French philosopher Paul Valery once said “The future is not what it used to be,” and he died in 1945, before the introduction of such world-changing inventions as the atomic bomb and the electric toothbrush. To judge from the pulp magazines of the Eisenhower era, the 21st century would be an era of hot-rod spacecraft, ray guns and Art Deco cities on other planets.
But, in a sentiment expressed by the name of the Scottish rock band We Were Promised Jetpacks, the actual 21st century bears little resemblance to those shiny sci-fi visions. Most of our most impressive innovations are our hand-held communications gadgets. Apple took part of its inspiration for the iPad from a Star Trek gizmo, but the actual device does more than the crew of the Enterprise could have imagined. Perhaps the proliferation of such machines steals some of the thunder from the science fiction genre. If we spend all day working, playing and sending messages on equipment more advanced than we can understand, do we really need to imagine more far-flung technologies?
I have a theory that the popularity of the steampunk subgenre and its occasional proponent, China Mieville, stems from a reaction against our ever-advancing present. Today’s cutting-edge science fiction—much of it excellent—takes the potential of nanotechnology, supercomputers and quantum physics and pushes their implications to the brink of reader comprehension. Steampunk and other forms of “Neo-Victorian” fiction, in contrast, are simple enough to get your head around.
Steampunk doesn’t just savor the quaint appeal of airships and punch-card computers, but takes old-fashioned mechanics and social structures and reimagines them with enough brio to fire the imagination. The amorphous fictional movement has the flexibility to include such works as Cherie Priest’s Clockwork Century novels, Alan Moore and Kevin O’Neill’s League of Extraordinary Gentlemen comic books and The Golden Compass by Phillip Pullman. British novelist Mieville frequently writes works that overlap with the steampunk ethos. His outré city of New Crobuzon, while set on another planet, strongly resembles the sprawling, class-conscious London of Charles Dickens, only with communities of human-cactus hybrids and women with insect heads.
Perhaps the most intriguing and innovative fantasist writing today, Mieville calls his work “Weird Fiction,” based on his penchant for tearing apart genres and stitching them back together. In The City and the City, he spun a detective yarn set in twin cities unified by a concept worthy of Jorge Luis Borges. His more conventional science fiction novel Embassytown seized on head-spinning notions of the creative and destructive possibilities of language. In his first novel for young adults, Un Lun Dun, he applied his fascination with urban subcultures to a phantasmagorical romp that turned Harry Potter conventions topsy-turvy.
Mieville’s latest book, Railsea, is also aimed at young adults, but proves more dense and eccentric than Un Lun Dun. The premise alone boggles the mind. Mieville envisions the Earth of such a distant future that civilization has risen and fallen at least once, and aliens paid brief visits. The oceans have apparently been drained and the ocean floor replaced by a flat, limitless expanse of railroad ties, i.e. “the railsea.” Consequently, Mieville uses the concept to recast an old-school nautical adventure, only with trains instead of ships, “railgulls” replacing seagulls, etc.
We discover the landscape—make that the railscape—through the eyes of Sham ap Soorap, a young medical assistant aboard a train called the Medes. Sham proves as fearful of open ground as real sailors would be of shark-infested waters. Instead of large or carnivorous sea creatures, the earth beneath the railsea roils with burrowing beasts mutated to extraordinary size, including the giant moles that the Medes tracks and harpoons like a 19th-century whaler. Taciturn Captain Naphi has a robotic replacement for one of her harms and an obsession with finding one particular, leviathan-sized mole … a “great southern moldywarpe” nicknamed Mocker Jack. (There’s a Moley Dick joke, just waiting to be told.)
Mieville has more on his mind than simply riffing on Melville, his near-namesake, but the author certainly enjoys having a go at Ahab. Apparently many train captains compulsively pursue some kind of rogue beast, which they equate with their philosophies of life. At one point Mieville makes a digression worthy of Monty Python or Douglas Adams when he lists “Captain Genn’s Ferret of Unrequitedness; Zhorbal & the Too-Much-Knowledge Mole Rats; & Naphi & Mocker-Jack, Mole of Many Meanings.”
Those ampersands are Railsea’s most conspicuous stylistic tic, and don’t just emphasize the antiquated slang of the novel’s voice. Mieville points out that an ampersand’s looping shape emulates the curving path a train would need to take to change direction: “What word better could there be to symbolize the railsea that connects & separates all lands, than ‘&’ itself?”
A young man coming of age, Sham finds little aptitude for medicine and initially longs to join the dashing salvors, who recovered the treasured detritus of past millennia. (At one point Mieville counts off such earlier epochs as “The Plastozoic, the Computational Age, the Heavy Metal Age.” On a wrecked, derelict train, Sham discovers a memory disc of still photographs, including the haunting image of a single set of railroad tracks going off to the horizon, surrounded by nothing but an expanse of empty land, and Railsea builds to chase the fabled End of the Line.
As each pilots a conveyance worthy of Jules Verne, supporting characters include a hardboiled female salvor with a digging machine, and a pair of resourceful orphans trying to retrace the route of their deceased parents. No ocean-going adventure would be complete without sadistic pirates and at least one shipwreck, which Mieville jerry-riggs to fit his rail-riding concept. Railsea mostly avoids pointed progressive politics that inform novels like Iron Council, but the novel does include a climatic twist that ingeniously slips in a theme of corporatism and environmental responsibility.
Occasionally in the book Mieville takes short, self-conscious digressions about the nature of storytelling that impatient readers should feel free to skip. Seldom his strong suit, Mieville’s prose here emphasizes mannered circumlocutions with more bumps than one would expect from a book informed by rail travel. The outlandish names of places, characters and deities, including a god called That Apt Ohm, suggests a code that I was never quite able to crack.
The author leaves numerous mysteries unanswered, but readers can find more than enough pleasure with its cinematic set pieces and Sham’s discovery of his inner courage and leadership. Railsea traffics in nostalgia for the golden age of train travel as well as the fascinating creation of an impossible yet conceptually consistent world filled with images that burrow into your psyche. If Railsea were to be filmed, only Terry Gilliam could do justice to its cluttered, crazy-quilt places and notions of locomotion.
Railsea isn’t Mieville’s first choo-choo ride. The previously mentioned Iron Council, his most overtly political novel, centers on the image of “The Perpetual Train,” manned by laborers-turned-revolutionaries who forever lay down track ahead of the engine, and pick up the track after the caboose, so the vehicle can travel over any suitably flat terrain without ever stopping.
Fans of provocative fiction can hope that Mieville’s creativity can sustain such momentum as he builds a body of work that maps new possibilities for 21st-century fiction. All aboard!
Atlanta-based freelance writer Curt Holman has been president of the Southeastern Film Critics Association since 2010. He has won awards for critical writing from the Association of Alternative Newsmedia and the Society of Professional Journalists.