May 14, 2012

Railsea by China Miéville

Railsea by China Miéville UK cover Railsea by China Miéville US cover
As long as humanity has rolled on the railsea, the rigours & vigours bloody triggers of the underground have been legendary. There are predators on the islands, too, of course, above the grundnorm. Hill cats, wolves, monitor lizards, aggressive flightless birds & all manner of others bite & harass & kill the unwary. But they’re only one aspect of the hardland ecosystems, pinnacles on multiform animal pyramids. These systems contain vastly varied behaviours, including cooperations, symbioses, & gentlenesses.
Subterrestriality, by contrast, & life on the flatearth that is its top, is more straightforward & exacting. Almost everything wants to eat almost everything else.
How do I even begin to describe China Miéville’s incredibly inventive new novel Railsea? Imagine a world in which almost every inch of land, save for a few islands, is covered in rail tracks. Humankind ventures out to the railsea in much the same way we venture out to sea in our world. And much like in the real sea, the land beneath the railsea is inhabited by dangerous creatures, including flesh-eating giant moles.

Our hero, Sham ap Soorap, is a doctor’s assistant in a mole-hunting train (think nineteenth-century whaleship and you’ll have an idea of what this consists of). His captain has lost an arm to a giant mole that goes by the name of Mocker-Jack, and now thinks of the beast as her philosophy: hunting him down has become her guiding purpose. One day, Sham and the Captain come across something unexpected on the railsea – something that causes them to question their assumptions about their world. And thus starts an adventure that takes them where no other train has gone before.

As is customary in China Miéville’s novels, the plot of Railsea takes a little while to pick up, but once it gets started it really gets started. Once I was past the first fifty pages or so, I absolutely couldn’t put this book down. But even before then, my interest in Railsea was sustained by the fascinating world Miéville has created. There are hints of the post-apocalyptic here; of a world torn apart by unchecked greed. But I can only tell you so much, because discovering more as the story progresses is one of the greatest pleasures of this novel.

As I said a few years ago of Un Lun Dun, Miéville’s previous venture into YA, Railsea is very much a worldbuilding-oriented novel. And as I also said then, you can tell just how much fun the author is having putting the world together. I loved the way the worldbuilding was embedded in the language of the novel itself; how it became almost indissociable from the narrative voice. Take the following passage, for example, in which the narrator explains why an ampersand is used for “and” throughout the novel:
There was a time when we did not form all words as now we do, in writing on a page. There was a time when the word “&” was written with several distinct & separate letters. It seems madness now. But there it is, & there is nothing we can do about it. Humanity learnt to ride the rails, & that motion made us what we are, a ferromaritime people.
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. What word better could there be to symbolise the railsea that connects & separates all lands, than “&” itself? Where else does the railsea take us but to this place & that one & that one & that one, & so on? & what better embodies, in the sweep of the pen, the recurved motion of trains, than “&”?
There are many other asides along these lines – little breaks from the story in which the narrator addresses readers, encourages them to engage with the world beyond the limits of the text, or subtly comments on Railsea’s many intertextual references. Being the shameless fan of metafiction that I am, I was absolutely charmed by these interludes. Here’s another one of my favourites:
People have wanted to narrate since first we banged rocks together & wondered about fire. There’ll be tellings as long as there are any of us here, until the stars disappear one by one like turned-out lights.
Some such stories are themselves about the telling of others. An odd pastime. Seemingly redundant, or easy to get lost in, like a picture that contains a smaller picture of itself, which in turn contains—& so on. Such phenomena have a pleasing foreign name: they are mise-en-abymes.
Railsea is full of echoes of classic seafaring adventures – as I said before, this is a wildly imaginative story, but it manages to have the feel of a classic adventure at the same time. There are pirates, trainwrecks, dangerous beasts from the depths, and plenty of narrow escapes. There are also loving hat tips to several other books and authors: the most obvious is Herman Melville and Moby Dick, but there’s also Robert Louis Stevenson, Daniel Defoe, Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea series – and these are only the ones I picked up on. Miéville provides a full list of his influences at the end, and I’m already anticipating all the fun I’ll have seeking out the ones I’m not yet familiar with. (Don’t get me started, by the way, on how much I love him for making a YA novel so unapologetically literary, for not assuming all these references would be wasted on teen readers, for writing up rather than writing down.)

The world of Railsea presents readers with a mythology that is both familiar and new. The novel puts us in mind of our relationship with the sea, but because there’s much here that is strange and bewildering, the comfort and certainty of those old familiar sea stories are disrupted. We ask different questions; we stand outside the characters’ dogmas and assumptions in a way we perhaps wouldn’t if the novel drew directly from our own world’s sea stories and myths. Another thing Railsea does brilliantly is evoke the sheer excitement and sense of awe of classic exploration and adventure stories. This is especially true of the ending, which I found absolutely perfect – it’s hopeful, full of possibilities, and ever so slightly frustrating because it leaves you wanting more, more, more. But as the narrator reminds us in one of the many interludes, we’re free to imagine further stories and make it our own playground.

And then there are all the things Railsea simply does as a matter of course, from placing women in positions of power without feeling the need to draw attention to this as if it were something unexpected — because why not? — to having two characters reveal, with no fanfare, that they were raised by a functional and loving polyamorous family. It was refreshing to find a world in which these things were mostly taken for granted. I love many fantasy novels that portray sexism in order to address it, but it was still a breath of fresh air to find a story that just does away with our world’s power dynamics, and in doing so demonstrates how they’re really not inevitable.

Last but not least, I loved how Sham and his friends Caldera and Dero were largely driven by intellectual curiosity. Yes, they go off on adventures, they battle pirates and monstrous predators, they get marooned, they’re rescued at the nick of time – much like all protagonists of classic adventure stories. But they make this happen because they genuinely want to know how the world works; because they can’t stop asking questions or shut down the part of their brains that’s ravenous for more; that truly wants engage with the world around them even when their curiosity clashes with dogma. They dare think the unthinkable and ask the unaskable: this is their starting point, and this is what brings them together.

They read it too: The Readadventurer, The Wertzone, The Book Smugglers, Bunbury in the Stacks

(Have I missed yours?)

Affiliates disclosure: if you buy a book through one of my affiliates links I will get 5%. I requested a review copy of this book using NetGalley.


  1. I've only read an extract of Railsea so far, but I liked that a lot, it was so visual. I shall read the book and then come back and re-read what you've said here - I've skipped through rather (I know you won't give spoilers, but I want to avoid knowing anything much about what's to come). I'm pleased that you liked it though - that bodes well for me!

  2. I can't wait! I saw an excerpt, and I was worried about the "&" -- seems affected, but it makes perfect sense given the passage you cite. Plus I feel ill-prepared, as I haven't read Moby Dick. But still, I can't wait -- I'll pick up a copy this week!

  3. Mmmm, now do I want to read this one? I loved Un Lun Dun but I am not sure about this one. I am not a great lover of the sea faring adventures, so I'm really not sure. Your review makes it sound amazing though.

  4. I am so glad you liked this. As I am hoping to squeeze it in soon I only read your opening. I am excited!

  5. Mieville is just so amazing. I don't think anyone else has an imagination like his! But is this one as bleak as his others? I want to go back to him, but the thought of the bleakness is deterring me!

  6. I love books that treat women as normal characters instead of making a big deal about the fact that they're female and can do cool things.

    This looks like an imaginative read! I've got a copy of Mieville's "The City & the City" on my TBR list. He seems like such an intriguing author!

  7. This sounds interesting but I wonder if I'm sophisticated enough for it.

  8. Geranium Cat: Looking forward to your review! I hope you'll enjoy it as much as I did :)

    Isabella Kratynski: Don't worry, I haven't either, but the nods are clear enough that a pop culture awareness of Moby Dick will do. Of course, as with everything else I bet actually having read it makes this an even more rewarding experience - and Miéville did make me want to read Moby Dick, which I've always been intimidated by. So that's saying something :P

    Vivienne: I think fans of Un Lun Dun are likely to enjoy this one too. Give it a go and see how you feel! I may be in the minority, but I actually liked this one more.

    Kelly: Looking forward to discussing it with you!

    Jill: Don't worry, not bleak at all! It's set in a world where a lot has gone wrong, but it's actually quite a hopeful story.

    Grace: You should join us for the read-along next month, then! The more the merrier :D

    Kathy: You definitely are! It's a very fun story, and once you get past the first few chapters it's very hard to put down.

  9. I've been needing to read Mieville for awhile now. This sounds so rich and so fantastic. I love the sound of the story and all of the complexity and world building and on and on. Now, I just need to read it!

  10. I read Perdido Street Station, and will never forget the weird wild world that Mieville created in that story. I also have Kraken on my shelf, and don't know what I have been waiting for! I need to read that one soon, as well as this one, it seems. He just has a way of writing such intoxicating fiction!

  11. I can't wait! It just came into my library but there are many holds in front of mine...

  12. I really think Mievelle should stop writing books until I can catch up with reading them (or at least begin to read them). I feel like he has a new book out every six months or so, which is awesome if I fall in love with him and want to read everything he's ever written, but makes it so hard to choose a book as a starting point when one is completely new to his work!

  13. :O So what you're saying is I should read this right now, right?

  14. 'flesh-eating giant moles' - someone's been watching a lot of Merlin :P I kid, I kid!

    You've made this sound so good, especially because you've highlighted the classic seafaring adventure side of the story. He just picks the best themes to be obsessed with and he makes me want to finally finish Moby Dick, just so I can really get all the allusions in his work.

    I think you were totally right when you sad this sounded like a book for me because of the examination of story telling. I loved the passage you quoted, especially as you've given me a new word to describe stories about storytelling :D

    And I'm excited by the hopeful ending. I think despite the bleakness a lot of his work has that tiny spark of hope at the end, but perhaps in Railsea the ending is more traditionaly hopeful, like the spark is a bit more of a flame?

  15. Kathleen: Yes, yes you do!

    Zibilee: I can't believe I still haven't read Perdido Street Station! But yes, do read Kraken as soon as possible - I loved that one to pieces.

    Gavin: Yes, it looks as though this one will be really popular. Hopefully the library will be able to get more copies! Or maybe people will read it and take it back really fast :P

    Aarti: He IS incredibly prolific, isn't he? He's been publishing a book a year for a long time now. I have no idea how people like him or Terry Pratchett do it. But yes, it's very easy to feel overwhelmed when you want to try a new to you author and there's that much choice! For what it's worth, I think this would make a good starting point.

    Chris: That about sums it up :P

    Jodie: It made me want to read Moby Dick too, which is saying a lot :P I really think you'll love this to bits. You must tell us every single thing he says when you see him next month :D As for the ending, it's still on the subtle side (as in, it's more of a possibility being opened up than an unmistakeably positive event), but it's clearer than in some of his other books.

  16. The first time I saw this title I thought of Earthsea, so I'm glad to hear he tips his hat to LeGuin!

  17. Well you've convinced me! I did try UnLunDun a few years ago, but didn't manage to get in to it. (But I think that was more to do with me expecting something different to what I got, going in with a more open mind I think I'd have really liked it).

    And I definitely want to give him another go at some point, this one looks like just the thing.

  18. I love this review, and could not agree more with what you've had to say about Railsea! This was my first Meiville, but I was completely charmed by his excellent world building, adventurous story, and humorously fascinating asides. I'd actually highlighted both of those same quotes in my own reading!

  19. Thanks for this wonderful review. I read The City and the City, and maybe it was just my mood, but I didn't like it much. I have been wanting to try more Mieville, because he seems like such a wonderful author. Maybe I'll try this one to dip my toes back in!

  20. Jeanne: Same here! I'd love to hear what you think of this one when you get to it.

    Darren: Fingers crossed that this one works better for you! I enjoyed Un Lun Dun, but I liked Railsea quite a bit more.

    Heidi: I've just been over to your blog to reads yours and I loved it too! Definitely do read Miéville again asap.

    Jenny: I think this would be a good choice, yes :)

  21. I loved both The City & The City and Un Lun Dun. I'm so glad Mieville is a fairly prolific author and that I have plenty left to enjoy. I think I either didn't know or had forgotten that this new book was coming out.

  22. As Un Lun Dun is one of my favorite YA books, I was worried this might not live up to it. I'm glad to hear that you liked it even more! I wasn't sure it would be for me but now I'm convinced to give it a try.

  23. I've just finished this one and loved parts of it. The whole idea of the Railsea is just great. And the giant beasts! Brilliant. I liked the non-traditional families too, and the fact that men and women seemed to be treated pretty much exactly the same.

    I love the way you never know what you'll get with Mieville, his plots and writing style can change so much from book to book. Usually filled with the awesome though :)


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