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 "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.
Author of several acclaimed novels and story collections, including Fractal Paisleys, Little Doors, and Neutrino Drag, Paul Di Filippo was nominated for a Sturgeon Award, a Hugo Award, and a World Fantasy Award all in a single year. William Gibson has called his work "spooky, haunting, and hilarious." His reviews have appeared in The Washington Post, Science Fiction Weekly, Asimov's Magazine, andThe San Francisco Chronicle.
Reviewer: Paul Di Filippo
Read an Excerpt
A meat island!
No. Back a bit.
A looming carcase?
Here. Weeks out, back when it was colder. The last several days spent fruitlessly pootling through rock passes & in the blue shadows of ice cliffs, late afternoon under a flinty sky. The boy, not yet bloodstained, was watching penguins. He stared at little rock islands furred in huddled birds plumping their oily feathers & shuffling together for comfort & warmth. He’d been giving them his attention for hours. When at last there came a sound from the speakers above, it made him start. It was the alarm for which he & the rest of the crew of the Medes had been waiting. A crackling blare. Then from the intercom came the exclamation: “There she blows!”
An instant frantic readiness. Mops were abandoned, spanners dropped, letters half-written & carvings half-whittled were thrust into pockets, never mind their wet ink, their sawdusty unfinishedness. To windows, to guardrails! Everyone leaned into the whipping air.
The crew squinted into the frigid wind, stared past big slate teeth. They swayed with the Medes’s motion. Birds gusted nearby in hope, but no one was throwing scraps now.
Way off where perspective made the line of old rails meet, soil seethed. Rocks jostled. The ground violently rearranged. From beneath came a dust-muffled howl.
Amid strange landforms & stubs of antique plastic, black earth coned into a sudden hill. & up something clawed. Such a great & dark beast.
Soaring from its burrow in a clod-cloud & explosion it came. A monster. It roared, it soared, into the air. It hung a crazy moment at the apex of its leap. As if surveying. As if to draw attention to its very size. Crashed at last back down through the topsoil & disappeared into the below.
The moldywarpe had breached.
Of all the gapers on the Medes none gaped harder than Sham. Shamus Yes ap Soorap. Big lumpy young man. Thickset, not always unclumsy, his brown hair kept short & out of trouble. Gripping a porthole, penguins forgotten, face like a light-hungry sunflower poking out of the cabin. In the distance the mole was racing through shallow earth, a yard below the surface. Sham watched the buckle in the tundra, his heart clattering like wheels on tracks.
No, this was not the first moldywarpe he’d seen. Labours, as their playful groups were called, of dog-sized specimens constantly dug in Streggeye Bay. The earth between the iron & ties of the harbour was always studded with their mounds & backs. He’d seen pups of bigger species, too, miserable in earthtanks, brought back by hunters for Stonefacemas Eve; baby bottletop moldywarpes & moonpanther moldywarpes & wriggly tarfoot moldywarpes. But the great, really great, the greatest animals, Sham ap Soorap had seen only in pictures, during Hunt Studies.
He had been made to memorise a poemlike list of the moldywarpe’s other names—underminer, talpa, muldvarp, mole. Had seen ill-exposed flatographs & etchings of the grandest animals. Stick-figure humans were drawn to scale cowering by the killer, the star-nosed, the ridged moldywarpe. & on one last much-fingered page, a page that concertinaed out to make its point about size, had been a leviathan, dwarfing the specklike person-scribble by it. The great southern moldywarpe, Talpa ferox rex. That was the ploughing animal ahead. Sham shivered.
The ground & rails were grey as the sky. Near the horizon, a nose bigger than him broke earth again. It made its molehill by what for a moment Sham thought a dead tree, then realised was some rust-furred metal strut toppled in long-gone ages, up-poking like the leg of a dead beetle god. Even so deep in the chill & wastes, there was salvage.
Trainspeople hung from the Medes’s caboose, swayed between carriages & from viewing platforms, tamping out footstep urgency over Sham’s head. “Yes yes yes, Captain . . .”: the voice of Sunder Nabby, lookout, blurted from the speakers. Captain must have walkie-talkied a question & Nabby must have forgotten to switch to private. He broadcast his answer to the train, through chattering teeth & a thick Pittman accent. “Big boar, Captain. Lots of meat, fat, fur. Look at the speed on him . . .”
The track angled, the Medes veered, the wind fed Sham a mouthful of diesely air. He spat into railside scrub. “Eh? Well . . . it’s black, Captain,” Nabby said in answer to some unheard query. “Of course. Good dark moldywarpe black.”
A pause. The whole train seemed embarrassed. Then: “Right.” That was a new voice. Captain Abacat Naphi had patched in. “Attention. Moldywarpe. You’ve seen it. Brakers, switchers: to stations. Harpoonists: ready. Stand by to launch carts. Increase speed.”
The Medes accelerated. Sham tried to listen through his feet, as he’d been taught. A shift, he decided, from shrashshaa to drag’ndragun. He was learning the clatternames.
“How goes treatment?”
Sham spun. Dr. Lish Fremlo stared at him from the cabin threshold. Thin, ageing, energetic, gnarled as the windblown rocks, the doctor watched Sham from beneath a shag of gun-coloured hair. Oh Stonefaces preserve me, Sham thought, how bleeding long have you been there? Fremlo eyed a spread of wooden-&-cloth innards that Sham had lifted from the hollow belly of a manikin, that he should by now certainly have labelled & replaced, & that were still all over the floor.
“I’m doing it, Doctor,” Sham said. “I got a little . . . there was . . .” He stuffed bits back within the model.
“Oh.” Fremlo winced at the fresh cuts Sham had doodled with his penknife in the model’s skin. “What unholy condition are you giving that poor thing, Sham ap Soorap? I should perhaps intervene.” The doctor put up a peremptory finger. Spoke not unkindly, in that distinct sonorous voice. “Student life is not scintillating, I know. Two things you’d best learn. One is to”—Fremlo made a gentle motion—“to calm down. & another is what you can get away with. This is the first great southern of this trip, & that means your first ever. No one, including me, gives a trainmonkey’s gonads if you’re practicing right now.”
Sham’s heart accelerated.
“Go,” the doctor said. “Just stay out of the way.”
Sham gasped at the cold. Most of the crew wore furs. Even Rye Shossunder, passing him with a peremptory glance, had a decent rabbitskin jerkin. Rye was younger & , as cabin boy, technically even lower in the Medes order than Sham, but he had been at rail once before, which in the rugged meritocracy of the moletrain gave him the edge. Sham huddled in his cheap wombatskin jacket.
Crews scrambled on walkways & all the carriagetop decks, worked windlasses, sharpened things, oiled the wheels of jollycarts in harnesses. Way above, Nabby bobbed in his basket below the crow’s-nest balloon.
Boyza Go Mbenday, first mate, stood on the viewing dais of the rearmost cartop. He was scrawny & dark & nervily energetic, his red hair flattened by the gusts of their passage. He traced their progress on charts, & muttered to the woman beside him. Captain Naphi.
Naphi watched the moldywarpe through a huge telescope. She held it quite steadily to her eye, despite its bulk & despite the fact that she hefted it one-handed in a strong right arm. She was not tall but she drew the eyes. Her legs were braced in what might have been a fighting stance. Her long grey hair was ribboned back. She stood quite still while her age-mottled brown overcoat wind-shimmied around her. Lights winked in her bulky, composite left arm. Its metal & ivory clicked & twitched.
The Medes rattled through snow-flecked plainland. It sped out of drag’ndragun into another rhythm. By rock, crack & shallow chasm, past scuffed patches of arcane salvage.
Sham was awed at the light. He looked up into the two or more miles of good air, through it into the ugly moiling border of bad cloud that marked the upsky. Bushes stubby & black as iron tore past, & bits of real iron jagging from buried antique times did, too. Atangle across the whole vista, to & past the horizon in all directions, were endless, countless rails.
Long straights, tight curves; metal runs on wooden ties; overlapping, spiralling, crossing at metalwork junctions; splitting off temporary sidings that abutted & rejoined main lines. Here the train tracks spread out to leave yards of unbroken earth between them; there they came close enough together that Sham could have jumped from one to the next, though that idea shivered him worse than the cold. Where they cleaved, at twenty thousand angles of track-meets-track, were mechanisms, points of every kind: wye switches; interlaced turnouts; stubs; crossovers; single & double slips. & on the approaches to them all were signals, switches, receivers, or ground frames.
The mole dove under the dense soil or stone on which sat those rails, & the ridge of its passage disappeared till it rose again to kink the ground between metal. Its earthwork wake was a broken line.
The captain raised a mic & gave crackling instructions. “Switchers; stations.” Sham got another whiff of diesel & liked it this time. The switchers leaned from the walkway that sided the front engine, from the platforms of the second & fourth cars, brandishing controllers & switchhooks.