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Someday My Printz Will Come
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The Wonders of the Railsea

railsea 197x300 The Wonders of the RailseaRailsea, China Miéville
Ballantine, May 2012
Reviewed from final copy

Oh this book!

This marvelous & bizarre book, with far too many ampersands & lots of literary antecedents. It is a marvelous invention full of fun & surprises. & it begs for rereading, often a Printzly quality.

China Miéville is, among adult genre circles, a serious literary darling. He has won the Arthur C. Clarke, Locus, and British Fantasy Awards more than once each and has a Hugo as well. You know, no big.

He’s also an acquired taste. And, thanks to his delight in writing fantasy that looks to other genres and plays with them, each book is very unlike his others and each one requires re-acquiring the taste (I found Kraken and The Scar hard going, but The City and the City brilliant and Un Lun Dun quite appealing, for instance). So I suspect there won’t be that many takers for Railsea among teens (or, actually, among the adults who serve them and/or read their books). Which is not to say that this isn’t a YA title; there is a lot of potential appeal for the story, but the style, while brilliant, is likely to be a bit of a niche taste. Like sea urchin. Or moldywarpe, I suspect.

Happily, appeal is pretty immaterial in the realm of literary excellence, so I’m calling this one as a serious contenda and nominating it for the Pyrite Printz as well. Because it’s spectacular and odd and so literary but also at times totally lowbrow and really it’s just genius and everyone should give it a good patient go.

Whew. Okay, enough not entirely coherent gushing. On to close examination.

Like previous Printz winner Going Bovine, Railsea draws on the canon for inspiration. The cited inspiration is Moby Dick, although I definitely found glimmers and traces of other works scattered like arche-salvage throughout. Full disclosure: I haven’t exactly read Moby Dick. I read some of it, 25 years ago or so, but there was skimming and skipping and irritation and in the end, maybe I’ve read 50-70%. So I think I probably missed some of how Miéville is playing with that source text.

But there are the parts I didn’t miss, and that I think are common enough cultural references that any casual reader could pick up, even without having done time with the white whale. We’ve got a captain on a ship after a giant creature whose presence shapes the captain and is shaped by the captain. And we’ve got short chapters, roughly every other, that are about the world instead of the action, like the infamous whaling chapters almost every high school student skips when Moby Dick is assigned.

Only here these things are transformed, remade, and made into self-referential commentary, playing, I think, with the way in which Moby Dick is a taught text and the ways in which Moby Dick intentionally sets out to educate. It’s very meta on some levels, and also very tongue in cheek.

For starters, the ships are trains and the sea is made of endless looping rail lines. That endlessly twisting, unclear path is metaphor and reality; it comments on the nature of the book, and also propels the plot, which eventually (eventually!) settles into a journey in search of the end of the line. And lest you think this a bit high concept, Miéville helpfully spells it out for you right in the prologue, when he refers to the “beautiful tangle” meaning the book or plot (and also, possibly, life). And the creature they hunt? The great southern moldywarpe. It is, in a word, a mole.

The combination of arch, old fashioned writing with linguistic gyrations (more on those in a moment) plus sly humor and frankly absurd — but utterly serious and well developed — world building takes this from anything resembling pastiche or even homage and turns it into a tour de force.

The difficulty as a commentator is that the writing is textured and roundabout and difficult to sum up. Word play abounds, reminding me of Margo Lanagan (but not actually like her writing — more that the reader who loves Lanagan will find this a very good fit, style-wise. In fact, if Margo Lanagan and Philip Reeve’s books got together and had a baby, this book would be that baby.) The puns are literary in nature, the omniscient narrator (who often employs the fourth wall-breaking conventions of 19th century writing) good-humored and gentle in his tendency to poke fun at his subjects, and everything — even the eternal & initially distracting ampersands — has purpose.

Captains are known for their philosophies. The slightly hapless, eminently likeable, dreadfully lost protagonist Sham ap Soorap, who hails from a moling town, studied these philosophies in school. The philosophies of the captains perfectly embody the metatextual narrative, the wordplay, really the ethos of the world and maybe of the book.

Not every captain of the Streggeye Lands had one, 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 meaning, 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 world-view….

Sham thought of the awe with which those very few who snared the objects of their fascination, who made it into the Museum of Completion, were held. Maybe there was a competition between the captains, he thought. “Call that a philosophy?” they perhaps sneered behind each other’s backs. “That prairie dog you’re after? Oh my days! What is that supposed to signify?” One-upmanship, one-upcaptainship, of the themes some quarries had come to mean.

So yes, on writing alone I think this has serious chops. But you’ve also got some rich characters, from initially boring and blank Sham, who is searching for something and whose search becomes, yes, a philosophy, of wonder and hope and dreaming, to Captain Naphi, a stern but fair captain who turns out to be (Ahab-like), a bit mad. But Naphi is also a strong woman (the crew is co-ed; gender here is clearly not entangled with opportunity and success) whose interest in Sham allows him the opportunities to grow. Other characters are much less finely drawn, but the narrator and the world are characters in their own rights, and the less nuanced characters never fall into central casting tropes.

Sham’s search is classic adolescent growth; he has joined the crew of the Medes at the behest of his kindly cousins, who are his guardians, but it’s not quite what he wants. By the end, he has gone from the lowest on the ship to, effectively, Captain of his own ship — which again is both literal and thematic metaphor. Similarly, the plot of Railsea moves from a retelling of a classic to its own, mature adventure narrative, so that the plot’s growth echoes Sham’s growth.

Ultimately, Miéville has done for Moby Dick what Joss Whedon did for the hell of high school: made the metaphors real, and done it brilliantly.

In a word, WIN.

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About Karyn Silverman

Karyn Silverman is the High School Librarian and Educational Technology Department Chair at LREI, Little Red School House & Elisabeth Irwin High School (say that ten times fast!). Karyn has served on YALSA’s Quick Picks and Best Books committees and was a member of the 2009 Printz committee. She has reviewed for Kirkus and School Library Journal. She has a lot of opinions about almost everything (except current events, because she’s too busy reading YA literature to follow the news). Said opinions do not reflect the attitudes or opinions of SLJ, LREI, YALSA or any other institutions with which she is affiliated. Find her on Twitter @InfoWitch or e-mail her at karynsilverman at gmail dot com.

Comments

  1. Mark Flowers says:

    I’m trying, Karyn – I swear I’m trying. I’m about 2/3 through this, and having a really really hard time with it. I love Lanagan, as you know, and have found Reeve pretty good, but would never have thought of either of them in a million years.

    I don’t deny that the sentence level writing is good, but the whole thing is just sooo heavy-handed. The moles that the captains are after are called “philosophies”? Really? Everyone is seaching for a philosophy? Really?!? The “whale chapters” which in Moby Dick were genuinely factual, as well as well-written and intriguing, here become virtually pointless. The fourth wall breaks never as amusing as Mieville thinks they are.

    The railsea makes no sense whatsoever – as to how it could ever have gotten their, how it continues to exist, or how it works in any way.

    And are their characters? Naphi seems like a total cipher until the (spoiler alert) twist with the prosthetic arm. I haven’t gotten to the end yet, but I haven’t seen any real growth, or much of interest at all, in Sham.

    OK – I’m going a little overboard (haha). If you hadn’t mentioned this last week, I would have read a chapter or two, said “not for me” and put it down. So maybe I’m just cranky because I feel like I “have to” read it. But at the very least I can speak as a Lanagan fan and say – nope, that’s not how I felt about the language.

  2. tess says:

    I think you said it all, Karyn – I felt just the way you do. Loved the book, everything about it. If this wins the Printz I’ll be very happy.

  3. H. Munca says:

    I’m reading this right now and finding the language a terrible impediment. Not because it’s difficult (it isn’t) but because he’s clearly relishing it in a way that I find distracting and, er, almost a bit gross. I don’t want to make inappropriate auto-gratification metaphors, but that’s all I’ve got right now. Not enjoying watching it. Wish he would notice he has an audience. Choking in sympathy and not finding it sexy or fun. DONE with this metaphor now. Ugh.

    (Also: deeply regretting that this is my first ever comment on this blog. Do I know how to make an impression, or what?)

    • Karyn Silverman says:

      Ag! Wrote a huge reply and then computer et it. So here I go again, but the second version is never as good…

      I can see how the writing could be considered, ahem, self-indulgent (welcome, H. Munca!), but I definitely thought there was a wink and a nod that made it witty instead of offensive; it’s meta commentary on how self indulgent and serious Moby Dick and lots of other writing can be.

      Also, punny. And I know, I know that the pun, or pune, is the lowest form of humor, etc, but, you know, I really like puns. And I know where the book got me — the “littoral minded” joke in chapter 5. And then I started to fall for the whole thing. Up until then I was skeptical and thinking it was not shaping up as a brilliant book, but that was the moment when the penny dropped and the idea that this rather serious uppity sounding narrative was a giant literary joke.

      I also think that there is a whole something that is discovered — at the end, along with the why and how of the Railsea (really, Mark, 300 more pages and all your questions will be answered!), there is a fundamental thematic conclusion about greed and kindness. Kindness and the ability to look beyond oneself, as Sham does, however unintentionally, as the Shroakes do — that is critical, whereas selfish greed can remake the world but mostly is just bad. And once the ending is reached, it becomes clear that that thread has been there the whole time, but it’s pulled to the fore with the (action-packed) final section and conclusion.

      So all y’all, give it another try! Join Tess and I and my one friend on Facebook in loving this one. Because it’s really smart. And it’s clearly written to elicit a reaction, so think about whether Miéville is manipulating you into the negative feelings. Maybe your hate is just another sign of the smart writing?

      Or I’ve inhaled too much dirt from the Railsea and my brain is befuddled. But this is, so far, second only to CNV in my estimation.

  4. Miriam says:

    Man, we have opposite tastes in Mieville! (CITY was my least favorite of his books, though RAILSEA might topple it once I’m done mentally processiong; PERDIDO my favorite, with EMBASSYTOWN a VERY close second.)

    ANYWAY.

    For me, this one came down hard on the emotional/intellectual debate. I can abstractly admire the writing and the world, but reading it I just. didn’t. care. And I didn’t feel the payoff was very substantial… I slogged through ALL OF THAT and all I got was this lousy sense that they needed better frakking maps? Unlike Mark I could just barely suspend disbelief enough to accept the world of the Railsea, but it’s a book about discovering something fundamental about this world, something fundamentally different than what the characters believed–and I don’t feel I know what this *means* for them or the world. It brought things together and then *stopped*, instead of bringing things together *into* something.

  5. H. Munca says:

    Yeh… see, I love puns. I do. And I love clever wording, and invented words, and words that do double and even triple duty, carrying multiple meanings that aren’t evident the first go-though. But I’m also very sensitive to these things, and when there’s this much, unrelentingly, with no space to process or even catch a breath, I don’t enjoy it. It’s like he cooked me dinner with ALL THE SPICES. If I’m stopping every other sentence to think, “Wow, that’s an interesting verb!” I’m really not absorbing any of the narrative as narrative.

    That said: I am fully cognizant that this is my personal problem. Being easily distracted by words is a challenging trait in a reader, and it really is rare that I get fully immersed the way I did when I was a kid (*weep* miss those days). I may also be suffering from this being my first Mieville. I don’t know him yet, and I can’t see him behind the verbiage he’s wielding like shield and weapon both.

    I once had the same difficulty with Terry Pratchett, of all people. The first Pratchett I read, I bounced off the surface of that thing so hard. The book was (to my perception) nothing but joke after joke after joke, no space to THINK in between (my creaky old brain really does need some space to chew things over). A friend recommended a different Pratchett book, a much later work, and while there were still jokes, they weren’t as rapid-fire and I felt I actually got a glimpse of the human behind the words. Now I can read any Pratchett, even the really early ones, because I know who I’m looking for behind that shield-wall of humour.

    That’s what I’m not getting from Railsea. The vulnerable human behind the flashy words. Is there another book where Mieville lets us see him a bit more?

  6. H. Munca says:

    (Why yes, I did graduate from Touchy-Feely University, and I understand that “seeing the human behind the words” isn’t what the Printz committee, or any other literary analysis, cares about particularly. But I do.)

  7. Well, I loved UnLunDun and am willing to give China a very hearty ‘nuther go. I also loved the challenging but awesome Paolo Bacigalupi’s Shipbreaker and Drowned Cities, which feel within the same universe. As for Moby Dick, I put it down my 2nd year in college, dropped the class, and didn’t look back until this fall, when Plymouth University released its Big Read — the entirety of Moby Dick read, chapter by chapter, by readers famous and not so much. I am now at Chapter 25 and am so proud of myself that I’m finally going to finish the dang thing. Haven’t made it through a single Terry Pratchett yet, though. There’s always next year . . .

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