Saturday, June 9, 2012

Chat: Transit

John: So admittedly, it’s taken us some time to schedule this little chat about ‘Transit’. Luckily, I’ve read this one so many times I’ve practically memorized it, so I’m not worried about losing anything.

Dee: I’ve read it before too, because it stands alone fairly nicely as a Doctor Who novel. And here’s where I start to think I sound like I don’t like any of the books: I loved this novel, but not as a Doctor Who novel. As a standalone SF novel, it’s utterly and totally fantastic. Clear characterization - I loved Kadiatu putting her back against a drink machine to cool off, for instance. Just lovely. Fun plot. But as a Doctor Who novel, I am not so sanguine.

John: I noticed that from your blog. And don’t feel bad, because that actually puts you more in touch with the majority of the Doctor Who fanbase at the time. Even by the standard set by the previous book, this one jars. We get very little Benny (although the bits we do get are choice), we get a Doctor who’s undergoing an emotional crisis and not handling it feels like a cyberpunk novel that the TARDIS is passing through, and that ticked a lot of people off. And of course, other people were outraged by the sex, swearing, drugs and alcohol abuse, but I know you well enough to know that’s not an issue here.

Dee: Oh, the sex was fine. So was the threat of what would happen to Kadiatu if she couldn’t pay her debt. Honestly, the thing that turned me off was Benny. I felt like we didn’t know her well enough after one novel to know whether this was out of character for her or just a side not seen in the previous book. I felt like we were supposed to infer this was weird, and I could tell he wanted us to think it was weird, but... no. And that was sad, because I’m aware that Benny has a huge fan club in the DW fan community. I couldn’t have told you why based on this book, though.

John: As I say, it’s a common complaint. And a not unjustified one. But on the other hand, we do get the wonderful flashback to her childhood, the scene of the last time she saw her’s a tiny moment in a book in which Benny is generally conspicuous by her absence, but it’s glorious. And it sets the tone for much of the later books. Almost like, “Okay, we’ve seen her deepest and most heartbreaking tragedy. Later books can focus on the superficial stuff.”

Dee: I see your point. But I really enjoyed this much more the first time I read it, when I wasn’t aware that Benny was brand-new. Let me focus for a moment more on things I liked, though. The world was fully realized. It was one of the clearest, sharpest societies we’ve yet seen in Doctor Who, and future novels will have a hard time capturing the same feel for their settings. The bar’s been set very high by this one. The bits about the Martians, little as we get, are absolutely awesome. I want to take Ming out for dinner.

John: Ming is, by the standards of this book, a relatively minor supporting character, and she is better drawn, more interesting, more sympathetic, has more quotable dialogue and is generally much more fun to read about than everyone in ‘Timewyrm: Apocalypse’. PUT TOGETHER. Really, there’s not a single character in here that couldn’t sustain their own book: Kadiatu, Old Sam, the Angel Francine, Zamina...even the razvedka are compellingly creepy. And they work in service to the story, not to distract from it, the same way the setting does. It’s important that the story is set in a post-Thousand Day War world, but it never overwhelms the plot.

Dee: And there is a huge, Ace-shaped hole in the story. On purpose. Aaronovich is drawing our attention to it without being a jerk. “What would it have been like had Ace been here?” is one of the questions the Doctor is asking himself, and Aaronovich’s talent is to make the reader ask it as well without being maudlin. (The Doctor gets to be that himself.)

John: Oh, and the Doctor is great in this. I remember getting a copy of the Writer’s Guide for the New Adventures so that I could pitch for them (I have a great knack for deciding to pitch right as a book line is ending), and they actually made a rule about Not Writing From the Doctor’s Perspective, because they’d read so damn many lousy first-person Doctor Who samples by then. But Aaronovitch does it and nails it so well that the Writer’s Guide pretty much says, “If you have to do it, do it like Ben Aaronovitch does it.” And he gets some of the best dialogue in a book full of sharp, witty lines, too. “Oh no.” “Oh yes.” “Oh no.” The best six-word exchange in literature.

Dee: I don’t think many people do well at writing truly alien, but yes, Aaronovich pulls it off. Like I said, I like the book. I just don’t enjoy it as a DW novel.

John: I think it helps a bit if you’re not reading them in sequence. It also helps if you’re more familiar with Benny...and the next book is one of the more Benny-centric novels. And our introduction to another future TV luminary!