Steampunk, the subgenre depicted in Richard Harland’s novel, Worldshaker, is one of today’s most popular types of science fiction. No wonder, in that it’s a style of literature that often has in it the best elements of science fiction and a technology that is a part of our past–steam. Also, cogs, gears, cams, and chains play a large part in the construction of many of the marvelous creations in steampunk novels. Some feature steam-powered robots, and/or dirigibles–even the television series Fringe has dirigibles flying through the skies of its alt-universe version of ours–and then some, like Worldshaker, have steam and coal-powered vessels that look like huge ships and can travel on the ground (on rollers), in water, and in the skies with equal ease.
What is Worldshaker about? Is it plausible–that is, believable? Is it cool enough to want to check it out, and to spend a few hours in its world; or, is it really not worth the time? The answers to these questions depend on who you talk to, or which reviews you read. The opinions of Internet reviewers range from, basically, “It sucks!” to “It’s great!” Personally? I liked it, and found it was an enjoyable novel, and worth the money. It has some believability issues, but most science fiction and fantasy novels require you to overlook certain things to really get into them.
Colbert (Col) Porpentine is the sixteen-year-old protagonist of Worldshaker. He is the grandson of Sir Mormus Porpentine, the supreme commander of the juggernaut called the Worldshaker. He is next in line to become the supreme commander, as his father, Orris, was disgraced when he was fourteen, when he was put to the same test Sir Mormus puts to Col: seeing what his reaction will be when viewing the lowest social class of the ship, the Filthies: “It was a softness of the heart that no one had ever suspected. I’d never suspected it myself. But when I looked down Below and saw them…” Will that softness of the heart betray Col and be his downfall?
The novel is set in a modern-day England that never has gotten out of the Victorian Age, when Queen Victoria ruled in the 1800’s, because it is now ruled by her descendant, Queen Victoria II. She, like the first Victoria, is married to a man called Prince Albert. The Worldshaker is their home, and the home of the noblest families of England. It is over two miles long, 1320 feet tall, and–as I stated–coal-powered. They use huge cranes to grab up the coal and store it in their lower decks, and the Filthies toil there to power the juggernaut by feeding the coal into fires.
As much as I wanted to get into this steampunk world, to better enjoy the novel, it was hard for me to believe that such an immense vehicle could be powered by coal. It would take an outrageous amount of it, and I would think the skies would be darkened by it and the other juggernauts flown by the other countries possessing them. There doesn’t seem to be much of a reason to be able to fly them, either, except prestige, or to spy on other countries.
I liked that Worldshaker deals with the various classes of society, though many other books have, one of my personal favorites being Herman Melville’s Moby Dick. In that novel, Captain Ahab’s ship, the Pequod, becomes a sort of symbol for a democracy, a “melting pot” like America. In Worldshaker, the ship by the same name is more like Victorian England, where classes were rigidly separated. It’s a perhaps by now over-used metaphor, but I think it still works, and it enables readers to see the reality of how being born into a certain class can often have an effect on one’s entire life.
The luxurious upper decks are where the upper classes live, like the Porpentines. The Filthies are one step below the Menials–Filthies who are intelligent enough to be trained to do simple tasks and be the servants of the upper classes. Filthies are supposedly hairy, brutish, smelly, foul, stupid sub-humans, incapable of intelligence or speech. However, Col’s meeting with a Filthy, a lovely if dirty teen girl, Riff, who has escaped the soldiers and is roaming about the upper decks, his hiding of her and befriending of her, and his helping her to get back to the lower decks, changes his attitudes about who the Filthies are and what he’s been taught all of his life.
Col feels the most alive and himself when he is with Riff, and when he is apart from her, despite his upbringing–having been told from birth how terrible Filthies are–his thoughts keep straying to her. She is not at all slow, ugly, and dumb, as he has pictured Filthies to be, but is instead the opposite: quick of movement, pretty, and smart. He teaches her how to read, and she teaches him how to be a better fighter. Riff, Col has learned, is a leader among the Filthies, despite her young age. Filthies have a hard life, forced to work under harsh conditions, and only fed the food that the upper classes don’t want for themselves, so most don’t live much past thirty.
The Menials are Filthies who have been pulled up from below by mechanical “hooks,” that grab them around their middles and haul them up, where they are transformed into ideal, slow-witted, passive servants. The upper classes believe they are not like humans, feel no pain nor emotions, and that they enjoy serving their “betters.” This reminded me of the same sort of extremely misguided notion whites in America once thought about African American slaves. One of the best parts of the novel, to me, was when Col discovers the truth about the Menials, and that what Riff has told him about them is not just what she imagines, but is reality. I won’t say more about this, to spoil it for anyone who’d like to read the book.
Another aspect I liked about Worldshaker is that the upper classes are treated in a satirical manner. There are some who are scheming and conniving, and are intelligent, like Sir Mormus; but, many seem quite silly, dangerously so, believing very odd concepts as Mr. Gibbers, Col’s teacher, does, like that some coastlines–the ones that jut out, like Florida’s–are more moral than others that are sunk in, like that of the Gulf of Mexico. When I read scenes with Mr. Gibbers, I kept thinking that someone like John Cleese or Rowan Atkinson would be great to play their parts, if the novel is ever made into a movie.
Worldshaker is a rollicking good steampunk read, full of action, intrigue, and what happens when former world views about the inferiority of the lower classes are shaken and overturned. It’s a very good introduction to steampunk literature. The cover illustration showing Col dressed kind of like Zapp Brannigan of Futurama (but wearing pants) with Riff is retrocool, at least to fans of the cartoon, like myself. I, like other critics, have some problems with certain aspects of the novel, like why a society would even want to construct a ship like the Worldshaker in the first place, and that using coal to power it would be perhaps impractical; but, I ultimately would say that Worldshaker is a pretty enjoyable novel, one that anyone who likes steampunk should check out. The second novel in the series will be called Liberator, and if it’s anything like Worldshaker, it should be very good, indeed.