Reading Railsea

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China Miéville’s Railsea just won a well-deserved Locus award. I imagine his trophy cabinet’s getting pretty full right now, and deservedly so. Railsea is a great story, full of ingenuity and originality, just like most of Miéville’s work.

Railsea is the story of Sham, an apprentice doctor on a mole hunting train. This set-up is analogous to a whaling ship, but in a dystopian world where endless train tracks wind between isolated islands of safety and civilisation. This is a young adult novel, with the inevitable character arc of personal growth, building confidence and learning about the wider world. But that’s not a short-coming. It makes for a strong, familiar arc that helps carry the reader through a lot that’s unfamiliar.

Because the unfamiliar is where Miéville really excels. As with The City And The City, he’s taken a completely different starting point from most fantasy and extrapolated it into a rich and fascinating world, with its own politics, cultures, and of course hazards for the characters to overcome.

Miéville uses a variety of different literary tricks to help build the story. He references other novels – most obviously Moby Dick – in ways that don’t disrupt the story. You don’t have to get the references to understand what’s happening, or to enjoy the parts of the story where they take place. It’s just that, for example, knowing Thomas the Tank Engine gives one scene extra appeal.

If you look, you can see the tools on display here. Cliffhangers, foreshadowing, and the set-up of story elements for later all help build the tension and structure the story. Meta-textual details, such as interspersing the text with illustrations of the story’s wild beasts, help build the semi-Victorian tone and add variety to the reading experience. Again, this adds to the sense of the unfamiliar, of something new and exciting and a bit scary.

This is a book that’s smart, that treats its audience as smart, that encourages and supports the audience in reading in a smart way. It rewards careful reading without punishing those who just want to crack on through the adventure. It proves that fantasy can use radically different settings without losing its audience.

Go read Railsea. It deserves that award, and it deserves your time. And then read some more of Miéville’s books, because the things that are great about this are what’s great about all his work. I can’t wait to see what he comes out with next.