There are some authors for whom a new book is more than just a new book on the shelves of W H Smith. It’s an event; it’s anticipated; it generates a frisson when you see the spine waiting for you, calling to you, beckoning you.
China Miéville is an author like that for me.
There are also authors whose books echo and resonate and speak to me year upon year, age upon age.
Herman Melville’s Moby Dick is such a book for me.
To stumble upon Miéville’s Railsea was a genuine moment of excitement in a dreary end-of-term week. A young man, aboard a mole train – what’s a mole train? – seeking a great white mole for his less-than-whole-bodied captain.
Could this book lover resist?
Hell no! He could not!
What this is not is a re-hash of Moby Dick, despite the obvious similarities. Yes, Captain Abacat Naphi and her philosophy in pursuing the giant white mountain of a mole that is Mocker-Jack is Ahab’s monomaniacal pursuit of Moby-Dick. Sham ap Soorap has touches of both Ishmael and Pip the Cabin-Boy. Miéville’s post-modern, fourth wall breaking – not so much as breaking as shattering and disintegrating the fourth wall – echoes Melville’s own cul-de-sacs and digressions in Moby-Dick.
But Miéville’s world is not derivative. All of Miéville’s books are notable for their world-building whether it be the London of Kraken or the sumptuous world of Bas-Lag within which Perdido Street Station and The Scar and Iron Council breathe. And this is no exception: Railsea inhabits a continent of shifting, inconstant, permeable earth. Cities can only survive on rocky outcrops because the soft soil is home to a range of vast, carnivorous, monstrous beasts: man sized earthworms, antlions, owls, tortoises
and the various sized moles.
And atop this shifting surface are rails: not the linear rails we are used to but a snaking, branching, multiplying sea of rails and tracks and sidings and branch lines and rail upon rail upon rail. Miéville rejects the word and in Railsea, relying of the ampersand instead – often starting sentences and paragraphs with an “&” which initially grated but which I quickly accepted. About halfway through, Miéville opines as to the futility of the past’s linear use of “a-n-d” and posits the symbolic nature of the ampersand, it’s curving twisting shape reflecting the nature of the Railsea itself.
I can understand that some readers would be put off by oh-so-self-aware metatextuality of the narrative. Robinson Crusoe is explicitly referred to as well as Moby Dick. Robert Louis Stevenson’s Kidnapped and Treasure Island inform it. Miéville’s own Iron Council is echoed here.
And Miéville ruminates and ponders the narrative itself explicitly. The first half of the book is very much from Sham’s point-of-view aboard the train Medes. Half way through, the narrative splits: Sham and the Medes part company and other trains are introduced as points-of-view. And Miéville explicitly discussing when and where to change point-of-view. Chapter 64 consists of two simple sentences:
Time for the Shroakes?
And Chapter 71 opens with
Now. At last. Surely.
This must be the moment to return to the Shroakes & to their rail. Surely.
It is, in fact, yes, Shroake O’Clock.
As I said, I get that this will irk and put off lots of people. Some will just shrug it off. But I loved this!
I loved how much fun Miéville had with the structure, the voice, the language. I imagine him chuckling to himself as he wrote it – no doubt with a pneumatically enhanced pencil attached to an artificial prosthetic like his Captain Naphi. He uses language like
a gallimaufryan coagulum of mixed up oddness
there was throating & a snarl of tree-sized slaver-spattering tusks & a plunging
These phrases shout to me a joy and a playfulness with language which (I hope) I share in – albeit with a less impressive vocabulary. Miéville’s prose for me shimmers and sparkles and coruscates.
Yes, this is a very writerly readers’ book but that doesn’t distract or detract from a cracking good tale and extremely tautly plotted novel.
The weakest part for me was the final confrontation. Miéville’s politics spills out into the novel here and – whilst I absolutely share his left wing views – it felt just a tad didactic and obvious.
But, what a book!
Absolutely mind blowingly wonderful.
Railsea has been labelled as Young Adult which I worry about: how many children expecting Hunger Games or Twilight would pick this up? How many adults who would love this wouldn’t pick up a YA book?
And as a brief postscript: I now want a daybat … As well as a direwolf!