An imaginative reworking of the classic tale of Moby Dick by a daring and experimental author, Railsea (2012) is a fantasy work steeped in false science and the drama of humans at hunt. In place of the famous leviathan is Mocker-Jack, a great southern moldywarpe (giant mole), and the setting is a distant post-apocalyptic trash-planet traversed by train tracks forming a ‘railsea’.
The reader trails through this world behind the faintly unlikeable, passive protagonist Shamus Yes ap Soorap (Sham), an apprentice doctor in the service of Abicat Naphi, captain of the Medes (the female equivalent of Captain Ahab). In contrast to the impotent and colourless protagonist is a scarcely explored, vibrant world that is dangled tantalisingly on the peripheries of the main narrative.
Continuing his tradition of toying with language, Miéville litters the text with curious turns of phrase and invented words that might make a Baby Boomer frown, but should pose no problem to the liberally-minded students of a university campus.
This is not an exercise in easy reading, and can be demanding upon one’s imaginative capabilities, with the author creating such vivid and unique imagery that one must pause to fully comprehend and appreciate what is being described. This made it a particularly strong contrast with the book I read immediately prior— the poorly written, but fairly steamy and easy-to-read, 50 Shades of Grey (I’m very single right now).
In true postmodern fashion, Miéville readily breaks the fourth wall to matter-of-factly explain the reasoning behind aspects of the narrative’s structure and layout. Yet despite this, a third of the way through, it inexplicably about-turns and becomes an action-adventure novel at odds with everything up until then. Mirroring this, Sham abruptly develops courage and leadership skills completely out-of-character, that have a crew who never liked him following him into the railsea’s equivalent of the Green Zone. The world Miéville has created is spectacular, but this is an uncharacteristic error from the experienced novelist.
Best bit: An imaginative treat, you will understand only two-thirds of what you read.
Worst bit: A stand-alone text, you are unable to return to explore this fully formed world and satisfy your longing for the railsea.
Samuel J. Cox bought his baby nephew a pair of Louis Vuittons to “grow into.”