Friday, February 12, 2016

James S.A. Corey's LEVIATHAN WAKES

So, a lot of people who are talking about these books and the rather good television adaptation they've recently spawned* seem to be very interested in having the argument over whether Leviathan's Wake and its sequels count as Space Opera or not. And maybe I should wait until I've read further into the series before I form my opinion, but I have an early contender for an answer to the question, and that is: it's not. Because it's its own thing, and the two-headed monster that writes as James S.A. Corey already done named it: it's Belter Punk.

At least this first book is. There are hints throughout, of course, that it is going to have that galactic sweep and scale and sense of awe and alienness that people go to Space Opera for, but this book right here, this is Belter Punk, which within the text of the novel refers to a genre of (presumably) grungy and loud and unlovely but passionate music favored by residents of the asteroid belt/minor planets out between Mars and Jupiter, where they live inside hollowed-out rocks and aren't quite self-contained but sure do try but meanwhile they're still dependent on Earth and Mars and various shipping vessels to make sure they don't run out of air or water. It's an unglamorous life out there in the Sol system, and the people who have adapted to it have gotten a tad strange, and not just because a general lack or low level of gravity have made them tall and skinny and big-headed and knobby-jointed and a tad resentful.

But so it's mostly Belters we're dealing with, here at the beginning of the Expanse series, chiefly in the persons of James Miller and Naomi Nagata, he a terse, embittered gumshoe straight out of a Dashiell Hammet, she a tech wiz who starts out her novel-life serving on the crew of a space-freighter hauling water to Ceres, the minor planet in/on which Miller has spent his whole life...

But there are planetary types, too, out there among them, including Earther Jim Holden, the Executive Officer of the freighter on which Naomi serves, who grew up in some kind of official polyamorous group marriage in Montana and was supposed to take over/save the family's ranch there someday but instead headed for outer space; Amos Burton, also an Earther, and a smarter and more useful (and even more quotable) version of Jayne Cobb if ever there was one, who serves as a mechanic on the freighter; Alex Kamal, he of East Indian descent and Texas accent that mark him out as a guy who grew up on Mars and quite the pilot; and Fred Johnson, he of the colorful military past who is now the somewhat shady "unofficial prime minister" of the Outer Planets Alliance.**

It's a not-too-surprising combination of noir detective plot (enacted by Miller) and a mystery/assassination/perils of Pauline plot (enacted by the freighter crew) that bring them all into each other's orbits, as both investigations eventually lead the parties to the same place, where they make a creepy and potentially system-shattering discovery involving the secret origins of one of Saturn's moons and a nasty "protomolecule" that is a sort of weaponized version of the noocytes of Blood Music (Greg Bear) fame.

There are lots of space battles and starship chases and space station explosions and squicky evil to enjoy as the plot tosses the characters around, making this a fun as well as a politically interesting read, but what really sold me on it was the character of Miller, the washed-up detective who is tossed a case that's pretty much meant to be unsolvable but decides to give it his all anyway, with melancholy as well as explosive results. He's in every way a literary cliche that should make one yawn, but his background as a guy born and raised in space gives him just enough freshness to make all that old, sad stuff feel new again. And I'm not just talking about the fungal whiskey he drinks (though maybe more than a bit is due to what watchers of the TV series have waggishly dubbed the "Space Fedora of Justice" even though it is very clearly named several times in the text as a porkpie and not a fedora, but anyway). His story is absorbing enough on its own, but when it becomes entertwined with those of the freighter crew members, it all gets wonderfully complex, until there is a moment when the essential natures of Miller and Holden so perfectly clash and transform each other, and with that the plot, and I just sort of sat there stunned for a while and had to stop reading and unpack more boxes (I recently moved to a new house).

I have no idea if the other four books in the series so far are going to hold my attention as well as this one did because of [REDACTED], but the way my Own Dear Personal Mother is tearing through them (she's already on the fifth novel and sort of tapping her foot at me, but hey, she still hasn't read any of the Song of Ice and Fire yet, just seen the TV show, so, you know, that.) I'd say it's an even money bet at what's left of the casino on Eros that they will. I've already started on Caliban's War...

*And yes, once again, the TV people caught me flat-footed. I've had this series on my to-read radar for years now, but kept getting distracted by shinies, and now they've gone and made the first half-or-so of this novel and chunks of later ones into a whole season of high-quality TV! It's The Last Kingdom all over again. D'oh!

**One of several factions rubbing up against each other and not-quite-fighting over resources in this human-settled Solar System, with Earth and Mars the inner planet superpowers, the Belt a somewhat chaotic mess of colonial outposts and outright corporate properties, and the at-times seemingly terroristic Outer Planets Alliance, aka OPA serving as a catch-all for further flung outposts' interests and meddling a good bit in the affairs of the Belt, too. Which is to say that if you don't like a lot of political plottery in your sci-fi, these books might not turn out to be your favorites, but I'd still give them a try for the reasons I've outlined above.

Saturday, January 9, 2016

Doctor, Doctor: Gary Russell's DOCTOR WHO: DIVIDED LOYALTIES

From the very first episode, "An Unearthly Child", the Doctor (Who) has been an enigmatic figure, about whom very little backstory has dribbled out over 50+ years. We know he's a Time Lord, a being with two hearts, at least 13 lives, and a vastly alien and nearly omniscient perspective on time and space. We've met a few of his fellow Time Lords, both of the sort who stayed behind on their home planet of Gallifrey to mind the shop and the handful of "renegades" who chose to come out and play in the rest of the universe. Of this latter group, of course, all but the Doctor are villains, and they are all generally as enigmatic in terms of back-story as he is.

Now there are some fans who hanker after every scrap of "knowledge" about the Doctor's history and upbringing and life on Gallifrey as a Time Tot and whatnot, and they would probably just love a once-and-for-all prequel/origin story all about this someday.

There are also those fans who hope this never, ever happens, who prefer the mystery, the room for speculation, the sense of sheer alien incomprehensibility that a character like the Doctor and a species like the Time Lords inherently have. I am one of this latter sort.

For those of the other sort, well, have I found the novel for you. And I wish you joy of it. For me, though... Eh.

Divided Loyalties brings the Fifth Doctor, Adric, Nyssa and Tegan face to face with one of the more enigmatic and unknowable -- and under-utilized -- Doctor Who villains: The Celestial Toymaker. It should surprise no one that he is one of my favorite Doctor Who villains (which is odd, because on the whole I don't like near-omnipotent heroes OR villains, but hey). For those not familiar with him, he is a being from a whole 'nother universe, who exercises near limitless power in this one -- he is supposed to be of a kind with the Black and White Guardians of Key to Time fame*** -- but who uses it chiefly to put lesser beings through a series of cruel and almost-but-not-quite unwinnable games in his Toyroom. Losers of his games he either enslaves or turns into doll-statues and imprisons forever as decor for said Toyroom. He dresses like a Chinese Mandarin (or at least like a British stage magician pretending to be an inscrutable Chinese Master dresses, minus the Fu Manchu facial hair and badly done stage makeup that's meant to suggest epicanthic folds to an audience who has never seen an actual Asian) and really, really hates the Doctor, who has beaten and will beat him at every encounter.

So this sounds promising as hell, right? Even if one isn't a huge fan of the Fifth Doctor, the poutingest pretty boy Doctor EVAR, I used to think, but then the Tenth Doctor came along and knocked his pouty prettiness into a cocked hat. He's still the Doctor, and so I at least like him, and here he is matching wits with the best villain, but... but...

Well, the Toymaker, aka the Guardian of Dreams, is messing with people via their dreams, dreams that play on their regrets and fears from the darkest moments of their past, on their guilty consciences, and when it's finally the Doctor's turn OH MY GOD IT GOES ON FOREEEEEEEEEEEEEVER. The middle third-or-more of this novel is just one giant (somewhat distorted, because the Toymaker is messing with things, so yeah, not all of it matches canon but get over it, nerds, the Toymaker is messing with things) dream sequence flashback to the Doctor's student days at Hogwarts the Prydon Academy and his youthful hijinks with his youthful pals in Gryffindor the Deca and remember how much I really don't like Harry Potter you guys? I don't like Harry Potter. Except for Neville Longbottom.*

Anyway, yes, it's all about the Deca, and this part is only sort of interesting in that we get glimpses of the young Master (except he's going by the name of Koschei, which name he doesn't canonically come up with until much later in his lives, but hey, Toymaker) and a young version of another fantastic but underutilized Time Lord villain, the Rani (whose real name is Ushas, which fits because that's the Vedic goddess of the dawn and "Rani" is a term for "Queeen" in Hindi)** along with young versions of pretty much other named Time Lord we've met in the TV series but it's really just interesting to see Lil' Master and Lil' Rani except no, we don't even get much of that, because it's all about the precocity of the Doctor (dur) and two other Time Cadets, Millennia and Rallon, who are destined to take on the Toymaker in their own little story and lose and...

Yawn.

But as I said, some of you fans who want everything explained and mapped out and whatnot are going to just love that bit.

What I wanted, though, was the Doctor and the Toymaker. Which I only kind of got.

But hey, the book does have other kind of cool things to offer. For everything except the Eternal Flashback, our point of view character is basically Tegan, a character who was never really a fan favorite but gets a bit of love here, because Russell portrays her as usually immediately regretting the rude and impatient things she's always saying, and always on the verge of apologizing and trying to make amends right before Trouble Strikes, and that makes her a lot more bearable, perhaps even likeable.

Adric, though, is still a cock. As for Nyssa, she's barely there, except when she has her own experience with the Toymaker and his torments.

But really, this is kind of Tegan's book, Eternal Flashback plot aside. For the planet the Toymaker has fashioned into his latest Doctor Trap is a populated one, and its population have a prophecy about a Chosen One who will come, and said Chosen One is Tegan. It's a nice chance for her to have a bit of her own story that, for once, doesn't involve her being possessed by the Mara (or at least it doesn't involve that very much) and does a nice job of exploring what an Earthling Companion's inner life might have been like before the modern TV series conveniently sonic'd everybody's cell phones so they could phone home from any point in time and space. I would have liked this story to have had a bit more prominence in the book, or at least get as much attention as the Eternal Flashback did. But, no.

As for my Arbitrary and Mercurial lists, here is the author list as of this book:

Alastair Reynolds
Mark Gatiss
Terrance Dicks
Jonathan Morris
Justin Richards
Gary Russell
Keith Topping

And the Doctors:

Ninth
Twelfth
Sixth
Third
Eleventh
Second
War
Fourth
Eighth
Fifth 
Seventh
First
Tenth

Yes! Five moved up a space, largely because he was kind of nice to Tegan in this novel. I got the impression that he was fully aware that she was trying not to be such a bitch, anyway, and that counted for something.

And yes, I wound up liking Tegan a bit more than usual this time around. She's still in the low middle of the horde, but were I tracking it more precisely, she'd probably move up a spot or two as well. Adric, though, Adric is way down there with Peri and Mel and Ian. Nyssa... I dunno how I feel about Nyssa. Big Finish has been good to her, though, so I like her a lot more than I did during her TV tenure, but she was pretty much just there because she was supposed to be there in this book.

On to a Sixth Doctor novel, now. Sixie gets all the best Big Finish stories, so my hopes are a bit high, in that I hope the prose authors are as good to him as the audio drama authors are. There is lots of overlap in these, so I feel justified in my hope. Plus, I'm that rare bird, someone who liked him in his TV run. I may even have had a bit of a crush on Colin Baker. Yes, even the coat. Dude got to have no ducks to give to rock a coat like that, and I respect that.

*Which, there is totally a Neville Longbottom figure here, Runcible the Hall Monitor, but they're way meaner to him than the Hogwarts crew ever were to Neville so there, I've found one tiny thing in the HP universe that is better than something in Doctor Who. Popqueenie is punching the air.

**Some extra fan service is to be had here, by the way, for this book has tied the Whoniverse rather explicitly to the Cthulhu mythos, via these beings. And there's a connection to Gene Wolfe, too (and I promise, I'm going to finish Suns, Suns, Suns, oh yes I am), in that Ushas is the name by which Urth comes to be known at the end of his Solar Cycle. Oh, and the chapter titles are all the names of OMD songs. Shrug.

***So really they should have gotten an Indian actress to portray her, but you know, Kate O'Mara pwned it, so that's okay.

Sunday, January 3, 2016

Chuck Wendig's STAR WARS: AFTERMATH

However one may feel about the Disney purchase of the Star Wars franchise and the corporate decision to chuck out the hundreds of books and comics that make up the Star Wars Expanded Universe and start a brand new continuity, said new continuity is off to a remarkable start, and not just because The Force Awakens let us all breathe a sigh of relief that J.J. Abrams wasn't going to ruin everything.*

Star Wars: Aftermath, published to both acclaim and controversy (which controversy I'm not going to address here because I don't really understand it) a few months before The Movie was, is further proof that just because there has been some retcon doesn't mean there can't emerge some great stories from the new effort. The galaxy far, far away is pretty big, and there is room for a lot in it, and a lot of it is awesome.

That being said, I can see where some fans might have been a leetle disappointed to pick this book up, because it is mostly lacking in what people have been hankering for ever since the prequel movies stank up the theaters: Han, Leia, Luke, Chewie, Lando, Jedis and the Force... But by now we've all seen that the The Force Awakens took care of them just fine, so let's focus on what Aftermath does not lack, which is quality.

The title here is key. The events of Return of the Jedi are still very, very recent as this new story unfolds. The ewoks may well still be partying down on Endor's forest moon. Thank goodness we don't have to see that, but it might well be. But one victory, however spectacular, doth not a regime change make, and while the Empire was pretty well decapitated, that doesn't mean everything in the galaxy is immediately hunky dory. As we've seen in our lifetimes in the Middle East, taking out the evil dictator and his cronies causes as many problems as it solves: power vacuums, chaos, opportunism, economic collapse, weapons of mass destruction in unknown hands, troubled war veterans, disruptions in commerce and shipping... the list is long and grim.

And it's this stuff that Wendig has chosen to imagine, to tackle for this new trilogy of novels. Which means he is unassailably writing Star Wars for grown-ups, making the long, long ago feel more real and challenging and gritty than any amount of practical special effects and exposition dumping opening crawls could ever do. He takes full advantage of the opportunities the novel form offers to really explore and fill out a world, with fascinating, if at times disheartening, results.

But that's not to say it's any less fun than the movies, etc. we've loved all these years. Just because the real problems of regime change and consolidation are the focus doesn't mean there isn't plenty of action, character drama, and, yes, humor as an ex-Imperial official, a kickass bounty hunter, a hot-shot pilot, her crafty and gifted son, and a host of other new characters struggle to figure out their roles and places in this new world in the brief bit of breathing room everybody is sort-of enjoying while the New Republic tries to form and begin to heal the galaxy -- and while the Empire struggles to regroup and plan to reconquer.

Of particular note is a droid that stole my heart even more completely than BB8 did in the latest film: Mr. Bones. Mr. Bones is an old Imperial battle droid, of risible memory from the prequel films. You know rolling around, committing acts of incredible ineptitude and saying "Roger Roger" every few seconds. But Mr. Bones, Mr. Bones is badass, because young Temmin Wexley (the hot-shot pilot's son) rebuilt it (partly out of animal bones, hence its name) and reprogrammed it with a lot of weird software modules that have made of the thing a seriously formidable bodyguard that has a bizarre tendency to laugh psychotically and break out into mondo crazy song and dance routines while it kills and maims. I would watch a spin-off series of this droid's adventures, yes I would.

Also notable is an Imperial admiral, Sloane, who is stuck balancing competing interests as she tries to pull together what's left of the Empire's military to take stock and figure out new strategies. Notice again the female pronoun: Aftermath, like the film that has followed it, is an artifact of a much more inclusive universe that may well be one without sexism, or at least without very much of it. Just as the film gives us the fabulously competent, fierce and sensible Rey, this novel gives us a gifted and dedicated female pilot, Norra Wexley (who is dealing not only with her military role in the rebellion but also with the effect her career has had on her relationship with the son she left behind in his aunts' care). The bounty hunter character is also female, and never once is anybody's gender an issue; never once is there any suggestion that they are exceptions to any rules, no "great pilot for being a woman" backhanded compliments, none of it. Even Sloane, who is on the receiving end of a lot of contempt as her side falls into in-fighting, doesn't get it for being a woman; she gets it for making a plan and sticking to it in the face of bullying opposition and dirty dealing.

It's all just so damned refreshing! Too bad it's just science fantasy. But it's pointing the way, and doing so without giving up any of the pew-pew-pews we go to science fantasy for.

But so, I'm pretty psyched to read the other two books in this trilogy when they're available. But then, I hope Wendig goes back to writing his very own stuff. His very own stuff is really, really good. Better than this, even. I mean, come on, this is the guy who brought us Miriam Black. I don't begrudge him his payday, but... cough. Thunderbird. Cough.

*I had to be physically escorted from the theater when I made the mistake of going to see Star Trek: Into Darkness, and got a scorching migraine for my troubles My concerns were real! To say nothing of all of the other ways that film sucked.

Doctor, Doctor: Jonathan Morris' DOCTOR WHO: FESTIVAL OF DEATH

First and foremost, let us contemplate the glorious awesomeness of the title: Festival of Death. Is that not the pulpiest pulp that ever pulped a pulp? Even before we throw in the goofiest of Doctors, Number Four, and his robot dog, K-9, and his best straight-man-cum-Time-Lady, Romana?

Then the reader quickly realizes that author Jonathan Morris was rather more ambitious about this project than these pulp promises portend (heh), because this is a proper time travel story of the kind that modern fans like to refer to as "timey-wimey"; even as the TARDIS crew arrives at the setting for this story (about which more anon) they come upon the aftermath of a terrible disaster -- and crowds of people clamoring to express their gratitude to the Doctor, Romana and K9 for saving them.

But so, look at the cover art, here. Look at the expression on Tom Baker's face. Isn't that exactly how a person reacts when he's congratulated for deeds of derring do he hasn't performed yet? Um, whut. And yes, you could say that he should maybe be used to this, being a time traveling hero and all, but generally he and his friends are locked into the progress of a linear narrative as soon as the TARDIS lands because they thus become "part of a chain of events," so I say he is legit stunned, here.

Festival of Death really, really wants to be the perfect Fourth Doctor novel, and really could have been except for how hard its author tried to make it so. There is so much plot crammed into this novel that there's really not room for anything else, but Jonathan Morris had to cram in as much as he could of what he understands the Fourth Doctor to be all about -- namely the oeuvre of one Douglas Adams -- so that the reader is constantly being distracted by all the rib-digging cleverness of recycled Adamsiana (there is even a character named Hoopy, for Bob's sake), to the detriment of her being able to enjoy the plot. This is a terrible shame because it's quite a good and clever plot, one that sends the TARDIS crew back into their own time stream many times over, so that they are having constantly to avoid meeting themselves and destroying the Web of Time. Which is awesome.

Equally awesome is the setting: a hundred-plus spaceship pile-up crash, trapped in a hyperspace bypass (sigh) and turned into a tourist attraction called G-Lock (short for "gridlock"). Which tourist attraction has become a bit old hat and is seeing a decline in visitors until a mad scientist shows up to put his demented life's work in motion to revitalize the G-Lock's reputation and economy. Which demented life's work allows tourists to lie down in a coffin and have, not merely a near-death experience, but an actual death experience, and then come back forever awed and changed by it.

So this should be a great Doctor Who novel, but it winds up merely being a good one. My assessment of this one might change on subsequent re-readings, which this intricate and crazy plot kind of cries out for, but that might not ever happen because to re-experience the plot I'll have to re-experience all the eye-rolling, and who wants to do that when so much other fun fiction yet beckons?

And yes, some of it by Jonathan Morris, who is going to be impossible to avoid because he's written a great deal of Doctor Who for every medium but television, including quite a lot of Big Finish audio plays, some of which I have already heard and enjoyed so... Hmm. But for now, my Arbitrary and Mercurial Author Ranking after Festival of Death is:

Alastair Reynolds
Mark Gatiss
Terrance Dicks
Jonathan Morris
Justin Richards
Keith Topping

But my A&MDR is unchanged:

Ninth
Twelfth
Sixth
Third
Eleventh
Second
War
Fourth
Eighth
Seventh
Fifth
First
Tenth
As for companions, I'd forgotten just how much I like Romana II. She's right there after Evelyn with Donna and Jo.

Now, onward to a Fifth Doctor novel, which I've already chosen, and about which I am super excited. Stay tuned!

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Winston Graham's THE FOUR SWANS

I've got to admit, dear readers, that with this sixth Poldark novel, Winston Graham almost lost me, because The Four Swans -- we'll talk a bit about that title in a moment -- has a whole lot of ugly going on, especially for the women.

Oh, there is plenty of the usual struggling for social justice and reform, striving to keep a mining concern going, wrangling with friends, relatives and frenemies, and lush Cornish scenery porn -- it's a Poldark novel. And Ross Poldark is still very much the main character here, even as the story broadens still more to encompass more of the world of Cornwall in the late 18th century.

But there are so many more characters -- George Warleggan, Ross's rival since school days, now married to Ross' first love; Sam and Drake Carne, his worthy but lower-class brothers-in-law; Dr. Dwight Enys, his best friend and co-conspirator, whom he daringly rescued from a French prison in the climax of the previous Poldark novel, The Black Moon; assorted members of the local gentry some of them friends and admirers, others of the sort who still haven't forgiven Ross for marrying his kitchen maid; assorted other miners and laborers and churchmen and crooks, all of them with fully-realized personalities and circumstances and lives of their own outside of their roles in Ross'.

And also, and ostensibly most importantly for this novel that is sort of named for them, there are four women whose lives are very much intertwined with Ross' own: his wife Demelza, his first love Elizabeth (once married to his cousin, now married to the hated Warleggan), Caroline (wealthy sweetheart and then wife of Dr. Enys), and Morwenna (Elizabeth's cousin, who last novel had a love affair with Demelza's brother Drake but was forced to marry an odious churchman who was deemed a more "suitable" match for her by, yep, George Warleggan). Alas, a bit, here. I'd had hopes that this novel would perhaps turn more on them as individuals and characters in their own right, but, well, the title again says it all, though the scene explaining it occurs near the story's end, as Ross takes a nature break and sees four swans floating by on the water and decides they represent these four women, but only insofar as said women relate to him.

That's not to say they don't get story arcs, these Cornish ladies. It's just that, with the kind-of exception of Caroline, who finally gets to marry her man (though she has to share him with his medical practice and the lingering after-effects of his imprisonment and harsh treatment in France), their story arcs are terribly, terribly dark and ugly and highlight in all the most unpleasant ways that it sucked a whole to be a woman back then. Cousins Elizabeth and Morwenna, especially, suffer through the novel, the one subject to suspicion and jealousy at the hands of her increasingly powerful and important husband and with the continuing fallout from an encounter with Ross two novels ago that still has me very angry at Ross; the other married against her will to a thoroughly unpleasant but well-connected and socially acceptable creep who just gets creepier as the novel progresses, while Morwenna still pines for her hard-working and deserving but low-class true love. Elizabeth's and Morwenna's scenes with their men are hard to read, icky, unpleasant and angry-making. I don't think they quite merit trigger warnings, but they probably come pretty close. I came very close to just tossing this book aside after a scene between Elizabeth and Ross that left me in about as dark a mood as I can recall ever experiencing from a work of fiction, and I'm still pretty angry about it.

Too, there are of course more than four women in Cornwall, and two of them have significant stories of their own in this book, but since it's Ross' point of view governing the title, this book isn't The Six Swans. But new characters Rowella (Morwenna's sister) and Emma, carry a more than a bit of this novel's narrative and are some of the most interesting characters (apart from Demelza, which, you've just got to love Demelza) Graham has yet given us. Rowella is Morwenna's little sister, and I'd go farther into spoiler territory than even I like to if I said much more about her; Emma is a lower-class woman whose good -- but not overwhelmingly beautiful -- looks, relative poverty and strong independent streak serve to earn her a reputation as a village Jezebel, and who comes to Sam Carne's notice in a story that kind of unpleasantly parallel's Rowella's but has a less icky overtone because Sam Carne is a better person than the jerk Rowella gets to deal with -- though it is pretty annoying to watch the dude hanker to save Emma's soul over her own protests. And oh, yeah, Sam & Emma are this novel's courtship story. Every Poldark novel has a courtship story. Eyeball roll.

But you know what? I wouldn't be feeling all of this if Winston Graham hadn't been such a tremendous writer. Though the narrative voice is definitely of the patriarchy, and keeps yanking the reader's attention away from the women's plights and stories and back to the More Important (man's) world of politics and trade, both sides are compellingly depicted. Six novels in, I'm more than invested in these characters, and even after what this book put me through, I still am, and not just as a hangover from the prior five books.

Developments late in The Four Swans promise to bring a yet grander scope to subsequent Poldark novels, too, which excites me. I reckon the rest of England is going to matter more, to say nothing of the rest of Europe; it's 1797 in the closing pages, and a little guy named Napoleon is becoming a big deal across the channel and beyond.

Bring it, Mr. Graham.

Monday, December 21, 2015

Doctor, Doctor: Terrance Dicks' CATASTROPHEA

After not liking Byzantium! too much and thus becoming just a leetle bit discouraged by what I'd taken on in setting out to read as much Doctor Who prose fiction as I could find, I needed something that I was reasonably sure I could trust that I would enjoy, while still kind of following the notion that I've had that I'd read these in numerical order by Doctor*, and boom: Catastrophea, by none other than Terrance Dicks!**

And Terrance Dicks wrote a story in which the Third Doctor and Jo travel in time and space, to the far future and another planet! The last time this happened for me was, well, when Alastair Reynolds took the Third Doctor out for a spin in Harvest of Time, which was brilliant. So, whoa. I mean, I had to sit down and catch my breath before even starting this.

Marvelously, that was the perfect frame of mind for me to be in as the action of Catastrophea (the title being an in-universe joke playing on the name of the planet on which this story takes place, properly named Kastopheria) as The Third Doctor and Jo are just coming away from their adventures on Spiridon, which means Jo's time with the Doctor is almost over and she's going to meet her husband very soon and so immediately there are ALL THE FEELS, which the Doctor experiences right along with us because Terrance Dicks knows his audience...

And BOOM. Right in the middle of the White Man's Human's Burden: a colony with all the problems that entails, including an enslaved-but-possibly-gonna-revolt race simply known as The People (who don't look anything like Cthulhu, thank you very much, but yeah, hard not to think of the Ood now, but this book was written in 1998 and I don't think the Ood were even a spark in Russell T. Davies' brain***) and a rival power, and the rival power is the Draconians! So much hooray! I kind of love the Draconians, especially after having fairly recently enjoyed the Sixth Doctor/Charley Pollard Big Finish romp Paper Cuts!

Not that we get to them immediately, of course. No, first we have the colonists, straight out of the reign of Queen Victoria (except, of course, not) fretting over what to do about a myriad of problems, including a resurgent John Company-type exploitation firm, a host of meddling bleeding hearts who want to protect the natives from said Company, various flavors of evil mercenary scum and smugglers, and a growing tendency among the docile natives for individuals to go berserk and kill everything in sight -- and enter the Doctor and Jo, who were making a beeline back to good old 1970s Britain until the Doctor was overwhelmed by the projected psychic pain of a whole planetful of beings that he couldn't ignore.

Now, you don't think it's the human colonizers' pain he responded to, do you?

The resulting tangle of competing interests and big blustery personalities has a very predictable and familiar feel, but contains just enough twists to stay fun, helped along by a cast of well-developed and engaging supporting characters, and just enough Venusian Aikido to keep things moving right along. The Third Doctor is elegant and active; Jo is cute, spunky and insightful. It all hangs together beautifully and one can almost convince herself it's the novelization of a late tenth season serial that she just kept missing on television. Which only makes sense, because Terrance Dicks!

And so now, just for fun and maybe to be a bit of a crank, in addition to my A&MDR, I'm going to start an A&MAR, too (A for Author, dur). So far, including Harvest of Time, I've read five, count them, five Doctor Who novels, by five different authors, and I'm going to read lots more because Terrance Dicks did his job and re-ignited my excitement for this project, but here they stand for now:

Alastair Reynolds
Mark Gatiss
Terrance Dicks
Justin Richards
Keith Topping

I'll just tell you right now, though, that Reynolds is going to be very hard to beat, because he is one of my favorite authors, full stop, and so anyone who's going to challenge him for the crown is going to have to really really bring it -- especially if, as I dearly hope will happen someday, Al writes another Doctor Who novel. I'd love to see what he could do with, say, the Ninth Doctor. Or, OMG, the War Doctor!!!!

Speaking of the War Doctor, you totally owe it to yourself to pony up for Big Finish's amazing and splendid and damned near perfect Only the Monstrous, which is a full-cast War Doctor adventure and yes of course it's John Hurt as the War Doctor. I'm pretty sure that this thing could make a believer of even the crankiest foot-stampy old school fanboi (I know there are some out there who think the whole Time War/War Doctor thing is a load of hooey). I'd blog about it as its own entry but it would pretty much just be a series of exclamation points, and that's boring to look at. So just go! If you've ever trusted me about anything (and, of course, you like Doctor Who), go!

So with these things in mind, my Arbitrary and Mercurial Doctor Ranking after Catastrophea and Only the Monstrous:

Ninth
Twelfth
Sixth
Third
Eleventh
Second
War
Fourth
Eighth
Seventh
Fifth
First
Tenth
 
And while like I said last time there are too many companions for me to rank, I'll at least play with the ones that have recently occupied my brainpan in various media. So Evelyn Smythe is still my favorite, with Donna probably tied with Jo for second, and then Jamie, then *everybody else*, Peri and Mel, and Ian still at the bottom.

On to a Fourth Doctor novel!

*Though yes, I started with a Second Doctor novel, but that's because lots of people screamed I was underrating that Doctor and they were right!

**Who wrote for the original show, served as script editor for the show, wrote a whole lot of novelizations of TV episodes, and is the author of a whole lot of original Doctor Who prose fiction as well. As in WOO-HOO TERRANCE DICKS!

***Though the double-episode that introduced us to the Ood, The Impossible Planet/The Satan Pit, owes a very, very great deal to this book in oh, so many ways. As in all of the good stuff in those episodes is more or less lifted from Catastrophea, but none of the bad except for, you know, the Tenth Doctor and Rose Tyler.

Friday, December 18, 2015

Doctor, Doctor: Keith Topping's DOCTOR WHO: BYZANTIUM!

I feel more like I've read a really long homily on the trials and tribulations of the early Christians than like I've read a Doctor Who novel this time around, you guys. Indeed, I half-suspect that Byzantium! started out life as a religiously proselytizing historical novel, complete with portentous/pretentious chapter titles AND a Bible quote at the beginning of each chapter, and just got the TARDIS crew (in this case, the First Doctor, Barbara, Ian and Vicki) shoehorned in when it got no takers for its original market.

And no, I have no idea why the exclamation mark is there in the title.

But so, anyway, Byzantium. The city that will be called Constantinople during the rule of the Byzantine Empire, and Istanbul when the Turks take over, started out life as a strategically placed dump of a Greek town when the Romans muscled in, and is still kind of a dump (according to its inhabitants) by the time the TARDIS has one of its messier landings there near the start of our story (I say "near" because we get quite a lot of background detail before the TARDIS shows up, including a pretty graphically described crucifixion of another one of those pesky Christians that are starting to be such a nuisance ca. 64 A.D.). A dump we shall explore in exhausting and somewhat repetitive detail as our four heroes... all pretty much enact the same plot four times over after they get separated by the Team Separating Crisis du Jour.

But so, the Doctor winds up hiding among a small but ultimately very important and influential band of early Christians (as in they're friends at just one or two removes from some of the original Disciples as well as of Saul/Paul etc -- and are in the process, as the Doctor encounters them, of writing what will become the Gospel of Mark); Barbara winds up in the home of a high-ranking Jewish priest, more or less at whose bidding a horde of violent Zealots occasionally raise hell at public events in Byzantium and at whose orders any Christians (er, sorry, Followers of the Nazarene; call them Christians in Barbara's host's presence and he gets psychotically angry) get crucified; Vicki winds up sheltering with a kindly but strict Greek family who is all about teaching her to behave like a properly meek and obedient first century teenager, even if they have to beat it into her; and as for Ian...

Oh, Ian. Ian lies his way into the household of the Prefect of the city, where he is constantly and unsubtly hit on by every female who lays eyes on him (and "hit on" is really too soft a term; it's practically sexual assault), leading him to participate a little too gladly in round after round of "who can make the most misogynist joke" with the men of the house, over and over and over again. But eventually he sort of gets sucked into a slightly more interesting plot, involving a conspiracy against the Prefect and a popular general. Anyway, by about halfway through the story I was pretty much hating Ian, though I knew that it was author Keith Topping that was really horking me off because he portrayed all the women Ian encountered as single-minded, one-dimensional narcissists who would fail the Bechdel test so hard that they'd spill over and wipe out the passing scores of 20 other novels and thus seeming like they justified the treatment they got. Ugh.

The book is not without virtues, however. It manages a very good portrait of the First Doctor, crotchety, old, tired, fragile, impatient, compassionate in only the gruffest of ways, and ticking all of the boxes that made him unique among the Doctors: He has pretty much no sense of humor. He has gadgets with the word "Year" in their names. He has unexplainable and detailed foreknowledge of the ultimate fate of one of his companions. He takes none of his companions' crap. He is super-unimpressed with the efforts of the dudes writing the Bible and basically calls them hacks.* He changes into period appropriate clothing. No, for reals. Dude dons a toga before leaving the TARDIS, yo.

Another thing this novel did well is something I've really got to admire. I mock "Doctor Who jeopardy"** quite a lot on this blog, with good reason, and, again with good reason, tend to extend that mockery to situations that seem to threaten his Companions. Somehow in Byzantium!, though, I found myself empathizing with the burden of unknowing with which all four members of the TARDIS crew were struggling following their split-up. Barbara's worries that her friends were all dead were especially moving (though I can't say the same for Vicki's; she got pretty much the same treatment that all the bitchy Roman and Jewish ladies did, though instead of being depicted as vain and rapacious or violently controlling, Vicki was just whiny. So whiny. The major turning point in her story is when she gets to sit down with a nice old man and whine out loud to him instead of internally to us. Sigh.). And hey, while I'm on Barbara again, yay Barbara, the only one of the four who extricates herself from her (icky) situation and actually goes looking for the others! Even though by that point in the story almost every one of them has received some kind of intelligence as to where the others can be found!

But so, this book is a bit of a hot mess, and I can certainly see why a lot of people have hated on it. It's not a gripping read, for all that it's weirdly full of sex and violence (yes, there are sex scenes in a Doctor Who story! Umm?), the TARDIS crew are all stuck in iterations of the "outsider has to try to gain the acceptance of a mistrustful and insular tribe" plot, and Ian's whole story will turn many stomachs and could make people come to hate Ian. But it's a great portrait of the First Doctor, contains some pretty good writing, and handles one of Doctor Who fiction's greatest difficulties -- overcoming Doctor Who jeopardy -- very well. It's no Roundheads, but as I knew going into this project, very few of these will be.

Shrug.

As for what this has done for my Arbitrary and Mercurial Doctor Rankings, well, it actually made me like the First Doctor a bit less, for all that it was slightly amusing watching him chew out the scribes compiling the Bible. He displays no sense of humor in this story (at least all the other Bastard Doctors who rank highly on my list are funny when they insult people), makes zero effort to find his lost companions when they're separated (yes, yes, concussion, he's suffering from a concussion, but ZERO EFFORT PEOPLE. If [REDACTED] hadn't fortuitously turned out to know pretty much everyone in Byzantium and put two and two together and said "hey, you know this chick?" the First Doctor might still be in a Byzantine cave to this day, arguing with the distant descendants of those poor scribes over their translations of St. Mark's terrible grammar and handwriting and the other three would have died by the turn of the second century) and, well it doesn't help that I'm not a huge fan of these companions of his, either. Especially not after Ian's Roman Romp.

So the A&MDR after Byzantium! is as follows:

Ninth
Twelfth
Sixth
Third
Eleventh
Fourth
Second
War
Eighth
Seventh
Fifth
First
Tenth

A final note: I've been dared to rank the Companions as I've done the Doctors, but damn, there are so, so many of them (especially if you throw in the Big Finish Companions, which I would have to because I love me some Big Finish), some I haven't seen enough of to even remember if I've liked them or not. I will say, though, that for right now I do indeed have a least favorite Companion to balance out my for-sure favorite Companion (Evelyn Smythe), and until he somehow redeems himself, Ian, you're it. I hate you even more than Peri and Mel, right now. Dude, you suck.

*And no, I couldn't help thinking about River Tam grabbing Shepherd Book's Bible and "fixing" it for him, here. Was she fixing what the Doctor broke? Probably not, but it's an amusing thought, no?

**Simply put, the absurdity of any cliffhanger or other moment of danger in which the Doctor's life appears threatened, which absurdity is the result of the viewer/reader/listener knowing full well that the Doctor has had/will have/is in the midst of 13 lives (and counting) and so the question of his survival is not ever a question at all, especially not in NuWho, when we know exactly when a regeneration is coming, and even know what the next Doctor is going to look like months in advance.

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