A's Reviews > Railsea

Railsea by China Miéville
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's review
Jun 27, 2012

really liked it
bookshelves: read-2012
Read from June 25 to 27, 2012

Miéville's last novel, Embassytown, was a rollickingly detailed fantasy novel that also tried to make literal one of the very basic tenets of semiotics -- the idea of signifier and signified. Miéville now enters sophomore year literary theory territory with Railsea, which tackles the not unrelated concept of symbol or metaphor -- moving from the idea of what words can signify to what objects can signify. (Side note: as any post-structuralist can tell you, "metaphor" is from the Greek for "carrying across" -- which is of course exactly what a train does, and what the main character in this story spends the entire book doing. Any post-structuralist can also tell you that the word that derives from the LATIN for "carrying across" is ... wait for it ... "translation." WAS YOUR MIND JUST BLOWN???)

Of course, Melville -- sorry, Miéville -- takes on not only great big ideas in this book but also takes on that great(est) white male -- sorry, whale -- of them all, Moby Dick -- and does a damn good job of it. The book is not only an amazing read but a wonderful gloss on and appreciation for and modern analysis of the great themes of Moby-Dick. The more I think about it the deeper the connection feels.

That said, no one gives a shit that I can put my degree in comparative literature to use. The fact is this is a fantastically fun and gasp-inducingly inventive novel. I read it in two nights and spend the intervening day itching to get back to the story and see what breathtakingly clever new aspect of this world Miéville would unveil for me. I knocked off one star only because, as in Embassytown, Miéville's dedication to the carefully diagrammed linguistic ideas makes him sacrifice plotting at times. Most painfully, while the climactic battle is awe-inspiring and genius in exectuion, the rest of the ending peters out quite wanly and is a bit of a disappointment in its need to really drive home the bigger ideas of symbol, quest for meaning, commerce as metaphor, etc. etc. etc. at the expense of tying up the end of a well-spun yarn.

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