“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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“This Census-Taker” by China Miéville (2016)

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census taker“A boy ran down a hill path screaming.”

China Miéville is a name that still doesn’t trip off enough tongues, as far as I’m concerned, but the reviews on his latest book all but sum up how those in the know do feel about him. He’s been called “one of our most important writers”, “incomparable” and “ambitious”, and even the great Ursula K Le Guin refers to him as “brilliant”. This is my third venture into his works, after The City and the City and Kraken, and while, yes, it is my least favourite of the three, it nonetheless is till full of magic and oddness that makes it hugely endearing. So let’s cover the plot.

Set in a poor town in the misty mountains of an otherwise undisclosed location, a boy runs from his house further up the hill down into the town by the bridge, screaming that he’s just seen something terrible. The villagers try and help him, but when the boy’s father tells them that it’s all been a misunderstanding, But the boy is sure that he saw his father kill his mother. Left alone on the hill with only his increasingly deranged father, he is trapped and finds no one will listen to him; that is, until the census-taker comes to visit.

It’s a short book, and the plot is fairly simple. Not a lot happens but, this being Miéville, there’s still a lot going on, and far more that never gets explained. We don’t get many answers to the questions we have and little is revealed that isn’t absolutely necessary. We don’t know where the story is set, the age or name of the protagonist (only two characters actually get names at all) and it’s unclear whether something magical is happening or not. These are not necessarily complaints – they make you want to keep reading.

The boy’s father is a key maker, but there’s a suggestion that this is something supernatural. People ask him for what they want, and he makes a key that helps them get it. Maybe they need wealth, or they need to escape, but they can do this with whatever key the father makes for them. Is this to be taken literally? Is there magic afoot here, or is it the misunderstandings of a small boy? We’ll never know.

It isn’t my favourite of Miéville’s books, but it’s a good starter novel for anyone who wants to read him but is daunted by his larger tomes. Dip in and find yourself caught up in his weird and wonderful style.

“Kraken” by China Miéville (2010)

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London is home to many secrets.

London is home to many secrets.

“The sea is full of saints.”

A couple of months ago, as some of you may know, I started up a second blog, unrelated to this one, called Love Letters To London. There, I can share my thoughts and views on every conceivable aspect of my favourite city. But those are very much based on reality and, as anyone with even a smattering of fondness for fiction will know, London is a popular destination for anything slightly strange to be going on.

In Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere, the tube network takes the station names literally; in Harry Potter there are magical buildings hidden all over the city; and in Doctor Who, every landmark is somehow linked to aliens. That’s just scratching the surface. In Kraken, Miéville shows us another version.

The book opens in the Natural History Museum, with curator Billy Harrow, expert on molluscs great and small, showing a tour group around the Darwin Centre, the back area of the museum that contains hundreds and thousands of pickled creatures; endless shelves of glass tanks containing preserved specimens of most of the planet’s species. The pride of the tour is the preserved, nine-metre giant squid, Architeuthis dux, one of the least understood animals on Earth. But this time, when Billy and his guests get to the central room, the squid, tank and all, has gone.

With no sign of a break in, and the odds of someone sneaking out a tank of Formalin and squid nearly ten metres long without being noticed at absolute minimum, they are left with a quandry as to what has happened. The museum is closed for the day and the police are called in. And once the regular police have gone, a very specialised department move in, ones who deal with the stranger aspects of London.

Confused, and after rejecting an offer of working with Baron and Collingswood, the strange police officers, Billy tells his friends Leon and Marge about what happened. Back at the museum a few days later though, Billy then finds a man picked in another jar, and before long that’s about the most normal thing that’s ever happened to him.

Billy is dragged through the strange, unseen underbelly of the city where he meets two torturers-for-hire, Goss and Subby, a villainous tattoo, a cult of squid worshippers, the angels of memory that patrol the city’s museums, the striking union of magical familiars, and the Londonmancers, those who use the city’s magic for their own ends. Because it turns out there are a lot of cults and sects hidden in London, and all of them have just predicted the apocalypse.

The world is about to end a hundred times over, but by finding the squid and restoring it to the museum, Billy might just be in with a chance of saving London and the world.

I knew from experience that Miéville was going to be a dense slog, but I didn’t expect it quite like this. I always feel when I preface a review by saying it’s dense that it sounds like I’m being negative, but I’m really not. The novel is absolutely crammed with ideas I wish I’d come up with, from the idea of imprisoning someone in a tattoo (and then having them corrupt the innocent body they’re on), to Wati, a character who died and then crawled back through all the afterlives to the world of the living, but found he now had no body of his own, so instead inhabits London’s statues, figures, dolls and carvings. There’s the idea of how you can communicate using the city (speak into a post box, and the recipient gets the message in Morse code from their nearest streetlamp), and the fact that the city has antibodies, creatures made up of remnants of city life.

But above all you have the angels of memory. Each museum has its own angel, made from things found within it (the Natural History Museum’s is a tank of formaldehyde with bones for limbs; the Sewing Machine Museum has a beast made of needles and bobbins) that protects the past from the present. It’s a wonderfully cute idea, although the angels are not strictly benevolent.

And then there’s the stuff I can’t tell you because it’ll ruin some of the surprises.

The plot jumps around a lot between numerous characters, and we see events unfold from many angles. It’s a fun ride, and part of the joy comes from never really being able to tell who is on who’s side; the lines of good and evil are blurred and alliances that would never normally be formed have had to come into play simply through necessity. The language is fun, the plot is complex but nonetheless works and very much holds together, and Billy is at least a likeable hero.

There are lots of books out there about the mystical, hidden side of London, but you could do far worse than this one. Miéville is definitely an author worth checking out at least once – the new master of weird fiction.

“The City & The City” by China Miéville (2009)

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the-city-and-the-city“I could not see the street or much of the estate.”

It’s never been uncommon to see towns and cities twinned with others. The town where I live, for example, is twinned with places in both Germany and France. I suppose the reason is for international relations, although aside from reading the names of these places on the signs on the town’s edges, I’ve never heard word about them. I bring this up simply because this is a story where the idea of town twinning reaches new levels of strangeness.

The story takes us to the eastern reaches of Europe – that’s as clear as it gets – to the city state of Besźel, a decaying city that has seen better days. It does however have one very bizarre and unique quirk – it shares the same space as a second city, Ul Qoma. The cities overlap almost entirely, sharing a location but very little else. Each city has its own language, fashions, currency, citizenry, and even different names for the streets, and certain streets and buildings that only belong in one city or the other, meaning all citizens have to ignore – “unsee” – all the ones that aren’t in their city. And it’s not just buildings – people cannot notice certain people, vehicles and even trees, lest they be accused of breach and are whisked away to a place by strange figures whose activities are the stuff of rumour and legend.

Inspector Tyador Borlú of the Extreme Crime Squad in Besźel has lived there all his life, and it is second nature to him to avoid seeing anything in Ul Qoma. However, he becomes involved in a murder that looks more complicated than he would like. A student from the university in Ul Qoma has been found dead in Besźel, suggesting that it’s an obvious case of breach. He implores his higher-ups to activate Breach, the shady organisation that seems to exist between the two cities, protecting everyone from seeing what they shouldn’t see. However, when evidence comes to light that the body has transported legally across the border, he finds that Breach will not be invoked. He must now solve the case, even if it means going into Ul Qoma itself.

I had a few problems with the book. Frankly, Miéville is a very good writer, really rather excellent, but the language used here is pretty dense and this is not an easy-going read. You’ll need to keep your wits about you to remember the laws, how the city is divided, and also everybody’s names. Being set in a fictional location on the edge of Europe, it makes use of linguistics from that area, although possibly fictionalised to some degree. Names are heavy on accents and unfamiliar to English eyes spellings, although most can be guessed at. Tyador, for example, is possibly just a translated version of Theodore. It’s irrelevant, but the large number of unfamiliar names can be a bit daunting and more than once led me into confusion as I had to unpick the threads and work out who was who again.

However, aside from the language and the unusual names, I have very little negative to say about this book. The idea of the split cities is handled excellently, and the exposition explaining about it all is natural and never feels forced. It’s not somewhere I’d like to live – I’d imagine it to be a very difficult life for outsiders to acclimatise to (in-universe, all visitors to either city must undergo exams and tests to make sure they understand what they’re letting themselves in for). It answers most questions you imagine you’d have about such a world, including what happens if there is a car accident between vehicles from Besźel and Ul Qoma, how the citizens actually get from city to city, and how crosshatching works. In fact, the only thing that’s never explained is how the two cities came to be like this, although that’s mostly because no one seems to know – it all happened far too long ago. Brief glimpses of characters from other countries (mostly Canada) show that the world has a whole is not unfamiliar with the idea of these twinned cities, and no one seems all that concerned by it. It does appear to be the only city in the world though that has such a quality.

At the end of the day, it’s just a crime thriller, but one set in an enchanting and very interesting world, showing all the complications that arise when a policeman can stand mere metres away from a killer, and yet not be able to touch them because, by law, they are in different places. Miéville is, I have read, one of the writers of the “new weird” and I totally see that. I’ll return to him again.

Ever wondered if everything is really as it seems? Maybe there’s an alternate series of events running just below the surface of our own world? Have a look at one possible answer in my debut novel, The Atomic Blood-Stained Bus, available now on Amazon, iBooks and SmashWords.