Killer smog invades children's fantasy

Pollution is evil in China Mieville's newest novel. The kids will understand.

By Andrew Leonard
March 20, 2007 7:48PM (UTC)
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While reading China Mieville's brand new children's fantasy novel "Un Lun Dun" to my son and daughter a few nights ago, I realized with a shock that I knew what the author was about to write in his next chapter -- because I had blogged about it last week. I paused, closed the book and announced to my kids that I was going to bring them quickly up to speed on a little history that I'd recently acquainted myself with, so they could better appreciate Mieville's cleverness. And then I told them about the Great London Smog of 1952 that killed 4,000 people and forced the United Kingdom to enact its first serious anti-pollution laws.

The Great Smog is a character in "Un Lun Dun." And not just any character: This Smog is a veritable Sauron. Which means that Mieville's newest "fantasy" novel is a not-so-veiled allegory about humans and the environment. Which means that it crosses into the territory of How the World Works, so I can blog about it, and satisfy a long-burning itch to give a shout out to Mieville, one of the freshest, and most interestingly political, fantasy writers in the business.


Mieville's breakthrough novel, "Perdido Street Station," is an astonishing work, mind-bogglingly fertile in its imagination. It kicks off with a touching sex scene between a human and a bug-woman and accelerates from there. His following two novels, "The Scar" and "Iron Council," both set in the same world of Bas-Lag, suffer slightly in comparison: You can only dazzle with your awesome powers of world creation once if you remain in the same world. But I found "Iron Council" amazing, with its dark Iraq war subtext of the imperial city of Crobuzon at war with an ominous, far-off power, and its fabulous narrative vehicle featuring a train of anarchists and rebels, wandering through the wilderness, laying new tracks and retracting old ones as they go.

Mieville is a member of the Socialist Worker's Party in the U.K. and has stood for election to the House of Commons. Restless tensions of class and race inform his fantasy, although the pyrotechnics of his creativity sometimes obscure the revolutionary agenda. The result is fantasy that you can get your teeth into, fleshy, juicy, savory.

As for "Un Lun Dun" -- I can't tell you how well the entire novel works. I am letting it unfold slowly as I read it to my children before bed, a process that could take months. I have some issues with the dialogue -- the two teenage girls who are at the heart of the story speak oddly -- my daughter has been frowning repeatedly as she tries to make sense of their syntax. There are a profusion of puns and in-jokes that will fly right over the head of most children. But Mieville's strongest calling card, his consistently absurd fantastical prolixity, speaks directly to a bright child's easy willingness to be delighted by bizarre, unexpected juxtapositions of the silly and the sublime. Meet the Unbrellissimo: the boss of the broken umbrellas. Fear the dread stink-junkies! Cheer for the dustbin guardians, armed with swords and nun chucks, as they battle to defend the chosen one, the Shwazzy, she who will deliver Un Lun Dun from the evil Smog.


And relish the serendipitous interconnections that join together even the most far-out fantasy with the "real world." As my daughter and I marveled over the incongruity of my blogging about the Great Smog of 1952 and then having it turn up in a children's fantasy novel just a few days later, she asked: "Have you noticed," she said, "that when you learn something new, you suddenly start seeing it everywhere? This happens to me all the time."

Yes. Me too, I said.

Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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Fiction Globalization How The World Works Science Fiction And Fantasy