The main theme, and dilemma, for the two main characters in When We Have Wings is an old one: how do we deal with technological progress, the divides it can create (between classes, between generations), and the power it may provide to a privileged few? More specifically, how does someone raising a child in a rapidly changing environment make decisions about their future?
But the main reasons you should read this novel are:
1. people can fly
2. one of the main characters is a private detective
3. there is a miniature lion
Did I mention that people can fly? Yeah. Wow.
Peri was abandoned as a child and grew up poor in the regions outside the city. When we meet her in the novel, she’s been given her wings, and she works as a nanny to baby Hugo, for a wealthy, influential couple. Her employer, the architect Peter Chesshyre, is the creator of exclusive buildings for fliers, and is a little too in love with his own power. The wings are due to advances in science—genetic engineering—as are much of the spectacular materials for building and fashions. Even pets are hugely altered (if one has the money). It’s natural for people to choose their baby’s eye and hair colour. This is already something that doesn’t seem far away, so When We Have Wings asks: how far would we go?
The other main character—our private dick Zeke Fowler—has to let his ex-wife know whether or not their three-year-old son will go ahead with the treatments to become a flier. Of course, he wants his son to have every opportunity to go forward, and be happy, in the world, but what he’s learning about fliers on his current case isn’t very attractive. His case is to look for Peri, who has taken off with baby Hugo.
The story is addictive: there are adventures (with flying), mysteries, and intense encounters. The book is large and so there’s plenty of time to get to know both Peri and Zeke; their histories, their passions, their weaknesses. Corbett creates a great deal of sympathy for her main characters by giving them both ‘tough-but-caring’ natures. Peri is very protective of Hugo; Zeke is genuinely concerned about Peri. There are also some lovely moments between Zeke and the aforementioned tiny lion.
Corbett has built an imaginative, complex world: a city where permanent residency is like a Wonka golden ticket, plus edge cities, swampy outlands with nasty diseases, and a burgeoning world in the sky. The weather is tropical, the population is multicultural. Technological and genetic advances are for the haves. The have-nots may be left behind, but there are groups working (as there would be) to try to make sure there will be more choice, and clearer ethical guidelines.
Corbett, in creating this world and her characters, has also engaged with theology and mythology, with nature, and with history. When We Have Wings is hence densely layered. It’s smart and political, raising the kind of questions the best science fiction should raise (about ethics, about progress, about how future generations will make meaning), but it’s also just damn entertaining. The characters are well-rounded, the story is genuinely exciting, and best of all, Corbett does not pander to her readers. She does not tie everything into a neat little bow. The future is possibly bleak and strange, it may also be exhilarating. Either way, we will have to deal with many of the same issues we deal with now.
This post will be added to my tally in the Australian Women Writers Reading + Reviewing Challenge.