Railsea by China Miéville

China Miéville, international man of mystery & outlandish science fictional ideas, has released a new novel targeted at readers of ‘all ages’, which is (typically) code for: a young adult novel that old people should like too. I would say in this case it means something closer to: this is a novel for adults that young people ought to read. I tried hard to come up with a clever way to describe my feelings about it. Instead I came up with this. Imagine those Magic Eye prints from the 1990′s. Stare at them for a few minutes, allow the eye to unfocus, & a 3D image appears within the 2D pattern. That’s Railsea. Unfortunately, just like the Magic Eye prints, some people will be incapable of seeing anything in it.

Surprisingly, that analogy works quite well as the concept of the railsea looks something like the jumbled mess of Magic Eye art. Tracks, rail & tie, blanket the world, connecting enclaves of habitation with a criss-crossing of infinite possibility that can change direction at any moment. Beneath it all is an unstable network of subterranean creatures that are as anathema to humanity as Miéville himself is to main stream political discourse. It’s a world that’s inherently unnatural, a fact which Railsea’s protagonist Sham Yes ap Soorap is well aware of & can’t help but push against.

A doctor’s assistant on board the moletrain Medes, Sham watches his captain’s obsession with a moldywarpe (giant mole) she’s been chasing for years. It’s a singular determination Sham cannot rationalize. He wants more from life than hunting. He wants to know where the railsea comes from & where it ends.

There’s natural connection to be drawn between Railsea & the Herman Melville classic Moby Dick. Those comparisons are not without merit as the captain’s story arc is very much a retelling of Ahab’s search for his white whale. It would be easy to draw a line there & move on, but the truth is Miéville is also exploring a lot of other themes & structures beyond that obvious one. Most strongly, there’s a sense of wonder & drive for self exploration that will resonate strongly with younger readers.
Sham could be with them. & while he wouldn’t be a salvor, or would he be a train doctor nor a moler either. He’d be something else.

Sham is a character pushing against the boundaries placed on him by a society that’s stuck in doing things the way they’ve always been done. A social & cultural fear pervades life in the railsea that is untenable to Sham’s need to explore

In that sense, I suppose Miéville’s newest work is a tremendous success. It addresses things of thematic import & follows through on them. What it doesn’t do, unfortunately, is tell a coherent & readable story. Short chapters intermingle with longer ones, referencing themselves as a narrative & pointing out the literary devices being used — all seemingly done in asserting the author’s cleverness. For example,

We have just had a story of a story. Tell it yourself, again, & story of a story in a story will be born, & you will be en route to that abyme. Which is an abyss.

Alas, Miéville is being too clever, or not clever enough. I never felt a thread of connectivity between the first chapter & the last. I kept looking for a moment in which all the machination & manipulation of the text would become meaningful. I never got there.

I’m sure it’s been noticed by now that I’ve used ‘&’ instead of ‘and’ at every opportunity in this review, echoing the same choice made in Railsea. One of the aforementioned short chapters provides some explanation for why it’s done, but it’s not an explanation that made any sense to me. Likewise, neologisms abound, from moldywarpe, to ferroviaoceanology, to homo vorago aperientis. All combined to frequently break me out of the narrative & into pondering Miéville, rather than the novel.

Going back to the Magic Eye analogy (is it tired yet?), Railsea & Miéville in general, seem to receive the same kind of reception that 3D art did back then. Those who could see it were flabbergasted by those who couldn’t. I remember people asking to me, “How can you not see it?! Are you blind?!” In much the same way, I find Miéville adherents taking a similar stance with regards to his work.

Of course, the analogy falls apart quickly. I’m not on either extreme. I don’t always see the beauty in his work, as though the precise pattern was interrupted during production. Other times the beauty of the ingrained image shines through, as it did in The Scar & The City & The City. I believe China Miéville is singularly talented. He knows it, occasionally resulting in a work of fiction that reaches too far. Railsea is such a novel, but I, for one, would rather he reach too far than not far enough.

Justin Landon

Justin Landon is the Overlord of Staffer's Book Review. When he's not writing things of dubious value to the world, he's at the gym or being a dad. You can follow him on a multitude of social media, which is strongly suggested lest you miss out on vital information that could someday save your life.

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  • Paul Weimer May 22, 2012 at 3:56 pm

    Thanks, Justin.

    I was somewhat disappointed by Embassytown. I wonder if Miéville has hit a weird spot, creatively.

    And this doesn't quite sound like a YA novel, either. How did it hold up on those grounds?

    • Justin May 22, 2012 at 4:00 pm

      I think there's a complexity to the structure that would make it difficult for a lot of young readers. The language is also dense.

      Thematically… great for a YA audience.

  • Joel May 22, 2012 at 5:23 pm

    I liked this book a lot, and I liked the self-referentiality, and the world, and the characters. At the ending was one of his best.

    But I am actually posting solely to point out that “moldywarpe” is actually an archaic term, not a neologism.

    The actual neologisms didn't bother me because the are so in keeping with the flow of narration, the way the book seems to be a story someone is telling you from memory, and maybe those aren't actually real words, but just the way the storyteller talks. Of course, Mieville is the storyteller.

  • Ryan May 23, 2012 at 12:44 am

    I'm a big Mieville fan so I'll be reading this regardless, but first I gotta read Embassytown…yeah, I'm behind on the times.

    I think Mieville is a rare talent, but I think he can, at times, be too weird or too “out there”. Sometimes it's hard to reign in genius. (Happens to me all the time…not really.) I look forward to checking this out to see what I think about it.

    As usual, I great review…thanks for reminding me how bad I suck at those magic eye things.

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