By Alex Wallace
We don’t generally think of China Miéville as an alternate history author. We know him to be the standard bearer of the New Weird, the foremost of a group of writers (counting among their number the famed Jeff Vandermeer) who have taken traditional science fiction and fantasy and turned them on their heads. He has spoken of his desire to write a novel in every genre; against what many would expect, that would include alternate history.
I refer to Miéville’s novella The Last Days of New Paris. In a previous review, I referred to Hannu Rajaniemi’s novel Summerland as bearing the influence of the New Weird; this novella is unrepentantly such. All too often, internet discourse uses the word ‘surreal’ as meaning merely ‘odd;’ Miéville surpasses mere oddity and wrote a novella that proudly bears the title of ‘surreal,’ and in more ways than that sentence would lead you to believe.
The main plotline is set in the year 1950 in the city of lights. The Nazis and the French Resistance still fight each other in the streets, with bullets and with bombs, but also with much stranger weaponry. At a certain point in the 1940s, an ‘S-Bomb’ was detonated in a Paris cafe, strange creatures and entities out of the dreams of the great surrealists began to walk the Earth. As we are dealing with human beings, they were naturally weaponized. The entire city is now walled and barricaded to prevent the strangeness from leaking out into the broader world.
The Last Days of New Paris is Miéville’s love letter to Surrealism with a capital ‘s,’ the art movement of the interwar years that gave us enduring works like René Magritte’s The Treachery of Images or The Son of Man or Marcel Duchamp’s L.H.O.O.Q or Fountain or Nude Descending a Staircase. Much of the strange happenings in the book are taken directly from works of surrealist art, and some artists of the period make cameos. The end result of this is an odd cross between Is Paris Burning? and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, with a veritable cavalcade of bewildering things seen among the beauty of a city worthy only of Rome.
The actual plot revolves around two characters. Thibaut is a Parisian, one of the resistance fighters still trying to throw off the German yoke. Sam is an American, taking pictures of the oddities for a book. They find themselves allies of convenience as they wander through the city, trying to survive horrors both comprehensible and otherwise. The two play off each other well, with Thibaut the reserved one and Sam the outgoing one.
Interspersed between the chapters about Thibaut and Sam are interludes concerning events happening in 1941. It is here you meet most of the historical figures, as well as begin to understand how all of this came about.
The Last Days of New Paris touched me as a writer. It is about how art can be used to stand against oppression and tyranny. It is about art as a liberating force, in your own mind if nowhere else. Surrealism rejected so much of the conventions of the day, purporting to show how the artist (and the viewer) subconsciously felt. Art, when not hijacked by the cruel, is about what people feel and what they want to express. In this novella, that is literalized in a way that could not happen, but its message is potent all the same.