Crossing the rails in search of a quest – China Mieville’s Railsea

China Mieville’s latest novel, Railsea, is at once a return to strident form of his earlier novel tempered with the philosophical sides to his more recent work. He comes back to the Scar and perhaps Iron Council in his exploration of the quest.

In the earlier novels, the lead characters decide not to complete their quest. In part this came from a political belief in the idea that the revolution could not be completed. It is perpetual and any completion is perhaps impossible. The Lovers split in the Scar on this point where the male character cannot complete the journey and the Scar needs to remain potential.

In Railsea, Sham follows various paths and philosophies. It is however Captain Naphi who has the driving urge to find the white Moldywarpe and uses the Medes as a single purposed hunting machine, echoing Herman Melville by way of Joan Aiken’s way of perceiving the world and language. When he gets lost, he stumbles across the Shroakes who also have their own quest: to complete the journey that their parents disappeared on. Although all have driving purposes, Sham is curious but is an outsider to their philosophies. His curiosity drives him to explore the world in some very different ways and encourages him to see the Railsea for what it is and try to escape it. When they reach the edge, after the Moldywarpe seals its own destruction, Naphi joins Sham says

I can’t have mine,… [s]o someone else’s philosophy is better than none (page 350)

Questing is about belief in something, almost taking on Moorcock’s argument that the quest is about the Pilgrim’s Progress rewrought and made new each time. He has a similar conversation with the Shroakes who seem to have lost their way when the rails run out:

You’re here because your parents wouldn’t do what they was told. Wouldn’t shun anything. They wanted to see what’s at the end of the world & you actually did. Do. Are doing. (page 357)

Rather than have existing paths, they are forced to think of a new world, a world of possibilities. Sham is forced to change tenses as the world become something that is malleable. The quest comes to an end but needs to change into being something that is possible. Rather than being a journey to find something, Mieville goes back to the idea of the quest being a journey, one that perhaps does not have an end and should be constantly renewed.

Reaching the edge they comes across the Angels, mechanical beings who run with an absolute logic that humans cannot understand. There is no sense of the world before, it clearly has an archaeology (have we also see this in Embassytown with the warning beacon?) but we are never told what it is. Yet we are given a hint in the mad philosophy of the Railsea inhabitants who present with a bill for services rendered and an expectation that it will be paid. (I do wonder if this, and its short conclusion, is a quiet dig at the way that financial services are sucking money from the world but that may be over-reading.)

Railsea is lighter than other Mieville novels but is no less worth reading. It does raise questions about fantasy and it is a cracking read. It feels like it is completing the earlier books and then moving onwards, exploring their problems and rethinking their endings.

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