“Railsea” by China Miéville (2012)

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“This is the story of a bloodstained boy.”

It’s almost a shame that I used up my introduction spiel about trains for a film last year, when it would’ve served me well here. Never mind. Most books that give a prominent role to trains feature just the one. Something magical and impressive that captures the imagination. China Miéville, however, goes a little further than that, and envisions a world entirely populated by trains. Welcome to the Railsea.

Sham Yes ap Soorap is an assistant doctor aboard the Medes, a moletrain. He is new to the Railsea, but is now sure to spend the rest of his life touring the rails, hunting for giant moles, in particular the great southern modlywarpe, and getting to know the other riders of the rails. In this world, there are no oceans, just endless plains laced with endless tracks. Every kind of train patrols them, from huge iron wartrains to wooden trains with sails. There are those made of salvage, those running on steam, and even one-man traincycles that people use to get around the islands.

While on a hunt, Sham and his crew stumble across a wrecked train and set about searching it for salvage. Inside, Sham instead finds a camera. The flatographs it shows, however, reveal something far more interesting than holiday snaps. There are images of children from a distant country, rare salvage, and most bizarrely of all, potential evidence that the Railsea does indeed end. Captivated by the image of a single rail leading out to darkness, Sham convinces Captian Naphi to put aside her hunt for Mocker-Jack, the great white mole, and seek out the people in the flatographs, and then, perhaps, find the edge of the world.

But rumour travels quickly on the rails, and soon Sham is in peril, as salvagers, pirates, monsters and molers all seek him out. What he and his crew discover may change not only his own fate, but that of the entire Railsea.

I’ve read Miéville a few times before, and he’s continually proved himself to have an imagination beyond anything one could reasonable expect from a writer. Aiming to write a novel in every genre, here he turns his attention to the great adventure tales. Indeed, the whole novel can be seen as a parody of, or homage to, Moby-Dick, particularly with the Captain’s obsession with hunting down the ivory-coloured mole that took her arm. This is expanded to be part of the lore, as most captains have what they call their “philosophy” – a particular creature that stole a limb from them, and they commit their lives to finding and killing the beast. Indeed, the creatures of this world are perhaps the most fascinating aspect. With no oceans, lakes or rivers, the ground itself takes up the reins for producing enormous and terrifying beasts. Most everything that we know on Earth to live in the ground lives here, although often far larger and more bloodthirsty than we would remember. Moles grow huge, but so do badgers, naked mole rats, rabbits, earthworms, termites, antlions, burrowing owls and earwigs. These animals have never been so scary.

Miéville also works magic with the setting itself. A world where ships are replaced by trains might seem quite simple, but the level of detail included is wonderful. Trains are limited in their travelling patterns by rails, unlike ships which can steer any which way, but there are still plenty of parallels. Trains are besieged by railgulls, and many of them still have crows nests aboard. The moletrains work mostly like whaling ships, and there are pirates here too, just like in adventure tales set on the open waves. Some job titles change – there is a trainswain rather than a coxswain – and they still sing shanties, although with slightly different lyrics, such as the classic, “What Shall We Do With the Drunken Brakesman?” The world is full and while we still see nothing like all of it, you know that it’s all there.

The book also keeps a level of uncertainty as to when and where the book is set. At first it seems like it might be another world distinct from our own, but there are mentions of the society having been going for a very long time – there is an awful lot of salvage, some of which looks like contemporary technology – and there are obscure references to things that appear to have been passed down through folklore, such as a brief mention of the god Railhater Beeching. It also seems that the planet has been visited by beings from other worlds before now, so if it is Earth, it’s a very distant future one with little water.

Although the book at times chugs along slower than the London to Brighton train on Southern rail, by the end it’s a Japanese bullet train and the ending itself contains a laugh-out-loud moment that makes it all worthwhile. It ends on a note of promise, and I almost wish I could have kept on following Sham on his adventures. It’s not my favourite Miéville story, but it’s still a pretty remarkable read.

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“Destination Unknown” by Agatha Christie (1954)

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“The man behind the desk moved a heavy glass paperweight four inches to the right.”

Agatha Christie is, of course, most known for her murder mysteries, but she never limited herself to just one genre. She wrote romance stories under a pseudonym, dabbled in supernatural fiction and ghost stories, and now and again wrote thrillers, as the Sunday Times said, “just to show that she can.” Her best one, as I’ve gone on about on the blog before, is The Seven Dials Mystery, but Destination Unknown is to be ignored at your peril.

The world is in crisis. Leading scientists from across the world are disappearing, and those working in international intelligence are completely stumped. Bodies are never recovered, so there’s no consensus on whether these people are dead or alive, and a whole host of countries are losing their greatest biologists, chemists and researchers. Mr Jessop, a shady figure in the British government, is at his wits end. That is, until he encounters Hilary Craven.

Hilary sits in a Casablanca hotel room, preparing to commit suicide. Her attempts are interrupted however by Jessop who lets himself in and declares he has a more exciting way for her to die. She is to pretend to be Mrs Betterton, the wife of one of the missing scientists who is believed to be on her way to find her husband. However, in her travels, she has died in a plane crash, leaving the space open. Hilary is asked to take over the role and find out where Mr Betterton, and presumably the other missing scientists, are being held. With nothing left to lose, Hilary agrees and soon finds herself embroiled in something much larger than anyone could have imagined. With no idea who she can trust or who is working to what ends, Hilary is soon brought before Tom Betterton – and his reaction is perhaps the most surprising thing of all…

OK, so it’s not the most famous or well-regarded of her novels (indeed, it’s one of only four to never receive an adaptation for screen, stage or radio), but it’s still an interesting adventure story. Penned less than ten years after the end of World War Two, its events are shadows over what happens here. A character is introduced with ideas that may not be particularly welcome to many people, but Hilary finds herself almost hypnotised by the rhetoric, even going so far as to mention the similarities to Hitler – the words were ordinary, but the way he spoke was apparently very engaging. In a week where we’ve seen Nazis and white supremacists marching openly in America, it really struck home how dangerous words can be in the wrong hands. I try not to bring up topical events while discussing books, but the reason we read is to better understand the world, I think, and sometimes the parallels are too real or shocking to ignore.

The final scenes feel a bit rushed, and some of the explanations as to how the solution came about bypassed me really, but it doesn’t matter. How we got there is fascinating enough, and it’s a great look at how the real rulers of the world are those with the money, rather than those in obvious positions of power. As the book says, “one is never surprised to find out that behind the importance and magnificence there is somewhere some scrubby little man who is the real motive power”. Judge not on appearances, trust no one, and know that things mayn’t always be as they seem.

A quick read, a fun jaunt with inspiration obviously taken from Christie’s own travels, and a story that, while titled Destination Unknown, shows that journeys in novels so often end in the same place.

“The Gunslinger” by Stephen King (1982)

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Get a move on!

Get a move on!

“The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed.”

I’ve only read Stephen King once before and I rather enjoyed it. His huge tome Under The Dome has been sat on my shelf for years, but I’ve yet to work up the courage or upper body strength to read it. Instead, I thought I’d turn to his supposed magnum opus, the Dark Tower series, picking up the first installment, The Gunslinger, that had just been updated with new text and information to make it work better with the later books in the series. Not really knowing what to expect, I took the plunge.

In this novel – actually five shorter stories taped together – we meet Roland, the gunslinger, who is travelling across a vast, seemingly endless, featureless desert. With only a worn out mule and his guns for company, the gunslinger is on the trail of the man in black, although why we are not immediately told.

The gunslinger meets a few people in the desert, living nomadic lives, and tells stories of how he got to be where he is. He talks of the last town he left, Tull, where he killed every person in the town after they went mad and believed him to be a demon. He then meets Jake, a small boy who is all alone, and the gunslinger takes him along on his journey, although his motives may not be as kind as they first seem. Time passes strangely in the desert and while they’ve no idea how long they’ve been travelling for, the gap between the gunslinger and the man in black grows ever smaller, and it starts to look like maybe he even wants to be caught…

Frankly, I didn’t get it. I’m not saying I didn’t like it, but I didn’t get it. Long-winded to a fault, with characters that never particularly shone for me, I found the book uninteresting and somewhat dull. For a book that is meant to be the best thing one has written, it’s a disappointment. Perhaps part of that is because I expected it to be scary – that’s what Stephen King is meant to be about, after all, but aside from it being a little creepy in places, it really doesn’t frighten. I also never understood particularly where or when it’s meant to be set. Jake seems to remember modern day New York, but the gunslinger has very little concept of machines. There’s a suggestion that it’s all taking place thousands of years after our time, or perhaps in an alternate timeline. They know the song “Hey Jude”, and there’s a scene that proves it’s Earth that we’re residing on, but it all seems disjointed. I’m sure that’s how it’s meant to be, but I was too busy trying to get all that straight in my head to focus on the plot some of the time.

The man in black, when we finally meet him, is something of a let down. Supposedly the embodiment of evil, I wasn’t too fussed by him, although perhaps that’s just because by the end I was simply reading it to finish it. The gunslinger in turn is somewhat distant and none too exciting as a main character. He has a single-minded determination and while he’s shown to be able to show emotions, it feels a little forced and heavy-handed in its demonstration.

I think all in all my feeling is one of frustration. I had built it up in my head and King failed to deliver. I should really have known that I wasn’t going to be fully into this. After all, this is his attempt at doing what Tolkien did by building a huge, sprawling epic with its own history and culture, and I could never get into The Lord of the Rings either. I’m not saying King is a bad writer – the man is a huge success and I’ve liked other things he’s done – but this time I really have to just hold my hands up and say that I don’t understand what all the fuss is about.

The gunslinger may one day reach the Dark Tower, but I doubt I will be alongside him when he does.