Sunday, 1 July 2012

Railsea, by China Miéville

China Miéville is one of my favourite authors, so I’m pleased to finally be reviewing his latest offering: Railsea. Miéville writes what he calls ‘weird fiction’ - not strictly fantasy or sci-fi, but something that blurs the boundaries. He is attempting, within this, to write a book in every genre; so far he has written novels as diverse as a western (Iron Council), a sci-fi planetary romance (Embassytown), and crime fiction (The City & The City). Railsea is his young adult offering. Unsurprisingly, I enjoyed it; it is well written for the youth market, but is also clever enough to satisfy his adult readers.

Railsea takes place in a dystopic future of either our world, or one quite like it. Large bodies of water are nonexistent; instead, the lands people live on are divided by treacherous stretches of earth that may or not be poisonous (as is much of the sky). Crisscrossing these are train tracks, providing trade routes and hunting grounds to the train crews who work on them. Sham Yes ap Soorap finds himself apprenticed to a doctor on the moletrain Medes. They hunt the vicious beasts that live in the poison earth: the most profitable of these being the giant moles, or moldywarpes. While they hunt, Captain Naphi is on the lookout for one particular moldywarpe: Mocker Jack, the giant yellow beast that claimed her arm years ago. While she will stop at nothing to catch him, Sham discovers a quest of his own that will lead him down perilous tracks, perhaps as far as the ends of the earth.

What Miéville does best is world building. Apart from his three Bas-lag novels, all of his works take place within a unique universe. He is an absolute master of invention, and crucially in communicating his ideas in his books. Some of his worlds can take a bit of time to get your head around, but once you have done so they have a completeness and believability to them that is so often lacking in lesser writers’ works. Miéville explains his worlds very well, taking his time to lay the pieces before bringing it all together in your head. I remember reading Embassytown and feeling like I wasn’t quite understanding, then with one particular paragraph everything slotted into place. Talking to my husband later, he had the same feeling at the exact same place in the book. It is a real skill to be able to communicate so clearly his, often very weird, settings.

The book obviously contains a loose homage to Moby Dick, but that is only the start. It is jam packed with tributes to literature: Robinson Crusoe is referenced, and the works of R.L. Stevenson - with Treasure Island in particular coming to mind. It is also unashamedly meta-fictional. Miéville first widens the story to include further characters, such as the Shroake children; he then teases us with snippets of their story while always returning to his central character Sham
At last they pushed on, under a huge night, in the deeps of which upsky predators make sounds. The Shroakes-
-but wait. On reflection, now is not the time for Shroakes. There is at this instant too much occurring or about to occur to Sham ap Soorap
Miéville’s early work is not exactly known for its brevity; this narrative technique helps to keep the plot moving without dropping the Shroakes for long tracts at a time. It’s a clever ploy, and entertainingly written - reeling us in only to drop us again moments later.

One of the things I most admire and enjoy in Miéville’s writing is his language play. He has a knack of twisting words and grammar so they say not what they would normally, but exactly what he wants them to say. He imbues words with meanings of his own, that become important to the plot or ideas in his stories, such as ‘philosophy’ becomes in this book. His vocabulary is extraordinary, although perhaps at times beyond the young adult readers this book is aimed at. One of his quirks is that he has favourite words, and these can vary from novel to novel, but often these words will pop up. This has lead to what I affectionately think of as ‘the chitin game’, after a much used word in Perdido Street Station. Knowing which words in his early works he loves, you look out for them as you read new books. Which leads to scenes like my husband and I announcing ‘chitin’ abruptly into a room where we both had been reading in silence. Other words this can be played with include ‘puissant’, etiolate’, and words that start with ‘un’ but don’t usually.

A stylistic feature of this novel is the decision to use ‘&’ instead of ‘and’. Miéville also often starts his sentences with ‘&’. It is very striking - we are so used to the convention that you don’t begin sentences this way. Writers often deliberately flout convention - it is part of the skill of being a good writer. Just as you get used to it Miéville explains this choice in a short chapter directed at the reader. In which chapter, the antiquated spelling of ‘and’ is explained to have been replaced with ‘&’ because of its connection with the railsea.
‘What word better could there be to symbolise the railsea that connects & separates all lands, than “&” itself? Where else does the railsea take us but this place & that one & that one & that one & so on? & what better embodies, in the sweep of the pen, the recurved motion of trains, than “&”?
It is a lovely idea, which after all is what you read Miéville for.

He walks at times a fine line between his cleverness getting in the way of his stories or not. For me he manages to stay on the right side of the line. That’s not to say he isn’t without limitations. Characters can be a little underdrawn in his books. They are sometimes merely vehicles for the ideas he wants to explore, not believable people. This is a fair criticism of Railsea. It is obviously just not what he is interested in as a writer, though I don’t think this prevents his novels from having emotional impact. When it is important he manages to make you feel. I have mentioned he has a degree of vocabulary predictability, and this could also be said for his themes. Miéville is an ardent Marxist and these beliefs are often explicitly expressed in his books, something I find amusing rather than troublesome.

I’m something of a Miéville completist. He is also currently publishing a comic series Dial H for Hero that I’m buying, and enjoying. There is so much I love about his books; their inventive worlds being only the start. Miéville is an excellent writer of the dramatic set piece, huge battles and showdowns which are a joy to read. All of this is present in Railsea, so I was pleased to read it. I think it is also well targeted at its young adult audience, whereas I thought his children’s book Un Lun Dun may not have been. It is not my favourite of Miéville’s works, but he is one of my favourite authors writing today. I can’t wait to read whatever comes next. For those of you whose appetite has been whetted by my review, here is Covehithe , a short story published on The Guardian.

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