If you were to think of the works of China Mieville as a multicourse meal, Railsea would act as something like a palate cleanser between heavier, more consuming courses (that's right, I just called it Mieville's lemon sherbet). Following such weighty tomes as The City and the City, Embassytown, and Kraken, Mieville's latest work is still filled with ideas but is not philosophically complex. This is not to say that there aren't fresh ideas in Railsea—on the contrary, Railsea is packed with ideas that would give a lot of other writers an entire career to explore; Railsea instead tosses out ideas and moves on, not exploring every nook and cranny of them in the detail of Mieville's previous three novels. In fact, this novel acts more as a playground for Mieville as he experiments with narrative technique and voice, delighting the audience with light fare rather than delighting them with deep ideas.
The story follows Shamus ap Soorap as he attempts to discover a career for himself in a world where trains move between communities like sailing vessels of old (hence the title of the book). Sham, as he is known, finds himself the doctor's assistant on a train dedicated to hunting the prodigious subterranean creatures of this world—mole rats, burrowinging turtles, and digger bees (oh my!)—when all he really wants to be is a scavenger, dedicating his life to salvage the strange treasures that lie just underground and sometimes above it. The reader is immediately thrown into a hunt for a giant mole, establishing the explosiveness and momentum Railsea maintains throughout. The pace is often frenetic and when, about halfway through the novel, the narration divides into three parts, it only grows more frantic. And through it all Mieville uses a narrative voice that is not only omniscient but deliberate—the narrator discusses where to go next in the story, teasing the reader about when the story will return to the thread that the narrator imagines the reader finds most important (and by doing so making that thread the most important).
Described everywhere as a "young adult" novel (a term I have grown to despise—fodder for another blog entry perhaps), Railsea incorporates the balancing act that such fare must have. Consider the best "all ages" media (a MUCH better term): the story has to both entertain the younger audience and yet remain appealing to the adult audience. This is the great success of Pixar movies and the best animation, like Warner Brothers cartoons—children are enthralled by the escapades and adults appreciate the depth and humor that is often outside the younger audience's experience. What fertile ground for Mieville, whose career is made of playing with the borders of genre and trope! And he revels in the dance, appropriating the narrative techniques used for younger audiences and still writing a story that adults can return to. Children don't really care about the background of how this fantastic world was created, but adults will appreciate that the Earth has lost all of its seas to a global multinational war, and in fact that the railseas that the trains ride on are the actual beds of our oceans.
Similarly, younger readers will revel in Sham's captain, Naphi, and her quest for the great albino mole rat, Mocker Jack. Adults will recognize the parallels to Moby Dick, and appreciate the idea that each hunting captain pursues a great beast of their own across the wastes, a quest the captains term their philosophy. Melville plays with this idea giddily, pondering what happens when a captain achieves his or her philosophy—even going so far as to imagine a museum of completed philosophies, where the great captains enshrine their epic quests' souvenirs—and what happens if captains unintentionally share a philosophy. And adult readers read this and ponder life's obsessions, while younger readers can just be amazed at the tales of hunting giant burrowing locusts.
As always, Mieville's language is astounding. The sentences rattle with the life that Mieville gives them, fairly leaping off the page despite the neologisms that this new world forces into them. The setting and the plot spark allusions to such disparate stories as Mad Max and Dune, the effect of Mieville's conglomerative passion for pulling together wildly different influences in order to poke at their similarities.
The sum total of all the parts is fun—Railsea is a romp on many levels, moving quickly from idea to idea in a delight of creative excess. It continues Mieville's pattern of weird, and the weird made more weird by its similarity to what passes as normal. And while it invites more thought, unlike his more recent work, Railsea doesn't require a large commitment of thinking time. Railsea is thus a great summertime read for all ages and a tremendous introduction to the works of China Mieville and the potentials of the newer voices in speculative fiction.