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Move over Neil Gaiman…Here Comes China Miéville November 29, 2010

Posted by pupfiction in Book Reviews, Of Interest, reading.
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If you’re like Dataduchess and me, you often wonder what all the hullabaloo surrounding Neil Gaiman is about. I liked Coraline (graphic novel version) and The Graveyard Book (both more than Dataduchess), but still didn’t see what the BIG DEAL was about. Similarly, American Gods left me with the feeling that Gaiman was reaching for something that he never quite grasped. While I do think his literature is something to be read and lauded as truly unique, I don’t think he deserves the numerous awards that have been bestowed upon him.

But this post isn’t about Neil Gaiman. It’s about an author who reminds me of him, but who excels exactly where Gaiman starts to flounder, an author similarly bestowed (but more deservingly) with numerous literary awards, an author dabbling in both Young Adult and Adult fantasy – China Miéville. While Miéville distinguishes himself from many of his colleagues by considering his writing “weird fiction”, Wikipedia’s definition of the genre sounds like an exact description of Gaiman’s writing as well: “weird tales often blend the supernatural, mythical, and even scientific.” So what impressed me so much with Miéville besides the fact that he looks like a pirate while actually being a Dungeons and Dragons-playing British socialist? Two books: The City & the City and Un Lun Dun.

At first, I was wary about The City & the City. When my library emailed me that it had arrived I had forgotten why I had requested this detective novel. Usually, in the heat of the moment, I request a book after seeing some blogging buzz or write-up in American Libraries, or its high-placement on some inconsequential “Top Ten” list that I believe reflects my highly nuanced taste. But I digress. The detective story on which the entire plot revolves plays second fiddle to the setting – two cities (Besźel and Ul Qoma) that co-exist “grosstopically” and the way that the citizens of the two cities run their lives so as not to wrongly enter into the other city. And by co-exist, I mean just that – the two cities are so interspersed that often houses next-door to each other are in the other city. Both cities’ denizens distinguish each other as fellow citizens by demeanor and dress. They learn to survive by “unseeing” the people and places in the other city. Should citizens of Besźel want to visit Ul Qoma (or vice-versa), they may, but only by crossing the international border in Cupola Hall (which exists in both cities) and with proper paperwork. Should a citizen accidentally or purposefully interact or even look at part of the other city Breach, a highly secretive force outside of both cities, quickly sweeps in and remedies the situation, usually by obliterating the existence of the offender. The forces that keep citizens from “breaching” into the other city, part actual threat from the menacing Breach and part psychological, are so strong that, a police officer from one city is not allowed to apprehend a criminal from the other city even if he is standing right beside him. Instead, he must “unsee” him. It is problems like these, amid many others, that make this murder-mystery far more than a detective novel.

Salon.com writer Laura Miller describes Un Lun Dun as “a sooty, street-smart hybrid of ‘Alice in Wonderland,’ ‘The Wizard of Oz’ and ‘The Phantom Tollbooth,’” which is exactly the reason I requested this book, The Phantom Tollbooth, being one of my top-tens for as long as I can remember. The book starts with two best friends who find their way into another world – UnLondon, and saddled with the task of defeating the indomitable Smog. At first I was bothered with UnLondon’s lack of consistent rules. While I’ve always like Fantasy books, every realm has its set of rules that creatures must follow. Not so in UnLondon. The world of the “abcity” (a term for all of the “other cities” such as No York, Parisn’t,  Lost Angeles, etc.) seems to use the limits of imagination as its only guideline. And this, once accepted by the reader, works. It is particularly reminiscent of Alice in Wonderland and The Phantom Tollbooth in this respect, and thus the reason that it’s a children’s/young adult book, and not an adult one. Deeba, the underdog-cum-hero, is accompanied on her mission to defeat the Smog by a half-ghost boy named Hemi, a tailor whose head is a pincushion and whose clothes are made of books named Obaday Fing, “utterlings”, creatures in various animal-like form made from speaking new words named Diss and Bling, and various other characters at other times. While Miéville often seems to throw obstacles at Deeba willy-nilly for the sake of creating the “quest” that the fantasy genre is known for, he is at the same time, having fun with the reader. Deeba is not your usual heroine. In fact, she is known as the unChosen, because she is only mentioned in a book of prophecy as the Chosen One’s “funny sidekick”. She is also given a number of tasks to complete before she can defeat the Smog. But after completing one, Deeba realizes that the quests themselves are pointless and that she can just jump to the last task. It is in these small ironies that the true genius of the book resides.

While I would like to do a more in-depth comparison of Gaiman and Miéville, it’s been a while since I read American Gods and Coraline and I’m loath to revisit them for the sake of a blog post. All I can say is this: Miéville has me requesting his entire oeuvre from the public library, while Gaiman, on the other hand, has not inspired such.

Comments»

1. dataduchess - November 29, 2010

I cannot agree more with your assessment of Gaiman. Usually I do enjoy at least part of his stories, and while I can appreciate what he is generally trying to do, I still find him to be pretentious and overrated. I continue to think I must be missing something, and if I only try another novel, maybe this one will be amazing. But after trying Sandman (a graphic novel), Murder Mysteries (another graphic novel), Coraline and The Graveyard Book (both YA novels) and American Gods (an adult fiction novel) I think I can sufficiently claim to have given him a solid chance. Great concepts, less than stellar development. I just don’t get the hype.

But now, you’ve done it again, Pupfiction. The City & the City was already somewhere on my “to read” list, but it just jumped up to the top, and brought Un Lun Dun with it! I had heard before that Mieville (sorry don’t know how to add an accent) was a great author, but your review makes these books sound really intriguing and enjoyable. Thanks for more great recommendations :)

2. Redhead - November 29, 2010

Un Lun Dun is one of the best YA novels I’ve ever read. I think it would be great to read this a chapter at a time to a child, or have the child read it to you at bedtime.

I read The City and the City, and i think my problem was my out of control expectations.

My favorite Mieville by far is The Scar, and since then I’ve been expecting everything he touches to be that good. He’s got something new coming out next year that I’m excited about. I forget the name tho.

3. Drew - November 30, 2010

The City & the City Sounds like an interesting read. I think I would enjoy the element of people having to unsee things that are right next to them.

Although I half wonder if he was so inspired, due to the nature of people to do this in their day to day life, seeing only the things around them that pertain to them and not seeing anything else.

Thank you for the recommendation.

pupfiction - November 30, 2010

I agree; I definitely think he was trying to make a cultural statement, especially because one of the cities is poorer and more run-down and the other one is modern age, glossy, financial district type place.


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