Saturday, December 29, 2012

White Darkness

The thing I think you have to understand in order to have any hope in hell of deriving satisfaction from 'White Darkness' is that it is, first and foremost, a love letter to the pulps. And when I say pulps, I mean the unreconstructed, practically paleolithic by modern standards pulps. The novel references Lovecraft, World War I Germans and voodoo in a sort of ur-pulp villainous scheme...evil voodoo priests team up with German soldiers to revive C'thulhu. It doesn't get more pulpy than that.

And this is, as often happens with Doctor Who, both a blessing and a curse. It's a blessing because as Paul Magrs famously described it, the TARDIS is really a machine that travels between genres. The Doctor frequently works best when he's bouncing off the well-established tropes of other stories, reacting against them in unexpected ways and making them respond in ways they're not used to. (The crude, but effective example on display here involves the Doctor chasing down the evil bocor Gilles Lemaitre through a network of tunnels...and using a laser cannon to cut shortcuts into the rock so he can get to the villain's destination first.) Plunking the Doctor down into a stew of pulp tropes is a good way of developing an interesting story almost by default.

The curse comes from the fact that those tropes are so old and well-established that they resist that kind of deformation. For all that David McIntee tries to show a more culturally aware and socially responsible view of voudou and Haiti, the old pulp tropes of savages making human sacrifices and dancing under the moonlight to their debauched and foreign gods still come out, simply because McIntee can't wholly let go of them and still create the kind of atmosphere that he's looking for. The most heroic native character is mixed-race, and even though I don't think the intent of it was racist, it's hard not to escape the problematic implications of making the "better" character whiter as well. Deliberately attempting to recreate a racially problematic era, it is hard not to bring the bad along with the good.

And frankly, this kind of subversion works better with a writer whose gifts involve wordplay and humor. You don't get that with McIntee. He's a functional writer whose strengths are plotting and concept, not characterization and wit. Twisting a genre trope on its head doesn't come naturally to him, because he relies on those tropes to sustain his novel when his narrative gifts aren't quite up to the job. (Take Colonel Mortimer, for example, who's basically a stock Marine character from Central Casting there to handle a role McIntee doesn't care to invest more energy into. Or medical examiner Howard Phillips, whose name might as well be Lovecraft P. Pastichey.)

This isn't to say that the novel is bad--only that it aspires to be nostalgic and functional in a range that is rapidly becoming much more. We're still in a period where Virgin is finding its way, and certainly we've already seen much bigger stinkers from the range. 'White Darkness' works as a piece of fiction in a way that say, 'The Pit' utterly doesn't. But at the same time, it's hard to read 'Lucifer Rising' right before this and feel that the two of them belong in the same book line.

Friday, December 28, 2012

Chat: Lucifer Rising

John: So I guess the first thing that comes to mind is, "Wasn't it nice to read a proper, grown-up book again?" I mean, this one had actual characters, a proper plot, all that good stuff. Nice change after the last couple books, wasn't it?

Dee: Definitely. I mean, the book had its definite flaws, but I thought it was miles, light-years, above the previous few.

John: Well, the previous two. I think that 'The Highest Science' beats this one out. But that might be a little unfair, because my primary complaint about 'Lucifer Rising' is that none of the big plot points ever went anywhere in the later books. The big epic ending is Ace realizing she never loved Jan, Benny realizing that she doesn't need to hold onto her survivor's guilt over her mother's death, and the Doctor realizing that he's become too manipulative and needs to start killing people face to face, where he can watch them suffer. (Or something.) And they all became telepathically linked and best buddies, and the Doctor had a premonition of his impending regeneration. And NONE of that ever came to anything. Unless, if you want to be generous, you count the TV movie as the culmination of that last one.

Dee: Yes. But that said, the Doctor is back! The spraypainting the spybot is so very very Seven. I could see Sylvester McCoy doing that without even stretching a neuron, and it brought a real smile to my face. For the first time, I felt like we got to know Benny, too. Climbing into the food dispenser was a metric ton of awesome in a very small container. I found myself more relaxed reading this book, more confident that nothing that was completerly and utterly out of left field was coming. Even the bit characters meant something. I liked the relationship between Sam and his wife, for instance, short as the scene with them together was.

John: I agree on that score...although I think the juggling was probably just a titch too far. (Still funny, though.) This was definitely one of the major early triumphs as far as Benny went (although again, I think that 'Highest Science' did a good job of developing her.) It's funny that you mention "nothing that was completely and utterly out of left field was coming", though, because I felt like it did, at least twice. First with the IMC mercenaries...not only was their arrival not foreshadowed, but the entire piece of conceptual worldbuilding that explained why they were allowed to do what they did came after they arrived. And then at the end, the explanation of what the mushroom farm did felt like it was just sort of, "Oh, we need it to do something big and potentially universe-endingly scary."

Dee: It could have been playing the spoons! (That would have been too far in my book. Juggling, eh. No weirder than Four doing the hypnosis in The Ribos Operation.)

What I meant by coming out of left field was more in characterization than plot, and I think what you're talking about is more plot-related. Yes, holy cow, what on earth we have space mercenaries? is a valid reaction. I wasn't as put off by the mushroom thing because I was already on board for "this place does astonishing stuff and that's just asking for it to go terribly wrong" with the unexplained moon orbits.

What I really want to note here is the way I saw shades of The Impossible Planet in this one. Or, more accurately, how I think this was concept-checked in The Impossible Planet. Is it just me, or do you see that too?

John: Oh, totally. We've both been operating for a while now on the working theory that the NAs were a big crucible that they used to distill out the key elements of the new Doctor Who before it went to series, and this one is a clear influence. (We'll actually see the writer of 'The Impossible Planet' show up before we leave the Virgin books, in fact.) There are other books that influenced it as well, but yes, this is a clear ancestor.

Dee: Alas, there was no way they could pull this book off in a season. It would take the total season budget, period. But I can feel the aspects of it peeking through. Although I think I liked the characters better as people in The Impossible Planet, I have to say... but that's me. I did like that the Doctor could have left at any time, unlike the TV episode... but didn't. He was going to see it through.

John: Yes. Although I didn't like the whole, "The Doctor secretly uses mysterious telepathic powers to make people accept his presence without asking awkward questions" bit. Primarily because if he really could do that, he wouldn't get locked up as quickly or as frequently as he usually does.

Dee: Maybe it's something he's just learning to use? Spitballing, as I agree with you it's very deus ex machina-y.

Other things I like: the idea of a multi-moon ecosystem-and-power plant-and-temple. That was awesome. It felt both natural and appropriately alien. I liked the multicultural nature of the crew. I liked the idea that they were in a money crunch... too often that kind of economy gets ignored in books, but it felt real. There was a sense of a greater universe of which this was one part, and that's hard to do convincingly.

John: Yes, that's the upside of Andy Lane's continuity fetish; he's engaging in some serious worldbuilding here, taking the background details of continuity that we saw in TV stories like 'Colony in Space' and doing some serious thought about what the world would be like given the glimpses we've seen of it...and what history would be like given the moments the Doctor's stepped into. It gives the book a sense of texture, of having a universe that's really lived in. (The downside, of course, would be the unsubtle winks to the past like the mention of the Hydrax. Those always seem to me like when bands shout out, "Hello, Minneapolis!" at concerts, just because they know they'll always get a cheer when they mention something you already know and love.)

Dee: Hee. Well, yes. In this case it works out well, though. It's not much different than things we've seen in the TV show, like the Macra in Gridlock. They didn't really add much to the plot, but hey, fans, we looooove you! And that texture is really important. It even adds to the idea of the Doctor having a lot of work to do to erase himself from things hundreds of years later, so I can solidly get behind it.

John: I can generally get behind it, but occasionally Andy Lane takes it a bit far. But we'll discuss that more when we get to 'Original Sin' and the scene where the Doctor reminisces about the footgear he wore on previous adventures. Likewise, I think we'll save Jim Mortimore's peculiar tendency towards whacking his supporting cast...unless you want to comment on it?

Dee: Nah. He seems to enjoy it a bit much, but then, that didn't happen as much as it should have even on the series, so. I do want to touch on Ace, though. I have reached the conclusion at this point that Ace is going to be like that kid I knew in high school who I had a crush on but then she went in the military and we just can't relate any more. And I'll have to be OK with that, but damn, you know? That's kind of where I am with her at this point.

John: Yeah...there's a lot more sturm undt drang to get through before we finally get a reasonable interpretation of the character. Although thankfully not a ton in our next book...which has ZOMBIES! Woo! See you there!

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Lucifer Rising

My frustration with the line abated slightly with this book. For e first time in a bit I could actually hear Sylvester McCoy's voice speaking theDoctor's lines. I could see the movements as he would do them. I could even, I sigh to say, see Ace and hear Sophie Aldred.

That wouldn't be a problem if I actually liked the way her character arc is going. Frankly, I don't understand how we get from the Travelers to the current Ace, but I am going to have to let that go. So, given the Ace we are given, I have to say she is drawn pretty well. Within this book, the characters are consistent to themselves. That certainly puts it more than a cut above the other books lately.

I think this is the first book I feel I'm truly getting a sense of Benny, too. Before, she was mainly not-screamy and not-Ace. This book, she forms friendships. She tries to escape competently. She is actually helpful. I seriously want this trend to continue.

Most importantly and thank Gods, the Doctor is back. I missed him so. Yes, he's plotting. Yes, he doesn't tip his hand and he overshoots and it bites him on the butt. But it's the Doctor I recognize, and I am so thrilled to have him.

I can see points in the new series possibly influenced by this book, most notably "The Impossible Planet." The Angels in the atmosphere are replaced by the demon in the planet's heart, and the two planets in impossible orbits are replaced by one in impossible stasis, but the claustrophobic atmosphere is very similar. It's easy to imagine Davies thinking about this, knowing that he'll never have the budget to realize it, and telling someone he wants something like it. (Not saying that happened, but...)

And there are interesting ideas here: the simulated child, the feedback loop system, the theological implications. I'm still not entirely sure what was going on with Miles and the tribal history. I did like the fact that at least someone tried to make the future multicultural whose name was not Paul or Ben. I also liked the multidimensional aliens, although I thought they could have been more, well, alien.

This is a book that could have been made clearer, but it succeeded on so many points I don't feel like nitpicking. After the previous few, it comes as a complete relief for me.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Lucifer Rising

Recently, I was chatting with Phil Sandifer (whose own excellent blog, the TARDIS Eruditorium, is actually intersecting with the period we're covering here) and was surprised to find out that even by the standards of "hardcore" Doctor Who fans, I've read these books a lot. ("Hardcore" is in quotes because everyone measures this in their own way. I can name every Virgin NA and MA and who wrote them, but I didn't make Time Lord ceremonial robes for my wedding. But I digress...) The point is, I've read 'Lucifer Rising' probably half a dozen times now, more than most people, and I've had the chance to rethink my opinions on it multiple times. And what I keep coming back to is that this book illustrates the hazards and hardships of working in a shared universe better than any other story I can think of.

Because 'Lucifer Rising' is good, and it's well-regarded, but it has ambitions greater than that. Which is actually pretty impressive, considering how much it achieves. Mortimore and Lane produce a good hard science-fiction novel in the vein of Arthur C. Clarke, with a fully-realized backstory and characters that feel like they could sustain a story of their own even without the Doctor and company, while not shoving the main characters off into the role of passive observers in their own series. This is no easy feat to manage, as we have seen in the last two novels, and the quality on display here should not be underestimated.

It's not a perfect novel--there are at least two plot swerves that Mortimore and Lane don't even feint at setting up (IMC's corporate takeover of the base, in a book that has barely even mentioned corporations to that point, and the "morphic field generator", which feels more like the authors realized they needed a big third-act climax than a logical conclusion to the rest of the book.) And for those of you who will be following along with us later, Mortimore's tendency to kill off any character who's ceased to be important to the plot begins here, and Lane's habit of referencing old episodes is already on full display. (Zeiton-7, vraxoin, the Hydrax, the Adjudicators eventually becoming the Knights of Oberon, Delphons...I'm sure someone else has made a comprehensive list somewhere, but I can't be bothered. The Dalek invasion is probably the most excusable, as it provides a whacking great chunk of atmosphere that permeates the book.)

That said, it's amazing how well the characters work as people in their own right. Mortimore and Lane try very hard not to reduce anyone to a stereotype; Piper, one of the book's ostensible villains, is scared and desperate and stupid, while Legion, the book's actual villain, is just as desperate on a more cosmic scale. Ace is confused and frustrated in a very human way and Bishop is a character that I actually would have liked to see in his own spin-off. And the dialogue fairly crackles at times, with Bishop and the Doctor getting the best exchanges ("I'm not reading you rmind. It's just that everyone thinks that when they first see us.") Really, it's a strong effort that hangs together well. But as I said, the book has greater ambitions than simply to be good.

Mortimore and Lane wanted this book to be a game-changer. Theirs was to be the book where Ace cast off her cynicism and deep distrust of the Doctor through a cathartic confrontation with the "ghost" of Jan, theirs was to be the book where the Doctor shed off his manipulative skin and finally stopped making other people do his dirty work. (And where he became Ah-nuld, apparently...there's no way to read "Welcome to hell, Legion," unironically.) They even foreshadowed a regeneration sequence. This was, in short, meant to be a turning point for the entire series of Doctor Who.

Didn't happen. Nobody followed them along this new direction, not even a little bit. Ace continued to be the same person she had been in 'Deceit', and needed an entire second cathartic arc to shake her of her cynicism and deep distrust of the Doctor (and arguably, a third, counting 'Set Piece'.) The idea of the Doctor as gun-toting action hero was taken out back, beaten with a shovel, and quietly buried never to resurface. And the regeneration was nixed by the BBC.

As a result, the book feels a bit portentous at times, particularly at the end where the Doctor, Ace and Benny all resolve all their emotional problems through alien super-science and become besties. It's not that the scene is bad per se, it's that it rings hollow in light of what we know about the characters. It's hard to sell that kind of personal transformation at the best of times, but it's even harder knowing we have nine more books of these characters not getting along for the exact same reasons they didn't get along at the beginning of this one. Mortimore and Lane tried to take the series in a different direction, and it's hard sometimes to focus on the success of 'Lucifer Rising' as a novel when it so obviously fails as a blueprint for the future of the line.

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Chat: Deceit

John: So...not quite sure where to begin with this. I suppose we should start with Ace, because really, that’s all anyone remembers about this book. “It introduced the new Ace.” Even then, though, I think this book overcorrects from the “teenage Ace, sidekick to the Doctor” in a way that we’re going to spend the next ten books fixing. As someone coming in cold, what did you think of the new Ace?

Dee: OK, first of all, a little note about how this blog works: We don’t read each other’s reviews before we’ve written our own. Despite the fact that John had his review weeks ago, I didn’t read it until I’d hit publish on mine. So I had NO IDEA even going out of my review that Darvill-Evans had written game books. That said? Ace didn’t come across as just a Mary Sue. She came across as a RPG NPC character Mary Sue that the GM had basically made into zir own PC. The whole book read to me as being just as much a RPG-personal-game-based book as the first DragonLance trilogy, except DragonLance was better written. And Ace’s buffness and luck and whatever was completely in line with minmaxing and rule lawyering.

John: Yeah, I found it both striking that we both independently came to the conclusion that this felt like a dusted-off RPG scenario, even though you had no knowledge of Darvill-Evans’ RPG work. And I know just what you mean...if I’d written a scenario like this, my editor would have killed me. Because ultimately, Captain Defries and Trooper Johannsen are the PCs in this scenario (well, actually those two along with Francis and Elaine, but the party is split up and doesn’t get together until the end. More bad GMing.) And they mostly either stand around or die while the NPCs do all the work. Defries keeps complaining about how she’s stuck watching Ace and Daak do all the cool stuff and she has no real influence; that’s a classic “railroad plot”, and it’s pretty sad that the novel feels like a railroad plot in a medium where that shouldn’t even have meaning.

Dee: And Benny is... well, she’s pretty much an NPC in the role of a PC. She’s the player who gets what’s going early on, realizes the railroading is going on, and kinda checks out. Every so often, there’s a fit of activity which might stun the GM: “But... what do you mean, you sneak out of the room with Lacuna?! You can’t... Oh, fine. Roll at -8. ….. Natural 20. OK, you sneak out...” and then the GM sabotages any attempt to do anything productive. I mean, once Benny sneaks out and finds Ace, she isn’t even really in the book from there. It’s totally a GM punishment thing.

John: So we’ve pretty much established that not only is it a gaming scenario, it’s kind of a failure even at that. This is the kind of gaming scenario you get stuck in at conventions, basically. Beyond that...actually, there’s not a whole lot beyond that, is there? I mean, I commented in my review on how this feels very similar to ‘Timewyrm: Apocalypse’, only padded out with some macho space troopers running around. (And the “macho” is so painfully earnest...I just wanted to pat Defries on the head and say, “Bless.”) Oh, and the sex. You can really see how something like ‘Timewyrm: Genesys’ got published now that you’ve seen this editor’s idea of “adult”, can’t you?

Dee: I want to tell that one character whose name is already gone from my brain because she is otherwise unmemorable “...seriously, go to a munch before you get into a scene. And make sure you negotiate.” And in an attempt to make Ace seem tough and willing to do what needs to be done, we get those awful, creepy, rapey scenes with Daak, which.... look, I know you love engaging with misogynists, but really, anyone who defends this one needs to be on the police watchlist, not on your list of people to yell at. (I won’t say debate, because you can’t convince someone that icky.) They left me feeling unclean, and I imagine they could well be triggery for some people.

John: It was Britta, but I had to look it up. And ugh, yeah. The scene with wasn’t just that he was portrayed as being Rapey McRapester. It wasn’t just that this was being portrayed as kind of okay, because That’s Just His Way, Charmingly Brash and Uncomplicated. It was that Ace’s reaction when he was about to rape her was to sort of shrug and say, “Oh, well. He’s going to have sex with me against my will and I can’t stop him. Whaddya gonna do, right, ladies?” That sequence flew in the face of everything we’d ever seen about Ace as a character, in the service of gender politics that could be politely described as “mace-worthy.” (Yes, that’s the polite description.) Pair that with the creepy lesbian sexual predator, and you wind up really wondering how people like Paul Cornell and Kate Orman got hired.

Dee: I’d just like to say it here, in case somehow it’s never been said before because people are scared to say it or think it’s impolite to say it: This Kind Of Thing Is Not OK, and playing Ace as being OK with it is Also Not OK if you want her to be a “strong woman character” or even a freaking sentient female. The only Remotely OK sexual relationship in the book is Francis and his girlfriend at the beginning, and even that had things about it that bugged me. So, Peter Darvill-Evans? I really hope you meant this to be creepy. And if you didn’t, please examine your life. A LOT. Because This Is Not OK.

Whew. Got that off my chest. And I have to say other than that, I can’t find a lot to talk about. It’s better than the previous book, but only because D-E is a better writer. (I remain convinced that our six-year-old is a better writer. I might try to get some of her stuff to post here to prove it.) If it weren’t for the fact it was preceded by The Pit, this book would be the worst we’ve read so far.

John: Agreed. Beyond the fact that the book was a dull slog, the reintroduction of Ace was mishandled, the gender politics made ‘Sucker Punch’ look like a feminist film, and the whole thing is more or less a deservedly forgotten mess, there’s not really a whole lot to say about ‘Deceit’. Thank goodness the next book is another step up, even if it’s got its own problems. On to ‘Lucifer Rising’!