Un Lun Dun

Posted by : atcampbell | On : June 17, 2008

Un Lun Dun by China Miéville

12 people attended the discussion of China Miéville’s Un Lun Dun. 8 people had read China Miéville before. Everybody but one person started the book. 6 people finished it.

Un Lun Dun is a story of two young girls’ adventures in an alternative London, called Un Lun Dun. It is inhabited by all sorts of strange and magical creatures, and it is built mostly out of MOIL (“Mildly Obsolete In London”), things and materials that were discarded by Londoners. It turns out that Un Lun Dun is in danger, and a prophecy names one of the girls as a “shwazzy”, a chosen one who’s supposed to save the city. The two friends set out to fulfill the shwazzy’s mission, but things take an unexpected turn early on.

A few people thought the book started out slowly and took a while — as many as 100 pages — to get into. But when the story took off, most people enjoyed it. Some compared it to Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere on steroids.

One reader was at first put off because the story started out with a common fantasy cliche of a fair-haired chosen one. She was later delighted to see the book do an about-face on fantasy cliches. The tongue-in-cheek treatment of fantasy formula endeared Un Lun Dun to many people. The schwazzy, a tall, blond and beautiful Zanna, gets bonked on the head and taken out of action early on; the true hero of the novel is the person who traditionally would be a sidekick — the short, dark-skinned Deeba. Deeba decides she doesn’t have time to find all 7 objects that the prophecy requires her to collect before she can confront the enemy; instead, she goes straight for the last one, the UnGun. She figures that’s the only weapon she’ll need anyway.

Another enjoyable moment of the book was what one reader called Miéville’s “play with libraries”. Deeba’s climb through the library on a “storyladder” reminded a reader of Pratchett’s L-space, where all libraries are connected. “He was doing some interesting things metaphorically to discuss the path to knowledge,” said the reader.

A few people praised the way the book presents an environmental message. When speaking about those issues, especially to children, there’s always a danger that a book would come off as preachy, but Un Lun Dun successfully avoided that. Instead, it cleverly showed how all those perfectly useable things that we routinely discard (called MOIL in the book) is a natural resource in a parallel world. A reader said Un Lun Dun did a good job showing why many environmental issues aren’t easily fixed: they are political. The same reader calling this book “politically fascinating, because it is a very good tract of left socialist thought”.

Two or three people in our group could not enjoy the story despite trying. One of them said he wished he had read the same book as the others did, because the group’s positive impression of the book vastly diverged from his. He picked up Un Lun Dun every day for two weeks and lost interest in it each time after 5 pages. He said he could not build a mental model of what was going on. The two young girl protagonists were very boring. His head was hurting from the flying buses, etc., and he still wasn’t into the story. Similarly, another reader said it took him 3 times as long as expected to read this book, because he had to reread each paragraph 2-3 times. Even after multiple rereadings he still could not extract information from the text. This reader did not quite understand what about China Miéville’s writing made it so difficult to “build a movie” of the book in his head, but perhaps it was the sentence structure. Somebody else pointed out it could be because so much imagery in Un Lun Dun is based on wordplay, and wordplay doesn’t work very well when speed-reading. Another person suggested some of the difficulty may have to do with China Miéville being “a sloppy plotter”. “You don’t see where he’s going with the plot,” said the reader. “I don’t trust him to take me out of the swamp. But eventually he does.”

On the average, more people in the group liked Un Lun Dun than didn’t, and several people said they will look forward to reading China Miéville’s future works.

— Elze Hamilton