Title: The Last Days of New Paris
Author: China Miéville
Publisher: Del Rey
Miéville bestrides the worlds of the fantastic and the
academic with equal ease, and ardent readers invariably pounce on his
latest release, rightfully marveling at the complexities and
ambiguities with which it will inevitably be endowed. And yet,
despite recommendations from close quarters and unanimous critical
praise, I’ve simply never got around to reading him. This year
I finally resolved to change that. The timing of my resolution proved
fortuitous, for 2016 has brought us not one but two
new Miéville books, This Census-Taker in January and now The
Last Days of New Paris.
on this sample size of two, it’s easy to understand Miéville’s
renown. He’s a word-magician, a visionary, a wily storyteller
of the first water. This Census-Taker
mystified and stimulated me in that rarest of evocative, dream-like
ways, completely subsuming me into the layered world of its young
narrator. Despite the bizarreness of the setting, I was fully engaged
by the tale’s underlying humanity. Unfortunately, the same
can’t be said for The Last Days of New Paris.
While intellectually and aesthetically I found much to appreciate in,
and learn from, the new text, it did not move me.
novel kicks off in an alternate 1950 Paris in which surrealist art
works have come to life, and the war against Germany rolls on.
Thibaut, the protagonist, was fifteen when the “S-blast”
(Surrealist blast) occurred, and his parents were killed in action.
At seventeen Thibaut asks to join the Main à Plume, or
Surrealist resistance fighters, who deploy and interact with their
manifs (manifestations) in the fight against the invading Nazis. As
if this weren’t enough, “battalions from below,” or
demons from Hell, have also been unleashed by powerful esoteric
rites. A less interesting 1940s backstory detailing the meeting of
Jack Parsons with noted occultist Aleister Crowley explains this
your primary interest in this book is to experience a dazzling
kaleidoscope of surrealistic monster set-pieces, you will be
ecstatic. Miéville’s research, and the linguistic
inventiveness of his descriptions, are superhuman. If
meta-referentiality sounds appealing, then you’re also in luck,
since it turns out that the book’s title is in fact the name of
a book within the novel, which Thibaut and a woman named Sam are
working on. Add to this a faux “Afterword” in which
Miéville pretends to reveal the book’s true genesis, and
a barrage of explicative notes that puts to shame many a “real”
yet in terms of character development, of connecting with something
other than the bizarre beauty of the story’s proliferative
“manifology,” the going is tough. Without something to
contain Miéville’s exuberant imagination, literally
everything becomes possible, and thus nothing is essential.
“The superfluous supposes the necessary,” Thibaut
recites. But that does not mean that it should supplant it.
the book is such a strange, at times abstract, experience that the
best way I can think to comment on it is by using its own
descriptors. When Thibaut asks Sam how she knows the truth of a claim
she’s made, she points to her books and says, “I read
between the lines.” In a sense, this is Miéville’s
narrative here: a space that exists entirely between the lines of
another, as-yet-unwritten novel.
few pages after the aforementioned exchange, one of the surreal
monsters is depicted with these words: “A random totality,
components sutured by chance.” To describe the novel in these
terms is both to praise it for elegantly functioning exactly as
intended, and to bemoan the fact that it was not designed to function
Title: How Great Science Fiction Works (Lecture Series)
Author: Gary K. Wolfe
Publisher: The Teaching Company
K. Wolfe’s contributions to science fiction and fantasy
criticism are legion. For the last quarter century he has a had a
monthly review column in Locus,
a showcase for his wonderfully bemused writing and peerless
appreciation of genre context. Besides these thousands of reviews and
others in well-known venues, he has published collections of essays
and full-length studies, and has edited a canonical two-volume
anthology of 1950s science fiction novels for the Library
of America. Oh, and he’s a Professor of Humanities in Roosevelt
University’s Evelyn T. Stone College of Professional Studies
and co-hosts an award-nominated podcast with noted editor and
anthologist Jonathan Strahan. Now, in what is unquestionably an
analytical and elucidatory highpoint of his prolific career, Wolfe
brings us a stunningly clear-headed and comprehensive set of
twenty-four lectures on “How Great Science Fiction Works.”
lectures comprise a superb overview of science fiction and its
differentiating characteristics, as well as its commonalities with
other “non-genre” works. Wolfe’s approach
throughout is twofold. First, he provides historical perspective,
with lectures such as “Science Fiction in the 19th
Century,” “The Rise of Science Fiction Pulps,” “The
Golden Age of Science Fiction Stories,” “The Golden Age
of the Science Fiction Novel,” and even speculation on “The
Future of Science Fiction.” In addition, Wolfe offers extremely
thoughtful considerations of science fiction’s conceptual
“icons,” or key images/themes/settings such as the
spaceship, the robot, the alien, the wasteland, and the artifact.
dual strategy enables Wolfe to provide an elegant synthesis of the
genre’s central concerns and its historical porosity with other
forms of literature. Wolfe’s academic background is evident in
the critical rigor and expansive knowledge he wields to debunk
popular myths about the history of science fiction (such as the
alleged scare caused by Orson Welles’s dramatization of The
War of the Worlds),
meaningfully interrogate the genre’s traditions and values, and
pay tribute to some of its greatest works with a genuine sense of
felt appreciation rather than staid reverence. Wolfe is careful to
avoid academic jargon, though, stopping to explain genre-specific
terms as needed, while consistently holding forth in a clear
expository manner. Achieving that best of possible worlds for a
lecture series, he manages to teach and entertain at the same time.
lectures themselves are about 30 minutes each, so getting through the
core material will take approximately 12 hours. This is a modest
amount of time (similar to the average length of an audiobook) for an
immodest amount of information.
chapter of the guidebook is appended by recommended reading,
typically between two and five texts. The ambitious autodidact who
wants to read all of these recommendations will invest a significant
amount of time. Assuming a reading speed of one page per minute, I’ve
calculated that the total recommended reading totals about 500 hours.
The overall non-fiction bibliography also contains resources not
mentioned in the individual chapters, providing additional hours of
at times recommends the same book at the end of different lectures.
While this illustrates the multi-dimensionality of certain
“classics,” given the finite space for picks, I wish he
had provided unique titles for each lecture. There are also
occasional slight discrepancies in the way information is conveyed.
In Lecture 22, for instance, a fascinating exploration of “Science
Fiction’s Urban Landscapes,” Wolfe states that Arthur C.
Clarke’s “The City and the Stars
appeared in 1953, an expansion of an earlier novel called Against
the Fall of Night.” To the best of my knowledge, the standard chronological attribution
is 1953 for Against the Fall of Night and 1956 for The City and the Stars,
as the guidebook itself notates elsewhere.
of course, genre buffs may find their tastes diverging from some of
Wolfe’s own. In my case, I thought that in his introduction to
Lecture 14, “Religion and Science Fiction,” he gave short
shrift to a couple of strong stories. (My inner scientist also can’t
help but point out that Wolfe misspeaks when, discussing Asimov’s
“The Last Question,” he refers to “Newton’s
Second Law of Thermodynamics”: the famous law of entropy Wolfe
is alluding to is indeed the Second Law of Thermodynamics, but it is
20, “The 1990s: The New Space Opera,” contains what is by
far my favorite introduction. “Sometimes in these lectures I
may seem to be discussing science fiction as if it were a family,”
Wolfe observes. “And that’s not entirely an accident.
Having been for much of its history a somewhat circumscribed
community of writers and readers, it has on occasion behaved like a
family. It seems to want each generation to do a little better than
the one before. It likes to seek out noble ancestors, in the most
extreme cases reaching as far back as Plato or Jonathan Swift. It has
its father and mother figures, although depending on who you talk
with those may be as disparate as Mary Shelley or Robert A. Heinlein.
And it has its eccentric cousins and slightly embarrassing crazy old
In this extraordinary set of lectures, Gary K. Wolfe has furnished
said family with a genealogy, a birth certificate, real estate deeds,
tax records, outstanding loans, insurance policy documents—and
maybe even a living will.
Read more by Alvaro Zinos-Amaro