Book Talk: 'Railsea' by China Miéville - Warped Factor - Words in the Key of Geek.

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Book Talk: 'Railsea' by China Miéville

Alexander Wallace goes loco for Railsea.
Trains. Despite the pillaging of railroad lines (except for freight, of course), so many people love those old steam-powered behemoths that once transported people and things across continents. Many nowadays wish there were more of them, out of practicality, for environmental reasons, or just for the pure aesthetic. No advocate of rail transport, however, goes quite so far as envisioning a world dominated by trains as China Miéville does in his 2012 novel Railsea.

Railsea is set on a version of Earth that is dominated by a massive accrual of railroads; they assume a role not unlike the world’s oceans in the age of sail. The plot follows a young man, Sham Yes ap Soorap, aboard a train that trawls the rails for prey.

Railsea has been described by its author as an example of ‘weird fiction,’ blending fantasy and steampunk in a way that produces something not quite like any other work I’ve read. These trains hunt moles like whales; they have doctors and captains and many other things that feel nautical rather than on the ground. There are port towns, where whoring and drinking and brawling take place.

Sham is aimless, unsure of what he really wants in life, and ends up learning something nobody wanted him to learn. This leads him on a wild goose chase to find certain people, and then to help them get to a particular goal far removed from anything he has ever experienced. This is juxtaposed with the obsession of his captain with one particular mole, in a manner that, among other references to such, homages Herman Melville’s famous doorstopper Moby Dick. The homage to classic literature, Melville in particular, gives the novel a gravitas it may not have otherwise had.

The choice of rails as the sea equivalent (these are far more extensive railways than have ever been made in our world) provides the most potent form of ‘weirdness’ in the book. The logic of the sea is transplanted to trains, and said trains begin to do some strange things. This goes too for the environment, with some strange formation in regard to islands and the like. This gets at its strangest and most fascinating by the end, in a new location entirely, but to give away too much would be to spoil the fun.

Miéville is well known for his far-left politics; those fearing an angry lecture won’t need to fear, for there isn’t too much politics. It does creep up below the surface of the narrative, coming to a head by the end. He makes his case well, though, and he never feels deranged like certain science fiction authors are; indeed he is generally good about this sort of thing in his oeuvre.

Railsea is a perfect book for any rail fan, of any age (it’s technically a young adult novel, so the writing is relatively simple, especially compared to some of the author’s other works). It is is a wonderful adventure through a thoroughly off-the-wall world, and it will keep you turning the page. I recommend it highly.

Alexander Wallace is an alternate historian, reader, and writer who moderates the Alternate History Online group on Facebook and the Alternate Timelines Forum on Proboards. He writes regularly for the Sea Lion Press blog and for NeverWas magazine, and also appears regularly on the Alternate History Show with Ben Kearns. He is a member of several alternate history fora under the name 'SpanishSpy.'

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