Tuesday, January 8, 2013

China Mieville's RAILSEA #OneBookAtATime

Last year I discovered a very, very strange film and fell completely in love with it. Richard Lester's film adaptation of Spike Milligan's and John Antrobus' post-apocalyptic farce The Bed-Sitting Room is one of the most bizarre things I've ever seen, and I'm a David Lynch/Peter Greenaway/Spike Jonze fan.

The film, like so many I take to my heart, tanked at the box office, but it had a few fans nonetheless.

I am 100% not surprised that China Mieville is one of them.

Railsea is a book I've had sitting on my ereader for many, many months. Mieville is one of my very favorite writers; I love his daring, his baroque and slightly deranged prose style, and most of all, his imagination. He is therefore an author on the very short list of "writers whose books I automatically buy sight unseen just because of who wrote them" as they come out (also on the list: Tim Powers, Michael Chabon, Alastair Reynolds... China's in mighty interesting company, there). He's only disappointed me once, so far (Kraken). But this time, this time I hesitated. Because the first thing I heard about it (beyond that it had to do with trains, duh) was that it was China Mieville's take on Herman Melville's (hee) Moby-Dick. Which I did not love, you guys, not one little bit.

But sooner or later, my love for China Mieville was gonna win out over my hate for his pseudo-namesake (or at least, for his big bloated hipster-before-there-were-hipsters-that-makes-it-even-more-hipster opus). And here we are.

What, you may be asking, has any of this to do with The Bed Sitting Room? Well, just hold on a moment, I'll get to that.* Because first, a sketch of the world China has taken us to, which is, as ever, fascinating. For one thing, it is covered in railroad tracks. Covered. There's never just one set.** And where there is not track, there is either "hard ground" where Mad Max-esque towns and other facilities, built largely out of materials salvaged from the ruins of the world you and I know, are set (and regarded as continents or islands), or regular ground, which is the domain of a host of monstrous soil dwellers -- giant earthworms with girths comparable to human arms, burrowing owls the size of rocs (they can carry off train cars when they bother to fly), antlions as big as a person (or bigger), huge swarms of naked mole rats, and moles ranging from the size we know in garden and farm to those of sperm whales. And like whales, these giant moles are hunted by humans, who chase them down in great mole-trains from which they dispatch jolly-carts (like jolly boats from an ocean whaler) full of harpooneers and other specialists in killing and butchering the giant mole when one surfaces.

And yes, there is an albino giant, called Mocker-Jack. And yes, Mocker-Jack has an obsessed captain hunting it, one Ms. Abacat Naphi (anagram for Captain Ahab***), who sports a crazy semi-cybernetic arm made of metal and mole-bone ivory.

But this is not just a retelling of Moby-Dick with moles and trains****, though yes, we have an Ishmael-esque point of view character, Sham Yes ap Soorpan (but thank god, he's not a mole-ing fanboy who oppresses us chapter after chapter with his knowledge of and enthusiasm for the profession; indeed, he's rather reluctant to be a moler; he'd rather be a salvager, an Indiana Jones fantasy of finding treasure in the train wrecks out on the railsea). There is a lot more going on. Because this is some kind of post-apocalypse, though it's hard to determine in what way our civilization devolved and deranged itself into this one.

Which brings me to The Bed Sitting Room. To which there are at least two in-your-ribs references and lots of more subtle ones. I was already thinking vaguely of this film as I read, but treating the experience as one of those idiosyncratic brain-twitches I sometimes get when I make a connection that probably doesn't really exist. But then, wait, ho! Two of these characters are the children of a mother named Ethel Shroake (in TBS, Shroake is the charwoman to the Queen of England and, upon surviving the "nuclear misunderstanding" that touches off the film/play, is regarded as the closest thing the shattered realm has left to royalty), and they live in a compound dominated by a great archway made of washing machines, a visual echo of the archway under which we meet Ethel Shroak in TBS. I died, you guys.

Another delight to be had in Railsea is an ongoing game Mieville plays with the reader, a coy sort of teasing in which he pretends, in his little trainsplaining interludes between narrative chapters, to be giving us a look at the workings backstage, as it were. He pretends to show us his inner processes, his wrestling with the story, or stories, for he claims there is a story he wants to tell and a story that wants to be told, and they are not precisely the same story. Thus once the story breaks into three narrative possibilities (like a train coming to a switchyard where three tracks present themselves as options), we could follow Sham's adventures, or Naphi's, or the Shroakes', and our narrator appears to struggle with the tension between what he pretends to think his readers expect and what he knows is actually the most interesting bit going on. It's all very droll.

The book is also illustrated by Mieville himself, with drawings of many of the monsters of the railsea appearing between sections of the story. The artwork is admirable and charming, even in e-ink, and leads me to wonder if there is anything this guy can't do. I'd hate him if I didn't love him so.

*You who have read Railsea, you see what I did there?

**No indeed. There are LOTS of sets, sometimes running in parallel, often criss-crossing and looping back and all over the place, like an ampersand (which is, Mieville explains in one of his trainsplaining interludes, is why this world never spells out the word "and" but always uses the ampersand, and why he has chosen to as well. Surprisingly, this is not annoying). Thus the switcher crews on any train are kept very busy indeed.

***I found at least one other anagram, the god called That Apt Omh, which unscrambles to, of course, Topham Hatt, of Thomas the Tank Engine fame. I suspect there are many, many more. But I suck at anagrams. You should be very impressed that I found these two.

****Indeed, the Moby-Dick plot takes a backseat most of the novel, except in that it seems to have informed a whole culture: the railsea is full of train-captains who are obsessively hunting monsters of various species, for various reasons. Each captain has created a metaphor-burdened narrative that is really just an elaborate excuse for taking on the role of obsessive hunter, which they call "having a philosophy." Thus various monsters are stand-ins for various high-falutin' concepts like doubt and remorse and, yes, vengeance, but really, everybody just wants to play Ahab. Which is hilarious.


  1. I just read my first MiƩville last month--The City and the City--and it was...meh. I liked it, but I didn't love it. I've heard a lot of people say that Perdido Street Station is his best book, and the others pale in comparison. I still plan on reading all of his stuff, though.

    1. In general, his Bas-Lag books (Perdido Street Station, The Scar and The Iron Council, plus the short story collection Looking for Jake) are regarded as his best, and either Perdido or Iron Council is still my favorite (depends on what day you catch me), but his other stuff still blows me away. Dude is crazy, and crazy-good.


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