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.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.
Subterrestriality, by contrast, & life on the flatearth that is its top, is more straightforward & exacting. Almost everything wants to eat almost everything else.
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.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:
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 “&”?
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.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.)
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.
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.