Book #30: Railsea (2012)

00253511_mediumauthor: China Miéville
reader: Tom Lawrence
language: English
length: 719 minutes
finished reading listening on: 9 May 2013

A certain podcast that I listen to was offering a free Audible trial recently, so I managed somehow to snap it up even though I’d already gotten the free trial two or three years ago. So I got to listen to this for free, and then I managed to wrangle it down to half price for three months (by threatening to cancel) just to get to listen to more things. So I picked Railsea, which I think is the most recent of China Miéville’s books, and is in the “Young Adult” category – which I think just means there’s no swear words and the main character is a teenager. It took me around two months in total to finish it, part of which I attribute to listening “in tandem” with Miéville’s other book, The Scar. A lot of the listening was done on my bicycle on the way to work, a timeslot which is shared with podcasts, so some weeks I didn’t listen at all. But I’d be lying if I said it was as good as the other book. I should also note at this point that although I like listening to audiobooks, I often lose concentration, so sometimes I find it more difficult to keep up than I do with regular books. This might affect my perception of the novel, is all.

The concept of the Railsea wasn’t very well described by the synopsis, and it isn’t as easy to explain as the concept of some of Miéville’s other books. Essentially, the place that the main characters live doesn’t have a sea of water, but instead there is a mass of rails criss-crossing through a desert to the other island oases. In this desert there is a lot of wreckage and salvage, and people travel out to gather up old machinery and other interesting things. This isn’t a particularly easy concept to grasp, and unlike Miéville’s other books, he has to spend a lot of time explicitly explaining what’s what in his world – there are other oddities too, like the upper portion of the sky being poisonous and populated by dangerous birds, and the railsea itself being dangerous to walk across because of huge burrowing mole-rats and other delightful monsters (later I found out they’re actually illustrated in the print copy, so I sort of missed out on that). Some of it is never quite explained fully, though, such as how they manage to have water if there’s no ocean, because if there’s no ocean there’s no water cycle!

The main character, Sham, is a teenager who joins the crew of a moling train, basically a group of hunters. They travel around they find something so unusual that it turns their world upsidedown. When they travel, the book almost never uses language appropriate for train travel, and virtually always talks about the train as if it’s a ship, using nautical language. In some ways this was like a hindrance to my imagination, although there are some places where he’s obviously taking pains to make the train aspect obvious, talking about line switches and gauge separation. Because I was listening in tandem to reading “The Scar”, it felt almost easy to mix the two up, since The Scar actually is a story about seafaring. In any case, trains and ships seem to be a common theme with Miéville – they show up in Perdido Street Station a lot as well as The Scar, and Embassytown contains a lot of ship metaphors when talking about its version of space travel, too – and I think he sometimes uses them too simplistically as a metaphor for making a journey.

It becomes clear quite soon that the Railsea world is post-apocalyptic, and stems from overpollution of a certain region, and from train companies getting far too competitive with each other and oversaturating the land with railway lines. It’s not made clear to me whether this is supposed to be our own world after an apocalypse or not, because to me it seems like trains have been more and more replaced by cars, so the scenario doesn’t seem realistic. Miéville uses this constructed scenario to make a jab at capitalism.

For me, the book was OK, but it wasn’t the highlight of Miéville, and I had a lot of trouble visualising the world, just because the concept was so unusual. I think better things could have been done with the story, too. I wouldn’t recommend this as the first book to read by Miéville, but I think it was reasonable, and I also wouldn’t dismiss it entirely.

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