Science Fiction Review Series: Railhead by Philip Reeve

June 23, 2017

In the distant future, humanity has terraformed and colonized dozens of planets across the galaxy. We grow bio-architecture from genetically engineered plants, fight humanoid robots for employment, access the Datasea with the blink of an eye, and are policed by obedient drones. Perhaps the most significant transformation of daily life is the Great Network, where sentient trains shuttle humans from planet to planet on rails laid by the Guardians, artificial intelligences far surpassing humans in breadth and depth of knowledge.

Philip Reeve builds a world for Railhead that riffs on plenty of old sci-fi conventions, but still feels fresh enough to capture and surprise the imagination. His cast of characters keeps things lively: the raggedy young thief and “railhead” Zen, the almost-human-but-not-quite Motorik Nova, the mysterious and morally dubious Raven, the proper and power-hungry Noon corporate family. Woven into their tales are themes of how technology rules human society: the Guardians have become gods, and their Great Network has utterly transformed daily life.

In some ways, Railhead feels like the sci-fi cousin of Railsea, China Miéville’s 2012 steampunk interpretation of Moby Dick. Both present daring adventures and tense politics playing out on a web of tracks with mysterious origins, and the trains offer them a wealth of technologies and motifs to play with. But the genre distinctions are what give these novels their independent identities: where Railsea stretches the boundaries of the growing steampunk canon (which is arguably a sci-fi sub-genre itself), Railhead belongs to more traditional sci-fi.

As Reeve builds the story of how Raven uses Zen and Nova for his own subversive schemes, he raises a number of fascinating questions about his sci-fi world: where did the technology for the rails of the Network come from, since humans didn’t build them? Why did the Guardians stop expanding the Network? What are the “Station Angels,” mysterious light forms appearing in stations?

Unfortunately, Reeve only gives cursory answers to most of these questions, if he answers them at all.

Reeve builds up these mysteries over the course of the book, particularly through the character Raven, who insists that, despite what the Guardians have said, the Great Network can be expanded without collapsing the whole system. Raven seems to know the answers to many of the mysteries, such as where the Network came from and what the Station Angels are. But Raven is cagey about this information, and avoids explaining why the Guardians might have lied to humanity about the Network, leading us to question his veracity.

Turns out, Raven was telling the truth. And finally, just as he is getting ready to create another Network station, he explains it all: another intelligent life form created the Network, and the Guardians just found it and helped humans fix it up for their own use. The other intelligent civilization (aliens) has been sending the Great Network messages, which humans have called “Station Angels,” but the Guardians have been hiding all this from humans because…they’re scared of aliens. According to Raven, “‘They’re afraid of what is on the other side. The Guardians are just as scared of change as humans are.”

In the climax that follows, we don’t get much more information. All the answers we get come in the last thirty pages of a three hundred-and-thirty page book, and these answers are as vague and cagey as Raven has been through the whole story.

While Reeve deserves credit for creating a dynamic and exciting story, with a compelling world and complex, intriguing characters, the most interesting aspects of his world are shrouded in secrecy until the very end, and even that ending doesn’t give us much besides, “It was aliens, and the Guardians were scared of them!” The most fascinating science-fictional elements of Reeve’s story get much less attention than less original aspects, such as questions about AI and personhood, easy access to information in a digitized age, how media influences the politics of ruling families, or secret objects with mysterious, high-tech purposes.

Certainly Reeve uses these sci-fi conventions well, and throws in enough of his own imagination to keep it from feeling too derivative. But he spends so much time on the parts of his story derived from conventions, and so little time on the world-building questions that make his story stand out, that I was left disappointed. There was so much mileage to get out of the mysteries about the origin of his world, but instead, he opts for a barely explained, last-minute reveal that almost feels like a cop-out.

The caginess of this ending does offer some advantages to Reeve’s world building. Leaving his answers so open-ended makes the world feel almost uncontainable, or at least too big to be contained in one book. Throwing in a new civilization, a whole new branch of the galaxy to explore, invites the kind of boundary-pushing that science fiction does so well (and invites a sequel). At the heart of science fiction is the exploration of future possibilities, and introducing another intelligent civilization gives Reeve a gold mine of possibilities to enrich his world.

But he does this at the close of the story, abandoning the reader just as he gets to the most interesting part. Perhaps using aliens to explain the Network wouldn’t have felt so much like a cop-out if he’d taken the time to explore this other intelligent life and integrate it into the world he had already developed. And perhaps he does explore it in a sequel—but the first book still misses out on what could have been some great developments.

I admit, I may be too judgmental, and I may change my mind if I read the sequel. But the best sci-fi takes full advantage of originality, and while Reeve puts his train-through-the-stars concept to good use, his big reveal could have been much more powerful if he’d given it more attention.

A lesson for those working on their own sci-fi adventures: find the piece of your world that is the most original, the most intriguing, the most distinct, and keep that in the center of your story. Mystery is good, but deep exploration of fresh possibilities is better.

Reviewed by Lauren Klepinger


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