Do you recall the famous tagline from the very first Superman movie starring Christopher Reeve? “You’ll believe a man can fly!” Well, I’m tempted to craft such a hyperbolic assertion for China Miéville’s off-the-wall yet utterly convincing new “all-ages” novel, Railsea. Something along these lines: “You’ll believe a mole can terrify!” Or perhaps “You’ll believe in the majesty of mole hunts!” But of course such silly quips impute a kind of Monty Python-style vibe to the book, and nothing could be further from the truth. This coming-of-age questing tale is completely engrossing, not parodic, and, in its own genius-skewed way, totally naturalistic.
Miéville’s premise is simple to state: in a post-collapse future riddled with the detritus of our era (or possibly on another planet entirely, given the odd physics and artificial topography of this world), moles big as whales, tunneling through topsoil, are pursued commercially by crews of hunters on railroad trains that run across an intricate, gigantic labyrinth of tracks; and one particular train-Captain is obsessed with killing the legendary white mole that took her arm: Mocker-Jack, that “custard-colored moldywarp.”
Miéville, meet Melville! Could such a mere consanguinity of names have been the initial gestation of such a delightful conceit? If so, creation transcends inspiration!
Sham ap Soorap is our hero, a young lad apprenticed to Dr. Fremlo of the moleship Medes, helmed by Captain Abacat Naphi, she of the ivory mole fetish, or, “completion philosophy.” (You will, of course, hear the anagram echoes of “Ahab” in her name, just as Sham resonates with Ishmael.) Sham is a bit clumsy, a bit slow-witted at times, but all heart and full of earnest appreciation for life. Only trouble is, he’s more interested in the life of a salvage man (salvor) than in doctoring or moling. But his guardians secured him a berth aboard the Medes, and so he tries his best to fit into the rough fraternity of railsea sailors.
The travels of the Medes eventually brings Sham & Co. to the city of Manihiki (further Melvillean echoes of Polynesian climes), where Sham’s path crosses that of two siblings his own age, the orphans Caldera and Dero, salvors of a sort. Their family seems to host a secret: the map to a place where the omnipresent railsea thins out, devolving to one single set of tracks inscribed across an empty landscape. Sham’s intellectual curiosity and sense of adventure is aroused. But then — pirates! So the adventure truly begins.
Miéville’s accomplishments here, as in all his outstanding novels, are manifold.
First comes the creation of a completely unique venue, a world that hangs together and coheres organically, one whose teasingly explicated systems possess as much characterological interest as the humans do. Now, your mileage may vary as to how readily you accept such a baroque and even whimsical subcreation as we find here. John Scalzi recently coined a very useful metric for fantastical fiction, the “Flying Snowman” test. If, for instance, you accept the premise of a living, eating, breathing snowman, do you balk when the snowman also proves that he can fly? In other words, where do you draw the line for your personal suspension of disbelief? If you accept Herbertian sandworm-sized moles, can you also accept a railroad network maintained by “angels?” But if you can give over your credence to Miéville, you will find vast rewards.
Secondly, there’s the sheer storytelling brio, the narrative panache that characterizes all his work. This author can spin a captivating plot, populated by vivid, fetchingly eccentric personages, as naturally as breathing.
Finally, there’s the novel’s voice, the prose stylings, the exotic nomenclature and neologisms. Aping his master template, Miéville dares to offer purely discursive chapters that are just long enough not to pall. He dips into an omniscient voice from time to time, directly addressing the reader and meta-commenting on the text. And his syntax and vocabulary call to mind the rich fustiness, the Shakespearean fruitiness, the passionate nerdiness of Melville’s original. This book is, I suppose, a kind of steampunk. But not one that features the usual High Victorian ambiance, but rather one that has a foot in the era of clipper ships and Georgian salad days of Captain Cook/Captain Kidd swashbuckling.
Like the Mortal Engines series of Philip Reeve, or the Dying Earth books of Jack Vance, or the Book of the New Sun cycle of Gene Wolfe, Miéville’s novel is ultimately concerned with the riddle of how this world has come to be transfigured, what secret wellsprings power the shifted cosmos. Sham’s journey — which finally transcends Captain Naphi’s lesser quest — takes him to world’s end and beyond, proving that no final boundaries exist for the heart’s imaginings.
Paul Di Filippo’s column The Speculator appears monthly in the Barnes & Noble Review. He is the author of several acclaimed novels and story collections, including Fractal Paisleys, Little Doors, Neutrino Drag, and Fuzzy Dice.