15 May 2012

Railsea (China Miéville)

You know, Voltaire famously mocked Leibniz for calling this "the best of all possible worlds." But this is the third spring in a row there's been a new China Miéville novel--Kraken in 2009, Embassytown last year, now Railsea--so HEY VOLTAIRE YOU LOOK PRETTY STUPID. High five, GWL!

So many wonderful things are afoot in Railsea. Part Moby-Dick, part Robert Louis Stevenson, part Miéville's own Iron Council . . . and perhaps most wonderfully, it's a young adult novel (like his previous Alice in Wonderland-y Un Lun Dun) which dials down the body horror and apocalyptic shadings of his adult work without sacrificing depth of writing at all, trusting that, yes, teenagers (and sensitive adults--hi Mom!) can indeed deal with complex sentences (instead of only using commas, even when they're wrong), fourth-wall breaking narrative structure, and ten-pound words like "eruchthonous."

He defines the latter as "that which digs up from underneath & emerges." It's a vital word for the setting he creates, that of the railsea: an endless, twisting system of train tracks that make up the known world. Between lies the dangerous earth, rife with burrowing, carnivorous creatures, beetles and burrowing owls and blood rabbits--and the great southern moldywarpe, a mole as big as an engine. Young Shamus Yes ap Soorap is a doctor's aide on a moletrain, which pursues these behemoths for their meat, fat, and fur--and one mole in particular, Mocker-Jack, nemesis of his one-armed captain, Abacat Naphi.

This storyline--not the only one by any means!--is both awestruck homage to Melville and a sly, loving send-up of same. Since, like any right-thinking individual, my favorite M-D chapter is "The Whiteness of the Whale," how I giggled at Naphi's insistence that the mole is not simply yellow, but "[o]ld-tooth coloured. . . . [T]he hue of ancient parchment. Ivory-reminiscent. Lymphlike. A white stained like the old eyes of frantically ruminating scholars." And he has similar twinkle-in-the-eye fun with academia's incessant analysis of the Great White Whale and its meaning. Most moler captains have a "philosophy," a given animal which they pursue as both beast and symbol, "a principle of knowing or unknowing, humility, enlightenment, obsession, modernity, nostalgia or something." So we have "Captain Genn's Ferret of Unrequitedness; Zhorbal & the Too-Much-Knowledge Mole Rats," Captain Vajpaz's greatstoat as an avatar of speed and acceleration . . . and Naphi, whose prey "hate[s] to be parsed"--he is the "Mole of Many Meanings. . . . Mocker-Jack means everything."

And that's more or less the B plot! Sham himself is mostly uninterested in Naphi's quest; he doesn't care to be a moler at all, wishing he could hunt salvage, the bits and bobs and mysterious circuitry of the innumerable wrecks spread out over the railsea. In the debris of one of these he finds a camera's memory card that ends on an impossible photograph: a single track. The end of the world. His own search for this unknown and unimaginable place is full of danger and epiphany.

Augh, there's so much more I want to mention. His use of the ampersand, which not only makes the pages look all baroque and lovely but serves as visual reminder of how "the lines of the railsea go everywhere but from one place straight to another. It is always switchback, junction, coils around & over our own train-trails." His occasional break from the story to address Story itself, the extended metaphor of "[e]very rail demand[ing] consideration of every other, & all the branches onto which that other rail might switch." This line, which I am seriously considering as a tattoo: "Our minds we salvage from history's rubbish, & they are machines to make chaos into story."

And for my money, it's a sign of true talent for a gritty, dark writer to also convincingly write cuteness. In Un Lun Dun, an animate milk carton named Curdle was the protagonist's loyal and adorable pet; here, Sham adopts a daybat, named Daybe in a moment of on-the-spot panic, who is just the cutie-wutiest wittle critter.

And oh! There's a "landfall shanty" called "We're Going to Get Unbelievably Drunk (in a Pub)." And cultures and religions and animals only glimpsed . . .


  1. That •is• a fabulous line, indeed.



    1. Thanks!
      Gotta stick up for ol' Leibniz. I love the monad.

  3. Once again Mieville creates a complete alternate world with all the history and mystery one has come to respect in his previous works, not to mention an exaggerated nod to" Moby Dick" and his close namesake, Melville. While I admit I found it hard to finish "Moby Dick" I found it hard to put "Railsea" down! I hope we can look forward to further "Railsea" world adventures.


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