11 May 2012

Review: "Railsea" by China Miéville

China Miéville
384 pp

I'm grateful to the publisher for sending me an advance copy of this book.

Most of Miéville’s recent books have worked out the consequences of a big, central idea – two cities in one place in The City and The City, an alien race learning to lie in Embassytown, the city of what London rejects in UnLunDunRailsea follows that with… well, a railsea.

You might think that the point of a railway is that the trains go in, more or less, one direction.  But imagine the surface of the Earth, in the far future, being covered in a dense mesh of intersecting lines, looping back on themselves, switching and splitting and splitting again.  A railsea, on which, (with enough skill at working the points) you can travel more or less anywhere.

Upon a sea like that, what might you find?  Island nations, with teeming ports? Ruthless pirates, as merciless as any in Treasure Island?  A captain, consumed by the hunt for a great beast, like Ahab in Moby-Dick?  Desert islands?  Explorers?  Treasure hunters?  The fleets of many nations? Hunters of salvage (whether arche-salvage, nu-savage or alt-salvage)? Wreckers? Really, a boy like Sham, setting out on his first voyage as assistant doctor aboard the moletrain Medes, might encounter anything.

Miéville portrays the railsea so well, using such twisted, yet concrete language, bristling with his own invented rail jargon, that as you read you can feel the beat of wheels on the rails and see the distant horizons, the dangerous knots of lines and treacherous, the unmarked gauge changes that his characters negotiate.  And he makes them real, as well – Sham, the Captain with her philosophy, Sham’s crewmates, the strange Shroake siblings.

Like them, Miéville speculates on where the railsea came from, and how it persists.  In Sham’s world, people are inclined to attribute it to the old gods, such as That Apt Om, and the repairwork to mysterious angel trains.  Nobody really wants to get to the bottom of things, just to make a living.  But sometimes, one doesn’t have a choice…

This is an excellent book, which I think will appeal to Miéville’s different groups of followers – a story of adventure, more straightforward than Emassytown or City and the City, but more focussed and (even) better realised than UnLundun.