February 26th, 2013
Un Lun Dun seems, at first, like it’s going to be one of those standard YA fantasy stories where a young person is somehow chosen to learn about another world whose existence he or she hadn’t ever imagined And, you know how it goes, that other world is in peril, and the chosen one has to undertake a quest to save it, just as the prophecies of that other world foretold. Except it doesn’t turn out to be like that, not quite, and the way Un Lun Dun subverts those tropes is part of what’s pleasing about it.
But right: there is another world, or at least, another city: UnLondon is London’s uncanny counterpart, its “abcity.” (“Abcities have existed at least as long as the cities,” one character explains. “Each dreams the other.” (109)) And UnLondon is in peril: it’s threatened by the Smog, animate and malevolent pollution. And all the signs seem to point to Zanna being the one who will save it, despite the fact that she’s an ordinary London schoolgirl: she’s in the book of UnLondon prophecies, after all. After a series of strange events (including a fox that seems to be watching her from the edge of the playground, an excited stranger who approaches her in a café and calls her “Shwazzy”—i.e., choisi— and a mysterious letter, complete with an UnLondon travelcard tucked inside the envelope), Zanna and her friend Deeba find their way to UnLondon, without yet knowing what it’s called or that they’re going to it. All they can tell, when they first arrive, is that they’re not at home in Kilburn—they’re “somewhere very else” (32).
Zanna, being the Shwazzy, is meant to visit the Propheseers: they and their book will explain to her how she’s meant to defeat the Smog. But her first encounter with the Smog doesn’t match the prophecies at all, and she and Deeba end up back in London, where Deeba finds that Zanna’s memory of their journey is entirely gone. Deeba, though, can’t stop thinking about the people she and Zanna met, and about the danger UnLondon’s in. Something she and Zanna were told by someone who claimed to be fighting the Smog doesn’t seem right to her, and she’s increasingly concerned that things are very wrong in UnLondon. Since Zanna’s in no position to go back, Deeba realizes it’s up to her to return and find out if her fears and suspicions are true. This is good, because she’s much more interesting than Zanna as a protagonist: where Zanna was more or less blindly (and sometimes befuddledly) acting out her destiny (or not), Deeba is smart and curious and observant: she pays attention to people and circumstances and figures things out. And since she’s not the Shwazzy, and since the prophecies have already been shown to be wrong, she doesn’t feel the need to go through every step of the quest in her efforts to fight the Smog.
The way Miéville plays with and subverts fantasy tropes isn’t the only pleasing thing about the book, though: its other big strength, for me, was the setting, the descriptions of UnLondon itself. The abcity is full of fantastical things: houses and buildings made of discarded objects from the city, buses that navigate through the air suspended from balloons, a roaming bridge, a forest/jungle inside a house, a market where vendors sell arrangements of tools like arrangements of flowers, and other wonders, too. I especially love the description of Wraithtown, where UnLondon’s ghosts live, and where the buildings are ghostly as well:
Each of the houses, halls, shops, factories, churches, and temples was a core of brick, wood, concrete or whatever, surrounded by a wispy corona of earlier versions of itself. Every extension that had ever been built and knocked down, every smaller, squatter outline, every different design: all hung on to existence as spectres. Their insubstantial, colourless forms shimmered in and out of sight. Every building was cocooned in its older, dead selves. (202)
Miéville’s illustrations—crosshatched drawings of the cityscape and its inhabitants—are also satisfying (the title page, above, is totally my favorite).