We’re going to talk about China Meiville’s Railsea and it’s going to include spoilers. You’ve been warned.
That said, we’re not actually going to talk about the plot of Railsea but the worldbuilding. Knowing this doesn’t change the story itself in any way. But, in many respects, the best part of Railsea is… well, the railsea. Everything in this strange, topsy-turvy world runs on rails and the book is full of strange little touches that help you remember that this is not the world you know.
What’s nice is that the story never goes out of its way to shove those moments into your face. They’re subtle and pointed, always clearly intended to illustrate some aspect of Meiville’s world that is different from ours. Well, most of the worldbuilding is that way. There was one aspect of it that shows up on the first page, digs its claws into you and won’t stop annoying you for at least fifty more pages. The phenomenon is thus: the prose never uses a comma in lists but rather stringing them together with a series of ands. Except the letters “a”, “n” and “d” are never written in that order anywhere in the text of the book. Every instance of the word “and” is replaced with The Ampersand. You can even begin sentences with &, removing the need for capital letters.
To make a confession: I hated this tendency at first. The prose was cluttered with unnecessary conjunctions and the ampersand jumped out at me whenever it was used, never quite enough to break the flow of the story but enough to grab at the back of the mind. It was wrong but I was enjoying the rest of the book enough to struggle through. Eventually, the ampersands faded into the background. Then I reached Railsea chapter 33 and read these words:
“The lines of the railsea go everywhere but from one place straight to another. It is always switchback, junction, coils around & over our own train-trails.
What word better could there be to symbolize the railsea that connects and separates all lands, than ‘&’ itself? Where else does the railsea take us but to this place & that one & that one & that one, & so on? & what better embodies, in the sweep of the pen, the recurved motion of trains, than ‘&’?”
Most of us think of worldbuilding in terms of what happened in the history of the world, or what they eat, or how they dress, or what kind of governments there are, what kind of buildings they build, what kind of rituals they have for births, marriages and deaths. That kind of stuff is well and good. It’s an important part of cultures and traditions to understand these things. The same is true for ecology, environment and larger scale parts of the picture. But what Meiville did with The Ampersand was go a level deeper.
He asked the very simple question, “If the world is fundamentally like this, what kind of changes might happen to the very ways people think? The way they talk? The way they write?”
Then, instead of a long Martin-esque exposition about traditions and rituals, he just shows us the people of that world acting like they would and lets us get used to it, no matter how odd it first strikes us. In time the curtain is pulled back for us but when it is we’ve already grown so used to the strangeness that the explanation is just icing on the cake.
This kind of worldbuilding is great but have care. Without the other worldbuilding, the careful assembly of ideas into a coherent culture and environment, you can’t come up with something like The Ampersand. What makes The Ampersand so striking is that Meiville did all that work and then went a level further. He came up with an idea that fit his world so perfectly then went back and hid all his tracks, weaving it into the fabric of his tale page by page until he found the right time to share it. This is not a technique to try and use at the start of worldbuilding but at the end. But if you do use it that way and you’re very patient it can make for a great culmination to the work.