Monday, July 2, 2012

Railsea by China Miéville

Anytime I’m in the mood for something completely different, China Miéville’s genre-defying speculative fiction delivers. In Un Lun Dun, a young adventurer encounters predatory smog, sentient garbage and flesh-eating giraffes in a world beneath London. City and the City is a police procedural complicated by jurisdiction because two separate cities are contained in one folded bit of time and space. Railsea is a rollicking retelling of Moby-Dick, except with trains instead of ships and a giant ivory-coloured mole named Mocker-Jack instead of a whale.

Miéville’s language is as playful as can be. “There was a time when we did not form all words as now we do, in writing on a page. There was a time when the word “&” was written with several distinct & separate letters. It seems madness now.”

Young Sham ap Soorap is a doctor’s apprentice on the moletrain Medes, captained by Abacat Naphi. “The Medes passed the clatter & clank of diesel vehicles like their own. Past the shrill fussy shenanigans of steam trains that spat & whistled & burped dirty clouds, like irritating godly babies, & others. The railsea: a vast & various train ecosystem.”

Captain Naphi lost her left arm to Mocker-Jack, so now that mole has become her obsession – her philosophy.

“Not every captain had [a philosophy], but a fair proportion grew into a close antipathy-cum-connection with one particular animal, which they came to realise or decide – to decidalise – embodied meanings, potentialities, ways of looking at the world. At a certain point, & it was hard to be exact but you knew it when you saw it, the usual cunning thinking about professional prey switched onto a new rail & became something else – a faithfulness to an animal that was now a worldview.”

“Shiverjay ran a finger down a rumour-list, past tales of the largest badger, albino antlions, aardvarks of prodigious size. Some had the names of captains marked alongside. Some had more than one: oh, those were awkward occasions, clashes of hunt. What to do when more than one philosopher sought the same symbol? It was notoriously embarrassing.”

“There were times, Sham felt, when the captains regretted there being only two types of limb they could lose to their obsessions. On the whole, you were a leg person or an arm person: had one a tail to lose, a pair of prehensile tentacles, a wing or two, it would increase the possibilities for those vivid scars of philosophising.”

Encouraging a crewmember to get to the point, Captain Naphi asks him to “expedite this journey relevance-ward.” No need to rush, in my view. The journey is such fun! An adventure suitable for readers age 10 to adult.

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