Friday, February 23, 2007

Un Lun Dun

A good bit of China Mieville's acclaim comes from his ability to use a location as a character in his novels. Perdido Street Station takes place in the city of New Crobuzon, an otherworldly analog to London. In that novel, Mieville allows the city to reflect the attitudes and emotions of its inhabitants, and his descriptions of the various boroughs that his characters pass through evoke just the right mood for the events that subsequently take place. And through it all is permeated a sense of wonder and awe, as we see a city so very near to the one we know and yet different in surprising and important ways. New Crobuzon has a life of its own, and in Perdido Street Station, the reader finds himself as concerned, if not more concerned, about its ongoing survival as for the survival of the characters.

Perhaps there is some work to be done in some literary analysis of the abLondons in speculative fiction. Neil Gaiman's Neverwhere imagines a London that with an entire alternate city lurking just past the next corner and hidden behind the shop wall. Mortal Engines, by Philip Reeve, is a young adult novel about a London that is attached to giant caterpillar treads and wanders about its world devouring smaller cities and towns. Part of the appeal of such novels is how they twist the familiar into something different and still are able to evoke the original, a sort of nostalgia for a place that still exists. And now we can add to this quasigenre Mieville's latest novel, Un Lun Dun, his first entry into the young adult field.

Deeba Rashem finds that her fiend Zanna is getting all sorts of attention from unusual places-graffiti about her pops up on a wall near their school and foxes bow to her as Deeba and Zanna pass them. But none of this compares to one evening when they witness an umbrella crawl across a courtyard and hoist itself to Zanna's windowsill to spy within before heading off down the sidewalk. Curious, they follow its path into a maintenance area and, before Deeba can stop her, Zanna finds and opens a trick door. Suddenly the girls find themselves in a London parallel to their own, UnLondon. Fairly quickly upon their arrival, Zanna is recognized as the Schwazzy, the prophesied savior of UnLondon against the villainous attacks of Smog and they find they must make their way to the city's rulers and present Zanna and save the city.

The Smog is one of the most ingenious villains in recent memory. When London of our earth passed its Clean Air Act of the 1970s, where did all the noxious smoke go? According to Mieville, it worked its way through cracks in the universe to UnLondon, where it continued to grow and gained sentience. The Smog now threatens to take over the city and transform its inhabitants into smoglodytes and its recently deceased into smombies. The Smog can also use its components to create sleeping gases and pellets it can launch like bullets.
Deeba and Zanna gather allies as they travel to meet with the Propheseers: Obaday Fing, a clothier whose head is a pincushion and who makes haute couture clothing from books; Hemi, the son of the union between a ghost and a mortal; Skool, a walking diving suit; Jones, another transportee from our Earth who makes his living as a bus conductor; and Curdle, the charming empty milk carton that wins his way into Deeba's heart. As they travel the city, the reader is given a tour of UnLondon in all its glory--the open markets, the Smeath river that flows in a perfectly straight line through the heart of the city, the UnLondon-I which is a giant waterwheel that powers a large part of the city. Their vehicle for travel is a standard double-decker bus whose upper floor has been replaced with a dirigible type balloon and Jones acts as a tour guide for them as well as for the reader. It turns out that UnLondon is a city made up of the cast-offs of London, both material and people. Buildings are made from London refuse (my favorite is the one that is made of vinyl records), but enough of London emerges from the weirdness that it all feels very comfortable.

Their lazy promenade is interrupted by the allies of the Smog attacking from the backs of giant flies trying to reach the Schwazzy, and smaller adventures take place until the girls reach their destination. Eventually they ally themselves with Brokkenbroll, the great Umbrellisimo who is able to command the broken umbrellas that make their way from London to UnLondon. All together, they discover the great weapon they can use in defense of UnLondon so that perhaps the Schwazzy is not quite needed. So Deeba and Zanna return to London…until Deeba puts together the pieces to realize that UnLondon is in far worse danger than anyone thought. Now she must somehow find her way back to her newfound friends.

Un Lun Dun is a delightful romp. The main characters are flatter than are usually found in Mieville's works, but this is a young adult novel, so character complexity would actually be unfortunate. But the most important character may well be UnLondon itself, as delightfully weird a setting as Oz. And Deeba acts the Dorothy as she attempts to save the city from, in part, a peril from her own city of London. In its broad strokes, the story is a little predictable, but again, young adult novels don't generally travel very far from the beaten path. It is in the details that this novel excels-the descriptions of the parts of UnLondon, the conversations that the characters share, the characters themselves. Even the menace of the Black Windows of Webminster Abbey are fun (as evidenced by Deeba's laughter at the intentionally unintentional puns), but they poise another hazard for the companions to fight through. Adding to the details are the wonderful drawings from Mieville himself, instantiating the macabre and whimsical scenes and characters. My favorites are the binjas, walking trashcans that use martial arts to protect the Propheseers.

And, like most good young adult fiction, there are some details that work only for more mature minds. For instance, while the novel sets itself up as a quest in the mold of popular high fantasy, Mieville completely subverts its ordered and sequential pattern with the impatience of a bored child. There are also allusions to other works of speculative fiction and hints of the size and complexity of the UnEarth that tantalize the adult reader. Mieville even provides an epilogue that goes beyond the usual conclusion of young adult fantasy, successfully tying up a loose end and promising that the story continues to go on even though the book's covers are closed.

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