28 March 2007

More of the British Empire in Larklight

Like Jonathan Stroud's Bartimaeus trilogy, Philip Reeve's Larklight revisits the British Empire. Indeed, it revisits that empire during the Victorian period, as it approached its height, and then takes it even higher.

In this "steampunk for punks" science fiction, not only does the Sun never set on the British Empire, but that empire extends to both sides of the Sun, from Mercury to the moons of Jupiter.

Like Stroud, Reeve explores the tensions of empire by showing the British elite dealing with extraterrestrial beings, but shies away from portraying how the same empire might have worked on Earth. We never know quite how much terrestrial territory Reeve's Victoria rules. We meet Sir Richard Burton, but he's exploring the heavens, not the Earth. The perennial "servant problem" seems to have been solved with robots, thus requiring no vulnerable underclass.

Larklight offers one glimpse of Earthly racism, but only in the previous generation: an aristocratic young Englishman fell in love with a black Caribbean woman, and his family disinherited him. The couple then rocketed off to a remote space colony to raise their family.

One of their children, Jack Havock, has ended up confined at a scientific institute in London which also collects extraterrestrial beings. But I recall no hint that the imperial elite locked up Jack because of his parentage. Rather, those scientists did so because his parents had turned into trees. (It's a long story.)

For all its young narrators' pleasure in being British, Larklight ends up championing universal equality. Almost all the intelligent lifeforms we meet end up forming one happy band: humans of all backgrounds, Jack's fellow inmates, Shapers--everyone, it seems, but ten-legged white spiders. Jack and one of those upper-class English narrators fall in love, but her family make no complaints about the prospect of a "mixed marriage" (nor are they in any position to do so). Larklight readers thus get to cherry-pick Victorian values, believing in progress but not prejudices.

Of course, today's enlightened British authors can’t treat empire as a Good Thing, even if that empire has been sugar-coated. Reeve undercuts the pillars of Victorian Britain, starting with Victoria and Albert themselves, who end up hiding under a rowboat. The Duke of Wellington (who really should be the conqueror of Europe and autocratic Prime Minister in Stroud's series) makes a cameo appearance, grumpy and superannuated. The Crystal Palace of 1851, the height of Victorian science and industry, turns out to be a mere illusion of human progress.

Larklight's British Empire may be larger and stronger than what really existed on Earth in the 1800s, as well as more welcoming. But we still mustn't believe as whole-heartedly as the Victorians that it was a Good Thing.

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