|Mieville has taken Melville as a starting place for this eccentric, refreshing novel. “Moby Dick” is the plain foundation for this wonderful whirlwind of a tale about a captain of a mole-hunting train obsessed with finding a legendary ivory-colored moldywarpethe biggest mole of alland hunting it down.
Railsea is a worldpossibly our world---whose surface has almost been completely filled with the detritus of centuries upon centuries of trash, mechanical, decorative and unknown. There is even the trash of visiting aliens in the mixtheir mechanics unexplained and sold as novelties in junk markets.
Soinstead of sea-faring ships sailing on water between landmassesMieville gives us cobbled together trains. Merchant trains, pirate trains, wartrains, salvage trains even trains propelled by sails criss-crossing and back-switching across earth between islands and larger landformsthe railsea. And between the ties that hold the rails? Earthworms as big as your arms, huge sofa-sized blind mole rats, antlions and earwigs able to swallow humans wholea whole plethora of underground animals and insects quivering, tunneling and digging beneath the surface of the train tracks. Just waiting for something to fall on the ground. Above the railsea is an upsky and downskynot clear on their make-up or lifeformsbut they sound as if they are layers of pollution making the sky soft and diffuse though they do clear in patches from time to time.
No one walks the earththe vibration of their steps will only bring some behemoth of the deep to swallow them whole.
No, everyone sticks to crossing the earth in trains.
The monstrous insects, etc. only traverse the railsea. Humans are safe on solid land.
There is ocean out theresomewhere, but for all intents and purposes the railsea is all.
Mieville starts the tale with Sham ap Soorapa doctor’s assistant on a mole-hunting train named the Medesheaded by Captain Naphi, a woman obsessed with hunting down the great ivory-colored moldywarpeher “philosophy” as life-long obsessions are named. (There is even a
where people who have captured, subdued, cornered and or destroyed their philosophies can display their journeys). The great white mole Naphi seeks is named Mocker-Jack. Naphi does the day-to-day hunting of moles, she and her crew rendering them into usable meat, fur and oilsbut is ever on the lookout for sightings or rumors of Mocker-Jack.
Now Sham is not the best doctor’s assistant ever and is not very interested in medicine. He’s actually not wild about mole hunting either. But the travels on the Medes give him a bigger view of the world. And on one leg of their journey the crew decides to explore the ruin of a small wrecked train. Sham because he is the smallest is sent into the wreck to see what he can find. And he finds a camera disk which when loaded into a player shows them pictures of the railsea none of them have ever seen. And the most startling image is a line of straight train track heading across a blank landscape to the horizon---no other train track intersecting it. Where that straight track leads to could be the discovery of a life time. There is plenty of the unknown out there.
Sham is sworn to secrecy but because the photo disk also had pictures of two children on it he feels that the kids need to know what happened to their parents. He decides to track the children down because he was orphaned by a train wreck which took his father and sent his mother off on her own, leaving Sham to be raised by others.
Sham convinces the captain to go to Manihiki a land where they will certainly be able to find a tracking device that will aid the captain in her search for Mocker-Jack. And conveniently enough, the photos on the disk have backgrounds and items that identify Manihiki as where the children live.
Once there, Sham tracks down the two children based on a strange arch made of some unidentifiable junk in a photo---which turns out to be an eighteen foot arch constructed of old washing machines.
He finds Caldera and Calderowho calls himself Dero-- and discovers that their parents were exploring the far, mysterious reaches of the railseaand everyone believes that some kind of awesome unimaginable treasure lurks out there. Maybe even Heaven.
Sham’s discovery of these children (they are 10-12, the ages are not clear) gets everyone interested and the children, grateful to be told what happened to their parents, decide to follow their mother and father’s trail to discover what the adults were seeking. They offer Sham a chance to go with them, but he declines. Caldera and Dero leave secretly long before their publicly known departure date to avoid being followed.
Then Sham gets kidnapped by pirates before he can rejoin the Medes.
So now we have Sham’s tale, Caldera and Dero off on their own high-powered train and the Medes in search of Mocker-Jack.
The conclusion is a wonderful, well, bureaucratic finish to this amazing tale.
This is the first novel of Mieville’s I have read. He is highly regarded in the science fiction field and is a Hugo winner as well as a New York Times bestseller.
He is for me an amazingly creative, unfetteredjust out there author. I have read only a few novels even remotely like this in flavorM. John Harrison’s Viriconium comes to mind as does Mervyn Peake’s Titus Groan novels.
Mieville displays his unbound imagination with satisfyingly loopy panache in his writing, in his character development and dialogue. In this novel he uses the ampersand (&) constantly instead of the word “and” because the ampersand as a symbol reflects the convolution of train tracks that cover the railsea. Its use in the novel is extravagant.
The mere idea of making the land into a junk yard
deep and criss-crossed by trains is so startling and gripping.
And it works so well because Mieville has a firm grasp of his prodigious skill.
The characters in all their eccentric glory are compelling but for me it’s the environment that pulls this story to its astounding conclusion.
What a Tim Burton film this would make! ~~ Sue Martin