Thursday, July 26, 2012


Post-Harry-Potter English fiction, particularly, page-turning-unputdownable three-hundred-paged 'entertainers', is of a certain mould. For instance, it must cater to 'young adult' and so, all elements in the book should be PG13. The dialogues should be singularly constructed out of simple words with fewer syllables and ample um ah and yu knows strewn around to pad up for the rest of the human consciousness. All old and experienced humans and non-humans will and must listen, obey and follow the 'young adult' protagonist, who will be brave in soul and weak in flesh, but always with a 'vision' that is gifted for his/her virtuous inexperience, a vision or mission or goal that is superlative, indefatigable and unfathomable by any adult in the story. Either that or such development demands effort from the writer and distracts the reader from the 'main narrative'. The story must have some fantastic element, magic by default; it should show off gizmodons and geekery as 'futuristic science ideas' but should always explain them as meta-magic spawned via agarbathi smoke and glabaderifst spells. The story should have non-human lifeforms, vampires by default, preferably succubus, fantastic creatures of fright and delight, always submissive to the protagonists (if for adult, amorous in all its fangs and tendrils) and takes orders in English, preferably teenspeak. And the girls should be in (malnutrition-ed) form-fitting leathers wielding swords as weapons, while the gents are clad in somersault-friendly, shapeless robes. And importantly, none of the characters must be developed to any level of maturity or depth -- All the World is a Stage, hence, all ephemeral Stage-fests must thrive only in the all-pervading now. All of which is OK, but who gets to decide on how dumb the readers should be -- the writer or the reader?

With minor exceptions in plot elements and one neat idea notwithstanding, Railsea, the latest by China Mieville, a talented author at that, fits snugly into the above category.

Railsea has one neat idea. <SPOILER> What if our railroads become in a near-enough future, a sea,  a maze of crisscrossing never-ending rails laid on a terrain of 'dangerous Earth'. Railsea as a symbolism for uncontrolled industrialization and associated deprecation. And mankind train-travels on Railsea as voyages on ships commandeered by noble captains bloodthirsty for Railsea monsters as life-ambitions (all domestic and gentle animals of our times have become megasize Railsea 'man-eaters'), as philosophies; </SPOILER> to far-off forgotten lands, salvaging washing machine wrecks of the 'past'; consulting charts and maps to sunken treasures... Pirates of the Caribbean (all four parts) meets Treasure Island meets Mobydick yielding a sum of the parts that is way less than each of the parts.

Railsea is an adventure tale, i.e. an attempt at that. Its target readers age mentally somewhere between a tween and an adult, too old to rejoice in a Treasure Island and too young to enjoy a Sense of an Ending (Julian Barnes); too modern for the directness of a Mobydick too impatient for the relaid Ulysses (James Joyce), too distracted to comprehend a Name of the Rose (Umberto Eco). The narration has all the elements tailor made for the genre: short dialogues interspersed with narrative that is also short, peppered with bombastic words perhaps to keep the needle of Fog Index reasonably above comprehension, all sectioned in short chapters of length between a page and five; Oh, BTW, the 'and' is printed throughout as &, with an original, lame, idea that reasons its form with rails (China, ayyoo!).

Railsea is science fiction, i.e. an attempt at that. A silly idea taken seriously, way too seriously by the author. Yes, there will be fans who will take it even more seriously, rave on, to interpret and infuse meanings into the copious blandness of a story that chugchugs sedately with blips of action frenzy, to the most predictable of endings even a P. G. Wodehouse could better. The book is a telegraph pre-script for an inevitable screen-script of a mega summer action blockbuster. Brace self, it could become one; such writing doesn't deserve anything better. Pools of joy and waves of sorrow are drifting through my annoyed mind...get the drift, 'young adult'?

Christopher Priest in a recent criticism of the 2012 ACClarke Award nominees had this to say on China Mieville and his Embassytown (I am selectively quoting portions, without traducing Priest but to drive my point):
Miéville has already won the Clarke Award three times – which is not his fault[...] However, a fourth award to this writer would send out a misleading and damaging message to the world at large: it suggests that not only is Mr Miéville the best the SF world can offer at the moment, he is shown to be more or less the only writer worth reading.[...] Although Miéville is clearly talented, he does not work hard enough.[...] He also uses far too many neologisms or SF nonce-words, which drive home the fact that he is defined and limited by the expectations of a genre audience.[...] A better writer would find a more effective way of suggesting strangeness or an alien environment than by just ramming words together. Resorting to wordplay is lazy writing. [...] I also find Miéville’s lack of characterization a sign of author indifference [...] unless he is told in clear terms that he is under-achieving, that he is restricting his art by depending too heavily on genre commonplaces, he will never write the great novels that many people say he is capable of. In the short term, to imply that this (Embassytown) is the best science fiction novel of the current year by giving it a prize, or even shortlisting it for one, is just plain wrong.
After reading Railsea, I agree with Mr.Priest -- whether a Mr. Scalzi agrees or not. I will not pre-order another book by China for some years.


  1. kvman said...

    Wish I had read the review 2 days back. I just got the book from Google Play. I liked his The City & the City, so wanted to give it a try. Maybe I will read it on a long plane trip.

  2. Arunn said...

    @kvman: Please don't get biased from my take. Do read the book; you may like it.

    After posting I realized my take could put-off more readers, if not from the book, from me. The more I intend to keep these as short takes, the more they end up as opinion-pieces instead of balanced reviews.

    As Mr. Priest also insists in his write-up, it is only my expectation for China that makes me caustic, when I feel he doesn't meet it.