Un Lun Dun
Written and Illustrated by China Miéville
Winner of the Locus Award for Best Young Adult Book, 2008.
China Miéville, one of the most acclaimed writers of speculative fiction in recent times, is best known for the bleak, dystopic worlds he creates in his books. I discovered him after reading ‘Kraken’, a dark and gripping tale of a London under siege from rival gangs of supernatural forces fighting for control of – wait for it! – a gigantic pickled squid in the British Museum. After that surprising take on Cthulhu, I went on to read his short stories and am slowly working my way through the Bas-Lag trilogy – all of it impressive, but undeniably dark, disturbing and exhausting. Imagine my surprise, therefore, to discover “Un Lun Dun”, a YA fantasy by the creator of all that baroque grimness. It is a wild, whacky pun-a-minute tale with a crackling pace, and is definitely one of the most inventive books I’ve read in a while, as it busies itself with cheerfully subverting just about every trope you can think of in the YA fantasy genre - starting with the Chosen One.
It’s just another day in the life of twelve year old London schoolgirl Zanna Moon – until animals start paying her homage, and perfect strangers approach her and call her “Shwazzy”. With best friend Deeba Resham by her side, Zanna finds out that “Shwazzy” may in fact be “choici” – French for “the chosen one.” Soon after, Zanna and Deeba travel through a mysterious portal to UnLondon , a bizarre alternate version (or ‘abcity’) of the metropolis they call home, peopled by some of the most inventive characters to have graced fantasy fiction in recent years. Zanna’s glorious destiny is revealed to her, and she steps forward to claim it. And why not ? She is tall, blonde, striking looking, and singled out by UnLondon’s book of prophecies – enough, by the usual rules of popular kidlit, to justify her place in history. Right?
For Zanna is vanquished in her very first brush with the evil plaguing UnLondon – Smog, a poisonous sentient cloud banished from London, that is bent on consuming everything in its path before moving back home. What now, you ask. Why, time for the loyal sidekick to step forward and get her moment in the light. For as UnLondon quails in the wake of Zanna’s failure, it is unassuming Deeba – short! dark! plump!Asian!! – who steps forward to shoulder Zanna’s responsibility when no one else will. Faced with an entire city of strange creatures whose very leaders seem to be conspiring against them, a bunch of prophecies that progressively turn out to be wrong, and even high level intrigue from the human world , Deeba becomes the UnChosen One.
Leading a band of some of the most unlikely warriors to grace the pages of an adventure story – a couturier with a penchant for paper, a sarcastic half-ghost who periodically goes nude, a bungee-jumping bus conductor , an animated milk carton, even the aforementioned Book of Prophecies who spends most of the book in depression before finally redeeming itself – Deeba sets out to defeat Smog and his cronies. Along the way, she strikes a blow for the marginalized and voiceless as well – repeatedly through the book, we find her inspiring all manner of enslaved critters to liberate themselves. And even as she discovers the hero within herself, she inspires her ragtag crew to do the same as well for, by the time the final confrontation trundles around (the one trope Miéville is happy to pay homage to) they have evolved from scared and skeptical sidekicks into valiant individuals in their own right.
Un Lun Dun is frequently funny, sometimes sad and always breath-taking in its imagery and wordplay. Sample - an army of dustbins adept at martial arts called, quite aptly, binja. Skool, who isn’t a person at all but a group of plucky fish populating an ancient diver’s costume. A Manifest Station that takes citizens of UnLondon to other abcities like Parisn’t, NoYork, Lost Angeles, Hong Gone. Entire houses made of human rubbish , using MOIL technology (Mildly Obsolete in London). Words literally coming to life when uttered by the fantastic Mr. Speaker. And did I mention the carnivorous giraffes? Miéville doesn’t just create these strange and wonderful creatures – he draws them for us as well. Un Lun Dun contains some excellent black and white drawings, made by the author himself, that bring some of his weirder creations to life.
If you’ve worked your way through the Harry Potter series, or the ‘His Dark Materials’ trilogy by Philip Pullman, this is a book you will enjoy. It is a book brimming with ideas, surprises and wit. Gaiman fans might draw parallels to London Below, the weird citadel under London’s streets that features in ‘Neverwhere’. Indeed, Miéville acknowledges both the series and its author in the afterword to this book. But rest assured, Un Lun Dun is entirely child appropriate and far more cheerful and wholesome than Gaiman’s (or even Rowling's) vision. It is not childish, however; Miéville weaves in a lot of sub text and some astute political commentary.
Foremost of these is, of course, the whole idea of a child hero predestined to save the world. Nonsense, says Miéville. The best heroes aren’t born that way; they are ordinary people who risk their necks for a cause that they may not even believe in at first. By the end of Un Lun Dun, practically everyone of its citizens – not to mention umbrellas, fish and ghosts - feels like a Shwazzy. The choice of an Asian girl as hero had me huzzah-ing - especially one so devoid of the cultural stereotypes that continue to plague mainstream Western fiction . Miéville, a noted socialist, takes some potshots at British bureaucracy as well. He gives both Londons incompetent and manipulative bureaucracies to deal with. People in power deliberately side with Smog, others try to strike deals with it. The Concern, a shadowy group of individuals trying to profit from the presence of Smog is clearly a caricature of the carbon emissions trade. There is even a sharp take on the racism that tinged Western anti terrorism measures post 9/11 - a bunch of policemen from London attempt to arrest Deeba for being a terrorist (because she ‘terrifies’ a corrupt official), and threaten to harass her family in London if she resists.
It’s hard to miss Un Lun Dun’s environmental message either – London may think it is rid of Smog and all its rubbish simply because these have been sent to UnLondon. But Smog clearly has other plans. Sooner or later, Miéville seems to warns us, your rubbish will return to consume you.