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Railsea: Moby Dick ON A TRAIN

Updated on August 30, 2012

China Mieville is WEIRD. I swear, this guy couldn't write a conventional story if his life depended on it. In particular, his settings are always bizarre, and never stereoptypical. As example, here's a description of the world in his most recent young adult novel, "Railsea":

Set long after some sort of world-changing event, the world is now split up into islands of raised ground where humanity lives, and flat ground criss-crossed by a virtual ocean of railroad tracks. On this railsea, trains go about the tasks once taken up by sailing ships: there are ferronaval destroyer trains, merchant trains carrying goods, pirate trains, and trains that hunt the gigantic moles and other burrowing animals that make it perilous to cross the railsea on foot.

On one such moletrain is our story's protagonist, Sham ap Soorap, a young man who has signed on as a doctor's apprentice, although what he really wants is to become a salvor, someone who hunts through the detritus thrown off by previous human civilizations in order to find valuable pieces of salvage. On a break from hunting moles Sham's train discovers the wreck of another, and by chance, Sham discovers a series of strange photographs, which drive him to find the children of the couple who took them, in order to tell them their parents had died. But the Shroakes (as Sham discovers the family is called) were looking for something revolutionary, something several less-than-savory factions are also very interested in discovering. And now it's up to Sham and the Shroake children to discover what the pictures mean, particularly the one that implies there might be an end to the railsea...

As I said, China Mieville writes strange books, and while parts of this story conform to the typical YA formula of a teen discovering their way in life, other elements are truly odd. While we meet both naval officers and pirates who want to kidnap Sham and the Shroakes in order to wring out of them the location of the end of the railsea, the story doesn't have particularly strong or focused antagonists. The point of the story seems to be less about undergoing a quest and more about trying to discover what one's quest is, and the dangers of pursuing it. As a reference to "Moby Dick," many of the captains of moletrains are each obsessed with a specific gigantic burrowing animal, called a "philosophy," which they hunt with an amazing determination. However, this can lead to self-destruction, which almost happens to Captain Naphi, the captain of Sham's train, whose obsession with the albino mole Mocker-Jack leads her and her crew into increasingly dangerous situations. It's not enough to have a cause in life: you need to be aware of what you're willing to gamble to achieve that cause.

The main criticism one could level at this book would be Mieville's rather mannered way of writing. Mieville has always been a fairly florid writer, but it reaches its heights in this book, where it sometimes seems like Mieville is way too over-satisfied with the cleverness of his writer. Other critics have particularly savaged him for his use of the word "moldywarpe" (it means "mole"), but the most obtrusive thing he does is replace every single use of the word "and" with the ampersand symbol &. It is both extremely noticeable and rather pretentious, and makes it hard to get into the story.

I however was able to largely ignore it because the story is unusual and interesting enough that I was able to forgive Mieville for his quirkyness. The writing, while definitely mannered, was at the same time fresh and creative, and that goes a long way towards making the story readable. You need to be willing to be OK with the quirkyness, but once you are the book definitely rewards you.

All in all, although Mieville's writing takes some getting used to, this is definitely an interesting enough book to warrant a read. While it's a bit slight in comparison to some of Mieville's previous books, its unconventional plot and setting make it fascinating enough that I definitely recommend at least checking it out to see if you'll like it. A must-read for Mieville fans, a good read for everyone else.


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