Title: Un Lun Dun
Author: China Miéville
Published: 2007; pictured edition published 2011
Genre: YA, urban fantasy
Source: I have two copies actually, one received from the publisher, one received as a gift
Zanna is the Schwazzy – the chosen one. Animals stare and bow at her. Strangers approach her in awe. But Zanna and her friends have no idea what’s going on. Then one night Zanna and her best friend Deeba see an umbrella crawling along the ground. They follow it and find their way in UnLonden, a bizarre otherworldly version of London where buses fly, the trash is alive, creatures like carnivorous giraffes stalk the streets, and the rubbish of London is transformed into strange new things (like living ‘unbrellas’). Deeba and Zanna encounter characters like Hemi the half-ghost boy and Obaday Fing, a clothing designer who makes “the hautest of couture” (39) from the pages of books and uses his own head as a pin cushion. They get followed by a cute little milk carton who Deeba names Curdle and adopts as a pet.
But Deeba and Zanna have been drawn to UnLondon for a purpose. The city is at war with the Smog, a living, malevolent cloud of pollution that threatens to consume the city. According to an ancient prophecy, the Schwazzy will come to save UnLondon, but Zanna and Deeba aren’t too keen on this quest. UnLondon is very weird and dangerous, and they want very badly to get home as soon as possible. However, the citizens of UnLondon desperately want the heroine they’ve been waiting for, and Zanna starts to enjoy being treated with awe, while Deeba finds that she can be more than just the Schwazzy’s companion.
I really enjoyed Un Lun Dun. I don’t often read YA, but the ones that I do enjoy tell great stories without feeling dumbed down or childish. For that, Un Lun Dun is perfect. It’s adventurous and funny, but also creepy at times, and deadly serious when it needs to be. It’s a really clever novel with loads of cool ideas that never weigh the story down. On the downside, it is a tad long and can drag at parts, but overall it’s well worth a read. Miéville fans will instantly recognise his trademarks – a bizarre city, a plethora of weird characters, creatures and concepts, and a tendency towards the fascinatingly grotesque (downplayed here, as it’s YA). You’ll also find some of the themes he’s explored in other novels – the idea of a hidden city, accessible only by unconventional means (King Rat, The Scar, The City and the City), language and meaning (Embassytown), and some subtle comments on religion and scripture (Kraken). And, as with all Miéville novels I’ve read thus far, Un Lun Dun is incredibly rebellious, going against authority, corruption, and even language itself.
The latter is the most fun. The UnLondon ‘propheseers’ tells Zanna that “it’s been written, for centuries, that […] you will come and save us” (p.108). Because it’s written, no one questions the prophecy, least of all the book in which it’s written. The book itself is alive, can speak and is one of the most entertaining characters in the novel. Terribly self-important, it speaks grandly of its contents and patronisingly assures others of its truth:
‘And we know this because…?’ the book said expectantly.
‘Because it’s in the book?’ Zanna said.
The book said, ‘Bing!’ (p.113)
But then, at a critical moment in the prophecy, when Zanna is supposed to “prevail in her first encounter” with the enemy, one smack on the back of the head knocks her unconscious, and all sense of destiny and genre cliche collapse with her. The book is devastated, “This isn’t what’s written” (128) it despairs, and gets depressed “What’s the point? […] What is the point?” (130).
Deeba, however, was sceptical from the start and isn’t swayed by prophecies being proven false. Having made friends in UnLondon, she feels compelled to try and help them. So what if “[t]he destiny didn’t work out with the Chosen One” she says, “I’ll do it instead” (272). The book might have been wrong about some things, but it still knows how the Smog can be defeated, so Deeba renews the quest to defeat the Smog and win the war for UnLondon. The prophecy details the typical quest structure, requiring the hero(ine) to go on a journey to collect various artefacts from strange, dangerous places, eventually acquiring the ultimate weapon with which to defeat the enemy. At first Deeba follows the instructions to the letter, but as soon as the prophecy becomes impractical she doesn’t hesitate to deviate from the course, proving again that what’s written doesn’t have to be what happens. She doesn’t have the power of destiny to keep her safe and assure her victory – she has to get by with her own talents and courage and her quest (which makes up most of the book) has a sense of real danger and tragedy.
The whole thing with the book and its prophecies completely dismantles the authority of the written word, not to mention cliches of the fantasy genre (the chosen on coming to save the world). In addition, the novel is constantly playing around with language, showing how fluid and adaptable it can be. Some of its word games are phonetic. ‘Schwazzy’ is the phonetic spelling of ‘choisi’, the French word for ‘chosen’. ‘Un Lun Dun’ is the phonetic rendering of UnLondon, but it’s also the city’s war cry. The book’s title then – just a prefix and two nonsense words – has a double meaning that encapsulates the two major features of the story – the city and the war being fought within it.
Other word games play with meaning. The bus conductor, for example, doesn’t just clip tickets but can use his body to conduct electricity. Miéville has also invented multiple words for his novel, using known words as building blocks. The ghosts of Wraithtown are also known as ‘wispers’ (wisp and whisper), referring both to their incorporeal states and the inaudible whispers they speak in. The ‘binja’ are dustbin ninjas (you’ll see them on the covers of some editions); ‘smombies’ are smog zombies; ‘abcities’ are cities like UnLondon, Parisn’t and Sans Francisco, all of which are both opposite and parallel to the cities we know.
Playing with these words, Miéville bends them to his purpose, but at the same time there’s still that awareness that words and language aren’t completely under your control. You see that most clearly when Deeba and her friends encounter Mr Speaker, ruler of the Talklands, where all speech must be authorised by him. Mr Speaker has a gargantuan mouth, and every word he utters is manifested as a small creature – an ‘utterling’ – that falls from his mouth. He promises to allow Deeba to continue on her journey if she pays him in words, but then breaks his promise. “I CAN DO WHATEVER I WANT,” he booms, “A PROMISE IS WORDS. I’M MR SPEAKER! WORDS MEAN WHATEVER I WANT. WORDS DO WHAT I TELL THEM!” (296)
This is literally true for Mr Speaker – his every word becomes an utterling and he commands an army of them. But Deeba calmly points out the flaw in his reasoning: “Words don’t always mean what we want them to […] None of us. Not even you” (297). Words can be misinterpreted. Meanings can change over time. Words can have multiple connotations and listeners or readers might pick up on the unintended ones. As any author should know, once words are written or spoken you lose control over them and they’re open to interpretation. When the utterlings latch on to this idea, they rebel against the Speaker who uttered them.
Besides linguistic rebellion, Un Lun Dun has rebellion of the more conventional sort as a small group of bold individuals go up against a seemingly unstoppable force. The Smog threatens to take over UnLondon, and the image of this vast, poisonous cloud hanging over the city is an apt metaphor for hegemonic power. It’s evil, but it still has allies in the city because “there’s nothing so terrible that someone won’t support it” (111). And there are indeed some people who can benefit from an alliance with the Smog. Among the Smog’s allies are a group called the Concern. Their businesses use factories that create more emissions for the Smog to feed on, so they want to work with it. They have a slogan: E=A. Effluence equals affluence.
There’s an obvious capitalist critique here, coupled with strong environmental concerns (Miéville is an outspoken socialist, and his political perspective naturally influences his novels). The Smog was created during the Industrial Revolution, when the roiling mix of chemicals from the factories of London turned a cloud of pollution into a toxic “cloud-brain” (110). The pollution from modern (ie. capitalist) societies continued feeding it and now it has the power to consume a city.
At this point I’ve made it sound like the novel gets very heavy-handed, but I didn’t feel that it was. While these themes give it depth and class, the story comes first, making it a good read all round. Some readers have complained about the force of the environmental theme though, in which case I’d say that if you don’t like books with any kind of social commentary then it will most likely annoy you here. On the other hand, if you can appreciate books with a social conscience then go right ahead. It’s much lighter and more playful than Miéville’s other fiction and I think it’s a great choice for adults who read YA. I particularly recommend it for readers with an interest in language. Oh yes, and for young adults too 🙂