The Harry Potter series has long been a singular exception to my disinclinations toward fantasy. As a teenager, I came late to the Harry Potter series, at a time in my life when its fantastical elements were already real for a lot of the people around me. In many ways, it seemed that the magical logics of wizards and Hogwarts and muggles and house elves and Horcruxes and dementors belonged to the world I was already trying to figure out.
Un Lun Dun had no such ubiquity among my peers, and I soon found out that it worked differently on me than any of the other fantasy novels I’ve tried to take up in the recent past; rather than merely transporting me to its fantastical and titular “abcity,” Un Lun Dun grounded me in all things material in my own world. It made me work to rediscover that which I hadn’t realized I was taking for granted about language, reading, and stories — about stuff writ large. It insisted that I pay close attention to the words and the letters and the sentences inked out on the pages at my fingertips; to the chair under me; to the stainless steel travel mug at my side; and to all of the other things that surround me at any given moment.
In fact, Un Lun Dun begins when its young protagonists, 12-year-old Londoners Zanna and Deeba, start paying more and more careful attention to the things around them. While on the playground, the girls take notice of a fox — a fox who is unmistakably staring back at them and watching. The whole world, it seems, has its eyes on the girls — and on Zanna in particular. Strangers have started approaching Zanna, calling her “Shwazzy” and expressing their great delight to meet her. A postal worker delivers a blank envelope containing a travel card made out to “Zanna Moon Shwazzy” directly to Zanna at her doorstop, despite the lack of postage and the fact that Zanna had never met him before. Zanna sees her name scrawled impossibly high across a brick wall with a message: “Zanna For Ever!” A dog stands on its hind legs and bows at her respectfully. In French class, Zanna realizes that the strange thing everyone has been calling her sounds a lot like this past participle they’re discussing in class: “Choisi. Shwazzy. Chosen.” A proper start to a YA fantasy novel: Zanna, a Chosen One.
One evening, Zanna boldly answers her call from the strangeness around her, following a broken and limping umbrella into a grimy basement a few blocks from her home, a very reluctant and anxious Deeba in tow. In the basement, Zanna grabs a wheel connected to a network of pipes and spins it, in the process “turning off London” and turning on its fantastical counterpart, Un Lun Dun.
Miéville sets readers up to believe that this is where the adventure begins, as the girls encounter “predatory rubbish” (garbage bags which give chase), friendly ghosts, trash can guards known as binjas, a donut-shaped sun, a couturier with pins for hair who makes and sells clothes out of print books, among others. Un Lun Dun, it turns out, is filled with and animated by moil, that which is “Mildly Obsolete in London” and which has seeped over to the abcity to live a second life. The girls, Zanna at the head and Deeba dragging her feet behind her, skirt obstacles, meet friends and allies, and come to know the dangers of their new world as they march toward the Pons Absconditus — the suspension bridge that can be reached from and can go to anywhere so long as it’s somewhere.
On the bridge, the girls find the Propheseers and the book — or rather the book, that which contains within its covers all of history and the future and the truth about all things in Un Lun Dun. The adventure seems to build as the book describes the war in Un Lun Dun against the Smog, a sentient monster made of airborne factory waste from old London. The Propheseers express their hopes of winning the war now that they have met the Shwazzy; after all, it is written in the book that she is their only hope. But the adventure as we expect to know it short circuits less than a hundred pages into the tale, when a group of stink-junkies and smogglers — Smog militants — overpower the binja on the bridge and render Zanna the Shwazzy comatose. With the prophecy proven wrong, the girls return to London, leaving the abcity to fend for itself. At home in London, Deeba exorcizes the Smog from Zanna, and though Zanna remembers nothing, Deeba can’t shake her memories of Un Lun Dun.
Here, Miéville subverts the age-old hero trope, and the real story begins, with the other girl, the leftover whom the book had indexed as the “funny sidekick” and who later earns the titles of the UnChosen One and Deeba Not-the-Shwazzy, at the helm. Deeba dives into research and bridges the knowledge gap between London and Un Lun Dun. At great personal risk she ventures back to the abcity alone and assembles a band of misfits to help her save Un Lun Dun from its great enemies: Smog, greed, corruption. She doubts herself and messes up and turns back time and again the whole way through on her zigzagging road to victory.
As you can likely gather even from this short description of the story, Miéville’s worlds are built quite consciously on language and are given life through play. When Deeba resolves to return to Un Lun Dun, for instance, she finds the basement wheel useless. Staring at the glove the couturier had made her from a ripped page from the book, Deeba spies a few key phrases: “Pigeons. Difficult to get in. Enter by booksteps, on storyladders …” The following day, Deeba dons the glove and begins climbing her school library’s bookcases. When she reaches what should be the top, the shelves morph into a cliff face of books, “an endless succession of titles,” and then into a chimney-like vertical tunnel punctuated by Un Lun Dun’s librarians, who dangle from climbing ropes in search of their patrons’ requested tomes. (Being a librarian, we learn, is quite dangerous and exhilarating work in Un Lun Dun; legend has it that a once-great librarian went missing some 20 years before Deeba’s second arrival while leading an expedition in search of ‘Oh All Right Then’: Bartleby Returns.) Later in her quest, Deeba is arrested in the Talklands for “Unlicensed Speaking.” To attempt to negotiate her release, she faces Mr. Speaker — a gigantic mouth attached to a robed, comparatively puny body — who rules the Talklands. Mr. Speaker’s reign is ensured by his literal mastery of language: creatures Miéville calls utterlings, the embodiments of every word Mr. Speaker articulates, pour from his oversized mouth and linger obediently about him. Deeba offers Mr. Speaker new words (“bling,” “lairy,” “diss”) as payment for her release, but she ultimately escapes only after she leads a word rebellion: “Even your words don’t always do what you want,” she warns him.
Reading the novel reminded me of the joy I experienced the first time I read The Phantom Tollbooth, relishing in each and every punny turn. Un Lun Dun, the book and the place, overflows with unexpected combinations of things rendered as characters, as places, as new and different things. There’s an UnGun and a car rendered in upside-down print, and a milk carton pet named Curdle and so much more. And when words fail to do a thing justice, Miéville offers his own sketches, and his creations come to life in line and crawl and scrawl across the pages.
But Miéville’s novel is much more than excessive ridiculousness. Miéville expertly piles things on top of stuff in the novel, somehow making excess feel hyper-particular and textured. There is so much to see and to feel and to think about, and Miéville somehow manages to point out each piece and part to his readers, to give it a place and a moment to assert itself. Such crafting seems fitting when you consider that Miéville, beyond being a prolific and accomplished writer, is an active and outspoken Socialist. The novel is fixated on reclaiming waste, on refashioning and repurposing. The plot itself is a salvaged and reconfigured YA trope. The sidekick, a throwaway character, rewrites history. Moil reappears as something completely new.
Though the novel is reminiscent of works like the Harry Potter series and The Phantom Tollbooth, it is, at the same time, thankfully, something else entirely. Miéville defetishizes the commodities he builds into his story, removing them from their typical networks of circulation and reinscribing for them some version of new value. The novel prompted me to ask a few really fundamental, materially grounded questions that I hadn’t realized I should have been asking all along: where does history go, and what does it look and feel like and do when we’re done with it?
That Miéville’s novel prompts readers to ask questions and to think about how they interact with other people and with the world they inhabit, I would argue, makes it an exemplar of the YA genre. And in light of Miéville’s politics, his attraction to the genre makes perfect sense. YA novels, even more so than other cultural products, often do pedagogical work: privileging (and critiquing) certain logics, priorities, and values through their structures, settings, plots, characters, etc.; modeling particular types of affective work; defining allies and enemies of protagonists and causes.
Miéville’s second YA novel, Railsea (2012), takes up much of the same pedagogical work, foregrounding materiality big and small, reclaiming and reinvigorating waste, and demonstrating the possibilities latent in collaborative solidarity. Railsea follows a young boy, a doctor’s apprentice named Sham Yes ap Soorap, as he drifts back and forth across the railsea on the moletrain Medes. The moletrain and its crew hunt moldywarpe — giant moles that lurk underground beneath the tracks of the railsea that gobble up any crewmembers who find themselves overboard — to sell their meat in port towns. But, we learn, the Medes’s Captain Naphi is driven not by money but by a spiritually infused revenge quest not unlike Melville’s Ahab: she wants to get the vicious moldywarpe named Mocker-Jack who took one of her limbs in an earlier battle. Sham grows restless of life on the moletrain and seeks an adventure of his own, one that involves orphans and pirates and angels and the end of the rails.
Whereas Un Lun Dun refashions the hero’s quest, Railsea remixes classic adventure tales for adults and children alike: Treasure Island, Robinson Crusoe, Moby-Dick, and more. Railsea grounds readers in the material experience of reading not through wordplay or puns, but through a narrator who occasionally breaks the fourth wall to remind readers to be patient as he defers the main plot to give attention to subplots, and through Miéville’s curious insistence on never writing the word “and,” opting instead — always — for the ampersand. In place of Deeba’s fumbling journey, Railsea offers the restlessness of life on the rails, the back-and-forth of the tracks, a switch here or there, a voyage and a return journey to port. Instead of moil, we encounter “salvors” along the rails, scavengers who harvest train wrecks to give new life to their parts. However, while turning the pages of Un Lun Dun felt freeing and fresh and lighthearted, I must confess to experiencing a bit of cabin fever and claustrophobia with Railsea. Its allusions felt too tight; its rails too structured and too predetermined. I, like Sham, had no choice, it seemed, but to plod along with the crew, rocking back and forth with the train’s cars. I should say, though, that adventure, like fantasy, really isn’t my genre of choice. (What can I say? I’m a sucker for a good dystopia.) Railsea did not win me over in spite of my generic skepticism. Un Lun Dun did.
Miéville’s Un Lun Dun succeeds in a number of ways: Its world and its story balance familiarity and pointed novelty. It’s fun to read. Most impressively, the novel translates Miéville’s politics into fiction — and YA fiction at that — without ever getting preachy. Its value system is stitched into the novel at the level of the letter, the word, the character, the place, the plot. And yet, refreshingly, as it refocuses readers’ attentions on materials and their persistence, it also reminds us that the configurations of those materials are not sacred: Today’s umbrella can be tomorrow’s (or another today’s) unbrella; today’s sidekick can be tomorrow’s (or elsewhere’s) hesitant but successful hero. The text, no matter what it is, can always be rewritten, by whoever wants to make the mark. That flexibility, Miéville teaches us, is the fun and the beauty and the power of the word, the object, everything. Un Lun Dun is proof in print.
Jasmine Lee is a PhD student at the University of California, Irvine and an avid adult reader of YA fiction. Her dissertation investigates the public pedagogical work of YA dystopia and traces the figure of youth through discourses about reading, writing, and teaching.