I was pretty sure I was going to love this. After reading three of China Mieville’s novels, I was eager to get to this one. My only hesitation was that those others were written for adults, this one for older children and adolescents. Would a writer who’s mostly about leftist ideas, bizarre creatures, and coining multi-syllabic words really translate to juvenile fiction?
I need not have worried. This is a book I would have devoured as a twelve-year-old and still enjoy as an adult, with enough breadth and depth to draw readers back for the second, third, and twenty-third time. Except for a few missteps, which I’ll get to below, I would have given it five stars, no question.
I read this just after finishing Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere, to compare how two different fantasy authors handle the alternative/underground city theme. Like Gaiman’s London Below, UnLondon (or Un Lun Dun, as the protagonist first hears it) is an alternative, magical version of London. In this universe, what’s discarded or obsolete in London seeps through a magical barrier into UnLondon, where it becomes part of a new urban ecosystem. Unlike London Below, which exists in the unseen and unused corners of London Above in Gaiman’s world, UnLondon is its own complete city, a kind of Wonderland, geographically distinct and difficult to get to without some otherworldly guidance.
Mieville has A LOT of fun with this premise. In this, his first book for “younger readers,” he drops the thick intellectualism of his other books and indicates that not only is he clever and imaginative, but he also has a sense of humor. Much of this comes in the wordplay: broken umbrellas become unbrellas in UnLondon. From Manifest Station you can take a train to Parisn’t or No York. A nine-wheeled vehicle is a noncycle…and so on. As in any Mieville story, we find weird and wonderful settings and characters whose very physiology defies expectations. Here, they are more fanciful than in his adult books: a tailor with a pincushion for a head; a birdcage-headed automaton whose consciousness is the canary who lives inside; a half-ghost, half-living boy; sentient books, words, umbrellas, smog, and an empty milk carton named Curdle.
But there’s much more than wonder here, there’s friends and foes and a quest and IDEAS. UnLondon has aspects of an eco-socialist utopia: mass transit takes you where you need to go at whatever price you can afford; “emptish” houses stand open for travelers, with food for the taking; an enormous waterwheel called the London-I provides hydroelectricity to the city; bus conductors and librarians are glorified and respected occupations; trash is re-purposed into building material. What’s discarded, unloved, and obsolete in London finds its/his/her purpose here. Yet this also puts UnLondon in danger: a massive cloud of chemical pollutants (seeped down from London over the years) has grown a mind of its own, and wants to take over, using its self-made minions of smog-junkies, smombies, and smoglodytes. A shadowy business association called the Concern supports cooperating with the Smog to build new factories, and someone in the British government may even be on the payroll…
Through the first two parts of the novel, Mieville shows he understands well the conventions of the genre and goes with them. A chosen one from London must come to UnLondon and defeat the Smog. She faces danger almost immediately, followed speedily by learning her destiny and acquiring some new allies. Indeed, there are even some shades of Harry Potter as the UnLondoners lavish praise on their bewildered heroine.
And then…Mieville stands it all on its head. There still is a quest. There still is a hero. And the Smog still has to be defeated. But none of it works out as the UnLondoners, or the reader, expects. Mieville walks a fine line, between reinventing the genre and tearing it to shreds. It works, in part, because he makes his protagonist practical and self-aware. She is not the kind of girl who’s going to be pushed around by a prophecy. So when she deviates from the heroic script, the reader wants to go with her because well, it feels like what I’d do in her situation (or what I like to think I’d do).
It also works because Mieville is a confirmed Marxist; he isn’t overly burdened by the individualist (and hierarchical) expectations of heroes that exist in a mainstream culture of blockbuster superheroes and prime-time cop dramas. The story shifts from a warrior-savior appearing to protect the peaceful kingdom, to a renegade whistle blower gathering allies at the grassroots, and we go with it precisely because it isn’t the heroic quest we’re used to. It’s new and unexpected, a story we’re excited to follow, with real suspense.
And may I say what a relief it is not to turn off my political mind when reading a novel? To cheer wholeheartedly for the protagonist and the way she accomplishes her mission, to nod along in agreement when the true friends and foes are revealed and think, “Yep, just like real life,” and not have to pretend that the hero isn’t going to become a cult of personality that destroys everything after the book has ended? Generally, Un Lun Dun’s heroine succeeds because she finds allies who can stop the gears of the machine–the little guys who know how stuff works–and because she liberates as she goes. E.g., four chapters take place in The Talklands section of UnLondon, in which the heroine persuades sentient words (“utterlings”) to rebel against their tyrannical ruler, Mr. Speaker. The episode is both a philosophically potent meditation on the nature of language, and a revolutionary fairy tale about the power of the people. Later, when our heroine discovers how she can help unbrellas become rebrellas (like rebels, get it?), she reflects how people always fight harder when they’ve freely chosen to. The vested, recognized centers of authority in UnLondon (and London, too) turn out to be dupes at best or vile tyrants at worst. When London police show up, Mieville captures the mix of bribe and veiled threat that cops offer in the real-world to oppressed people. He writes a deliciously tense good-cop-bad-cop routine that had me squirming as I read. Another novelist would have made the good cop, well, good. Mieville even manages to surpass some of the latent speciesism that I’ve found in his other books. In Un Lun Dun, humans, canaries, half-ghosts, and sea creatures are all integral parts of the team, dutifully mourned and honored.
There are some typos and small continuity problems, like a character exiting the scene and then reappearing suddenly on the next page, things one more round of copy editing could have easily fixed. More critically, the story, at over 400 pages, is probably longer than it has to be, and started to meander for me about two thirds of the way in, about the point when Mieville had messed with the heroic quest script so much that I started wonder where the plot could possibly go now. Things pick up speedily again a few chapters later, building to the ultimate confrontation. For that, we can all cheer.
UN LUN DUN!