To balance the bile of a few days ago, here is a review of a book (and a writer) I love.
Love is perhaps a little strong. How about really, really like a lot.
But, then again, love might be the word since China Miéville is entering the realm of authors that I love who can do no wrong: Roger Zelazny, Philip José Farmer, Steven Brust, Samuel R. Delany, Tad Williams, and James Morrow.
And maybe I have to clarify the statement WHO DO NO WRONG. What I mean is not that I think everything that they write is perfect and without mistake, but that those books they write are wonderful as a whole despite and perhaps because of their flaws.
In contradictory and unhelpful explanation by way of analogy: You don’t love someone because they are perfect, but because they aren’t perfect.
And so, I present to you
Shortcut #50: China Miéville’s Un Lun Dun
Here I must admit that I haven’t read everything that Miéville has written. When I interviewed him for RevolutionSF (Please click HERE) he was touring for Iron Council and I had already read Perdido Street Station and The Scar. I checked out King Rat from the library so I’d be up on everything he’d done until that point. Since then, I’ve fallen behind.
I bought Un Lun Dun as a continuation of my recent YA kick. I read a lot of YA when I was younger, especially when I worked at the local library in high school, but until recently my recent exposure had been limited to Harry Potter, A Series of Unfortunate Events, and The Graveyard Book. Not a wide net.
I overlooked Miéville’s entry into this genre, and that makes me sad. I mean, look at this:
It is a trashcan ninja. Not only that, it’s a drawing of Miéville’s very own, and his illustrations are littered throughout the text. They are a beautiful accompaniment, enriching the text in a similar way to Brett Helquist’s art for the Lemony Snicket books.
As for the story itself, it follows in a tradition of alternate cityscapes existing under or beside the real city. The ancestor for Un Lun Dun is Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere, a debt Miéville acknowledges in his acknowledgements, and like Gaiman’s work, Un Lun Dun has a very fairy tale feel to it. I suppose that’s most of what I want to talk about here.
The book starts of in a London that feels real, except for the hyper-intelligent fox staring at Zanna and Deeba. The novel carefully describes the grittiness of London even as it slips quickly into fantasyland through recounting what fantastic and mysterious events have been happening to Z and D over the past few weeks. Here Miéville relies somewhat on an awareness of London in his readers – the same way that writers of realistic fiction don’t have to dwell on world-building like SF&F writers because, well, we’re already familiar with the world they’re talking about.
What makes this book fairytale-esque is that when Miéville transports the girls (and us) to UnLondon he doesn’t spend much time on world-building either. The flapjacket copy compares Un Lun Dun to Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and that’s as apt as any likening: there’s a sense that the world of UnLondon is created on the fly, bits and pieces fully-formed from Miéville’s imagination and, because the world is unreal, the bits and pieces don’t have to quite hang together into a perfectly logical whole.
This isn’t all that different from the way Miéville works in his non-YA books. The world of Perdido Street Station and its sequels is never fully mapped out or explained. The details that are provided sketch out a world that is not fully realized but that is fully imaginable by the readers. Each detail told expands the world rather than closing it in.
With Un Lun Dun I felt like anything could happen – and often it did – but that, in contrast to Miéville’s adult works, more details about UnLondon ended up constricting the world rather than exploding it outward.
But that’s a small complaint given the imagination that’s at work. The way the book progresses reminds me of A. E. van Vogt’s method of adding something new every 800 words. There is no time for your imagination to rest because Miéville is constantly calling you to imagine something new. A man whose words become living creatures? Check. Black windows, deadly spider-like automatons living in Webminster Abbey? Certainly. A dangerous jungle inside a house? Of course.
Even if there were nothing else to recommend about this book – the engaging plot, the well-defined and interesting characters, the fascination with little-acknowledged careers like librarians and bus conductors – the imagination would be worth it.
In fact, it is.