Author: China Miéville
Published: 24 May 2012 (first published 1 May)
Genre: YA, action-adventure, science fiction
Source: review copy from Pan Macmillan SA
Sham ap Soorap doesn’t know what he wants to do with his life, but for now he’s working as a doctor’s assistant on a moletrain called the Medes. The crew hunts the giant moles that burrow beneath the earth of the railsea – a land covered in endlessly lopping rails that can take you anywhere, but never in a straight line. Trains travel the railsea likes ships do the ocean.
Sham likes the travel but he doesn’t like the killing; what really excites him is salvage, the treasured junk of the railsea, left behind by previous generations and visitors from other worlds. When the Medes comes across a wrecked train,. Sham goes aboard, eager for treasure, and finds the catalyst for an epic adventure – footage of open land with only a single rail running through it. The very thought of such a place is dizzying. No one knows what lies beyond the railsea; it’s like travelling to the end of the earth.
Sham would immediately follow every clue from the footage to find the people pictured in it and learn more about that terrifyingly singular rail, but his captain isn’t remotely interested. Like many railsea captains, she’s chasing a ‘philosophy’ – a monstrously huge creature that, like a conventional philosophy, “embodies meanings, potentialities, ways of looking at the world” (85). In a homage to Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick, Captain Naphi’s philosophy is a giant ivory-coloured mole named Mocker-Jack (there was a real-life Moby-Dick named Mocha Dick). For Nahpi, the mole is a symbol, a “burrowing signifier”, and by chasing it she learns more about what it represents to her. She is literally on the hunt for knowledge.
Captain Naphi would never abandon her ivory philosophy, so Sham finds a way to make her obsession serve his. His actions spark a quest to travel beyond the boundaries of the known world, and captures the dangerous attention of pirates, salvors and anyone else who desires the treasures at the end of the world.
It could be said that this is China Miéville’s second YA novel (after Un Lun Dun), but I’d say it defies age. Sham and some of the other protagonists are teenagers, but don’t assume the ideal reader should be the same age. Instead, think of Railsea as a quintessential action-adventure novel about a daring journey of discovery and self-discovery. Out of the Mieville novels I’ve read, this is one of the most fun to read.
The plot is slow at first, but this is Miéville – his bizarre worlds deserve a proper introduction. Although it feels like fantasy, Railsea is a sci fi novel set on a far-future Earth. Our own time is described as “astoundingly long ago” (98) and the world has changed vastly. It has a steampunk feel thanks to the trains and odd tech, but I think of it more as junkpunk, because the world is defined by junk. This isn’t as bad as it sounds; junk is salvage, treasure, and there are explorers who spend their lives on the rails in search of it. The junk of our age is the ancient “arche-salvage”; more recent stuff is called “nu-salvage”. The most prized salvage, is “alt-salvage”, the weird, often incomprehensible objects left behind by aliens who used the planet as a dumping ground.
Their brief visits also changed the very structure of the world, its ecosystems, and its wildlife. Humans inhabit the railsea and the landmasses within it, but there are several other layers above and below. These are dominated by strange, mostly dangerous creatures. Some are gargantuan versions of our own animals and insects (there’s no full explanation for how this happened), while others are entirely alien. This might be a future world, but it has the sense of danger that characterises the old world, full of monstrous beasts normally found only in myth. People see the ground between the rails as poisonous, which comes across as silly superstition until Sham finds himself alone on the ground and is suddenly terrified of the creatures that could burrow up from beneath to eat him.
On the whole, Miéville’s worldbulding is simply lovely. In addition to the main narrative, there are lots of beautiful little infodump chapters in which he tells us about his world as if we were travellers, students and poets enraptured by the railsea. He also waxes lyrical about the story itself – the narrative, the point of view, the characters. This is very much a novel about storytelling and about myth. Early on, Miéville explains the structure of the world and mentions the littoral zone – the shore between the railsea and the land. To this he adds some local sentiment:
“Give me the inland or give me the open rails,” say both the railsailor and the landlubber, “only spare me the littoral-minded.” (29)
I love the wordplay here. The disdain for the “littoral-minded”, I think, is also an expression of disdain for the literal-minded, who I interpret to be those who cannot appreciate fantasy, sci fi, myth, or any other fiction that eagerly wanders beyond the factual. And perhaps it is also a warning against those who fail to appreciate metaphor and symbol, tools that make compelling, meaningful stories and which Miéville brings to life with his gargantuan philosophies.
The characters also have to face the problem of taking their own myths literally. This altered world comes with fresh creation myths, gods and religions. Who created the railsea? A common belief is that it was put in place by gods and is protected and maintained by fearsome angels. Another theory is that a fight between the gods are the start of the world caused the railsea to rise out of the earth. But can they really take this at face value? In the voyage to a realm beyond the railsea, the characters also find themselves exploring these myths and their origins.
And now, it must be said, that this quest makes for an absolutely fantastic story. The journey/quest/voyage is one of my favourite plots, and after a slow start, Railsea moves with the exhilarating speed of a runaway train. The novel also has some wonderful characters. My favourites were the unbelievably bold and determined Shroake siblings who head out into the unknown before anyone else and are never put off by what they might find or the many people who will try to kill them. The most adorable character is undoubtedly Sham’s pet daybat, Daybe, who is described at one point as a “brave and determined mouse-sized bodyguard”. You come to love and admire these characters, and then the novel throws them into thrilling, life-threatening, life-changing adventure. Miéville frequently writes the most enjoyably cerebral stories, but in Railsea he also delivers sheer unbridled entertainment. I think it’s definitely one of Miéville’s most fun, charming novels, and it’s an excellent introduction to the rest of his work.
Of course, it has the signature features that are the reason I love this author – the weird world, the metafictional musing, and an inventive way with words. Miéville, as always, makes up his own words to fit his world, and reading his wonderful writing always makes me think about language and meaning. One particular quirk in Railsea is the use of the ampersand – & – instead of the word ‘and’. It is used throughout, even at the beginning of sentences. It’s a little jarring, even annoying at first, but there’s a little chapter that explains exactly why it’s used, and you can’t help but like it after that.
If you know anything about my tastes, my enthusiasm will come as no surprise. Miéville is my hero and I will read anything he writes. I will admit that he’s not for everybody, but if I can take a stab at being objective, I’d say that Railsea is a more accessible, utterly gorgeous, exciting book and you should read it.