Review by Robert Goodman
You might have to track Railsea down in the Young Adult section of the bookshop – do not be fooled. It just means someone is being lazy. The fact that the main character happens to be a teenager has about as much relevance as, say, the fact that a young girl narrates The Lovely Bones. I imagine that teenagers might relate to the adolescent main characters, but this does not mean that adults can’t.
In the last few years China Miéville has turned out some of the most mind-bending and enjoyably challenging pieces written in the English language. From the noir-inspired award-winning bizarreness of The City and the City through the London meets the occult madness of Kraken and the sci-fi-cum-linguistic pyrotechnics of Embassytown, China has staked his claim to be one of the current masters of the new weird, writing books that are not only enjoyable to read but also seriously mess with your mind.
The trick to enjoying a China Miéville book is to just go with the flow. And this is never more the case than with Railsea, which opens with a thrilling chase on a diesel moling train across the twisted tracks of the Railsea in pursuit of a giant mole (or moldywarpe) which is later caught and slaughtered. On the mole train, the main character, Sham ap Soorap, ‘the bloodstained boy’, orphan and doctor’s assistant, watches and learns and yearns for something indefinable. While the train’s Captain Naphi pursues her ‘philosophy’, a Great Southern Moldywarpe the colour of an old tooth called Mocker-Jack.
So far, so steampunk Moby Dick. But from this beginning Railsea opens out to a fully realised world of molers, salvors, pirates and treasure hunters. So complete it comes with drawings of some strange denizens of the Railsea, including the blood rabbit or the ant lion (big enough to eat a human). And while it wears its influences on its sleeve (in the endnotes Miéville acknowledges not only Herman Melville but also authors as diverse as Robert Louis Stevenson, Joan Aiken, Spike Milligan and Ursula le Guin), Miéville has used his fierce imagination to shape these influences into something much more. Like the white arch, made by some salvors out of old washing machines, Miéville has not only salvaged these old stories but fashioned them into something new.
Following the successful mole hunt Sham finds himself some salvage which propels him in a direction he would never have imagined and forces him to grow up. The story follows Sham and, later, Dero and Caldera Shroak, two other youngsters on their own perilous quest. And this is where the classification confusion comes. For at its heart Railsea is a boys (and girls)-own adventure story, a kind of coming-of-age road-movie on rails. In the tradition of the classics there are twists and reverses, battles, feats of daring, close scrapes and death. But there is more to Railsea than this and plenty for readers of all ages to enjoy here including great characters, a sprinkling of philosophy and a grand mystery.
All this is done with the most arcane and beautiful language. I read this book aloud to my son and it was worth the effort. So if you read Railsea for nothing else, then it should be for its use of language and symbols. Throughout, for example, the book uses an ‘&’ instead of the word ‘and’, and it is only halfway through the book that a reason is given. And in the same way China has refashioned stories he has found and reused old words in new contexts, combined words in new ways (‘shatterscape’, ‘upsky’) and has built syllable-rich sentences that sometimes totter on the edge of collapse. For example, here is a description of Sham’s walk down to the harbour of the town of Bollons:
Past windowsills where women & men were watering windowsill plants, & cooking breakfast or what, in fact, must be lunch, & was, whatever it was by a long way the most unbelievably delicious-smelling food Sham had in all his years of life been privileged to sniff. Past the dogs & cats of Bollons, cheerful ownerless animals that trotted around unfussed, eyeing him sympathetically. Past the blocky rectangular churches, where the history of the godsquabble was sung. Down towards the harbour from where, over rows of houses, grocers, a statue of a sardonic-looking local godlet, he could hear the clack & smack and pistonhammer crack of trains.
The whole is also written with a sly sense of fun. Small interval chapters break the fourth wall to discuss the aspects of the Railsea: the art of moling, the use of salvage, Railsea religion. And the changes of point of view are flagged or teased (‘Time for the Shroakes? Not yet.’) and likened to switching trains or tracks. And while sometimes this is a bit twee, it adds a layer to the experience of Railsea.
And overall the experience of Railsea is a delight. It manages in turn to be exciting and poetic, to reference and celebrate the past while being unashamedly futuristic. And yes, if you were going to be strict about genre and audience you might put Railsea in the Young Adult section of the bookshop, or the science-fiction shelves. But for those who just enjoy a good read, it is worth looking past this pigeonholing and taking a ride.
Pan MacMillan, 2012