Zen Starling, petty thief and one of the ‘…low heroes of this infinite city’, rides the rails in a distant future. His exploits are often nefarious, but he also has an abiding love for the romanticism of the K-Bahn, a galactic train network that traverses the very stars. Desperate to escape his bleak existence, Zen accepts a dangerous proposition, one that will leave him in possession of the very key to the universe. The award nominated Railhead introduces us to an intriguing new universe. Picture a gilded and lamplit locomotive, its huge engine idling ‘like a heartbeat deep inside it’.
In Zen’s universe, a journey that would take thousands of years by spaceship, is completed in mere seconds, as this handsome train races through mysterious portals in the Space-Time fabric. Zen revels in his steampunk rail journeys, travelling through night-time nebulae where the skies are ‘…a peacock’s tail of huge stars blazing’, and greeting the dawn ‘…over seas of methane under a shattered moon’.
Zen’s roguish existence is rocked by the arrival of Raven, self-proclaimed ‘freedom fighter’. Raven asks Zen to undertake an audacious identity swap and theft, one that will lead Zen beyond petty crime and into the realms of sabotage and murder.
Consciousness is one of the grand themes of this bold and clever book, in a future where it has evolved to a higher plane. It is possible for the incorporeal self to be uploaded to a cyber stream. Even tiny conscious beings, like bugs, are capable of organising themselves into a collective mass consciousness (these scenes are somewhat disturbing for bug-phobics!)
Machines, including the K-Bahn locomotives, have attained sentience. Their understanding of what it is to feel love is touchingly explored. It’s heartening to see that although our future universe is still bound by hierarchy and war, what will also survive of us, is love.
A stimulating read for curious young stargazers.
Railhead is published by OUP Oxford, 320 pages.