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Railsea by China Mieville
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Railsea (original 2012; edition 2012)

by China Mieville

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926599,438 (3.94)107
Member:mongoosenamedt
Title:Railsea
Authors:China Mieville
Info:Del Rey (2012), Edition: Book Club Edition, Hardcover, 448 pages
Collections:Books Read in 2012
Rating:*****
Tags:None

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Railsea by China Miéville (2012)

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Showing 1-5 of 59 (next | show all)
Huh! I just learned two things. When an author uses a 'descriptive' name for a character, there's a term for that: aptronym, probably coined in the 1930s by newspaper columnist Franklin P. Adams. There's also a phrase for when a person has a name which relates to their chosen profession: nominative determinism.
Now, if this were universally true, I guess China Miéville should have gone into Asian studies or something... but since I've loved the theory since I came across an article claiming that boys with the name "Dennis" were 10x more likely to become dentists, I'm probably seriously subject to confirmation bias, but, reading Railsea, I can't help but wonder if there's a Melville/Miéville connection.
Personally, I don't like Herman Melville. I went through a phase of reading all the whaling history and fiction I could get my hands on, as a great many of my relatives were on whaling ships. As a matter of fact, the incident that Moby Dick was based on involved members of my family (call me bizarre, but it's kind of fun that my ancestral cousin was a cannibal [See: http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/17780.In_the_Heart_of_the_Sea. Seriously, do, it's a completely excellent book.]). (And what Moby Dick was based on, not anything to do with buses on Staten Island. Damn artists! [http://fhsi.wordpress.com/2011/09/20/the-snug-harbor-bus-stop-that-inspired-herman-melville-greatest-novel/]) He also lifted one of my ancestral family names, Starbuck, but he's not the only person to rip off that name, the ripping-off that Melville did has been fully eclipsed by caffeinated beverages.
Anyway, sorry, but Moby Dick has to have been one of my very least favorite whale tales out of the dozens that I read. (And 'Billy Budd'? Even Worse.)
Miéville disagrees. 'Railsea' begins as a straight-up homage to Moby Dick, lifting incidents and anecdotes pretty much directly (from what I recall.) The differences: instead of ships, the vehicles here are trains, and instead of whales, the beasts under pursuit are Giant Moles. The train crews are terrified to ever touch the ground, because if they do, Giant Moles will instantly swarm up and eat you. Luckily, with the exception of raised "islands" and "continents" of actual land (bedrock?), where civilians live, the ground is massively crisscrossed with train tracks, extending as far as known geography.
I have to admit, it took me a while to get into this book. At first, I found the Moby-Dick-allusions tiresome and unoriginal, and I also felt that it was rather juvenile (this is marketed as YA). Giant moles? Kind of silly.
However, once the actual plot of the book got going (which is NOT the plot of Moby Dick), it really picked up. I also have to admit I enjoyed how it was simply the expected thing, here, that all captains would have an obsession with a giant and dangerous beast (or, a "philosophy.") The descriptions of the Railsea itself were stifling and oppressive - but they're meant to be, and it all comes clear at the end - with some obvious-but-not-too-bludgeony social messages about the dangers of letting huge corporations take over.

I still love Miéville, and I'd say this book is worth reading, for fans, but it's not where I would recommend anyone new to Miéville should start. It is a YA book, with orphans and questing and coming-of-age and all that stuff. It reminded me quite a lot of Paolo Bacigalupi's YA book, 'Ship Breaker.' Both writers definitely come from a very similar thematic standpoint - and both have stronger, more complex statements in their non-YA publications. ( )
  AltheaAnn | Feb 9, 2016 |
Listening to audio, recommended by my daughter. Great adventure, easy to follow the characters, wonderful language. I loved the made-up words and creatures. ( )
  KathyGilbert | Jan 29, 2016 |
China Miéville might be a genius. His amazing talent certainly shines through in RAILSEA (2012, Del Rey Books), his YA mash-up of Fantasy / Science Fiction / Steampunk / Dystopia. The story follows young Shamus ‘Sham’ Yes ap Soorap in a revision of the MOBY DICK quest, first as a doctor’s assistant on a moletrain, and later on a journey to solve the mystery of the disappearance of Mr. and Mrs. Shroake, a husband and wife explorer team. Miéville's re-imagination of MOBY DICK is awesome. There is the ship now turned into a train, the same captains, and the sea now turned into soil, yet its an entirely different world.

“& as passersby passed by & the light continued to leak from the sky, Sham was certain the man’s presence was not coincidence.”

Sham’s world consists of hunters, scavengers, and pirates, who ride along a vast expanse of railways. To fall off onto the land besides the tracks ensures that you will be eaten by creatures that live on and under the caustic soil. The moletrain Medes’ narrow-focused Captain Naphi is seeking her ‘philosophy’ by hunting a certain moldywarpe by the name of Mocker-Jack. The general public lives on safer ‘islands’ of higher ground. Along the way Sham seeks two reclusive children, gets betrayed, acquires a pet, and witnesses battles with the strange, dangerous creatures in his world. Besides the Great Southern Moldywarpes, there are Burrowing Tortoises, Antlions, Blood Rabbits, Tundra Worms and more (Miéville has even included his own sketches of each!)

“Above them flew something nothing like a plane.”

Here is the genius of RAILSEA: the language Miéville uses. He substitutes some words and makes up a lot of others. They weave together melodically as the sentences trip across your tongue. They’re playful and fun and magical. People with names like Boyza Go Mbenday and places with names like Manihiki. There may be some sort of message in this tale, about society or religion or whatnot, but I prefer to take this book as purely a high-fueled adventure. I don’t want to overthink it; it’s just too much fun to read.

“& if,” he said, & his voice was suddenly chill & bony & metal & like the scuttling of a very bad insect, “you’d like not to be cut open & dangled over the side of this train & dragged along with your legs on the ground spilling blood everything under the flatearth can smell while we go slow enough for long, long miles that they can rise & eat you from the toes up & from the inside out, you know what you could do for me, Sham?

“Tell me where the Shroakes are going.”


The only tiny, tiny weakness I found was that I do wish we had a little more personality in the Shroake children, Caldera and Dero. Sham, on the other hand, is a typical youngster; he isn’t certain just who he wants to be and he makes his decisions as questions come up. To be sure, this results in a life of adventure.

Again, the strength lies in Miéville’s imagination and the way in which he plays with words:

“Out of the east & south the train came. It howled, it whistled, en route through & out of the known railsea. It breathed diesel breath. An everyday moletrain, transmogrified by urgency & peculiar direction into something more than itself, something grander, buckling of more swashes.”

I believe this is a considerably more entertaining book than MOBY DICK and highly recommend RAILSEA for all readers age 12 and up. ( )
  BooksOn23rd | Nov 25, 2015 |
China Miéville might be a genius. His amazing talent certainly shines through in RAILSEA (2012, Del Rey Books), his YA mash-up of Fantasy / Science Fiction / Steampunk / Dystopia. The story follows young Shamus ‘Sham’ Yes ap Soorap in a revision of the MOBY DICK quest, first as a doctor’s assistant on a moletrain, and later on a journey to solve the mystery of the disappearance of Mr. and Mrs. Shroake, a husband and wife explorer team. Miéville's re-imagination of MOBY DICK is awesome. There is the ship now turned into a train, the same captains, and the sea now turned into soil, yet its an entirely different world.

“& as passersby passed by & the light continued to leak from the sky, Sham was certain the man’s presence was not coincidence.”

Sham’s world consists of hunters, scavengers, and pirates, who ride along a vast expanse of railways. To fall off onto the land besides the tracks ensures that you will be eaten by creatures that live on and under the caustic soil. The moletrain Medes’ narrow-focused Captain Naphi is seeking her ‘philosophy’ by hunting a certain moldywarpe by the name of Mocker-Jack. The general public lives on safer ‘islands’ of higher ground. Along the way Sham seeks two reclusive children, gets betrayed, acquires a pet, and witnesses battles with the strange, dangerous creatures in his world. Besides the Great Southern Moldywarpes, there are Burrowing Tortoises, Antlions, Blood Rabbits, Tundra Worms and more (Miéville has even included his own sketches of each!)

“Above them flew something nothing like a plane.”

Here is the genius of RAILSEA: the language Miéville uses. He substitutes some words and makes up a lot of others. They weave together melodically as the sentences trip across your tongue. They’re playful and fun and magical. People with names like Boyza Go Mbenday and places with names like Manihiki. There may be some sort of message in this tale, about society or religion or whatnot, but I prefer to take this book as purely a high-fueled adventure. I don’t want to overthink it; it’s just too much fun to read.

“& if,” he said, & his voice was suddenly chill & bony & metal & like the scuttling of a very bad insect, “you’d like not to be cut open & dangled over the side of this train & dragged along with your legs on the ground spilling blood everything under the flatearth can smell while we go slow enough for long, long miles that they can rise & eat you from the toes up & from the inside out, you know what you could do for me, Sham?

“Tell me where the Shroakes are going.”


The only tiny, tiny weakness I found was that I do wish we had a little more personality in the Shroake children, Caldera and Dero. Sham, on the other hand, is a typical youngster; he isn’t certain just who he wants to be and he makes his decisions as questions come up. To be sure, this results in a life of adventure.

Again, the strength lies in Miéville’s imagination and the way in which he plays with words:

“Out of the east & south the train came. It howled, it whistled, en route through & out of the known railsea. It breathed diesel breath. An everyday moletrain, transmogrified by urgency & peculiar direction into something more than itself, something grander, buckling of more swashes.”

I believe this is a considerably more entertaining book than MOBY DICK and highly recommend RAILSEA for all readers age 12 and up. ( )
  BooksOn23rd | Nov 25, 2015 |
Excellent as usual, imaginative with a more linear story than usual. Nods to the Strugatsky brothers "Roadside Picnic", Melvilles' "Moby Dick", and probably many others I didn't pick up on. Loved it. ( )
  SChant | Aug 7, 2015 |
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To Indigo.
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This is the story of a bloodstained boy.
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Our minds we salvage from history's rubbish, & they are machines to make chaos into story.
Angels, unremittingly & absolutely sane, cannot but seem to poor humanity relentlessly & madly murderous.
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"On board the moletrain Medes, Sham Yes ap Soorap watches in awe as he witnesses his first moldywarpe hunt: the giant mole bursting from the earth, the harpoonists targeting their prey, the battle resulting in one's death & the other's glory. But no matter how spectacular it is, Sham can't shake the sense that there is more to life than traveling the endless rails of the railsea--even if his captain can think only of the hunt for the ivory-colored mole she's been chasing since it took her arm all those years ago. When they come across a wrecked train, at first it's a welcome distraction. But what Sham finds in the derelict--a kind of treasure map indicating a mythical place untouched by iron rails--leads to considerably more than he'd bargained for. Soon he's hunted on all sides, by pirates, trainsfolk, monsters, & salvage-scrabblers. & it might not be just Sham's life that's about to change. It could be the whole of the railsea. Here is a novel for readers of all ages, a gripping & brilliantly imagined take on Herman Melville's Moby-Dick that confirms China Mieville's status as "the most original & talented voice to appear in several years" (Science Fiction Chronicle)"--Provided by publisher.… (more)

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