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.
[box]Railsea — (2012) Young adult. Publisher: On board the moletrain Medes, Sham Yes ap Soorap watches in awe as he witnesses his first moldywarpe hunt: the giant mole bursting from the earth, the harpoonists targeting their prey, the battle resulting in one’s death and the other’s glory. But no matter how spectacular it is, Sham can’t shake the sense that there is more to life than traveling the endless rails of the railsea — even if his captain can think only of the hunt for the ivory-coloured mole she’s been chasing since it took her arm all those years ago. When they come across a wrecked train, at first it’s a welcome distraction. But what Sham finds in the derelict — a series of pictures hinting at something, somewhere, that should be impossible — leads to considerably more than he’d bargained for. Soon he’s hunted on all sides, by pirates, trainsfolk, monsters and salvage-scrabblers. And it might not be just Sham’s life that’s about to change. It could be the whole of the railsea.[/box]