Reeve, Philip (2016). Railhead. Mankato, MN: Switch Press.
Railhead by Philip Reeve is a stunningly fresh hard science fiction read. Though Reeve works with tested ingredients as wormholes, galactic emperors, sentient AIs, grubby fatherless teenage thieves on distant worlds, meditations on capitalism, and genetically engineered dinosaurs, he succeeds at weaving together fun and heady threads into a vivid tapestry.
In the tradition of Star Wars: Episode VI, A New Hope, or LeGuin’s The Dispossessed, Reeve drops his readers into a fully articulated intergalactic empire which we see through the eyes of a lovable proletarian protagonist. Only by following the impoverished young narrator through the novel’s serpentine twists do readers learn how the K-Holes, Guardians, corporate families, and Hive Monks originated, or what the near-immortal “freedom fighter” Raven intends to do with a pilfered piece of art from a zillionaire’s collection. Despite themes of war and labor riots, and intimations of sexuality, the content of the book remains fully digestible for a teen audience and peppered with delightful, innovative worldbuilding and characters.
-Intergalactic public transit systems
-A rogue near-immortal in love with a godlike AI
-A gay mercenary of empire whose life mission is to destroy said rogue
-A gender-ambiguous laborer robot graffiti artist
-Sentient collections of mutant insects who have a cult centered on an alternate dimension ruled by benevolent praying mantises
The thick prose and breakneck worldbuilding can be daunting for readers who are new to science fiction, but once one takes the plunge, the plot is rewarding. Zen Starling’s generally dubious morality combined with his overpowering empathy makes him a lovable, dynamic hero.
Initially, the premise of Reeve’s world–that space travel, made possible by AIs and wormholes, has allowed capitalism and systemic poverty to survive tens of thousands of years–is depressing. However, what appears at first glance to be a heist-centered plot about a punkish team of thieves attacking a specific corporate family gradually broadens into a sharp critique of the overall unsustainability of capitalism and a meditation on the messianic potential of another dimension where–just maybe–other beings have developed something better.