Trains and novels. What do they have in common? Well, both may start off slowly as you begin your journey through an unfamiliar landscape. You may spend much time gazing at the landscape and trying to understand the country you have found yourself passing through. You may meet new and interesting people along the way. Ultimately, however, you’ll find yourself thinking about a destination. You want to get somewhere, and you’ll be hoping that the journey speeds up, at least subjectively. When you reach the end of the line, you want your destination to be satisfying.
Not all novels work like that, of course. However, Railsea, the latest offering from China Miéville, fits that pattern pretty well. It is also full of trains.
If you have read anything about Railsea online you will probably know that it is supposed to be a re-telling of Moby Dick, except with trains and moles. This is not entirely true. While it does feature a mad captain who is obsessed with hunting a giant, white (well, ivory-colored) mole, that’s not at all the real focus of the story. You may also be wondering how a book can possibly substitute trains for ships. Well dear readers, this is weird fiction — anything is possible.
The world of Railsea is a lot like ours. It may even have once been ours. But it has no oceans. Instead there is the Railsea, a vast expanse of loose sediment, miles deep, crisscrossed by a vast web of railway lines, and inhabited by all manner of deadly burrowing animals. The Great Southern Moldywarpe is merely the largest, and perhaps the most intelligent, of them.
The challenge for the reader is that this makes very little sense. Trains are not like ships. They can only go where the rails go. The Railsea is apparently so well supplied with potential routes that this does not matter. Parallel sets of lines exist all over the place. It is the sort of thing that could only exist in the fevered imagination of a free market fanatic who thinks that you can create a competitive industry from passenger rail.
Oh, wait, this is China Miéville we are talking about here. Maybe he is making a point.
Also, of course, rails don’t exist in a vacuum, so to speak. They need maintenance. Who, on the Railsea, looks after them and keeps them in good condition? Angels.
Wait. What? Angels? Well, autonomous flying things that come and go mysteriously. There’s a world being imagined here, and your average reader of fantastic fiction is going to get hooked as firmly as a moldywarpe on a mole-hunter’s harpoon. What the heck has Miéville cooked up here?
Of course there needs to be a story. We see this word primarily through the agency of Sham Yes ap Soorap, apprentice doctor, wannabe salvor, and hero in the making. The book is being marketed as YA, and the main protagonists are all teenagers. There is advantage in this, as Sham is far too young and naïve to understand the world into which he has been plunged. We learn with him.
Along the way we go mole-hunting with the mad, one-armed Captain Naphi; we meet a ruthless imperial navy and bloodthirsty pirates; we are terrorized by ferocious predators such as the Antlion and the Burrowing Owl; and we start out on a quest for the holy grail of the Railsea: the End of the Line.
Fans of The City & The City may find Railsea long on inventive monsters and short on fascinating metaphors. No Miéville novel, however, is entirely free of interesting ideas. If you have patience, if you allow yourself to be taken along for the ride, you will find your metaphors when the characters reach their destination. Mole-hunting is really not the point. Railsea is not just Moby Dick with trains and moles. It is a steampunk novel by the genre’s finest left-wing thinker that mashes up pieces of Moby Dick with Thomas the Tank Engine; with monsters. Cool.
For more information about China Miéville, see the SF Encyclopedia.
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