The problem with writing a book about trains is that it hands your critics a healthy arsenal of cheap metaphors to use in reviews (see also: Atlas Shrugged). Do we say that Railsea goes off the tracks a bit? That it doesn't really make it into station? Or indeed, that it never really gets up a good head of steam? Screw the puns. Let's just say it's not really up to par. This isn't to say that Railsea is bad, but it has a lot to live up to. Mieville has already written a better book about trains (Iron Council), a superior story about oceanfaring (The Scar), and a much more inventive YA novel (Un Lun Dun). Where does that leave Railsea? It's readable, even captivating at times, but ultimately a bit of a trifle.
Other readers have called this "Moby Dick with moles," but that's not quite true. Set on a planet where hunters, pirates, and scavengers roam an "ocean" of train tracks while avoiding dangerously-outsized ferrets, earwigs, and burrowing owls, Mieville does invoke Melville: train captains in this society each grow obsessed with a particular animal, including one who hunts a great white mole named Mocker-Jack. But these are just spice, thrown in as mood-setters. The vast majority of the book is actually about a moletrain doctor's assistant named Sham, who finds a memory card that leads to the end of the titular railsea, and kicks off a chase for the rumored riches located there.
Railsea is filled with clever authorial touches, like the use of the ampersand instead of "and" (there is a in-text reason) or an extended meditation on the ways that stories are themselves on rails, particularly in science fiction. Always respectful of genre, Mieville throws in passing references to Aubrey and Maturin, Robinson Crusoe, and Roadside Picnic (watch for the mention of a "Strugatski triskele"). These touches add interest to what is otherwise a pretty limp narrative: Sham spends most of his trip passively wandering up to more interesting stories, until the inevitable character growth moment. This is a book that's better as a critic than as a reader, but even there, it's not subtle: the layered, rich symbolism of Weavers and golems is missing, although I'll admit to enjoying the authorial asides that draw attention to the text's own lumpy pace.
Where Railsea redeems itself is in Mieville's writing, which is still (love it or hate it) an incredibly distinctive prose style, and its straight-faced embrace of the ridiculous. He gives only the slightest indication that his setting--with its savage naked mole rats, rail captains with mandatory artificial limbs, and carriages pulled by rhinocerii--is completely preposterous. Mieville has always written worlds that piled unlikelihood on improbability atop impossibility, but here he occassionally winks to us, such as this section on the theology of trees and railway ties:
Of all the philosophers' answers, three stand out as least unlikely.
— Wood & wood are, in fact, appearances notwithstanding, different things.
— Trees are creations of a devil that delights in confusing us.
— Trees are the ghosts of ties, their gnarled & twisted & dreamlike echoes born when parts of the railsea are damaged & destroyed. Transubstantiated matter.
All other suggestions are deeply eccentric. One of these three is most likely true. Which you believe is up to you.
All gripes about the book aside, I find that completely charming. This mischievious voice makes Railsea the kind of book that's almost begging to be read aloud. And if, in the end, the twists in this tall tale are a bit straighter than you might expect, I suspect it's still worth the price of the ticket.
...I dislike thinking in terms of allegory--quite a lot. I've disagreed with Tolkien about many things over the years, but one of the things I agree with him about is this lovely quote where he talks about having a cordial dislike for allegory.
The reason for that is partly something that Frederic Jameson has written about, which is the notion of having a master code that you can apply to a text and which, in some way, solves that text. At least in my mind, allegory implies a specifically correct reading--a kind of one-to-one reduction of the text.
It amazes me the extent to which this is still a model by which these things are talked about, particularly when it comes to poetry. This is not an original formulation, I know, but one still hears people talking about "what does the text mean?"--and I don't think text means like that. Texts do things.
I'm always much happier talking in terms of metaphor, because it seems that metaphor is intrinsically more unstable. A metaphor fractures and kicks off more metaphors, which kick off more metaphors, and so on. In any fiction or art at all, but particularly in fantastic or imaginative work, there will inevitably be ramifications, amplifications, resonances, ideas, and riffs that throw out these other ideas. These may well be deliberate; you may well be deliberately trying to think about issues of crime and punishment, for example, or borders, or memory, or whatever it might be. Sometimes they won't be deliberate.
But the point is, those riffs don't reduce. There can be perfectly legitimate political readings and perfectly legitimate metaphoric resonances, but that doesn't end the thing. That doesn't foreclose it. The text is not in control. Certainly the writer is not in control of what the text can do--but neither, really, is the text itself.
China Mieville, talking to BLDGBLOG
Reading Embassytown, it is obvious that China Mieville has been thinking deeply about metaphors and control for a long time. His first really "science fiction" book, it's a complex meditation on language and colonialism, all filtered through Cronenberg-esque body horror. And while there are scattered threads of homage (I did a double-take at the mention of Karen Traviss' aggressively vegan aliens, the Wess'har), there's no doubt that this is Mieville still writing Weird Fiction in a way nobody else can manage.
Told from the point of view of "immerser" Avice Benner Cho, Embassytown initially jumps back and forward across time, but eventually settles down into a straightforward narrative. Cho comes from a backwater colony planet that's home to aliens named the Hosts, whose Language (capitalization in the original) has some odd characteristics: it's a double-voiced vocalization (requiring specially-raised pairs of humans to speak it), and it's a direct expression of their mental state. The Hosts can't lie, because that would require them to think something impossible, but they can create new linguistic expressions via simile. Before she leaves the planet to travel across space, Cho becomes a Simile ("the girl who sat in darkness and ate what was given to her"). Years later, Cho returns with her linguist husband to visit the colony, just in time for disaster to strike in the form of the new Ambassador to the Hosts from the human empire, and a Host who is learning how to lie.
There are elements here of Dune, Snow Crash, Videodrome, and Adam Troy-Castro's Emissaries from the Dead, although they've been combined into something very different. Mieville manages to create a kind of recursive narrative--both about and functioning as metaphor. It's got something to say about colonialism, about propaganda, and about the relationship between language and policy--although, as Mieville would no doubt point out, it's not a book solely about those things. It's not a polemic.
One of Mieville's great talents is his understanding of trope and genre, which lets him quickly sketch out a scenario, such as the political relationship between Cho's home colony and the wider human civilization, while saving room for what he does best: throwing his characters across stretches of jarring, endlessly inventive territory. In this case, the Hosts' talent for biological manipulation provides a landscape that's both familiar and yet deeply alien, from living houses that grow their own furniture to transit tubes built from peristaltic flesh. Beyond the shock value, the connection between the Hosts and their technology makes the decline of their society graphically manifest, as buildings and tools bleed and weep in desparation.
For all of its immense thoughtfulness, and despite its achingly-rendered arc of destruction, I wish Embassytown were better in a few key areas. Cho is a passive observer for much of its length, and the fractured timeline during the first half of the story seems more like a gratuitous method of disorienting the reader than a useful narrative device. I also wish, for a story that resonates so strongly around the legacy of colonialism, that the ending felt a little less like What These People Need Is a Honky.
For the Mieville fan, what stands out the most is the lack of pulp. In the last three books, he's changed his writing styles and tone significantly for each book, but there's always been a lurid quality to them, as though channeling the fevered grotesqueries of an Amazing Stories cover painting. While the body-horror elements persist, along with his obvious love of language, it's only in a short sequence describing a warp-travel accident that Mieville lets his pulp roots free--otherwise, it's a relatively restrained performance, which may be better for this particular story, but I do miss the sheer excess of previous novels.