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Quick Pick: Railhead by Philip Reeve

By Dr. Kristin Brynteson, Director of Professional Development

Railhead book cover

If you love a good train heist mixed with a bit of hierarchical class war, sprinkled with androids, and topped off with sentient space trains (yes, sentient space trains) then Railhead by Carnegie-medal-winning author Philip Reeve is one you need to read. Set in a future where humans can travel the universe using the ancient Great Network – an intergalactic railway system – a young thief, street rat, and railhead named Zed is recruited for what seems like a simple, yet profitable job. With the help of Nova, a quirky, freckled android, Zed needs to steal a small artifact from the Emperor’s train. An easy task for an experienced thief like Zed. However, the job is not as simple as it seems. As one would expect, things don’t go as planned. In fact, they go horribly, horribly wrong. Zed and Nova’s actions set off a chain of events that could change the entire universe.

Railhead takes a little bit of time to get chugging but once the story leaves the station, you can’t put it down. (Yay, train puns!)  It is a delightful mix of sci-fi and fantasy that will engage readers of all ages with its fast paced action and plot twists and turns. In addition to the complex characters and great story, one of my favorite aspects of this book was that the many of fantasy-like elements, the ancient all powerful race, intelligent trains, space travel were not explained away with magic but rather technology. What results is a fun, creatively stunning, and thought provoking read for sci-fi fans and railheads alike.

Here are some ways you could incorporate Railhead into the classroom.

Artificial intelligence and other advanced technologies play a large role in the book. For example, the android Nova works hard to be more human like and has a capacity for feeling and emotion. She, and other androids in the book are easily mistaken for humans. Nova’s character and the androids in Railhead as well as the other AI characters provide an excellent backdrop to start exploring the possibilities of artificial intelligence. Have students research current AI technology and connect it to the AI technology present in the book. You can also have students delve into the ethical and philosophical aspects of AI. Use questions such as, “What rights does AI have?”, “Is AI sentient?”, “How might AI change life for humans?” Connect this to current events such as the news of Sofia, the first robot granted citizenship in Saudi Arabia.

You could also use Railhead as a way to explore intergalactic travel. An intergalactic rail system seems pretty far-fetched but is any of it grounded in real science? How do organizations like NASA or companies such as Space XBlue Origin, or Virgin Galactic plan to get us to other planets? Have your students design their own method for visiting worlds in other galaxies. Who knows, their far-fetched idea of today might be our ticket to the starts tomorrow.

Railhead is the first in a trilogy. The second book, Black Light Express, is also available through Oxford Press.

Author and illustrator, Philp Reeves has written and collaborated on several series including the award winning Predator Cityseries and its prequel, the Fever Crumb trilogy. Both are filled with futuristic Steampunk awesomeness. The movie adaptation of Mortal Engines (Book #1 in the Predator City series) is currently under production by Universal Studios – written and produced by Peter Jackson. Due to be released in 2018. I know I’m excited!

Until then, take a thrill ride on the adventure express with Railhead. All aboard for a great read! Did I mention sentient space trains? Sentient. Space. Trains.