Book review: Railsea, by China Miéville

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China Miéville has played with trains before – in Iron Council, the socialist refugees lived on a “perpetual train”, which forged ahead on rails taken up from behind it. He has also played around with Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick – in The Scar, a flotilla of ships was seeking the Leviathan-like avanc, hoping to both harpoon and harness it as a means of locomotion.

Railsea

By China Miéville

Macmillan, 384pp, £17.99

In Railsea, he presents a variation on Moby-Dick set on railways; and such is Miéville’s prodigious, almost recklessly extravagant imagination, that even when he repeats himself he is incapable of repeating himself.

I almost wish it were possible to write a review of Railsea which allowed the reader the thrill of piecing together this new universe, but – as with The City & The City – it is regrettably necessary to sketch out what in the novel only gradually coalesces. This, the prologue tells us, is “the story of a bloodstained boy”, namely Sham ap Soorap, a trainee physician onboard the Medes. The beginning of the first chapter unsettles the reader gleefully: someone shouts “There she blows”, the crew are making scrimshaw figurines and there are penguins huddled on a rock island. But there are also rails, parallel lines seeming to converge at the horizon, the hunters hang from the caboose and the creature, a moldywarpe, leaves behind a giant molehill of topsoil. In this world, humans fear the “poison” earth, and build their towns and cities on cliffs and mountains. Across the bare earth runs a maze of railway lines, a mesh of “wye switches; interlaced turnouts; stubs; crossovers; single & double slips. & on the approaches to them were signals, switches, receivers, or ground frames”. The railwaymen can read the web of iron the way mariners, in another world, noted currents and winds. Miéville is a master world-builder, and never misses an opportunity to hint at the nature of the surreal universe, this anything but trackless waste, into which the reader is plunged.

Although Sham is on a moletrain, he dreams of being an explorer, or perhaps even a hunter for salvage. When they pause to explore a wrecked train, Sham discovers an ancient data stick, which, after some finagling with the irascible, one-armed Captain Naphi, he gets the chance to view. It shows an image that is seemingly impossible, and various factions will stop at nothing to find out the truth behind what the image implies: in short, that somewhere in the vast railsea, there might be a terminus. The plot is typically adventuresome, especially as the book is aimed at the “young adult” audience, but it has pleasures for the adult reader as well.

The extended witty deconstruction of Moby-Dick is probably the funniest thing Miéville has written. Each captain has a “philosophy”, the name they give to the beasts they single-mindedly pursue. Naphi’s nemesis is Mocker-Jack, the Mole of Many Meanings. As she says: “You know how careful are philosophies. How meanings are evasive. They hate to be parsed. Here again came the cunning of unreason. I was creaking, lost, knowing that the ivory-coloured beast had evaded my harpoon & continued his opaque diggery, resisting close reading & a solution to his mystery. I bellowed, & swore that one day I would submit him to a sharp & bladey interpretation”. As a satire on the way in which Melville’s book has been read, Naphi is priceless, and the eventual reveal about her lost arm had me laughing out loud. There is a delightful tip of the hat to Robinson Crusoe as well as Treasure Island: he may not be put up for “literary” prizes, but Miéville’s work is far more suffused with literature than stories about divorces in Holland Park.

Alert readers will have noticed in the quotations above that throughout this book, the word “and” is replaced with an ampersand. Miéville is too accomplished a writer to introduce such a stylistic tic without a proper reason, and the paragraph explaining the & is poetical. But it seems to have another purpose as well. Any aficionado of typefaces will tell you that the ampersand (with the initial G a close second) is the quickest way to identify a font: it is open to a peculiar degree of individual variation, and for many designers, it is their “signature” sign. Miéville operates under the aesthetic of the ampersand. Each book stretches a particular genre, sees how far it can be altered, re-imagined, distorted. He has taken some of the most conservative, even reactionary genres, and found their potential for the radical. This month also sees his first “mainstream” comic book, a new version of the anarchic Dial H For Hero for DC Comics. It surely can’t be long before someone offers him a scriptwriting job.

Miéville’s politics – a commitment to the Left – are well known (his wonderful photo-essay about last year’s London riots can be found at www.londonsoverthrow.org), and although it is more sotto voce in Railsea it is nevertheless present. It addresses issues of ownership and innovation, capital projects and insane competitions, but never in a manner which is strident or unrelated to the narrative. The book can be read purely for its own dizzying inventions – there are, steam-powered angels and the Squabbling Gods – and as a canny play of ideas. In the smallest ways, Miéville suggests that fantasy has often squandered its own capacity to imagine. The child prodigies Sham meets live with their three parents. If you are creating a world, why stick to replicating the nuclear family?

There is one cadenza in Railsea which describes the treasures the “salvors” seek: “an archaeology of discards, centuries layered. Extruding edges of junk, shards, glass, bit & pieces, faint stretching fronds of ripped-up plastic bags. A greening layer: tiny cogs from a clockwork epoch; crushed plastic; the scintilla from an era of glass; the rag-seams of degraded video tape; a gallimaufryan coagulum of mixed-up oddness”. It is almost a description of Miéville’s own magpie brilliance.