Is there anything on secondary school reading lists that even remotely resembles science fiction? At a time when climate change struggles to be headline news and NASA has to time its big announcements to coincide with Hollywood releases, does anyone with any import appreciate what science fiction can teach a child? Does anyone believe that science fiction can be educational?
Well, that person, whoever he or she is, should read Antonia Honeywell’s The Ship. Faced with the end of the world, protagonist and narrator Lalla Paul, 16, leaves London on the verge of destruction and boards the title ship, which her father has provisioned and prepared for his family’s escape. They are joined by almost 500 other souls who were chosen for a life of happiness and wanting for nothing.
Comparisons to Noah’s Ark are inevitable but they miss the point. The Ship is no religious fable or allegoric fairy tale. It is a novel defined by its question marks. Lalla is as unreliable as narrators come, a spoilt brat who fails to appreciate the lengths her father has gone to give her a chance at a normal life, away from a government that bombs its own people, not to mention hunger, disease and famine. But her selfishness and failure to appreciate the opportunity to play football, learn to knit, or simply fall in love, perfectly position her to see through the fiction that is the world her father has created aboard the ship. She has no choices to make except those put to her by Michael Paul, the man trying to make amends for providing the British government with a technology that was supposed to create total equality but was just exploited for the gain of the few, like everything is always is. Lalla, as spoilt as she is, has never eaten an actual apple and won’t make do with man-made derivatives. She wants to experience for herself, but instead she’s spoon fed whatever her father has stocked the ship with, and it doesn’t taste as sweet.
The result is a winding, often aimless narration that is peppered with questions like speed bumps. The going is slow in The Ship—the novel could probably have been 50 pages shorter—yet Lalla’s sudden mood swings, from deadly depressive to ecstatically happy, coupled with her questions upon questions and obsessions with the past, describe an almost-real person, so real that readers will argue with her as often as the novel’s other characters. She’s well formed, entirely believable and a complete pain in the arse, so much so that it’s no surprise that she learns of her father’s ultimate plans and takes steps against them, and, eventually, discovers the lengths he went to in his search for redemption.
Lalla is the personification of rebellion—she highlights the importance of a detractor, a dissenting voice that questions the motives of the authority. This lesson in rebelling is exactly what the next generation of young adults should be learning, as the climate changes, space travel remains too expensive, and governments chip away at freedom. Honeywell’s first novel is by no means perfect, but then change cannot be effected if mistakes are not made, just as terror and agony cannot be overcome without hope. The Ship is an important work with a story to tell. Learn from it what you will.