Fiction Reviews


(2012) China Miéville, Macmillan, £17.99, hrdbk, 384pp, ISBN 978-0-230-76510-8


Now this is my kind of book, it is 376 pages long, split into nine parts and has 86 chapters, perfect for the reluctant reader that I am. Although I have to confess that while I did not commit the cardinal, heinous sin of looking ahead to read the last page, despite being sufficiently engaged, nay, concerned about the characters to see how things panned out and if a little dose of unrequited love came to anything – I am such a romantic – I did slip to the end (purely for research purposes to write this review, you understand) and saw the provenance of one of the illustrations that starts each of the nine parts (no doubt drawn by Miéville himself since he showed in Un Lun Dun that he can draw as well as write), and thought 'ah, ha'. So don't do it, don't be like me, don't spoil your fun, only turn the pages as you read them. No peeking.

I say again, do not spoil your fun, because there is much fun to be had within the pages of Railsea which on the surface might come across as a young adult steampunkish novel with more than a hint of Moby Dick running through its rich seams, but it's also a lot more than that. Clever, funny, exciting, action-packed, jam-packed with a great original worldview, vivid descriptions and a whole cast of whacky characters, and maybe, just maybe, over the top language, combined with a typically Miévillian narrative style, but what the heck, this is a story, a yarn, just sit back and enjoy a bumpy, thrills and spills ride, although you'll quickly notice that Miéville has abandoned the use of the word 'and', replacing it throughout the text with an ampersand or '&' to you and me.

Railsea tells the story of one Sham yes ap Soorap who is a dreamer, with dreams of riding the railsea as a salver, seeking treasure in salvage, or as an explorer, climbing the hills and mountains and disappearing into the Upsky, and probably meeting his end there in all sorts of grisly ways. But he can do none of these things, as an orphan he has neither the money or connections to follow his dreams, so for him life is being a doctor's-mate on the moletrain, the 'Medes', as Captain Naphi follows her 'philosophy' (for that read obsession) to hunt and kill the great white Moldywarpe that cost her an arm. So much Moby Dick you might think, but when the Medes comes across the wreck of a strange train, and within its bowels, Sham finds a memory card, containing photos of places on a voyage of discovery and of something that cannot possibly be, that cannot be shared, that must be destroyed and forgotten, but Sham cannot forget what he has seen, and the picture of a picture he has managed to take and he now has the knowledge and there are those who want it and the secret it can reveal.

There you have it, the plot in a nutshell, so what's stopping you? My only quibble about the book is that there are a couple of very slight chapters – a paragraph, a few lines, maybe even a sentence long when Miéville speaks directly to the reader with questions like “Is it time to return to the Shroakes? Not know, but we'll be with them shortly.” For the life of me I don't know why he is doing this, perhaps to up the ante, the tension, but they do get in the way ever so slightly.

Near the death of the book, Miéville is possibly making some comments about our society and the way we live and the role of money, credit, debt, failing economies, or I'm possibly just reading too much into things, but I will be seeing the man himself at this year's (2012) Edinburgh Book Festival so intend to ask him then.

And right at the death of the book, Miéville pulls another rabbit out of the hat with a flourish, and I should have seen it coming, but that is part of the man's genius to have the reader caught on their own rails, hurtling forward into unchartered territory without time to join the dots, or pick up the clues. All of that means that Railsea is obviously crying out for a sequel, but he will probably never write it, he never does.

Damm, you, China Mieville. Damm you.

Ian Hunter

Railsea has been cited by a number of the SF2 Concatenation team as one of the best science fiction books of 2012.

See Mark's take on Railsea paperback here.

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