Review – Un Lun Dun – China Miéville

Caleb Woodbridge reviews China Miéville‘s novel ‘Un Lun Dun’, winner of the 2008 Locus Award for Best Young Adult Book:

The idea that the magical or fantastic may be lurking just around the corner is very appealing, and one that science fiction and fantasy uses frequently. A 1960s police telephone box is revealed as a time machine; the barrier between platforms 9 and 10 of King’s Cross Station turns out to be a gateway to a world of wizardry. The fantastic is all around us. In Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere, there are two Londons: London Above, which we are familiar with, and the magical London Below. Un Lun Dun revisits the concept for a younger audience, with Zanna and Deeba finding their way into the abcity of UnLondon.
The story gets off to quite a slow start, and seems to follow some fairly well-worn fantasy tropes. As Zanna and Deeba enter UnLondon, they discover that Zanna is the “Shwazzy” (from the French “choisi”, chosen). She is the Chosen One prophesied to save London from the Smog. However, all does not go to plan, and the reliability of the prophecies quickly goes out the window. This leaves the characters free to go trampling over the clichés and conventions of the fantasy genre. Deeba refuses to stick to her role of “comedy sidekick” to Zanna, and determinedly breaks the rules of the quest in a desperate attempt to save London and UnLondon alike.

In UnLondon, items that become obsolete in London take on a life of their own. Unfortunately, that includes the London Smog, which has become a terrible force intent on burning and consuming everything it can. It animates a series of monsters and creatures, including Smog-Junkies, Smombies and Smoglodytes. But equally important to the story are the reactions of those in authority to the Smog, with various characters attempting to use the threat of the Smog for their own ends, or to do deals with it. The environmental parallel to global warming and to pollution is obvious, and the characters learn a healthy distrust of politicians and their promises.
The novel is full of strange creatures, imaginative situations and groan-inducing wordplay. There are echoes of Alice in Wonderland and Alice Through the Looking-Glass in its phantasmagorical creations, such as Mr Speaker, from whose mouth appear Utterlings that embody his words. He insists, like Humpty-Dumpty, that ‘Words mean whatever I want. Words do what I tell them!’, only for his words to rebel against him: language is always changing and belongs to everyone, not just the individual speaker. Un Lun Dun plays with language in the same way that the Alice books played with logic and mathematical concepts.

But its madcap inventiveness sometimes gets the better of it, with zaniness undermining believability. UnLondon sometimes felt like a cartoon parody of London, which made it harder to care about its fate. But for the most part, the ideas and characters are fun and engaging, from Curdle the friendly milk-carton to Brokkenbole, the Umbrellissimo, and Hemi the half-ghost. The illustrations also help bring to life its many creatures, from killer giraffes to Binjas.

Another minor quibble I have is that the names of the main characters, Zanna and Deeba, are quite unusual, and so already sound like fantasy names. If they’d had more common names, there would have been more of a contrast between them and the UnLondoners. I also felt it assumed too much of a familiarity with London. Reading it, I felt like an outsider looking in, not quite getting all the in-jokes. Lots of people live in London, of course, but many people don’t. To me it didn’t feel entirely welcoming of those not in the club, though this is no doubt accidental and unintentional.
This is the first novel by China Miéville that I’ve read, but it won’t be the last. Once the story gets going, I found it gripping and entertaining, with images and ideas that have stuck in my mind. I look forward to exploring his other fiction.

What do you think? Have you read ‘Un Lun Dun’ or other books by China Miéville? Do you like books that put a fantasy twist on familiar places? Let us know your thoughts in the comments!

One thought on “Review – Un Lun Dun – China Miéville

  1. Just a quick comment with regards to the names – Deeba is an Indian/Pakistani name (with Persian routes, so not uncommon throughout a lot of the Middle East).

    I thought China was quite clever there, as the ethnicity of the characters is never specifically mentioned – but they're clearly not Peter, Susan, Harry or Hermione.

    (Zanna, on the other hand, is really Susanna – but that's exactly the kind of affected nickname and spelling that kids adopt).

    As for London – well, I might have missed stuff, but I think you could get by with a tourists knowledge gained from television.

    I particularly liked the way the ending sent up Philip Pullman (the whole 'you can't go back again' bit).

    As for next – I'd recommend The City and The City – underneath the surface weirdness there is basically a conventional detective story, and I think that gives it a really solid foundation.

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