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China Miéville and the politics of surrealism


Jason Heller gives us a rundown on fantasy fiction author China Miéville’s new book, “The Last Days of New Paris” for the New Yorker. The book’s premise detonates a bomb on 1950s Paris and things go a bit weird, including an “arachnoid manifestation,” as Heller puts it. In fact, Miéville is pretty obsessed with spiders, particularly of the Louise Bourgeois “Maman” variety. Read Heller in partial below, in full via the New Yorker.

China Miéville has long had spiders on the brain. In his breakthrough novel, 2000’s “Perdido Street Station,” a mysterious, spiderlike being called the Weaver assists a scientist named Isaac who’s trying to save the fantastical city of Bas-Lag from a catastrophic infestation. In Miéville’s new novella, “The Last Days of New Paris,” the streets of Paris in 1950 have gone haywire after the detonation of a reality-altering bomb that brings various Surrealist works to frightening life, including an arachnoid manifestation reminiscent of Odilon Redon’s painting “The Smiling Spider.”

“There’s something about the arachnid,” Miéville told me recently, on the phone from his home in London. “There’s a very strong tradition of the spider, the arachnid, as something symbolic, something very threatening. Bataille writes about the spider as an avatar of formlessness, this very, very powerful thing. So maybe there’s something tapping into that. I mean, think about Louise Bourgeois’s “Maman” sculptures and so on. There’s something about the arachnid that stops up the throat.”

Primal awe and erudite references have always mingled in Miéville’s work—along with a healthy dose of pulp playfulness. His 2010 novel “Kraken,” for instance, gleefully whirls together everything from sea monsters to ray guns. His fear of spiders also has a vintage pulp source: Tarzan movies, which Miéville cites as his gateway to science fiction and fantasy. “I have a lot of drawings from when I was three and maybe four, and Tarzan features heavily. For me, it tended to be the black-and-white films they showed on TV. I remember one very clearly where he meets a giant spider. I have some hazy understanding that some of these creatures and so forth that he was meeting were fantastic, were unreal. And that was immediately what got my attention.”

Miéville was born in 1972 in Norwich, England. His mother, a teacher, raised him and his younger sister; they moved to London when Miéville was very young. Money was tight, but he found enrichment in museums and art galleries, not to mention TV and the movies. Miéville tends to set his novels in fanciful places, from the vaguely steampunk realm of Bas-Lag, in “Perdido Street Station” and its two sequels, to the far-future planet of Arieka, in “Embassytown” (2011). For the hard-boiled crime novel “The City & the City” (2009), he invented two European city-states, Besźel and Ul Qoma, which somehow exist in the same physical space. When he has ventured into the real world, he has mostly stuck with his native London, where he still lives, as in “Kraken,” the urban fantasy “King Rat” (1998), and the mind-bending young-adult book “Un Lun Dun” (2007), in which two London twelve-year-olds discover a hidden, alternate version of their city.