THE LAST DAYS OF NEW PARIS (2): Temporality, Modality, and Identity

My approach to science fiction starts from an adoption and generalisation of Darko Suvin’s thesis that science fiction is the “literature of cognitive estrangement”. This definition is quite thought-provoking, but the term “cognitive” is too limiting, as if so called hard science fiction were the paradigm of the whole genre. I suggest that the term “noetic” is more suitable, comprising not just the cognitive but also the imaginative acts of the spirit, and so allowing for a unified vision of science fiction and fantasy.

“Estrangement” is more useful, as it is a much more ambiguous and polysemic notion, so I propose to consider science fiction and fantasy together as composing the “literature of noetic estrangement”. To bring out the Deleuzian resonance of Suvin’s definition and of my reformulation, we could define science fiction and fantasy as the “literature of noetic deterritorialisation”.

This reformulation (the literature of noetic estrangement) constitutes not so much a non-Suvinian definition, whatever that would be, as a form of non-standard Suvinism,, since it does away with the strong demarcation that Suvin establishes between the genres of fantasy and science fiction.

(Note: this distinction is based on a parallel with the development of contemporary French philosopher François Laruelle’s thought. The title “non-philosophy” (as in non-Euclidean geometry) belongs to the negative phase of Laruelle’s intellectual evolution, stretching over 20 years, from 1981 to 2001. Aside from its critique of standard philosophy as unable to attain the immanence it purported to aim for, it was unfortunaely characterised by subservience to the model of science as cognitive paradigm. Laruelle later came to see this scientism as maintaining his thought within the very standard presuppositions that he wished to criticise. He moved from a purely verbal repudiation of scientism contained in the later works of this period (called Philosophie III) to an incomplete and timid practical overcoming of the scientistic presupposition in his work from roughly 2002 till now).

The title THE LAST DAYS OF NEW PARIS, while not containing a logical contradiction, indicates the sort of temporality that goes with science fiction, according to Deleuze. The autobiographical chapter after the story is enough to indicate that the events recounted in the novella were not the “last” days, as Miéville met an old man who he thinks, but he is not sure, may be Thibaut, his young protagonist, grown old. The title also occurs in the story: Thibaut meets up with a mysterious woman, Sam, perhaps journalist or perhaps secret agent, who is taking photos for a projected book with that same title.

The “last days” of the title still have not come; in that sense the book is pre-apocalyptic. In another sense it is post-apocalyptic, as the S-blast has devastated and metamorphosed Paris, and iis effects need to be contained, as they threaten to spread everywhere. Thus while being in relation with the “apocalyptic” the novel’s temporal dimension is not the future, nor even futurity as such, but rather the “untimely”, in Nietzche’s (and Deleuze’s) sense, against this time (resistance), in favour of a time to come (creation of the possible). Thus the untimely is not so much temporal, not so much a question of the future or of futurity as modal, or, following an indication of Samuel Delany, a question of subjunctivity. In any actual case temporal estrangement and modal estrangement are intertwined, and may even be on occasions indiscernable.

“Apocalypse” for Deleuze is not a temporal, nor even a modal notion, but an ontological one. It announces the unveiling of what Miéville has called “Weird ontology”, where entities that do not fully respect the principle of identity assemble and struggle. It is interesting that in the novel there is also a (Nazi) force for identity, that eliminates all antogonisms, that is itself a manifestation, and not some foundation of reality.


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