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.