Railsea by China Mieville


When Moby Dick met Dune.

Imagine a captain of a ship with a lifelong obsession to hunt down and kill a creature that stole a part of them. And imagine that the creature is a giant worm that swims through the sand. The world is one that contains an endless expanse of train tracks that are the only way to travel... In between, in the great expanse, is a wasteland of earth that is inhabited by twisted forms of beetles, moles, worms, and other creatures. For years and years, far before memory, the civilizations of the planet got into an endless war where they built endless tracks, spewing gasses and chemicals into the atmosphere that poisoned the sky and altered the creatures in the earth. Civilization, as it was, collapsed and the remaining peoples rebuilt, with little memory of the past, around the remaining railways. Cultures, religions, life itself reorganized around the rails.

Mieville has, once again, created a world that is both familiar and utterly foreign. Close enough to the familiar that we feel comfortable but oddly different in ways that are important and have large impacts. And, as always with Mieville, language is part of the key. For a world that is based around the endless rails that twist and turn on themselves Mieville makes one interesting, and exemplary, choice. He never uses the word “and” in the entire book, instead using an ampersand – “&”. This both creates a feeling of difference, constantly catches the eye, and symbolizes the very thing this world is built around. As he allows the narrator to explain:

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 not 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 “&”?

Sham ap Soorap is our guide – a spectacularly ungifted doctor’s assistant on a moletrain – a train that hunts and strips giant moles of their bone, oil, and meat. He is searching for something more, something bigger in life that the moletrain and endless expanse of rails cannot quite quench. The captain of the ship he is on, Captain Naphi, is chasing her “philosophy” – the giant mole that tore off her arm. It is her life’s work and there are dozens, if not hundreds, of crew who travel with her, for the salvage and treasure. But she is a good captain who has engrained in them a belief in themselves, their cause, and the idea that no man is left behind. Through the course of the story Sham finds his way off the train and into a larger world and adventure which might change the very reality he and those around him live within.

The story has a feel of its own. The main characters are compelling and rich enough to be engaging. There are a multitude of side characters on the train who all tended to slip together for me, but the major players were distinct. The story is a young adult novel and is told, mostly, through the eyes of a young adult as well, so perception and reality sometimes get a little blurred through the filter of those inexperienced receptors. There is an internal logic both to the world Mieville has created and they way people view everything around them. The internal logic holds. And Mieville’s mastery of “the big concept” and language continues to impress. While not on the same level as Embassytown, which was truly about language itself, the way he uses the “&”, steampunk combinations of words and thoughts, and casual misuse of phrases and verbiage show he is purposefully manipulating language to create a culture and world. The world itself is fascinating – a picture of industry, resource manipulation, and business acumen gone wrong.

One of the areas where Mieville’s stories can be a bit of a letdown are their endings. But, for me, I felt like the ending, in particular, was an affirmation of the entire story before and was a hopeful way to close the story.

Railsea is a great book that has the potential to be the kind of classic that others will mimic – like Dune and Moby Dick before it. It is a unique approach to an unexplored part of a world – space has been explored endlessly, under the ocean has been tried, every conceivable corner of the land has been tested. But railroads – at once old and, nowadays, a hope for a cleaner and faster future – have been almost forgotten. Mieville has found a way to bring them into the here and now and used it as a setting for a grand adventure.

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