…if there were no wheels percussing the iron road, all human life would wink instantly out. Because such noises are the snoring, the sleep-breathing of a railsea world, & it is the rails that dream us. We do not dream the rails.
China Mieville’s Railsea opens on a boat…or at least it seems that way for the first few pages. Then it appears to be a train. But there is talk of breaching, so the train must be on water. But no, the animal in question breaches through “black earth” in a “clod-cloud.”
As usual, half the joy in this Mieville novel is gradually, slowly developing a picture of its universe. Both The City and the City and The Scar managed to keep the exact nature of their seemingly impossible worlds somewhat hidden for a good portion of the story, giving only tidbits here and there. With Railsea, the basic premise–Moby Dick on a train–is clear after a few pages, but the delightful little details of exactly what the railsea is, and the nature of the world in which in exists, are revealed slowly.
Given Mieville’s tendency toward the slow reveal, I was surprised that he opted to include illustrations of his fabulous beasts in Railsea. I almost wish he hadn’t. Perdido Street Station‘s slake-moths, The Scar‘s bonefish and mosquito people, and Embassytown‘s Arieke were described so vividly that I never thought a drawing could do them justice. But after a while I actually started to look forward to the little pencil illustrations that opened each section of Railsea. Maybe because that they were simple, and were supposed to be simple–a lay person’s quick sketch of monsters.
Railsea is also a motley collection of storylines and subjects that Mieville clearly adores. Trains. A quest for a giant beast. Pirates. Critiques of capitalism and the brutal nature of commerce. Reckless and marvelous world-building and word-invention.
The novel is billed as young adult, but the only noticeable difference between Railsea and other Mieville novels is an absence of foul language and sex. The violence and grotesquerie are still there (albeit not as graphic as some of the violence depicted in Perdido Street Station, The Scar, and even Embassytown). Which is in itself a sad commentary on what classifies a novel as “young adult”–violence is fine, but no sex, please.
At the same time, Railsea doesn’t shy away from another of Mieville’s trademarks: the depiction of a diverse range of relationships and family types. A brother and sister have two fathers and one mother–something that isn’t dwelt on or made an issue of, just added in as an afterthought. And as with Embassytown, Mieville once again depicts strong female characters without trumpeting the fact. Railsea‘s equivalent of Captain Ahab is female, and she’s every bit as obsessed and fearfully revered by her crew. Half of the hardy “sailor” characters are female. One character is, intriguingly, never given a definite gender.
Railsea isn’t quite as meaty and mind-blowing as Embassytown, but it’s a really, really good read. Mieville’s world-building and language-play skills are in fine form here–the universe he imagines is at once familiar and utterly ridiculous, full of creatures and dangers that invoke genuine terror. The hints about the origins of the “railsea” and this world’s strangely toxic sky lead to a hilariously satisfying conclusion. (I’ve complained before that Mieville often has trouble seeing his stories through to the end, but here, for the second time in a row, he brings things to a beautiful ending. Almost too beautiful, but it won me over.)
Read it. I’ll probably read it again. When Mieville’s good, he’s so very, very good. Fingers crossed that this is the beginning of a long series of ever more inventive universes. I’m starting to believe he’s got hundreds in his head.