(2013) China Miéville, Pan, £8.99, pbk, 376pp, ISBN 978-1-447-21367-3
China Miéville is hard to pin down. He has been called the architect of the ‘new weird’, whatever that means, and the very strangeness of his work can be both appealing and off-putting. He has won three Clarke awards – with The City and The City, Perdido Street Station and Iron Council and last time out he was Hugo nominated with Embassytown, he even managed to get on the Sunday Times’ 'Book of the Year' list. So he must be doing something right.
They are tricky, though, Miéville books. Tricky to pin down (Fantasy? Science fiction? What?) and tricky to read, partly, I suspect, because they veer off into uncharted territory and are conceptually difficult to get your head round. The City and The City, for instance, is set in an imaginary Budapest-cipher where the city is actually two cities, ostensibly (if you take the reading literally) with the city in one dimension overlaid with the city in another, leeching across at inconvenient moments and strict protocols preventing one side from even acknowledging the other, let alone moving freely across the boundaries. But it is not about that, of course, not unless you take a very literal view of the story, It is about west and east, and invisible boundaries, and what people are prepared to do in the name of the status quo, and in the face of overwhelming evidence that things are not as they seem.
Railsea is different, as are all Miéville’s novels. This one might even be a young adult novel, since there’s a young adult at the centre of the narrative, and whimsy at its heart. It’s certainly been pitched as such, and Miéville displays an uncommon language restraint here which suggests a more straightforward audience. But like The City and the City, this is a book with hidden depths, where the subtext is as important as the storyline.
Actually the storyline’s pretty cool even if you do not care about the hidden meanings. Sometime somewhen (maybe the future, maybe someplace else’s) people travel on a sea of rails hunting giant moles and worms and fend off attacks from upsky, all full of flying, floating and killing things dumped by alien visitors. The story follows Sham, an abandoned child on a moldywarpe hunting train run by the madly obsessed Captain Naphi. Sham finds something which makes him question his world and so he searches for two teenagers – and then the story starts to become theirs too. Because the teenagers – Dero and Caldera – have discovered something impossible, and everyone from pirates to the Manihink ferronavy are desperate to discover just what exactly it means. The first half of the book is worldbuilding setup and the start of Sham’s quest. The second is a long and glorious rail-chase, with the mad captain getting madder, the pirates getting more vicious and the ferronavy getting more desperate. And even if Sham, Dero and Caldera can get through all of them, there are the Angels to contend with…
The world building here is complicated and for a while I wasn’t sure Miéville was going to pull it off. The world here – Earth, in the future – is a strange one and it’s difficult to visualise how it works. Rails crisscross over deadly terrain, where anyone leaving the trains is likely to be eaten by giant scavengers. No idea who maintains the rails, or how the economy works, or how people survive. But after a while you stop trying to make sense of it all and give in to its own internal logic and then the book becomes quite enjoyable. Not an easy read – his books are never that – this one nevertheless has a charm that makes it very engaging. The words here are simple but the sentences are trademark Miéville. Complex, melodic, and often not at all straightforward. It’s not a page-turner, though, and the bizarre fantasy setup robs some of the tension of its force, and that may put off many of the younger readers this may well be aimed at. Nevertheless, towards the end the narrative gets more straightforward as all the plot threads coincide. There is a mystery to solve and that propels you towards the climax.
I liked it. It kept me off balance, like all his books. And it made me think. There are themes about complacency, obsession and authority here but this is mainly about the wonder of discovery. Some great characters too, from the day-bat Daybe to the pirate cabin-boy Robalson, My favourite is Sham himself, maybe because he grows so much throughout the book, maybe because we know he has so much more to discover.
The Daily Mail (of all papers) calls Railsea ‘a mashup of Moby Dick and steampunk.’ And, loath as I am to agree with the Daily Mail, that is as good a description as you can get. Recommended.
See Ian's take on Railsea hardback here.
Railsea has been cited by a number of the SF2 Concatenation team as one of the best science fiction books of 2012.
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