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!
[ 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]