A quick post this, and one which the title pretty much explains.
I’ve been reading UnLunDun to my son, because he really enjoyed Miéville’s other YA novel Railsea when I read that to him. Railsea is aimed at slightly older readers, is more linguistically and thematically complex and probably the better book, but UnLunDun is more straight-up fun.
UnLunDun does two (related) things which I like very much. Although I’m not looking at the plot in any detail, there are a few big Spoilers ahead.
UnLunDun is, like Neil Gaiman’s pioneering Neverwhere and countless books since, set in an alternative London full of magic and wonder. Schoolfriends Zanna and Deeba find themselves there by a mixture of curiousity and chance. Or is it just chance? Because everything seems to be nudging Zanna towards UnLunDun – a city threatened by the evil Smog – almost as if she was…chosen.
“The Chosen One” is a genre trope that bugs the hell out of me. It’s used frequently by Hollywood and always makes me deflate a little inside, even when used well¹.
A related trope is the “Prophecy”. Indeed, in many books and (in particular) films, if there’s a prophecy it’s often used to invoke a “chosen one” who will fulfil the terms of said prophecy. It seems a shorthand way to add an illusion of depth: instant myth and legend which a relatively young culture (Hollywood) has an insatiable need for.
My problem isn’t just the over-use of the prophecy trope, but what it signifies. Prophecies imply a future that’s foreseeable, which implies order and design to the universe, which by extension invokes a guiding impulse or hand. In short, God.
Many works of horror use Christian iconography as weaponry against forces of darkness. But unless the author believes in the truth of those symbols, doesn’t that undermine the integrity of their efforts? Similarly, if you proclaim not to believe in a deity, then isn’t using a pre-determined universe an instance of artistic bad faith?
Miéville, a writer rare for his outspoken politics, cleverly unpicks these assumptions in UnLunDun and in doing so produces a work of integrity.
There is a (sentient) Book of Prophecy in UnLunDun – “The Book” – who is alarmed to discover that many of the prophecies contained in its pages are actually wrong. A nice twist for the reader to come across, but also surely a dig at the cliché by the author.
The Chosen One in the novel – called “The Shwazzy” from the French choisir – is Zanna, and UnLunDun begins by following her arrival in the alternate “abcity” of UnLunDun – a dark mirror of London, populated by discarded, unwanted, ruined and broken pieces (and people) of London. With her is her friend Deeba, described in the Book as the Shwazzy’s “funny sidekick”. Except…
A quarter of the way through we have the great reversal. Zanna is taken back to London suffering memory loss, and the rest of the novel thrusts Deeba to the fore. The Chosen One isn’t, and the “unchosen” one is, the book’s actual hero. I love that.
By the end, the Book realises that “Destiny’s bunk” and the group known as the Propheseers – for whom the Book was their Bible – are renamed as the Suggesters. A nice additional touch, and in keeping with Miéville’s socialism, is the way that although Deeba is the heroine, the number of people by her side grows rather than (as is often the case) diminishes as the adventure progresses. It isn’t, in the end, the tale of an individual’s glory, but of solidarity in a world where the future is not written. And that is a powerful message.
More China Miéville at Into the Gyre:
¹ My friend Will Pinfold has also recently written about “chosen ones” and much more…
Photo: Jamie Gorman