A publisher’s note for China Miéville’s latest book, Railsea, informs us that it is ‘an epic for readers of all ages.’ This pushes it toward the slightly patronising category of Young Adult, making it his second book, after Un Lun Dun, to be promoted so. It’s more rewarding to consider Railsea, and the YA tag, as a reflexive and clever continuation by revision of the long-established sub-genre of youthful adventure, and especially the writing of Robert Louis Stevenson.
Railsea is a salvagepunk odyssey that follows its youthful protagonists across a vividly imagined landscape full of possibilities and dangers. This is Miéville’s ninth novel (he has also published a collection of short stories and written comics for DC), and readers familiar with his writing will already be aware of his talent for creating original and at times agreeably odd fictional worlds. Railsea is no exception. The premise is remarkably simple: the story takes place in a landlocked, quasi-dystopian environment criss-crossed by swathes of rail lines, under which whole menageries of subterranean menaces lurk.
Sham Yes ap Soorap seeks his fortune as a medic’s assistant on a moletrain, the Railsea’s equivalent of a whaling ship, hunting down giant moles. The captain is seemingly missing a limb and overly obsessed with an ivory-coloured mole called Mocker Jack. So far, so Moby Dick. The rails are also travelled by nomads of various description, including salvors who comb the landscape for valuable wreckage, and inevitably, given the maritime analogy, pirates. Sham’s position on the moletrain is a marriage of convenience as he dreams of salvage; following an encounter with an abandoned train, he sets off on his own adventure, detouring from Moby Dick into Treasure Island and Kidnapped.
Miéville stirs into this rich generic stew elements of the Strugatsky brothers’ philosophical science fiction classic, Roadside Picnic (better known perhaps via Andrei Tarkovsky’s film adaptation, Stalker). The world of the Railsea is formed of unstable zones and littered with sometimes bizarre artefacts that hint at a mysterious, forgotten history. The practices of salvage, of recovery and recuperation, form the economy and culture of the Railsea. The treacherous trackscape is studded with different degrees of salavagable materials, with alt-salvage, arche-salvage and so on. There are hints that some of these are sought-after technologies left in the distant past by an extraterrestrial civilisation. There are other hints that this world is closer to our own than first meets the eye.
This model of salvage is carried over into the writing, into linguistic and narrative excess. Miéville audaciously uses the ampersand as a substitute for ‘and’ throughout, a typographical conceit that should be annoying but actually works; the twisted, switched back lines of the repeated ‘&’ are initially lost in the flow of playful language, then come to represent something much more vital in the world of the Railsea.
Miéville’s strength is to conjure an incredible premise and riff on the scattershot permutations that ensue. Rather than settle on a worthy re-telling of a single source (Andrew Motion take note), Miéville re-purposes Melville’s plot and archetypes, turning them inside out, dropping allusions and references to a whole array of other sources and in the process creating something entirely unique and original.
Miéville openly acknowledges some of his influences at the end of the book, name-dropping Defoe, Louis Stevenson, Melville, the Strugatsky Brothers and many more. Keen readers may also project Frank Herbert’s Dune books and the Mad Max films (I’m prepared to admit I may have imagined this, but I spotted Joe Dante’s underrated precursor to salvagepunk, the film Explorers).
If this fevered, fanboy excess of recycling, lovingly if not quite respectfully brought together, sounds alienating, readers should not be put off; the novel can quite easily be enjoyed without the need to recognise the shored-up references. Miéville’s pleasingly rhythmic language and ecstatic plotting rattle along at a good pace. If there’s a criticism to be made, it’s that the rush of ideas appear to come off the rails and run out of story – the plot reaches an abrupt end, the possibility left open for a sequel. This, however, is of small consequence given the journey the reader is taken on and the scenery along the way.