China Mieville: Un Lun Dun

‘You’ll see a lot of moil technology here,’ Jones said. ‘Em Oh Aye Ell. Mildly Obsolete In London. Throw something away and you declare it obsolete. You’ve seen an old computer, or a broken radio or whatever, left on the streets? It’s there for a few days, and then it’s just gone.
‘Sometimes rubbish collectors have taken it, but often as not it ends up here, where people find other uses for it. It seeps into UnLondon.’

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Why I read it

China Mieville’s science fiction is … well, different. In fact it’s so original, and uses so few of the established sci-fi tropes, that it makes you pause to wonder if it is in fact science fiction and not some new genre entirely: philosophy-fi perhaps?

Put it this way: his novel The city and the city would be a regular detective mystery if it weren’t for the fact that the detective is in a different city to the murderer, by which I mean the same city in that the two places coexist in time and space, while being different cities due to it being forbidden to acknowledge the parts that are in the other city to you, due to rules as strict as their origin is murky. Or Embassytown, a story that hinges on concepts of how language and conception intertwine. They’re sophisticated novels that play interesting games with concepts of culture and language.

Un Lun Dun is a young adult novel, so the sophistication is manifested differently here. Instead of complex concepts there’s a more straightforward story, albeit one set in a crazily colourful parallel universe of sorts – a kind of cross between Harry Potter and the Codex Serafinianus. In UnLondon, buses can fly, bridges can teleport, and in the market square, arguments can break out between a bear and a swarm of bees in the shape of a man.

But the subversion of normal storytelling is still there too. This book is for anyone who’s thought Hermione deserved more kudos than Harry Potter, Samwise more than Frodo, or Trinity more than Neo. Because after all, those sidekicks did the same as the heroes, but without having the advantage of supernatural predestination, right?

What it’s about

UnLondon is a different version of London, one that’s inhabited by all the unwanted things that seep through from the real world: broken umbrellas (‘unbrellas’), obsolete European currency, bus conductors and more.

Zanna and Deeba stumble upon a secret entrance to UnLondon and find a city in crisis. It’s facing the threat of a sinister being, and Zanna is the Chosen One. But are all prophesies – and all authorities – really worth listening to?

The story is full of memorable characters (the melancholy book of prophesy, the gleeful obsolete conductor, the roof-hopping leader), terrifying tests of character (the infinitely jungle-filled house, the self-swallowing window monsters), and great humour (the roof clan heading groundward and Deeba’s handling of the chess problem – just to name two). And the story is solid, and seems to treat its young readers with respect.

I enjoyed this book, while never really feeling it hit its target audience with me. I’d be more interested in knowing whether a teenage reader found it a revelation of originality, or slightly slow-moving, or with memorable characters, or fun but forgettable. Because I feel like this book deserves to be loved – but whether it makes that connection or not is something I’d have to find out from them.

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This book was mostly read on the plane from Sydney to Adelaide

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