There is not just one you, there are many yous. We’re part of a multiplicity of universes in parallel dimensions – and Everett Singh’s dad has found a way in.
So begins the jacket copy for Planesrunner, Ian McDonald’s first novel aimed at a YA audience. In truth it’s also a great first novel for anyone unfamiliar with McDonald’s work, or leery about novels full of heavy-duty science. McDonald builds Everett’s story around his favourite themes of quantum physics and the possibility of an infinite multitude of parallel universes; but here he goes a little slower and explains a little more than in the very adult, densely packed storyscapes of Brasyl and River of Gods, which I found indisputably brilliant, but which would probably prove more challenging reads for someone completely unfamiliar with the ideas he riffs on.
Everett’s dad is a quantum physicist and Everett is a ‘physics brat’, a kid who’s grown up so immersed in the esoteric worlds of theoretical physics and multi-dimensional mathematics that he can instinctively grasp concepts which even learned scientists struggle with. When his father is kidnapped off the streets of London right in front of him, he manages to send Everett one clue: an app on his iPad, the Infundibulum, which Everett is able to recognise as a map of the multiverse. One of the many things I love about this book is the fact that Everett is so unabashedly smart; there’s none of the apologia one often gets for that, the sense that there are negative social consequences to being really really intelligent and aw-shucks, you wouldn’t really want to be that clever, would you? Yes you would. Everett is geek to the core, but it’s made very clear that geekiness is cool, and that it does not prevent you from being good at other things too. Everett is also a star goalkeeper, and a stand-out cook.
Those interests are shared with his newly divorced dad; the descriptions of them screaming in the stands at Tottenham Hotspur matches or concocting dinners on their weekend ‘cuisine nights’ are delightful, and subtly reinforce the message that this is a normal family. The relationship between Everett and his father is in many ways the core of the book, which is interesting given that we see them together only very briefly; but Everett knows his dad and his dad knows Everett, and that closeness drives the story. Dr Singh knows Everett can work out the Infundibulum. Everett knows his dad would not have sent it to him otherwise, and therefore also knows he can do it. And that’s another thing I love; McDonald has not descended into the tired trope of angry, angsty teenager at odds with parents he doesn’t understand and who don’t understand him, which we see so often it feels as though all of literature is populated by dysfunctional parent-child relationships. No, he’s written normal: the far more prosaic – yet profound – reality that most parents and kids know each other well and love each other a lot and and have happy, comfortable lives together.
So hurrah for geeks, hurrah for ordinary, loving families, and, finally hurrah for diversity! This is not a story populated by the default Western-SF-standard of middle-class white people with a token brown or foreign person thrown in as a minor character, like a too-small dash of seasoning in a generally bland stew. Everett is a Londoner of mixed ethnicity, and the descriptions of the Punjabi side of his family are another delight. When he escapes to a gloriously electropunk London on a parallel earth in search of his father he meets Captain Anastasia Sixsmyth, her adopted daughter Sen, and the crew of the airship Everness – and finds himself part of the community of the Airish, a sky-going subculture with their own language, fashion, manners and customs. It’s a precise, insightful depiction of a different kind of caste and class system; the Airish are not defined by skin colour, national origin, religion or the other ethnic signals we’re used to, but they are nevertheless a very distinct group, and subject to very recognisable prejudices and presumptions as a result.
Despite all the fancy science and exotic scenery, Planesrunner is (like all good books) a recognisable story about kids and parents and society and challenges and relationships. It’s also a cracking adventure that jumps through worlds full of of super-cool heroes and cold-hearted villains, bizarre landscapes and alien technology, and offers up three new mysteries for every one solved. It’s the first book of the Everness series, and I can’t wait for the next one.