Following Airborn and Skybreaker,¹ Starclimber begins with our hero, Matt Cruse, piloting a construction airship² working on the Celestial Tower—the French’s attempt to build a tower to outer space—and trying to sneak as much time as possible with his ill-chaperoned Object of Affection, Kate de Vries. Soon enough, however, Matt and Kate are offered a chance to go to space themselves—in Matt’s case, he can go if he passes a rigorous training progam; in Kate’s case, she can go if she first becomes engaged to a wealthy upper-class eligible bachelor.
Now, if one is to write a steampunk novel about the first expedition to space, dealing heavily with the mechanics of this expedition, one must get one’s physics right. By and large, Oppel does an admirable job. The spaceship has every right to work, the difficulties maneuvering while weightless, all that works. Which makes it all the more jarring when he gets it wrong. One such moment: “Speed was virtually impossible to discern up here. With only the distant earth as a reference point it always seemed we were motionless.” So far, okay; at constant speed in a frictionless environment, that’s true. But then, “Only the pitch of the chip’s rollers told me we were moving at all—and right now, that we were decelerating from a hundred twenty auroknots.”³ Not so much; acceleration and deceleration produce an effect akin to gravity. If they’re decelerating (from downward motion), he should be pressed against the floor. Much more noticeable than something you see by looking out the window. In another case, one of the major crises does not make sense because the physics is not right. This makes me sad.
But if I only read sci-fi in which the science was impeccable, I would not read much sci-fi,4 and this one has a lot going for it. The first two books are lighter on the steampunk/sci-fi; this one flawlessly integrates those elements with the well-built alternate history and maintains their sense of whimsy and discovery. The writing is excellent, moving along at a fast pace through much adventure without losing sight of the emotional lives of his characters. And those characters? Fully human and fleshed-out. Kate is particularly well-done; she is discomfitingly ruthless—this girl would be a Slytherin—but she’s also sympathetic. As an aristocratic woman, she’s privileged but hemmed-in. She freely states her disdain for class distinctions, but demonstrates a thoughtless belief that people will—and ought to—do what she asks them to without question. A suffragette, she believes in fighting for women’s rights, but relies on Daddy to bail her out when she gets in trouble. She has had to fight for her right to go to university and is still fighting to be accepted by the scientific community, but she doesn’t always appreciate the struggles working-class Matt has had to go through to get where he is. She’s a complex, flawed character, and she’s in good company.
All that’s not going to make me forgive the bad physics, per se; but it will make me recommend the book in spite of the bad physics.
¹ Both of which I read before I started this blog, so I haven’t reviewed them properly. That said, they’re excellent.
² Airship, not airplane; zeppelins are the default air transport in this alternate-history.
³ p. 335.
4Though I prefer it when it’s unapologetically, blatantly wrong to when it tries to be right and fails.