“The lines of the railsea go everywhere but from one place straight to another.”
This review contains spoilers.
Railsea is the first Mieville novel I’ve read for a while that even begins to measure up to Perdido Street Station and The Scar, easily two of my very favourite books. It’s also (at least nominally) a YA novel, which demonstrates just how much of an aberration the relentlessly bland Un Lun Dun was.
The novel is a riff on the literary behemoth that is Herman Melville’s Moby Dick. In Railsea, trains take the place of Melville’s ships, and it’s not whales that our heroes are hunting but enormous moles. I’m talking house-sized, here.
That’s not, though (and this, I suspect, is part of Mieville’s project), the main focus of the novel. Railsea follows Sham ap Soorap, a young man training as a doctor aboard one of the aforesaid moletrains, whose captain (Abacat Naphi) is obsessed with hunting a great white mole called Mocker-Jack. Sham is a familiar YA protagonist, in that while everyone around him is busy telling him what a good gig he’s got, he himself feels disaffected and indifferent to the work. Instead, Sham finds himself drawn to salvage. The earth of the railsea, an infinitely tangled, world-spanning expanse of railway lines punctuated by a few safe “islands” where humans live, is filled not only with predatory creatures ready to eat anyone who sets foot on the railsea (giant moles, enormous centipedes, earthworms as thick as your arm) but also centuries of rubbish: dishwashers, typewriters, CDs, and stranger things, artefacts from our imagined future as well as arcane technology dumped by passing aliens. This detritus of capitalism is collected by salvors, who Sham idolises for their semi-piratical devil-may-care aesthetic, their apparent knowledge of the secrets of the earth, the astonishing stuff they bring back from their expeditions.
The motif of Railsea, then, is aftermath. The novel itself is squatting in the ruins of Melville, of course, the great American novel of heroic conquest become a decidedly un-American, anticapitalist novel of quixotic pointlessness set amid environmental disaster, a novel which ultimately doesn’t care about its inherited quest for the white mole. Further: the book opens with Sham bloodsoaked, covered in the ruin of a mole his crewmates have just harpooned. When the moletrain puts in at a busy harbour, Sham meets two young people determined to find an end to the railsea: Dero and Caldera, whose names signify aftermath, the aftermath of a volcanic explosion. They live in the aftermath of their parents’ disappearance; Sham, in fact, brings them news of their death, and their entire presence in the novel is defined by their following in their parents’ footsteps. All the inhabitants of the railsea live in the misunderstood aftermath of capitalism, ecological disaster, mechanisation, reading the strange creatures that maintain the rails as angels, speaking rumours of a heaven that is a vale of tears. The novel lives in aftermath; it squats in the shattered ruins of old cultures and old stories.
It’s a strategy that reminds me a little, in fact, of T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, which famously declares
These fragments have I shored against my ruin,
“these fragments” being bits and pieces of Western culture, ripped out of context and any kind of relational meaning (“I can connect/Nothing with nothing”). It’s certainly interesting that Mieville seems to reuse Eliot’s imagery specifically of drought (“Here is no water but only rock/Rock and no water and the sandy road”), and that both works end with water (“I sat upon the shore/Fishing, with the arid plain behind me”): for the railsea, we discover, has actually been drained of water, deliberately, and the novel’s magnificent ending sees Sham reaching the end of the railsea, where the true sea lies, kept dammed back from running into the world again. In both works, water feels like a signifier of truth, a way to reconstitute and rejuvenate damaged and outmoded signifiers. In Mieville’s case, this reconstitution becomes almost a return to the original intertext, as Sham (the name a deliberate echo of Ishmael?) sails on a true sea, the sailor protagonised again.
Whereas Eliot’s text is a reaction to the First World War and the condition of modernism, Mieville’s is a response, more or less explicitly, to the condition of capitalism. This is where the aesthetics of salvage that permeate the novel come in: here’s Mieville on salvagepunk:
Capitalism itself is ineluctibly [sic] & always a system of salvage. It does not sweep away the “muck of ages”…but squats in it, shapes & is shaped by the shit in which it sits. It cobbles itself together from wreckage.
(from China Mieville’s blog)
Though Sham is drawn to the work of the salvors, the novel is constantly asking us to look through their swaggering aesthetic and see only perpetuation, not transcendence. A key tenet of Mieville’s world-building here is that the railsea is (ineluctably and always) multiple, looping, curving back on itself, a tangled infinite. Forget the romance of the train that takes you out of your life, away to something better and more interesting and different; here, the train (another signifier of capitalism, by the way, via the Industrial Revolution) only brings you back, again and again, to the same place, to squat in the muck of ages. The great myth that informs the novel is that of the single track, stretching to the horizon: a track that goes somewhere else. It’s this that Dero and Caldera are seeking in the wake of their dead parents, jeopardised by the treasure-obsessed (capitalist) agents of the port-cities of the railsea. They search for a way out of capitalism, a way away from treasure, a track to the truth and to difference.
It’s perhaps appropriate, in the light of this, that the novel ends with that redemptive glimpse of the sea, that rejuvenation of the exhausted signifier. Another of the many clevernesses that weave their way through Railsea is Mieville’s metatextual toying with the narration of his own story, which is likened to a train on a track. When the story reaches the sea, the end of the tracks, the novel must stop. But, further: if this story is a kind of Waste Land, generated from “the muck of ages”, fragments of centuries-old salvage, then that which is beyond the aesthetic of salvage is unnarratable to it. The rejuventation of the signifier must mean the end of (this) story, because it has no idiom, now, to express the newness of the post-capitalist world. Which, reading in reverse, means that, for Mieville, capitalism damages the signifier, the human impulse to tell stories, making narrative not a way to encounter otherness but only a stagnatory way of recycling old experience. Hence our need to rejuvenate that signifier, to make our way out of the desert of ignorance, to the sea.