Floating out in space like a miniature planetoid, Art’s hodgepodge house Larklight has always been rather isolated and boring, much to his social-climbing sister Myrtle’s dismay. But when giant spiders attack Larklight in search of a mysterious “key,” Art and Myrtle are quickly forced to adjust to a far less boring way of life – one that includes man-eating moths, sentient storms, a motley crew of aliens, the British Secret Service, and the dashing space pirate Captain Jack Havock. Now the siblings must figure out how to save the entire solar system – and, more importantly, the Queen – and the answers may just lie in Larklight itself.
This book probably has the best concept I have encountered since Active Voice began. Basically, in this alternate history, Newton’s discoveries paved the way for actual space travel almost immediately, and now it is the middle of the 19th century and the height of the glory of the British Empire, and Queen Victoria’s regime stretches across most of the solar system. Reeve plays fast and loose with astronomy here – there’s intelligent life on pretty much anything with a solid surface, and the treatment of the laws of physics and various astronomical details may not quite hold up to the white-hot scrutiny of my one semester of astronomy – but the world created thusly is so enjoyable I can’t complain.
Unfortunately, that’s where the awesome ends. See, setting a book at the height of British imperialism means that issues of racism, sexism, classism, and xenophobia are going to be pushed to the fore; the presence of aliens adds another dimension to that. However, Larklight failed to treat any of those subjects in any meaningful way. Myrtle’s prejudice against aliens and the lower classes is pretty consistent for most of the book, while Art’s varies drastically depending on the necessities of the plot; he’ll have a long thought process on British superiority, and then scold Myrtle for her rudeness towards aliens, in a transparent narrative attempt to make Art seem like a better person than Myrtle. Most importantly, however, while the book makes some vague stabs at expressing the idea that bigotry on an individual level is bad and that you should treat everyone with respect, it never says that imperialism itself is wrong. British dominion over everything from Mercury to Saturn is unquestioned and even lauded.
This would be problematic if it was just the abstract idea of Earth lording it over the other planets, but it’s made worse by the fact that it’s explicitly linked to Earthly imperialism, which is still affecting racial and international relations in the real world. If it’s totally cool for the English to rule over the Martians, who are apparently not worthy of the full rights given to an English citizen, it must be totally cool for the English to rule over, say, India, right? Obviously I’m not going to say that a person cannot write a book for children about imperialism without expressly condemning imperialism. However, I think this gleefully oblivious treatment is incredibly irresponsible.
The poor attitude towards other races and classes is compounded by the equally poor attitude towards women. There are four in the book (not counting Queen Victoria, who shows up at the end): Art’s mother, who is entirely defined by her roles as wife and mother; Ulla, a Martian who married an Englishman and joined the British Secret Service with him (which is another morally complicated imperialistic issue that’s never really discussed); Ssilissa, a blue anthropomorphic lizard of indeterminate origin who is a member of Jack’s crew and hopelessly, tragically in love with him; and Myrtle.
I really, really wanted to like Myrtle. I generally enjoy the prim young lady who loosens up over the course of the adventure and teaches her confederates that cleanliness and manners really are helpful, but unfortunately, Myrtle doesn’t really get an arc like that. She doesn’t really get an arc, in fact. She’s kind of obnoxious, and not in a cute way, and then she summons up courage in adversity by thinking of Jack (because of course a woman must be shown the way towards heroism by a man), but it doesn’t make her any less obnoxious. A lot of that is because most of the book is narrated by her little brother, who thinks of her as a bossy girl, but she’s both forbidden to be anything but traditionally feminine and constantly metatextually criticized for it, which hardly seems fair.
Plus the “romance” between Myrtle and Jack has some very unsettling underpinnings. Soon after they meet, the pirates and the siblings find themselves running for their lives from the Navy. Myrtle has fainted, of course. Jack is about to sacrifice himself in order to get the Navy to let the rest of the crew go, and Art asks if there’s anything he can do:
“You?” He glanced at me, incredulous. “Of course there ain’t!” he scoffed. But then his eye fell upon my insensible sister. Myrtle is always at her best when she is unconscious. Her spectacles had fallen off, and she looked almost pretty, lying there all pale and swoonsome. Jack Havock frowned thoughtfully, tugging at the brim of his wideawake hat. “Or maybe there is,” he said softly.
He then grabs Art, has another crewmember grab Myrtle, and shows them to the Navy as hostages, which allows them to get away. They even shake Myrtle so that it looks like she’s awake and struggling. The whole thing is incredibly distasteful and upsetting. She’s at her best when she’s unconscious? She looks kind of dead, so that makes her pretty and useful? Of course, the loss of her glasses stops her being a someone who looks and turns her into a something that is looked at, and the word “insensible” implies that the dumber Myrtle is, the more palatable she is. The invasion of Myrtle’s privacy and personhood continues throughout, particularly with the three chapters that are made up of large sections of her diary, used, Art tells us, without permission.
So. Great world, decent swashbuckling, really unsettling treatment of…um, everything else. The truth is, I am probably going to pick up Starcross, the sequel to Larklight, which would ordinarily mean this book gets three cupcakes, but my weakness for adventures in space does not change the poor treatment of –isms in Larklight. Two and a half cupcakes, and not a sprinkle more.
Tags: Philip Reeve