Saturday, 24 May 2008

China Miéville: Un Lun Dun (2007)

Published: Macmillan, (2008)

Billed as "the comfort blanket" for "devastated Potter fans", Un Lun Dun is a fantasy novel aimed at older children but with plenty to amuse adult readers. It tells of two normal London schoolgirls' discovery that animals seem to be obsessed with one of them. This leads them to find a way through to UnLondon, where the broken objects from London turn up endowed with a literal new life: broken umbrellas are like large birds, and one of the most endearing characters is a puppy-like milk carton. UnLondon is threatened by "the Smog", a cloud of pollution which has developed an evil mind of its own and which aims to take over the uncity. To the inhabitants of UnLondon, one of the girls, Zanna, is a prophesied champion, the Swazzy, who will lead them to victory over the Smog; but, in the most original touch in the book, Zanna is defeated in her first battle with it, and the UnLondoners turn to a man who can control the unbrellas (as the living, broken umbrellas are called). Zanna, made ill by inhaling Smog, and her companion Deeba return to our world. While Zanna forgets, as most Londoners do when not directly in contact with UnLondon, Deeba continues to be obsessed with the uncity, and when she discovers that things are not what they seem there she seeks to return to warn the inhabitants.

There are digs at Harry Potter here: the prophecies about the Swazzy talk about two companions, the Clever Sidekick and the Funny Sidekick, for example. Rowling has a tendency to use clichéd plot devices of the fantasy genre. For example, there is an element slavish following of accurate prophecy and the necessary tasks that seem like parts of computer game scenarios (you need to complete one to get an item that will enable you to complete the next) in some of the Harry Potter stories. Here, though, such conventions are ignored or satirised: Deeba short circuits this by deciding it makes more sense to go straight for the last one and save time). The idea of battling the Smog in a city of recycled rubbish picks up an environmental theme in fantasy that goes back to Tolkien, of course, but is obviously something likely to interest today's children. The puns and interest in language suggest Jasper Fforde or, perhaps more an influence, Norman Juster (whose book The Phantom Tollbooth may seem a bit dated now, but is one that many fantasy fans my age loved as children). Lewis Carroll is never far away, and Neil Gaiman's Neverwhere is a major influence, of which more later.

I recently listened to the Brakes 2005 album, Give Blood. It's pretty good, but at least part of the pleasure it gives is in recognising who influences which part: Roxy Music, the Clash, Talking Heads, Blur, or any one of the other influential rock musicians of the last thirty five years. Originality aside, this kind of collage needs to be done very well, or it won't come across to the listener as a unified whole. And of course part of the game is to see how close you can come to a copyright suit - copying a style may not be an infringement, but get too close and lawyers will be after you.

In book terms Un Lun Dun is a bit like Give Blood. It's very good, but indebted to a wide range of other writers, as Miéville indeed acknowledges in the afterword. The list is not precisely the same as I have given, but it is fitting that Neil Gaiman is singled out; indeed, his contribution is described not just as an influence present in the author's library but as an active helper. Un Lun Dun has taken the setting from Neverwhere, lightened the tone and added much more humour, to make a novel not just suitable for children but one which will be enjoyed by adults too. The wide ranging references, environmental message and digs at fantasy genre clichés provide interest for aficionados and the innumerable puns will produce laughs and groans from all readers.

Every other novel that I have read by Miéville, I have appreciated the quality without actually enjoying very much. Maybe because it is more accessible, less relentless and less nasty, I really liked Un Lun Dun, despite being well outside the target age range. (That range is about the same as the early Harry Potter novels, by the way.) It will inevitably be compared to Rowling's work (and I've mentioned the connections several times so far...): no new fantasy for children can escape that now. But at least Un Lun Dun seems to have escaped being compared to the dreadful His Dark Materials. One important thing about Miéville and Rowling is that in this book Miéville doesn't appear to have deliberately tried to be the new Rowling, which is probably a reason for the success of the story. The strengths of Miéville's writing are different, but like Rowling, he has produced an enjoyable, amusing fantasy story.

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