Literature: Railsea

Railsea is a novel by China Miéville, officially Young Adult. However, the "young adult" part mainly means a lack of swearing, sex or graphic violence, rather than any lack of mindbendingness.

Sham ap Soorap is an unhappy surgeon's mate on the Medes, a moling train than plies the lethal ground of the railsea & hunts the giant moldywarpes that live at the top of its food chain. Especially Mocker-Jack, the huge blond moldywarpe that took Captain Naphi's arm. But when Sham is picked to search a wrecked train, he finds himself in possession of a MacGuffin that various nasty people are looking for.


  • Action Girl: Several, especially Caldera, Naphi & Sirocco.
  • Adventurer Archaeologist
  • After the End: Although some time after, & nobody really remembers the details.
  • Alien Sky: The sky over the railsea, where massive atmospheric beasts watch for prey from among the toxic clouds.
  • Ambiguous Gender: Dr. Fremlo.
    "So you going to be a moler's doctor, Sham?" Timon said. Sham shrugged. "Going to turn out like your boss? No one knowing if you're a man or a woman?"
    "Shut up," Sham said uncomfortably. "Fremlo's Fremlo."
  • And the Adventure Continues: The ending has the main characters going off to seek adventure on an even bigger scale.
  • Animal Nemesis: Parodied. The town that Sham comes from expects every real hunter to have one. It is referred to as 'having a philosophy.'
  • Attack of the 50-Foot Whatever: The railsea is filled to the platforms with various oversized, predatory critters, from man-sized leaping deathworms to burrowing owls big enough to wrestle trains off their tracks. Mocker-Jack, the giant mole that Naphi spends the book tracking down, goes straight into Kaiju territory.
  • Blue and Orange Morality: The angels are described as such. The railgoing ones are dedicated to keeping the tracks clean above all else. "All else" including whether or not there's still a train on the tracks they're about to roll through.
  • Brother-Sister Team: Caldera & Dero Shroake.
  • Call a Rabbit a "Smeerp": Most of the weirder creatures that seem mundane have weird names like the giant moles, birds, & some insects.
  • Cavalry Betrayal: The Manihiki army
  • Cool Big Sis: Sirocco, the friendly salvager who frequently stops by to lend our heroes a hand.
  • Cool Train: Many, especially the Medes & the Shroakes' exploration train.
    • The Angels (at least, the ones that travel on tracks).
  • Derelict Graveyard
  • Desert Punk: Takes place on an "ocean" that's a monster infested wasteland dotted with raised "islands" & crisscrossed with railways whose trains are treated much like ships so in a weird way it manages to combine both this & Ocean Punk. The ending implies that the crew of the Medes are leaping headfirst into the latter genre.
  • Diesel Punk: Since it seems most technologies of the current era run off fossil fuels & everything has a mixed air of the idealized 1930's & 1940's both good & bad, this certainly fits.
  • Drill Tank: Sirocco's vehicle
  • Giant Flyer: The denizens of the upsky, which also cross over into Starfish Alien territory. They're explicitly described as alien, too.
  • The Empire: Manihiki is somewhere between this & an unsympathetically-portrayed Eagle Land version of The Federation, a supposed democracy with a major gap between rich & poor & a nasty imperialist streak.
  • Everything Trying to Kill You: The ground outside the rock "islands", the "up-sky", oh & the lack of cover anywhere from the things below.
  • Ghost Ship At least a few of these, especially the wrecked ones.
  • Ghost Town: Plenty of them in the background. Heaven is the most significant on-screen example.
  • Has Two Daddies: Caldera & Dero. & a mummy as well.
  • Historical In-Joke: One of the gods is "Railhater Beeching." He's named after Dr Richard Beeching, notorious in Britain (perhaps unfairly so) for closing vast numbers of railway lines.
  • The Hunter Becomes The Hunted: Early on, Sham finds a salvaged tracker that he presents to Naphi, who later on uses it to tag Mocker-Jack. It turns out that the device works both ways, & a very annoyed Mocker-Jack is now homing into the Medes with the purpose of wrecking it once & for all. All according to plan for Naphi.
  • Insistent Terminology: Mocker-Jack, Captain Naphi's Animal Nemesis, is not yellow. He's ivory. Also, the consistent use of '&' in place of 'and', which actually gets discussed in one chapter.
  • Last Bastion / Lost World: Subverted - the controller & 'Heaven's Citizens' have turned into degenerate primitives & the Railsea dwellers are doing much better than they are.
  • Layered World: Not literally. But it's common knowledge that the sky has two layers & the world has four.
    • The sky is divided into the "downsky", which is basically normal. Then, two or three miles up, the downsky is suddenly replaced by the lethally poisonous "upsky", home to various unpleasant & gigantic alien flyers.
    • The first layer of the ground is the underground "subterrestrial", home to all the tunneling monsters that inhabit the railsea. Above it is the second layer, the railsea itself. Above the railsea is the third layer, consisting of all the habitable islands & continents, & above those are the fourth layer: the highlands, high enough to jut into the upsky itself.
  • Lemony Narrator
  • Low Culture, High Tech: Played with. Though the dwellers of the railsea seem to be doing fine with their trains, primitive biplanes & advanced digital recorders/trackers, their lack of understanding of the world's nature, along with the generally strung-out cultures of the various rock-island civilisations & weird linguistics, gives off a general impression more reminiscent of, say, the Golden Age of Piracy than anything else.
  • Mega Corp.: The world became the way it is now due to an apocalyptic trade-war between several of these.
  • Moby Schtick: The plot involving Naphi & Mocker-Jack.
  • More Predators Than Prey: Lampshaded in the narration.
  • Not So Safe Harbour: Bollons
  • Obfuscating Disability: Naphi.
  • Sand Worm: A whole ecosystem of them, of invertebrate, mammalian & even avian varieties.
  • Scavenged Punk
  • Scavenger World
  • Schizo Tech: The "modern" trains run off diesel, but they share the tracks with various analogues powered by steam, clockwork, "hermetic engines", sails & rhinos.
  • Shout-Out: To Roadside Picnic (with the incidental mention of the name Strugatsky) & Thomas the Tank Engine (with the top-hatted god named That Apt Ohm - a Significant Anagram)
    • There is also a Shout-Out to the 1969 film 'The Bed-Sitting Room', in which Mrs Ethel Shroake (of 393A, High Street, Leytonstone) is the closest surviving successor to the throne of Great Britain.
    • Furthering the Moby Dick parallels, Abacat Naphi = Captain Ahab.
  • Summon Bigger Fish: Multiple examples. The first one is when Sham escapes from the pirate train Tarralesh when it gets shot to bits by a Manihiki wartrain. Said assailant reappears to chase down the Medes at the climax, only to be vaporised by a rail angel. With the angel now hot on their tracks, Sham & Sirocco decide to lure in Mocker-Jack with a two-way tracker, which eventually culminates in the philosophy & the angel fighting & plummeting down a chasm.
  • Terraforming: The railsea used to be an actual sea, before a great company war in aeons past drained it up to lay tracks over.
  • Transplanted Humans: It is mentioned at least twice that the humans of this world come from another & at one time had space travel.
  • Treasure Map
  • Unnecessarily Creepy Robot: The "Angels" both flying & on rail; they are portrayed in an almost 'demonic' fashion & feel very creepy in both description & the Railsea dweller's fears.
  • Unrobotic Reveal: Naphi, when her "prosthetic" arm gets damaged & starts bleeding, revealing that she was Obfuscating Disability all the time.
  • Whole Plot Reference: As previously mentioned, it's a really weird version of Moby-Dick.
  • Word Salad Philosophy: Captain Nathi spouts one of these when it's revealed that she still has both arms. Vurinam notices.
    "That don't even bloody mean anything!" he despaired. "It's complete bloody gibberish!"
  • You Have Outlived Your Usefulness: The crew of ''Tarralesh are government-sanctioned privateers, not pirates. This stops mattering when they refuse to hand over Sham to the Manihiki ferronavy.
  • Zillion-Dollar Bill: It turns out that the nameless Mega Corp. that built Heaven (along with all of the railsea) were charging the trainsfolk with usage fee, & their feral descendants are living with the prophecy that the users will one day return to pay the accumulated debt of many, many lifetimes (with interest).