"Abcities have existed at least as long as the cities," a character points out just over one hundred pages into China Miéville's new children's novel Un Lun Dun. "Each dreams the other." (p. 109)
The undercity has been with writers since the first stirrings of urban revulsion were experienced at the dawn of the Industrial Revolution. Before it there existed the underworld, by and large a supernatural thing, a fantastical place which mirrored the real world but was not of it; the undercity, on the other hand, has always been the exaggerated evil twin of the everyday urban experience.
"An infinite population kept swarming to and fro from the closed courts and pestilential cul-de-sacs that continually communicated with the streets by narrow archways, like the entrances of hives, so low that you were obliged to stoop for admission; while, ascending to these same streets from their dank and dismal dwellings by narrow flights of steps, the subterranean nation of the cellars poured forth to enjoy the coolness of the summer night." Benjamin Disraeli's fictionalized description of Salford appeared in his novel Sybil in 1845. It is, out of context, the stuff of the dystopian undercities science fiction and fantasy have made their own. From Neil Gaiman's Neverwhere (mentioned specifically in Miéville's acknowledgements) to the decay and decrepitude on show in Blade Runner, the genres' relationships with the city have mirrored that of the nineteenth-century philanthropists: pride in its achievements but horror at its deprivations.
Miéville is acutely aware of these complicated antecedents—his choice of the term "abcity," for instance, reminds one of Jack London's abyss—and allows their influence to recur regularly in the course of his story. Indeed, it at first seems that he has merely cobbled them all together to form the backdrop to a fairly (and patronizingly) de rigueur yarn for kids. We expect more of the creator of Bas-Lag, of course, since particularly in Perdido Street Station he proved himself capable of wild feats of invention and revitalization. Un Lun Dun does not take place in that world, but it reminds the adult reader of New Crobuzon nevertheless, not least because ultimately Miéville shows himself to be refashioning the staples of kiddy portal fantasy, in the way his earlier novels refashioned the staples of the steampunk dystopia.
At its outset, Un Lun Dun seems to be the story of Zanna, the chosen girl tasked with saving UnLondon, a seething, surreal mirror of our London accessible only by hidden gateways, from the Smog, a roiling cloud of sentient black smoke. For the first hundred pages or more of the novel, the reader is convinced she is reading this story. Then Miéville completely sidelines Zanna and brings the focus onto her "funny sidekick," Deeba, muddying the politics and allegiances of the characters as he goes. Incapacitated and returned to London, Zanna cedes her role as UnLondon's saviour to Deeba, an event which sends the talking prophecy book that predicted Zanna's coming into a manic depression and overturns the city's articles of faith. UnLondon is unified in its apathy for the new girl.
If Un Lun Dun has a flaw, it is that this deliberate false start is simply too long. Zanna's wooden lack of personality is surely intentional, a tip of the hat to the rote fantasies which are so often passed off as exciting fare for younger readers. But the joke outstays its welcome a little, and the story drags until Deeba realizes that destiny isn't infallible.
Fortunately, Miéville fills almost every page with a memorable creature or narrow escape. If, as in his adult novels, this bewilderingly endless parade of invention can become wearying, it's also hugely entertaining in the small doses in which the novel is delivered—few chapters stretch beyond 10 pages. From bloodthirsty giraffes to a man with a birdcage for a head, via a floating bus or a library which stretches on forever, Miéville feeds his readers' imagination to bursting point. Augmenting these episodes with his own vivid illustrations, Miéville does enough to keep his young audience interested in the world even when its events seem to lack consequence.
He also writes well, though at times one gets the sense he is unnecessarily dampening his famous literary pyrotechnics so as not to alienate his new readership. Even the first page of the novel features neat phrases such as "piles of books like battlements" or "the presence of predatory quiet," but only towards its final pages does Miéville let rip with the kind of neologism with which he has previously been at times over-generous (in this case, arachnofenestranaut). This seems a shame. If the children Miéville hopes will enjoy his novel can become excited by binjas—trash cans trained in martial arts—or phones which operate using messenger wasps, it's probably also true that they would have been fascinated by imaginative language. Indeed, one of the novel's most memorable vignettes involves Mr Speaker, a monster with a huge mouth from which are birthed grotesqueries which embody whatever words he may speak (Kettle! Septic! Gully!), and who is defeated when Deeba points out that the meanings of words are arrived at by the dialogue of a community, not the proclamations of a single authority.
Still, if Miéville is sometimes a little coy—and if the puns and wordplay he does use are often winks to adult readers, jokes younger ones may be left out of (the weapon our London used generations ago to defeat the Smog, for instance, was the Klinneract)—he nevertheless remains a hugely amusing guide. Because the novel must emphasise plot over setting, Miéville avoids the trap of self-indulgence into which his Bas-Lag novels sometimes fell. Chapter after chapter turns up a new obstacle for Deeba and her friends to overcome. Miéville riffs on the old saws of this sort of fiction with abandon, but never fails quietly to undermine them. There's a lovely moment in the final third of the book when the gang decide to skip to the end of their list of quests and just get the big prize straight away.
This sort of intelligence is welcome. When Jeanette Winterson published her young adult novel, Tanglewreck, last year, the reader could have been forgiven for being surprised that a writer of Winterson's intellect had so thoroughly fallen back on the standard tropes of her temporary mode. If Miéville is sometimes a little too cutesy for his own good, he at least proves himself dissatisfied with simply retelling the same old story. "Destiny's bunk," the talking book says towards the end of the novel. "That's why this lot aren't the Prohpeseers anymore." "From here on in," agrees one of their number, "we're the Order of Suggesters." (p. 507)
Being Miéville, he also injects a significant hit of politics into the novel. Paying tribute to the undercities which have gone before his, Un Lun Dun is a place of the forgotten and bereft, technology which does not quite work anymore and houses which look set to fall down. One of the book's biggest heroes is Jones, the bus conductor. He has arrived in UnLondon because the bus companies of London "decided they could save money if they got rid of us. Of course it messed things up." But Jones is fiercely proud of his profession: "We look after travelers. [...] Some people say it's a sacred duty." (p. 65)
If there is a lesson to be learned from Un Lun Dun, in fact, it is precisely that those in authority are either incompetent or lying, that you should question everything and think for yourself. When Deeba is arrested for terrorism by the police, who are of course in league with the Smog, their justification is high-handedly simple: "You make me twitchy, and under Article Forty-One of the 2000 Terrorism Bill that's all I need." (p. 400) London's Environment Secretary is allied with the Smog in order to keep her own bailiwick clean for electoral advantage. The Propheseers of UnLondon are consistently ambiguous in their morality, betraying Deeba whenever they get the chance.
Freedom is to be found in being your own person, in devising alternative apparatus such as the emptish system, which enables travelers, tribes, and mendicants to use the vacant houses of one section of UnLondon for free. They are described, perhaps overly romantically, in terms which echo the tenements of the Victorian London on which Miéville so clearly bases much of his fiction, but link social reality with fantastical moral. And all the time, the plot twists and turns and rolls, the commentary feeding into the plot. For example, Deeba at one point saves herself by fixing it so that her umbrella is neither a London model or an UnLondon unbrella, but a rebrella—"its own thing" (p. 470).
Un Lun Dun is a long book, however, and at 512 pages, it risks too many false denouements having also tried our patience during its opening section. At times even Miéville's creativity can't hide the story's stretch marks. But by the same token it is, like the rest of his works, a novel to get lost in. The book's young readers will surely revel in its invention and incident, though at times they may detect the unmistakable signs of an adult writer condescending to dabble in children's literature. But if at times Miéville stumbles, he has created in Un Lun Dun a fun, exciting adventure story set in a world which never takes over the book but usually does just enough to keep the reader enthralled. It is, in short, undeniably and even thrillingly its own thing.
Dan Hartland has been doing this too long to think anyone cares who he is.