Railsea by China Miéville

by hetzer

I can understand, a little bit, how Gabe and Tycho feel.

I’m not saying that I don’t like China Miéville; he is in fact one of my favorite authors and I find his work endlessly creative even though it has its shortcomings.  But I also can’t blame them for wanting to punch him in the face for using the word “moldywarpe”.  It does smack of über-cuteness and smug self-awareness.  And I don’t care, because the book totally makes up for it.

Sham Yes ap Soorap is an apprentice to the doctor aboard the moletrain Medes, on the hunt through the railsea.  Bear with me here: the world is nothing but earth and rocks; there is no ocean.  In its place vast tracts of land spread out between the islands of rock where the cities are, crisscrossed with countless railroads.  All commerce rides the rails, and not just on steam trains; some trains are pulled by animals, some run on clockwork or by wind, and a shunned few are slave-galleys.  Nobody will set foot on the ground here; the superstitious believe it to be poisonous to the touch, but really it’s just teeming with nasty burrowing critters who will tear you limb from limb, from the vicious naked mole rats (dog-sized, natch), to six-foot earwigs, to owls the size of a house who can pick up a train car and tear it to bits with their talons.  The grandest of all, though, are the great moles, who are hunted by the moling trains for their skin, meat, and blubber.  The Medes‘ captain is in pursuit of the biggest of them all, a bone-colored great southern moldywarpe named Mocker-Jack, who took her arm long ago.  Yes, it’s Moby Dick.  On a train.

Railsea is the second of Miéville’s works written for a younger audience, and it shares a number of characteristics with Un Lun Dun, his first.  The presence of a young protagonist goes without saying, but a general love with words and wordplay runs all through both works.  Railsea is a more mature work, though; characters get drunk and carouse, and wake up hung over; animals (obviously) and characters die; the descriptions of the railsea’s inhabitants, human and otherwise, is generally frightening and occasionally terrifying.  Where Un Lun Dun nods to The Phantom Tollbooth, Railsea nods to The Odyssey, and when Sham is taken by pirates it’s not the least bit romantic or swashbuckling; he is treated exactly as you’d expect a captive of real pirates to be treated.  Miéville doesn’t dwell on gory details, but he doesn’t pull a lot of punches either.  The result is a well-balanced piece of fiction; generally light-hearted, yet with a bit of shadow always lurking just out of reach and occasionally flashing directly into focus.  A mature ten-year-old can probably handle this one, whereas I’d recommend Un Lun Dun for anyone whose reading vocabulary is up to par.  It’s not as deep or weighty as, say, Embassytown, but it’s not supposed to be, and while it doesn’t feel as gleeful as Kraken, it’s still a hell of a lot of fun.