they are completely used up and abandoned. And yet the rails are also the source of romance and adventure, possibility, love and finally even hope.

And it doesn’t end with symbols and metaphors. Despite setting his train-novel a few thousand years in the future, Reeve has all kinds of fun exploiting age-old train story devices. He has bridges so high they travel through space; his characters are constantly jumping on and off moving trains; he even puts his hero on top of a carriage as the train hurtles toward a tunnel. Classic.

Railhead is currently only available in the UK. You can get it used from UK bookshops through Amazon or preorder it for its release in the US on April 1, 2016.

The publisher provided me a time-limited eBook for the purposes of this review.

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