Saturday, October 13, 2012

Chat: The Pit

John: Pfft. The Ponds. “True love”, they said. “Total commitment”, they said. All they did was jump off a building together. You and I? We read ‘The Pit’. Now that’s walking through hell for the person you love.

Dee: I honestly don’t know where to start here. It’s so bad, so very bad, and yet to explain how bad it is might make someone actually want to see if it’s as awful as we say, and I don’t want that on my conscience. I could quote a couple of paragraphs, but it can’t get across the sheer mind-numbing drudgery of 200-plus pages of that kind of writing. I could talk about exactly how much the editing fell down by not rejecting this outright, but I cannot imagine the expression on Darvill-Evans’s face when he sat down with the finished volume.

John: I have to imagine, given that Darvill-Evans was not only the range editor at the time, but also the writer of the next novel on our list, that he either didn’t have the time or the energy to find something else to fill this slot. I think it really was a case of “we either release this, or we put out a book of cat pictures this month that ends with, ‘Oh and by the way the Doctor and Benny had an adventure too that ended with a whole solar system blowing up, but you don’t want to see that.’” And as it turns out, they made the wrong decision there.

Dee: I think that would have worked better. There is a silver lining, of course: I imagine this inspired hundreds of aspiring, talented young writers to submit their own ideas under the rationale that they literally could not write that badly. But that’s some pretty tarnished silver. I have to ask: was there anything, anything at all, that you found likeable about the book? I think the unintentional comedy of counting how many time someone “shouted (insert thing they shouted here)” amusing, but then I was on cold medicine for the last 100 pages or so.
John: I liked one line. When the cthon says that it’s getting stronger, closer, more and more vivid visions of darkness and evil and armageddon, and the shapeshifter responds with, “Yes, but think of the money.” There’s a certain dark humor to that line that suggests that Penswick came up with it ages ago and was just itching for a chance to get it into print. If he’d spent that many years on the rest of the book, it might have been worth reading. In general, though, the book does feel like being caught out in a cold, wet drizzle that gradually seeps through each layer of clothing until you’re utterly soaked to the skin. Does that feel like the right way to describe Penswick’s prose to you? Like standing right under a leaky drainpipe, with that drip-drip-drip of monotonously uniform sentences plopping on you?

Dee: Only if you are in a straightjacket and it’s a leak of unflavored pudding. (Can’t be flavored, it might actually taste good then.) If you make that small change, it’s a good simile. Which, by the way, means you can come up with a better simile in twenty seconds than he had in the entire book, which he had who knows how long to write. I just don’t even know what else to say. The entire Best Brains team couldn’t make this book palatable. I seriously think it might be on a parallel with “The Eye Of Argon” in some ways, without the fun of being able to be redeemed by competitive readings.

John: Well, we could talk about what he was trying to say. Because that’s worth pointing out--Penswick might have horribly botched the execution of the novel, but at the pitch stage this must have sounded promising. There’s a dark secret at the heart of the Time Lords’ history, born out of the arrogance and incompetence of their greatest figure, and now it’s coming back to haunt the Doctor on a planet that is destined to die in seven days. That’s a good idea on paper. I can see how it would get commissioned...although I can’t see how any of those chapters would have been the sample chapter that sealed the deal.

Dee: The thing is, OK, I see your point... but I think that Penswick just recycled plot ideas already explored in the TV series and added Arkham House-like critters. By the time the Fifth Doctor regenerated we already knew there might be more to the Omega and Rassilon story than the Time Lords were saying. By the end of the 80s, we knew that the Time Lords were by and large callous jerks. (I think an argument can be made we knew that by the end of the 60s.) I don’t think there’s anything new or particularly exciting being explored here, even in a plot synopsis.

John: Callous, yes, but this is the first time they’ve ever been portrayed as reckless. The ancient Time Lords had always been portrayed legends that strode the universe, maybe even that made it into what it was. Rassilon had been portrayed as a mysterious wizard who lay in his tower somewhere between life and death, and Omega was the Promethean titan who stole the secrets of black holes from the gods and was eternally tortured for it. Their battles against the ancient vampires were portrayed as something out of myth. Here’s the first time we see the suggestion that they might have been not just ruthless and cruel, but out-and-out monsters. Even in later stories, when you see them as genocidal warriors against the Racnoss and so forth, you don’t see the demythologizing of the Time Lords taken this far very often. Penswick was pushing the boundaries of the idea, even if it wasn’t new.

Dee: I am not so sure I agree. I think that the reckless idea had been very well put across in Cat’s Cradle: Time’s Crucible by Mark Platt. That wasn’t so long ago in our reading that I’ve forgotten it, you know! (And the banging my head against a wall summoned by The Pit didn’t knock it out of my brain either.)

John: Well, there’s reckless and then there’s “oh, hey, did we just punch a hole in the universe? Whoops, our bad, don’t worry, we’ll kill anything that comes out of it” reckless. I think that as bad as this book is, it is a keystone to the direction that Virgin is going to take in the next sixty-odd books. We are going to see a vision of Gallifrey that is “ancient monsters doing battle with ancient monsters”, and the Doctor is going to be seen as atoning for the sins of his people’s past...which are also, just possibly, the sins of his own past. The Lovecraftian angle is the completion of that vision--for the Time Lords to be convincingly omnipotent, they have to be struggling against equally legendary, opposite foes. Lovecraft’s mythos is really the only kind of thing that can bear that weight. Again, this isn’t to argue that the book is good, only that the book is necessary. A book like this needed to be here at this point. Just a much better one.

Dee: I remain only marginally convinced, but then I’ve always felt the Time Lords were exactly the kind of beings who would punch holes in the Universe... because they’re so darn rigid when we meet them that it’s always seemed to me that they were reacting against something. Be that as it may, I need to get this taste out of my mouth. Bleah.

John: I’ve got good news and bad news. The good news is, the next book is better. The bad news is, that’s pretty much only because you couldn’t get a worse book released commercially that doesn’t have ‘Twilight’ somewhere in the title.

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