One of the reasons I didn’t get to Railseauntil now is that Moby Dickis all over this story, and obviously so. I haven’t ever read Moby Dick, and reading a book without having read the obvious intertexts can be a problem. For example, I know I read The Club Dumas but I was so at sea with all the Dumas-lore that almost none of it stuck. Apparently, seeing a bunch of Three Musketeers movies and having the gist of buddies fighting Cardinal Fang wasn’t enough for me to dig the intertextual story. (But I liked the movie! I know I am a philistine.) But I think Moby Dick, like Frankenstein, is a different situation, in the sense that both of those stories have achieved a level of saturation (at the very least in the States) that you can dig the nods and winks when they come up even if you haven’t read it. They’ve been ground down and seeded into our story-listening DNA. They are molecular at this point.
Hell, even last weekend I was watching The Wrath of Khan– I know; philistine – and Khan in his last scenes spits out the lines, “To the last, I grapple with thee; from hell’s heart, I stab at thee; for hate’s sake, I spit my last breath at thee.” I thought to myself, that is from either Moby Dick or one of the Shakespeare revenge plays. And behold! It is from Moby Dick. (It is somewhat hilarious to consider that Kirk was the Big White Dick in that movie. Ba dump tss.) The crew of the Pequod comes up rather a lot on Trek, the show dealing as it does with explorers and frontiers and the occasional philosophical madness. Alfre Woodard calls Picard Ahab when he’s raging about the Borg in First Contact. He takes her point, and ruefully quotes some lines to her, after which she admits with some embarrassment that she’s never read it. Reference five, Alfre! It’s okay we’ve never read it. It’s in our bones.
Not that the Moby Dick intertext turned out to be this super huge thing anyway, I say never having read it. Sham ap Soorap is an orphan child-on-the-cusp-of-manhood who is sent off with a moling train as a doctor’s assistant. He appears at the first blood-soaked and swaying on his feet, this powerful image of a bloody boy about to drop. But the story then reverses, chugging, letting you know the half-comfortable events that lead up to this half-uncomfortable image. Railsea is a train-world, where the ocean is stripped and tied with rails in snarls and parallels, all these tracks onto which to lay the story down. The earth of the railsea is a scary place, roiling with all manner of underground monsters: worms, moles, bugs, digger owls. (Like Un Lun Dun, Railsea includes line drawings done by Miéville himself. I toss my underpants on the stage.) It’s a place of reversals and islands and debris, and Sham picks his way through the mess on the ground and underground, and sky and upsky. It seems like a layered world, discrete, with its tracks and isolines, but while the tracks may run linear, the trains on them do not. Oh dear, this is the kind of thing that gets me very hot.
Railsea has one of those chatty narrators that you sometimes find in young adult literature, like the narrator from The Hobbit but less so. I don’t mean a strong first person voice, like Avice from Embassytown, but a straight up capital-N narrator. My husband and I spent some time talking narrator when I sorted this out about Railsea, and I realized I pretty much only can stand these sort of narrators in young adult fictions. “Name me one chatty narrator in adult fiction,” I said to my man. “Tom Robbins,” he said. I groaned. I admit I loooooved Tom and his narrators before the age of about 25, but after that, no. It’s not even an issue of quality, or my becoming all wise or something, it’s just that all that aggressive meta-narrator stuff aimed at my fully formed personality makes me freak out. I see what you’re doing, so don’t tell me what you’re doing while you’re doing it. But stuff aimed at the unformed? That for some reason doesn’t bug me. I admit my biases are deeply unfair.
Here’s the thing. I was rolling along in this story, very much enjoying all the usual Miéville touches and flourishes: the weirdness, the half-dashes at local beliefs, the scrubby, bloody rawness. (I admit, I do miss his profanity in this young adult world, but I can forego cussing for other good things.) Then I had the revelation. You guys, this is on some level a riff on A Wizard of Earthsea. How did I not see that before: earthsea, railsea? Omigod, and when Sham and company sail right off the end of the world, on that one impossible track that stretches over the great impossible void, I was breathing right into a bag. Le Guin’s archipelago is the geography of my heart, and while Miéville takes that geography and runs it to a slightly different locale…I’m still breathing into a bag here. My heart, it burns.
Both of these stories – Railsea, Earthsea – hinge so strongly on their endings and their denouements that I don’t even feel like I can talk about it, even under cover of spoiler. You’d see the terminus of those tracks before you felt the rails, which is part of the point of the thing called story, head out of the window like a dog in the artificial wind. Adventure stories for the young chattily run us from one place to another, confronting impossible and possible monsters, meeting and losing people, learning the tracks of regret and lost opportunities, one’s life narrowing to a single impossible track over the great impossible void. The great thing is that there are seas, whole seas, earthseas beyond the void, and the tracks never run where you expect. Nothing does, even if you knew the shape of Ahab’s philosophy and metaphor-spearing expectations. A railsea does not mean, but be. And
So might I, standing on this pleasant lea,
Have glimpses that would make me less forlorn;
Have sight of Proteus rising from the sea;
Or hear old Triton blow his wreathèd horn.