The Hunt for Yellow Talpa: China Miéville’s Railsea


First up, a warning, and a plea. What follows engages with Railsea in a fair degree of detail. As a result, even though I’ve tried to keep it free of plot spoilers per se, it inevitably includes things I would not have wanted to know before reading the book. I like to meet my favourite reads in a dark alley and have them mug me for my affections before I so much as see their faces. If you’re the same then take my word for it, Railsea’s a fantastic ride.

Caveats away, onwards. Thar she blows!

The Railsea: a vast plain of train tracks, branching and interweaving like nesting snakes, stretching beyond every horizon to the ends of the earth. Engines of many kinds rumble over the rails, merchant trains and war trains and most significantly, hunting trains, for it is on this last that our story focuses. The mole train Medes, tacking and switching across the iron of the great southern ocean searching for her captain’s obsession, a mountain-sized moldywarpe with a coat the shade of a discoloured tooth: Mocker Jack.

On one level Railsea is a straightforward-ish coming of age story. Sham Yes ap Soorap, doctor’s assistant on the Medes is listless. Like many heroes of classic children’s literature (Alice for example, or Norton Juster’s Milo), he’s curious but uncompelled. He’s most of the way to being grown up, but he doesn’t know what he wants to be when he gets there. On a planet-sized steel ocean teeming with train captains chasing assorted monstrous philosophies, Sham is set to find a philosophy of his own. An artefact found in a wrecked train leads him to seek out Railsea’s other teenaged protagonists – the  Shroake siblings. Dero and Caldera are brother and sister, exemplars of another classic YA trope – bereaved children of mysterious explorers. As these near-orphans set out to uncover the secret that two out of their three parents died for, Sham finds his purpose in helping them to fulfil theirs.

A gripping tale ensues, one that carries its three young leads to the limits of a richly imagined world and beyond. It’s moving too, which is something that for all the richness of his works, I don’t always find with Miéville. Railsea’s characters spring off the page with signal-switchers and cutlasses in hand. I found myself rooting for the Shroakes and Sham all the way, while eyeing the other stand out in the cast – the Ahab-inspired Captain Abacat Naphi, with a respectful suspicion.

Of course, this being Miéville, thar be monsters. I’ve spoken before about his teratological taxonomy. Now, added to Frankensteiny splices and chitinous Lovecraftian enigmas we have another category: really fucking big shit. Alp-sized talpas, earthworms as big as tube trains, earwigs that could decapitate you with their bumjaws (giggle, I know I’m 12, ok?), they’re all here. Also, as a special bonus, one of my favourite mythological beasts gets a remix. I won’t spoil it, but that moment of recognition was. Just. Awesome.

Up to this point I’ve been saying Railsea is about Sham finding his philosophy, now I need to qualify that a bit. What the story is closer to being about is him choosing his philosophy. And with that distinction, it’s time to change gears, switch tracks and start looking at the book on the level of metaphor.

The Railsea itself is a tangle of tracks. Each taken individually is a circumscribed, unidirectional path, but there are so many of them, and they interlink and fuse and split so intricately that, by skilful switching, a canny train captain can have all the navigational freedom of the open ocean. Each rail is a path, but you can follow them wherever you want. Obsessed skippers pilot their trains in pursuit of evasive monsters that stand for even more evasive meanings: ‘The Ferret of Unrequitedness, the too-much knowledge Mole Rat’. These semiotic quarry, erupting from the substrate beneath the iron, do more than determine the passage of the engines over the rails, they condition their captains’ reading of them.

The Railsea is one giant, tangled overarching metaphor for narrative (1), for text. The rails can be read not just as narrative strands, but for individual interpretations of those strands, which makes this story a metaphor for metaphor itself. A meta-squared-phor, or, given that it’s a ferrovia mare, a metal-phor.

You really can choose your own adventure.

Choice is a theme in Miéville’s YA. We saw it in Un Lun Dun, with the savage disembowelling of destiny, and here it rides again, writ one order of magnitude larger, undermining not merely the idea of predetermination within the narrative, but of a predetermined reading of the narrative itself. The  voice of the story works this angle, playful, teasing and ornery. It skips back and forth across time and space like a puppyish tardis.

‘Back a bit’

‘Bit more’

‘Time for the Shroakes?’

‘Not yet.’

This voice breaches periodically from the soil of the story to address the reader directly, questioning, rearranging, doubling back and tripling forward, making the narrative arc feel anything but inevitable. Also, it fleshes Railsea’s world out by digressing on detail beyond the scope of the story’s confines. It’s a fun, tantalising device where the full import of the metaphor feels constantly, within finger stretch.

In this respect Railsea makes an interesting comparison with another recent YA, Patrick Ness’s A Monster Calls. In Monster, a series of conventional seeming fairy tales are reworked. They’re given less comforting, less patronising, thornier and ultimately truer feeling endings so that a boy, Conor, can begin to get to grips with his mum’s cancer. Monster questions our cosy assumptions about stories, but retains total conviction in itself, and it hits like a sledgehammer to the heart. Railsea by comparison (quite deliberately) calls itself into question, draws attention to its own artifice. It’s Brechtian, an attempt to have it both ways, to suspend your disbelief while pointing and shouting at the ropes which are holding it up. It’s a testament to Miéville’s skill that, for most of Railsea, he pulls it off. Very occasionally though, I found that this intentional immersion-breaking put distance between me and the characters. As a result I found Railsea a cooler, more cerebral delight than Ness’s masterpiece of affect.

One final thought: Railsea is gorgeously imagined, beautifully written, blinding fun. If it had nothing else going for it, that would be more than enough. But it’s also stonkingly ambitious. I hope it sells eleventy bajillion copies if for no other reason than, if it does, it might help lay to rest the lie that teenagers want easy answers and pat conclusions and short sentences and can’t handle complexity. We ought to have a little more faith in them. They want stories like Railsea. Stories that urge them to pursue ideas even when they aren’t quite sure they fully understand them. Stories that bid them shovel more coal to the boiler, man the switches and join the hunt.

(1)   Well, that’s one interpretation, anyway.

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