China Mieville's Railsea is a witty and energetic novel about the wanderlust of adolescence. It is also a subtle and deceptive play on Herman Melville's Moby Dick. Railsea tells the story of Sham, a young crewman on a moletrain called the Medes. Sham is Ishmael, the Medes is the Pequod, the Railsea is the Pacific Ocean, and the Medes' captain Naphi is Ahab, a monomaniac in pursuit of the pale goliath that stole a limb from her in a previous encounter.
Or so it first appears. As the novel develops, these direct allusions to Melville are revealed to be a very deliberate metafiction. Captain Naphi is not alone in her obsession with the white mole that cost her a limb; almost every captain of a train on the railsea shares a similar obsession, and each pretends to share Ahab's erudite understanding of the arcane. But whereas Ahab's monomania was apocalyptic, Naphi's is thespian. It is an oddly appropriate juxtaposition, as if Mieville is celebrating the tendency of teenaged readers to scoff at the literary histrionics of Melville’s masterpiece.
Indeed, as a literary work Railsea shares almost nothing with Moby Dick, though it mirrors the classic on every superficial level. Even the name of our protagonist (Sham) nests phonetically within that of Moby Dick’s iconic narrator. But like the other parallels to Melville’s novel, it’s a trick, a bit of a joke. It’s a Sham. There are times when one can't help but wonder that perhaps this novel exists for no reason other than the homophonic parallel between Melville and Mieville.
Instead, Railsea is a more direct descendant of the works of Robert Louis Stevenson. Its story is a youthful escapade, teeming with pirates and treasure maps and swashbuckling adventure. It is also a deeply thoughtful novel. Small interstitial chapters ruminate on the role of language, how the ampersand can serve as both syndeton and symbol, how portmanteaus can connect ideas as effortlessly as rails connect continents.
At some point someone somewhere decided Railsea was a Young Adult novel, and published it accordingly. Perhaps it is. It is also a children's novel, and an adult novel. It is a fantastic addition to Mieville's already-stunning oeuvre, and deserves to be read widely.