Railsea by China Mieville

by China Mieville

Published by: Del Rey
May 15, 2012
Pages: 448
Source: NetGalley (thank you Del Rey!)

Me and this book? We almost didn’t happen. I literally tried 4 times to get into this book during the month of May. And I always quit at the same place; chapter 4. I’m not sure what made me pick it up again that fourth time; I generally only give books 3 chances and usually a little more spaced out than that. Being such a moody reader leads me to do such things, but still, 3 times is usually a good indicator of whether a book and I are going to see eye to eye. Still, about 2:00 am, on the train back from Florida, I had just finished Memoirs of an Imaginary Friend and I knew there was no way in this good, great Earth that I was going to read The Stand at 2:00 am, so I opened Railsea one final time. I scanned back to page one (since it was on my Nook) and I gave a great sigh and plunged in again.

Somehow, with the combination of the hour, the rocking of the train (coincidence? I think not!), the extreme tiredness I was feeling, and the fact that I was miserable with a cold; Railsea and I clicked. I know that sounds somewhat strange, but there you go. I’m strange. C’est ma vie. Bienvenue! All I know is I’m glad it happened because I wound up loving Railsea and I may have a new author crush to boot.

So, I don’t know if you heard, but Railsea is like a re-imagining of Moby Dick. However, instead of chasing a bone-white whale, we’re chasing a bone-white mole. Yes, a mole, a “moldywarpe”, but not like the little moles who tear up our yards and cause us to tear our hair out until we’re bald and bleeding. What? You don’t do this? Anyway, THIS mole is huge. I mean, freaking huge. A huge as a house. Maybe even huger. And instead of the ocean, our sea is rails. Train rails. An ocean of trail rails, hence, the Railsea. The train, the moletrain, Medes is chasing this moldywarpe, called many things but mainly Mocker Jack, and Captain Naphi, a woman with a passion for vengeance and just as determined as Captain Ahab.

Also onboard the Medes is a young man named Sham Yes ap Soorap. Sham is young in many ways, not just by age, and he does a lot of growing up during the course of this story. The reader meets Sham on deck, covered in blood, watching as all the hands on the train dismantle a small moldywarpe. Sham, bless his heart, seems lost, confused, on the train he’s traveling. The cousins who raised him helped him get the position of doctor’s assistant, but he’s no more interested in being a doctor than he is a mole hunter. He figures there’s more to life than chasing moles and riding the railsea. A chance encounter with a derailed train, and a chance discovery onboard that derelict train, sends Sham off on the adventure of a lifetime.

There is so much going on in this book. It took me awhile to grasp that it was (and honestly, I’m still not completely sure) dystopian, and it’s a bleak future. The land is covered in trail rails. There are two levels to the sky; the upsky, where weird, otherworldly creatures fly, where the air is so polluted you can’t always see the tops of mountains, and the downsky, a sliver of breathable air between the upsky and the rails. Many people sell what they call salvage, which is essentially the piles and piles of trash left behind by the people of the past. These salvagers often don’t know what the things they sell actually are, they make up names and uses for unfamiliar (but familiar to us!) things. There is no real discernible government, other one brief appearance by some sort of dirty “train cops.” Then there are all the insanely huge insects, flesh-eating rabbits, and other such monsters trolling around under the ground. Families are not the typical “nuclear” family of old. Families are whoever sticks around, either by choice or by necessity. Sham is raised by two male cousins after his parents die. He makes friends with a brother and sister who have three parents; a woman and two men. As complex and completely strange as all this is, Mieville manages to keep the story on track and, strangely, believable. At least for me.

The real star of the book though, in my opinion, is the writing. Holy rusted metal Batman, but Mieville has a way with words. The prose alone was like feast of words. The plot, as twisted as the rails, which I think was completely intentional. The story splits, about halfway, into three or four different subplots, eventually meandering back together and I couldn’t help but exclaim about halfway through that this was JUST LIKE THE RAILSEA! My joy was strange and complete. I love it with authors play with words, plots, ideas and by golly, Mieville plays like a champion wordsmith. And the characters! I quickly fell in love with Sham. And Captain Naphi? What a puzzle. My favorite, besides Sham, has to be his pet day bat, Daybe. I would have never thought I would find a bat adorable, but I do. Many of the characters are not as well-rounded as Sham, but the are still memorable. I can’t wait to get my hands on more of his books, just to see if he’s always like this. Is he always like this?

A few quotes I noted:

People have wanted to narrate since first we banged rocks together & wondered about fire. There’ll be tellings as long as there are any of us here, until the stars disappear one by one like turned-out lights.

Heaven might not be what everyone thinks it is, but that don’t mean it’s a myth.

Technically, our name, to those who speak science, is Homo sapiens— wise person. But we have been described in many other ways. Homo narrans, juridicus, ludens, diaspora: we are storytelling, legal, game-playing, scattered people, too. True but incomplete. That old phrase has the secret. We are all, have always been, will always be, Homo vorago aperientis: person before whom opens a vast & awesome hole.

“I await your improvements eagerly. & complaining is awesomely helpful. (I hope to add this to my sarcasm vault as soon as possible.)

There was a time when we did not form all words as now we do, in writing on a page. There was a time when the world “&” was written with several distinct & separate letters. It seems madness now. But there it is, & there is nothing we can do about it.

Humanity learnt to ride the rails, & that motion made us what we are, a ferromaritime people. The lines of the railsea go everywhere but from one place to another. It is always switchback, junction, coils around & over our own train-trails.

What word better could there be to symbolise the railsea that connects & separates all lands, than “&” itself? Where else does the railsea take us but to this place & that one & that one, & so on? & what better embodies, in the sweep of the pen, the recurved motion of trains, than “&”?

Okay, enough talking your ear off about this book. I’m afraid I passed tl; dr 600 words ago. I can only hope I managed to convince you to give this modern day adventure story a try.

9 thoughts on “Railsea by China Mieville

  1. Kudos to you for giving this book so many tries. I have a feeling I'm not smart enough for the book or the author.

  2. Whoa, I didn't know it was a reimagining of Moby Dick! Crazy. There is a theatre near here that is doing a stage production of The City and the City. I think I'll try that book first by Mievelle and then go see the play 🙂

    1. Crazy is right! Also, it's not as boring! Ha!! I have The City and the City from the library. I hope I can fit it in soon.

  3. Oh wow, ok! I have this on my wishlist and kind of made a mental note of "sounds great but not so sure it's for me". I tried to read a few pages of it at the store and it didn't do much for me. After your review though I think I'll really give it a chance. I love the quotes you picked!

  4. lol, I tried to note down a few quotes on my tumblr, as I was reading this, but I would have ended up quoting the whole book so I had to give up. His writing is great.

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