As artists, we have to find the antidote to this darkness right now, to how everything feels so compressed rather than expanded.
Surrealism meets fantasy in The Last Days of New Paris, a recent novel by a British author of New Weird Fiction.
China Miéville is the author of nine novels, among them Perdido Street Station, which imagines a vast London-like metropolis ravaged by mind-eating moths, and The City & The City, a beautiful and troubling Kafkaesque detective story about two cities that coexist uneasily in the same geographical space, with all the political complexities that such an arrangement might imply. His latest book, The Last Days of New Paris, depicts Nazis and resistance fighters battling in the streets of a Paris that has been transformed by the detonation of a so-called S-Bomb, which brings into reality the absurd, sometimes lurid imaginings of the Surrealists and their fellow travelers. Exquisite corpses roam the ninth arrondissement and collages from Max Ernst’s 1934 artist’s book, Une Semaine de Bonté (A Week of Kindness), menace the Latin Quarter. Oh, and there are demons, too. In fact, New Paris is itself a collage of genres, including alternate-history, fantasy, and pulp fiction, as well as a great deal of art history and a pinch of Indiana Jones. I had some questions for Mr. Miéville about how he did it and why, and I was happy to have a chance to ask them.
—Paul La Farge
PAUL LA FARGE I’ve been thinking about the phrase “blood smoke,” which appears in The Last Days of New Paris as a description of exhaust from a Jeep retrofitted by demons to run on, well, blood. It makes me think of something that Samuel R. Delany famously said about science fiction, that it is defined by its use of language to denote a novel reality (as in Robert Heinlein’s “The door irised open”). But “blood smoke” is also a perfectly Surrealist phrase. Is there some deep kinship between Surrealism and science fiction?
CHINA MIÉVILLE I don’t know how “deep” it is exactly, but I think there’s certainly some kinship, though a highly mediated one. The Surrealists tended to be admirers of macabre and fantastic stories, and a disproportionate number of writers and readers of the fantastic are admirers of the Surrealists. You can’t derive much from these facts, but they’re at least data. I’d want to express it very carefully and resist drawing excessively breathless comparisons; nonetheless, I have something I’d characterize as more than a hunch and less than a theory—a critical intuition, perhaps—that, for all their crucial distinctive elements, Surrealism and science fiction—and indeed various wings of expressionism, symbolism, supernatural fiction, Goya’s Los caprichos, and so forth—share something. This intuition is what’s led me to call Weird Fiction (itself a subset of the fantastic tradition) the pulp wing of Surrealism.
PLF There’s a formidable play between high and low in New Paris, but it’s very different from the kind that most often happens in contemporary literature: rather than take a “low” phenomenon, like superheroes or zombies, and transmogrify it into “high” literature, you’ve taken a swath of early and mid-twentieth-century Surrealist artworks and put them delightfully in the service of a genre plot. I’m wondering how you think about—and exploit—the tension not just between high and low, but between the chaotic, antinarrative quality of much Surrealist art and the demands of a linear story.
CM Yes, the high-browification of pulp is a long-established trope, even to the point of cliché. I don’t mean to suggest that there isn’t any mileage in the approach, or that many of the works that do this aren’t wonderful—off the top of my head, for example, Colson Whitehead’s Zone One. Only that much of the discussion around it often feels inflected by a kind of scandalized delight that’s not very convincing. I like your formulation of New Paris as a cheerful inversion of that—the pulpification of the highbrow. Not that this science-fictioning of Surrealism hasn’t been done before: Lisa Goldstein’s The Dream Years, among others, gives the lie to that. Also, Ian Watson did much the same thing for Hieronymous Bosch in The Gardens of Delight—a book that had a big impact on me, a long time ago, and to which New Paris is in part an homage.
My novella was born out of an attempt to design a setting for a so-called sandbox, open-world video game, in which players wander a virtual world rather than move through a linear or progressive series of levels. I had been thinking for a while about this counter-history, literalizing the figures and images of Surrealism and having them fight Nazis, and I started with a long “world bible” that contained maps, biographies, and so on—i.e., the stuff of world creation. It was only after I’d gathered all of this material that I wrote the book itself as a narrative within the sandbox. And while I’d be delighted if someone actually developed this into a game, I also like the perversity of the novelization coming first. Of all the infra dig genres, the tie-in novel is probably considered the most lowbrow. There is still a current—and stupid—debate about whether video games can even be “art.” If you think “No,” that would make a tie-in to a video game one of the least dignified forms one can imagine. And the New Paris game, of course, doesn’t even have the decency to exist.
PLF So New Paris has a video-game plot?
CM That’s right. It’s not just the genre elements that are structurally important to me. It’s also, specifically, the “video-gamic” ones. Do we have an adjective for that yet? Digito-ludic? I’ve been aware of the inherent tension, I admit, with an undignified glee. To literalize these polysemic and evasive Surrealist figures and images, to consider them not only as functions of a plot but also in terms of role-playing game stats like Strength, Dexterity, hit points, etc.—the statistics that tell you what your character is capable of and that get fed into the game’s algorithms to find out what happens when she or he or it is up against something—is ridiculously philistine. But I’ve long been fascinated by what I think I once called “Promethean banalization”—the systematization of what is inherently unsystematizable. For example, I think of the reduction of H. P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu—a somatic figure of the bad sublime literally defined as unthinkable and beyond language—to a list of component statistics for use in a role-playing game like Dungeons & Dragons. There’s something about that conversion that’s absurd and point-missing, yet sometimes can also be oddly captivating. A generative tension.
I think the genre of the fantastic, in particular, is informed by overlapping and conflicting desires for the numinous and the systematic. These drives oscillate unendingly. And while you can’t really resolve them, you can play fruitfully with the opposition. Part of the pleasure of this project was that, having genre-ified and gamified Surrealism and the automatism and unconscious thought and randomness that defines it, it might then feed back as a critique not just of genre, but also specifically of video games. Because even in games that allow the supposedly infinite customization of a player-character, there is a culture of “builds,” that is, circulating advice on how to construct the most powerful character. That, of course, effectively negates the element of contingency that is so exciting in these games in the first place. For a while I’d been interested in the idea of games with genuine, rigorous, and unavoidable randomized elements. When I was writing Dial H, a comic for DC featuring a character who turns into a totally arbitrary superhero in every issue, I was suggesting it could be developed as a video game, with your character’s powers periodically, and randomly, changing. Exquisite Corpse was a favorite game of the Surrealists, in which each player draws different parts of a composite body without knowing what the others have done until the whole thing is unfolded and made visible. In my vision of New Paris as a game, each part of the exquisite corpse—which would be key to gameplay—would be randomly picked from among a very large number of possible bits and pieces—this system would be unhackable. There would be no “cheat mode.” There’s a rebuke to the concept of the “build” here.
PLF One of the ideas that drives New Paris is the Surrealist notion that “play is resistance”—that an absurd gesture is the only effective way to combat an increasingly hegemonic capitalism. To what extent do you think science fiction can be a space of play—and, therefore, a resistant space?
CM The Surrealists were obsessed with games and played them unceasingly—even as the world crumbled and closed in around them. Certainly I’ve used that fact. I would be extremely skeptical of any notion that play constitutes resistance, formulated that simply. That would be an unconvincing aggrandizement and, perhaps, justification for inactivity or self-congratulation. There’s no question that some of the Surrealists thought in these terms (which reminds me a bit of the way you hear a fair number of contemporary writers explain that their work is their activism). But at a more mediated level, the idea that there’s a ludic element toresistance, that games and play can be part of a resistant strategy, is more tantalizing, and worked through with persuasive and even startlingly provocative rigor by the best theorists of that tradition.
My preferred formulation from the Surrealist canon, indeed, the Surrealist canon under Nazi occupation, comes from the Main à plume’s manifesto-cum-analysis, which I quote in my novella: “We refuse to flee poetry for reality, but”—and this would be a rebuke to naive ludic boosterism—”we refuse to flee reality for poetry. No one should say our actions are superfluous. If they do”—and this is a giddying switchback—”we’ll say the superfluous supposes the necessary.” That is, poetry (and play) is vital precisely because to perform it and to justify that performance one must have resisted. Play not as—still less instead of—resistance, but as evidence for it.
PLF I couldn’t help wondering if New Paris has a didactic purpose. You end with a very comprehensive set of notes on the sources of the novella’s various images, which can serve as back-of-the-book answers for people who want to confirm that they got the references, but which might also direct readers toward the Surrealists themselves.
CM Not just toward the Surrealists tout court but my own preferred canon, particularly the many fine artists and activists from that tradition who are often unjustly neglected, patronized, forgotten, or obscured. The book doesn’t depend on an appreciation of them and their work, but I hope the notes might operate as Easter eggs. And if that does mean one or two readers who don’t know them discover Simone Yoyotte, for instance, an amazing artist from Martinique, or Grace Pailthorpe, or Valentine Hugo, or Wolfgang Paalen, or Claude Cahun, then I’d be very glad.
PLF Many of your books are about mapping in one way or another: tracing the complex borders between Besz’el and Ul Qoma in The City & the City, or navigating the hidden topology in Embassytown or the psychogeography of New Paris. It’s almost as if you are trying to point us, book after book, to some nonobvious relation between space and language.
CM I am certainly very interested in an essential unmappability of things, as well as the perverse relationship of the unmappable to the necessity of maps and mapping—both geographically and in a metaphorical sense. The disjuncture between that unmappability and its necessary “enmappedness,” if I can put it in this way, may get at something of the aporetic out-of-jointedness to which you refer. I’d like to be able to give an example, but at the moment I can only grope at this as an intuition. It obviously has to do with the polarity of systematization and what is unsystematizable again.
PLF I can’t help thinking about Surrealism’s emergence at a particular historical moment. The trauma of the First World War begat Dada, which begat Surrealism. I wonder what place trauma and crisis have in your writing—are you working into (or away from) a crisis, historical or otherwise?
CM Trauma has been something of increasing fascination to me, and I see it as particularly evident in This Census-Taker, the book before New Paris. Of the precise parameters of that trauma drawing my attention—psychic, political, historical—I’m not quite certain. In one sense, by locating myself within the Weird Fiction tradition, I’m writing in an echoing aftermath of World War I. But in a narrower perspective, I’ve come to suspect that the proximate source of the constitutive trauma that I sense in my writing (and my politics and psyche) is much later. About six decades later. In the words of the electronic musician and composer Delia Derbyshire, something “serious happened around ‘72, ‘73, ‘74: the world went out of tune with itself.” That would be inextricable from the shift in political economy toward the accelerating financialization, authoritarianism, imperialism, and social sadism we now know as neoliberalism. That, I think, casts a very long and very dense shadow. In which we still live.
I arrived in 1972. Whatever this out-of-tune-ness is, I was born to it.
Paul La Farge’s novel The Night Ocean will be published by Penguin Press in March. He lives in upstate New York. He is also the author of Luminous Airplanes (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2012) and Haussmann, or the Distinction (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2001).
As artists, we have to find the antidote to this darkness right now, to how everything feels so compressed rather than expanded.