Railsea – China Miéville

I’ve always believed that fiction is, at best, very problematically related to the real world; and this, to a degree, is the reason why I don’t review many so-called “realist” novels, as I find the greater part of that entire genre (yup, “genre”) to be so much hubristic bullshit.  Having read Railsea, China Miéville’s extraordinary riff on Moby Dick, I’m pretty sure that he feels the same way.  The metaphorically loaded setting allows for an exuberant and playful examination of not only the ways that narrative relates to anything ‘real’, but the fundamental relationships between literary texts, and the fact that meaning isn’t some solid unity of ideas offered up by the writer, but a reader-created end point: a subjective culmination of interpretation, reading history and individual political and moral proclivities.

To achieve this examination, China Miéville has written a book rampant with puns, false references, deliberate misappropriations of the literary canon, and an absolute obsession with the idea of salvage, re-use and doubling.  Reading Railsea, I was continually reminded of Roland Barthes’ seminal essay ‘The Death of the Author’, and the continental notion that all texts are “a tissue of quotations” taking cues from “innumerable centres of culture”, leading in countless directions all at once; a concept for which, if you want to be twee about it, the Railsea itself stands as a great big metaphor.

In Railsea, China Miéville challenges the implied directionality of narrative by having his narrator constantly break the fourth wall and tease the reader with questions and misdirects about the plot’s chronology, its twists and turns and doubling-backs.  Not only is this a nice nod to Moby Dick’s “Call me Ishmael” reader address, which likewise serves to undermine the reader’s confidence in the narrative’s reliability, but it’s also a pleasing echo of the meandering, looping, back-peddling trains that dominate the book’s imagery. To this extent, I’d hazard to describe Railsea as the first example of post-structuralist teenage fiction I’ve ever read (“a book for readers of all ages” is how it’s being marketed, and in plotting and characterisation at least, it definitely is a YA novel – a raucous teenage bildungsroman with an attendant absence of the profanity and sex that so colours China Miéville’s other work). It’s also gloriously silly.  But characteristic of Miéville’s oeuvre, there’s plenty here for grownups like ..er.., I guess… me. Indeed, Railsea might also be the world’s first example of teenage fiction to contain an impassioned discussion about the vagaries of the floating signifier.  And this isn’t just some tendentious post-facto theorising on my part; Railsea delights in its roots and, much like the inhabitants of its setting, it forges its own identity by melding together what the past has left behind: there’s a kind of traditionality here that manifests in the book’s iconography, language and events.  Railsea is literary salvage.

Parenthetically, I should note however that i) the book isn’t some pompous and grandiose attempt to re-write Moby Dick; Miéville treats his sources playfully – substituting the White Whale with the “bone-yellow mole” is daft, and the text knows it – and ii) I hope what I’ve said above doesn’t give the impression that Railsea is unoriginal or in any way plagiaristic – it’s as fiercely creative and as protean as you’d expect, albeit within a specific literary mode.

And that mode is the ‘Sea Quest’.  While I’d hesitate to use the word ‘uncanny’, Railsea unremittingly presents the reader with the familiar tropes and literary procedures of classic maritime adventure stories, albeit deracinated from their original contexts and placed instead within a world that has endured at least one apocalypse, one alien visitation and a whole miasma of climate change. The Railsea itself, for example, is more akin to a vast desert than an ocean; criss-crossed with so many rail lines that a train can, via some vividly described switching mechanisations, pretty much travel wherever it wants. If this seems counter-intuitive (trains unbound by the conventional limits of track to act more like ships than, well, trains), then you’d be right:  Railsea’s defining aesthetic is this re-placing of traditional maritime staples within a steampunk or fantasy (or whatever you want to call it) world.

The protagonist, for instance, is your prototypical cabin boy with ideas above his station; he’s charmingly presented – likeable in a way that so many over-ambitious and precocious heroes of modern teen fiction just, aren’t – his journey is driven more by the impetus of curiosity and investigative clout than some flood of Big, Important events beyond his immediate control.  There’s also a tentative back-story that hints at a personal childhood tragedy but without wallowing in the melancholic; a level of authorly restraint which I found particularly refreshing.  This hero is knowingly named ‘Sham’, which is not just a further indicator of the layers of fakery and salvage that pepper the narrative, but also a wry joke on Miéville’s part; an expression of comic humility over what he’s doing to Moby Dick.  There are pirate ships, slave galleys, wrecks,  sea monsters (okay, okay ‘Rail’sea monsters – both organic and mechanical), mutinies, bawdy ports, cannon battles and sea lore; and while it’s impressive quite how many facets of the classic sea adventure Miéville has managed to cram into the book, there’s the occasional passage that’s just too much, and smacks more of genre trope box-ticking than anything serviceable to the plot – notably a marooning on a desert island/‘Man Friday’ sequence that the book could probably do without, and a few too many pirate chases, which eventually begin to stifle the plot and hinder the momentum.

But why, Tomcat, you ask, why this explicit focus on form? Well, these relatively abstruse concepts of genre appropriation, doubling, copies of copies, and a narrator that calls into question the reliability of his own story – these are the foundations of Railsea’s structure, rather than some patina achieved through a gimmicky prose style and just pasted over the narrative.  Obviously the fiction works on a literalized level, so you don’t have to be into the theory of storytelling to enjoy the book – but it’s always nice to know that such ideas underpin the writing, rather than simply sugar coat it.  The central message of Railsea might be: narrative is unreliable and ungraspable and tricksy, but fuck it, let’s embrace it all the same.


The obligatory treasure map, for example, is a description of a photograph of a photograph – a kind of blurry remove from the original landscape in much the same way that Railsea is a blurry remove from Moby Dick, or Literature is removed from the everyday, waking world. A copy: the same, but not the same. It’s a mise-am-abime that serves as a metaphor for the way texts reproduce themselves within other texts. What the treasure hunters are following isn’t a faithful reproduction of the real world – it’s a, kinda… sham.  Such problems of authenticity are comically counterpointed in the book’s Ahab analogue – the damaged and obsessive Captain Abacat Naphi (note the Captain Ahab anagram) – whose prosthetic arm is eventually exposed as a fake fake – a shell covering very human insides.  This offers a pleasing bathos to the apparent nobility of her quest to kill the White Mole, and exposes her “philosophy” (as she calls it, as if she’s read and understood Moby Dick on a level that most of us couldn’t) as being as much about glory and a constructed personal narrative than it is about revenge.  What’s significant to Naphi isn’t that her arm was really lost, or that the White Mole dies at her hands, but that there are stories of her arm being lost and that there are stories about the White Mole dying at her hands; stories to be reproduced and told over and over.  One of Railsea’s most memorable passages is the description of previous captains’ successful hunts – Naphi is captivated by these: she wants to be a story.  What’s significant is the narrative representation of her adventure – Naphi’s “philosophy” isn’t a quest for revenge, but a quest for narrative.


I’m wary of making any grand claims that China Miéville adheres to theory x or theory y; and I definitely wouldn’t suggest that the Derridean dogma “There is nothing outside the text” is the heuristic that Railsea is attempting to espouse.  But a challenge to the veracity of narrative is unquestionably part of Railsea’s aesthetic – and even if constantly questioning the truth content or value of what we’re told is not a particularly useful ontology (a way of approaching the world), it makes for a very fruitful and interesting poetics (way of approaching a text).  There’s more that I could go into, such as the quasi-devotional Moletrain refrain of “Well grubbed Old Mole”, which is actually a direct quote from Marx, which is actually a deliberate misquote of Hamlet etc. but I don’t want to get too list-like in exploring these kinds of removes – hell, there’s loads of them!

Sorry if you were hoping for a more comprehensive overview, but there are plenty of great Railsea reviews that focus on plotting and characterisation, and even some good debates over its suitability as teen fiction etc. etc. – and I encourage you to check these out.  For what it’s worth, I think Railsea is amazing – and if none of this narrative theory stuff is your particular brand of literary tote bag, don’t worry – the book has baddies and goodies and chases and violence and jokes;  and monsters too – in buckets.