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Meof50days

Meof50days

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Don Calame
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Railsea - China Miéville Disclaimer: I received this book from Del Rey!

That said, a giveaway is probably the guaranteed way I would have read Railsea, because it has been described on the jacket as "a brilliantly imagined take on Herman Melville's Moby Dick" and I have a long and sordid enmity with that book. It's not just me, many people hear "Herman Melville remastered" and take a brisk walk in the other direction. However, I know China Miéville a much lauded speculative/sci-fi master. And this is Moby Dick with trains and killer mole rats! I would not be a self-respecting sci-fi nerd if I didn't admit that idea intrigued me.

So whose influence won out? Melville's sail-winded epic or Miéville's dry (in environment and wit) reimagining?

For me, China Miéville made me enjoy the world he built, made me appreciate the literary origins it came from and made me think about the changes he made, which means he was handily the victor. But this novel is not for everyone. It is a genre book and an odd swirl of bildungsroman, meta commentary, and wild reworkings of a dystopian world. It works best for the proper audience, so here's a basic list of which side readers might fall into.

You might not enjoy Railsea if:
a tight plot and the development of interpersonal relationships are necessary for your interest
when someone dumps you in a dystopian AU you cannot rest until you determine the hows and whys of this world make sense (trust me, that way lies madness)
an ampersand killed your family and the very sight of it fills you with rage

You will love Railsea if:
China Meiville's style of linguistic worldbuilding that meanders rather than sprints towards its destination is your thing
giant killer mole rats vs harpooner trains are super cool, you don't need to know the how or why only that it's GIANT KILLER MOLE RATS VS HARPOONER TRAINS
you enjoy some sly digressions of philosophy and metanarrative comments that are much less serious than Melville, Miéville's predecessor

In general, Railsea works because its world and narrative operate the same way; both adding a genuineness to the other. There are paths that often sidetrack and diverge only to connect later on, but they never feel lost or out of the author's control. Like Melville, there are chapters detailing the system behind this world of infinite rails and giant tunnel animals. There are some explaining history, language, myths, and a few sly winks of meta narrative. For example, some chapters start as digressions that other plot threads are still ongoing but it is not their time to come back. After four chapters delaying the B plot of the Shroake twins in favor of our protagonist's fate, then saying, in all sincerity "It's is, in fact, yes, Shroake O'Clock" makes you realize that the narration may be sincere, but not entirely serious.

Like Mobdy Dick there is a captain obsessed with a mythical white beast and a young man out of place who becomes our protagonist. I feel Sham ap Soorap is defined by his lack of definition, he doesn't want to be on a mole hunting train, he doesn't want to be a doctor's assistant, and even the times he decides to take charge of his wishes seem half-baked and aimless. This works for the story, but it is admittedly harder to be invested in his welfare. China Miéville's characters more inhabit the world and are defined by their circumstances than their personalities define the way the world is examined. The one best characterized is Captain Ahab's proxy--Captain Naphi. Her obsession with Mocker-Jack has the intensity of the original source, even when Miéville deconstructs it like the part at the end where we find out her arm was never taken by Mocker-Jack, but she pretended it was in order to justify her single minded pursuit.

Railsea is a story of finding purpose, but not specifically in any one person, goal, or even giant mole rat. In a market where most YA novels are fast paced POVs detailing worlds gone wrong, this novel takes long ways around. If you find the journey enjoyable it's a worthwhile read. You don't go into it trying to get answers about how an ecosystem can sustain itself full of train tracks, dry spaces and giant subterranean dwellers, we don't know if aliens inhibit the poisonous sky, and the end is a settling open ended pause rather than a tightly wrapped bow. You do not have to love Moby Dick to love it (thank goodness for me!) but the language and the small nuances are the points that draw you in the way Melville brought maritime culture to America in the past. Drink up me hearties yo-ho.


Also, thank you China Miéville for not writing about the hunters skinning the giant mole's penis and putting it on like a cassock. That is a comparison I'm glad you left for Melville.