The Last Days of New Paris by China Miéville
Putting it simply, China Miéville’s The Last Days of New Paris (2016) is a “China Miéville” story. For many readers, that’s sufficient information to begin reading.
But here are some additional details, just in case. The Last Days of New Paris is a novella length alternate history in which the Nazis and the resistance fight to control Paris. Something weird is going on in this timeline: surreal creatures called “manifs” wander the streets of Paris after an S-Blast took the surreal creatures out of the artworks and into the world. The “manifs” don’t like Nazis, and so the latter counter the former by making a deal with demons from Hell.
There’s much in The Last Days of New Paris that will please Miéville’s fans. Most importantly, it’s just as weird and imaginative as his other works. The writing is inventive, though his fans will likely find it startling in a familiar way. The monsters are powerful and bizarre, and in addition to providing an overview of the manifs and their sources, Miéville further illustrates some of them. I recall that Miéville once said in interview that he’d like to write a story in every genre. I always found that idea admirable and interesting, though I never expected to learn that surrealism was on the list. Miéville’s books are always thoughtful, and I enjoyed letting my thoughts wander around the relationships between imagination, oppression, and art while reading this one.
Nevertheless, the book never quite worked for me as well as I wanted it to. Perhaps my own limited knowledge about surrealism is to blame. Having said that, the central character, Thibault the resistance fighter, never really convinced or captured my imagination, nor did Sam, an American secret agent he allies with. The flat characters didn’t carry the complex and clever thoughts of the surrealists I read about online while reading The Last Days of New Paris — nor did I find them convincing survivors of war. It may be that a novella is too short to really develop characters, or it may be that Miéville’s focus was expressing the weirdness of the surreal manifs wandering Paris.
Aside from the inclusion of surrealism, which was an SFF first for me unless Ursula K. LeGuin’s The Lathe of Heaven counts, The Last Days of New Paris often reminded me of other alternate histories that include SFF motifs. Ian Tregellis, for example, tells the story of rivalling magics during the Second World War in his novel Bitter Seeds. Scott Westerfield’s Leviathan does something similar, though the Germans and their allies use “clankers” rather than demons and though it’s set during the First World War rather than the Second. Then I recalled that Mike Mignola’s Hellboy origin story turned the Second World War into a race for hellish dominance. As much as I found myself thinking that the juxtaposition of surrealism and Nazi-dominated Paris was clever, I also found myself thinking that I’d seen enough SFF treatments of the Second World War.
Regardless, The Last Days of New Paris is one of the most “Miéville” stories China Miéville has written, to the point that his publishers seem to have missed an opportunity to write “this is not a China Miéville novel” on the cover. And yet, although this novella recalls many of Miéville’s previous works, I rarely found it as fun and exciting as its predecessors. I wouldn’t rush to recommend The Last Days of New Paris to prospective readers ahead of Perdido Street Station, The Scar, or The City & The City. Of course, true fans will no doubt already have picked up a copy.
The moments that held my interest the most in China Miéville’s surrealistic novella The Last Days of New Paris were: the creation of an “art battery;” the wolf tables and the moment of the s-blast explosion that changed Paris from a mundane city under German occupation to something sprung from the hearts and minds of subversive surrealist painters, sculptors and poets.
As Ryan pointed out, the two main characters, Thibaut and a possibly-American woman named Sam, were not Miéville’s most deeply realized creations. Sam is more of a plot element than a character, although she has a couple of great lines. Thibaut, a freedom fighter in a city filled with Nazis, French collaborators, and living three-dimensional manifestations (called “manifs”) of surrealism, is a flattened and muted viewpoint character. This could be the result of trauma. We aren’t told. Still, the weird, living, breathing beauty and weirdness of a city overtaken by surrealism tickled me, and certainly held my interest.
There’s a story Miéville alludes to in The Last Day of New Paris, and it’s one that I would have liked to have read. While Nazis making deals with demons is not new ground, almost as a throwaway, Thibaut reflects on a powerful Catholic priest who betrays the resistance fighters and joins the Nazis. Alesch is a character who appears throughout the story, and his actions are important to the plot. I would love to learn more about this man, who, as a man of God, is apparently so frightened by the power of art that he would rather work with demons — literally. Alesch is left opaque to us, however; it’s enough for Miéville that we know he is bad.
The plot and the characterization of the novella are not the most original, but the visions and the prose are what I expect from Miéville, passages like this:
A blast, an acceleration, the distillate, the spirit, the history, the weaponized soul of convulsive beauty went critical.
A whimper, a shriek, the burr of insects’ wings, the tolling of a bell, a city-wide outrushing, an explosion, a sweep and a stream and a nova, a megaton imaginary, of random and of dreams.
And when Sam says to Thibaut, “There’ll be a serious diplomatic incident,” I laughed out loud.
The Last Day of New Paris is not Miéville’s strongest piece of work, but it isn’t just for completists. You’ll enjoy it if you love his prose, if you like art that challenges you and interacts with your belief systems, or if you like surrealism. If, like me, you didn’t know much about the French surrealists, this story may inspire you to explore them.