Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Clatterpunk

What's more steampunk, really, than a train? China Mieville's new YA science fiction novel, Railsea is set in a world of rails and gadgetry that looks both to the future and the past. It's one of those steampunk settings that sets your view of the world askew, both prediction and history, both alien and familiar. Unsettling. Weird.

Railsea takes place in some indeterminate Earth future when vast expanses of the planet have been covered with rails that crossover and tangle and knot and head off endlessly over "flatearth" in every direction. What's more, the ground over which these rails run has become populated with enormous burrowing creatures, moles the size of tanks, head-sized beetles, human-sized earth worms, just about anything that crawls or digs is geometrically larger and more dangerous beneath the railsea.

Trains of every sort travel on the railsea. Steam, diesel, wind-powered, human-powered, beast-drawn, you name it. Sham ap Soorap, the protagonist of the story, has just signed up as a doctor's assistant aboard the diesel-powered Medes, a moler--that is, a train with a mission to hunt giant moles for meat. Sham is not especially good at his job. His real interests lie in salvage, in gathering up the technological remains of crashed or abandoned trains, or, even more enticing, the trash of a long-departed alien race. Nonetheless, Sham, denied his preferred profession as a salvor, serves the Medes as best he can. The captain of the Medes is Naphi, a woman with a gadget-encrusted artificial arm who is obsessed with capturing Moler-Jack, one particularly enormous mole of a species called a moldywarpe. (Yes, that probably sounds familiar. Throughout the book, there are continuous echoes of Melville's Moby Dick, but Railsea, thankfully, isn't just a retelling of the classic whale story in steampunk clothing; it spins off in all sorts of directions that Moby Dick doesn't.)

While Captain Naphi obsesses over Moler-Jack, nearly everyone obsesses over the railsea itself. It's clear that though it is ancient, the endless railway was once constructed. But who built it? The most common theory is that the railsea is the after effect of a war called the "godsquabble" between some vaguely deific beings. It's also clear that aliens have visited the planet, dropped off some garbage and are now gone, and many feel that the aliens also had something to do with the creation of the railsea. These, however, are hardly satisfactory answers.

What is known and universally accepted is that the railsea is infinite. There seems no point in looking for a beginning or an end to it. That is, until Sham stumbles upon some salvage, a wafer containing pictures, one of which shows, blasphemously, an image of a single rail line heading off into the horizon. This picture, the promise of something new, plagues Sham, calls to him. It also attracts unwholesome characters, other salvors and pirates, who view this image not as a possible answer to the questions of a broken humanity, but merely as a way to become impossibly rich.

Mieville does have a point to make with all of this (you can probably partly guess what it is already). Finally the story may expose a bit too much of Mieville's political leanings. Still, Railsea is primarily a ripping tale full of violence, action, monsters and all kinds of weird technology, an epic that Mieville relates with rich and strange language.

For all that, for all of its language and politics and weirdness and gadgets, the story unfolds in a surprisingly warm and touching way. Sham is an insatiably, infectiously curious boy. Throughout his story he draws in people who want to share in his simple wonder themselves. One of those people, it turns out, was me and I found it easy to follow Shram all the way to the end of the railsea. Impossible, in fact, not to.

Railsea will be available May 15.

A DRM-limited eBook copy was provided by the publisher for the purposes of this review.

Crossposted at Critique de Mr Chompchomp.


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