“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.

“Where They Don’t Want To Go”: The Ask and The Answer

"The Ask and The Answer" by Patrick Ness
"The Ask and The Answer" by Patrick Ness (UK)

The Ask and The Answer is a more diffuse work than its predecessor, The Knife of Never Letting Go: where I wondered if Patrick Ness hadn’t set himself an easy target with his road trip bildungsroman, in the second book of his Choas Walking trilogy he lets a second character share the narration, disperses his story’s events across a broader expanse of time and space, and tells a tale without any special forward momentum of its own. This is fitting: where The Knife of Never Letting Go was about learning you can’t always be a child, The Ask and the Answer is about the burdens of adulthood

We left our protagonists, Todd and Viola, in the clutches of the Mayor, the shadowy leader of Todd’s misogynistic hometown; he has overtaken them in their flight to the peaceful ‘city’ of Haven, which has surrendered to him on the mere rumour of an army. The Mayor is now the President, and he does indeed prove to be all-powerful. The Mayor is unfortunately cackling: at first, I wondered if Ness wasn’t going to do something interesting with the character, but by the book’s end he is as unambiguously evil as you can get. This seems a pity, because the woman who leads the resistance to the Mayor’s rule, the ruthless Mistress Coyle, is one of the book’s finer illustrations of its central truth: there is no black and white.

Mistress Coyle is fierce in her opposition to the Mayor, but has few scruples about opposing him. She becomes the leader of a terrorist organisation, The Answer, bombing the town and dismissing civilian casualties as unfortunate-but-unavoidable collateral damage. We know the Mayor is evil; Mistress Coyle should be the book’s hero. She remains, however, a frightening figure – Viola, who joins The Answer without actually being given much of a choice (a recurring theme), comes to understand that you can fight for the right thing in the wrong way. It’s made increasingly clear that Coyle would be little better than the Mayor.

And yet the Mayor’s ranting evil undermines this message: by the close of the book, when every woman in his jurisdiction has essentially been branded and he has admitted to mass slaughter, it’s hard to imagine a darker shade of grey. Todd and Viola are consistently told that “we are the choices we make,” and The Ask and the Answer contrives to show that very often we don’t even have unconstrained options. Both Todd and Viola make very bad decisions in the course of the book (Todd continues to be very slow on the uptake, but unlike some other readers his denseness didn’t bother me, since it was so consistently done). The problem with the book, however, is that the Mayor is so obviously the worst person on the planet that the moral amiguity Ness is aiming for cannot quite stick.

Though in The Knife of Never Letting Go it was made clear that refugees from across New World were streaming towards Haven, it seems strange that in The Ask and the Answer the fate of a whole world is presenting as being able to be decided in one town, albeit its largest. The situation of the Spackle, too, seems more thinly drawn than the worldbuilding in The Knife of Never Letting Go – survivors of the war, we are told, were pressganged into slavery by the victorious humans, even as a whole nation of Spackle lived just over an agreed border. This didn’t seem quite to work in the way it was explained, and that’s a real shame: in their mute defiance, the Spackle were one of the most interesting counterpoints in the book.

"The Ask and The Answer" by Patrick Ness (US)
"The Ask and The Answer" by Patrick Ness (US)

Chance has made some of these points already, but for my money her best comment is about Viola: one of the novel’s narrators, she alas never quite comes together as a character. She simply doesn’t seem to match the background we are given for her. This wouldn’t be an issue if that background wasn’t the engine of the plot – both the Mayor and Mistress Coyle are driven by their knowledge that Viola’s people are coming to New World soon. Still, Viola is given some of the best parts of the book – her conflicted conscience, because her intelligence enables her to express it so much better than Todd can manage, is at the centre of the novel, as her burgeoning sense of the almost irresolvable injustice of the world comes to influence more and more her decision-making.

It is this process of decision-making which The Ask and The Answer most pertinently addresses: Todd, who has learned that what people tell him to do is often not what he should do, must now learn how to make his own way through a world decidedly less simple than he had hoped. The flaws in the book conspire against as convincing a journey as he made in The Knife of Never Letting Go, but Ness has nevertheless written a compellingly readable novel. Like the book before it, The Ask and the Answer is a violent book which is commendably unflinching in its examination of such issues as torture, complicity and romance. It doesn’t manage itself as thoroughly as its predecessor, but it at the very least grows beyond it with confidence – ensuring that Monsters of Men, the trilogy’s final installment, will be required reading.

A Thing Or Two About Wielding

"The Knife of Never Letting Go"
"The Knife of Never Letting Go"

We had a very quiet and lazy weeked, which we weren’t very happy about, but which did at least afford us both some time to read. Anna’s been reading Kazuo Ishiguro’s latest, Nocturnes, of which more may be said on this blog at some future date. My book, meanwhile, was Patrick Ness’s The Knife of Never Letting Go, which, as Niall Harrison has said before me, barely needs any more praise: winner of the Booktrust Teenage Prize, the Guardian Award and the 2008 James Tiptree Jr. Award, and raved about by everyone from Frank Cottrell Boyce to Nicholas Tucker, its brilliance is already widely acknowledged.

Never let it be said I come too early to parties.

The story of Todd, the last boy to come of age in a town full of men, The Knife of Never Letting Go is set on a colonised planet which, Todd has been told, was at some point before he was born riven by a war between the arriving humans and the indigenous Spackle. His history lessons teach Todd that, in an attempt to win the war, the Spackle released a virus into the ecosystem which killed the women and made mens’ innermost thoughts audible to all those around them. As a result, Todd’s home of Prentisstown is a testosterone-fuelled, all-male enclave of endless Noise – the term coined to describe the telepathic fizz which emanates from every man’s mind.

The Knife of Never Letting Go is, as Martin Lewis pointed out on Strange Horizons, “an archetypal bildungsroman” – and much of Todd’s development is driven by the discoveries he makes about his world as his experience of it widens beyond what he has been told by the inhabitants of Prentisstown. To describe the book’s plot, then, spoils the book – and it’s such a very good book, so well told and executed, that I’ll refrain. Suffice to say that, as Todd moves outwards from his male-centred world, Ness is simply brilliant at deepening, broadening and altering the way in which his central character interacts with his world and those who live in it. This is really the heart of the book – Todd’s slow dawning that people exist outside of him, outside of his conceptions and understandings – and this growth is beautifully and subtly done.

The novel is characterised by this spirit of inquiry, and by a refusal to condescend to the book’s putative Young Adult audience: if at times Ness has coyness forced upon him by the conventions of his market (Todd repeatedly ‘effs’ – and equally repeatedly reminds us that, “I don’t say ‘eff’, I say what ‘eff’ stands for”), then in his own considered way he also takes few prisoners in his weighing of such serious themes as misogyny, racism, sexuality and violence. On this last point, Adam Roberts has quibbled that the book is too violent, which puts him closer to the Daily Mail end of the spectrum than I might previously have thought. Certainly the book has a lot of beatings and stabbings, and I do have sympathy with Roberts’s view that violence powers Ness’s narrative, and that it is this more than the existence or quantity of that violence which makes it questionable. Ness’s defense that “teenagers have always sought violent fiction” just about works for me, though: not only would it simply be daft to ignore its power, but violence drives Todd’s narrative because it fuels the culture he has grown up in, the criteria by which those who have given him his understanding of the world judge a man. His story is a broadening out of this position – and if, by the end of The Knife of Never Letting Go, violence has still not quite been abandoned … then, well, there’re two more books for that.

All this put me in mind of Black Man, another book powered by violence which, it seems to me, tries to explore much the same ground as The Knife of Never Letting Go. Somehow, Ness’s subversion of his book’s own assumptions struck me as better wrought – a more convincing achievement of dissonance between form and content. It also executed, I think, a far more satisfying – because far more rigorous – rug-pull than The Island at the End of the World – which sought, too, to look at similar issues of religious mania, misogyny and gender to those tackled by Ness. His book may be a mite over-long, and, given that it is almost 500 pages of Todd being chased around, it may have also set itself a structurally shallow hurdle to vault; but its intelligence, empathy and sheer event-laden readability far outweight these tiny niggles – Todd’s voice in particular is a thorough joy. In short, here is a book with real heft. Naturally, The Ask and the Answer shall be purchased very shortly.