China Miéville Railsea Pan Books 2013 (2012)
Imagine a world covered in railway tracks, the occasional settlement sticking out like an island in the ocean. This is the Railsea, a non-aquatic environment sailed by merchants, pirates, navies, hunters, explorers and scavengers in trains of every size and shape, powered by every means of locomotion you can imagine. China Miéville’s collision of steampunk and dystopia has the young hero, Sham ap Soorap and a pair of siblings — orphans all — off on quests to find the answers to secrets that beset them, holy grails that reveal either whether a mythical goal is real or the truth behind the disappearance of their birth parents. Could it be that both quests are destined to converge onto the same single track?
Everybody immediately recognises Miéville’s debt to Herman Melville’s Moby Dick in a train crew’s pursuit of a giant ivory-coloured mole or moldywarp — Middle English “earth-thrower” — called Mocker-Jack. This monster mole-rat is the “philosophy” of the captain, Abacat Naphi (the name an obvious anagram of Captain Ahab); and we are led to wonder whether she can abandon her obsession to allow young doctor’s apprentice Sham to fulfil his dream. Perhaps Miéville was led to this tribute by the similarity of his surname to that of the writer of the classic whaling tale.
But Railsea is not just a Young Adult parody of Moby Dick, as a glance at the list of artists and writers that the author acknowledges his indebtedness to clearly shows. They include Joan Aiken (a tribute to her delightful creation Dido Twite no doubt, who wanders the ocean for much of the Wolves Chronicles), Erich Kästner (author of the incomparable Emil and the Detectives), Ursula le Guin (her Earthsea clearly inspiring the title of Miéville’s novel), Spike Milligan (imagine Moby Dick According to Spike Milligan as one of the comedian’s many parodies of classic texts) and Robert Louis Stevenson (Treasure Island and Kidnapped are the influences here).
Despite these and other literary models Miéville has nevertheless created a unique world and way of life in which one can willingly suspend disbelief; a planet where uncurtailed industry has ultimately led to societal break-down, the creation of an unimaginable amount of unwanted detritus, monstrous genetic abnormalities and enforced human resourcefulness. Just don’t ask about the practicalities of survival in this ecological and economic wasteland.
Sham and the people he encounters — crews, individuals, friends, foes and so on — take centre stage of course. He matures over the course of a few hundred pages, going from gauche ingénue to ingenious and confident adolescent as he not only pursues his vision but also draws associates along in his wake. He of course re-enacts the classic monomyth, the Journey of the Hero; while the Railsea narrative includes some of the Seven Basic Plots (such as Overcoming the Monster, The Quest and Comedy). The tale that Railsea most reminds me of, though, is The Voyage of Saint Brendan. The Navigatio was a popular medieval account of how the Irish saint, after many vicissitudes, crosses the Atlantic to reach the Promised Land of the Saints, envisaged as the Earthly Paradise guarded by an angel; many take this as a not-so-veiled reference to North America as the landfall of Dark Age Irish monks.
There is no space here — and no need — to explore the many other inventive ideas and concepts that Miéville includes; alert readers will doubtless discover these for themselves. I’d just like to mention the author’s own illustrations of Railsea’s fauna which form a chilling counterpoint to the text. But, after all, it’s the story that matters, not my commentary; that, unlike the tale iself, can best be regarded as told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing much at all.