BY RICHARD HARLAND
Publisher: Simon & Schuster Books For Young Readers
Review by Barbora Lyčková
Even though the good fight is often a tricky theme to work with, it remains central to a vast number of novels, and Richard Harland’s Worldshaker presents its incarnation for young adults in a tale of fantastic machinery, steam and social revolution.
It is the year 1995 and the juggernaut Worldshaker, a huge, moving city, has been traversing the world for the better part of two centuries. Amid the sheltered elite of the Upper Decks lives our hero, Colbert Porpentine, a young man preened by his grandfather to follow in his footsteps as the Worldshaker’s Supreme Commander. However, when one of the Filthies, the primitive human-like creatures who work in the juggernaut’s bowels, propelling the ship forward, slips into Col’s room in search of safety, the young man’s moral values are suddenly called into question. It would appear that the Filthies are more like himself and the other people of the Upper Decks than he would have liked to imagine.
While this quick summary of the first part of the plot may sound like a promising read, it is also enough to hint at the gaps which occur, sooner or later, in the weave of the story. Colbert, as well as most of the people he’s surrounded by, has been brought up in the belief that Filthies are sub-human. Yet a Filthy girl appears in the very first chapter and the reader finds her perfectly ordinary (albeit covered in grime) and as human as Col himself. The spell is broken – for all Col’s later musings on the matter, for all the contempt and revulsion the other Upper Deckers show towards the Filthies, the reader knows they’re all wrong, and – especially should one be acquainted with the themes of H. G. Wells’s Time Machine in one form or another – the two hundred pages it takes for the main characters to figure out the mystery of the Filthies’ origin can be very taxing.
Blatantly showing the reader what is right from the first page may perhaps be a necessity for a young adult novel, stemming from the fear of appearing (even for a moment) to be on the oppressors’ side. This anxiety, however understandable, unfortunately turns the portrayed social revolution into a black and white schematic. The author allows for no gray areas – the villains are evil and have to be eradicated, the oppressed Filthies, despite the terrible conditions they have been kept in for the last century, are moral enough to refrain from bloodshed, and the ‘good’ Upper Deckers have done nothing about the whole situation because they have been kept in blissful ignorance all this time. The revolution goes forth in a very straightforward, easily foreseeable manner, and one has to wait until the Worldshaker’s sequel for this image to be at least partly remedied.
Richard Harland’s Worldshaker is not a bad novel. On the contrary, it is told with an unusual, yet catching, sense of humor, and the colorful characters that make their appearance are anything but bland or boring. The story is, however, very insistent in capturing the good fight in a manner suitable for young adults and, in its zeal, introduces a mere shadow of the monster against which this battle should in fact be waged.