Everybody knows that there are two layers to the sky, four to the world. The downsky goes to two-three miles plus a biscuit above the railsea and after it comes the upsky, prowled by odd alien flyers. It is fortunate that dirt and mist hide that horrible scenery and only sometimes, when the clouds disperse, are you in danger of glimpsing any of those creatures. That Apt Ohm forbid one of them tumbling down dead on your head.
But we are not interested in the skies, we are interested in the four-layered world. The subterrestrial where the digging creatures dig and everything is trying to eat everything else. The mad iron squiggle that is the railsea lying on the flatland, long ago mapped out during the godsquabble, as if by a child scribbling haphazardly on a piece of paper. The third layer of hard rock islands, home to the human cities above the railsea. And above it the mountains, littered with danger and debris from the upsky, the destination of a handful of reckless updivers.
Sham ap Soorap, who knows all of this too, is a doctor’s apprentice on the board of the moletrain Medes. Medicine is not young Sham’s forte, nor is he overexcited by the prospect of a molehunter’s life; to put it succinctly, he is not very good at anything. His entirely non-secret dream is to become a salvager and to scour the railsea for arch- and nu-salvage, some dropped by the alien oddities from the upsky, some lost by hapless rail travelers. Reality is more prosaic, however, and Sham is soon a boy drenched in the blood of a giant moldywarpe, butchered by the Medes crew. Will this be his life from now on? Mole blood, heavy drinking in railsea ports and chasing after captains’ philosophies? One impossible picture read from a salvaged piece of digital memory might yank him away from that trajectory and hurl him on a curve much more interesting.
Railsea is the latest dose from China Mieville and, just like its predecessors, this new novel pushes the genre envelope in terms of our conceptions of what is weird and what normal. The book is many things balled together in one. Its beginning hints at a retelling of Moby Dick, that Captain Abacat Naphi (anagram for Captain Ahab) and Mocker-Jack, her yellow mole nemesis, will be the vital center of the narrative. Or maybe it is a coming-of-age story about Sham? Swashbuckling adventure with pirates and hidden treasure in the spirit of Robert Louis Stevenson? Allegory for corporate greed and the breakdown of a rampant capitalist society? Ecological science fiction? Postmodern equilibristic? Knowing Mieville’s work, I’d venture a guess that it all started as an excuse for the existence of the railsea, that absurd and marvelous mievillism.
Mieville himself has said it many times that one of his greatest joys in writing SF is taking up the weirdest and most implausible ideas and turning them into autonomous reality. In Railsea he has accomplished that brilliantly. To the inhabitants of that world the endless tangle of rails is something natural, something that ever was. To them the wood of the cross-beams does not come from trees, it is more likely the trees that are made of cross-beams. Because the railsea is central to the metaphysics of this realm, it is beginning and end, god-given and tended for by mysterious iron angels. In the universe of Railsea the word “and”, as well as the concept behind it are not encoded through a sequence of letters – what more ludicrous than that! – but in “&”. Can there be a sign more apt than this one that mimics the ever meandering railsea trails connecting island to island, fate to fate, story to story? Under those same rails dig moles as big as ships, rats the size of dogs and worms as long as your arm. Predators that translate to certain death for the imprudent adventurer, but are themselves prey to the countless crews hunting them for meat, bone and fur. Some of those train crews’ captains even have their own philosophies. Beasts like Mocker-Jack that have become vortices of meaning in the minds of obsessed megalomaniacs who are ready to sacrifice anything to succeed. One can probably guess that they rarely do. Having your own philosophy though can be profitable and can elevate a captain to a sort of celebrity status in the railsea nations. Nations whose city-states, markets, ports and armies come alive on the pages of the book, where characters too live as full-blooded humans on trains that cut across the railsea in rhythms meriting their own clatternames. And as human as this strange world can be, the otherworldly artifacts sown throughout it whisper of something more than your run-of-the-mill steampunk setting, of unknown ages and territories, failed industrial revolutions, mysterious technologies, maybe even some unimaginable outer space.
The worldbuilding is one of the elements in Railsea that work wonderfully. Those stretches of the book that reveal details about the setting in a rich and dense literary paste are probably its best. Just like the rails never end, I wanted to read much more about this world, even if it didn’t take me to some unambiguous conclusion.
Another well-oiled wheel in the machine is Mieville’s performance as wordsmith. This time he has tamed his logorrhea and almost everything he has attempted word- and sentence-wise clicks together in the wider scheme of the book. The invented words scattered across the pages help condense the atmosphere and lend it authenticity.
“Moldywarpe”, “flatograph”, “ordinator”, “clattername”, “arch-salvage”, “nu-salvage”, “ferronaval”, and more, and more. The ever present puns and anagrams strengthen this sense of meaning being spilled all over the words, meaning that characters, author and reader are constantly trying to gather together and keep still. Some of them literally, in the form of beastly philosophies.
The sentences that are the warp and weft of the story usually do not come from Sham and the rest of the characters, but from the mouth of the almost omniscient, or at least omnipeeking author. They often ring with metrical and alliterative melodiousness, built on untypical intonational scaffolding – ragged with appositional phrases or oddly prolonged and stitched together through machine gun successions of commas & ampersands. This distinctly authorial meddling contributes effectively to the narrative rhythm and tone in places, but on the whole left me with mixed feelings. Mieville has chosen to stay out of the characters’ heads for most of the time, to tell the story with a strict focus on the adventure rather on the psychological part of it. This is probably why the novel feels and is labeled as “Young Adult”, not so much because of its subject or the nature of its characters. Had the method been different, Railsea could have easily been a very child-unfiendly book. However, if Mieville wanted to write an adventure story that could be read by the younger readers, without sparing them the mental work, he has done his job well. That the book targets the younger, is also evident from its lexical make-up, which is way more digestible than what fills most of his other novels, even though it inevitably bears his signature.
Personally, I would have preferred a darker, more serious and character-driven interpretation of this world. In its present shape the book simplifies too much aspects it hints at, and, for me at least, fails to populate the conceptual spaces opened up by Mieville’s world building genius and his penchant for fusing into life unexpected figurative constructions. A metanarrative thread certainly runs through the novel, seemingly the author’s attempt to impart some degree of unity and unidirectionality to the constellation of meanings he has aspired to envelop. I couldn’t decide for myself to what extent this works or whether it is not a clumsy patch over the story. To put it in a more straightforward manner: I wish Mieville had not just flirted around with these grand ideas with which Railsea teems, but that he had tried to capture his own philosophy, be it in enfleshed as whale, mole or novel. Instead he has done the opposite, by embodying in “&” and the railsea an ouroboric story curling endlessly upon itself, leaving the big meaning outside of it. Not that anybody has ever managed to put that meaning in text, to capture the all-encompassing signified; some of the most important texts, however, have been born in the attempt to hunt down the nature of the hunt.
Railsea is not a book about this hunt, although it hypothesizes on it. It is, on the other hand, a wonderful adventure story, with which Mieville proves himself once more a master merchant at the bazaar of the bizarre. I am still waiting for his big novel though. Embassytown indicated that he is already zeroing in on it, as does Railsea, in a less deep, but still very entertaining way.