Miéville’s writing in Railsea is full of clever allusions, sly glances at popular culture and the work of other writers, wit, and warmth. As well, it is stylistically pleasing. China Miéville is so unrelentingly and ruthlessly intelligent that he forces the reader to be alert.
Railsea‘s protagonist is Shamus Yes ap Soorap, known as Sham. He is a relatively inadequate apprentice doctor on board a moletrain called Medes, which searches the world of Railsea for huge and dangerous predators called moldywarpes – really huge moles. Railsea is a world extensively covered by rail lines, along which teams in trains pursue hunting, policing, and salvage activities. Moletrain workers hunt the huge moles for meat and skins, which they trade at various cities perched on continents separate from the vast interconnected rail lines:
Long straights, tight curves; metal runs on wooden ties; overlapping, spiraling, crossing at metalwork junctions; splitting off temporary sidings that abutted & rejoined main lines. Here the train tracks spread out to leave yards of unbroken earth between them; there they came close enough together that Sham could have jumped from one to the next, though that idea shivered him worse than the cold.
This is a coming of age story and a quest story in one. Sham searches aimlessly for his own path, and the captain of the Medes, Abacat Naphi, desires to capture a vast ivory or bone-hue moldywarp (they are usually black). Sham’s desires and the captain’s ‘philosophy’ ultimately coalesce in an enthralling and exciting climax.
Miéville uses the concept of philosophy in an interesting way. All the moletrain captains have a philosophy; something that keeps them hunting:
In the taverns of Streggeye Land, in the books they wrote, which Sham & his classmates had sat through, in lectures public & exclusive, captains held ruminatively forth about the bloodworm, the mole rat, the termite queen or angry rex rabbit or badger or the mole, the great mole, the rampaging great moldywarpe of the the railsea, become for them the principle of knowing or unknowing, humility, enlightenment, obsession, modernity, nostalgia or something. The story of the hunt is as much their work as the catching of meat.
… But it was the philosophies that were the mainstay of these storytelling sessions.
In fact, everything Miéville does in this story is interesting. There is the sideways glance at Moby-Dick – the above quote contains almost a précis of the themes from that novel. Railsea is full of tricky playfulness; one of the characters is called Skikasta, the title of one of Doris Lessing’s science fiction books. Miéville’s introduction of Captain Naphi connects her to Captain Ahab via a damaged limb:
Her long grey hair was ribboned back. She stood quite still while her age-mottled brown overcoat wind-shimmied around her. Lights winked in her bulky composite left arm. Its metal & ivory clicked & twitched.
These quotes may give some idea of the complex styles and language Miéville uses. Some chapters are only a paragraph long, and sometimes he asks readers if they are ready for the next development. He uses the ampersand for ‘and’ throughout, which actually looks quite attractive. The book is described as being for readers of all ages, which suggests that it is aimed at including a teen market, though a very young reader might find it a little too complex. It took me a chapter or two to settle into the rhythms and concepts.
The milieu is unsettling until you accept the idea of a planet covered in rail lines. Also the very richness of the names introduced in the first chapters makes relating to the characters a challenge; for example: Danjamin Benightly, Kiragbo Luck, Hob Vurinam, Zaro Gunst. At first they are hard to accept, but after a while these names become endearing. The fact that the characters relate to each other with gentleness and kindness might also be because this book is aimed at including a younger readership. There are vivid scary bits – some of the animal predators are definitely chilling – but this book is softer than most of Mieville’s other works.
On the cover Miéville is praised as ‘one of the most imaginative young writers around’. He is actually forty and his work is extremely mature. Time to see him as fully developed, I think.
China Miéville Railsea, Pan Macmillan 2012, PB, 384pp, $29.99
Folly Gleeson was a lecturer in Communication Studies. At present she enjoys her book club and reading history and fiction.
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