“This is the story of a bloodstained boy.” That’s the first line of this strange and fantastical tale of giant creatures that “swim” in the earth’s soil and the brave and flawed “molers” who chase them for profit and life purpose. Miéville has created a dystopian world covered in railway ties with skies poisoned by chemicals and filled with monstrous, alien creatures who feast on those who get too close. But, there may just be something beyond the rails, if the characters in this story are determined and lucky enough to see their way through to the end of the world… Though based off of the tale of Moby Dick, Railsea is an engaging adventure and coming of age story that reads like nothing else I’ve ever experienced. Miéville has blended together steampunk, dytopian, and fantasy elements to create something completely different.
Sham is a boy on the cusp of manhood who can’t quite figure out what he wants to do with his adulthood: “Sham felt sure there was something he fervently wanted to do & to which he was excellently suited. Which made the more frustrating that he could not say what it was. Too vague about his interests for further study; too cautious in company, perhaps a little bruised by less-than-stellar school days, to thrive in sales or service; too young & sluggish to excel at heavy work: Sham’s tryings-out of various candidate activities left him het up.” pg 36, ebook. Anyone who has ever been lost about what path to follow in life will be able to empathize with Sham.
Miéville’s story, like Moby Dick has layers of meaning built into it: “Edging such places is the railseaside, called the littoral zone. Those are the shorelands. Port towns, from where transport, freight & hunting trains set out. Where lighthouses light ways past rubbish reefs breaking earth. “Give me the inland or give me the open rails,” say both the railsailor & the landlubber, “only spare me the littoral-minded.” pg 51 ebook. Clever, no? A warning, if you don’t enjoy reads where the author makes up words to tell the story, you may want to skip Railsea. There’s a bunch of creative adjectives and nouns mixed up in this one.
The religions of this world were a fascinating too. I wish Miéville had explored them more: “He muttered in his head to That Apt Ohm, the great rotund boss-god, one of the few deities worshipped across the railsea, whatever the peculiarities of local pantheons. Bollons was ecumenical, granted church-licences to any deities whose worshippers could pay the fees. But the disrespectful worship of That Apt Ohm was taken more seriously there, pursued with more verve, than at most stops on the railsea. Sham had no idea quite what, if anything, he believed, but there seemed little harm in a quick silent word with one of the few gods whose name he remembered.” pg 100, ebook.
Part of the homage to Moby Dick, finding a captain’s “philosophy”: “How many of these philosophies were out there? Not every captain of the Stereggeye Lands had one, but a fair proportion grew into a close antipathy-cum-connection with one particular animal, which they came to realise or decide-to decidalise-embodied meanings, potentialities, ways of looking at the world. At a certain point, & it was hard to be exact but you knew it when you saw it, the usual cunning thinking about professional prey switched onto a new rail & became something else- a faithfulness to an animal that was now a world-view.” pg 130 ebook. What’s your white mole?
I enjoyed Railsea but I can see how this writer might not be for everyone. He uses fragmented sentences and ampersands (&) to move the story along. The chapters are incredibly short which also kept the pace rolling but it could also be viewed as making the novel choppy. Sometimes, Miéville breaks through the fourth wall and addresses the reader directly. I thought that device was charming, conjuring up images in my mind of storytellers sitting in front of the fire or at a pub. But, again, this may not work for everyone.
Some read-alikes for Railsea: Chaos Walking series by Patrick Ness or Under the Empyrean Sky by Chuck Wendig. Thanks for reading!