Monthly Archives: December 2012

Railsea, Strata & The Obsession with Mystery



‘A planet is not a world. Planet: a ball of rock. World: a 4-dimensional wonder. On a world there must be mysterious mountains. Let there be bottomless lakes peopled with antique monsters. Let there be strange footprints in high snowfields, green ruins in endless jungle, bells beneath the sea, echo valleys and cities of gold. This is the yeast in the planetary crust, without which the imagination of men will not rise’
(Strata, Terry Pratchett)

Terry Pratchett’s Strata makes a necessity of mysteries. The above quotation both establishes their allure, with images as tantalising as a ‘come hither’ gaze, and ends on a justification for that attractive power. It is a justification expanded upon in drier terms later in the novel, but the basic argument runs like this. Humans need to constantly update their minds. Nature leads animals to change physically in order to overcome new challenges, because for most creatures physical traits are the only weapons they have in the evolutionary arms race. But for humans, the best weapon is not the body but the mind, so that is what needs to be improved upon. We need our thoughts to mutate in order to survive in this lethal universe, and nothing makes you think in new ways like overcoming a mystery. Thus in Strata, the Company (the de facto ruler of humanity, thanks to a monopoly on immortality) creates worlds. On each are installed mysteries to beckon the mind into new horizons. Within Strata’s universe, human fascination with mystery is portrayed as a rational thing that prompts mankind out of evolutionary stagnation.

But should this fascination be explained away so easily? After all, there’s a strong argument to be made for the irrationality of an obsession with mystery. Mystery implies unknown, and within an unknown anything might lurk. The jungle ruins may contain ancient treasures, but they might just as easily house tribes whose word for ‘stranger’ is the same as their word for ‘lunch’. Ensuring the survival of humanity by forcing mankind into new mental horizons sounds like an excellent aim, but what if that new horizon lies under the shadow of the swastika? That’s the problem with stepping into new territory: it is as likely to be a foolish decision as it is to be an intelligent one. This case for irrationality seems somewhat ignored by Strata; however China Mieville’s Railsea tackles it head on.

Railsea approaches the new horizon in a completely different way to Strata. For one thing, the theme of mystery-chasing is central to the former novel, which is not the case with the latter. Strata’s ultimate topic for discussion is ‘creation’, a theme employed so that the story may comment on the act of storytelling itself. The subject of mysteries is raised as a side-note: like all good stories, Strata has many opinions on a variety of matters. Railsea on the other hand is completely focussed on the issue. Each of Railsea’s main characters is driven to go out and seek the unknown, and, what is most important, none of them have any particularly good reasons for doing so. This is the main dividing line between the two novels. Strata says that the human need for mystery is rational and explicable. Railsea says it’s nonsensical, but, does so in a way that is completely devoid of criticism.

This approach is, as said, embodied by Railsea’s major characters: Sham ap Soorap (doctor’s assistant, bat-tamer and day-dreamer), the forbidding Captain Naphi (mole-hunter, ruler of the diesel train Medes, philosopher of the kill) and the Shroake siblings Caldera & Dero (explorers in the footsteps of their parents). All three characters pursue mysteries. Sham has no calling. Every role to play on his side of the horizon leaves him apathetic, so he looks to pastures new, hoping to find there the thing he actually wants to do. Caldera & Dero are looking for information, wanting to know what exists beyond the boundary of the known, and what it might have to reveal about that known. Naphi meanwhile is looking for a more spiritual answer, for her mystery is a philosophical riddle which, once unravelled, will bring her peace. However, because Railsea exists in part to take the piss out of Moby Dick, such philosophical riddles are considered by the world’s captains to be embodied by giant animals. As such, the mystery that Naphi pursues happens to be a gargantuan albino mole called Mocker-Jack.

Each of these characters then is obsessed with mystery, and similarly, each of these obsessions is completely unjustified. Sham’s discontent is not to be solved by the new. At the beginning of the novel, Sham’s search for a profession beyond the norm has him considering the art of salvage (fun archaeology), but as soon as he knows anything about it, the lure begins to pall. His discontent itself makes no sense: Sham is not supposed to be a good doctor’s assistant, but that seems to be more a result of his own laziness than anything else. He certainly cures his bat Daybe well enough when motivated. Similarly the Shroakes go into the unknown to find out how the world of the railsea came to be, but their voyage it turns out tells them no more than they didn’t already know.

But it is Captain Naphi that best conveys the irrationality of mystery obsession. Again in mimicry-mockery of Ahab, the tradition amongst the hunter-philosopher captains is to lose a limb to the beast they chase, as it sets up a revenge-based legitimacy for their hunt. For most of the book it is assumed that Naphi has lost an arm to Mocker-Jack, with her left arm being a metal prosthetic. Except that the arm is no prosthetic: the metal and gadgets are but a covering, disguising the intact arm beneath. Of course Naphi does not rely on the physical to justify her obsessive pursuit: she is an accomplished wordsmith, and waxes calmly on the subject, twisting reasons out of the air. But though admittedly grand-sounding, these utterances are, in the words of cabin-boy Vurinam ‘“complete bloody gibberish”’, as is the very notion of the rational obsession with mystery.

Despite the gibberish though, you couldn’t say that Mieville considers irrationality to be a negative trait. Indeed, the end of Railsea implies the opposite. At the novel’s climactic conclusion, the great mole Mocker-Jack is gone. But this embodiment of mystery was not killed by Naphi, which, by the weird logic of the captain-philosophers, makes it a mystery never to be solved. The shock of this loss leaves Naphi almost catatonic, until that is the very end of the book.

‘[Sham] pauses at the top of the ladder, watches.

The captain, last member of the crew, stares over the side at a silver-skinned throng of fish. Stares past them thoughtfully, stares intently, leaning over to stare deep into the water’s dark.

Sham smiles’

It is on that quirked-grin image that Railsea ends. It is a positive ending, if not a cathartically triumphal one, softly happy and with just a twinge of amusement. After all, who (besides Herman Melville) knows what a captain might find to obsess over in the ocean’s depths? But more importantly, Railsea’s ending holds no condemnation of Naphi’s returning obsession. Sham, our hero, sees Naphi rediscovering a mystery to chase. He sees this, knowing full well how Naphi’s last irrational obsession with mystery consumed her, driving her to the edge of madness, and he smiles. He smiles, because he recognises what lures her. It is the same lure that ensnares him and the Shroakes too, and no amount of reason could ever extricate them from it.

After all, it wouldn’t be love if it made sense.

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