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Planes, Trains And Artificial Intelligence

Philip Reeve’s Railhead takes readers on a wild (train) ride through the future of humanity.

Planes, Trains And Artificial Intelligence

BOOK REPORT for Railhead (Railhead #1) by Philip Reeve

Cover Story: Get in Gear
BFF Charm: Yay
Swoonworthy Scale: 3
Talky Talk: Along for the Ride
Bonus Factors: Artificial Intelligence, Sci-fi Pop Culture References
Factor: Open Ending
Relationship Status: Take Me With You!

Cover Story: Get in Gear

From a purely “judge a book” standpoint, I like this cover. The imagery is interesting, the colors are pretty, and the tagline (even though it’s missing some punctuation) is intriguing. But would I know that the machinery was from a train if I didn’t know the book was about trains? Even with the title? I’m not sure.

I do think it’s more thematically fitting than the UK one, however, which basically tells me “this is a science fiction book or maybe a thriller that possibly has something to do with constellations or space and something that moves really fast.” (I do appreciate the proper use of the em dash, though. *side eye to the US version*)

The Deal:

Zen Starling isn’t a starving street urchin, but he can’t help but behave like one: For him, stealing is a passion, and an art, and it helps pay the bills. It’s also something to do to pass the time between rides on the K-bahn, the network of sentient trains that connect distant points in the galaxy. And for Zen, a “railhead,” there’s little in life more important than riding the rails.

When Zen’s contacted by a mysterious man named Raven who tasks him with pulling off his biggest heist yet, Zen has no idea what he’s in for—or how easy it is for one small event to send shockwaves through the entire universe.

BFF Charm: Yay

Zen is technically a criminal, and that should probably make me wary of associating myself with him, but he’s just so darn likeable. He never steals things from people who can’t afford it (either because they’re wealthy or insurance will cover the cost), and he never takes more than he needs to get by. And even while on Raven’s heist, he has thoughts about backing out when he gets too close to the people he’ll be stealing from. His criminal nature is an indicator that he’s extremely clever and a more than a little stifled by the role he’s forced to play thanks to his family’s class standing.

Plus, he has a seriously cool name, and being his friend would make it possible for me to say things “Oh, you know, my friend—Zen Starling” in a total #humblebrag sort of way.

Swoonworthy Scale: 3

Zen really isn’t interested in making friends or romantic connections. But that’s the thing about this sort of thing—it totally sneaks up on you when you least expect it. That said, the relationship that forms over the course of Railhead isn’t a swoony one; although I understood that Zen and [REDACTED] formed a bond, I never felt any of the passion that should have come/supposedly came with.

Talky Talk: Along for the Ride

If you aren’t a fan of science fiction—the kind that plops you right down in the middle of a strange world/galaxy/universe that’s filled with strange beings/ideas/terms and expects you to keep up without question—Railhead’s likely not for you. If you’re like me, however, someone who likes to get lost in stories that are only slightly connected to real life, read on.

In Railhead, Philip Reeve tells about a far-distant humanity, one shepherded by the Guardians, an ancient group of artificial intelligences, who built the Great Network, a system of train tracks that enable humans to travel distant worlds in the blink of an eye, and have guided humanity to an era of technological advancement and (for the most part) peace. Along with the humans in this distant future exist trains and androids with personalities and feelings, bugs who have evolved to have a hive mind intelligence, and more extraordinary creatures created by genetic engineers. All this to say that Reeve has created a super complex and rich world in this book, one that almost becomes a character in its own right.

The actual plot of Railhead is a pretty simple/familiar one, but instead of being a detriment, I think it helps ground readers who otherwise might get too lost in the science fiction of it all.

(Side note: Railhead has been optioned for film, and I can completely see how it will translate well to the big screen.)

Bonus Factor: Artificial Intelligence

Unlike the examples in movies such as The Terminator, the artificial intelligence in Railhead isn’t out to destroy humanity (although The Guardians totally have ulterior motives). The trains that run on the K-bahn are sentient, and all have distinct and interesting personalities. The androids, known colloquially as Motoriks, can also develop feelings and personalities, and can “grow” as any other human can through learning and experimenting.

Bonus Factor: Sci-fi Pop Culture References

Railhead is full of nods to other science fiction properties. The portals through which the Great Network runs are called K-gates, in which the K stands for KH, or “Kwisatz Haderach,” a phrase/idea from Frank Herbert’s Dune universe. The entire network, and the instantaneous travel across the galaxy, reminds me of the Stargate network. At one point in the book, a character talks about some of the languages of Old Earth, “Roman, or Spanish or Klingon ...” And I’m sure I missed many more less obvious Easter eggs.

Factor: Open Ending

I think Railhead is a stand alone novel, and its ending isn’t a cliffhanger, in the most literal sense of the term—the plot tied up pretty darn neatly. But the ending did leave me with many questions about what happens next, and I feel like there’s so much more of this universe left to explore.

Casting Call:

Tony Revolori as Zen

Relationship Status: Take Me With You!

My bags are packed, Book, and I’m ready to go. Sign me up for a life of riding your rails, seeing your sights, and meeting your characters. All aboard for adventure!

FTC Full Disclosure: I received a copy of this book from Switch Press, but got neither a private dance party with Tom Hiddleston nor money in exchange for this review. Railhead is available now.

Mandy Curtis's photo About the Author: Mandy is a small town girl living in a nerdy world, or—if you want to get literal—an editor/writer living in Austin, TX. In addition to yearning for YA books—the more dystopian or fantastical, the better—she can also be found swooning over superheroes, dreaming of The Doctor and grinning at GIFs.
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