'"This isn't real. It's a virtual environment."
"Yes, but it's a real virtual environment."' (p 267)
Station Zero is described on its UK hardback cover as, 'A stunning step beyond the universe.' It is totally apt. However, if I were selecting a quote for the jacket, from the work itself, it would be the one above - enigmatic, psychedelic and perfectly capturing the essence of this wonderful book.
Philip Reeve's Mortal Engines sequence, built initially around the wild concept of mobile, predatory cities, is one of the finest works of children's speculative fiction from recent times. It is characterised by startlingly original and imaginative world-building coupled with characters who are complex, entertaining and completely engaging. He develops these through highly communicative language and intriguing plots that grip through multiple twists and turns. The end result is to create a bizarrely fantastic world and render it totally credible and utterly absorbing.
Engines of a different kind
In a very different context, and for, perhaps, a slightly older readership*, he has recaptured exactly these qualities in his most recent Railhead Trilogy, now concluded in Station Zero. (See my reviews of the first two volumes from October '15 and November '16. )
If at the heart of Mortal Engines are traction cities, then central to the Railhead books is a vast network of sentient trains. These startling phenomena use mysterious 'K Gates' to travel in seconds through vast distances of space, linking planets and galaxies into a connected universe of different worlds. This network underpins the complex politics and warring behaviour of human dynasties across a vast Empire. Also to be found in Philip Reeve's creation are alien species, many most imaginatively conceived, as well as highly advanced androids, called 'motoriks', some with realistic human personalities. It is indeed a 'world' of highly complex cyber-technology, underpinned by vast data sets which not only store information but can house cyber-copies of dead personalities and indeed an entire pantheon of 'data gods', known as the Guardians. All of of this is linked by the trains, with their esoteric language of trainsong. It is they who transport data from one world to another, maintaining a hyper-complex Web.
And behind everything, or perhaps above everything, hangs the spectre of the long-vanished Railmaker, creator of the network itself. Is he a myth? A Ghost? A data-memory? Or could he be a reality?
The whole is a fantasy-fest of immense fascination . Only the very finest SF writers of the past have created speculative worlds of such originality and richness.
Trains are people too
The build of narrative through the first two books has been rivetingly strong, but any fears that the staggering climax of the second would be hard to follow are rapidly dispelled in Station Zero. Protagonist, 'railhead' Zen, continues to develop strongly as a complex, flawed, yet deeply likeable hero. He is surrounded by equally fascinating characters, human, alien, mechanical and even virtual. They emerge rich and rounded, regardless of the number of dimensions they apparently have. This is a world that truly lives in the reader's imagination, and memory. And again, of course there are the magnificent trains, with their exotic names and varied personalities. If ever you doubted that trains could be engaging, evolving characters (and I would not blame you if you did) then you need to read this book.
'Humans and Guardians have one thing in common, I've found. They both tend to underestimate trains. We are people too, you know, and we have just as much interest in working out the problems of this crazy galaxy as you do.' (p 198)
Believe me, these trains are as far from Thomas the Tank Engine as George Orwell's farm is from Old Macdonald's
Railhead is deeply political and violent, but it carries a central love interest, too, albeit one with a remarkable twist. The strong feelings which Zen develops are not for another human being but for Nova, a 'female' motorik, a 'wire dolly', that is to say a machine, albeit a sentient and highly intelligent one. At the end of the second book they are separated, it appears for good. Here in the third, there is a development that is shocking to the core. I could not possibly spoil things for others by giving away even the slightest hint, but suffice to say that it is as mind-blowing for the reader as it is for Zen.
Riding the rails
Even more so, perhaps, than in his earlier books, Philip Reeve's consistently skilful use of language is frequently stunning. His word pictures of different worlds are vividly evocative, sometimes ravishing, sometimes bleakly disquieting. His capturing of action, character and emotion are equally effective and he can thrill, shock and move with remarkable power.
His complex plot is continually engrossing and speeds down shining rails, glides over sweeping viaducts, negotiates strange stations and plunges into dark tunnels just as dramatically as do its phenomenal trains. It can bring tears to a reader's eyes as well as breathless excitement; it intrigues and surprises; it amuses and confounds.
Our world too
Despite its fantastic setting , there is much in the Railhead books that resonates strongly with our own world, and this is perhaps particularly pertinent in Station Zero.
Directly and indirectly, Zen and Nova have opened up gates to new and alien worlds and brought both beneficial trade and floods of immigration into their section of the Empire. However, the malevolent usurper Emperor wants to close off these routes again and protect the insularity of his own domain. Moreover he is prepared to use overwhelming force to consolidate his power and exclude all alien influence.
'His rail armada would go storming onwards . . . until . . . the gate to the Web of Worlds was barred, and his Empire was safe and whole again.' (p 29)
There is much that feels all too familiar. .
Even more importantly though, Station Zero, with all its different worlds, its pervasive datasets and its many layers of virtual existence, provides for a thoughtful exploration of what reality actually is and means. It challenges our preconceptions. It provokes, disturbs and moves in a way that completely lifts it from being merely an entertaining read and establishes it as a work of fine literature.
This operates not only on a conceptual level but on a deeply human one too. Zen's love for Nova, a being who can change her appearance, back up her personality, even exist out of her body, calls into question exactly what it is that we love about another. What does or doesn't it take for a person to cease to be the one we love? This book questions some of our deepest convictions. And yet it is profoundly beautiful too, deeply affecting, transfiguring and enlightening. The song of the trains, like the songlines of native Australians, or the singing of humpback whales, reverberates through our very bones.
Station Zero, the place, is itself is a most telling creation. The origin of the Railmaker's whole network, with its idyllic recreation of a Railway Children station, is perhaps the railhead equivalent of W. B. Yeats' Lake Isle of Innisfree. It is the escape from everything, the place we always want to get back to. Together with Zen, we yearn to re-find it. It is the childhood we have lost (or perhaps never had).
And yet it is not Station Zero that lies at the end of this storyline. This book is not about escape from reality. It is about finding it. In astonishing places.
It's all one in the end
I am tempted to say that Station Zero is by far the finest book of a very fine trilogy. But this is not quite it. It is more that Station Zero is the work that brings its predecessors into full focus and illuminates the greatness of the whole trilogy. In fact, this is, not really a trilogy so much as one book, one story, in three parts. Its climax is truly staggering, but could not exist without its complex development.
Many works of children's and young adult fiction centre on their protagonist discovering their own self, finding out exactly who they are. Railhead, rather, is about discovering how many selves we can be - and all of them us, and all of them real.
'Human being live loads of different lives at once. They always have. One life in the real world and the others in daydreams, in memories, in stories, in games. Lots of lives all going on at once, and all of them real in some way or other.' (p 268)
Those who read Railhead, with its superb culmination in Station Zero, will be left with multiple worlds, multiple lives. And always . . . the trains.
*Although this always very much depends on the reader.