After a number of extraordinary novels, one thing is clear about China Mieville’s work: he loves cities.
New Crobuzon, Embassytown, London, Beszel/Ul Qoma—each distinctive, layered, multifaceted, richly alive, and impossible to map as any living being’s soul, these remarkable urban spaces center, anchor, and frame the human (and not human) people who inhabit them. Consequently, the revelations of their interactions acquire architectonic depth fully evocative of the qualities of amazement, wonder, and dismay good science fiction should produce.
But each is unique, a character unto itself. Likewise in his new novel, The Last Days of New Paris, which gives us a Nazi occupied Paris that has swallowed its conquerors in the very decadence their ideology sought to suppress by supplanting it with their own.
In the early days of the occupation, a young American schooled the occult symbolist morphologies of Crowley and company infiltrates to find the enclave of French Surrealists holed up in city center. He finds them ensconced in a kind of internal exile, playing at resistance by ignoring the Nazis and pretending they are the gatekeepers and caretakers of the essential Paris. Breton, Varo, Lamba, others. The American has brought a device–Americans have always been good at devices—which, in one frenetic evening, manages to capture the surrealist essence of these imagineers and store. The “battery” is conceivably a tremendous weapon with which to fight the Nazis, but it is stolen, and then in at the end of a series of tragic inevitabilities, explodes, unleashing the transformative power it contains on the very fabric of Paris.
Which becomes a living, shifting, mutating landscape of surrealist manifs, blind alleys, cavernous enclaves, cul-d-sacs, and psychic traps and pitfalls. The most effective fighters are those who navigate this landscape, understand at least what is happening if not how, and can tap into the indeterminate loyalties of the now living architecture.
The actions shifts between 1941 and 1950, a year in this universe wherein the Nazis are still in Paris and, presumably, in a large portion of Europe, and the war continues. Events are building toward some kind of a climax, with the Nazis attempting the manufacture their own manifs. They lack the necessary turn of mind, though, and all their attempts are stillborn or ruinously self-destructive. But they doggedly continue until it seems hell itself feels threatened by their machinations.
The novel itself is riddled with Surrealist quotes, riffs, nods, and inspirations. This is an alternate history built on the notion that imagination and art can be as brutally decisive in waras any martial technology—but that the deployment of such visions must be done with care. The Nazis used symbols and a dark vision of æsthetic insistence to drive their machine. It can be argued that they failed because they did not fully understand either the power of imagery or the way in which human imagination will never be yolked to serve a purely nihilist aim. The humanitarian drives that confronted them and stopped them in our reality are kin to the bizarre visions which in Mieville’s skilled renderings shackled the Nazis to a fight that could not be finished, certainly not in their favor. The climax and denouement are equally decisive and inconclusive, as it should be.
But the tour through this externalized, foregrounded metaphor of a city is a brilliant odyssey through the power of human imagination.