Prometheus Books: 269 pp.: $16.95, for ages 12 and older
It's an alluring idea that somewhere, somehow there's an alternate version of the life you're currently living. It might be better. It could be far worse. But if it exists, and it's possible to get there, why not at least visit? That's the basic idea at the center of "Planesrunner," the first book in the Everness series and the young-adult debut from award-winning sci-fi novelist Ian McDonald.
In the case of 14-year-old Everett Singh, his visit to an alternate version of modern-day London might never have happened if it weren't for his father's kidnapping, which happened in the middle of a rainy, Monday evening rush hour 10 days before Christmas. One minute, father and son were bicycling along a busy thoroughfare heading to a lecture on nanotechnology trends. The next, Everett's dad was snatched off the street and thrown into the back of an Audi. The question is: Why?
Everett knew his dad was a quantum physicist who was more than a little interested in getting his son to understand the Many Worlds Theory, which posits that reality is not a single unfolding history but multiple realities wherein all possible alternative histories and futures coexist. Everett probably wouldn't have thought his dad's research at Imperial College had anything to do with the disappearance until his dad's boss showed up wanting to know if Everett's father had given him anything — a memory stick, perhaps, or a data DVD or file transfer — some piece of the long-term, big-budget project he was working on to find experimental evidence of the existence of parallel universes.
Everett's father had, of course. Everett just wasn't willing to tell the man who looked like a cheap private detective and always "seemed guilty of something" that he was in possession of the Infundibulum — a directory with all the locations of known parallel universes. One thousand billion are presumed to exist.
Physics is a heady topic for any lay readers, let alone those as young as 12, but McDonald does an outstanding job of simplifying complex ideas and presenting them in a compelling and relatable plot. Quantum reality is "not the particle going through two slits at the same time; it goes through one slit in this universe, and through the other in another universe," Everett explains out loud in a book that is told from the third person. Everett's dad, he theorizes, has probably disappeared through a parallel slit. The reason his dad gave him the Infundibulum is to help him figure out how to get there, which he does with the help of one of his dad's trusted colleagues and a Heisenberg Gate, a place where parallel universes touch and open on to each other, like a wormhole between worlds.
The alternate London in which Everett lands is similar in some ways and different in others, most notably the way people talk and dress and get around. The entire transportation system is electrified. The oil economy never existed and, as a result, London is quiet. But despite its evolved transit system, this other London is technologically behind. Everett's iPhone and tablet computer are coveted novelties, the latter of which is pickpocketed by a 13-year-old girl named Sen with a towering white afro and icy blue eyes who is fascinated by his "fantabulosa bona comptator."
"It's obvious it ain't from this world," the pluckish, Pippy-style character tells Everett when they meet on a train. "We've nothing like that. It's plastic, ainit? Real genuine plastic. Where you get it from, eh?"
Unlike Everett's London, this other London has long been aware of alternate universes, or planes, and the people who travel between them, known as planesrunners. So even though Everett is clearly from a different plane, with his dark Punjabi complexion and soccer togs, he's more of a curiosity than a threat and the two become friends.
It isn't long before Sen is onboard with Everett's plan to find his father, which they do with the help of Everett's gadgets and Sen's airship, which is called the Everness. Sen is part of a motley crew of working-class Airish who make their living transporting goods via blimp between countries.
There are a lot of thought-provoking ideas on the nature of family and loyalty and imaginative, science-y details in "Planesrunner" that make this alternate London recognizable but also a bit off and oddly compelling. Whether it's the air ships floating above the city or its inhabitants, whose dress seems inspired by Captain Hook, "Planesrunner" is a visually, if densely, written tale of sci-fi suspense that ponders big questions with wonderment and heart.