Railsea – China Miéville – [Book Review]

No author has graced the pages of this blog as frequently as China Miéville. I’m a fan – there, I said it. He writes with chameleonic flair across the genre spectrum, with an imagination the rest of us can only envy. His worlds are vividly bizarre, rich but peculiar, inhabited by characters that more often than not have depth and agency to spare.

Though I have not been universally enamoured with his work (Kraken was awash with ideas but the protagonist was weak), I thoroughly enjoyed Perdido Street Station and still recommend The City & The City whenever anyone mentions noir, sci-fi, thrillers or deeply poignant analogy in fiction.

So, what of Miéville’s 2012 post-apocalyptic fantasy adventure Railsea? Here’s my verdict: it’s bloody brilliant.

I wonder, however, if I enjoy it more as a writer than as a reader. There are moments in which Miéville’s narrator openly discusses story-telling concepts, explaining the decision to follow one character or another. And it is all delivered in a voice that has its own patter, often with short, sharp sentence fragments that continue the previous sentence. There’s a rhythm to it that is quite unique, and which, though at first put me off, slowly won me over.

I want to quote Chapter 42, which comes after our protagonist is knocked out, and which conspicuously makes the point for a change of narrative perspective; the book is hitherto written entirely tied to one character, Sham ap Soorap.

What can we get on with while our consciousness rests? A researcher into the mind, a psychonomer, a thought-mapper, might claim this is a meaningless question: that we are nothing without our consciousness. When it rests, so do we.

Conversely, others might see this as a kind of paradox that gives rise to critical thought, to mental innovation. Provocations do not have to be sensible to help our minds rise to an occasion. What if ridiculous questions are an indispensable philosophical tool?

Our minds we salvage from history’s rubbish, & they are machines to make chaos into story. This is a story of a bloodstained boy. It is his mind that renders it down. But in such rendering we might defy paradox, perform the cheeky escapology of narrative, & thus the resting of that crucial particular consciousness might not detain us. Asked: What should the story do when the primary window through which we view it is shuttered? We might say: It should look through another window.

That is to say, follow other rails, see through other eyes.

I love how it uses the imagery of the rail-covered world to explore or convey meaning in story structure. There’s a similar example in the author’s use of the ampersand in place of the word “and”. Miéville explains the symbolic Railsea etymology of the glyph, but not until chapter 33. Until then you’re forced to accept the strange quirk of typography without question. To finally learn its meaning – and that it was not some random choice – holds huge reward, because you were made to wait for the explanation.

Railsea is fundamentally a story about story-telling. Take the many train captains, for instance. Their sole purpose in life is to find a “philosophy” – some giant creature with which to do mortal battle – and hunt it down for the glory, like an assortment of Ahabs obsessing over their own personal Moby Dick.

What was Moby Dick all about anyway? Revenge? Pride? Obstinacy? Rage? It can be read in so many ways as to form its own philosophy, just as the captains of the Railsea seek theirs. But their true power comes in the wielding of that philosophy, in story-telling.

To quote Miéville:

“People have wanted to narrate since first we banged rocks together & wondered about fire.”

The story draws to a satisfying conclusion – albeit with a slightly rushed final act – with each of the story rails neatly leading to their final destination in unison.

My only gripe was with the alternate POV, from Sham to the Twins. It’s introduction, though interesting in how the author handled the shift, is nevertheless so late in the narrative that the characters have very little time to make their mark. Indeed, neither is given much depth in comparison with the main protagonist, nor are they given much individualism, their tale told from both their eyes.

However, the playful language, epic sweeping narrative and imaginative world makes it the first Miéville story I’d recommend to my 11-year-old niece (even though it starts with the protagonist covered in a giant mole’s blood – thinking about it, maybe I’ll leave it a few years).

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