Railsea by China Mieville

This work of fantastical fiction by Mieville undertakes the shrouding of semiotic philosophy and social criticism in an industrial world of salvage, piracy, mole-hunting, and rails. A world where the soil that divides cities and islands are home to a variety of carnivorous earth dwelling beasts. The sky is divided in two: the upper layer an opaque cloud where mutant alien birds breathe the toxic atmosphere, the bottom the realm of the humans of railsea. Orphaned at an early age, Sham ap Soorap is raised by his aunt and uncle whom encourage him to become a doctor’s aide aboard a mole-hunting train – a creation that parallels the whale hunting stereotype of Moby Dick. It is Sham whom the narrative follows as his is lead into the unknown by a picture found in an old train wreck – one depicting sacrilege: a single railroad line dividing an empty horizon.

 Railsea-by-china-mieville

The mole hunting trains of this world travel upon a vast network of rails, intertwining in cacophony, dividing in multitude – this network is known as the railsea. Its origins have become mythology: maintained by mechanical Angels, a pantheon of gods presides beyond the material world; beyond the unknown reaches of the railsea. It is here, beyond the railsea, that Mieville brings us via a story interspersed with short chapters subtly unveiling the allegory within the text.  The captain of the mole-hunting vessel parallels the literary character of Ahab – chasing a great yellow mole responsible for her now mechanical arm. Exploring this literary trope further the mole is described as her philosophy, and many mole hunting captains have spent their life chasing their philosophy upon the railsea.

The genre of the book makes this text ready for absorption by young readers, not unlike the Earthsea novels of Ursula K. le Guin. Le Guin explores the individual through her fictional world where magic is failing and a young man must chase down and confront his shadow. Mieville presents a world of false myth and superstition; an isolated world of man-made artifact and broken down machines from times forgotten; a world peopled by those knowing nothing beyond its limits albeit mystic phrases. There is obvious homage to le Guin, presented by the synchronic characterization of a nomadic tribe that travels at the furthest limits of the known, as well as by the similarity in the titles: Railsea, Earthsea.

But where le Guin would bear us upon the internal and metaphysical, Mieville confronts external society. In his world captains chase their philosophy searching for meaning upon rails of thought, and a young boy is lead to a single rail where the railsea is escaped by two orphans of historian/salvager parents. On the way he is captured by pirates, who don’t look like what you’d think pirates would look like; who work in collusion with the government, paying them a tax. With deception around every corner true comradery and trust is present in the working crew of the mole-train – the drama that defines them all individually does not fail also to bring them to each others aid in times of need.

The reader is not eased into the intricacies of Mieville’s language: they are thrown in, kicking, screaming, searching – this is the point. The story, whose content stretches from the young adult novel to the study of language, is slow to initiate one to its depths. But around page 200 you are there: the stage is set and short chapters ringing with the an interjecting voice – a meta-voice- bring attention to the activity of the language itself, unsettling the reader from the illusion of the story. And what is so interesting, and so vital, is that as I put this book down I have already been returned to this world – by this work of fantasy and fiction.                              – tim stokes

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