Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Weird & Wonderful: Railsea

For September's meeting of City Lit's Weird & Wonderful book club, we talked about China Miéville's 2011 YA novel, "Railsea". Weird & Wonderful had previously read (and greatly enjoyed discussing) his language-centered 2011 novel, "Embassytown", and while the lighter, younger-reader-targeted "Railsea" doesn't strike quite as many sparks as some of his other work, we had a lovely discussion.

Miéville is at the center of the "New Weird" genre/movement, rather analogous to Gibson's position with the early cyberpunks. The New Weird isn't terribly well-defined, but tends to involve a mixture of tropes from horror, SF, and fantasy, often with an urban setting or sensibility, and generally criticize or unsettle generic conventions.

"Railsea" is very quickly established as a weird "Moby Dick" (1851) homage with a very strange setting and a lot of other influences and references, as well as some strange (and overt) narrative/stylistic choices. At group we found this to be one of those books that got better for being talked about, or perhaps one of those books that's in some ways more satisfying to discuss than it was to read. Possible spoilers below!

We had some new folks joining us, which is great to see. We also had cookies & wine, courtesy Joan & City Lit. Also! Exciting news: group organizer T. Sean's novella "Tacky Goblin" just won Curbisde Splendor's Wild Onion Contest, meaning it will be published early next year.

The greatest of the pre-emojii
logograms is a major player
in the novel. I can only hope that
a spiritual successor to "Railsea"
takes up the thematic
possibilities of the interrobang.

One of the biggest issues with reading "Railsea" is switching mental gears (or, dare I say, tracks): it's a young adult novel, though not always categorized as such. Miéville makes some stylistic choices that are a bit grating if approached at the same level as his more adult-targeted novels; in particular at group we commented on how dumb Sham seems, and the kind of in-your-face nature of the narrator at points.

However, looking at it qua YA, these are less offensive, may be strengths. I can imagine a bright young reader really clicking to the ampersand usage, or to the 4th-wall breaking sections where the narrative is explicitly trainlike, switching tracks, reversing for a while.

We also praised some subtle points in the book, particularly thinking of younger readers absorbing them: the lack of sexism in particular. Men and women (and at least one character of non-binary gender) are seen in all roles, with no comment on the fact: it's just part of the world. Likewise, there's some very matter-of-fact presentation of different family arrangements that's pretty cool.

I also am particularly a fan of the way that characters don't readily conform: the crew of the moletrain Medes aren't just mooks that follow the captain blindly. Almost every character who gets any time has opinions, has a voice & will, and that's pretty cool. I also really appreciate essentially the hecklers, the constant critical voice at the back of the crowd--whenever some character in the book spouts off some poetic-sounding nonsense, some Socractic character yells "that's rubbish!" in a gentle but constant questioning of authority.

Elsewhere, Miéville is not so subtle--we characterized some of the messages here as "mallet to the head". The ending of the novel--an indictment of rampant capitalism as the source of this weird apocalypse--comes out of left field. Although we did like the actual description of the tribe of investment bankers & hedge fund managers that have descended into primitive savagery, still clutching briefcases.

I'm really looking forward to the
illustrated Moby Dick that
Evan Dahm is working on.
Strongly suggest his comics btw.
We talked for a long time about the influences at work here, apparent and otherwise. Miéville includes a nice (long) list of influences in his acknowledgements, and Joan looked up quite a few of them. Melville is obviously the big one, the white whale replaced with the "ivory not yellow!" mole, Mocker-Jack. Joan also caught that the Medes' captain's name is an anagram for Ahab--we couldn't find any others off-hand. However, there are tons of other works being drawn on here, including Robert Louis Stevenson & Daniel Defoe in the classic nautical adventure vein; I was particularly amused by Sham's brief Crusoe fantasy when he's stranded.

So many influences here! From "Thomas the Tank Engine" to the brothers Strugatsky--there are a few explicit references to their "Roadside Picnic" (1971), in which aliens who have no interest in humans leave a bunch of inexplicable junk behind (also the basis for Tarkovsky's 1979 film "Stalker"), which scenario is one part of the weirdness of "Railsea".

(Also, now knowing that "Thomas" was an influence, I can't help imagining a Robot Chicken-type adaption where the rail-citizens of the Island of Sodor must battle and butcher monstrous subterranean creatures.)

We talked for a lot about the world and world-building here--how the railsea works, angels, the various subterranean creatures. While it's a fun world, and we thought that Mocker Jack is pretty effective, I am a little underwhelmed by the creativity of the monsters--something that Miéville usually shines at. Though the world is very cool, once you figure out how much disbelief to suspend.

Travis points out that if you
forget what a spike is, just
think of William the Bloody.
Against my better judgement,
here shown with shirt.

We had to do some on the spot railroad technology research to resolve some questions about "ties" vs. "sleepers" (turns out they're the same thing, just UK vs. US terminology). Particularly confusing for me because I'm sure Miéville used "sleepers" in "Iron Council" (2004), which also features a train. Oy, "Iron Council". So freaking good.

Also, while "Buffy" is on my mind: couldn't help but notice that the real terror in "Railsea" are the "eruchthonous" creatures, which Miéville essentially defines as "from beneath you, it devours".

I got on an impromptu theoretical soap-box for a second to try verbalize a nagging idea I have about this book, which is that a major theme in it is essentially disruptive, deconstructive, questioning. There's the autonomy of the crew mentioned above; the way the narrator hits you over the head to let you know that the story you're reading is constructed and somewhat arbitrary; the constant parody/satire of obscure Melville-type philosophizing. Mocker-Jack, the great Southern moldywarpe who "is" Naphi's philosophy, perhaps stands for:
The Unknown...General Theories. Also Floating Signifiers, Asymptotic Telos, Evasive Purpose. Loss.
And note that he's Mocker-Jack. That mocking, that undercutting of clearly defined purpose and reason is one of the of the main though covert forces in the novel. Our protagonist is searching for a purpose, and never really finds it until he literally leaves the rails that have defined his whole world. The anti-climax of the bill presented at the end of the world (Douglas Adams reference?) cheapens or even eradicates the elaborate mythology of how the railsea came to be: it was just a weird business venture that got out of control. And I can't help but notice our protagonist's name: Sham. It's not that it's nihilistic, but I guess what I'm intrigued by here is the way that "Railsea" encourages questioning, reveals hoaxes and constructions.

Soap box away!

Definitely a novel that improved upon discussion. Whatever our gripes with Sham as kind of a dummy, and the narrator/author as pretty intrusive, mallet-to-the-head at times, we praised the adventure bits. I think "rollicking" was a word tossed around a bit. In conjunction with this, though, we commented on the kind of naturalistic/senselessness of some of the death and violence, particularly Sham's young pirate kidnapper and the Bajjer who missed his jump. I was reminded a bit of the old Harryhausen stop-motion films, which often featured giant animals and other weird horrors, while someone else brought up "Jurassic Park" (Crichton 1990, Spielberg 1993) for comparison--the chased by monsters, ride-like quality.
Replace the T. Rex with a giant burrowing owl and you get the idea.
via shardwick.
A fun discussion! It was the first Miéville for a few readers; I can't suggest his other work enough. I usually push either "The City & The City" (2009), a Chandler/Kafka-esque procedural, or "The Scar" (2002), a much more fantastic/grotesque tale set in his Bas-Lag universe.

The next Weird & Wonderful books are:
  • October: Ira Levin's "Rosemary's Baby"
  • November: Emily St. John Mandel's "Station Eleven"
  • December: Patrick Ness's "The Crane Wife"
Keep up with Weird & Wonderful and many other clubs & events on the City Lit Books website, Facebook, and Meetup.

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