Attitude: Some Care Needed → Positive
In Brief: Brilliantly imaginative; gently mocking Victorian ideals and sensibilities; quietly reconciling faith and science. Wild battles with gruesome spiders; questionable actions by a powerful being. Easy acceptance of other races and sexes. Undemonstrative love between family members and friends.
Published in: 2006
Age Range: Pre Teens+
Period: Mid 19th C
Setting: Mars, Jupiter, Earth, the Moon
- Art Mumby is the young narrator, thrilled by stories of Piracy and Adventure and peeved by his older sister.
- Myrtle is trying to grow up and has to cope with Art's mad schemes, pursuit by horrifying monsters, and the uncouth shipmates on board the Sophronia.
- Jack Havock is a young pirate, terror of the aether, who, along with his shipmates, has relieved many a frightened passenger of some valuables. But without actually killing or injuring anyone.
Art & Myrtle Mumby have to flee when their house, Larklight, is overrun by giant spiders. On the moon, they are rescued by captain Jack Havock, a pirate no older than they are, and his crew of assorted xenomorphs. When Myrtle is captured, the rest must track down the spiders and rescue her and foil an dastardly plan.
As the story opens we could be at the start of any Victorian adventure-to-be: Art is complaining about the state of their jumbled old house, about his older sister's attempts to become a Gentlewoman, about the servants, about his scientist father's devotion to his studies in the service of some Royal Society. But then we discover that the house is hanging in space just outside the moon, that the servants are brass-and-steam creations, and that Mr Mumby is studying icthymorphs - fish which fly through space - for the Royal Xenological Society. And this is how Philip Reeve (of Mortal Engines fame) introduces us to his second take on retro-tech. A very recognisable Victorian milieu, but one where Isaac Newton has discovered The Chemical Wedding, the closely-guarded fusion of certain chemicals which enables sailing ships to travel through the aether. Britain has an Empire whose colonies are not only in the New World, but on new worlds entirely: Venus, Mars and Jupiter.
They say you can't tell a book by its cover, but in this case the cover and the presentation in general certainly deserve a special mention. The hardback edition I read was elegantly bound in red-and-silver giving very much the impression of the boys' adventure books of an earlier era. This is helped along by the drawings interspersed within the body of the text: character sketches and illustrations with generous attention to detail. Have a look at the picture in the first chapter, for example, where Myrtle is standing on a short stepstool to reach for Burke's Peerage: in the low gravity, her feet are actually half an inch above the step! A little later is a pair of pictures where she and Jack are discreetly watching each other, just beside Art's innocent words giving what he thinks is the reason. Not to mention the adverts on the endpapers.
The story is tremendously enjoyable, following through Art's eyes his escape with his sister (inside the delightfully low-tech escape capsule) when their house is invaded by intelligent giant spiders, led by a Mr Webster in a bowler hat!. They land on the moon, are taken by a carnivorous Potter Moth, rescued by the young Jack Havock and his mixed band of aliens. They are attacked by the British Navy off the moon, flee to Venus where Jack was born, and where Myrtle is kidnapped. She is taken to Mars while they travel to Jupiter to consult Old Thunder - the storm which has raged for a million years. And so it goes on.
As the story careens phrenetically through the Solar System, there are playful touches on all manner of cultural and subcultural matters. For a start there's the obvious gentle parody of the Victorian worldview, of Britain's Empire and of their trust in God. And on that last point there is a surprisingly well-wrought moment. They discover that an ancient Shaper in its powerful craft brought about the creation of the Planets from the space rubble which orbited the Sun. Someone asks “If it is you Shapers who make everything, what place is there for God?”. And the answer is: “Who made the Universe and lit the suns? Who shaped the Shapers? For Shapers are not gods, just servants of that invisible, universal will which set the stars in motion.” Which is an explanation I personally applaud.
I recognised more-or-less direct references to the Internet, Star Trek, the X-Men, Men in Black, Victorian explorers, Newton's apple, and The War of the Worlds. (Myrtle, in explaining the British Empire's conquest of Mars, quotes the famous opening passage, but in reverse!) The references are there for those who wish, but don't disturb the flow of the story, or become a cliquey wink to the cognoscenti. What comes across most is that the authors are enjoying themselves tremendously (just look at their portraits inside the back cover) and for me that's bound to add something appreciable to a book's enjoyment for the reader.
The whole story is told in Art's words (with occasional interjections from Myrtle's diary) which gives a freshness and a personality to the story which might otherwise have been lost in a knowing third-person narration. Art is young enough to be excited by adventure and piracy, and to scorn his sister's girly affectations. (And not to spot the budding romance between her and Jack). But when she's kidnapped, he curls up in her bed, hoping that something of her scent will have remained.
There is an unspoken thread of equality and multiculturalism throughout the story: Jack and his crew — a mixed bunch of xenomorphs (read: aliens) — take each other very much for granted. This is direct contrast to their treatment as zoological specimens in the Royal Institute from which they escape together. Nor are the women given short change: each of the four principal female characters is full of life and verve without losing a whit of femininity. Myrtle, Art's sister, is determined and plucky even when thrown violently out of her normal orbit. Ssillissa, the only female crew member, is the most important as she has a natural talent for the closely-guarded Chemical Wedding. Ulla, explorer Richard Burton's Martian Wife, is a member of the British Secret Service. And Mrs Mumby, even as the perfect Victorian mother, is gentle, forthright, polite and courageous. But she's even more than that...
... which brings us to the one point of the plot which I regret just a little. In short, billions of years ago, there were only rocks orbiting a young Sun, and the Spiders (the Old Ones) wove their webs among these rocks. They were intelligent, with spaceships and civilisations. But when a Shaper came along in its powerful craft, it saw them as an obstacle to its own job of forming new planets from the space debris and swept them away. The Old Ones are now the villains of the piece as they try to get revenge on the Shaper, and our heroes gleefully fight and kill them by any means possible. But it's not clear that they weren't the injured victim in the first place. In the Shaper's explanation, there's an indication that the Old Ones were hindering what “should” have happened, ie the natural formation of the planets. But it's not so clear to me. A mountain out of a molehill, perhaps, and they clearly are the aggressors in this story, but I just wish something else could have been arranged.
- Alternative Science
It was beautiful. Snow was falling all about us, but none of it settled upon us. All around the careful winds shaped strands of vapour into fluted columns and archways and pillars, but no wind stirred our hair. Above our heads the fire-moons drifted, crackling faintly and washing us in their white light until we each walked at the centre of a star of a dozen shadows, but no fire touched us. And beneath our feet the solid cloud was soft and gently yielding, like a raft of cotton wool a-swim upon a lake of soup.
Out of the lightning-scribbled dark, high, high, high above, the sound of thunder rolled and rumbled, forming into words.
'Small beings,' it said, Why have you come here?'
Saturday 27th January 2007