Thursday, April 26, 2012


'Transit' is a rarity, not just among Doctor Who books but among books in general; it's a book that keeps getting better every time you read it. Ben Aaronovitch, who I previously described as the creator of modern Doctor Who, wrote a novel that works on multiple different levels. It's primarily a cyberpunk take on the classic Doctor Who thriller; Something Creepy(tm) has gotten out into the transit system due to explorations of places Man Was Not Meant To Go(tm), and the Doctor has to banish the monsters back to the spaces beyond. But at the same time, it's a brilliant exploration of the Doctor's effect on history, told through two simultaneous and intercutting plot threads; one that plays almost continuously in the background, exploring the knock-on effect of a single intervention of the Doctor's, and the other that builds over the course of the book, showing how his interaction with humanity has produced Kadiatu Lethbridge-Stewart. Aaronovitch is genuinely thinking about his theme and subtext, working to produce something that's more than the sum of its parts.

The primary plot, while nothing we haven't seen before, is proably about as well-executed as it's ever been in Doctor Who. The STS virus, named by the Doctor with perfectly appropriate whimsy as "Fred", is an interestingly alien alien, with goals and motivations and planning styles that feel genuinely like something not of this universe. Unlike the vast majority of pseudo-Lovecraftian monsters that populate Doctor Who (and most genre fiction), Fred seems authentically unknowable, not merely a moustache-twirling bad guy that happens to drive people insane when they look at it. And the Doctor's solution, concealed beneath layers of subtlety by the author, comes as both genuinely surprising at the time and brilliantly thought out in retrospect.

(It does take a bit of retrospection, of course. One of the things that's most noticeable about 'Transit' is the prose style; form follows function in this book, as the theme of "transit" encapsulated in the title is incorporated into the way the story flows. The sentences are staccato bursts of text, the scenes are short, and there's frequent cutting from place to place and character to character. We are constantly in motion in 'Transit', and there's really no point at which Aaronovitch pauses to let the slower readers catch up. This is a book that almost demands re-reading.)

At the same time, 'Transit' functions as a sequel to the Troughton-era story, 'The Seeds of Death'. Back in the 60s, when Doctor Who was primarily seen as a kiddie show with spooky monsters for the Doctor to beat, the Ice Warriors were nothing more than that week's bad guys, and the Doctor consigning their invasion fleet to a one-way trip to the heart of the sun was just that week's gimmick for defeating them (conveniently off-camera, so as not to have to pay for any model effects.) But 'Transit' shows the way that this tiny skirmish was just the first battle in a much larger and more brutal war that transformed human culture, and the way that the Doctor's casual interference and refusal to stick around to deal with the long-term consequences has had major ramifications for the whole human race. The post-war society of 'Transit' is never lingered on, of course. Nothing in 'Transit' ever is. But it permeates the entire novel.

And then there's Kadiatu. Years later, of course, the TV series would pick up the general idea behind the character, dust it off, mix it with some bits of Benny that were left lying around and call it "River Song"...but here, Kadiatu is something far more interesting and dangerous. She's a human response to a Time Lord poking around into their affairs, but she's nothing so simple as a living weapon created by an eyepatch-wearing band of supervillains. Kadiatu is presented as something quite possibly necessary, someone who can operate on the Doctor's level without being defined by him. She's not the Doctor's lover or his sidekick or his partner or his assassin. She is our representative to the greater universe, a higher being who can operate on the plane of the Time Lords and the Daleks and the various time-active powers with humanity's interests paramount. Which raises all sorts of interesting questions as to whether or not that's true of the Doctor, and whether we can really trust someone so alien even if he does claim that human beings are his favorite species, and whether Kadiatu's struggles with her inbuilt propensity to violence make her worse than the Doctor, or just more human...all of which is pretty heady stuff for a novel that's been consigned to a ghetto even within the ghetto of science fiction. If you ever wondered why I defend the Doctor Who novels, this is Exhibit A.

And of course, there's so much more to talk about. The subtle jokes in the glossary at the end, the casual brilliance of Ming as a character, what exactly the book was that Benny was trying to mentioned, this is a book that rewards re-reading. And lucky us, it's so damn amazing that you can't help wanting to read it again, too.

Friday, April 20, 2012

Chat: Love and War

John: Paul Cornell’s back...and this time, it’s personal! I know you thought this was a bit of a sophomore slump for Cornell, but I actually thought it was a bit better as a novel. Not as much fun as ‘Revelation’, perhaps, but it’s kind of hard to write an upbeat novel about Ace and the Doctor having a falling-out over his callous treatment of her fiance and his gruesome, untimely death.

Dee: I wouldn’t say “Revelation” was fun, so much... people getting heads cut off, a crucified Doctor, and so forth. But I felt like it hung together better in some ways. And this one wasn’t bad, at all. One thing that I thought was interesting was the way at the end, the TARDIS took away Ace’s ability to understand languages before she’d even really left... a bit final, that.

John: It’s one of the things that happens in a more “mature” version of the series, I think. They tend to explore some of the logical consequences of things that were just lampshaded in the old series. You can see how the books influenced the new series in that sense; the scene where Rose suddenly begins understanding the Sycorax is a distant descendant of this book. But to get back to your more general thrust, “final” is really a good word for this whole book. It’s all about the way things end, and at the time, you could be forgiven for thinking that Ace was gone for good. (That’s not spoilers, right?)

Dee: The worst of it was that she’d be right. The Doctor was more of a Right Bastard to her than he’d been to anyone in hundreds of years. Ace was perfectly entitled to be pissed at him. And “forgive me” only works so many times. He’d pretty much used his up. Seven might have big soulful eyes, but actions speak so much louder than those.

John: But you know, no matter how many times I read this one, I’m still never sure whether the Doctor planned all along for Jan to be on that ship at that time, or whether that was his backup backup backup backup plan and everything he did leading up to that was an attempt to save everyone including Jan...and it just failed. He definitely knew from the beginning what was going on, as soon as he sniffed the soil and saw Jan. Everything after that...the Doctor is a very opaque figure in this novel. This is Ace’s book.

Dee: To me the theme of this novel is trust, and how when it’s not given everything falls apart. The lack of trust between Roisa and Jan, Roisa and Maire until the last second, Jan and most everyone, the Doctor and Ace... and the places where things work, it’s because of trust: Jan and Christopher, the military guy and the Doctor, Ace and Benny.

John: But it’s important, I think, to note that it’s not as simple as just, “If you trust people, everything will all work out great!” The Hoothi really do have spies and eyes everywhere, and the Doctor plays it close to the vest because he has to. Some of the saddest parts of the novel, I think, are the ways that Roisa winds up betraying the people she loves so much, all through no fault of her own. The scene where the priest asks her if she has a hole in her shoe is utterly chilling and note-perfectly ominous.

Dee: No argument there, except that had she trusted them earlier it wouldn’t have been so bad. I agree with you that it’s perfectly executed, don’t get me wrong. I just think there’s a lot of meditating on trust in it. And in the end, it was Julian and Jan’s trust in Ace that ended the menace, despite them being controlled and even killed.

John: And in a way, Jan’s trust in the Doctor. I think that Jan is the only one who trusts completely in this novel; even though he doesn’t consciously go along with the Doctor’s plan, he does let the Doctor know that he’s willing to do anything to save his friends, and in the end, he does what the Doctor asks of him with all that’s left of him. He’s kind of a twit at times, and a bit clueless and inept with his interpersonal skills, but you have to give him that. (Or did you not think he was a bit of a clueless twit?)

Dee: A bit? Very. I thought the “Ace Goes For The Bad Boy” thing was a bit too pat. She didn’t thwap him upside the head (metaphorically) enough. But he did have the strength to keep up with her, and in ten years he might have been quite a decent guy.

John: Oh, yes. Tremendously immature, no question. Which plays, I think, into the reason that he couldn’t make a poly couple work very well. His motivations for being with Roisa were not good ones, he couldn’t let go of her and he couldn’t be what she wanted him to be, which was more committed (I never got the feeling that she wanted him to be exclusive to her, only that she wanted him to be her husband...) He hurt her a lot by trying not to hurt her too much. Even though it was a portrait of a poly relationship that wasn’t working, I thought it was a poly relationship that wasn’t working for real reasons, not just because “poly relationships never work”.

Dee: I’d agree with you if we’d seen one that worked. I get the feeling that Cornell thinks they don’t, but well-meaning people can try to make them work. Call it a hunch, we’ll see if it plays out at all in future books. But yes, he did give it real reasons, which is refreshing.

I’m still having a hard time fitting this Ace into the Ace from a few books back. I don’t see how you can deescalate from warrior with gunsights to the calmer Ace here.

John: I think you’re right. I think they actually made the break here the way they did because the direction they wanted to take the character couldn’t really work as a gradual transition; it was like the ghost of the character we saw on TV kept hovering over the Ace of the books, constantly dragging her back to fit into that mold. By taking her off the scene for a while, and then bringing her back as almost a new character with a new character bible, the editors stopped people from writing her like it was still Season 25. I think this is really the major transition point for the series, where they finally leave the TV show behind completely, and leaving behind the TV version of Ace is a big part of that.

As is introducing Benny. It’s funny, but as much as Cornell puts into showing you the character in this one, I don’t think she really does much here. She basically spends the whole book waiting to step into the TARDIS, only occasionally contributing to the plot. (I liked your idea of Maire on the TARDIS, though. But given the way the Doctor acted, she’d never have gone with him.)

Dee: I’m not quite sure why Benny did, given how she backed up Ace.

John: I think the opportunity of traveling through all time and space, combined with the not-quite-buried thought that she could find out what really happened to her father, was just too much to resist no matter how badly she thought of the Doctor. (Hmm, and years later we’d get “Father’s Day” from the same author...have I mentioned lately that the new series drew heavily on these books?)

Anyhow, next time we’ll get another plot that Benny is involved in both very much and almost not at all, but in an entirely different way...

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Love And War

Paul Cornell is really a brilliant and creative writer. This feels like a bit of a sophomore slump to me, but it's still head and shoulders above many of the books we've read so far.

This book does have some wonderful characters. We meet Benny, and I love how she stands up to the Doctor and defends Ace. We meet Maire and Christopher and the other Travellers. We meet Jan and Roisa and Cornell shows that he's familiar with the concept of polyamory, although he seems to think it can't work well.

One of the things I liked about this novel was the way the setting itself seemed to become a character. Actually, I liked the way two settings became characters: Heaven and Puterland. Cornell does a good job of making VR seem so much more alive than Real Life, and I mean that both in the sense of vibrancy and in the sense of Heaven being a zombie planet.

Of all of the characters, I liked Maire the best. She was responsible, intelligent, strong, and honestly if she hadn't been so devoted to the Travellers she would have made an excellent Companion herself. (In fact, if I hadn't known what would happen with Benny I would have been rooting for her to be the one to walk onto the TARDIS.) Christopher was remote and yet somehow still likeable.

All that said... I don't know what Ace saw in Jan. He's not the kind of character we've seen her falling for, at least recently. And you know, I get the whole "wild child" thing and Ace is not going to settle for someone quiet and gentle, probably. But if we assume she does like this type, then some of the pairings in previous books appear even more unlikely.

On the gripping hand, the way Jan and so many of the others went out was terrifying. Snakes? No problem. Daleks? It's over fast, at least. Cybermen? Chilling. Space-traveling fungus that drink blood and incorporate victims into a group mind and use their bodies as zombies? AAAHHH!!

And after everything that's happened, Ace leaving the Doctor was believable. I could completely understand why she would do so in that moment. Less credible was, given what she had just seen, Benny's hopping onboard. But then, no one is perfect, and that includes Paul Cornell.

Monday, April 2, 2012

Love and War

If 'Timewyrm: Revelations' was Paul Cornell ringing in the New Adventures, 'Love and War' is the point where he buries the old TV series. Appropriately enough, he does so in a novel that's all about death and mourning. The funereal atmosphere permeates the book from the opening chapter to the closing epilogue (both of which feature actual funerals), but more than that, the book is about the death of a friendship. Ace and the Doctor's relationship, as we have known it in the 17 stories so far, ends here in a story that's about as close as Doctor Who will ever come to pure tragedy.

Allow me to elaborate on that for a moment, because I think it's key to understanding the novel: Tragedy, in its dramatic sense, is all about someone attempting to avert an inevitable, devastating event...only to find that their efforts come to nothing because their essential nature contributes to the event instead of preventing it. The Doctor knows, arguably from within minutes of stepping out of the TARDIS, what the danger is and how to stop it. It's the simplest solution in the world, requiring just one death, and saving untold billions as a result. And the Doctor spends the entire novel trying to figure out a way to make it not happen, because he knows that Ace will hate him for it...only to find that, in the end, he has done everything except for the one thing that he should have done from the beginning. He hasn't told Ace the truth. He hasn't trusted her. Trust, the one thing that the Seventh Doctor endlessly demands, is the one thing that he cannot give. That's his fatal flaw. And his act of hamartia is to tell Ace to stay away from Jan, to warn her that she will be hurt if she gives the Traveler her heart, without ever giving her the reason why.

It makes sense, in retrospect, why he would conceal this from her. The Hoothi have eyes and ears everywhere, and Ace is a woman who wears her heart on her sleeve. Giving away the secret, even to Ace, could result in the deaths of billions. (We also find out later that this is part of a Bigger Plan, an element that Cornell downplays as much as possible and one that badly weakens the story, but that's Peter Darvill-Evans' fault, not Cornell's.) But we aren't looking at this from the Doctor's perspective. His efforts are sidelined in the novel, occurring on the margins while the book focuses on Ace. We don't see inside his head the way we did in 'Revelation'; instead, he becomes an opaque, ambiguous figure. We never get an explanation from him. We never hear about the things that led to this failure to save Jan, leaving us in Ace's position of wondering whether he ever truly wanted to or if that was just another aspect of his game. By concealing that from the reader as well as from Ace, Cornell makes the Doctor into the cause of his own reversal of fortune. His flaws as much as the Hoothi's evil lead to the tragedy he desperately wants to avert, leaving him wounded and alone.

Save, of course, for Bernice Summerfield, the new companion who is distinctly a creation of the books. Her relationship with the Doctor is already more complex than the blind loyalty that hurt Ace so badly, and it's a sign that the past is over. 'Love and War' buries the TV series, and in so doing finishes the process that Cornell began five books ago. From now on, we are in (should you pardon the pun) novel territory.