Sailing on the Railsea

Books While waiting for A Memory of Light, I’m filling in time by picking off a few shorter books on Audible. At the moment I am about three quarters of the way through Railsea by China Miéville. Nominally a Young Adult novel, it sports enough wit and invention to satisfy a wider readership.

Miéville obviously had fun writing this book. It might even qualify as something of an indulgence. He pokes merciless fun at Moby Dick – hold on, Miéville is only one letter different from Melville so ….. naaaaah! And to a lesser extent at Treasure Island and, fleetingly, Robinson Crusoe. He also milks the confuddling of the seafaring and railway paradigms to the limit, setting his story in an imaginary world where seas and oceans are replaced by an all-encompassing rail network and the denizens of the deep are giant earth-burrowing creatures.  It has more than a whiff of steampunk about it, not that I claim any special familiarity with that genre.


Another aspect to Miéville’s indulgence is the self-referential nature of the narrative. We get some very short expository chapters interspersed among the main run of the story-telling. Some of these micro-chapters work like a narrator’s aside to the audience at a play, explaining why the viewpoint, which has been that of one single character (named Sham ap Soorap) for over half the book, will now suddenly switch to different characters. Or why the viewpoint is not switching as you might think, as in:

Chapter 64

Time for the Shroakes? Not yet.

Chapter 65

Sham rolled up his sleeves…

The Audible book is narrated pleasantly enough by Tom Lawrence, even if some of his accents are a bit unreliable. He did on a couple of occasions very jarringly mispronounce chitin, the natural substance which insect exoskeletons are made of. The whole word is supposed to be pronounced “kite in” but he pronounced the “chi-” part as in “chin”. Does no-one check these things while the recordings are being made?


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