19 March 2007

Mysteries of Larklight

I wrote about Philip Reeves’s Larklight once before, but only in connection with its punctuation. (Though set in a version of the Victorian British Empire, the book uses post-WW2 British typesetting conventions, and Bloomsbury didn’t reset the type for the US edition.)

Yet in her reading update Betsy Bird at Fuse #8 writes:

everyone and their brother (most recently J.L. Bell) seems to think that this is the finest thing since sliced bread.
I’m not complaining. I’m just wondering how she knew. She’s an information specialist and all that, but is she reading minds now?

Indeed, I do think Larklight is great. And, given all the modern conveniences advertised in its pages, like Coalbrookdale’s Phlogiston Ranges and the celebrated Martian Moss Cake, sliced bread is a fine analogy.

I enjoyed Reeve’s first book, Mortal Engines, but felt that its characters were types: the naive boy engineer, the bitter girl outlaw, the corrupt society leaders, yadda yadda yadda. Of course the airship pilot would be a glamorous Asian woman with an eyepatch. (At least that’s what I remember from a few years ago. I haven’t read later Hungry City titles, so I don’t know if I’d see the pattern continue.)

The same sense of conventionality pervades Larklight, but here it’s part of the fabric of the book. The narrators are an upper-class Victorian British brother and sister, reflecting the values of their culture even after that culture has expanded into much of the solar system. And their narrations are in the first Person (albeit with different Perspectives, since one sibling writes a memoir and the other keeps a diary). So whenever I think, “Oh, I’ve read something like this in so many old boys’ adventures,” this time I can remind myself, “But this is supposed to read like an old boys’ adventure.”

Or, “Isn’t Captain Jack Havock’s remark on page 246 just like something Captain Jack Sparrow says in Pirates of the Caribbean?” In which case I can tell myself,...“Well, yes, it is. Almost exactly. Just keep reading.”

Of course, there’s a lot in Larklight I’ve never read before. The whole “vacuum of space” thing doesn’t apply in this space opera, for instance. Gravity can be generated with a switch--so much more convenient than finding a huge mass. Although the characters have to contend with less breathable air or weaker gravity than good Englishmen deserve, there are far bigger dangers in this outer space. But I don’t want to spoil any surprises.

As soon as I finished Larklight, I recommended it to my mother. Her last science fiction book was...

Come to think of it, I can’t think of when Mom’s read science fiction. And it didn’t come easy. In our next several conversations, she kept asking me, “And why do you think I should read this book? It has nasty giant insects and rickety spaceships and an overall fey quality.”

But then she got to the moment when one of the children reunites with a parent, and read the rest of the book in a night. She likes stories about parents and children reuniting, you see. She’s the only person I know who thought Home Alone was about Catherine O’Hara reaching Macaulay Culkin rather than about Macaulay Culkin hitting Joe Pesci and Daniel Stern in the head.

Larklight is one of the rare children’s adventures in which a parent is not only on the scene, but often in charge of where the adventure goes--but yet that’s not a problem. I won’t give away any more, beyond mentioning that Mom made a connection between it and Phyllis Root and Helen Oxenbury’s picture book Big Momma Makes the World.

TOMORROW: The religious side of Larklight.


Roger Sutton said...

What's with all the blimps? The skies of children's fantasy are packed with 'em. If you have an interesting theory about this, oh Great and Powerful Oz-and-Ender, I want you to write it up for the Horn Book. (And yes, I suppose I do get to define what we mean by interesting ;-)

J. L. Bell said...

Airships seem to have floated over silently from "steampunk" science fiction for adults into fantasies for younger readers. In the words of the ever-changing god of all knowledge, Wikipedia, "After the invention of the airplane, airships were largely forgotten by mainstream fiction, and today appear mainly in historical fiction (such as Len Deighton's 1987 novel Winter) and alternate history (particularly the steampunk genre and the work of Michael Moorcock, most notably The Warlord of the Air)." I don't think I could improve on that.

fusenumber8 said...

Credit my women's intuition. The book certainly would. I would like to get a better understanding of this peculiar trend as well. Mr. Bell, answer Mr. Sutton's call.

Monica Edinger said...

Fey? Did she still feel that way when she was done? I liked the book, but fey was not one of the words I'd use to describe it.

Kid lit steampunk is very cool, I think. (Have you seen, by the way, China Miéville's Un Lun Dun?)

GE said...

I really enjoyed Mortal Engines, agree that the characters were at times formulaic, but I particularly liked Hester - the anti heroine.

The airships I thought were interesting but unrealistic given the distances involved.

It (Mortal Engines)had a very punk feel too it, but I have not read his other stuff yet.

There is apparently a film of Larklight due out next year - no real details yet: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0795414/

Mordena said...

And "Airborn," of course. Kenneth Oppel convinced me that you could love an airship.

J. L. Bell said...

A round-up of return comments:

"Fey" may not be the exact word, but at the outset the book's fictive advertisements, blithe picture of space travel, and overall satiric milieu seemed to make Mom think the author and artist were having more fun than she was. Only later did it get deep.

I've seen reviews of Un Lun Dun, haven't seen a copy yet. I dropped Miéville's name once on this blog but haven't actually done the reading.

Like Larklight, Airborn has been optioned by Hollywood. And in fact the movies were on the airship bandwagon fairly early with The Rocketeer (adapted from a comic book, of course). But whether these airship epics will see the Sun is another question.

Michele said...

Airships are also big in the books of Jasper Fforde - at least the "Thursday Next" titles. Whenever I read of airships, I always think of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade as well as the zeppelins used during wartime in England (am I showing my age, I wonder?)...

J. L. Bell said...

Airship aficianadoes might point out the difference between zeppelins, which have rigid frames, and blimps, which don't. Both are airships, but today we seem to have only blimps, and mostly for advertising. Hence, zeppelins tend to float through fiction as a symbol of what could have been (or was up to the 1930s), but is not.

As I recall, Germany sent zeppelins over Britain in in WW1 while Britain put up blimps as part of its air defenses in WW2. So to a Brit, zeppelins may be hostile, blimps friendly.

One of my favorite WW2 blimp movies is Map of the Human Heart.