Railhead by Philip Reeve – Carnegie Shortlist 2017

The universe has more in store for Zen Starling than small-time thievery.

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I really liked this book.

At first, I thought a book in which trains featured largely would be boring or a bit geeky. And so it was with great pleasure that I entered Reeve’s Great Network and rode the rails with Zena, Nova and Raven.

The book really resonates in 2017. Set in the future, the boundaries of the world now extend far beyond Earth, which has been left behind for a series of new planets connected by the Great Network. The Network is ruled by a dominant family called the Noons, though the Network was actually created by powerful AI beings called Guardians. The Guardians came into being on Earth and supposedly created the Great Network. They live in the vast data sea, occasionally downloading portions of themselves into avatars to walk among humans.

To travel the vast distances along the Great Network people use trains and Gates, which allow for faster-than-light travel.

The setting is one of vastness but also one of inequality where human workers are replaced by human-like machines called motoriks. Today’s inequality is also nicely referenced when Zen characterises most people who ‘ride the rails’ on the outer stations as brown – white faces stand out, because they usually stick to the richer inner areas.  Zen, the main character, is a small-time thief, living with his mother and sister in a slum.We might like to think of the future as utopian, but Reeve is telling us that the way things are going it will only be more of the same.

The primary characters, Zen and Nova, as well as a host of supporting characters, are well-written and come off the page nicely. There are some real moments of tension in which you genuinely worry for some of the characters, and you even feel for minor characters who only appeared over the span of a few pages. There was, however, a small part of me that worried about Zen’s mother and sister – they seemed a little overlooked by Zen once he goes off adventuring, an otherwise very caring character.

But the first really fascinating thing about the book is how you come to care for the sentient trains that the heroes encounter. How can you care for a train, I thought, only to become very attached to some of them, and really feel for them when events turn for the worse. The trains have distinct personalities and they become as natural a part of the world as the humans who also inhabit it, which is really to Reeve’s credit. He has managed to effectively create a post-human world in which humans, though technically dominant, are not the only or indeed the main form of life, which includes trains, motoriks, and the AI Guardians.

The book is primarily an adventure story and, given the setting far in the future and the presence of AI overlords, it’s not a great surprise where the story goes. The real trick lies in the seamless world Reeve creates, which melds a futuristic sci-fi setting with very natural language and naturalistic visualisations, like the floating, swooping rays. He renders what is machine organic. He even manages to make what is non-material, like computer programmes, take on fantastic physical forms, like Anais 6’s tall, blue-skinned golden-antlered avatar. So a world that might have seemed dead actually really comes to life.

The book leads nicely into the sequel, which I am really looking forward to.

4/5 stars

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