Review: Railsea, by China Miéville

UK cover of Railsea by China Miéville

It says something about a book when one of its central conceits becomes an obsession before you’ve even read it. My long-suffering twitter followers will know that China Miéville has written a book involving moles. Now Railsea (2012) is here, & on the mole front, it more than delivers. Take it from me; this is epic, insectivore mammalpunk. It undertakes an elaborate, affectionate dance with Melville’s Moby-Dick (of which more later). And it is adorned with some quite scary illustrations of railsea fauna by Miéville himself.

Is Railsea without flaws? Here, I poke my critical snout above the dirt, sniff the air, & report – not quite. If I had to distill my criticism of Railsea into one sentence, it would be this: Not every book needs to contain ALL THE THINGS. This is an ambitious, audacious book; it aims to address a wide variety of readers on multiple levels. In it, I find myself more conscious of political points being made than in any of Miéville’s previous novels. Part of me suspects that there are in fact two books trying to burrow their way out of Railsea, one YA and one adult.

And yet…

Miéville readers will be wondering: are there more weird, unforgettable ideas in Railsea, ones that I’ll think about for a long time? The answer to this is an unqualified Yes. Bizarre assemblages of rubbish? Tick. Puns aplenty? Yep. & I for one will never look at a mole-hill in quite the same way. In addition, Railsea contains, to my mind, some of Miéville’s very best writing, particularly in those passages where he steps back from conventional narrative structures to address the reader directly.

Railsea is about quests. The young protagonist, Sham, seeks an authentic purpose in life. His moletrain captain pursues her nemesis, the elusive white moldywarpe (Miéville uses this evocative old English name for mole throughout). As Ahab hunted the white whale, Captain Naphi stalks Mocker-Jack across the railsea. The railsea is, I’ll wager, one of the coolest damn things you’ll encounter in fiction for a very long time. Take the ocean, but imagine that instead of water, it’s covered in a crazy, byzantine network of railway lines. Instead of fish, dolphins & whales frolicking below its surface, imagine moles, worms & other subterranean creatures. Some of them are huge; many of them are downright dangerous.

The world of Railsea is a future earth in which our current levels of consumption are no longer possible. Beneath & on the surface of the railsea rests salvage of varied provenance – earth’s past (arche-salvage), earth’s present (nu-salvage) & off-planet (alt-salvage). One of the central narratives is the longing of Shamus Yes ap Soorap, a school-leaver from the moling nation of Streggeye, to be a salvager. Various factors conspire to make this impossible: he’s been raised by two cousins, & partly on their behalf, he feels unable to refuse a position as an apprentice moletrain doctor.

The prologue is the first instance of the author/narrator stepping out of the story to speak to the reader. In a memorable first line, we’re told that

This is the story of a bloodstained boy.

We are given some context, learn more about the boy’s surroundings. And then, a change of mind, a rethink:

We’re here too soon.

Our first inkling that, among other things, the railsea represents story itself.

Into reverse: let this engine go back. Just to before the boy was bloodied, there to pause & go forward again to see how we got here…

Turn the page & board the moletrain in Chapter One. More choices must be made. We begin with a closeup, but then zoom out:

No. Back a bit.
A looming carcase?
Bit more.
Here. Weeks out, back when it was colder.

And we’re underway, in the thick of the action, at the moment a mole is sighted in the distance:

“There she blows!”

We then experience the excitement of the subsequent mole hunt, & the bloody work that follows.

Is it time to talk about Moby-Dick yet?

No. Let’s deal with the the Marx quote first.

The Marx quote?

“Well grubbed, old mole.” From Marx’s The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte (1852)

Captain Naphi utters the above in response to the hunted mole’s attempt to lead the moletrain into a catastrophic sudden change of gauge, & we learn that it is the “traditional praise for such quarry cunning.”

You do know Marx is riffing on a quotation from Hamlet, right? –  “Well said, old mole.”

Yes. & Hegel talked about moles too. I’m on it. But we should probably get back to the story, & leave some of this for the scholars.

We learn more about Sham (his nickname a good fit with his nagging feelings of inauthenticity), and watch his reaction to cruel animal fights arranged by other members of the crew. Then Sham’s moletrain, the Medes, encounters the wreck of a another train, & everything changes. Sham discovers an artifact that sets him on a new quest, ultimately leading him (& the reader) to the eccentric Shroake family of Manihiki . He also gains an animal companion that he nurses back to health, having accidentally injured it while fighting off naked mole rats – Daybe the daybat.

What Sham found in the wreckage was a memory card containing pictures or “flatographs.” One is of two serious-looking children beneath a strange archway;  another is of something Sham can’t quite comprehend – an unheard-of single rail line making its solitary way into the distance. His reaction to both these images is an unquenchable desire to find both the children & the impossible rail line, & I must admit that his determination did strike me as slightly implausible.

OK. Now it’s time to talk about Moby-Dick.

The narrator of Melville’s Moby-Dick introduces himself by putting us on notice that he is telling a story, not relating fact. Is his name really Ishmael? No matter – that is what he asks us to call him. How long ago was this journey? Not important. But there is more to be said about the relationship of Railsea to Moby-Dick than I could hope to cover here.

I can’t help but mention, however, two relevant passages from Chapter One of Moby-Dick. The first is a description of Manhattan:

Its extreme down-town is the Battery, where that noble mole is washed by waves, and cooled by breezes…

Well that is just a Miévillian vision ripe for the picking, the island of Manhattan as giant mole, burrowing in the earth of the sea. Then, this:

Were Niagara but a cataract of sand, would you travel your thousand miles to see it?

Land & sea – reversed. Railsea seems, in part an attempt to answer this question: if the ocean were filled with dirt instead of water, would you want to read about it?

So. Where were we?

The Shroakes. Two of the Shroakes’ three parents perished the train that Sham found wrecked. Sham eventually gets to Manihiki, bringing Caldera and Caledero “Dero” Shroake confirmation that their two absent parents have met an untimely end. They, in turn, relay this sad news to their reclusive third parent, Dad Byro, & begin making plans to complete the interrupted journey.

Here, I wanted more information about what the two Shroakes were looking for, to hold my interest over what is a lengthy trip. The Shroake family did remind me (pleasingly) of Madeleine L’Engle’s Murry family in A Wrinkle in Time (1962) & also characters created by Joan Aiken, who is mentioned by Miéville in the acknowledgements.

The pace of the plot increases as the story goes on, with trains racing across the vast railsea, seeking secrets and prey. There is an episode where Sham is rescued & cared for by the nomadic Bajjer people, sailors on the railsea; they become important later, & the role their expertise plays could be a nod to Queequeg’s useful coffin in Moby-Dick.

To reveal much more about the ultimate destination of Sham, Captain Naphi, the Shroakes & their companions, would be to give away too much, so I will just say that the conclusion is at once surprising & quite satisfying. There are battles along the way – menacing Angel maintenance trains & the Manihiki navy are involved, & at the close, we are left in little doubt that Sham has at last found his calling.

Perhaps a few words about politics here?

The first thing to say is that, if I am not singing from the exact same political hymn sheet as China Miéville, I am certainly sitting in an adjacent pew, so when I object to what I see as political point-scoring, it’s usually not that I disagree with the point being made, but more with the fact of it being there at all, or being made less subtly than I’d like.

The best example I can give of this in Railsea is the use of “defoliant” by the Manihiki navy to blight swathes of the Bajjer’s railsea habitat. Encountering this took me out of the story; immediately I was thinking ah, I get it, that is the US military in Vietnam, using Agent Orange. I am old enough that I watched reports from the Vietnam War on the nightly news, so my reaction is necessarily different than that of YA readers. Do they know about Agent Orange? If not, shouldn’t they? I think there is an argument to be had about whether this works well or not.

Another plot point, I initially saw as a one-liner, but, on reflection, viewed as more appropriate and nuanced. It is to do with the very existence of the railsea – how it came into being, what motivated the tangle of tracks. The more I look at current events, the more I feel that it is something that needs saying. I will have to wait to find out how it strikes others.

Gentler hints are dropped: the captain of the Medes is a woman, the figurehead on the train’s “prow” is male, the Shroake family has three parents. All of this was deftly handled.

Shall we close with a few words about, well, words? This is Miéville, after all.

I’ll leave you with some examples of delightul phrases encountered in Railsea (I won’t spoil my favourite pun by revealing it, but suffice it to say, it is literally to LOL)

moonpanther moldywarpe
rigours & vigours & bloody triggers
gallimaufryan coagulum of mixed-up oddness

Railsea is a wild ride. Different aspects of it will appeal to a wide range of readers, and it will certainly merit multiple re-readings. Miéville fans will be pleased to encounter many of the things they have come to expect from this inventive writer.

Railsea is out in the UK from Tor UK on May 24 & in the US from Del Rey on May 15

3 responses to “Review: Railsea, by China Miéville

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