a review by Rebecca Muir
The Steam Mole is the sequel to Dave Freer’s alternate history novel, Cuttlefish. The world of Cuttlefish and The Steam Mole diverged from ours with a quarrel between two scientists who were engaged to be married. In our world, they were married and developed a process to synthesise ammonia. In Dave Freer’s world, the marriage was called off and the process was not discovered. The implications of this have been widespread, with the world a very different place in terms of society, politics, the environment and technological development.
In Cuttlefish, Mary, the daughter of the female scientist, has followed her mother into Chemistry, and she has developed the ammonia process that her mother did in our world. Realising the enormous global significance of this, she has been chased across the world by the British Empire to the rebel state of Westralia, with her daughter Clara. They were brought there in the coal powered submarine, the Cuttlefish.
The Steam Mole picks up where Cuttlefish left off. The crew of the Cuttlefish have dispersed across the country to work while the submarine is being repaired. Tim, a young man Clara got to know and like very much on the Cuttlefish, has gone to work on the undercover railway lines in the north. He meets trouble because his dark skin causes him to be taken for an aboriginal in a place where racism is rife. Meanwhile, Mary falls ill, and Clara sets off to find Tim and ask for his help. She has received word that her father, a political prisoner of the British Empire, is now in Eastern Australia. She wants Tim to help her find him. Adventures ensue for all in the inhospitable outback of Westralia: There are friends to be rescued, a plot by the British Empire to invade Westralia to be thwarted, and the greed and unlawful activities of powerful Westralian corporations to be brought to justice.
The Steam Mole builds on the character development started in the Cuttlefish, particularly of the two young protagonists, Tim and Clara. Other lively characters are also introduced. Dave Freer has created some vivid and likeable heroes for his books. [Spoilers, Sweetie] The ending felt a bit like “and everyone lived happily ever after”, but because I was drawn to the characters so much, anything else would have been a disappointment. [Spoiler ends]
The alternate world Dave Freer has created is well thought out and intriguing. It is believable – he has thought about the implications of his changes and the technology he describes sounds like it would actually work. Against this backdrop he has written a fun and gripping story, filled with interesting characters who have to fight to save the world. He has also explored some important themes such as racism, friendship, the role of women in society and the injustice that can occur when big corporations start to think they are above the law.
I think this book will appeal to a wide range of people, from young adults to older readers. Fans of science fiction will find the alternate world fascinating, but those who don’t normally go for sci-fi should also find it accessible and interesting. I would definitely read Cuttlefish first. Both books get a big thumbs up from me – they will be earning a place on my “books to reread and enjoy again” shelf.