by Philip Reeve
Published by Bloomsbury USA
250 pages, 2006
Buy it online
Steam Punk 101
Reviewed by Sue Bursztynski
I confess that Larklight is my first taste of Philip Reeve's fiction. It won't be the last, if this book is a good example of his work. It has been a long time since a children's book entertained me so much, with a lot of laugh-out-loud moments.
Think of the book as a sort of children's introduction to the steam punk genre: fiction set in the Victorian era, but with science fictional elements. It's not that no one has ever written this sort of thing before, but Reeve and his accompanying artist, David Wyatt, have a lot of fun playing with it.
Imagine an alternative universe in which the other planets of the solar system are inhabited and the atmosphere on them is pretty much breathable -- if not always comfortable -- for humans. Now imagine, further, that Sir Isaac Newton, whom we are used to thinking of as a physicist and mathematician, had actually succeeded in his experiments in alchemy. Newton was, indeed, an enthusiastic alchemist, even in our universe, it's just that we can't actually make philosopher's stones or other such things in our world.
As a result of Newton's work (with, we eventually discover, some friendly help from off-world), the Victorian-era British Empire stretches outside Earth. There is a British space fleet of ships powered by "the chemical wedding," a process carried out by ship's alchemists who seem to be there in place of engineers. (The process is, of course, carefully guarded against other countries, including the American colonies). Queen Victoria's Crystal Palace is built from crystals grown on Mars. James Cook was a space explorer (did he, this writer wonders, ever get around to visiting Australia?).
In this universe, young Art Mumby and his older sister Myrtle live with their father in a Victorian mansion called Larklight, in orbit around the moon. Supplies come from the lunar colony and they are served by robotic servants. Their mother, presumed dead, was lost during the disappearance of a spaceship some years before. Edward Mumby, their father, is gentle and vague, constantly occupied with his science.
On a day beginning like any other, the family is raided by giant white spiders who are after something. The Mumbys' home is more than it appears, but they don't know what and don't have time to find out. As Mr Mumby is captured by the invading arachnids, the children escape in a "lifeboat" launched by a sort of giant spring and the rest of the book deals with their adventures everywhere from Earth’s moon to the moons of Jupiter, their rescue by a crew of pirates whose ship can travel at almost the speed of light, but looks like a sailing ship. And the spiders are following them. There is something they want desperately and will stop at nothing to get...
This is one of those books that can be read on more than one level. Children will enjoy the adventure and the utter silliness of the tale. Adults reading with them will understand all the in-jokes, which range from H.G. Wells (there is a cheeky line that echoes the opening sentence of The War of The Worlds) and Jules Verne to Edgar Rice Burroughs, W.S. Gilbert (I bet it's not for nothing that all the pirates are orphans) and even, I suspect, a touch of Star Trek. ("I'm an alchemist, not an engineer," mutters an irritated Scottish ship’s alchemist at one point). There are even "hoverhogs," flying pigs used as living vacuum cleaners. Pigs might fly, eh?
Despite all the aliens, and the Victorian style, it is science fiction, not fantasy. The laws of physics are referred to, and there is an internal consistency to the universe. Nobody performs magic. As long as you accept alchemy as science -- in this world, at least -- you can see it all working.
The art work is gorgeous, and if you can get the hardcover, do so -- now, before it comes out in paperback, which will still be attractive, no doubt, but not quite the same. The cover is very Victorian in style, and has silver decoration, with elaborate "advertising" endpapers which must have taken the artist ages to create.
Buy it for your own enjoyment and then let the kids read it -- why should they have all the fun? | February 2007
Sue Bursztynski is the author of several children's books, including the CBC Notable Book Potions To Pulsars: Women Doing Science and Your Cat Could Be A Spy. Her fiction has been published in various SF magazines. She publishes two blogs, a general one at http://greatraven.blogspot.com and a review/SF blog at http://suebursztynski.blogspot.com. She lives in Australia.