I just finished reading China Miéville’s Un Lun Dun, a fantasy novel aimed at younger readers. Spoilers very much ahead, in case you care.
Un Lun Dun begins with all the familiar children’s fantasy tropes–children swept away to a magical land, prophecies of destiny, a series of mythic tasks to be completed, etc.–but then systematically UNdermines each of those tropes, often to comic effect. The prophecies turn out to be wrong. The character designated the Chosen One ends up playing a marginal role, and the girl designated by the book of prophecy as “funny sidekick” plays the lead. Then she throws out the rules set out by the Propheseers and does things her own way, taking a shortcut through the heroic quest. The book ends with a conventional “Alas you can never come back to the magical land” scene–promptly UNdone when our heroine tells the Propheseers that she has every intention of coming back. There’s no doubt that she will succeed.
It made me think of another series that tries to undo the conventional children’s fantasy: Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials. Pullman, too, is trying to overturn conventional fantasy–not its tropes, but its metaphysics. Pullman adopts most of the standard fantasy tropes, but does so in the service of a plot that seeks to kill off all authority, especially the prime Authority of God. However, as Donna Freitas and Jason King show in their book Killing the Imposter God: Philip Pullman’s Spiritual Imagination, he’s not that successful. Pullman tries to kill off God and traditional religion, but he ultimately ends up affirming a deity in his transcendent Dust and affirming ethics which look a lot like liberal Christian ethics. The traditional narrative structure of fantasy is religious, and by adopting those tropes (even in the service of an explicitly anti-religious series of novels), Pullman smuggles in a large helping of religious metaphysics.
On the other hand, Miéville succeeds in overturning tradition religious metaphysics precisely by overturning the traditional narrative structure of fantasy. His UNheroine spends the entire novel defying any form of destiny and divine command–indeed, she succeeds because she defies destiny–and the novel concludes with her proud declaration that she’ll do whatever she wants. And she will. She has made her own destiny throughout the novel, and there’s no suggestion that she should not or could not continue to do so. The meaning and the purpose of Miéville’s world, unlike Pullman’s, is thus fully determined by human beings.
Miéville succeeds where Pullman fails not just because he’s a more sophisticated thinker (though he’s probably that), but because he’s a better artist–more original, less preachy. He’s Camus or Beckett to Pullman’s Richard Dawkins. There are a number of lessons to be learned here, about the relationship between content and form, about writing from a religious perspective, about the genre of atheist novels, and about the religious legacy of fantasy. I’d like to talk more about how Grossman’s Magicians fits into this conversation. But I’ll save those points for later development. For now, I recommend you go read Un Lun Dun.