There’s something immediately striking, and immediately annoying, about Railsea: In China Miéville’s second young-adult novel (and ninth novel overall), every appearance of the word “and” has been replaced with an ampersand. At first, it seems like a mere affectation; after all, Miéville’s first YA novel, Un Lun Dun, revels in wordplay. But halfway through Railsea, just as all those &s start to become invisible, Miéville drags the ampersand front and center. In a move that’s both profound and cheekily self-referential, the book addresses the reader directly—and pierces the fourth wall with a startling, deeply resonant reason behind the typographical quirk.
That isn’t Railsea’s only meta moment. The text frequently references itself, and at several points even pokes fun at its own clumsy juggling of plot threads—a valid observation made maddening by the fact that Miéville chooses to joke about it rather than fix it. At least the ampersand revelation ties into the guts of the book’s premise: In a world that’s been rendered a vast, railroad-scabbed desert, a young doctor’s assistant named Sham ap Soorap serves on a moletrain—the equivalent of a 19th-century whaleship, only it hunts giant moles that burrow underneath the desert. Then again, Miéville’s premises always revolve around his settings, from the superimposed city-states of The City & The City to the steampunk metropolis of New Crobuzon, the nucleus of his Bas-Lag series. Theoretically, Railsea’s titular desert could exist in the same universe as any of these settings. The parallels are numerous; there’s even a place in Railsea called Scabbling Street Market that begs to be compared to Miéville’s own Perdido Street Station.
Besides drawing from his past work, Miéville scavenges liberally and openly from Moby-Dick—particularly in regard to Sham’s boss, Captain Naphi, a woman driven to hunt a great, “old-tooth-colored” mole named Mocker-Jack. Again, Railsea gets dizzily self-referential; moletrain skippers like Naphi call the moles they pursue “symbols,” and they call their obsessions “philosophies.” Miéville presents many text-scratchers such as this throughout Railsea, most of them downright enticing. But he rarely carries through with them in a satisfying way, apparently more content with lumping together a hodgepodge of heady ideas into a teetering conceptual jumble. The ending of the book not only fails to resolve that jumble, it piles on layer after layer of metaphysical bombshell, giving little time or space for them to work their wonders.
To his credit, Miéville crafts one of his most compelling characters in the hesitant, compassionate, idealistic Sham, and the lean plot is one of his tightest. Even his prose—often dense to the point of impenetrability—is swift and absorbing, though it’s littered with a profusion of eye-crossing portmanteaus particular to Railsea’s world. But it fits: The ethic of salvage, which Sham’s entire culture runs on, carries over to its language. And especially Sham’s own idiosyncratic vernacular. His dream, above all, is to leave the moletrain and become a salvor himself—someone who scours the treacherous railsea for bits of technology left from a halcyon age, when his world was a layover (and a dumping ground) for extraterrestrial traffic. Miéville manages to weld a rich science-fiction concept to influences like Herman Melville and Robert Louis Stevenson (yes, there are pirates; how could there not be?), and the result is both brainy and thrilling. If only he’d stopped less to comment on his own cleverness along the way.