Monday, July 29, 2013

Tragedy Day

It was too good to last. The high point that was "No Future" is undercut by the very low point that is "Tragedy Day," and my head is shaking.

The good points: Ace was more along the lines of the series Ace, Benny was still funny and smart, there  was a reference to One and Susan (I am beginning to think I'm a sucker for that kind of thing), and some of the underlying plot made sense.

The bad parts: everything else. Good lord, this book was a slog to get through. Crispin was completely unbelievable, Forgwyn even more so. Ace being back along the lines of the series Ace was good for me, but bad for the character... there was no way to explain how she got back there from where she's been, character-wise. The dystopian setting was straight out of the time period without anything to distinguish it. I couldn't have cared less about the Friars of Pangloss.

It's really very sad, because I can see what could have been a good book under there. Seeing an older woman who is what Ace could become might have been good for our hera, but it's never explored. Benny could have been better used, although her decision to "go exploring" is right in character. A robotic Doctor is a great idea. Robots taking over major media figures is classic, and could have been so much fun. The Vijans are touched on, then never used again. Ever. What a waste.

The rest of the book is just awful, though. Crispin's about-face is reasonless and as arbitrary as they come. The slaags are more grotesque than scary. All of the bad guys are copied from pantomime. They just needed mustaches to twirl. The organized crime boss could have been interesting but was given incredibly little to do. The way scenes are telegraphed leads me to believe that this was started as a script with stage directions and the writer wasn't good enough to make the shift.

It's really sad when you find yourself thinking "At least no one walked up and started declaiming about what Tragedy Day really is." Bleah.

Friday, July 19, 2013

No Future

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.

Monday, July 15, 2013

No Future

Paul Cornell once again does wonderful things in this novel. I've never seen the episode with the baddie in it, so I'm perhaps under-educated on some of the background story. That said, I had a blast reading it.

The Doctor's treatment of Ace and their mutual mistrust has come to a head. Her neutrality toward Bennie has slid toward dislike. In addition to all that, Ace has started having visions of a red-clad woman. Meanwhile, they're back in the 1970s and finding out that something or someone has been interfering. The solution? Save the world with rock 'n roll!

OK, fine, punk. Regardless, this is a great setup for a novel. And Cornell's usual deft touch with character is back. He's shameless about invoking elements of Love and War, of course, because he understands the unwritten parts of that story. I enjoyed this book a lot more than Love and War, though, for multiple reasons.

First, that aforementioned deft touch with characters. I liked the punk band, especially Danny. The UNIT subplot is ingenious and works only because Cornell makes you believe these characters would behave in just the way they do, especially the beloved Brigadier. What do you mean, you don't recognize the Doctor and Ace? And yet Benton recognizes the Doctor, as does Yates? This plot, by the way, had me almost biting my nails... and I've been working very hard to quit! So well done, and so much fun. Bravo. And while I have no idea, as previously stated, if Mortimus is true to the series, he is internally consistent through the whole novel. His mannerisms are distinctive but not overplayed and he comes across as a very real villain, in part because of his capriciousness.

Second, the usual Cornell tight plotting. He knows where he is taking the book, and so events unspool cleanly and with a sense of inevitability. This can be hard to take, like when Ace is so very clearly being manipulated by Mortimus. As she follows him into his TARDIS, as he apparently mind-controls her, it made me want to reach through the pages and shake her. A feeling of real danger to main characters is hard to come by, even in the NAs so far, but Cornell can bring it off.

Third, because despite all this it has a wonderfully light touch. Even when I was trying not to bite my nails, Benny could make me laugh. Even when I was seriously worried for Ace, Danny's nerves about sex kept things from getting too thick. No, this isn't a romp. It's clear that for at least some characters, things are not going to end well. The ability to soft-pedal that, though, is magnificent. And the Doctor's brilliant escape at a pivotal moment is both jaw-dropping (yes, even though of course he's going to escape) and funny. I mean, really... origami?

It's really almost too bad that you have to go through Blood Heat and The Dimension Riders to get to this point. The other three books in the arc - Left-Handed Hummingbird, Conundrum, and No Future - stand as shining examples of what Doctor Who can be when it's freed of budget considerations and has excellent writers to take it that next step farther. I'll read the latter three again for fun, where I won't read the former two. And I feel bad for Gareth Roberts, because he had to follow this one... and I just don't know how anyone could pull that off.

Saturday, July 13, 2013

Chat: Conundrum

John: And the hits just keep on coming, don’t they? This is part of a stretch of books I absolutely love...which is funny, because I kind of hated them the first time I read them. I read the series out of order up through...oh, I think it was ‘Head Games’...and so I really didn’t understand at the time that this was a story arc that was deliberately ramping up the tension between Ace and the Doctor so that it could release it cathartically. I thought Ace was just being kind of a jerk. Mind you, she still kind of is, but so is Benny. The regulars don’t cover themselves with glory in this one, do they?

Dee: No, they really don’t. I love the book, but at this point I’d love to give Ace a swift kick in the tail. Except, of course, I’d get flechetted. Benny, I can understand behaving as she is to an extent. It must be decidedly uncomfortable on the TARDIS at this point, and who can blame her for wanting to leave?

And yet, holy cow, I love this story. The characters are so improbable, and they don’t realize it... and I never saw the original Land of Fiction story in its entirety, so I didn’t pick up on what was going on until the robots appeared. Once they did, though, I did remember what I’d seen: the distinctive noise kept going in my head. Then everything makes sense, but it’s not like the original Land of Fiction, so how are they going to get out of it? Especially with the tension and the team not working together, unlike the original trip to the Land.

John: Actually, I thought that Benny was worse than Ace in this one. “I’ve finally got Ace to confide in me! I’m going to go blab it to the Doctor now!” ICK. But yes, the main thing here is just how wonderfully deadpan Steve Lyons is. It’s this beautiful double layer of irony involved--on the one hand, he’s taking all these old shop-worn tropes and lame ideas from ancient adventure fiction, like the Famous Five and the Phantom Stranger, and putting them in modern, grim and gritty stories to show how utterly unrealistic and ludicrous they are...and then, he reveals that this approach is taken by a whiny, overgrown adolescent who’s run out of good ideas and is pissing in the sandbox because he can’t think of anything good to do with the toys anymore. That is absolutely beautiful to me.

Dee: That’s the only way this can work, and (at least for me) work it does. I love how the relationships in the Land weave together, as well. This character married to that character, a group of kids traveling to the beach when their parents seem to have been in the village without leaving for decades... priceless. Superhero meeting spy novel meeting thriller meeting Lifetime drama about abuse. It’s great. And at first the TARDIS crew grates in that somehow-harmonious milieu, and it’s only later that it becomes clear that the grating is all that’s saving them. He does great work here.

John: And he plays it all so straight. I think that’s why Phil thought that it was a serious book that was wrecking his favorite story, because Lyons never breaks character. He’s writing from the point of view of the Master of the Land, and he never deviates from that perspective even when it’s obvious that there’s a huge disconnect between what the narrative is saying and what the author thinks. It’s like watching Stephen Colbert work in some ways. The whole thing with the Famous Five’s dog going rabid and having to be put down is simultaneously funny and mean-spirited, but you’re meant to see both ends. That’s the book in a nutshell, I think.

Dee: Very much so. And, of course, your beloved Scrabble game moment. It’s beautiful and hair-raising at once. And at the end, when they confront the Master of the Land, you do feel sorry for him. How can you not? He’s a victim. You wish that the Doctor could rescue him as well. I think it was never quite explained why not, but I understand why: he’s too much a character himself.

John: Well, they’ll get into that a lot in Lyons’ next NA, ‘Head Games’ (um, not to spoil or anything...) But I think it’s more a case of the Prisoner’s Dilemma than any kind of physical barrier. The MoL is, to his mind, playing the odds...yes, the Doctor could theoretically get both of them out, and yes, he could even more theoretically defeat the villain behind all this who seems to have unlimited power and a long memory for grudges. But if the MoL allies himself with the Doctor and the Doctor loses, then he’s bound to be punished for picking the losing side. Better to try to the last to defeat the Doctor and hope for either a win or a merciful ally in defeat. At least, that’s the impression I got.

Dee: It’s a great ending. Reading it as an arc book, I can see why so many threads are left unresolved. I can imagine the frustration of fans at the time, though... Ace’s last action, again, makes me want to put her in time out. And Benny discovering the place wasn’t what she hoped is sad. None of this makes the book less to me. It did make me nervous about how they were going to wrap all this up.

John: I’m actually pretty sure I read the wrap-up first, so I already knew that it was heading for a great ending. Which is our next book! ‘No Future’, by the always excellent Paul Cornell. We saw him last weekend, and he visibly winced when we mentioned we were reading it. Let’s see if we can’t show him how wrong he is about it, shall we?