Unbrellas, Binjas and killer giraffes

June 12, 2008

Elizabeth Wrigley-Field reviews the socialist science fiction writer China Miéville's first book for young readers.

UN LUN Dun, the first book for younger readers by the celebrated socialist science fiction writer China Miéville, is a classic quest story with a twist: what if the ancient prophecies about the hero who will save the land turn out to be wrong?

Twelve-year-old Londoners Deeba and Zanna accidentally transport themselves to UnLondon, the hidden city where broken and unwanted residents of London--animate or otherwise--take on new life.

Zanna is hailed as the long-awaited Shwazzy (Chosen One), come to save the city from the malicious Smog invading its skies, while Deeba is ignored as her sidekick. But when the anticipated showdown goes badly, it's up to Deeba to assemble a team of oddballs to figure out what's salvageable in the refuted prophesies and lead the struggle against the Smog.

While the story is tight, much of the fun of Un Lun Dun derives from its wordplay, with words both invented and real. The mysterious Brokkenbroll commands the broken unbrellas, while Binjas--martial-arts-wielding garbage bins--protect the bumbling Propheseers. Miéville relies on young readers' enjoyment of inventive descriptions to carry them through words they are unlikely to know ("The air was growling and rumbustious"), while he uses grammar to convey that our hero and her friends are from London's working class.

Review: Books

China Miéville, Un Lun Dun, Del Rey, 2008, 496 pages, $9.

The power of language becomes a plot point as well, as--in one of many small, ingenious episodes--Deeba's quick wits save the group from the nefarious Mr. Speaker by encouraging a slave revolt among his Utterlings--his living words.

The book is filled with memorable images, including the vicious killer giraffes whose invention first inspired Miéville to write a book for children and teenagers. Despite such notable villains, though, Un Lun Dun is far less dark than much of the children's fantasy being published today.

Miéville's plot creatively takes aim at corruption, environmental destruction and the war on terror, with varying degrees of literalness or metaphor. But crucially, the story doesn't feel stretched to fit these politics; it is carried forward by the weight of its own logic and suspense. Indeed, Miéville's experience as a Marxist activist seems to aid his many plot twists, most of which believably center on the complicated question of who can be trusted when epic battles for control are underway.

Un Lun Dun is, however, heavy on political in-jokes that will sail by the kids that are supposed to be its primary audience (for example, chapter titles like "Skipping Historical Stages"). This is one of several factors, along with the book's length (fairly long) and characters' ages (fairly young), that make it hard to discern exactly what age of readers Miéville was intending.

Perhaps the answer is that enjoyment of the book depends less on age than on personality. I predict that adult readers with some background in radical politics will be split between appreciating the obvious political references and finding them distracting and irritating. Personally, I enjoyed them.

Un Lun Dun is a fun, fast read with the message that doing the right thing in the face of seemingly long odds isn't something you're chosen for--it's something you choose.

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