China Miéville’s “Railsea”: Giant Moles, Strange Trains, and Blood Rabbits
Fresh off the linguistic pyrotechnics and mind-bending concepts in his critically acclaimed Embassytown, China Miéville returns with a novel for readers of all ages, “a gripping and brilliantly imagined take on Herman Melville's Moby-Dick” that I’m personally finding an absorbing, exciting, and also very fun read. Even though there’s much that’s serious about Railsea, it’s been written with a kind of exuberance that comes through on the page.
What’s it about? Giant moles and blood rabbits! Yes, I said it: blood rabbits, although perhaps they’re better described as an interesting detail. But mostly it’s about some very fascinating characters on an epic journey. For once the press release does a nice job of giving a good sense of the novel: “On board the moletrain Medes, Sham Yes ap Soorap watches in awe as he witnesses his first moldywarpe hunt: the giant mole bursting from the earth, the harpoonists targeting their prey, the battle resulting in one’s death and the other’s glory….When they come across a wrecked train, Sham a series of pictures hinting at something, somewhere, that should be impossible...Soon he's hunted on all sides, by pirates, trainsfolk, monsters and salvage-scrabblers. And it might not be just Sham's life that's about to change. It could be the whole of the railsea.”
In asking Miéville about the novel, I knew I should start out with a standard question, but alas my delight at discovering that Miéville had deployed not just giant moles but giant naked mole rats in Railsea overrode any more mundane concerns...
Amazon.com: How long have you been fascinated by mole rats?
China Miéville: It's a relatively new fascination. They weren't one of my default magic animals, as a kid—like octopuses, aardvarks, sharks, etc.—though moles were, and remain so. A few years ago I was reading something or other and discovered mole rats, including the facts that they, oh my god, are mammals with a collective hive mind like ants, with a queen, that their skins feel more or less no pain, and that they burrow by biting. Now, you tell me, faced with that, how a person is supposed to not write them as giant monsters? Plus have you seen them?
Amazon.com: Any particular spark of image or scene that led to writing the novel?
Miéville: Absolutely, but I can't really remember what it was. I always do that. My memory is dreadful. I know that I've loved moles and molehills since I was about four, at least, and walking with my great grandfather while he complained about them. I thought they were great. And at some point in the following 35 years, the image of a group of hunters chasing a giant surfacing mole came into my skull, and lodged there.
Amazon.com: Was this one fun to write or a slog? The tone is fairly playful.
Miéville: Yes, the first draft, particularly at the start, was a great pleasure. I had the first mole-hunting scene in my head and it just sort of raced out. Some of the later stuff came harder, and the move from first to second draft involved a lot of work, but there's no question that it felt playful. The previous book I wrote, Embassytown, was very hard work, and took a very long time, and caused quite a lot of emotional turmoil. I think without any conscious planning, sometimes I have a tendency to write something that is more unmediatedly playful and joyful after a book like that.
Amazon.com: What did you want to accomplish with Railsea, beyond telling an entertaining story?
Miéville: Nothing, I think, makes the Deities of Book laugh harder than hearing writers explain what they think their stuff is “about.” That said…I knew that I wanted i) to affectionately and with great reverence tease the work of genius that is Moby-Dick; ii) to invert the dominant tradition of train symbolism according to which railroads represent fixed, ineluctible (manifest, indeed) destiny. In this I was following Bruno Schulz, Thomas Pynchon, Stefan Grabinski, in focusing on the siding and the fanning out of tracks, rather than the main line, cutting like an imperial plan across tamed wilderness, blah blah. So instead, trainlines as representing endless recurved potentiality. Add pirates, add 18th Century maritime yarns, stir, and serve.
Amazon.com: Finally, I must ask, hope against hope…is the Blood Rabbit a real thing?
Miéville: It might be, one day.