SOMETIMES PEOPLE who are really good at what they do decide to make things more difficult for themselves. Evel Knievel added a fourteenth bus. David Foster Wallace endeavored to make tax accounting lively. And now, in his new young adult novel Railsea, China Miéville, perhaps the most exciting speculative fiction writer working today, has decided to set Moby Dick on land and (why not?) on trains.
That audacious a premise is not a huge surprise from Miéville, a writer who has famously set himself the task of writing a novel in every genre, and who even then isn’t content until he’s set a believability-defying challenge. (Can two cities occupy the same space and never touch? See The City & the City. Can a language be built only on direct referents? See Embassytown.) But the danger of too elaborate a premise is the possibility of jumping the shark — or, in this case, literally losing the shark. How can a train bound to tracks hunt a quarry that is not? What if the “whale” decides to turn left? Wouldn’t a car become a better option?
That Railsea satisfactorily answers these questions and wriggles out of many more self-imposed knots are among its chief charms. I’ll avoid spoilers, since part of the fun of this kind of speculative fiction is its slow, sneaking exposition. The mystery is implausibility; the reveal is how it all makes sense. But a few hints to get your bearings: The whales are actually giant moles, or “moldywarpes”; the railroad tracks are an enormous tangle of switchboards, or the “railsea”; and there are plausible historical reasons for the existence of both of these things, including ecological disaster and out-of-control public-works spending.
All of this elaborate scaffolding lets Miéville build a deliciously clever homage to Moby Dick. The opening molehunt is a stylistic romp:
The moldywarpe reared, the moldywarpe roared. The spear juddered. The harpoon rope whip-unwound as the animal thrashed, blood on the soil. Rails buckled & the cart careered, tugged behind the animal. Quick — they knotted a soil-anchor to the line & threw it overboard….
Until at last in a lagoon of stony steppe, a dirt space in the infinite rails, it stopped. It quivered, then settled. When next the greedy railgulls landed on the furred knoll of its body, it did not dislodge them.
… & no illustrations; no flatographs; no salvaged thriddies, paintings, saltprints or liquid-crystal renditions; & certainly not the arse-achingly dull molers’ reminiscenses Sham had heard too many times could have prepared him for what extraordinarily stinking work followed.
The risks Miéville takes — the neologisms, the ampersands — are justified by the meaty gorgeousness of the passage. Each also assumes a deeper meaning later in the book: the ampersands have their purpose, and “salvaged thriddies” isn’t a throwaway phrase. But most of all, they work as a loving parody of Melville. Railsea is irreverent, and that’s the fun of it. We learn early that not only the captain of our ship but all the captains have a special mole they’re obsessed with, about whom they weave elaborate philosophies, and you’re really no one in the captains’ bars until you’ve lost at least one limb.
That irreverence lets Miéville escape the bounds of Moby Dick and strike out on a nineteenth-century nautical adventure transposed onto twenty-fifth-century train tracks. The story is anchored by the lovable Sham, assistant to the ship’s doctor and perpetual dreamer, a classic fool bumbling along on a fool’s journey. Unfortunately for Sham, there are lots of ways to bumble in this treacherous world. The skin of the land is like the surface of the sea, teeming with submerged, invisible creatures. To set foot on it is to risk attack by man-sized moles of all varieties (of which Miéville provides hand-drawn sketches), as well as mole-rats, beetles, bats, tortoises, antlions, earwigs, and other monstrosities hinted at with Lovecraftian vagueness:
Look under the tracks & ties: the beasts that make caverns, that tunnel, that steal their way into others’ networks, that rise & sink above & below the groundline, that squeeze through crevices in the fractured world, that coil around roots & stalactites, are overwhelmingly, & ferociously, predators…. This savage underground & flatearth does not preclude complexity. There are many ways — often ingenious — one ravenous animal can eat another, or a hapless woman or man. The beasts of the railsea give them all a try. For trainsfolk, this means a hierarchy of awfulness. Fast flatearth-runners are bad enough, they’ll tell you, of the animals that scurry with hungry intent on the surface, overleaping tracks, but what provokes the worst terror are the eruchthonous. That is a railsea. It means that which digs up from underneath & emerges.
Because of these eruchtative dangers, one of the most harrowing scenes is Sham’s ill-advised attempt to walk on land — which immediately bubbles with surfacing predators like a cooking pancake; the hills alone are “islands” of safety. But like the ocean deeps, the depths of this earth hold sunken treasures (not just prey like the moldywarpes, but millennia of sunken technology), leading humans to attempt them again and again. Some of the subterranean tech is recognizably from our own era — TVs, laundry machines, Victorian clockwork — while some are castoffs from interim centuries and passing aliens. “Salvaged thriddies” turn out to be something like videotapes. All of this is dug up by the Cousteau-ian “salvors” armed with ropes and cranes.
In fact, Railsea is Miéville’s exercise in SalvagePunk, a philosophy he’s developed over the course of the past several years, along with critical theorist and Socialism and/or Barbarism blogger Evan Calder Williams. It’s an idea that was discarded before it was realized, however; the two presented the “birthgrave” of the genre at the launch of Williams’s 2010 SalvagePunk treatise Combined and Uneven Universe. They explained that they had to abort the theory because people found it too obvious and because phenomena like the film Wall-E convinced them it was already ubiquitous and passé.
Before it was stillborn, SalvagePunk was envisioned as a successor to Steampunk, the SF art/fashion/literary subgenre that Miéville had a major role in popularizing in the early 2000s. Steampunk, the fetishization of Victorian technology, is a subculture you can quickly familiarize yourself with via John Rieder’s LARB essay “Secret Histories,” Final Fantasy IX, Miéville’s Bas Lag trilogy, or a quick Etsy search for “gear necklaces.” Apparently, despite his continuing love of trains, Miéville has gotten over Steampunk, which he and Williams roundly criticize from their shared socialist perspective. Williams writes in Combined and Uneven Universe that Steampunk is a “gilding of laptops” and “a participation in that great pastime of the Left”: the fantasy of pre-industrial return.
If Steampunk was The City of Lost Children, then SalvagePunk is supposed to be more Mad Max. It’s the process of recycling, repurposing, “upcycling” old technologies. In place of Steampunk’s romanticization of the past, SalvagePunk is an “act of radical forgetting,” according to Miéville. It would be as though, in the movie Hugo, the eponymous character, instead of meticulously repairing the clockwork automaton, had decided to remodel it into an answering machine.
One of Miéville’s saving graces — or frustrating qualities, depending on your appetite for high theory alongside your sword-and-sorcery — is that Railsea isn’t just a fantastical working-out of the ideas in Combined and Uneven Universe. Miéville has explained that, while his Marxist-feminist philosophy informs his thought, he also genuinely loves monsters, particularly for their polysemy. So, in his fantasy, he resists the urge to allegorize; rather, in Railsea, he uses salvage itself as a mode of writing — in addition to Melville, he scavenges Robinson Crusoe and Robert Louis Stevenson. Perhaps because Miéville allows it to remain elusive, salvage is the most tantalizing element of the book, an activity Sham obsesses about but never quite achieves. Paralleling Miéville’s own intellectual journey, Sham goes from indifferent moler to wannabe salvor and then off onto his own path. Where that path finally leads is both satisfying and a bit obvious.
But the yearning that drives his journey — to leave the endless loops of the “railsea” and follow a straight line to a new place — surely mirrors any theorist or graduate student’s desire for that single road out of one’s mental swamp: that one transcendent idea. Judging by Miéville’s sly treatment of the pontificating railcaptains and their ponderous animal allegories, he has little use for philosophers who endlessly crisscross the same terrain. What Sham ultimately finds is a new vista to explore — and for someone of Miéville ‘s manic inventiveness, that’s probably all one can ask. Meanwhile, for the rest of us, the byproducts of Miéville’s restless questings are a treat — like picking up Da Vinci’s discarded sketches of bicycles.
Of course, an explosion of ideas doesn’t necessarily make a book a success; it can make it zany or scatterbrained (a critique that’s been leveled against previous works of Miéville’s, such as Kraken). Fortunately, Railsea doesn’t go off the rails, thanks perhaps to the steadying genre constraints of young adult fiction. Threads come together; a high-stakes chase ensues; lessons are learned; and our young hero saves the day. I’d compare Miéville’s style of YA with that of his fellow Brit Terry Pratchett (though Miéville might express disdain for Pratchett’s less-than-revolutionary politics): both have that comforting feeling of satire with a heart of gold. Especially in the mini-chapters in which Miéville coyly breaks the fourth wall, there’s a reassurance that, though the gods (i.e. the narrator) may be toying with you, they are essentially wise and benevolent. If that makes the ending slightly pat, it also makes for a good entrée to Miéville for those not quite ready for, say, Iron Council. Once Railsea has whetted your appetite, you can better decide whether to hop onto that nearly-600-page Marxist runaway train.