Railsea, the new young adult novel by China Miéville, is quite literary but playful — with vast molehills of brilliant worldbuilding & lots & lots of ampersands. Utterly unlike any of the many shmoopy vampires & dystopian romances out there, one wonders whether this novel will find an eager audience among teenaged readers.
Twelve-year-old Grey Area would have loved Railsea, but he was a pretty weird little dude. Perhaps kids who cut their teeth on Thomas the Tank Engine, then Lemony Snicket and Scott Westerfeld's Leviathan are ready for something more bizarre and complex. In that case, they'll have been waiting for a wild ride just like this. Spoilers ahead...
Railsea is not so much a retelling as an affectionate parody of that bane of many a high school student's existence, Moby Dick by the similarly surnamed but unrelated Herman Melville. It's not set on the world Bas-Lag from Perdido Street Station, Scar, or Iron Council — rather, this is another Dying Earth, similar to those crafted by acknowledged Miéville influences Gene Wolfe and Jack Vance.
Humanity clings to survival beneath a poisonous upper atmosphere on rocky outcrops separated by the railsea, an ocean without waves & whales. Endless railroad tracks of mysterious origin loop & crisscross over the soil constantly achurn with enormous burrowing predators. Mr. Miéville has helpfully included his own illustrations of some of these cthonian terrors. How do you feel about naked mole-rats? Now imagine a colony of them, each one the size of a German Shepard & with the table manners of pirhana.
We can always count on China to satisfy our daily requirement for monsters.
All manner of trains ply the railsea; driven by steam, diesel, sail, clockwork, or good old-fashioned galley slaves. Some of these salvage buried technology from civilizations long past or incomprehensible artefacts left by alien litterbugs. These latter items are called strugatski, an homage to the classic Russian novella Roadside Picnic. All of these diverse cultures depend on the found and repurposed tech and lionize the crafty Indiana Joneseque salvors. There are big gears and the occasional top hats, but if we must label things, this is really a Salvagepunk novel.
Other trains hunt the giant moles and other beasts for meat and hides. All the captains of these moling crews aspire to attain a philosophy; a word here meaning "an huge animal that has torn off a limb inspiring the amputee to obsessively chase the creature". Each truncated pursuer attaches a symbolic import to his or her specific philosophy; the armadillo of regret & the badger of humility & the enormous earwig of nostalgia etc.. The exploits of famous captains and their philosophies are major topics in warfside moling taverns. There is a fandom complete with dedicated periodicals. Captain Abacat Naphi is a current favorite, everyone knows of her pursuit of the ivory-furred great Southern moldywarpe that left her with a cyborg arm and furious purpose. She will sacrifice anything and anyone to find and destroy her philosophy, Mocker-Jack, the Mole of Many Meanings.
Aboard Captain Naphi's moler, the Medes, is Sham Yes ap Shroop, Ishmael analogue & assistant to the classically wise & gruff train's doctor, Dr. Fremlo (my favorite character). Sham is not satisfied with the excitement and adventure of moling life & moons over how wonderful a career in salvaging must be. After experincing his first moldywarpe hunt, the crew comes upon a wrecked train. On it, Sham finds a camera memory card that sets him on a quest as single-minded as his captain's.
The young protagonists of Railsea are, of course — in finest YA tradition — orphans, largely free of adult control, who come across as authentically adolescent. Sham is physically & socially awkward, simultaneously eager & terrified of the great wide world opening up before him. His new friends, the Shroake siblings, bicker constantly in a manner reminescent of my own family roadtrips, yet this brother and sister salvor team are ferociously loyal to each other. The three of them and Captain Naphi are set off to the ends of the railsea seeking to make sense of their impossible world. Nothing allegorical for teens there.
The plot veers away from the obvious Ahab parody. We get to see much more than life aboard one train or one captain's obsession, although Naphi has a great twist to reveal. Along the way there are pirates, a Plucky Animal Companion, treachery, nomads, huge battles, & all manner of monsters as well as impish literary games.
So here's the thing: Railsea is metafictional as @%#&. Ugh, that word again— "meta" gets bandied about as much as "paradigm" was twenty years ago. Gee, why are we producing & consuming so many self-referential stories? You can chime in with your ideas in the comments below. The story switches tracks between characters in brief chapters, but only occasionally jumps the rails or grinds to a crawl. Just when the reader becomes annoyed at the lack of focus upon this character or that aspect of the world building, the text shifts & provides a handy — but never clumsy — infodump. Then we get cut-scene chapters, that chide us for being impatient & attempt to explain the nature of storytelling itself. The reason behind all those damned ampersands is revealed as well with an elegant chuckle. All the action & various trains of thought continue to build speed & inevitably converges to one of China's usual unexpected climaxes. As big a fan of his as I am, I have not enjoyed many of his novel's endings (Time Golems, really?) but I really enjoyed what awaited Sham & company at the end of the line.
Like Miéville's previous offering for younger readers,UnLunDun this novel is breezier than his adult works — perhaps even twee. Despite his copious intellect and political leanings, it is not a salvagepunk manifesto. A grim & bloody invention like the railsea would be a perfect setting for yet another dystopian romance, but this contains only a frisson of teen shmoopiness. There are tons of brilliant ideas and deep thoughts to be mined here but I never felt beaten over the head and shoulders with A Message. It felt like spending the day with an utterly mad, brilliant, & dear friend playing with his train set. The language & structure are more challenging & weirder than most YA books, but any reader who gets a giggle out of thinking will enjoy this very different old-fashioned Storybook.
Railsea is available May 15 from your local independent bookseller.
Grey_Area is Chris Hsiang, bookseller with Books Inc. in San Francisco.