“Where’s the skill in being a hero if you were always destined to do it?”
Mieville’s first foray into YA fiction is set in the abcity of UnLondon (geddit?), a kind of underworld, a shadow of London where all of its lost things go. Here packs of milk cartons scutter verminously; here Westminster Abbey becomes Webminster Abbey, a cobweb church full of dreadful spiders; here old Routemaster buses fly above the housetops and schools of fish wander around in divers’ suits and forests grow in suburban houses. Which is to say: the overriding tone here is whimsy. Un Lun Dun feels like a weird mashup of Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere and Walter Moers’ City of Dreaming Books.
Into this bizarre cityscape stumble (all unwitting, of course) two young Londoners, Deeba and Zanna. Zanna is immediately hailed as a Chosen One, destined to free the city from the menace of the Smog, driven to the abcity after the real-life Clean Air Act of 1956 (which the UnLondoners render as Klinneract, considering it a magical catch-all weapon which has, for me, unfortunate overtones of the Kragle in The Lego Movie) forced it out of London proper. The UnLondoners know that Zanna is their saviour because It Is Written – literally; the group of Propheseers who sort-of rule UnLondon have a talking Book containing Zanna’s whole story.
From this point on Mieville proceeds to deconstruct YA Chosen One narratives, primarily by fridging Zanna on page 100, locking her out of UnLondon so that it’s Deeba, the unchosen, who returns to save the city.
Obviously, this being Mieville, the deconstruction does go slightly deeper than this. A significant moment in the novel is when we realise that London’s Environment Minister, Elizabeth Rawley, previously cited as the only politician Deeba’s parents trust, is actually in cahoots with the Smog, revealing basically all the London adults who feature in the novel as either bad or just wrong. This is familiar YA territory, situating teenagers on the terrifying boundary between childhood and adulthood, when they begin to realise that grown-ups don’t, actually, have all the answers. Putting this old motif into a portal fantasy, though, has an interesting effect: it radically destabilises the notion of “home” as idyllic, safe, absolute, a foothold to return to after the adventures are done. (See for example The Hobbit, or The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.) In fact, the longer Deeba remains in the topsy-turvy world of UnLondon, the harder she’ll find it to return home, as her parents go through a slow and unsettling process of forgetting their daughter. Unlike in many portal fantasies, then, Deeba doesn’t have the luxury of exploring adulthood before returning to the stabilities of childhood for a time, as, for example, Lewis Carroll’s Alice does; both “home” and “not-home” are here deeply unstable constructs that actually have to be navigated, weighed, considered against each other; decisions made in one affect outcomes in another, deeply and intimately.
UnLondon as “not-home” (and yet almost somehow redemptive) figures adulthood as fundamentally unreadable, the signs and signifiers which we use to frame it artificial and ridiculous. The Propheseers’ Book, we can assume, is exactly the kind of portal fantasy which Mieville is trying to deconstruct here, and it’s shown, in the face of actual real lives and subjectivities, to be woefully false, woefully unreliable – at least if read literally. Deeba and her assorted UnLondon friends meet a megalomaniac king-figure whose words become creatures; Deeba convinces those creatures to rise against their master by noting that words don’t always do what you tell them to do. Deeba’s closest companion in UnLondon is half-ghost half-boy (don’t ask). Everything in UnLondon defies categorisation and singularity, rendering “realistic” interpretation useless, alongside traditional narrative. Mieville’s choice of antagonist is, of course, significant in this regard: facing the greatest challenge of her generation, climate change, Deeba has to step outside traditional cultural codings of the world and realise something new.
The real problem I had with Un Lun Dun was that it feels like it’s simply been done before. Diana Wynne Jones was deconstructing portal fantasy, as well as every other kind of fantasy narrative, forty years ago; come to that, Alice in Wonderland (1865) is essentially a story about how weird and redundant traditional narratives of adulthood are. And though Un Lun Dun does have interesting things to say about young adulthood and cultural pressure, it altogether lacks the intellectual energy, the verve and invention even of those of his novels which I dislike (Kraken and The City and the City, I’m looking at you). It feels like Mieville-by-the-numbers; it might be more palatable than the aforesaid novels, but it’s nowhere near as daring. I’m currently reading his other YA novel, Railsea, and there is simply no comparison (though I’ll save my gushing for the review); it just feels like this was the wrong kind of story at the wrong time.