In the realtively short history of the steampunk movement, a handful of novels are seen by scholars of the genre to be at the forefront of its emergence into the contemporary science fiction and fantasy literary scene. At the very earliest, books like H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine and Jules Verne’s Around the World in Eighty Days are seen to be the inspiration for steampunk, but novels like K.W. Jeter’s Morlock Night and James P. Blaylock’s Homunculus are seen to be the actual manisfestation of the genre as we know it today. Morlock Night is an exciting steampunk sequel to Wells’ The Time Machine that is even more fun than the original. Homunculus is arguably the most dryly written science fiction novel ever, and is roughly the literally equivalent of going to the dentist.
A zeppelin whose pilot has been dead for some years has been orbiting London for a while, and is slowly falling towards a crash. Naturally, this is the cause of some interest from the people living in the city, as scientist and explorer Langdon St. Ives wants to know more, while sometimes counterfeiter and always evangelist Shiloh is convinced that his space alien father is on the falling dirigible. If one were to peruse websites like Wikipedia and otherwise for information on the general plot outline of the novel, you would be hard pressed to find more than that, because it is hard to recall if anything ever actually happens in the book.
Although there is certainly a steampunk veneer, Homunculus reads more like a poorly written Victorian novel; it completely lacks the sense of adventure implied by the term “steampunk”, and instead feels more like a bunch of stuffy and completely unlikable Englishmen sitting around and talking inanely. They essentially spend the majority of the novel gossiping about the locals in such a boring way that by the time the characters actually manage to get up and do something, it is just about impossible to care about what they’re doing or why they’re doing it. By about the 30% mark of the novel, it is clear that Homunculus is an absolutely overrated and completely boring novel that should serve only as a cautionary tale, and not as an inspiration.
In a strange, steampunky-world connected entirely by a convoluted railway system, a young man named Sham Yes ap Soorap works with a group of hunters whose job is to take out giant skinless mole-like creatures called moldywarpes. They burrow under the ground and jump out at passersby, leading Soorap and the crew to harpoon them from the relative safety of their trains. Apparently the creatures terrorize the locals, and are useful for their meat and various other typical parts that would be used by hunters.
China Mieville’s greatest weakness and greatest strength is that each one of his novels is completely different from the last, not just in general story but in narrative voice and overall feel. It seems like Mieville painstakingly goes out of his way to reinvent himself every time he puts pen to paper, and in the case of Railsea the reinvention comes across as cluttered, to say the least. Instead of the word “and”, Mieville uses an ampersand throughout the novel, which is explained at some point as being symbolic of the idea of the Railsea as a thing in his world, but instead the strange grammatical decision comes across as extraordinarily amateurish and blatantly pretentious. To compound the agony of the style, Mieville takes a handful of chapters to break the fourth wall as the narrator and pat himself on the back as the writer, as if to say “See how wonderful I am?”
Railsea is a frustratingly bad novel that oozes with pretension and borderline awful prose. Originality is generally a good thing, but there are times to remember that sometimes something has never been done before because it is not a very good idea. The characters in Railsea are completely uninspired and what little plot that is here is barely more than a convenient vessel to push the world the author has created. Although the world is strong, it is the only redeemable quality of an otherwise completely unreadable book. With unlikable characters and a plot that is both meandering and completely tedious, it is hard to see why anyone would enjoy this novel in the least.