You just know there are lots of reasons people might give a pass to China Miéville’s newest novel, Railsea. Some will see the YA or sci-fi/fantasy labels hanging on it and dismiss it out of hand. Others will hear it features a captain obsessed with hunting a giant white moldywarpe that cost her an arm and think “I hate parody/allusion” or “I really hated Moby Dick” or “Boy, I hate books with words like ‘moldywarpe” (or all three). Some will sigh mightily at the references to “symbol,” “philosophies,” environmental deprivation, and the woes of capitalism. Finally, some will note the direct address to the readers and discussion of the novel’s own narrative choices, and shrug “Metafiction. Meh.” To which I say they get what they deserve — missing out on a great wild and raucous romp of a novel filled to the brim with all the above plus trains, pirates, nomads, mole hunts, trips to the end of the known world, faithful and brave animal companions, loyal siblings, brilliant wordplay, literary allusions, ampersands, orphans, monsters, twists and turns aplenty, exploration and a plucky young boy who knows little save he has yet to discover his life’s task. Sucks for them, obviously.
The railsea is as the name implies: an ocean of railroads. Switch water for land, boats for trains, and you’ve got the world of Railsea, crisscrossed by a seemingly infinite number of rail lines, cross lines, parallel lines, switches, roundabouts, and the like, all lying atop an earthen world filled with monstrously familiar predators — naked molerats the size of large dogs, huge carnivorous earwhigs, and of course, the great southern moldywarpe, capable of destroying an entire train — while above the habitable area is a poisonous upsky filled with equally fearsome creatures. Humans ply the rails as salvagers, navy folk, slavers and slaves, tourists, and, in the case of our young protagonist, Sham Yes ap Shroop, molers — those who hunt the giant moles for their pelts and flesh. Sham’s Captain Naphi, though, is more — one of those captains obsessed with a particular giant animal. In her case, a giant white mole named Mocker-Jack that took her arm, since replaced by a cybernetic version.
Sham is already feeling out of place on his first voyage on the Medes, where he has shipped out as a doctor’s apprentice. When he discovers a camera memory card amidst a wrecked train they stop to explore for salvage, he soon finds another quest, a more personal one, to replace the one he’d joined only partially of his own choosing.
His goal, however, is shared by a host of others, not all well intentioned. Among these are the Shroak siblings (whose parents took the pictures Sham found), the aforementioned pirate, the agents of an aggressive Railsea state, an independent salvager, and others. What they seek may upend all they know of their world.
To say more would be to ruin half the fun of this novel. Suffice it to say that those simply seeking an exciting action-filled tale will be more than satisfied, especially in the book’s second half. The first half moves at a slower pace, but it’s filled with so much invention — the animals, the trains, the cities, and so on — that one doesn’t really mind or notice. And that isn’t to say there isn’t any action in the first half, which features our first mole hunt, an alleyway mugging, and a drunken pub-crawl. But the book leaps into high gear in the second half, and then into third gear toward the end. Miéville also isn’t afraid, despite the book’s YA nature, to let the bodies fly (some literally), raising the stakes as the book goes on. Maybe because it’s ostensibly a YA book, the plot, despite its twists and turns, is more narrowly focused, speedier, and tighter than many of Miéville’s other works. By the way, one shouldn’t confuse YA with simplistic language. There is no condescension whatsoever to the linguistically challenged here.
The story is well served by its characters, sharply drawn as one has come to expect from this author. Sham is reliably, realistically adolescent: awkward, unsure, confused, prone to fantasies and to backsliding. Captain Naphi is simply fantastic, intriguing at the start but growing utterly can’t-take-your-eyes-off-her fascinating by the end of the novel. Even those characters without a lot of page time have some vivid moments — the first mate, Sham’s lone friend aboard the Medes, a “naval” captain.
This being Miéville, though, we get a lot more than an exciting story and interesting characters, of course. The giant animals the captains hunt and the obsessions to do so aren’t just animals and jobs; they’re “philosophies” that “embodied meanings, potentialities, ways of looking at the world… a faithfulness to an animal that was now a world-view.” The setting, besides being wildly inventive, is also a commentary on modern capitalism. The book makes direct analogy between the rails and storytelling, calls attention to its own construction, as when it stops to examine a decision regarding point of view: “This train, our story, will not, cannot, veer now from this track on which, though not by choice, Sham is dragged.” Having some knowledge of the arts beyond Moby Dick won’t hurt either, with some of the references more obvious than the others, such as a nod to Odysseus’ negotiation of Scylla and Charybdis. Readers’ mileage will vary on how they respond to such elements. Some will be fine with the metafictional aspect and groan at the politics, others might feel the opposite. I can’t say that Miéville does something with each of these elements that feels wholly satisfying and some of these moments feel a little clumsily inserted, but I’ll take an audacious riot of ideas, even if some don’t wholly succeed, over being served up the same old same old or a tasteless mélange of plot points that never ask much of me.
Last year I ranked Miéville’s Embassytown as one of my top five novels and before that I did the same with The City and The City. Railsea doesn’t have the depth of either of those, but it is in some ways a more enjoyable read than either. I hopped aboard and didn’t get off until I was done several hours later. I recommend you do the same. All aboard!
The farther they traveled beyond the trade routes of the railsea, filling in specifics on charts marked only with the vaguest rumors, the sparser the railsea, the larger the stretches of unbroken land, the fewer the rails. There was a winnowing of iron possibilities.
Some reviewers of China Miéville’s new YA book Railsea have said that readers can skip the short chapters in which Miéville “breaks the fourth wall” and has the narrative voice speak directly to the reader. These critics are probably good people who mean well, but they are wrong. Well, not wrong, technically; you could skip them. You could order an ice cream sundae and tell them to leave off the chocolate sauce, whipped cream and fresh strawberries, too, but why would you? Why would anyone want to skip a single sentence of Miéville’s intricate, exuberant prose?
Manihiki naval officers lounged in uniform, half on duty, half on display, half flirting with passerby. Yes, the maths was correct. Such swagger could only be made up of three halves.
Sham ap Soorap (what a set of Seussian couplets you could conjure with that name!) is the young hero of Railsea; an orphaned boy who joins the mole-train Medes. Moletrains travel the broad expanse of iron rails that criss-cross the toxic earth, hunting and harvesting the giant moles and other predatory earth-burrowing creatures. In Sham’s world, trains are like ships and the earth a terrifying ocean, with island cities built on hills and cliffs. Captain Naphti, who helms the Medes, searches obsessively for Mocker-Jack, a gigantic ivory-colored mole. Naphti sports an artificial arm, and any resemblance to Captain Ahab is completely intentional.
Sham is apprenticed to the train’s doctor, but he doesn’t have any real aptitude for medicine. He is interested in the salvors, people who salvage old technology, local and alien, from the poisoned soil or who pick clean the carcasses of wrecked trains, but he doesn’t think he’s cut out to be a salvor either. Sham doesn’t know the name for what he wants to be.
While Naphti pursues her obsession — it’s called a “philosophy” in the railsea, and almost all moletrain captains have one — Sham finds a set of unusual pictures in the engine of a wrecked train. Those pictures set him on a completely new adventure, along with two other orphaned children. Sham and the Shroake children face the natural monsters of the railsea, pirates, villainous navy officers and the most frightening things of all, the “angels,” train-killing machines built during the godsquabble that created the railsea.
Sham is an appealing young hero who grows naturally into his heroism. Many of Miéville’s adult books have a touch of melancholy to them. In contrast, even with the danger and the violence, even with the evil, Railsea is surprisingly sweet. The sharp, secondary characters in Railsea can be persuaded, ultimately, to do the right thing, and the ending transcends status quo.
Mieville likes his trains, but he is impatient with train tracks. In his other train book, Iron Council, the train riders tore up the tracks from behind and laid them in front, so that the train could go anywhere it wanted. In Railsea, the dried ocean bed that forms the geography of most of the story is festooned with rails that loop and curl like a pulled-apart skein of yarn. I have to say, when I think of train tracks, I don’t think of loop-the-loops and figure 8s, but Mieville point-blank tells us that this is part of what the book is about; the looping shape of the ampersand that is the nature of a journey on the railsea, and the tantalizing question, What lies beyond it?
Railsea is written for young adults who read, and who don’t just read stories but are beginning to question how stories go together. Miéville uses the short “fourth wall” chapters to talk about narrative, and also, with teasingly perfect timing, to create suspense; for example, in an entire chapter that goes like this:
Time for the Shroakes?
Miéville can’t leave politics and economics out of his story completely, so Sham’s world is a society based on a concept of salvage, surviving in the aftermath of a catastrophe of unchecked capitalism. Without spoiling anything, I must say, keep a lookout for the feral accountants. They are worth every word. Railsea drips with academic symbolism, too, and you can decide whatever you want about trains that go in loops, people who label their objects of obsession “philosophies,” like the Ferret of Unrequitedness, the Too-Much-Knowledge Mole Rats and Naphti’s Mocker-Jack, the Mole of Many Meanings. Do you think young readers won’t get the joke? I think they will.
The book is an affectionate homage to Moby Dick and Treasure Island, and a scene late in the book, in which the reader discovers how Naphti got her artificial arm is shocking, multi-layered and laugh-out-loud funny. That was not the response I was expecting to have to a prosthesis. Railsea delighted me at almost every turn.
Bill, suitable for my 13 year old son?
word-wise, difficult for a 13-yr-old though probably no different than if you gave a kid an unadapted/unabridged version of Kidnapped or Treasure Island today
certainly the higher level concepts/allusions will fly over their heads, but no worse than a Pixar film in that vein,
and the whole what-do-I-do-with-my-life might be not quite their concern yet
non-word-wise, there are several deaths, some folks get eaten, there’s a brief mention of slaving, no sex that I recall or terrible cursing.
personally, I’d be fine giving it to my own kid at 13
Thanks, Bill! I’ll pick this up for Jesse.
Just remembered. He and his mates do get pretty drunk in one scene, though they do pay for it the day . ..
Just bought Railsea in hardback for Jesse.
I also bought Ender’s Game.
Summer is almost here — time for reading. Jesse doesn’t care too much about reading, though he devoured Rick Riordan’s books (and thinks nothing else can compare) but I bribe him. He has to read for 45 minutes for every game of League of Legends that he wants to play. Currently he’s reading Scott Westerfeld’s Leviathan.