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Un Lun Dun
China Miéville
Del Rey, 425 pages

Un Lun Dun
China Miéville
China Miéville was born in London in 1972. When he was eighteen, he lived and taught English in Egypt, where he developed an interest in Arab culture and Middle Eastern politics. Miéville has a B.A. in social anthropology from Cambridge and a master's with distinction from the London School of Economics. His first novel, King Rat, was nominated for both an International Horror Guild Award and the Bram Stoker Prize. Perdido Street Station won the Arthur C. Clarke Award and was nominated for a British Science Fiction Association Award. He lives in London, England.

ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: Iron Council
SF Site Review: The Scar
SF Site Review: The Tain
SF Site Review: The Scar
SF Site Review: Perdido Street Station
SF Site Review: Perdido Street Station

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Paul Kincaid

We learn from everything we read, indeed there would be little point in reading if we did not learn. We may not always be aware that we are learning, and sometimes all that we learn may be the comfort of the familiar, the reassurance that the world is, in the end, ordered and understandable. Nevertheless, every book we open adds something to our store of knowledge. It may well be, therefore, that the distinction between an adult and a young adult novel lies not in the complexity of the language (the best children's books often use a very complex language, while there are adult novels written with extraordinary simplicity), nor in the seriousness of the themes (such "adult" themes as sex and death have as much of a place in children's literature as anywhere else), but in the lessons taken from them. In other words, the difference between a children's book and a grown-up book is in the reader, not the work. It is not that we have less to learn as we get older, but that what we do learn tends to be less the sweeping revelation and more the accumulation of nuance. Even so, we (mostly) remain hungry for those big discoveries, for the excitement of the new, which is why the finest children's books remain popular with adult readers: we still need the grand moral lessons alongside the satisfying details, the bold colours alongside the subtle shading.

Un Lun Dun is described as a young adult novel, but it will be read with satisfaction by adult readers who will probably remain blissfully unaware that it theoretically belongs in this category. Miéville has always been a didactic writer, his novels about Bas Lag are crowded with lessons about community and commonality, about class and tolerance, about our moral, political and social values. He is also a writer of bold colours and dramatic shapes, his books crowded with the monstrous, the spectacular, the vivid. The way he writes for adults, therefore, is not a jot different from the way he writes for children. And if the lessons most clearly on display in Un Lun Dun will stand us in good stead when we are young and fresh, they are no less valuable when we are old and jaded. If the character we follow is a teenage girl rather than someone older, it is no less easy to identify with her trials and resourcefulness, her fears and triumphs.

The lessons of Un Lun Dun are specifically and deliberately iconoclastic. Just as in his adult novels, Miéville has raged against the complacent acceptance of the status quo, the failure to question authority, so here he rages against the assumptions that guide our lives, the unquestioned rules laid down in the comforting fantasies normally prescribed for children. Thus here we find the standard tropes that have bulked out so many simplistic quest fantasies: the unknowing hero long prophesied as the saviour of the land; the sequence of tasks that must be completed in ascending order of difficulty; the final battle between good and evil for the soul of the land. But each of these is blatantly and wittily subverted so that, in the end, we have learned that any one of us can be the hero, any one of us can stand up against the forces ranged against us, any one of us can defeat the villain. And the great villain is not Satan, this war between good and evil has none of the supernatural religious overtones so beloved of lazy and unimaginative fantasists. The evil that must be overcome is mankind's own creation, the despoilation of our environment.

We start in contemporary London, where teenage schoolgirl Zanna and her best friend Deeba seem to be the focus of a series of strange events. Eventually these lead them through a crack between the worlds into a parallel city, UnLondon, where they discover that Zanna is the Shwazzy, the Chosen One, destined to lead them to victory against the evil Smog. UnLondon is a magnificent creation, as vivid, as full of spectacular invention, as New Crobuzon, which is hardly surprising since both are avatars of London. UnLondon is the place that all the discards of our world seep through to and acquire a curious animation. During the course of the novel, Deeba acquires an empty milk carton as a pet, we meet a diving suit filled with fish, there are suburban houses that are also jungles, battles involving broken umbrellas, and more, all giving Miéville the excuse for a dazzling display of puns and wordplay. But in their first confrontation with the bad guys, Zanna is put out of action and the two girls retreat to our London.

It is Deeba, the sidekick, who then discovers a crucial secret that could be vital for the battle for UnLondon, and hence makes the hazardous journey back. Once there, since the role of hero is vacant, she finds herself assuming it by default, setting out upon the seven prescribed tasks to collect the seven essential tokens. But after the first part of her quest, she realises that they just don't have time for the whole rigmarole, and arbitrarily skips the remaining quests except for the last one which will give her the weapon to fight the Smog. Along the way her companions are killed while some of the bad guys get away and all the fantasy traditions, so long set in stone, are upended.

Of course it is possible to read Un Lun Dun without consciously taking on board any of this subversion. It is a colourful novel crammed with exciting incidents, dramatic confrontations, and Miéville's weird yet strangely appealing monsters. There is more than enough story to grip any reader, young or old, but as a deliberate anti-fantasy it is also one of the most intelligent and engaging works of the fantastic to appear in some time.

Copyright © 2007 by Paul Kincaid

Paul Kincaid is the recipient of the SFRA's Thomas D. Clareson Award for Distinguished Service for 2006. He is the co-editor of The Arthur C. Clarke Award: A Critical Anthology.

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