Saturday, March 23, 2013

Battle of the Books, Bracket Five, First Semifinal :: Railsea by China Miéville vs. Harmony by Keith Brooke

Our first semifinal in Bracket Five of the Fantastic Reviews Battle of the Books features Railsea by China Miéville going against Harmony by Keith Brooke. The book I (Aaron) most want to continue reading after 100 pages will reach the championship round.

Railsea: Del Rey hardcover, May 2012, 424 pages, cover art by Mike Bryan. Railsea reached the Final Four by defeating The Express Diaries by Nick Marsh in the first round and Ghost Key by Trish J. MacGregor in the second round.

Railsea takes place in a bizarre world where trains travel rails criss-crossing a deserted tundra to hunt moldywarpes, moles that grow to incredibly vast sizes. The molehunters' homes are on "islands" somehow constructed above the railsea. People live in mortal fear of the earth, and indeed, the one time our young protagonist Sham actually touches the ground he is immediately attacked by vicious mole rats. Sham's train is commanded by a female Captain Ahab, whose "philosophy" hinges on finding the moldywarpe that took her arm. (It turns out that in this world, every train captain has lost a limb and is obsessed with the land creature that claimed it.) Sham and the captain find a photograph of a strange place where only a single line of rail crosses the land, but the captain does not share Sham's fascination.

Harmony: Solaris paperback, June 2012, 413 pages, cover art by Adam Tredowski. Harmony (published in the UK under the title alt.human) reached the Final Four by defeating Wildcatter by Dave Duncan in the first round and The Croning by Laird Barron in the second round.

In Harmony, the Earth has long been occupied by multiple races of aliens, who have herded humans into "Ipps," Indigenous Peoples' Preserves. Our teenaged hero Dodge scratches out a living in the Craigside Ipp, which is visited by refugees from another town, Angiere, where aliens recently slaughtered nearly all the humans. Dodge also rescues a strange woman who lacks the "pids," personal identifiers, aliens have placed in all humans' bloodstreams. Tellingly, her name is Hope. A single chapter from Hope's point of view tells us she was in Angiere just before its destruction, which likely was no coincidence. Meanwhile, Dodge learns that a group of aliens is trying to help the humans, while others would prefer simply to wipe us all out.

The Battle: My guiding criterion in the Battle of the Books is not which book is better but which book do I most want to keep reading. Usually those are the same——I'd rather keep reading the book I think is better——but not always. Case in point: if you ask me which, Railsea or Harmony, strikes me as a better book after 100 pages, I will hem and haw and sincerely tell you they are both very good, but in the end I will say Railsea is probably the better of the two. Both books are very much about cognitive dissonance, creating a sense of strangeness, and nobody but nobody does weird better than China Miéville. The railsea is a striking construct, and his multi-layered world is wonderfully memorable.

But Harmony also contains plenty of interestingly strange elements, for instance the way humans have learned to convey immediate emotional responses through alien clicks instead of facial expressions. And I'm more attached to Harmony's key characters, Dodge and Hope; the only character developed so far in Railsea is Sham, and he doesn't much grab me so far.

There is a terrific scene at the end of the first 100 pages of Harmony where the aliens carry off the leaders of Dodge's community, then an alien asks the remaining people who is their leader now, and Dodge is startled to realize they are all looking at him. This tells me much about his personality, and it suddenly makes those around him his people in a deeper sense, which makes me care more about what happens to them all. This in turn makes me care about where the story is headed. I want to know whether Dodge can navigate the strange alien politics he has been caught up in, and whether he and Hope and Dodge's people can survive, and perhaps even find their way to a freer life.

In contrast, in Railsea, it doesn't matter to me very much whether Sham finds the place with only one railway line, or whether the captain tracks down her great white moldywarpe.

But wait! some of you cry. If Harmony has stronger characters and a more compelling storyline, doesn't that mean it was really the better book all along? Hmm, I answer. You could be right. If so, then what you're telling me is the Battle of the Books format is the best way to test how good a book really is. What an intriguing suggestion!

THE WINNER: Harmony by Keith Brooke

Harmony advances to the championship round, where it will face either Nightglass by Liane Merciel or The Testament of Jessie Lamb by Jane Rogers.

To see the whole bracket, click here.

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