While his writing style and subjects may be subject to change without notice, China Miéville is consistent in his schedule, with this his fourth major novel to be published in the last four years. In Railsea he invites us to journey with him on the moletrain Medes as it hunts across the titular network for that most fearsome beast, Talpa ferox rex, the great southern moldywarpe. All of China’s books have a great sense of place, normally a city that is depicted vividly and intimately, but unlike New Crobuzon of Perdido Street Station or Beszel and Ul Qoma of The City & The City, the Medes is always on the move, and any port is a brief stop before the next departure.
Told principally from the point of view of Shamus ap Soorap, he is unhappy in his role as the train doctor’s assistant and dreams of becoming a salvor, eking out a living from the scraps of metal and machinery found by the rails, some of it remnants of trains, some of it arche-salvage, more valuable remnants of the previous civilisation, but among the flatographs and etchings are digital memory cards and viewers that may hold clues to a journey Sham is driven towards should he be able to convince Captain Naphi, herself obsessed with the moldyworpe she has made her quest, its pelt the colour of bleached bone.
Though not directly tied with Embassytown, this is as much a science fiction novel as that and is conceivably set in the same universe, and though here the level of technology has collapsed, the inhabitants of the unnamed world clinging on to the edge of the decayed ruins, there are references to visitors from other worlds; this is apparently their garbage dump, where scrapping has been elevated to a local art form. There is high tech out there, but it is not understood, not repaired, and frequently not powered, and the rarest items are those that have originated offworld.
As ever, politics is observed, the social strata of the railsea, molers, salvors, pirates, wreckers, each preying on something, trying to survive, and while the history of the place has been lost, the survivors know that they bear the burden of decisions made by others long ago that ruined their world and poisoned the upper atmosphere during the great collapse, a tale familiar from the rail expansion in Britain over a century ago and more recently with the expansion of rival telecommunications companies, leading to vast amounts of unused “dark fibre” in our streets. “We live in the aftermath of business bickering” is a cry more relevant every day.
China is as aware as ever of language and its use; he writes for the writer in us all, those who are fascinated with words and how they fit together, and how sometimes they themelves are in conflict. This fascination manifests in the complete absence of the word “and,” replaced throughout the novel with the reflection of the shape of the railsea in “&,” doubling back and crossing itself endlessly, and the different clatternames that describe the motions of the trains across that vast and endless network of rails and junctions, but here China extends his observation to the nature of storytelling itself.
“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. Some such stories are themselves about the telling of others.” And here Miéville has done that, telling a story partially modelled on Herman Melville’s Moby Dick amongst others, but equally also about the people who tell the story that is the story about Moby Dick, and as I tell you this now, another story is born, like the layers of salvage and arche-salvage that lie across the railsea.
Unfortunately, for a novel about transport and travel, of seeking destinations and destinies, the novel at times lacks direction, an impression not aided when one character suggests to another they “Do please expedite this journey relevance-ward.” The narrative sometimes steps outside to view itself as its own reader, but the asides are there because they can be rather than as an imperative within the narrative, and while some chapters are explicitly flagged as red lights or junctions, they never divert the course as comprehensively or satisfyingly as they should do, coming across as an affectation before moving back onto more conventional rails.
There are moments of excitement and fear, the wreckers and the darkened trap of their siding, the passage through the bridgeknot, and rather than dissipating tension with his diversion, China uses them to build up to it, for we know what is coming, and they are only a means of delaying the inevitable, as the characters themselves might wish, as when Sham is ambushed on the streets of Manihiki: “Fights are much taxonomised. They have been subject over centuries to a complex, exhaustive categoric imperative. Humans like nothing more than to pigeonhole the events & phenomena that punctuate their lives.”
The novel never comes off the rails, but nor does it ever feel like it is setting its own direction; like Un Lun Dun, his previous novel aimed at a younger readership, we are participatory in events that unfold around us with little drive from our narrator, Sham; while the story would perhaps have unfolded differently without his input, it never becomes monumental, he never becomes as important to the reader as he does to his crewmates. There are hints of a much larger world beyond the words, of which this is just a segment, but the events here just seem to happen without the broader picture being addressed.
Those familiar with China’s work will note that familiar themes beyond class and industry are present; his fascination with insectoid lifeforms is briefly visited, and Sham’s concept of a serving robot made of scrap is a presursor of the Construct Council of New Crobuzon, the arch made of washing machines follows the architectural style of Un Lun Dun. While Railsea is a book about a place and a way of life with event rather than strong plot, that should be no surprise when Embassytown had even less occurence. It does not approach China’s best works, but it is always a pleasure to read his words, his ability to capture in a phrase the horror and the grotesque beauty of even the strangest moments: “In the moonlight, everything looked splashed with tar: in the trainlights, the black turned to the red of the blood it was.”