China Mieville's Railsea - an interview
August 9, 2012 7:10 PM   Subscribe

We are so steeped in the tradition of railways as a single line cutting through the wilderness. But [...] there is a tradition you can tap into that completely inverts what has become the cliché, and focuses instead on branching lines, on sidings, on reversibility and on the breaching of timetables—and you end up with a notion of rails that can be an ineffable symbol of potentiality. I liked the idea of trying to honour that alternative tradition.
But that's all post-facto to the basic gag—and it is a gag—of someone shouting "there she blows!" and it's a mole, not a whale.
BoingBoing interviews China Mieville on his new book, Railsea.

Book review. Penny Arcade Comic. Mieville previously.
posted by rebent (53 comments total) 15 users marked this as a favorite

 
ok i've read about one paragraph of the book review and i just want to say how happy i am that he has a new book. this has totally made my night, especially because there's a kindle edition. /downloading now
posted by sio42 at 7:29 PM on August 9, 2012 [1 favorite]


Railsea is pretty good. Mostly delivers on the promise of the absurd premise, and includes a few really great Miévilleisms, my favorite being "clatterwords."

I find the hate from Penny Arcade incomprehensible—no, I take that back, Gabe is a near-illiterate, so Miéville is wasted on him, but Tycho with his putative love of language should be first in line to sing the man's praises.

But whatever, both of those guys like Rothfuss's writing, which renders suspect their whole body of opinions on literature.

Anyway Miéville's great—and a total charmer in real life, it must be said.
posted by Sokka shot first at 7:35 PM on August 9, 2012 [6 favorites]


I've only read Embassytown, and while I enjoyed it, I thought the flurry of neologisms was one of the biggest weaknesses - it read like a seventies Ace paperback from an author who hadn't reigned himself in yet. So in that sense the gut reaction in the Penny Arcade comic makes sense.
posted by 23 at 7:43 PM on August 9, 2012 [2 favorites]


I liked it. The Railsea brings to mind the idea of a huge game of Metro.
posted by aeschenkarnos at 7:49 PM on August 9, 2012


Railsea was not only a great retelling of Moby Dick, but also a fairly wry deconstruction, until the final chapters. The whole bit about "philosophies," and the white mole as floating signifier was pretty funny. Mieville, Melville. Melville, Mieville.
posted by reverend cuttle at 7:52 PM on August 9, 2012 [1 favorite]


I've only read Embassytown, and while I enjoyed it, I thought the flurry of neologisms was one of the biggest weaknesses - it read like a seventies Ace paperback from an author who hadn't reigned himself in yet.

It's a problem, but intentional, and not typical of Mieville but rather the genre he is explicitly working in. The book is in some respects a tribute to an older SF tradition of playing with linguistic construction as it relates to world-building, eg. Delany's Babel-17 and other works. If you think Embassytown is bad in that respect, you should probably avoid all that posthumanist quantum sci fi craziness that the genre is up to today...

One of my favourite parts of Embassytown is how our protagonist is an explicitly unreliable narrator attempting to make sense of and in some respects justify her role in a catastrophe, unlike other dubious narrators in genre classics of the past (Left Hand of Darkness, obviously Ender's Game, basically anything by Heinlein, etc). Mieville is really at his best when deconstructing, so I'll definitely check out Railsea.
posted by mek at 8:04 PM on August 9, 2012


Spoilers Below.



I was luke warm on Railsea, but it had some real gems. I loved the ending when the we find out that there are 2 parallel mythologies intertwined at the end of the book.

While throughout the whole book, the protagonists seek to find heaven beyond the rails, the Rail Company descendants have constructed this cargo cult-like legend of a mounting, biblical pay off. The scene where the leader of the Rail Company delivers the impossible bill to the protagonists who are expecting some kind of spiritual interaction is pretty amazing.

I've convinced myself that American Gods and Kraken are part the first two parts of some neo-urban god/folklore trilogy.
posted by Telf at 8:30 PM on August 9, 2012 [2 favorites]


Also, I think Tycho of PA would dig Kraken. In someways it's Mieville's least Mievilley book.
posted by Telf at 8:31 PM on August 9, 2012


I think if there was a work of fiction that made Holkins and Krahulik literally foam and thrash in an impotent tantrum while bleeding from the eyes, I'd be pretty likely to think it was the best thing in the world. They're the absolute embodiment of the opposite of everything I like.

also because that would be a pretty hilarious thing to see
posted by emmtee at 8:32 PM on August 9, 2012


I don't have much experience with Mieville. I read Kraken recently, though, and I was frustrated. There were so many just. plain. cool. ideas and characters, but I didn't care about any of them. it was long on concept, but I didn't find there was much to hang them on. The premise of the book, at the start, was pretty great. But by about half way through I was growing impatient for the book to end. I feel like he's an amazing idea man, but I don't feel all that interested in ever slogging through another one of his novels. Should I give something else a try?
posted by synecdoche at 8:42 PM on August 9, 2012 [2 favorites]


I can't help but suspect Holkins hates Mieville for political rather than intellectual reasons; his description of Mieville's "smug" prose seems to match his favourite author, Neal Stephenson, much better than Mieville: "I can feel him leering at me through his typewriter, shoulders up, breathing hard. That’s when I stand up, walk over to the bookshelf, and place it with the others."

The rest of his description of his hatred for Mieville is worth reading, insofar as it is extremely odd.
posted by mek at 8:43 PM on August 9, 2012


I like both Mieville and Penny Arcade. So there!

My personal favorite is probably still The Scar.
posted by Justinian at 8:45 PM on August 9, 2012


synecdoche, Kraken is generally considered one of his weaker books. For a tighter and more fully-realized novel, The City And The City is my favourite: it's a hardboiled crime story which may or may not be fantasy.
posted by mek at 8:47 PM on August 9, 2012


I feel like Kraken is his most approachable book. There are few truly terrible things in it and the vocabulary is fairly light on neologisms.

Some of the ideas in his Bas Lag series are truly horrific. As in, some of his ideas carry the seeds of madness that will lay dormant in your brain for years until you encounter the proper stimulus upon which they spontaneously germinate into full blown psychosis. (This is slightly hyperbolic.)
posted by Telf at 8:48 PM on August 9, 2012 [2 favorites]


the city and the city is one of my least favorites because it does not have as much weird as I like. Perdito st. stn., the scar, kraken, and now railsea are all deliciously weird with constant effluence of concrete abnormalities built into the world. The city and the city seemed to me to have one weird with a ton of mundane. But, I agree that his characters take second place to his weird worlds. I don't prefer it that way, but I'm willing to put up with it.
posted by rebent at 8:50 PM on August 9, 2012


Million dollar idea:
Sex and the City and the City. (The movie.)
Think about it.
posted by Telf at 8:53 PM on August 9, 2012 [11 favorites]


I can't help but suspect Holkins hates Mieville for political rather than intellectual reasons; his description of Mieville's "smug" prose seems to match his favourite author, Neal Stephenson, much better than Mieville: "I can feel him leering at me through his typewriter, shoulders up, breathing hard. That’s when I stand up, walk over to the bookshelf, and place it with the others."

To state the perhaps too obvious, it also easily applies to Holkins himself.
posted by speicus at 8:56 PM on August 9, 2012


I really dug The City and The City but I had a hard time with Kraken
posted by the theory of revolution at 9:11 PM on August 9, 2012


Mieville is hard to read. I loved Perdido, even if it too me three tries to finish, but had a hard go reading the other Bas Lag books. Kept trying, though.

I strongly feel that Un Lun Dun was the writing exercise that helped him be more accessible, and it was a literary success in its own. Kraken was brilliant (although I have to admit that I'm his target audience). City and the City was very good. But I had to take break from Embassy Town after the "climax" about 2/3rds of the way into the book.

Too much introspection, although I loved the last 1/3rd of Bacigalupi's The Windup Girl which was in a similar predicament but dealt with it much better in terms of pacing. After stopping reading Embassy, I had to revert to my current binge on comedic fantasy fluff.

Looking forward to Railsea, though.
posted by porpoise at 9:24 PM on August 9, 2012


Looking For Jake was brilliant - Mieville really shines in the short form. Otherwise I have a complex relationship with his work - I respect the hell out of it, but I don't necessarily like it. (Other than The City and the City which was very close to perfect and also the absolute right book to read on the train between Baltimore and NYC.)
posted by restless_nomad at 9:30 PM on August 9, 2012 [1 favorite]


Sex and the City and the City.

Carrie accidentally has sex in both cities at once, and recruits the other women to help her conceal this fact from Breach. Oh god why doesn't this already exist?
posted by a hat out of hell at 9:36 PM on August 9, 2012 [5 favorites]


BLDBLOG interviews Mieville: Unsolving the City
posted by the man of twists and turns at 10:14 PM on August 9, 2012


I have a treat for the people in the China Mieville thread which is NOT TO BE SHARED with the people in the "we hate Paul Constant" thread: Paul Constant interviews China Mieville (2009, before this book by a fur piece). Don't let on.
posted by mwhybark at 10:31 PM on August 9, 2012


Also, since Iron Council is my fave, may I say GOODY MOAR TRAINS.
posted by mwhybark at 10:33 PM on August 9, 2012


Sex and the City and the City

Charlotte is convinced that her Besz boyfriend is two-timing her with an Ul Qoman woman, but can't figure out how to catch him in the act without committing breach! Hijinks ensue when he inadvertently makes a date to meet both of them in the same hidden bedroom in, er, Copula Hall...
posted by RogerB at 10:53 PM on August 9, 2012 [5 favorites]


Two of my favorite writers: China Mieville interviews Ursula K. Le Guin (MP3 audio) from BBC Radio 4 in 2009.
posted by Celsius1414 at 11:05 PM on August 9, 2012


Charlotte is convinced that her Besz boyfriend is two-timing her with an Ul Qoman woman

A girlfriend in Ul Qoma?

(I know, I know, it's serious)
posted by kurumi at 11:27 PM on August 9, 2012 [13 favorites]


mwhybark, your favourite is Iron Council too? I thought I was the only one! (DRMacIver has been strenuously convincing me of this for a while. ;-) ) ALL THE TRAINS for us!

kurumi, I think that comment did something terrible to my brain.
posted by daisyk at 11:41 PM on August 9, 2012


FYI to anyone reading in Opera on an Android phone - that BB interview has some spoilers that are blacked out, which my phone helpfully revealed anyway. I'll finish reading it after I've read the book, I think.
posted by daisyk at 11:51 PM on August 9, 2012


Sex and the City and the City:

Carrie wants to buy a new pair of Manolo Blahniks, but the spring line is only available in Ul Quoma. She has a hot date in Besz in 2 hours. Can the girls band together to get the shoes across the border in time?

Meanwhile:
Charlotte has fallen in love with her Ul Quoma divorce attorney. Can she convince her WASB parents to accept her plans to emigrate and convert?

Meanwhile:
Samantha convinces Smith to partake in a titillating Besz-Ul Quoma breach bedroom roleplay. They are mistkanely caught by a nosey landlord. Can Miranda defend Samantha in the court of law?

Guest appearance by Tom Selleck.
posted by Telf at 12:18 AM on August 10, 2012 [4 favorites]


*mistakenly
posted by Telf at 12:24 AM on August 10, 2012


Have really enjoyed everything I've read by Mieville, although much of it was definitely difficult. Perdido St. Station still haunts me, and my first Mieville read was The Tain. I really enjoyed Railsea, as much for the reasons rev. cuttle above mentioned, but also because I'm a train geek.

And while Kraken's human protagonists weren't the most compelling, I really loved Mieville's treatment of London. I always enjoy someone writing a love letter to a city I've lived in.
posted by ursus_comiter at 1:06 AM on August 10, 2012


I can get the Penny Arcade comic, even if I don't necessarily agree with their opinion of that particular book. Mieville can, indeed, be pretty freaking pretentious. And 'leering.' And artificial.

The mind-boggling creativity of the man, however, tends to make his books worth it (for me anyway), despite the flaws. And what writer doesn't have flaws?

I really loved Mieville's treatment of London. I always enjoy someone writing a love letter to a city I've lived in.

After running into statements like this several times since the book came out, I've come to believe that the reason I really couldn't get into Kraken was because I'm not a Londoner - between the urban fantasy setting and all the fantastical characters, I felt you could just change the name from London to Bas-Lag and be done with it. I guess familiarity with the city adds something that I wasn't getting.

With The City and the City and Embassytown, on the other hand, I felt like I was reading Mieville trying to do something clearly different, stylistically, than what we're used to from him. Which was more impressive.

His best work is still definitely The Scar, though.
posted by AdamCSnider at 1:13 AM on August 10, 2012 [2 favorites]


I can't help but suspect Holkins hates Mieville for political rather than intellectual reasons

Let's be honest here: much the same can be said of most of the folk on Metafilter who hate the Penny Arcade crew.
posted by AdamCSnider at 1:16 AM on August 10, 2012 [1 favorite]


It's one thing to dislike a person's politics; it's another to reject their entire body of work on the basis of that. Metafilter does not universally refuse to laugh at PA's jokes in the same way that Holkins apparently rejects Mieville's writing.
posted by mek at 1:23 AM on August 10, 2012


So the last Mieville thread around here made me go and read Perdido Street Station.

I guess I wouldn't have minded somebody mentioning something about the ending.
posted by solarion at 2:06 AM on August 10, 2012 [2 favorites]


Why are we giving a fuck about Team Dickwolf's taste in literature? Yeah, I hate their politics, but to be fair, this is icing on a cake made of lazy referential humor and shallow analysis that has actually made nerds stupider for experiencing it. I come by my disdain honestly. I just feel less guilty about it now that the politics have confirmed o my expectations.

Mieville interests me primarily because he gets literary with utter geekery, transforming it thereby. Perdido Street Statio is a D&D adventure where a wizard hires adventurers to invade a building, for God's sakes. I think there's some resentment that he dares not to phone this sort of thing in by spamming trope and reference.
posted by mobunited at 2:18 AM on August 10, 2012 [3 favorites]


I guess I wouldn't have minded somebody mentioning something about the ending.

I don't know whether you're referring to Lin, but I always felt Yagharek also got a raw deal.
posted by Ritchie at 2:35 AM on August 10, 2012


I've only read Embassytown, and while I enjoyed it, I thought the flurry of neologisms was one of the biggest weaknesses

Mieville's recent books enact their story in their structure. Embassytown is about translation, so language games and neologisms naturally play a big part. Railsea is about salvage, so it's full of verbal cut-up and reassembly, with some deliberately obvious borrowings from other books.

One interesting aspect of Railsea is that, whereas Mieville's earlier novels all feature vicious and oppressive governments, this one has an absence of government; Mieville deliberately leaves the political background very vague. On all sorts of levels it seems to me to be a novel about absence, about living in the ruins of the past and cobbling together the salvaged fragments. Politically, though Mieville doesn't labour the point, it can be read as a parable about what happens when the gods of the market disappear. The whole novel is a kind of extended pun on hitting the buffers or reaching the end of the line.
posted by verstegan at 2:56 AM on August 10, 2012 [6 favorites]


After reading this thread and googling a bit more, I've come to the conclusion that China Mieville is the best writer out there I haven't read so far. I intend to address this as soon as I'm done with this copy of Cloud Atlas that I'm thumbing through right now.
posted by the cydonian at 5:26 AM on August 10, 2012


Also, I think Tycho of PA would dig Kraken. In someways it's Mieville's least Mievilley book.

I'd say The City and the City was the least Mievillean Mieville book.
posted by Foosnark at 7:10 AM on August 10, 2012


Let's be honest here: much the same can be said of most of the folk on Metafilter who hate the Penny Arcade crew.

I'm going to be honest and say that I have very little idea of PA's politics (working-class "values" conservative?). I dislike them because they're cranks. And the bigger a crank's audience gets, the less charmingly eccentric he seems and the more difficult he is to tolerate. At this point I consider Tycho/Holkins to be a shrill opinion columnist of the worst kind and avoid all PA content appropriately.

I think I started to lose interest, lo, these many years ago, when one of them got into a shouting match with Harlan Ellison. (I realize that may not be hard to do.) Have respect and humility, guys!
posted by Nomyte at 8:53 AM on August 10, 2012


So the last Mieville thread around here made me go and read Perdido Street Station.

I guess I wouldn't have minded somebody mentioning something about the ending.
posted by solarion at 2:06 AM on August 10 [2 favorites +] [!]


Railsea does not end like PSS. Railsea is a young adult novel, so it has a happier ending. I don't think that's a spoiler because, based on the first few pages, you can just tell that it's going to be a much less dark work of literature.
posted by rebent at 8:56 AM on August 10, 2012


One reads Penny Arcade for their commentary on gaming. I think their good at it. If one reads them for their intellectual insight beyond that, you're really, really doing it wrong.

For a crowd that seems to jump up with "just because you have a popular website doesn't mean you're qualified to comment on everything", you're giving these guys way too much attention.

Of course...I thought the whole dickwolves thing was ridiculously overblown by a lot of people trolling for outrage, so I'm apparently one of the bad guys.
posted by kjs3 at 9:00 AM on August 10, 2012


After reading this thread and googling a bit more, I've come to the conclusion that China Mieville is the best writer out there I haven't read so far.

I'm not sure if he's the best according to critics or award committees, but he's currently one of the only authors I get excited about. You can be pretty sure that all his books will be interesting and that you'll learn plenty of new words, none of which you will ever be able to use in casual conversation.

Many of his books introduce concepts that will haunt you for weeks. That's not always a bad thing.
posted by Telf at 9:39 AM on August 10, 2012


I love Mieville's writing. I've read most of his stuff, still have a bit to get through. Embassytown was my least favourite because of the narrator. But in a way it makes sense for her character to be the way she is.

My favourite is Iron Council, but I really need to reread the books because it has been an age. I also loved Kraken.

For those of you who have enjoyed his writing about London, the Bookseller have just announced that an essay of his, about the city, is to be published in book format with lots and lots ofphotos. It was previously published in the New York Times. I think this is it.
posted by Fence at 10:24 AM on August 10, 2012


There is also a conference on Mieville's work coming up soon.
posted by The River Ivel at 11:13 AM on August 10, 2012


none of which you will ever be able to use in casual conversation

Oh, but when I want to burn something out of all existence, I have just the perfect word...
posted by the man of twists and turns at 11:14 AM on August 10, 2012


I need to re-read Kraken, because I really struggled to keep my attention on it. I was wallowing in a horrible, horrible case of swimmer's ear that hurt so bad I couldn't even put in my contact lenses, and just huddled on the couch with that thing six inches from my face and it's really no problem to enjoy a book when you're just sick, but when you hurt and it's gross, it's hard to have fun doing anything.

That said, and I may have said this before, but I love love love The Scar, and I read it every year, and am casting a movie in my head:
Natascha McElhone is Bellis.
Holt McCallany is Uther Doul.
Peter Sarsgaard is Silas Fennec.
Rupert Grint is The Brucolac. (No, seriously. The vampire is a young-looking guy who [can't remember here] either wears a long, curly wig or just has long, curly hair. And I may be wrong, but for some reason I swear he's a redhead. But picture vampire Rupert Grint with all like ruffles and velvet coat and chest-length curls and tell me he isn't an awesome scary vampire.)
posted by Mister Moofoo at 6:05 PM on August 10, 2012


The best part of Kraken were the repeated and totally random paeans to Amy Winehouse.
posted by restless_nomad at 6:24 PM on August 10, 2012 [1 favorite]


Thanks for posting this interview! I think the reason I first heard of Miéville was a recommendation on Neil Gaiman's blog, and I started with King Rat, which felt a little underdone. (Somewhere there's an interview where he said that book was just him working out issues with his dad.) But it was good enough that I read Perdido Street and ohmyholygod his command of language was breathtaking. My favorite is Embassytown, because of the narrator, seconded by The Scar, because of Uther Doul. Even though I have yet to finish The City and The City, he's become one of my all-time favorite authors in the past few years.

There is also a conference on Mieville's work coming up soon.

Possibly the best news I've heard all week.
posted by Angharad at 7:04 PM on August 10, 2012


I read The City & The City first and was bowled over by the world(s) of the book & the astute political snark, even despite how the ending felt flimsy and the entire concept took longer than it should have to convey.

Then I read Kraken, and Iron Council, and then Perdido Street Station. And I can't help but think that, based on those three, there's a point in most of his books about 2/3rds of the way through where the story utterly collapses and he begins reciting plot point after plot point and it becomes all "showing, not telling." The skeleton of the story becomes visible and the characters lose their dimensionality and become shapes for advancing what would, in better-written circumstances (say, earlier in the book), compelling sociopolitical analyses. And that's the point all the disbelief I'd been willing to suspend involving handlingers (ridiculous!) and the sillier of the neologisms comes flooding back and I have to struggle not to put down the book entirely. It's as though his editor threw up his or her hands or went on vacation.
posted by tapir-whorf at 12:07 AM on August 11, 2012 [1 favorite]


I don't know whether you're referring to Lin, but I always felt Yagharek also got a raw deal.

Lin more, but the entire thing was such a massive downer for everybody. Wonderful prose, mind. I'll be taking a look at Railsea.
posted by solarion at 7:42 PM on August 19, 2012


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