2012; 424 pages. New Author? : No. Genre : YA; Steampunk; Fantasy; “Weird Fiction” (per the author). Overall Rating : 10*/10.
On a far-in-the future Earth, things are markedly different. The ground, and there’s a lot of it, is lethal. No, it's not poisonous, but it's full of burrowing animals of enormous size, all of which have a taste for human beings.
Mankind and his civilization are confined to stretches of rocky outcroppings. Burrowing beasties may be deadly, but they can’t dig through solid rock. Crops are grown on the patches of ground that lay on top of the rock formations. But it still would be pretty much a hopeless existence. Except for the railsea.
Crisscrossing the predator-laden ground are innumerable sets of railroad tracks, going here, there, and anywhere, but never in a straight line. An expert railsea crew is essential to navigate them, for there’s a lot of switching, doubling-back, braking, and maneuvering through perilous curves along the way. There are also a few lighthouses to help guide the trains to far-flung towns, where goods can be traded.
But trade is not the only activity on the railsea. There are forlorn wrecks of ancient trains, whose salvage is a profitable business. And a speeding train with a crew of skilled harpoonists can reverse the roles of predator and prey. Killing a giant moldywarpe can furnish meat for weeks on end for a hungry train crew, and is in huge demand at any port of call.
So come along with young Shamus (“Sham”) Yes ap Soorap, a doctor’s apprentice on the good ship/moletrain “Medes”, and get a taste of the thrill of the hunt. You never know what surprises might turn up.
What’s To Like...
Railsea is another masterpiece of YA steampunk fiction from China Miéville, who I consider to be arguably the most talented author around nowadays. As with all of his books, the world-building is fantastic, the storytelling superb, and the writing masterful. Miéville is at his finest here – confident enough to break down the fourth wall at times, and replacing the word “and” by an ampersand (“&”) every time it appears. This last nuance apparently annoyed some readers, but I thought it was great, and its rationale does get explained on page 163.
Miéville also tips his hat to some great classics from the past. You’ll easily recognize the influences of Moby Dick, Dune, and Treasure Island. Robinson Crusoe gets a brief nod towards the end of the story, and so does Shikasta, which I’m assuming is a quick bow at the great Doris Lessing.
There are predators aplenty, both in the sky and beneath the soil, and each section starts with a way-kewl drawing of one of them, including my favorite – the blood rabbit.
I loved the attention to detail. The futuristic world may be bleak, but it is also rich and complex. Although this is a steampunk world, there are submarines (which burrow through the underground, just like the critters), and even a few vintage-WW1 era airplanes. The captains of the ships/trains aspire to have a “philosophy”, which is a nemesis akin to Captain Ahab’s Moby Dick, and it is considered a high honor if one’s philosophy has cost one’s captain an arm or a leg. Literally.
The chapters are short: 87 of them for 424 pages. Those illustrations are an added bonus. Railsea opens with an exciting moldywarpe chase, which helps the reader instantly get caught up in the daily life of the crew on a moletrain. Somehow, despite all the attention to detail, the pace of the story remains brisk.
The ending is superb. Just when you think we’re going to wander around forever, the focus shifts to a quest for understanding the situation, something that’s been tickling the back of Sham’s mind for most of the book. In the end everyone, including the reader, is given an inkling of who built the railsea, and why the terrain is the way it is. Railsea is a standalone story, and although it leaves room for a sequel, I don’t think China Miéville has any plans to do one.
Kewlest New Word...
Pootling (n.) : moving or traveling somewhere slowly and with no real purpose. (a Britishism)
Others: Bolshy (adj.); Phonemes (n., pl.); Chthonic (adj.); Strigine (adj.); Sett (n.); Snaffled (v.).
From beneath came a dust-muffled howl.
Amid strange landforms & stubs of antique plastic, black earth coned into a sudden hill. & up something clawed. Such a great & dark beast.
Soaring from its burrow in a clod-cloud & explosion it came. A monster. It roared, it soared, into the air. It hung a crazy moment at the apex of its leap. As if surveying. As if to draw attention to its very size. Crashed at last back down through the topsoil & disappeared into the below.
The moldywarpe had breached. (pg. 6)
Their antique & reclaimed wares were set on stalls on the dockside, according to various taxonomies. Pitted & oxidized mechanisms from the Heavy Metal Age; shards from the Plastozoic; printouts on thin rubber & ancient ordinator screens from the Computational Era: all choice arche-salvage, from astonishingly long ago. & the less interesting stuff, too, that discarded or lost anything from a few hundred years ago to yesterday – nu-salvage. (pg. 109)
“Sentiment & moletrains don’t mix.” “There is nowhere,” Fremlo said, “more sentimental than a moletrain. Thankfully.” (pg. 319)
I can’t really think of anything to quibble about for Railsea. It took me a while to get the hang of the author’s use of whaling/shipping terms for adventuring aboard a land-bound train. But I blame that mostly on me. Miéville does stop to give explanations at times (“there are two layers to the sky, & four layers” – page 30), but usually I was like: “Yeah, whatever. Now what happened next?” And one can always consult Wikipedia for a concise synopsis of the Railsea world.
My rule thumb is if I can’t think of any negatives, even trivial ones, about a book, and if the storyline and writing resonates with me, then there’s only one rating to give it. Hence:
10 Stars. I’ve enjoyed every China Miéville book I’ve read, my favorite being another YA novel of his, Un Lun Dun (reviewed here). I’ve still got 4-5 of his books to go. I don’t have any good explanation for why I’m behind reading his stuff, except to say that his books rarely show up in used-book stores.