Over the Fourth of July weekend, I actually got the chance to tell Paul Cornell about this blog in person. He was here for CONvergence, an annual Twin Cities con that Paul himself has described as "the best in the world". He was very enthused to hear about a blog devoted to the books, as he clearly remembers the era fondly...but when I mentioned that we were almost up to 'No Future', he grimaced. "I'm sorry," he said, in that terribly polite way that he has. "I always hated that one."
This is not the first time I'd heard that. In fact, he said the same thing to me when I got the book signed at his first CONvergence appearance, a few years back. But even though I admire Paul tremendously, in this he is dead wrong. And I will now explain why 'No Future' is a wonderful book.
1) It is clever. One of Paul's biggest complaints about the book is that it ends with a big sequence of everyone sitting around a table while the Doctor explains the plot to them. But here's the thing: That's exactly what's needed at this stage of the novel, because Cornell has just rung in no less than a half-dozen extremely clever plot twists over the course of the novel's climax, and while some of them do get explained as they go on (Pike as a secret Vardan, Ace as a triple agent, the fake dagger, the misfiring gun) there are still plenty that deserve a spot for us to just revel in the sheer brilliance of the explanation. I do not care that there's a whocking great chunk of exposition at the end, not when it comes after a scene where the Doctor is stabbed in the chest, locked in a coffin, and left on an ice planet to die...and proceeds to rescue Bernice a bit later. The book is plotted too finely for me to care that the magician needed a whole chapter to explain how the trick was done.
2) It is witty. One of the complaints I heard from reviewers is that the book was too arch. Here I can at least acknowledge understanding what they're talking about; there are a few bits, such as the videotape of the alternate universe where the Doctor left himself clues, that come off as a titch too self-consciously wry and self-referential to work. But for every one like that, there are ten great lines like, "I demonstrated him in front of the whole cabinet on a flock of sheep." "But they're simple, wooly-minded creatures with no will of their own!" "True, but I think they were impressed with what he did to the sheep." This book has some great, laugh-out-loud dialogue, and I feel that it perfectly captures the joy that should be present in Cornell's "summer" novel.
3) It is deeper than it looks. For a novel that's about an alliance of the Vardans and the Meddling Monk (and does great things with both, by the way--this is very much a redemptive reading of these concepts) this is a book with a lot of thematic depth. The whole subtext is about everyone taking on the Doctor's role of master manipulator and deceiver, and the ways that doing so changes their perspective on the Doctor's actions. Ace finds herself switching roles with the Doctor, manipulating him and pretending to betray him for a greater good, and finds that it's not something that gives her a sense of power as much as it does intense guilt. The Doctor winds up in Ace's shoes, and gets a taste of what it's like to be the puppet on the strings. But it goes even deeper than that. With the exception of Benny, who's pretty much Cornell's Greek chorus, virtually everybody is more than they appear to be. Sergeant Benton is ostensibly loyal to UNIT, but secretly aids the Doctor. The Brigadier is pretending that the Doctor is an alien saboteur because he doesn't know who to trust. Mike Yates and Broadsword are pretending to be Black Star agents. Pike is a secret Vardan traitor who's actually a secret traitor to the Vardans. And of course the entire invasion plan is built on a massive deception. That's a subtext so rich you could grow crops in it, that is.
4) It is well-characterized. Another complaint I've heard about the book is that the Brigadier "doesn't act right". Oh noes! The Brigadier experienced personal growth as a result of being around the Doctor, and has become significantly more awesome as a result! CORNELL YOU FIEND! In all seriousness, there's a lot of great characterization here. Benny is excellent, Ace is wonderfully conflicted, the Doctor is in over his head and hating it, and oh by the way this is the first time I've read this book since actually sitting down to watch 'The Time Meddler' and Cornell nails Peter Butterworth. Absolutely nails the portrayal spot on.
5) It is cathartic. I think this is what always makes me stand up and cheerlead for this book, even over the objections of the author. At this point, the range needed a novel like this, one that ended the outward spiral of the characters away from being sympathetic and likable and turned them back along a path towards being a family. Ace needed to remember why she cared about the Doctor. The Doctor needed to remember that he was more than just a monster who fought monsters. Benny needed...Benny needed to get out from under the cauldron of seething angst and be allowed to grow as a person, is what she needed. I ached for this novel after four books of everyone in the TARDIS hating each other, and I loved it when I got it. Still do. That's why, despite the fact that even its author won't defend it, I will.