A hunt for the great white mole
reviews the latest book from fantasy author China Miéville, a young adult novel with deliberate echoes of Herman Melville's Moby-Dick.
The following review may contain minor spoilers.
RAILSEA, THE most recent book by British fantasy author China Miéville and his second novel written ostensibly for "young adult" readers, might best be described in the words of another great writer, Salman Rushdie, as "a creature which would be impossible if it did not exist."
Sham ap Soorap, the novel's teenaged narrator and protagonist, is a doctor's aide on the Medes--a train which roams the wide world of the "railsea," which is exactly what it sounds like. The Medes hunts creatures called "moldywarpe," giant moles which burrow under the railsea. The captain of the Medes is set on pursuing a certain moldywarpe, ivory-colored, which took her arm years and years ago.
From that description, which appears in so many words on Railsea's dust jacket, you might have already realized something a bit familiar. But though the novel begins as a somewhat hallucinatory riff on Herman Melville's Moby-Dick, Miéville is not content with this.
An encounter with an intelligent and adept pair of young siblings who seek to complete their parents' work--finding the end of the seemingly endless rails--takes Sham and the reader in a completely different direction. By the end of the book you will have traveled with Sham ap Soorap through the equally bizarre worlds of rail salvage, piracy and navies to the edge of the railsea and beyond.
Though I admit it took me a little while to get into Railsea, by the end, I was as gripped as I have been by any one of Miéville's narratives. I found myself reveling in the strange world of the railsea, and fascinated to see where Miéville would go next. This should be unsurprising of course from an author who has made things like a deadly race of mosquito people (The Scar) and a zombie giant squid (Kraken), to name just two examples, take on a searing reality in the minds of readers.
As with every other Miéville book, a major component of Railsea, where many readers like myself will find a great deal of enjoyment, is in the politics we find embedded in the narrative. Miéville is a self-proclaimed revolutionary and member of the British Socialist Workers' Party, and his strength as an author is that he is able to weave together a compelling fantasy narrative with a forthrightly revolutionary Marxist view of the world.
PICASSO ONCE said that though none of his paintings were about the Spanish Civil War per se, every single one of the paintings had the war in them. We might say much the same for Marxism in Miéville's novels.
Marxism in young adult fiction--surely that is not the most intuitive of combinations. Yet, I don't think there is any reason why it can't work. If someone were to challenge Marxists to produce a compelling young adult novel, I doubt anyone would be better suited for the task than China Miéville. Though it may be adult Marxists who revel the most in a quote he uses from The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, not getting this reference will not impair the enjoyment of the work to any young reader, I think.
Even the initial premise of Railsea as an echo of Moby-Dick contains an embedded political critique. Melville, a member of the "Dark Romantic" American writers who took his stand as a radical abolitionist during the Civil War, was acutely aware of the systematic problems of the rising capitalist society.
In his famous story "Bartleby, the Scrivener," he took on the deeply alienating nature of the labor process under capitalism. In Moby-Dick, the masterpiece which Miéville is pleased to echo, Captain Ahab's compulsive chase after the white whale which took his leg has been read as a metaphor for the capitalist's mad race for profit, which is blind to all human needs.
The universe of Railsea, scattered islands in a vast ocean of railway lines that is every bit as confusing and delightful as any of other of Miéville's worlds, has a dark secret in its history which its natives call the "godsquabble." As one of the characters tells Sham ap Soorap, the rulers of the old world "were trying to make money again. With public works. People paid for passage, and rulers paid for every mile of build...They were competing, all putting down new routes all over the place. Ruthless, because the more they built the more they made."
The pollution caused in building the rails poisons the atmosphere, but it cannot stave off the final ruin of the old rulers. Eventually, "all they left were the rails. We live in the aftermath of business bickering."
This is quite a dark tone for a young adult novel. I have tried my best not to completely spoil the plot of the book. Yet, by the end, which contains an explicit challenge to the politics of austerity that we see on display now from the United States to Greece, it turns out to be a surprisingly hopeful message--all the more powerful since it comes from a completely unexpected quarter.
Railsea comes highly recommended for all who are active in the struggle for a better world, especially those who are young readers--who we will certainly need to help us carry on the fight.