Bengaluru folks had this in the Books page on Sunday:
Train spotting: Railsea
By the time you reach chapter 33 of Railsea, you’ve probably accepted author China Miéville’s use of the ampersand in place of ‘and’ (even at the start of sentences) as an idiosyncrasy. There are odder, more fantastical things that you’ve encountered in the novel, one-third of which is over by now. You’ve met Sham, the young protagonist, and through him been introduced to the large tracts of earth that are considered dangerous and can only be traversed by a looping, tangled network of rails, known as railsea. The predators in Sham’s world are giant, bloodthirsty versions of animals we consider largely harmless, like moles (or “moldywarpes”). You know that here, there are two “layers” of sky and four layers of earth. The railsea is on “flatearth”, the second level, and connects habitable lands (layer three) as well as going off into dangerous, unpeopled terrains. There are ancient stories, blurred by the passage of time, about the beginning of the rails. Now, as far as this civilisation is concerned, the railsea’s eternal continuity is the unshakeable plinth upon which this society rests.
Then in chapter 33, Miéville tells the reader that at one time & was written “with several distinct and separate letters”. Then people learnt to ride the railsea and with it came the use of &. “What word better could there be to symbolise the railsea that connects and separates all lands, than ‘&’ itself?… & what better embodies, in the sweep of the pen, the recurred motion of the trains, than ‘&’?” With that, the idiosyncratic suddenly makes sense and you have to doff your cap to Miéville for how elaborately he has imagined Railsea.
The novel presents geography and geology differently from the way we know them and in the pages of the novel is a culture that seems familiar but is also unsettlingly unfamiliar. Child labour is rampant but it isn’t abusive. The most unexpected animals are fearsome, like ants and owls. Words have different meanings. For example, when the captain of a train identifies one particular animal as their personal nemesis and decides to hunt it, that quest is called a philosophy. One of the more evocative parts of the book is when Sham is in a place called Manhiki and in Miéville’s descriptions, Sham’s wonderment at this “mongrel place” is mirrored in the reader. “History seemed meaningless here, or at least bewildered. …shops, stalls & hawkers selling bottles & magnets. Flowers & cameras. Illustrations of beasts & angels punishing the hubristic, sneaking out at night & fixing rails, of swirling-winged birds from beyond the world.”
Two quests power the novel forward — one, inspired by Moby Dick, is for a white moldywarpe that Sham’s captain, Abacat Naphi; the other is Sham’s own, for a place that he’s seen in a photo where the tangle of railsea distils down to a single rail. It’s not particularly difficult to deduce how these quests conclude, whether or not you’ve read Moby Dick. There’s only one place where train tracks end and only a few possibilities when it comes to hunting an animal. Miéville’s staunch Marxism results in a ludicrous episode near the end. “Big men and women … ape-like, wolf like, fatly feline” — symbolising greedy capitalists — lumber up and ask for money they believe is owed to them from centuries ago. They’re more ridiculous than menacing and are the weakest part of Railsea.
It takes a while to settle into the world of Railsea, and not just because it begins with Sham faced with literally a mountain of bloody flesh (his crew has killed a moldywarpe). It’s a gory beginning and one that gives the reader fair warning that the world of Railsea is a brutal one. There seems to be little room for kindness and more delicate emotions here. By the end of the book, on the other hand, a very different expanse faces Sham and the harshness of the reality has been blunted by emotional bonds forged during the course of the journeys across the railsea.
Miéville’s novels have a reputation of creating steampunk fantasies that feel almost organic. In comparison to some of Miéville’s more celebrated work, like The City And The City, Railsea is slack and, much like the rails, the plot goes around in circles. But it’s still impressively imagined and Miéville’s inventive use of language makes reading the novel much like going on a treasure hunt. In Railsea, however, the hunt is more engaging than the treasure.