Railsea by China Mieville is a coming-of-age tale that takes its inspiration from Moby Dick and Treasure island and a whole universe of elements that he’s mixed into a wildly imaginative story of a young man who has grown up in a world bounded by railroads who discovers there’s something beyond and goes looking for it to claim his destiny.
The hero of the book, a young man called Sham (Shamus Yes Ap Soorap) has gone “to rail’ to hunt the moldywarpes, beasts who inhabit the railsea and used for their fat and meat and fur. Apprenticed to the train’s doctor, Sham is eager to hear the stories the railsailors tell and fascinated by the train’s captain Abacat Naphi, a one-armed woman who lost her limb to a wily white moldywarpe and has been searching for it ever since.
He is less enthusiastic about the rough games the sailors entertain themselves with—games like beetle races and death matches with birds and beasts. One day Sham snaps, stealing a little day bat from the “arena” so it won’t end up killed. This action marks him out to the other crew members. The captain marks him out for reasons of her own, and he’s soon embroiled in feeding her obsession with developing one of his own.
As a proponent of “New Weird,” Mieville has always blended myth and pop culture and literature in his works (most gracefully in Kraken) and in this novel, readers will recognize Moby Dick, Dune (the modlywarpes explode out of the dirt like the “worms” that make spice), a bit of Treasure Island and also Tales of the Arabian Nights.
The Moby Dick references aren’t just superficial, with Captain Naphi, the one-armed monomaniac in search of the off-white mole who took her limb, but extend to the structure of the chapters and the subject matter. English majors will particularly enjoy the way Mieville has played with one of the classic works of American literature. (Particularly the chapter in Moby Dick known as the “Tryworks.”)
There’s a lot of world building here in this dystopian, post-Apocalypse landscape. The world of the railsea has its own jargon and its own logic and its own geography. (A cabin boy has been “at rail” before, for example.) the book begins with a stunning image of a blood-stained boy and we don’t know until later that it’s Sham in the aftermath of the moldywarpe hunt, drenched in blood after serving liquor to the butchers cutting up the creature.
All of this backdrop is extremely entertaining but it disguises the essential lack of plot. Yes, things happen (the scary stuff aboard the wrecked train, for example, that reminds us a bit of Jaws), but mostly this is a coming-of-age story that plays out in small moments.
As with Kraken, there’s a sort of quest going on here. The captain is obsessed with finding her nemesis, which she describes as being the color of an old tooth, a rarity among the dark moldywarpes.
Other captains mock her obsession for a particular “prairie dog” and make fun of her philosophy as well. She is not so much a character as a plot placeholder for the story, which is familiar (at least in its broad strokes).
Still, we are intrigued by Sham, who is a dreamer singularly unsuited to the life of a train doctor. He can’t believe others don’t share his desire to know what’s out there on the railsea and possibly beyond it.
There are wonderful inventions here—like the rumor market where you can buy and sell rumors and the price you pay determines the quality of the information passed along—and these bits of whimsy add to the reality Mieville is constructing here.
The action moments are strong—the sequence where a crew member is bitten by a creature in a wrecked train is particularly scary—but much of this story is the setup and the world and the literary underpinnings. (It very much feels as if there’s a sequel coming at some point.)
Mieville plays with language and in the “second act” of the book he shatters point of view and begins following several different narrative threads. Somehow it all works.