That’s a phrase I’m sure you’ve all heard, and boy do I hate it. What does that even mean? Of course there’s original ideas out there! I firmly believe that we’ve only just begun to explore the possibilities of storytelling: the people who proclaim that there’s no new ground to explore are the same people who are happy sticking to the same movie franchises and authors.
But there are creators out there fighting the good fight, striking out into territory unknown as well as pointing out the problems with the traditional approach to storytelling. And one of the finest examples out there is China Miéville, and his novel Un Lun Dun.
Un Lun Dun tells the story of Deeba and Zanna, two London girls who have noticed odd things happening around them lately. One day, they find a crack in reality (like you do) and they slip into a place called UnLondon – not exactly an alternate reality of London, but an abcity, a place where London’s throw away things seep into and are made use of. It’s brimming with strangeness and life, but it’s threatened by a living Smog that threatens to consume it all. And Zanna is the “Schwazzy”, the Chosen One.
Now, if you’re thinking “Hang on! Chosen One? An all-consuming threat? That’s sounds anything but original!” Well, this is how Un Lun Dun starts. It’s very deliberate. Miéville sets up your expectations for a fun but predictable tale before he gloriously pulls the rug from under your feet. I don’t want to spoil it, but the twists and turns are not just clever for clever’s sake, but also highlight important points that a young audience can truly take to heart and value.
If subverting expectations is one half of what makes Un Lun Dun so great, the other half is just how…different and inventive Miéville is. Miéville is brimming with ideas, so much so that great concepts that could sustain a whole novel fly by in a chapter. Ninja dustbins, zombie giraffes, a tree made up of the left over streams of fireworks, a forest in a house…it goes on and on. And true, while this wild experimentation doesn’t always hit its mark, it is definitely more hit than miss, and Miéville’s deft use of language is powerful enough that he can even endear readers to a pet milk carton. No, really.
If anything, I’d say that Miéville would have benefitted from slowing it down a bit. Un Lun Dun is a rollercoaster of a read for sure, and it works because of it, but allowing a few moments for the plot to breathe and let us get to know our characters a bit more would’ve helped with investing in their plights a bit more.
That said, there’s no doubting that the star of the show is the city of UnLondon. The abcity is so vividly painted, and I love the vibe of it – dirty, wild, surreal and with a delicious undercurrent of menace. Miéville set out to achieve something with Un Lun Dun (I can’t say what that was because of spoilers!) and he absolutely achieved it. Un Lun Dun is not just a rollicking good story but it’s also a bold statement within the world of fiction writing that different is not only possible, but good.