Much of the best alternate history is steampunk because the Victorian Era was such a turning point in human affairs. Another such pivotal time was World War II. This is the setting of British author China Miéville’s 2016 book The Last Days of New Paris. People classify his work as “the new weird” and they’re right, though that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
In the alternate time-line of New Paris, magic changes the course of the Second World War. In 1941, having heard that the Nazis were experimenting with the occult, the surrealist artists of Paris come up with a plan to use magic to fight back. This results in a mystical accident called the “S Blast.” This disaster distorts reality throughout Europe, bringing the war to a stalemate and causing it to last much longer than it did in reality. Paris, being the epicenter of the disaster, is rendered almost uninhabitable and isolated from the outside world. The story begins in 1950, as demons and monsters summoned by the Germans battle with “manifs” (manifestations), Parisian surrealist artworks that have come to life.
The story follows two protagonists: Thibaut, a young local man who struggles to survive while aiding the Resistance and Sam an American photographer who seeks to capture images of the chaos that is Paris. Sam seems naïve at first, but it’s soon apparent that she is far from helpless and hides a dark secret.
This novella-length work was my introduction to Miéville’s writing, and I definitely intend to read more, as some of his works (notably his young-adult novel Railsea) have steampunk elements. Though I hear that all of his work is odd and quirky, giving his subgenre its name, some folks say New Paris is stranger than most. It’s very imaginative with descriptions of the grotesque monsters that stalk Paris (such as a half-woman/half bicycle and tables with wolf legs) and bizarre changes to the city’s landmarks (the top half of the Eiffel Tower floats in mid-air.) Thibaut and Sam are followed by a so-called “exquisite corpse” which consists of a man’s head, a caterpillar, a miniature train, a tree trunk and a pair of long johns (see the cover image.) Thibaut himself wears magical pajamas that give him a mild version of super-powers.
My biggest complaint was that I found the ending (which I won’t reveal) a bit unsatisfying. After the story ends, however, Miéville adds a handy appendix which lists the source of the bizarre creatures and transformations in the story, all derived from actual artworks or poetry. Several of the crazy place changes are taken from a 1933 essay in which several surrealist artists suggested “irrational embellishments” to Parisian landmarks.
I give this book 4 out of 5 stars, mainly for its ingenious concept. It would certainly not be to everyone’s taste, but most steampunk fans will probably enjoy it. In any case, it’s not tool long, making it a good way to become acquainted with Miéville’s weird fiction.
I’ve written some weird tales of my own, including “Love at Stake” about a lonely vampire who decides to try on-line dating. It’s available on Amazon for only 99 cents.
Illustrations: Book cover copyright Random House. Eiffel Tower by Georges Garen, Baphomet by Eliphas Levi, both public domain.