RAILSEA by China Miéville
China Miéville (chinamieville.net)
China Miéville’s latest novel, Railsea, takes us to a strange new world, and introduces us to Sham ap Soorap, a young boy working as an apprentice doctor aboard a moletrain. In the course of a moldywarpe hunt, the crew come across a wrecked train, and Sham discovers a camera’s memory card. On it, pictures that shock him to his core, and lead him on a mission to find two children whose parents have evidently died in search of the impossible. But there are more people interested in these two children, and in the contents of this memory card, than just Sham, and before long he finds himself involved with pirates, the military and salvage operators all looking for one thing: fortune.
Over the past number of years, Miéville has become something of a poster boy for science fiction, and consistently produces some of the finest work in the genre. His latest is a wonderful showcase for an imagination that knows no bounds and has few equals. Even for someone who has not read the original tale (yet another shameful Reader Dad confession), it’s immediately obvious where part of the inspiration for Railsea comes from: it’s a reworking of Melville’s Moby Dick, set on a world where oceans are replaced by vast swathes of train tracks, the ships we expect are replaced by trains of various descriptions – molers, salvors, ferronaval vessels bristling with weaponry and shrouded in armour, even pirates – and the great whale hunted by Ahab and his crew (here played by the one-armed Captain Naphi and the crew of the Medes) replaced by a giant mole.
It sounds faintly ridiculous, but it works; this is pure Miéville, master world-builder and expert storyteller. It doesn’t take long for the reader to become immersed in this strange world and to understand exactly how everything works. This is most definitely science fiction, but it has a very old fashioned feel – the technology is, for the most part, old and unreliable, the trains mostly ramshackle, cobbled together, and even the text feels oddly antiquated, due to the replacement of the word “and” throughout with the symbol “&”, a replacement that does have some significance, as explained later in the book. As we’ve come to expect from Miéville, the humans in this story share space with fantastical creatures, and the text is littered with neologisms and inventions designed to do little more than highlight the alien-ness of this world.
The book is promoted as an adventure for all ages, and in some outlets is being pushed purely as young adult fiction, similar to his earlier Un Lun Dun. It’s difficult to see how this came about. Yes, the central character (three of the central characters, in fact) is in his teens, but beyond that, this is a complex novel with ideas and concepts above and beyond what one might normally expect to find in young adult fiction, and which may leave younger readers more than a little baffled (the aforementioned essay on the ampersand is a case in point). It’s also likely to have an impact on the number of older readers who actually pick this up; for me, it’s as complex (some might say convoluted) as The City & The City and as beautifully-wrought as Perdido Street Station; it deserves not to be dismissed as a lesser work aimed at a much younger audience (it’s not).
Miéville’s strength is, without doubt, his ability to spin worlds out of thin air, but he also has a talent for characterisation. This is an odd bunch, from the soft-hearted, adventure-seeking Sham, to the damaged and obsessed Captain Naphi. Naphi and her fellow captains are an interesting bunch, the vast majority of them chasing a specific creature, each creature representing a philosophy, and providing a source of tales for the captains to tell each other, as much as anything else.
“I come for all the good philosophies,” she said. “Captain Genn’s Ferret of Unrequitedness; Zhorbal & the Too-Much-Knowledge Mole Rats; & Naphi. Of course. Naphi & Mocker-Jack, Mole of Many Meanings.”
“What’s her philosophy, then?” Sham said.
“Ain’t you listening? Mocker-Jack means everything.”
Wildly imaginative and totally unique, Railsea is a beautifully-written vision of a world that could only have sprung from the mind of China Miéville. Peopled by a cast of colourful individuals, it’s a stunning rework of a classic of literature, and a look at what happens when we travel outside the bubble that is the world we know. Railsea is Miéville on top form, and shows a talented artist doing what he does best, and what he evidently loves doing. The invented words and general writing style can sometimes make Miéville a tough author to approach for the first time. The payoff here is more than worth the effort, and Railsea is the perfect introduction to one of the most original writers in any genre.