Reviews of three books read last month: two novels, and a political essay. 1. "Railsea" by China Miéville <http://www.amazon.com/Railsea/dp/0230765122> This is a "weird" fiction novel set in a future where railway tracks cover the known world. The world of Railsea comprises two layers of sky and four terrestrial layers. Most of the action takes place on the rail tracks and the inhabited islands. This sprawling network of rail tracks is a legacy of an earlier civilisation. An undisclosed catastrophe brought an end to that civilisation, and the survivors are forced to live a more primitive existence, making do with what they have. They have managed to salvage remnants of earlier technology, and rebuilt cities on "islands" of suitable land amongst the sea of railway tracks. Adventurers and scavengers board trains, searching for new land or valuable pieces of material that can be salvaged. But venturing into the Railsea is risky business. Pirates roam the tracks to plunder any "treasure" salvaged by others. Corrupt navies try to impose the appearance of order, often demanding protection money. Most ominously of all, there are giant "moles" that live underground. When trains approach, these subterranean monsters can break through the surface and attack. Molers are engaged to track down and capture these moles. There is no explanation of the origins of these beasts: are they genetic mutations? Maybe it's not even the planet Earth? At the start of the novel we are introduced to Sham (don't call him Ishmael). He's about to join the crew of the moler train "Medes", captained by Abacat Naphi (an anagram of "Captain Ahab"). She, like Ahab, is obsessed by a nemesis, in this case a mole called Mocker-Jack. Obviously, this novel is paying homage to "Moby-Dick". After these initial similarities, the plot of "Railsea" takes a very different turn when the crew of the Medes stumble upon an abandoned adventurers' train. Inside, they find photos (actually "flatographs") and various instruments. The story quickly becomes a race to find the "Promised Land" pictured in those flatographs. Apparently, this book is classified as "Young Adult", but it should appeal to the wider reading audience. I've read and enjoyed two of the author's earlier books ("The City & the City" and "Embassytown"). Knowing that "Railsea" was inspired by "Moby-Dick", I finally caved and decided to read that classic. As it happens, you only need to have a general idea of "Moby-Dick" to fully appreciate "Railsea". Overall, I must admit I enjoyed this novel more than "Moby-Dick". It was much easier to read, and I found the world of Railsea more intriguing than the history of whaling in the 19th Century. Stylistically, the only jarring thing was the heavy use of the ampersand, "&", in place of the word "and". An enjoyable adventure story. 2. "The Woman Who Died a Lot" by Jasper Fforde <http://www.amazon.com/The-Woman-Who-Died-Lot/dp/0340963115> This is the seventh instalment in the Thursday Next, literary detective, series. With such long-running series, there is always the possibility that the main characters and the underlying concepts may begin to lose their appeal. But, fortunately, the author still manages to keep things fresh. The previous book was a more radical departure, with the action taking place mostly in a BookWorld that was literally "rebooted". This time, the focus is back on the real Thursday Next, and is set exclusively in the "physical" world. Thursday is semi-retired after getting injured in the line of duty, and SpecOps has been disbanded for twelve years. She's still happily married to her husband, Landen. Their genius teenage daughter, Tuesday, is working on an anti-smiting defence shield to protect Swindon from the Global Standard Deity. And their son, Friday, is wrestling with his drastically revised future: he was destined to be a brilliant leader of ChronoGuard, the time travel policing agency, but somehow the future was rewritten and time travel would not be discovered after all. The Goliath Corporation is back to its old tricks. It has developed doppelgangers ("day players"), which can temporarily be inhabited by the consciousnesses of Goliath agents, while their actual (albeit incapacitated) bodies are elsewhere with convenient alibis. Perfect for carrying out assassinations and other misdeeds. Two of Thursday's long-standing nemeses return to also make things difficult for Thursday. Jack Schitt is back, and when not trying to kill Thursday, he's working on Goliath's latest plan to exploit BookWorld. Apparently, palimpsests (old manuscripts erased and written over) hold the key to the mystery of "Dark Reading Matter". Meanwhile, Aornis Hades continues to torment Thursday and her family. Previously, Aornis had implanted a Mindworm in Thursday's head - i.e. that idea that she had another, non-existent, daughter. Aornis raises the stakes, and takes turn implanting the Mindworm in the other members of Thursday's family. Any reservations about the series becoming stale quickly evaporated, and I'm looking forward to the next novel in the Thursday Next series. 3. "Doctrines and Visions" by Noam Chomsky <http://www.amazon.com/Doctrines-Visions/dp/0141023058> This book in the Penguin 70s series comprises two essays by MIT linguistics professor, Noam Chomsky. But what Chomksy is more widely known for is his poilitcal activism, in particular, critiquing bad behaviour by the world's governments. The two chapters are companions to his full-length book, "Hegemony or Survival: America's Quest for Global Dominance". Chomsky applies a blowtorch to the foreign policy objectives of various United States administrations and those of their allies. In particular, the essays in this book he focus on the buildup and early execution of the Iraq War. The US and allies fabricated evidence, overstated the threat and manipulated public opinion to prosecute the war. Chomsky argues that modern Western democracy has evolved to be largely about giving its citizens the illusion of having a voice, while actually using fear and the threat of terrorism to distract and manipulate public opinion. The book's cover has Orwellian overtones: the top photo shows former US Defense Secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, shaking hands with former BFF Saddam Hussein. The bottom photo shows a soldier and an American flag covering the face of a statue of the newly-deposed Iraq leader. What you get out of this book depends on where your political viewpoint. It would be easy to characterise Chomsky as a radical, anti-US propagandist. But, in the aftermath of the "weapons of mass destruction" deception perpetrated by the then, neo-conservative led, US government, Chomsky has something valuable to contribute.