Short takes: China Miéville’s ‘The Last Days of New Paris’ and Ursula Le Guin’s ‘Nine Lives’

July 31, 2019

By Matthew E. Milliken
July 31, 2019

I generally try to review each book that I read. Here are two recent ones that fell through the cracks.

The Last Days of New Paris is a 2016 (spins wheel) novella by China Miéville, a London author with a penchant for exotic subjects. The bulk of the narrative is set in 1950 Paris — but this is neither a year nor a city that you or I would recognize.

24-year-old Thibaut, the cynical main character, inhabits a quarantined city divided among Nazis, Resistance fighters, armed Surrealist irregulars and paranormal phenomena. The latter category includes literal devils as well as “manifs,” which are animated works of literature and art that have somehow become tangible.

Amid this chaotic metropolis, Thibault encounters Sam, an American photographer. She claims to be researching a book about the devastated French capital and the weirdness that infests it. Thibaut suspects that his new friend is concealing something, not least because the Germans are hell-bent on killing her.

This is all quite fantastic. Unfortunately, it was challenging to figure out just what was going on in any given scene, let alone in the overall narrative, and I never got invested in either Thibaut or Sam.

The book includes a subplot set in 1941, largely in Marseille, detailing how and why the “S-Blast” — that S presumably stands for Surrealist — struck Paris. But this, I confess, brought me little understanding as to what was occurring or what Miéville was trying to do.

‘The Last Days of New Paris’ by China Miéville.

I was also nonplussed by the purpose of book’s end matter. First up was an afterword in which the purported author describes how he came to write the book; it involves a 39-hour interview with a mysterious elderly man, evidently Thibaut. The volume concludes with several pages of notes — more than 10 percent the length of the volume — explaining various items featured in the book. By way of example:

up-thrust snakes that are their stems: These snake-held, eye-and-heart-petaled plants, the Lovers’ Flower, were drawn for André Breton (“quite clumsily,” he gracelessly reports) by “Nadja,” the woman we now know to be Léona Delacourt, and reproduced in his 1928 quasi-novel named for her.

Such descriptions clarified nothing for this reader. I couldn’t help but wonder whether Miéville was trying to pad his page count in order to satisfy a contractual requirement.

A different text that I found far more enjoyable was Nine Lives, an early Ursula K. Le Guin short story that was originally published in the ’60s by Playboy. (Her introduction states that it appeared in 1968, but 1969 is listed in the copyright.) The tale was republished in Le Guin’s 1975 collection The Wind’s Twelve Quarters. Two years ago, HarperCollins, which held the rights to that volume, evidently released each yarn as an individual ebook. The precise reasons for the strategy elude me, although presumably the potential for profit ranked high on the list.

‘Nine Lives’ by Ursula K. Le Guin.

Nonetheless, Nine Lives was available from my library; I checked it out, read it and enjoyed it. The tale is set on a geologically unstable planetoid in a distant star system where two astronauts, Owen Pugh and Alvaro Martin, operate a spartan outpost. At the outset of the action, the taciturn pair are joined by a “tenclone” named John Chow — five men and five women spawned from the same individual’s genes:

It was hard to talk to them. The same faces, each with the same expression of intelligent interest, all leaned toward him across the table at almost the same angle. They all nodded together.

Over the Exploitation Corps insigne on their tunics each had a nameband, first name John and last name Chow of course, but the middle names different. The men were Aleph, Kaph, Yod, Gimel and Samedh; the women Sadhe, Daleth, Zayin, Beth and Resh. Pugh tried to use the names but gave it up at once; he could not even tell sometimes which one had spoken, for all the voices were alike.

Martin buttered and chewed his toast, and finally interrupted: “You’re a team. Is that it?”

“Right,” said two Johns.

“God, what a team! I hadn’t seen the point. How much do you each know what the others are thinking?”

“Not at all, properly speaking,” replied one of the girls, Zayin. The others watched her with the proprietary, approving look they had. “No ESP, nothing fancy. But we think alike. We have exactly the same equipment. Given the same stimulus, the same problem, we’re likely to be coming up with the same reactions and solutions at the same time. Explanations are easy — don’t even have to make them, usually. We seldom misunderstand each other. It does facilitate our working as a team.”

The bonds between and among the base’s original operators and the newcomers are strained just under everyday conditions. Matters are exacerbated when disaster strikes. Le Guin strikes a cautiously hopeful note as she explores the ways in which people navigate their relationships with each other and the universe at large.

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