Imagine a world in which the ocean has been replaced by a complex system of railway tracks overlying a hostile & mysterious subterranean world, a world where ships are replaced by the trains which ride the tracks & mariners by the train crews. This is the world of Railsea, the most recent novel by China Mieville, his second novel aimed at young adults, but a book which makes few concessions & which should appeal equally to adult readers. Mieville has won almost every prize going for fantasy/science fiction writing, & there is a reason – his writing stands comparison with the best in any genre. This is a book which should not be pigeon holed & which deserves a wide readership.
The hero of Railsea is Sham, a young man setting out on his first trip on board the moletrain Medes. The objective of the trip is to hunt moldywarpes, vicious giant moles which live in the railsea. The Medes runs under the command of Captain Naphi, an intimidating veteran of the railsea. Naphi is a well known mole hunter who many years previously lost one of her arms to an albino Great Southern Moldywarpe, whom she has named Mocker Jack. Her goal in life, (her “philosophy” in the language of the book) has become to kill Mocker Jack, & hence to fulfil what she sees as her purpose. The hunt for Mocker Jack is one of the key elements of Railsea, but there are a number of other plots & subplots.
Mieville has an extraordinary capacity to conjure up an imaginary world which is a distorted but convincing version of our own, & in doing so to address contemporary & fundamental human issues. There are rail pirates, trains powered by sails & wind, submariners in tunnelling vehicles & a corrupt navy. The railsea itself is seething with eruchhonous life, a fauna like our fauna but with extra teeth & always surprising.
Railsea is the second novel I have read this year which is clearly inspired in part by Moby Dick (the other having been The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach). If you are not familiar with Moby Dick (which I guess may be the case for many younger readers) then it does not really matter, but if you are then there is added reading pleasure in looking for & thinking about the parallels. Railsea is a rollicking story, but without doubt (as in much of Mieville's writing) there is more serious intent. The place & role of Philosophy/religion in human life & the impact of Capitalism & market forces on how people live are two obvious themes, but Mieville is also concerned with where his world comes from & what it means to live a happy & fulfilled life. & there is his usual playful occupation with language. Railsea joins my shortlist of books with linguistic quirks – in this case the word “and” is replaced throughout by the ampersand, a reminder of the railtracks which curve everywhere.....