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REVIEW: Railsea by China Miéville

November 18, 2012

Reviewed by Mahvesh Murad

CHINA Miéville, of the mammoth imagination and biceps, has been one of the most consistently innovative writers in the UK for the last decade or so. Between his first novel, King Rat in 1998, to his 10th this year, Railsea, Miéville has been nominated for a string of awards and has won many of them — a variety of Locus, Hugo, Arthur C. Clarke and British Fantasy awards over the years. This year has seen him taken a lot more seriously by the mainstream: the World Writers’ Conference at the Edinburgh International Book festival featured Miéville as its keynote speaker and academic interest in New Weird writing has been enough to generate an international conference on Miéville’s work. There has never been any doubt that Miéville is a writer of superior skill and intelligence, but now his work is no longer being relegated to just genre fiction. This may be, of course, because much of the most provocative and relevant literature being published currently either is, or is taking on, genre tropes. Genre writing itself is no longer being ghettoised, and Miéville is the perfect poster boy for it.

Miéville’s latest, Railsea, is a fantastic rollicking adventure, as much in the vein of Treasure Island as it is in Moby Dick’s. Herman Melville’s 1851 classic is the starting point for Miéville’s Railsea, which plays off the idea of a ship in search of a creature so evasive it has almost become a myth. Moby Dick, the great white whale, may have been monster enough for 19th-century readers, but Miéville’s contemporary audience demands something a little more innovative than what nature has provided; it demands something much more imaginative regarding the future of our world. Railsea is set in a world that is ours, yet isn’t — there are still cities, still people as we know them, but everything is connected by the Railsea. It is hinted that greed and excessive development eventually took over the earth as we know it and left behind land masses connected by great seas of rail tracks, with life entirely connected to these rails and the trains that flow along them, as ships once did on the open seas. The history of the world of Railsea and its origins are very much a part of the mystery of this narrative — finding out where the Railsea came from is part of the adventure. There are no cumbersome infodumps explaining away the world in which this story is set — there is no need for this, when Miéville’s world-building is so perfectly balanced and intelligent.

Railsea is the story of the world itself, as well as of Sham ap Sharoop, a young man who has signed on as a doctor’s apprentice on a train called the Medes, captained by Miéville’s very own Ahab, a woman called Captain Nephi whose philosophy — her purpose, her sole motivation for living — is to hunt and capture a furious beast called Mocker-Jack, a colossal burrowing monster living under the Railsea, “the great southern moldywarpe” the colour of an “old tooth” that has eluded her for years.

In the grand tradition of YA orphan protagonists with no parents to constantly report back to, Sham is looking for adventure when he joins the crew of the Medes and is eventually caught up in more than he had initially bargained for. He may have signed on as a doctor’s apprentice, but he’s a terrible one since his interest lies in arch-salvage — the remains of the past found in bits and pieces of leftover technologies, buildings and vehicles. In a train wreck, Sham finds an image that shakes his entire world view: a single rail line stretching out alone into nothing, “empty earth & one straight line”. He has grown up believing that the Railsea is all that existed, the constantly looping, meandering mess of tracks on the earth is the foundation of all civilisation, “long straights, tight curves: metal runs on wooden ties: overlapping, spiraling, crossing at metalwork junctions: splitting off temporary sidings that abutted & rejoined main lines”. The image of “empty earth” is enough to give him his very own philosophy, filling his head with “that impossible rail, surrounded by all that equally impossible railless nothing”. This leads Sham to the Shroake siblings, whose parents lost their lives in the wreck that yielded proof of something beyond Railsea and whose need to understand the origins of the Railsea is as strong as Sham’s is.

There are a great many monsters in Railsea. From the giant moldywarpes that can de-rail an entire train, to the fierce naked mole rats that hunt in packs, bloodthirsty rabbits and great tentacled beasts. Miéville’s work is often teeming with strange terrors in unknown, unexplored regions: “hill cats, wolves, monitor lizards, aggressive flightless birds & all manner of others bite & harass & kill the unwary [...] Almost everything wants to eat almost everything else”. The worlds below or above or even beside the world of the narrative are always full of potential Lovecraftian nightmares, lurking just enough in the periphery to keep the excitement taut and the story intriguing and never letting it fly off the rails — sometimes quite literally.

But the true juggernaut of Miéville’s Railsea is the language itself. Never has Miéville’s work seemed as confident, as secure in itself, even when filled with neologisms and strange stylistic ticks. His constant use of the ampersand, instead of the word ‘and’ for instance, is something that may seem pointless until it is placed front and centre and made essential to the word of the Railsea; suddenly a whole additional element clicks into place. Miéville often addresses his audience directly, breaking the fourth wall with perfect ease, never letting go of his setting: “so now”, he writes half way through the book, “the signal demands the story stop. With diesel wheeze & wheel complaint, our train reverses. With a whack of trainhooks a story-switch is thrown, & our text proceeds again from days ago, from where it had got to”. A great deal is made about metafiction in contemporary storytelling, but it isn’t every writer who is able to manipulate it with half as much panache as Miéville does.



By China Miéville

Del Rey Books

ISBN 0345524527

448pp. $18