“Can You Shortcut An Insight-Hunt?” China Miéville’s “Railsea”

Well said, old mole! Canst work i’ the earth so fast?
A worthy pioner! [Hamlet, I. V. 148-163]

The mole, that subterranean mammal, is a metaphor embodied: visible only before and after its tunneling, the very matter of its life – the movement from A to B – is invisible, and untellable. Where Shakespeare used the image in part as a cheap joke – one assumes Hamlet’s ghost appeared on stage via a trapdoor – Marx used the mole as the conveyor of revolution through history. As is often the case, Marx brings us to China Miéville, whose latest novel, Railsea, depicts characters hunting moles as Ahab hunted whales – relentlessly, monomaniacally, significantly.

The giant, mutated moles of Railsea are explicitly freighted – like the weird trains that chase them – with meaning: their hunters are said to be hunting their “philosophy”, a conceptual as well as a corporeal being with which they are forever associated in the popular imagination. This embodying shapes the text in a variety of complex and metatextual ways in a manner which might surprise some parts of the intended audience for this, a YA novel: most obviously, the prominent stylistic innovation of using the ampersand throughout is explained by the symbol’s similarity-on-the-page to the way in which a train changes direction. “What word better could there be,” asks the author rhetorically, directly addressing the reader for neither the first or last time, “to symbolise the railsea that connects and separates all lands, than ‘&’ itself?” [pg. 143]

That railsea is the novel’s most striking invention. The world of Railsea is arid and oceanless – moles burst from the desert like the sandworms of Arrakis – and connecting the scattered ‘islands’ of humanity in this unforgiving landscape are vast, criss-crossing stretches of rail. Far from unidirectional, the trains which travel on the railsea are constantly shifting the rails’ points as they ride, switching and navigating the railsea dependent upon speed, direction and gauge. There is something gee-whiz about this improbable world – Miéville makes little detailed effort to sketch in its history, beyond implying that the railsea exists on the charred remnants of a planet which was once our own – that will surely capture a YA readership. Yet the manner in which Miéville explores his conceit – self-referentially, and with quite astonishing prosody – underscores first and foremost a respect to that readership, an aliveness to the fact that a cool premise is not enough to capture the oft-patronised YA audience, but also suggests a less market-oriented project to write a novel on a number of levels and for a variety of readers.

This is a fitting purpose for a novel which revels in multiplicity. Ostensibly the story of its protagonist, the pleasingly named Sham ap Shoorap, Railsea very rapidly expands to encompass a range of supporting characters and their own, various, stories. This ecumenical spirit drifts through Sham’s narrative, and shapes his experience of it: early on, Sham feels sure that “there was something he fervently wanted to do & to which he was excellent suited” [pg. 17], and yet he is consistently frustated in his attempts to figure out what that may be. Indeed, when Sham’s surrogate parents, whose reunion with their charge takes place suspiciously early on, go so far as to tell him, “You’re a proper grown man now” [pg. 89], and proceed thus to invite him to the pub, we begin to understand that Miéville is rather wryly playing with our expectations of the YA bildungsroman. The echoes of Patrick Ness’s generously subversive Chaos Walking trilogy resonate throughout Railsea – Sham’s parents are both men, whilst the other child protaonists, the mysterious explorers known as the Shroakes, are the offspring of a line marriage, and similarly violence is never shied away from (the novel opens by announcing itself to be “the story of a bloodstained boy” [pg. 1]) – but Miéville goes further than Ness, questioning the very concept that a YA novel must teach its protagonist a lesson. Indeed, it is no less an unreliable source as a pirate who parrots a familiar kind of platitude: “Don’t you think there’s someone out there on the railsea on a salvagetrain, & all the time when they pass moletrains they’re like, ‘They do such more exciting stuff than me.'” [pg. 164]  In many other such novels, that would be the moral: here, they’re the poorly expressed weasel words of a thief.

This distrust of the didactic is mirrored in the stories of others: Captain Naphi, the commander of the Medes, the moletrain on which Sham serves as a doctor’s assistant, is in hot pursuit of a great white moldywarpe; Sham imagines the competitive bar-talk of her fellow captains, each of whom also hunts a philosophy, wryly observing the “one-upmanship, one-upcaptainship, of the themes some quarries had come to mean.” [pg. 85]  When Naphi tells Sham that, “I’m a moler. You are a doctor’s assistant. Whatever you saw or thought you saw, it has nothing to do with your life & aims, whatever they might be, any more than it does with mine” [pg. 79], he takes a dim view of the concept that a person’s role must limit the knowledge they are allowed to accrue. Even the Shroakes, whom Sham comes to idealise, admit that, though their explorer parents “took them all over”, they “can’t say we know anywhere.” [pg. 169]   The closest Sham comes to the de rigeur completion expected of such a character, then, is the refusal not to continue to learn and question: “I’m not a kid any more,” he tells himself at one point. “Shouldn’t take anything for granted.” [pg. 257]

All of this makes Sham one of the best-realised and most well-rounded of Miéville’s characters since Bellis Coldwine, the protagonist of what I consider to be Miéville’s best novel, The Scar. In his recent work, concept has tended to trump character – from the admittedly conflicted, but also necessarily rather shallow, Inspector Borlú of The City & the City, to Embassytown‘s frankly anonyous Avice Cho – and its refreshing to see the two proceed in better tandem. Not only that, but the YA format appears to have freed Miéville to write the kind of prose which first made him famous: combative, rococo stuff full of neologisms and consonants. Indeed, the first half of the novel in particular is amongst the most exciting writing he has committed to paper again since The Scar:

Of all the gapers on the Medes none gaped harder than Sham. Shamus Yes ap Soorap. Big lumpy young man. Thickset, not always unclumsy, his brown hair kept short & out of trouble. Gripping a porthole, penguins forgotten, face like a light-hungry sunflower poking out of the cabin. In the distance the mole was racing through shallow earth, a yard below the surface. Sham watched the buckle in the tundra, his heart clattering like wheels on tracks. [pg. 6]

This attention to the rhythm and the flow – the appositeness – of the words he uses has become Miéville’s trademark, but in Railsea it often reaches a pitch unattained in much of his recent work. It is both more colourful and better targeted than in Kraken or Iron Council, and more disciplined than in his previous YA novel, Un Lun Dun, which was replete with rather too much languageplay. Here, the puns – “Give me the inland or give me the open rails, only spare me the littoral-minded” [pg. 29] – and the witty plasticity – “Do please expedite this journey relevance-ward” [pg. 107] – are surprising little gems hidden amongst the layers, rather than the latest addition to an over-encrusted surface. It is true that in the final third of the novel, which shunts more cleanly into plot-driven territory, rolling relentlessly towards the destination long promised by the exploring Shroakes, Miéville rather falls back on dialogue and action, and events conspire more conventionally; but such is the work Railsea has already done that the reader does not feel the urge to disembark.

Indeed, the reader should stick around for the denouement, onto which Miéville tacks a parable about the foolishness of attaching financial value to every possible resource (“such intimations as there are to hunt […] revolve around money,” insists a pirate, against all Railsea‘s evidence to the contrary [pg. 218]). With such patience, he or she will witness Sham informing his monomaniacal captain that her aims are merely, “what you’ve wanted. The rest of us been wanting other, bloody, things!” [pg. 320]  The deliberate foregrounding of the inevitably heterodox significance of any story is the way in which Miéville embodies Sham’s core, but diffuse and open-ended, lesson. “To messy-minded humans,” the narrator intones shortly afterwards, “so glass-clear and precise a drive makes no sense at all. It is considerably less comprehensible than the ravings of those we call insance.” [pg. 329]

If this wilful imposition of an omnipotent voice, this attempt to provide the moral – to underline that variegation is the very stuff of human experience – is somewhat cheating the message of his own novel, Miéville can perhaps be forgiven given Railsea‘s intended readership: leaving them much more adrift in their own expectations could well have been considered a kind of unusual cruelty. Earlier, in fact, the author has gone further: “We are all, have always been, will always be, Homo vorago aperientis: person before whom opens a vast and awesome hole.” [pg. 295] Distrust all philosophies, Railsea tells us, but hunt them all. This is not a perfect novel, but it is undoubtedly an invigorating one: told with brio and invention, it may remind many of what is not just intelligent or innovative about China Miéville’s fiction, but also what is entertaining and energising. It is something of a joy.


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