The secret to reading a China Miéville story is this: he’s going to give you an impossible premise to accept. It’s going to be weird and unrealistic and against all laws of nature, but you’re going to have to believe that that’s the way this world works. Once you accept it, your reward is a very tightly-woven creation built on an internal logic that always makes sense within the boundaries of his world.
And the first impossible premise of Railsea is this: you can’t walk on the ground.
There’s islands of rock where you’re safe, good-sized continents in some places where you don’t have to worry. But between those islands stretch, instead of water, thousands of miles of ordinary dirt that is unbelievably dangerous to step on. Some seriously vicious predators have adapted to tunnel frighteningly fast through the earth, and the second you set foot on unprotected ground a scorpion the size of a horse could snap you in half and drag the pieces down with it.
So if you can’t walk on the bare ground, how do you get from island to island? Simple: you take a train. My question of course was “What if there’s not a track that runs in the direction you want to go?” Answer: in the middle of the Railsea, there’s tracks everywhere.
Rather than one or two or a dozen tracks, the Railsea is a huge tangled mess of rails that weave over each other, splitting off, merging, changing gauges (the width of the rails; if a train switches to a rail with the wrong gauge they could be suddenly trainwrecked) and generally taking the place of an ocean. And “sailing” on this ocean in this strange, semi-apocalyptical world, are just about any kind of train you can imagine.
Miéville describes this almost-nautical world brilliantly. The main characters pull into a “port” (a huge meeting of rails at one of the islands) and they see diesel trains, electric trains, clockwork trains, hulking wartrains bristling with weapons, trains pulled by animals, or sails, or slaves (no one likes those) and in the distance they see “the dot dot dot sky punctuation of a steam train.”
The main characters happen to be on a diesel “moler”; instead of hunting whales, they hunt giant moles for meat and pelts. And their captain is particularly obsessed with an ivory-colored giant mole that tore off her arm, leaving her with a mechanical arm and a vendetta. Oh, don’t worry, this is not a train-themed “Moby Dick” story. Mieville makes fun of the idea actually, because she’s not the only captain with a monster-hunting obsession; there’s even bars where captains hang out and trade stories about whatever animal it is they’re after.
The book starts out with a scene of the moletrain going full throttle in a hunt. Imagine sailors leaning into the wind on a ship in full sail, except here they’re hanging on a fast moving train, swaying as the switchmen change them from one track to another as they circle their prey, narrowly avoiding traptracks and badly-marked change-of-gauges. It’s fantastic imagery.
Then you add to that the idea of salvors: trainspeople who hunt salvage instead of animals. They may be looking for ancient salvage buried for hundreds of years, or “nu-salvage” from trains that were trainwrecked by weather or pirates fairly recently, or (my favorite) alt-salvage. Because here’s the other weird premise you have to accept: generations ago creatures from other planets stopped by for a visit. Nobody in present day knows much about them, except to call them “tourists.” It’s just one of those everyday things that people accept: aliens exist, they don’t come around anymore (though there’s lots of strange lights and sounds in the “upsky” that’s bad luck to pay attention to) and they left behind a lot of weird junk that pops up every once in a while. Some of it’s fairly useful, like communicators or tracking devices. Some of it just bends reality unnervingly. Some of it’s pretty amazingly dangerous, but that’s the risk you take hunting salvage; you could end up fantastically rich, or blown to bits by hitting the wrong button.
And all that is why it’s taken me so long to write this review; all these fantastic, warped images and concepts and I’m thinking a lot of people will go “Nope, too much, that’s too much weird for one book.” But it all works so well, I can’t do it justice with a review, because Miéville’s writing is just delicious and easy on the eyes. It’s such a satisfying read. All the amazing descriptions, the terrifying battles, and the beautiful vocabulary he’s so good at creating; Miéville loves to throw words or names at you without much explanation, which keeps everything nicely mysterious. I particularly liked the offhand comment about the local gods the trainsfolk would pray to: Stonefaces, Mary Ann, the Squabbling Gods, Lizard, or That Apt Ohm. He never describes them in detail, so you get to just wonder about it.
And the dialogue; I love his conversations, there’s always a lot of clever remarks. At one point Dero and Caldera are trying to hide, frantically covering their train with weeds and vines.
“This is a rubbish plan,” Dero said, as they crawled back inside.
“I await your improvements eagerly. & complaining is awesomely helpful.”
And, as you can see in that quote, you’ll find the one thing I didn’t like, and that’s Miéville’s thing with the “&” sign. Throughout the entire book he never uses the word “and,” he always uses “&.” He mentions it a couple times in passing, & talks about language changing & words disappearing, & how the “&” is very much like a twisted set of train tracks that ends where it begins. It seems like it was an important concept he wanted to get across, but I just don’t think it was necessary. It feels gimmicky, & distracting as all get out, especially when it appears right at the beginning of the sentence. It bugged me. & I never got used to it. (Okay, I admit it, that was way more fun to write than to read, but I’ll stop now.)
The ending leaves you with a lot of questions, but I’m fairly sure that’s intentional; there are so many ideas he barely touched on that could each become a whole book by themselves, so he’s left it wide open for a sequel. I really hope he writes it; Perdido Street Station and Kraken have always been my favorite Miéville books, but Railsea is seriously giving them a run for their money.