There is a moment as a reader, when you realise a writer is giving everything to their work. When they are attacking the story without compromise, when they are running with words in their minds as fast and as far as they can go. China Miéville’s Railsea is one such book, a return to his signature voice defined in his New Crobuzon novels, Perdido Street Station, The Scar and Iron Council. It is a writer running a train at full steam towards a brick wall without flinching. The result is spectacular.
Sham ap Soorap procures a position on the moleship Medes as a doctor’s assistant. While scouring the wreckage of a destroyed train, he discovers a hidden object that could lead the molers to a place beyond the railsea, a tangled mess of ancient train lines across the writhing earth.
While somewhat based on Moby Dick, Miéville breaks the narrative away from Melville’s masterpiece early on. It takes the concepts of whaling vessels and transfers them to molers, and the sea to the railsea. There are as many dangers in the ocean as the railsea, where antlions and moldywarpes break earth to attack humans. There is an obsessed captain, whose determination to capture her philosophy, Mocker-Jack, drives her forward. But the similarities between Captain Naphi and Ahab break down, for Railsea is its own novel and not an iteration of the classic.
This is a fine, fine book. The characters: engaging. The story: intriguing. The world: convincing. The railsea is so well created, in the first few pages I felt I was flying down the rails with the crew, chasing moles. There are ferronaval trains, pirates and superb monsters. Sadly, Miéville was not able to fit in the giant squid of Melville’s novel! (What! you say, a Miéville novel without a cephalopod? By jove!). The direction of the plot slows down a little when Sham is interrupted in his journey with the Medes, but it keeps enough interest until the powerful end.
Philosophical discussions abound, as each moler captain pursues the attainment of their philosophy, an abstract notion embodied in a physical monster. Sham ponders who created the railsea. Was it the gods? Or warring rail companies desperate to sabotage each other out of business? And who are the Angels, the mysterious guardians of the railsea? The railsea is a world beyond our own, a futuristic alternate vision of a world destroyed by overdevelopment and greed. In Miéville’s other YA book, Un Lun Dun he discusses similar environmental issues, with smog villains and ninja bins.
My one distinct criticism of the book is the use of the ampersand instead of “and”. It takes a few pages to adjust to the reading of the book, because the symbol interrupts the fluent reading of the page. But Miéville adresses this eloquently in the book itself:
What word better could there be to symbolise the railsea that connects & separates all lands, than “&” itself? Where else does the railsea take us but to this place & that one & that one & that one, & so on? & what better embodies, in the sweep of the pen, the recurved motion of trains, than “&”?
There is criticism of YA writers these days; they write too darkly, too complex stories. I think of writers like Margo Lanagan, who tackles complex women’s issues, or Patrick Ness, with his ability endear us to his characters then put them in the most harrowing situations, or China Miéville, who brings impossible narratives to vivid life. Railsea covers challenging themes of obsession, atheism and independence.
But young adults deserve to be treated like their namesake and not as children. When I was ten I begged my mother for a copy of A Brief History of Time. When I was I was fourteen I immersed myself in the poetry of e e cummings. When I was sixteen I read Ulysses. If we begin to tell young adults what they can and can’t read, they how will they ever push their minds past what they think they are capable of.
It is the power of Mieville’s undeniable talent, a reluctance to abide by traditional rules and push the boundaries of traditional young adult fiction while maintaining an enjoyable story. Railsea is a rollicking novel that catapults the reader into a roller coaster ride. China Miéville better clear some space on his overcrowded awards shelf soon.