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Literature / Railsea

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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, the endless, crisscrossing train tracks that cover virtually every flat surface of the earth, and 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 Naphi, Caldera, and Sirocco.
  • Admiring the Abomination: Naphi's quasi-fangirlish (and rather disturbing) attitude towards Mocker-Jack. Her entire crew calls her out on it.
  • Adventurer Archaeologist: Salvors, who make a living by scavenging the detritus of the Railsea. The most famous ones specialize in Lost Technology.
  • After the End: Although thousands of years after, and nobody really remembers the details.
  • Alien Geometries: Played with: the single, straight rail that leads to Heaven wholly defies the basic logic of the railsea, but there's nothing actually unnatural about it.
  • 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."
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  • 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,' because not only do you need to have an animal nemesis, you also need to find some sort of symbolic or metaphorical meaning to your pursuit.
  • 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.
  • Berserk Button: Captain Naphi's philosophy is not yellow! That said, the trope is slightly subverted with the captain; she doesn't fly into a rage when people insist that Mocker-Jack is yellow, she instead makes very poetic speeches about all the shades of not yellow he is. Most other characters find this hilarious.
  • 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.
  • Broken Ace: Naphi is supposedly one of the best moletrain captains out there, a rumor she can back up pretty damn well through badassery, but the more screentime she gets, the clearer it becomes that for all her skill and prowess, she's dangerously emotionally unstable.
  • Call a Rabbit a "Smeerp": Most of the weirder creatures that seem mundane have weird names like the giant moles, birds, and some insects.
  • Collector of the Strange: Salvors are this practically by definition.
  • Cool Big Sis: Sirocco, the friendly salvor who frequently stops by to lend our heroes a hand.
  • Cool Train:
    • Many, especially the Medes and the Shroakes' exploration train.
    • The Angels (at least, the ones that travel on tracks).
  • Cue the Rain: After the Medes crew finishes battling the Siller.
  • Derelict Graveyard
  • Desert Punk: Takes place on an "ocean" that's a monster infested wasteland dotted with raised "islands" and crisscrossed with railways whose trains are treated much like ships — so, in a weird way, it manages to combine both this and Ocean Punk. The ending implies that the main quartet are leaping headfirst into the latter genre.
  • Does This Remind You of Anything?: At one point, Caldera talks about the "trainsfolk down south" that get regularly labelled as pirates, while all they want is to protect their coasts from waste-dumping corporate trains.
  • Did You Think I Can't Feel?: Impliedly, Sirocco near the end. Despite acting very "cool" throughout all of her screentime, after seeing how heartbroken Sham is over the fact that she had only come with him for the potential valuable salvage, she rigs a dead angel & goes after Sham & his group—though still continues to claim that it was not her idea.
    • To a more obvious extent, the captain; depite doing a fairly great job of being The Stoic throughout most of the book, in the first (failed) mutiny after the fight with the siller, she makes it very clear how hurtful the constant accusations of not having any sort of human feelings are.
    "I’ve heard of this place, as have you. & it is true that when Mr. Mbenday said the switches were misbehaving, a possibility occurred to me. So if you arraign me before your court accused of having halfheld notions, fleeting recollections, then I plead guilty. If, however, you claim I deliberately allowed my crew to steer themselves into danger, then sir how dare you?"
  • Diesel Punk: Since it seems most technologies of the current era run off fossil fuels and everything has a mixed air of the idealized 1930's and 1940's both good and bad, this certainly fits.
  • Drill Tank: Sirocco's vehicle, the railsea equivalent of a submarine. Complete with periscope!
  • The Empire: Manihiki is somewhere between this and an unsympathetically-portrayed Eagle Land version of The Federation, a supposed democracy with a major gap between rich and and poor and a nasty imperialist streak.
  • Everything Trying to Kill You: The ground outside the rock "islands", the "up-sky", oh and the lack of cover anywhere from the things below.
  • Freak Out: Naphi has a rather disturbing Freak Out scene after the mutiny against her near the end.
  • Future Imperfect: Justified, as this takes place thousands of years in the future as well as after a series of massive cataclysmic events (the sky becoming poisonous, aliens visiting Earth, the railsea being created), so it makes sense that nobody in the book really knows much about our time. Even facts of geography have been twisted or forgotten, since the railsea and the remaining habitable islands are located on the long dried-up ocean floor, while much of what was once above sea level is now covered by the poisonous fog of the upsky.
    • The home port of Sham and the Medes is known as Streggeye, aka Easter (egg) Island, watched over from its summit in the upsky by statues of local gods known as the Stonefaces.
    • Mention is made of lost worlds located above the upsky boundary, such as the Nuzland (New Zealand) and Sowmerick (South America).
    • "Oh shun, the vale of tears." Nobody remembers what oceans are.
  • Ghost Ship At least a few of these, especially the wrecked trains.
  • Ghost Town: Plenty of them in the background. Heaven is the most significant on-screen example.
  • Giant Flyer: The denizens of the upsky, which also cross over into Starfish Alien territory. They're explicitly described as alien, too.
  • Has Two Mommies: Caldera and Dero. And a mommy as well.
  • Heroic BSoD: Captain Naphi near the end. She never recovers.
  • Hidden Heart of Gold: Sirocco. Subverted in that she doesn't exactly act unnecessarily cruel to people, but she does act very aloof and "cool."
  • 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, and a very annoyed Mocker-Jack is now homing into the Medes with the purpose of wrecking it once and 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 gets discussed in one chapter.
  • Last Bastion: Subverted — the controller and 'Heaven's Citizens' have turned into degenerate primitives and the Railsea dwellers are doing much better than they are.
  • Last-Name Basis: Naphi and Sirocco. Their first names are mentioned maybe twice or three times in the narration, but no character ever actually says Naphi's first name, and the only time Sirocco's first name is spoken is by Sirocco herself when introducing herself to Sham. (Note: their first names are Abacat and Travisande, respectively).
  • Layered World: Not literally. But it's common knowledge that the sky has two layers and 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 and 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 and continents, and 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 and 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 and 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.
  • Misery Builds Character: Played fairly straight with Sham's character development. Completely inverted with Naphi, however, who suffers a complete mental breakdown & actually loses characterization.
  • Moby Schtick: The plot involving Naphi & Mocker-Jack.
  • Not So Stoic: Captain Naphi spends a lot of her screentime seeming deadpan & collected, if not slightly inconsiderate, but after the mutiny against her, she starts screaming & nearly crying, & even temporarily loses her ability to speak out of pure shock.
    • Mask of Sanity: Her sudden emotional instability actually isn't sudden at all, as over the course of the book it becomes more & more apparent that she's not exactly sane.
    • Ambiguous Disorder: It's clear Naphi is far from sane, but exactly how is hard to describe coherently.
  • Obfuscating Disability: Naphi.
  • Oh, Crap!: Sham on multiple occasions, the Shroakes on about an equal amount of occasions, & Naphi when she realizes she's being overthrown.
  • One-Word Title: As an example of The Place, (where the story happens).
  • The Place: The Railsea is where the story happens.
  • The Proud Elite: Most of the Medes crew sees Captain Naphi as this.
  • The Quiet One: Captain Naphi. She starts out only speaking to people when necessary, though after the Medes crew's mutiny, she very nearly stops talking altogether.
  • Revenge Before Reason: What else to expect from a plot semi-based on Moby-Dick?
  • Rule of Symbolism: Naphi saving Sham's from drowning at the end of the book parallels the death of Captain Ahab & survival of Ishmael, but inverts the final outcome: Naphi, tied up around the waist by rope & sinking into the water rescues Sham from the great beast that is The Controller, & then gets dragged by the rope back to the surface, saving both of them, not unlike how The Racheal rescued Ishmael while searching for its missing son.
  • Sand Worm: A whole ecosystem of them, of invertebrate, mammalian and even avian varieties.
  • Sanity Slippage: Naphi — subverted, as it eventually becomes apparent that she'd been unstable the whole time, but was just having an increasingly hard time hiding it.
  • Schizo Tech: The "modern" trains run off diesel, but they share the tracks with various analogues powered by steam, clockwork, "hermetic engines", sails and rhinos. Also, the whole world is basically train-powered — but almost nobody remembers that the very rails they run on are human creations.
  • Scylla and Charybdis: Or, the Siller — a monstrous upsky creature disguised as a pillar of rock, until it sprouts fanged tentacles to eat the crew of passing trains — and the Kribbis Hole, a massive sinkhole surrounded by "trap rails" that shift course to send trains careening into it. To navigate the Kribbis Hole, you have to bring yourself into range of the Siller.
  • Serious Business: To most moletrain captains, philosophy is the actual meaning of life—but most people find their obsessions absolutely ridiculous & only pretend to take them seriously because they're in charge.
  • She Will Come for Me: Sham while being held captive aboard the Tarralesh. Captain Elrish explains that no, Naphi will not rescue Sham, because he had already forged a letter supposedly from Sham claiming that he had left the Medes crew voluntarily to become a salvor.
  • Shoot the Shaggy Dog: Naphi's character arc. Subverted in that she doesn't die, though arguably her ultimate fate is even worse.
  • Shout-Out: To Roadside Picnic (with the incidental mention of the name Strugatsky) and Thomas & Friends (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.
    • There's one chapter where Sham is trainwrecked on a deserted island. Unconscious, he dreams about an alternate outcome for his current predicament, the plot outline of which appears to be a Whole Plot Reference for Robinson Crusoe .
    • The Siller and Kribbis Hole are, of course, a nod to Scylla and Charybdis from The Odyssey .
    • The very concept of a Moldywarpe is cribbed wholesale from Roman writer Pliny The Elder's encyclopedia Natural History. At one point in his book, Pliny describes a town near Thessaly menaced by a Moldywarpe, a mole so large that its tunnelling under the town caused an earthquake.
  • Skyward Scream: In a rare literature example, Captain Naphi does this right before going insane near the end.
  • The Stoic: Naphi, for most of the book.
  • 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.
  • Terse Talker: Naphi always either speaks using the absolute minimum amount of words — or the absolute maximum, when she's making speeches. Both, understandably, irritate Sham.
  • Transplanted Humans: It is mentioned at least twice that the humans of this world come from another & at one time had space travel.
  • Trauma Conga Line: Naphi at the end. She gets publicly humiliated, her crew turn against her, her first mate betrays her, she is overthrown & forced to help some kids she doesn't know, her philosophy is murdered in front of her by the very person who'd been using her to get his philosophy the whole time, she then finds out that he'd been using her, then tries to kill herself & is saved by the very people who just betrayed & used her, ends up being held down & chained up, & completely loses everyone's respect. At one point, she's so deep in shock that she temporarily loses the ability to speak; ultimately, by the end of the book, she's so desperate to be part of something interesting/important that she resigns herself to helping three kids explore for the sake of exploration, without any goal or aim.
  • Treasure Map: A series of photographs found on a buried memory card, detailing various landmarks on the path towards Heaven & its fabled vast riches.
  • 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 the whole time.
  • Vague Age: Most of the characters. It gets more confusing once you realize that average lifespan could be completely different thousands of years in the future, when Railsea takes place; some of the characters whose age isn't specified could very well be several centuries old.
  • Velvet Revolution: The mutiny against Captain Naphi near the end. Absolutely no violence was involved. In fact, in the end, what allowed the mutiny to succeed was because the captain was too kind & couldn't bring herself to beat her crew back into line, even though she easily could have.
  • Whole Plot Reference: As previously mentioned, it's a really weird version of Moby-Dick. Complete with every other chapter being an informational aside on the world the characters live in... until the halfway mark, anyways.
  • 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).