China Miéville’s Railsea could be described as a retelling of Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick—if the ships were trains and the whale was a giant mole, that is—but to do so would be trying to fit Railsea into a descriptive box in which it doesn’t quite fit or belong.
Railsea takes place in a world where, instead of ships traversing the ocean, trains traverse a landscape swathed in a seemingly infinite tangle of railways. All manner of deadly predators burrow just below the surface, ready to snatch up anyone who sets foot on the open ground. It is in this world that we are introduced to Sham ap Soorap, a young boy aboard the moletrain Medes, whose captain is obsessively hunting a monstrous white mole.
No, this isn’t just a retelling of Moby-Dick
As I mentioned in my introduction, Railsea is so much more than just a twisted retelling of Moby-Dick. That was how Railsea was first described to me, and while it caught my attention, I can’t imagine that such a description would ensnare every reader in the same way that it did me. That’s why I can’t emphasize enough Railsea’s uniqueness, and how it really isn’t a retelling of Moby-Dick; the inspirational elements are there, to be sure—an evasive white monster, the obsessive captain hunting it, and a protagonist who happens to be aboard that captain’s vessel—but Railsea is something complete and magnificent in and of itself.
The setting that Miéville crafts for Railsea is brilliant in its creativity. The concept of a world that has an endless tangle of railroads instead of oceans, where cities and towns must be built on rocky islands and continents where the burrowing beasts can’t reach, where vicious creatures fly and fight in toxic clouds miles above the ground, and where mysterious monstrosities called “angels” patrol the rails, is nothing less than absurd, and yet Miéville depicts it in such precise detail and with such passion that I would happily read many more books set in the world of Railsea.
Embracing eccentricities—that is really the only phrase I can think of to describe Miéville’s quirky style of writing in Railsea. This is a weird book, there’s no doubt about it (then again, it wouldn’t be a Miéville book if it wasn’t), but he really does go all out in Railsea. He plays fast and loose with words and phrasing, making up completely fantastical words that somehow make total sense and painting descriptions that not only conjure beautiful mental images when read but also sound beautiful when said aloud. Miéville takes all the standards for writing a book and throws them to the wind; he writes the book how he wants to write it, and it completely, totally works.
The oddities are almost too numerous to count. In Railsea, “and” is always written as “&,” which is enough in and of itself to give the book a unique little spin. It doesn’t stop there, however: Miéville abandons the perspective of one character halfway through the book in favor of skipping between three different ones. One- or two-page chapters will occasionally be sandwiched in the middle of some of the book’s most intense scenes, during which Miéville will step in as a narrator for relevant and frequently humorous commentary or exposition. Perhaps most interesting of all, the narration occasionally even breaks the fourth wall and addresses the reader directly, acknowledging that it is a book and that there is a storyteller behind the words on the page. All these oddities are far from a weakness, however; they’re Railsea’s greatest strength. The short expositional chapters, which would likely have been annoying in the hands of any other author, frequently put a smile on my face and sometimes made me laugh out loud. Railsea embraces these eccentricities with such enthusiasm that you can’t help but be swept up in them; what may seem like missteps and asides from a confused and uncertain storyteller are, in truth, all part of the magic that makes Railsea the absolute joy that it is.
Why should you read this book?
It’s hard for me to put Railsea into words, and even harder for me to put my love of Railsea into words. Although there are a few issues here and there—such as characters who aren’t fully developed and an ending that’s not wholly satisfying—Miéville has tapped into an odd sort of storytelling magic with Railsea, and it sucked me right in and didn’t let go. I don’t think there’s any more I can say to convince you of how fantastic this book is, so I will simply encourage you to go out and find a copy for yourself. It may not click with you in the same way that it clicked with me, but I sincerely hope that you enjoy it as much as I did. Railsea is something so uniquely wonderful, so infectiously entertaining that I encourage everyone who loves books to at least give it a try.