Railsea is China Mieville’s most recent novel. YA audienced and Locus award receiving, Railsea is a force of both new, experimental writing and a mining of past classics. And it’s wonderful fun.
We’re dropped in a semi-dystopian world where the rail system covers the entire earth in endless loops and mazes. Crews ride steam engines and make a living hunting giant tunneling beasts like moles (moldywarpes) and rabbits (blood rabbits) that all give King Kong a run for his blonde-haired beauty. The earth between the rails is a-writhe with similar beasts and insects; the up-sky above is a haze of similar bird-type creatures.
And our awkward, ungainly, maybe-a-bit-hefty hero is a young boy by the name of Sham Yes ap Soorap (because apparently we can’t have characters with less unique names than the author has).
I would never have expected anything less imaginative than this from Mieville after having read Embassytown and Perdido Street Station, both of which were inventive enough to propel Mieville up to one of the most influential authors on my bookshelf. His imagination is beyond other-worldly; it’s beyond most people’s capacity. In an age when creativity is (apparently) sorely underrated, Mieville is a beacon that I hope more people begin to spot.
I mentioned classical, didn’t I? Underneath all the inventive flair that is so alien and pleasing is the equally pleasing (in this case) familiar that always has to be there. Inside its metal and gears core, Railsea is an exciting adventure about a boy growing up, finding adventure and virtue. It’s about obsession, kidnappings, pirates, understanding origins and purpose, bravery. I tick all these things off on my fingers because they are an integral part of many stories…especially pirates.
And Railsea’s own influences are clear. Herman Melville’s Moby Dick. Robert Lewis Stevenson’s Treasure Island. And perhaps even Frank Herbert’s Dune.
That’s a lot to live up to. Considering I never managed to slog through ol’ Moby, I can’t say how effectively Meiville played Melville’s game. Although the giant mole, nicknamed Mocker-Jack by the crew, clearly holds parallels to our white whale friend. But as for the other two, this has swashbuckling Stevenson fun all over it, and it’s a match for Herbert’s inventiveness.
I’d go so far as to say this is not only a fun read, but it is an important novel. It’s virtues are clear. Sham is a brave and selfless character, and one of the most endearing figures literature has offered in a long while. The captain, Abacab Naphi, with her obsession of taking down Mocker-Jack, chimes cleverly with Moby Dick’s look at humanity’s obsessive nature. And the whole novel is occasionally interluded with meta-narrative that adds an aspect of intrigue and self-awareness, which begs for reflections long after the last page is flipped. Railsea will make you think.
So I’d recommend picking up this book and letting Sham and China lead you off the edge of the railroad…
And off the edge of the map.