China Mieville is one of my favorite authors because he consistently writes books with interesting ideas. He’s good at taking different pieces and putting them together in novel ways. In this book his magpie tendencies are well in evidence.
It’s set in 1950, in a version of a Nazi occupied Paris. A decade earlier something called the s-bomb went off. Exactly what that was is a central mystery in the novel, but its effect was to let loose a plague of surrealism in the city. Poems and artwork has come alive, and is roaming free. There are also demons, conjured by the Nazi’s to battle the manifs, as the surrealist manifestations are called. There’s a long appendix at the end to help source all of the different references. Looking up everything mentioned in this book would probably be a pretty good introduction to the surrealist cannon.
The plot is about a young surrealist and a spy taking pictures of the city and trying to learn what’s going on. It’s a fine adventure story, with an excellent twist at the end. I wouldn’t say it’s Mieville’s best work, but I still enjoyed it a lot. It creates a really rich world, and has some interesting politics. If you’re a fan of Mieville or surrealism, check it out.
(spoiler for the afterward)
At the end of the book, Mieville lays out a story about how he was contacted by a former college, a historian, and set up to meet an old man. This old man told an incredible story, which is the novel we just read. It’s a very interesting gambit, fascinating whether we believe that’s the true origin of the novel or just a cunning framing device. I thought this added an interesting wrinkle to the story, but wonder if it may have had more impact if placed at the beginning of the book instead of the end. I wonder what it would have been like to experience the novel with the idea that someone had told Mieville this story in my head, instead of working to put what I had just read into a different context. It would be an interesting experiment to assign this book for a class, and have half the students read the afterward first, and half read it at the end, and see if they viewed the novel differently