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a black book cover showing a mole surfacing from a tangle of cogs, picked out in yellow - the author's name is in large white letters at the top of the cover


'On board the moletrain Medes, Sham Yes ap Soorap watches in awe as he witnesses his first moldywarpe hunt: the giant mole bursting from the earth, the harpoonists targeting their prey, the battle resulting in one’s death and the other’s glory. But no matter how spectacular it is, Sham can't shake the sense that there is more to life than traveling the endless rails of the railsea–even if his captain can think only of the hunt for the ivory-coloured mole she’s been chasing since it took her arm all those years ago. When they come across a wrecked train, at first it's a welcome distraction. But what Sham finds in the derelict—a series of pictures hinting at something, somewhere, that should be impossible—leads to considerably more than he'd bargained for. Soon he's hunted on all sides, by pirates, trainsfolk, monsters and salvage-scrabblers. And it might not be just Sham's life that's about to change. It could be the whole of the railsea.' (source)


Continuing their theme of being full on China Miéville fan-girls, Maree and Jodie read his new YA novel in August 2012, 'Railsea'. Predictably they had A LOT to say:

Jodie: This is probably the most excited I've been to discuss a book in ages because 'Railsea' was just so much fun for me to read. I giggled out loud (this rarely happens outside of books by Terry Pratchett or Danny Wallace). I feel like I spent the last two weeks on an intellectual romp, where all the jokes were funny and smart rather than laboured and "intelligent". So I guess first I want to know was it the same for you - how was your reading experience?

Maree: My reading experience was similar. I was pulling for Sham so very hard, and the Shroake siblings? BEST characters.

It's a YA novel for sure, but it's so very clever. You can see Miéville's intellectualism all over it, but it's very accessible. And what other writer would write a romp like this, set it in some distant dystopic future, make it a Moby Dick ... is it allegory I want? and STILL make it hugely fun and thinky.

It's SO clever and yes, I love it. :D



Avast me hearties, but 'ware the spoilers.

Jodie: When I saw him talk he kept saying that Moby Dick was a peg to hang this story on, so 'Railsea' is not a direct re-telling. I think allegory is right (but don't quote me). This novel takes a story about an animal which was symbolic for Captain Ahab (that damn white whale) and turns it into a story where a big tooth coloured mole is Captain Naphi's philosophy. So it's like a transformed allegory, with bonus commentary on making symbols out of things.

Maree: I also loved that the philosophies was something standard. Like all the train captains had their own philosophy, and calling it a philosophy made it ... ugh, I've been awake since 4am what do I mean? Legitimate? It's perfectly acceptable - even expected - that the captains would pursue their own personal Moby Dicks. (Still jealous you got to see him in real life btw).

Jodie: On this: 'It's perfectly acceptable - even expected - that the captains would pursue their own personal Moby Dicks.' - yes society is perfectly accepting of this, but I think Shram is used to critique this idea, for example there are moments like this:

'The crew cheered. They raise raucous support for the hunt, for the end of uncertainty. "For the captain's philosophy!" The shout was taken up across the decks, from every carraige of the train. Really? Sham thought.


I've got a feeling the book contains a line that doesn't approve of philosophies and turning things into symbols, which is why it takes 'Moby Dick' as it's starting point. Feelings?

Maree: In the world of the book, philosophies are accepted and celebrated, which I did find a bit startling. I was relieved, I think, to find Shram questioning that - ideal, almost. The captains who had completed their philosophies were celebrated, but at what cost to their persona lives and to the lives of those around them? I just find it fascinating that he's created this culture where obsession isn't something that's looked at sideways but celebrated as a major achievement.

Jodie: I loved Sham so much and the way he'd made such an impact on his trainmates. After they thought he'd run off to salvage they all kept talking about him. The pub crawl is probably one of my favourite moments from the novel.

Maree: Sham is one of those quiet characters, I think, that kind of grows on you. I mean, if you knew him in real life, that's how he'd come across, and I loved the fact his train-mates missed him when he was gone. The pub crawl was great because it showed the kind of camaraderie that would be forged with a lot of people working at such close quarters, and what happens when they can let loose a bit.

Jodie: And the Shroakes are excellent, as you say. I really liked how towards the end, Miéville kept delaying the return to their story line and teasing the reader. It was fun, although it didn't really build tension for me. I was reading in such a ragged way this time, ten minutes here and there, whereas I usually make sure to dedicate a couple of hours to Miéville novels because I need to marshal brain power and be fully immersed. But it looked like it'd be effective if you read in big chunks. How did you find that part of the book?

Maree: I read the last 100 or so pages in one go, and that continual tease with the Shroakes was perfect. I knew he'd get back to it, and every time he'd go "The Shroakes? Not yet ..." I was getting a little bit tense, because you never know when/if he's going to pull the rug out from under you (see: Dane in Kraken). So that part worked really well for me because I was able to just sink in to the last third of the story. I think possibly Caldera and Dero Shroake are now some of my favourite characters in literature anywhere.

The character that surprised me the most was actually Captain Naphi - can we talk about her story? I just found her slightly fascinating.

Jodie: Oh Naphi. I really enjoyed her story too. I was worried about how gender-switching a character that is soooo obsessive and harsh in the original source (going off the film - disclosure: I have not read 'Moby Dick' yet) from male to female would sit with me. But Miéville is so good at making his world just casually balanced with both genders represented, like the real world. So, although Naphi is obsessive and one of the main female characters I never felt like there was any gender judgement being made through her character if that makes sense. Like all the other female characters and male characters she's a character/person not her gender.

I was also really glad that Shram pulls her back from the brink when she tries to follow her philosophy. We talked a lot about negative intervention when we chatted about 'Iron Council' and I thought the idea of intervention got a really positive spin here. Like, Naphi wants to make that choice to end her life and follow her obsession, but Shram stops her. And while he has saved her, he's not lauded with traditional hero saving plaudits or at least the book doesn't make a big deal out of his saving. And he hasn't doomed her because he's cut her off from that death completion either. She goes on, she walks the rail, she gets in the boat and you feel that she'll become something new, although she'll never quite be separate from her original obsession. That mole will always be with her, but I'm not sure it will haunt her - do you know what I mean?

Maree: No, that makes perfect sense. Naphi is shaped far more by her circumstances and her philosophy. Her gender - and the genders of most of the characters - are pretty much incidental, which I like.

I was relieved, I have to say, when Shram saved her life. I had a moment of 'but what's she going to do now?' because her basic reason for living was gone, but then, of course it wasn't long before she found a new philosophy. The song remains the same, in a way, but it rounded Naphi out in a way I really liked. The mole will always be a part of her, that's what kept her going for so long, but she can apply that passion to a new philosophy and a new life. Essentially, she's a captain and a leader, and she still has that chance at the end of the book.

Jodie: I was glad Shram saved her too, even though I feel a bit iffy about her having her choice taken away, because like you say she finds a way to make a new (if similar) choice without the death. What can I say - I want people to survive *shrug*. I am never going to be over Dane, Maree. Never. We will just be a club of two, loving and glaring at that book.

How do you feel about the fake amputation? I think I wanted the implications of that explored more maybe?

Maree: The fake amputation ... I was actually surprised by that. And I was expecting ... more? From the crew especially who she'd basically been deceiving that whole time. Having said that, I kind of liked the way it was just folded into the story, if that makes any sense - lol.

Jodie: Yes, I expected more from people after the fake amputation, at least I thought they'd want to know why she did it. But then her persona is so strong that no one really ever questions her (until she totally loses her way). Oh and I think I know what you mean about it being nice that the fake amputation does just fold into the story, that's how I feel about a lot of Miéville's stuff. On the one hand I wish he'd make more of certain issues and explore them, but then on the other I love how naturally he takes EVERYTHING. Like, nothing is an issue, everything is normal. That normalisation is very powerful. I find myself feeling like my view of the world has been reshaped into something more encompassing by the end of his books.

But maybe I am still glaring at 'Railsea' a little bit, because of Robalson's death :( I know he is a terrible person who kidnaps Shram, but if he hadn't become a pirate/privateer they could have been friends. Great friends. I am imagining grown up Shram and Robalson on drinking benders together, singing shanties :( Now there will never be any fan-fic for this :(

Maree: Ahhhh Robalson :( Yes, I could have seen him and Shram being friends, once Shram had forgiven him for the whole kidnapping thing. They could have raised some rabble for sure.

Jodie: Something I've been thinking about after finishing 'Railsea', which is my fourth Mieville book, is that he's a writer really preoccupied with the end and what comes after. In each of the three books we read together before 'Railsea' he gives a different 'not quite death, but maybe death' ending to a character (in 'The City and the City' Borlu joins Breach, in 'Kraken' Billy is transported and so becomes a new Billy, in 'Iron Council' the train ends up in suspended animation). In 'Railsea' Naphi's suicide is forestalled and she ends up with Shram in the boat, which even though it isn't a death to me feels very resonant of something like J M Barrie's 'awfully big adventure'. It feels like a trip into the complete unknown, which is perhaps tied in symbolically with a journey into the afterlife (although I suppose we should be wary of reading symbols into a book about the problems of metaphors)?

Maree: Oh, I like that. Miéville's big adventures - yes. His characters do always seem to step into a great unknown, don't they? (Aside though - I still haven't forgiven him for Dane - lol). Like the end of the story, isn't really the end of the story - just a start of a whole new adventure. Except, maybe, for the train in Iron Council. That still makes me feel a bit shuddery.

Jodie: On the subject of this particular ending - what did you think? Does the tongue in cheek fantasy commentary on modern life (the huge bills that keep gaining interest, which represent Europe's current financial problems) feel as well worked to you as the commentary on literature in the rest of the book?

Maree: The ending ... I'm not sure how I feel about the ending. I like the idea of the ending, I think, more than I like the execution of it, if that makes sense. It felt ... I don't know, a little wavery? I'm not sure how to put it into words - lol.

Jodie: Maybe Miéville still doesn't quite know how to do happy, so he made something that is supposed to be open ended, but that ends up feeling a bit vague to you? I like that the ending lets you imagine things though. Fan-fic territory ahoy. Still it's kind of hard to take such an optimistic ending from such an author I associate so strongly with "killer endings" I guess, even though I was hoping so hard for a happy ending. Maybe happy, but new adventure endings are going to feel more wavy than death endings...everything isn't quite as clear cut. I'm not sure.

I think the ending makes this the easiest Miéville book to recommend Like before I would be a bit tentative about recommending his books. 'Railsea' is a lot easier to throw at people without so many reservations, which is great.

Maree: I can deal with open endings better than unhappy. I imagine them all going off on a great adventure over the seas - like the Grey Havens in Lord of the Rings, but not ending in, you know, death. And the captain - I don't know if this makes sense, but it feels like being a captain is fundamental to her nature. She's obviously going to take over the navigation of the ship, and drive them all on via her new philosophy, but my question is - that's only just occurred to me - would they have been able to do it without her? I mean, you can't just randomly go off sailing. You need skills.

Jodie: You realise I am one of those people who has never got past the part where the elves start singing in 'LotR', right? :P

'She's obviously going to take over the navigation of the ship, and drive them all on via her new philosophy, but my question is - that's only just occurred to me - would they have been able to do it without her? I mean, you can't just randomly go off sailing. You need skills.'


This is so smart and practical. Shram knows a bit about how to run a train, but he's never driven one and none of them really knew anything about sailing before. So...plot hole d'y'think?

Maree: Hmmmm I never thought of it as a plot hole.

Jodie: Any closing thoughts?

Maree: I want my very own daybat. (And YAY MIEVILLE for NOT killing off the animal!)

Jodie: Day-be lives!

Maree: Yay, Day-be!

Jodie: So, can we plan the next Miéville readlong (I am super tempted by 'King Rat' now, have you read that?).

Maree: I need you to read Un Lun Dun - Miéville's other YA novel, because I'd like to discuss comparisons.

Jodie: Should I read 'UnLun Dun' first and then maybe we could put in 'King Rat' for the end of the year/start of next year (ahhh how did that happen?). They're both in my local library.

Maree: Yes yes read Un Lun Dun first! I love Un Lun Dun! :D

I know right? It's SEPTEMBER!!! Yes, end of year/start of next year sounds good for King Rat, barring the zombie apocalypse :-)

We shall return!

Our previous flail posts about Miéville's work:

'The City and the City'
'Kraken'
'Iron Council'

Reviews of 'Railsea':

things mean a lot
The Book Smugglers
Tor

Date: 2012-11-27 11:02 am (UTC)
nymeth: (Default)
From: [personal profile] nymeth
He likes the image of the narrative as a peg, doesn't he? :D He kept saying that when I saw him too.

I read the ending a bit more optimistically than you two, I think. It didn't feel exactly vague to me - I just loved how full of possibility it was, and I kind of took it at face value.

Looking forward to your return :D

Date: 2012-11-27 01:39 pm (UTC)
bookgazing: (Default)
From: [personal profile] bookgazing
Yes, he kept repeating it every time someone in the audience mentioned the Moby Dick origins. Not a re-telling, a peg! :P

Full of possibility is a good description of that ending too. It's very open to imagination and of course perfect fan-fic territory.

Date: 2012-11-27 01:40 pm (UTC)
nymeth: (Default)
From: [personal profile] nymeth
I really liked the passage where the narrator explicitly encouraged fan fic :D

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