Sunday, May 27, 2012

Book Review: Railsea by China Mieville

I've been a fan of China Mieville's work ever since I read The City & The City so I was eager to read his latest work: Railsea, a young adult novel inspired by Herman Melville's Moby Dick.

Overall Impression
The first thing that comes to mind is the fact that this is claimed to be a young adult (YA) novel. There are several reasons for this claim: the character is young, some of the chapters are short, & most importantly, the publisher said so. However, while reading it, I wasn't too sure of this classification. Yes, it has some elements of YA novels, such as Ship Breaker or The Hunger Games, but it's language is a bit too intricate & the pacing too erratic. It's still not as complex as his other novels, like Embassytown & Perdido Street Station, but it isn't as straightforward as his prior YA book, Un Lun Dun.

One of the first & most obvious things one notices is the ubiquitous use of '&'. It at first threw me off & I almost dropped the book since it felt so crude, but after a while it blends into the background & eventually you reach a chapter that explains why '&' is the preferred conjunction in this universe. I adopt this style throughout the review.

During the start of the book, & at times near the middle, I felt the story slipping off its tracks & wondered at Mieville's choices. However, I persevered & was rewarded. The ending has so many revelations about the nature of the world & the railsea, angels & heaven. Everything fits together & is extremely satisfying. Mieville has created a fascinating world & tells an engaging story fit for all ages.

The plot, like all Mieville's works, takes a while to develop. Only after about ~100 pages do you see the shape of the novel. That's not to say that events prior to that are meaningless, they certainly have a place, but we just can't connect all the dots or even see where the dots are until a quarter of the way into the book. Once we do, though, things really get interesting.

There are some similarities between Railsea & Herman Melville's Moby Dick, which the author acknowledges inspired this work. The captain of both has had injuries from a white great animal (in this case Mocker-Jack) & chases it across the sea/railsea. The crew, particularly Ishamael/Sham, is key to revealing the world around them. However there's a lot more action in this book & the story takes some very unexpected twists. Despite the initial similarities, these two books couldn't be more different.

The only mildly irritating (yet interesting as well) aspect of the plot is the narrator's penchant for breaking the story & talking about something else. The first few times it can be annoying, but you get used to the unique style. It feels like someone else is telling the story & in their excitement they keep jumping ahead before reining themselves in.

The story revolves & centers around a young boy growing up in the world of the railsea. His name is a mouthful: Shamus Yes ap Soorap, or as most people call him: Sham. He's a young teenager suffering from one of the most common ailments most people do at that age: he has little idea of what he wants to do for a living. This is one of the reasons to highlight the YA status of this novel, as indeed all of us have passed/are passing/will pass through such a stage early in our lives & careers. At the start, he is a doctor's apprentice aboard a moletrain, but has aspirations to search for rare salvage instead. The story places him alongside other characters including molers, salvors, pirates, explorers, & ferronaval militia.

The list of characters isn't particularly long, but among them stand out Captain Naphi & Mocker-Jack with their parallels to Captain Ahab & Moby Dick. Naphi leads her crew on the moletrain Medes which hunts, as you can imagine, moles (also known as moldywarpe, underminer, talpa, & muldvarp). Her 'philosophy' is the hunt for the legendary white moldywarpe, Mocker-Jack, which took her arm on a prior encounter. She is driven to finish her task & drags the crew along; tensions mount as the story progresses.

A great southern moldywarpe (Talpa ferox rex).
One of the several illustrations (by China Mieville himself) within the book.
Yes, those are trees beside that mole...

The narrator is actually quite invested in the story & governs its telling, as I mentioned previously. He/she (let's assume 'he') is practically a character in the story & will, at times, distract you from it. For example, he may start describing something, then stop, say it's too early for that, & then veer off into a philosophical issue. This is quite interesting, & I quote one such instance below, but it jars with what I expected. I thought I would get a light, action-packed book for a young adult, instead I got a book that occasionally dips into interesting discourses.
Technically, our name, to those who speak science, is Homo sapiens— wise person. But we have been described in many other ways. Homo narrans, juridicus, ludens, diaspora: we are storytelling, legal, game-playing, scattered people, too. True but incomplete. That old phrase has the secret. We are all, have always been, will always be, Homo vorago aperientis: person before whom opens a vast & awesome hole.

Setting / World Building
If you've read my other reviews you'll realize that having a fascinating world or universe to place the characters & story in is one of the first things I look for in a book. Railsea does not let you down in this respect:
There are two layers to the sky, & four layers to the world. No secrets there. Sham knew that, this book knows that, & you know that, too. 

One of the first things you notice when you compare books Mieville has written is that 'the city' always has a key role in the story, whether it be London, UnLundun, New Crobuzon, Armada, Beszel/Ul Qoma, or Embassytown. This book appears to be the exception until you realize the railsea itself is what holds the place of the city.

So what exactly IS the railsea?
The railsea, sitting on the flatearth; that is the second level. Tracks & ties, in the random meanders of geography & ages, in all directions. Extending forever.
That quote describes it best, though to really understand it you have to read the book & explore it in all its facets. The railsea connects all the world together in an endless maze of tracks. "What of the ocean?", you ask. "What ocean?", I reply.

There's a wide variety of tains that ride the railsea:
[...] solar trains from Gul Fofkal; lunar ones from who-knew-where?; pedal trains from Mendana; a rococo clockwork train that made Zhed smile & salute as its crews sang the songs of winding & twisted their great key; treadmill trains from Clarion, their crews jogging to keep them moving; little trains tugged by trackside ungulate herds able to fight off the burrowing predators of shallow railsea; one-person traincycles; hulking invisibly powered wartrains; electric trains with the snaps & sparks of their passing.

There's also interesting creatures from underground, like the giant moles (see the moldywarpe image above), & alien lifeforms from the upsky as well (those of the downsky, like birds & bats, are somewhat more familiar to us). I'd like to describe the world further, but that's one of the great mysteries to the book that one of the characters (& the reader) seeks to answer. Just know that this is quite a unique take on a science fiction universe.

Final Thoughts
My initial impression was a bit negative, with the continued use of '&' along with the more elaborate language than I expected in a YA novel. However, the story was interesting & the world is engaging & mysterious. After a while, I was digging through it trying to understand the nature of the world & how it came to be. I have to say that the ending made me very happy. It's one of the clearest & most uplifting endings I've seen in a Mieville book. Is it my favorite Mieville book? No, but I can say that I enjoyed it.

If you want to preview the book, an excerpt is available here.

UPDATE: September 2, 2012
I've created a short, 1-minute video where I introduce the book and it's main concept (the railsea). You can watch it here:

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Measuring the Distance to the Sun with the Transit of Venus

With the upcoming transit of Venus, scientists from across the world are coordinating with groups to measure the contact times of the transit and re-measure the distance to the Sun. There are several websites (such as this one, or this one) that detail how to do this, and a nice (math heavy) paper by Mignard in 2004 (PDF file here). Many of these methods, however, require you to get the full duration of the transit or directly measure the parallax with imaging. Here I describe a much more simple method that requires you to measure only the time at ingress interior or egress interior for two locations on the Earth. This method is convenient as you don't need to witness the full transit (only ingress seen from Easter Island, for example). This is a retelling of the information derived by Udo Backhaus in this website with some added explanations.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Book Review: House of Chains by Steven Erikson

House of Chains is the 4th book in the Malazan Book of the Fallen series by Steven Erikson. I have previously written reviews for Book 3Memories of Ice and Book 2Deadhouse Gates.
I understand that Ian Cameron Esslemont has also written books in the Malazan universe and they both collaborated on the series. I may have to check Esslemont's works later on, but I intend to finish the 10-book series first.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

A Memory of Light Cover for Kindle

This may be old news for some, but Tor has revealed the cover for the final book of the Wheel of Time, A Memory of Light by Robert Jordan and Brandon Sanderson:

In my opinion, this is one of the best covers to date for the series. It's done by a different artist, Michael Whelan, who is well known in the community and has created many fabulous book covers (for example, see The Stormlight Archives #1: The Way of Kings by Brandon Sanderson). All the prior Wheel of Time covers were done by Darrell Sweet, but sadly he passed away in December before finishing his sketch for the cover:

If you own a Kindle or other e-reader, you may want to use the new Whelan cover as your background/wallpaper/screensaver, so you can pretend you're reading the final book of the series well ahead of everyone! I searched, but couldn't find that anyone had converted the cover (a trivial process), so here you go:

You can download the 600x800 version here (from the Picasa album).
Instructions for how to set it up on your device will vary, but here is some useful information one for the Kindle.

If you prefer Sweet's version (with the title/authors added by Aidan Moher) here you go:

You can download the 600x800 version here. It looks a bit grainier since the original size was smaller than this. I personally prefer the Whelan cover.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Astronomy: Spitzer Sees Light from Super Earth

The Spitzer Space Telescope is an orbiting satellite that takes data at near and mid infrared wavelengths. It had to be cryogenically cooled, otherwise it would detect its own heat in its instruments! Right now, the cryogen has run out so it only operates at the shortest wavelengths (3.5 and 4.6 microns), but is still useful for a lot of science ranging from brown dwarfs to exoplanets to dusty galaxies.

Today, NASA has revealed that Spitzer has detected the light from a distant super-Earth; the first ever such observed. At first I was surprised, since I had heard about Spitzer imaging a planet before (HD 209458b and TrES-1, see here), but it turns out that these were gas giant planets, not a super Earth.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Exciting May Book Releases

This month sees the release of several books I'm very excited for. So much so that I almost (but not quite) regret starting House of Chains, fourth book of the Malazan Book of the Fallen rather than waiting to read these titles.

May 1
The Drowned Cities by Paolo Bacigalupi

Soldier boys emerged from the darkness. Guns gleamed dully. Bullet bandoliers and scars draped their bare chests. Ugly brands scored their faces. She knew why these soldier boys had come. She knew what they sought, and she knew, too, that if they found it, her best friend would surely die. 
In a dark future America where violence, terror, and grief touch everyone, young refugees Mahlia and Mouse have managed to leave behind the war-torn lands of the Drowned Cities by escaping into the jungle outskirts. But when they discover a wounded half-man--a bioengineered war beast named Tool--who is being hunted by a vengeful band of soldiers, their fragile existence quickly collapses. One is taken prisoner by merciless soldier boys, and the other is faced with an impossible decision: Risk everything to save a friend, or flee to a place where freedom might finally be possible.

This young adult novel is set in the same post-apocalyptic universe of Ship Breaker, which I recently finished reading. Despite being categorized as "young adult," I'm sure this book, like Ship Breaker before it, is far more complex than meets the eye and engaging for audiences of all ages. io9 has a magnificent book trailer here, just watching it makes me want to go buy the book and start reading it now.

May 1
The Killing Moon by N.K. Jemisin

In the desert city-state of Gujaareh, peace is the only law. Along its ancient stone streets, there is no crime or violence. Priests of the dream-goddess, known as Gatherers, maintain order: harvesting the dreams of the citizens, healing the injured, and guiding the dreamers into the afterlife. . . 
When Ehiru-the most famous of the city's Gatherers-is sent to harvest the dreams of a diplomatic envoy, he finds himself drawn into a conspiracy that threatens to drag the dreaming city into war.

This is the first book in the Dreamblood duology (so, two books). The next book comes out in June, so you don't have to wait years and years for the conclusion. Jemisin has proven herself as a great author with The Inheritance Trilogy (check out my review of book 3, The Kingdom of Gods). The setting and magic for this duology is said to have come from Jemisin's fascination in ancient Egypt, Freudian dream theory, and Jung's ideas about the collective unconscious. Sounds very interesting and I'll be sure to check it out.

May 15
Railsea by China Mieville

On board the moletrain Medes, Sham Yes ap Soorap watches in awe as he witnesses his first moldywarpe hunt: the giant mole bursting from the earth, the harpoonists targeting their prey, the battle resulting in one’s death and the other’s glory. But no matter how spectacular it is, Sham can't shake the sense that there is more to life than traveling the endless rails of the railsea–even if his captain can think only of the hunt for the ivory-coloured mole she’s been chasing since it took her arm all those years ago. When they come across a wrecked train, at first it's a welcome distraction. But what Sham finds in the derelict—a series of pictures hinting at something, somewhere, that should be impossible—leads to considerably more than he'd bargained for. Soon he's hunted on all sides, by pirates, trainsfolk, monsters and salvage-scrabblers. And it might not be just Sham's life that's about to change. It could be the whole of the railsea. 

Mieville is a great story teller and a master of language. You can see he's drawn from Melville's Moby-Dick for this novel. I have no doubt that this book will be an amazing ride into yet another fantastical world. Unlike Bacigalupi and Jemisin, Mieville has less of an online presence (ie, twitter, blog, etc), but he doesn't need it: his works are of such quality that people all over keep talking about it. You've probably heard of the numerous awards that his last book, Embassytown, has been nominated for (this just in: Embassytown among the 2012 Locus Award finalists).

All these books have free previews available online, either through ebook stores like Amazon, or through the author's own websites. I personally have not read any of the previews: I trust these authors enough to buy their works without any prior glimpses.
Right now I'm about a third of the way through my current book and will probably start The Killing Moon next. Though I have a few other sci-fi novels queued up, it looks like those will have to wait. Why does my to-read list increase faster than I can read?

Did I miss any notable May releases? I'm sure there are plenty of books being released every month, but in the realm of sci-fi and fantasy, these are the ones I personally am looking forward to reading.

Update (May 2):
It looks like I did forget one exciting release!

May 4
The King's Blood by Daniel Abraham

Geder Palliako's star is rising. He is a hero of Antea, protector to the crown prince, and darling of the court. But storms from his past are gathering, and with them, a war that will change everything.
Cithrin bel Sarcour founded a powerful bank on stolen wealth, forged papers, and ready blades. Now every move she makes is observed, recorded, and controlled. Unless Cithrin can free herself from her gilded cage, the life she made will be for naught; war may provide just the opportunity she needs.
An apostate priest sees the hidden hand behind all: a long-buried secret of the dragon empire threatens everything humanity has built. An age of madness and death is on the way, with only a few doomed heroes to stand in its way.

This is the second book in The Dagger and The Coin series. I read the first book of that series (The Dragon's Path) and considered it to be one of my top 5 books I read in 2011. This is traditional epic fantasy, but with some cool elements in it. The author claims he borrowed ideas from multiple sources and yet he managed to meld everything together so it feels new and fresh. I like it! I'm looking forward to this book and I can't believe that it slipped under my radar.