20 September 2009

Book review: Airborn

Kenneth Oppel (Eos, 2004)

I’m a fan of the “steampunk” sub-genre of science-fantasy that imagines the world through the lens of Victorian hi-tech. Imagine if Jules Verne’s scientific speculative devices “as-is” eventually dominated the world, and you have a good starting point for examining the steampunk genre. Unfortunately, the moment the sub-genre got an official name, it started getting a bit too “hip,” and some novels and stories to come out of it since then have tried to act so hip they can’t even see over their own pelvises.

That’s why I’m thankful that Canadian author Kenneth Oppel’s novel Airborn has a beautiful simplicity to it, a sense of wonder and gentleness that overcomes my usual objections to recent steampunk works. It also has the joy of the Young Adult novel(although that genre has undergone an annoying barrage of “ironic hipness” as well; as someone who mostly writes in this field, I’m very aware of these trends) and plenty of suspense and action. The novel really feels “airy” as it skips along.

Airborn embraces a love of the airship that I share, so it was easy for Mr. Oppel to draw me into his alternative world of lighter-than-air vessels sailing across the Pacificus. Prior to reading Airborn, there were two works of fiction about worlds of airships that stood out for me, both of which predated the recognition of the steampunk sub-genre: Michael Moorcock’s “A Nomad of the Time Streams” trilogy—The Warlord of the Air (1971), The Land Leviathan (1974), and The Steel Tsar (1981)—and H. G. Wells’s The War in the Air (1908). Wells’s work wasn’t alternative history when it was written, but an imagining of the future as viewed from his own time. Wells saw the approach of an enormous world war that would devastate Europe (he got that right), the importance of aerial combat and bombardment (another correct call) by lighter-than-air vessels (okay, that didn’t end up true, but it’s what makes the book interesting). It’s a grim work; Wells sees too clearly how mechanized warfare will create mass-slaughter on a level nobody could yet perceive.

Airborn is an optimistic tale, however, and it has much in common with Jules Verne’s travelogue adventures with a bit of Heinlein juvenile tossed in. Oppel counts Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Sea as an influence, but just as important is Verne’s Mysterious Island, since his heroes ride a lighter-than-air craft into a tempest that brings them onto a strange tropical island—one that bears a number of secrets, zoological and human. From the Heinlein juvenile side, the book calls to mind one of the best of that series, Starman Jones. I don’t know if Oppel has read Starman Jones, but it would surprise me if he hadn’t.

The setting is the common one for a steampunk story: an alternate early twentieth-century. A few language changes, such as “Angleterre” and the “Atlanticus” and “Pacificus” oceans indicate the changed setting. Great airships cruise across the skies, and our narrator and hero, young Matt Cruse, is a cabin boy aboard one of these titans, a passenger ship named the Aurora. Matt, as the unusually spelled title of the book indicates, was born in the air on one of these ships, and he has always felt more at home flying than with his feet on solid ground. He loves his job aboard the Aurora, and sees himself following in his father’s path. His father also served aboard the Aurora, but he’s dead now (the novel keeps the nature of his death from the reader until it’s appropriate to reveal) and Matt supports his mother and sisters at home with his work as a cabin boy. Matt hopes to rise in the ranks, although he receives an unfortunate setback when he doesn’t receive a promotion to assistant sailmaker.

The novel opens on a mystery: the Aurora rescues an adrift balloon with a dying older man inside its basket. Before he goes, the man mentions strange and beautiful creatures that live in the sky. On a later voyage, Matt starts to learn more about the dead man’s quest from his granddaughter, Kate de Vries, who boards the Aurora for a voyage across the Pacificus so she can follow her grandfather’s quest to prove the existence of these undiscovered creatures.

Then pirates attack the Aurora and things get a lot more dangerous. The crippled ship lands at a tropical island. Kate finds evidence that the mystery “cloud cats” might live on the island, and Matt finds himself torn between dedication to his duties to the Aurora and his interest in Kate and strange animals. Also, the island isn’t quite as uninhabited as it looks. The book rises toward an exciting and extended climax where Matt Cruse shows his ingenuity and the cloud cats play their Ace. It’ll remind many people of the airship finale from Pixar’s Up.

Although Airborn depends on a heap of coincidences for the plot to move forward, it’s easy to forget about them and follow the light steps of its old-fashioned adventure, the enthusiasm of hero Matt Cruse, and the obsessed, trying, but resourceful Kate de Vries. The story keeps Matt Cruse’s love of flight and dedication to his craft—and consequently to his father—in sight at all times to hold the escapades together. Oppel’s writing gives the story a naturalistic feel that doesn’t draw too much attention to the steampunk setting; i.e., he’s not trying to let the “steampunk coolness” of the background seize the steering controls. He even manages to carry off the creation of a piece of “unobtanium”—an element called hydrium that replaces helium or hydrogen as the mechanism for floating airships—without it getting in the way. Hydrium is necessary for the plot, and the writing makes it feel as real as helium is to us. It’s interesting that it smells like mangoes, but unfortunately I really don’t know what mangoes smell like.

I pick up a large number of YA novels each year, but this is definitely the best one I’ve read so far in 2009. Although marketed as YA, Airborn is something that anyone who likes steampunk will enjoy, and it makes an interesting companion piece to Moorcock’s The Warlord of the Air, which is one of my personal favorite of that author’s works. The current paperback edition concludes with an interview with Oppel where he talks about the influences on the book, plus a preview of the sequel, Skybreaker, which I’ll certainly later this year.