Saturday 29 June 2013

REVIEW: SAGA Vol. 2 - Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples

With Saga, Vaughan and Staples have created what is perhaps the weirdest, dirtiest, most exhilarating fantasy comic series of the decade. After trying the first issue for free via the Comixology app, which spurred me to immediately ordering the trade paperback collecting the first six issues, I was completely hooked and placed an order for volume two. While I’m tempted to buy the third volume as the issues are released, Saga’s narrative flow gives it a genuine claim to being a graphic novel (rather than simply a collection of comic episodes), so the collected format suits it well.

After the sheer mind-blowing strangeness of the first volume, with its robot sex, phantom children and arachnoid assassins, volume two was going to have a hard time making quite the same impact, and it’s true that the shock of the new is now over. That said, Vaughan’s storytelling, combined with Staples’s utterly spellbinding artwork pulled me into the story once more, and I am more eager than ever to see how this tale develops.

A quick summary for the uninitiated: Saga is a science-fantasy story set in a universe where magic and technology exist side-by-side. Vaughan has spoken about Star Wars being his inspiration, but has agreed that his creation might be best described as Star Wars for perverts. Where it goes further than Star Wars is in embracing its magical angle, with an ingenious magical law that requires each spell to be paid for with a secret. It’s a great way of forcing characters to reveal certain facts about themselves that then spur the story on in new directions.

The story takes place in some unknown galaxy, and although there are recognisably human characters, there is no mention of Earth. This galaxy has been subsumed by war, as numerous worlds are conscripted or coerced into fighting on the side of either Landfall, the largest inhabited planet in the galaxy, or its solitary moon Wreath. With the destruction of this planetary system imminent, the technically sophisticated winged inhabitants of Landfall fight the magically inclined, satyr-like people of Wreath on worlds throughout the galaxy. On one such planet, Cleave, our heroes met: Landfallian gaoler Alana and her Wreathean prisoner Marko. From there illicit union came the only hybrid baby in the universe, Hazel, who narrates the series from a future vantagepoint.

The story is driven by Alana and Marko’s desire to live a quiet life together, and their need to protect their daughter from two civilisations that despise her existence. With Hazel narrating, one might think the jeopardy would be lessened, seeing that she must logically survive the events of the narrative. However, in a universe where ghosts haunt woods made from organic spacecraft and a leyak-like ghost child can be considered a reliable babysitter, such a conclusion is not so definite.

Volume one ended with the unexpected arrival of Marko’s parents, summoned by the destruction of his family’s sacred magical sword. It’s this tortured family dynamic that drives the second volume, while the plot itself is driven by their pursual by the Will, the galaxy’s finest assassin. While Alana and Marko, in spite of their alien appearance, come across as genuine, normal people in an extraordinary and dangerous situation, the human Will is a more perversely complex character, with a skewed morality that gives him a twisted nobility. His primary goal is not the capture of Alana and Marko - although this is his official task – but vengeance for the death of his lover, the Stalk, on her murderer, Prince Robot IV.

Ah yes, the Robot Kingdom. If there’s one image that could stand for the strangeness of Saga, it’s the television-headed Robot people, anatomically human but for this one strange accoutrement and their literally blue blood. Yes, Robot people shit and shag, just like everyone else, and are, for reasons as yet unclear, fighting on the side of Landfall against the Wreatheans. No doubt the politics will become clearer as we go on, but for now, it’s the sheer oddness of the imagery that is compelling. Fiona Staples is the real star of this series, for without her perfectly suited artwork, Vaughan’s universe would remain unrealised. She displays an uncanny knack for creating relatable yet physically gorgeous characters, while also creating some of the most perversely bizarre monsters ever seen in comics. While the seahorse guy is a favourite, I’d be surprised if Staples can ever top the monstrous beauty of the Stalk, the spider-woman assassin.

Saga has courted controversy because of its sexual content, and it’s true that this is an ever present element to this story. It’s missing the point to complain about this, however. The core of this series is real people in an unreal universe, and real people have sex. Couples who are perfectly mild-mannered and respectable in public go home and lick each other’s asses, and Saga embraces sex in all its beauty and dirtiness. This is not a children’s book, and it isn’t pretending to be. This is a Star Wars where Luke and Leia would have banged, even after they found out they were brother and sister.

That’s not to say there’s no gratuitous elements. The major controversy in this series occurred when Comixology refused to publish issue twelve for iOS, citing the use of oral sex imagery that breached Apple’s rules. The immediate objection to this was that many sex scenes had passed by this point without protest, but since this particularly pair of images depicted gay sex, they were reason enough to pull the issue. The issue was later made available with an apology, and quite right too, although the scenes in question were entirely gratuitous and, I suspect, were included primarily to bate the censors. Then again, if Vaughan and Staples want to show a gay bukkake scene on a robotic man’s television screen face, in the middle of a horrific battle scene, who am I to refuse them?

What makes Saga so well is the juxtaposition of the mundane and fairytale, the beautiful and monstrous, the noble and obscene. This is a war story, but refuses to glory in it, and as such does not shy away from the horrors that war creates, up to and including collateral damage, prisoner abuse and child prostitution. The world is a terrible place, and so is the galaxy of Saga. But more than that, at its heart, Saga is a story of parenthood, as Alana and Marko make tough decisions in order to protect their daughter. Vaughan draws on his own experiences of parenthood and embeds them in a fantastical universe, expressing the love parents have for their children, while not being ashamed to admit that they got their through carnal acts. It’s this honesty of storytelling, combined with fine characterisation, unpredictable plotting and stunning artwork that makes Saga such a trimph.

Wednesday 26 June 2013

Doctor by Doctor (Sidestep 2)

The Stand-In Delivers

Richard Hurndall, 1983

Richars Hurndall’s brief tenure as the Doctor is a rather unique case. In 1983, Doctor Who celebrated its twentieth anniversary with the bumper Doctor-fest The Five Doctors. Of course, in actuality, only three of the established Doctors turned up. Peter Davison was the young incumbent, Patrick Troughton and Jon Pertwee both returned as the second and third incarnations respectively. So far, so straightforward. Tom Baker, having only left the role two years earlier, decided against returning, and William Hartnell was precluded from taking part due to the unfortunate business of having died eight years earlier. Other than some archive footage, neither the first or fourth Doctors were going to appear. So, faced with this, the producers of the show did the unthinkable: they recast the first Doctor.

Other actors had stepped in for Hartnell in the past, but this was the real deal: a new actor taking up the mantle of the first incarnation of the Doctor. Despite opening with a brief snippet of Hartnell taken from The Dalek Invasion of Earth, The Five Doctors would present us with a new first Doctor, ironically the newest actor to take on the role of the series’ leading Time Lord. Richard Hurndall, a seventy-two-year-old actor known for his work for the BBC and Radio Luxembourg was spotted in an episode of Blake’s 7 and was thought to have an uncanny resemblance to the late Hartnell. In actual fact, he doesn’t look much like him at all; but for the kids watching, most of whom knew none the better, this might as well have been the man himself.

In practise, Hurndall doesn’t play the first Doctor we know. By 1983, the Hartnell years were a distant memory and had scarcely been repeated on television. The most recent version of the first Doctor had been the isolated and waspish version seen eleven years earlier in The Three Doctors, the first stab at a multi-Doctor get-together. Terrance Dicks, who had joined the programme during Troughton’s tenure, wrote the first Doctor seemingly as an extrapolation of this version. Hurndall’s Doctor is especially crabby and cantankerous, belittling virtually everyone around him (although in his defense, all the Doctors are especially grouchy in this story).

While he wears a recreation of Hartnell’s costume, with a few little changes, such as the new cane and the tatty fingerless gloves, he’s clearly a different man to the one we remember from the first three years of the series. Anyone who had watched the show from the beginning would realise that. To his credit, then, Hurndall doesn’t try to ape Hartnell’s performance. Aside from his scripted claim to be “the original, you might say,” – a moment of absolute cheek – he marks himself as a new version of the Doctor, another incarnation to add to the roster. His inquisitive curiosity overcomes his bad temper, and he takes relish in the puzzles of the Death Zone (“As easy as Pi? As easy as Pi?”). He’s as peculiarly eccentric and patriarchal as any of his other selves, demanding refreshment from the womenfolk and nibbling on the presented fruit salad like an overgrown mouse. Despite his protestations of age, he’s more sprightly than we ever saw Hartnell, even if he does spend most of his time in the relative safety of the TARDIS.

Perhaps most interesting in his reunion with Susan, an event that embraces the roots of the series but is something of a missed opportunity. While we can hardly expect a story so packed with elements to spend time on Susan’s life since the Doctor left her on Earth, it raises an array of questions that remain unanswered. Clearly Susan hasn’t seen her grandfather since he abandoned her, yet she seems to bear him no ill will, instead being overjoyed to see him. She’s aged since then, of course, but who knows if it’s been the same length of time for Susan as it has for actress Carole Ann Ford? Nonetheless, in the presence of her grandfather, she reverts to her adolescent persona very rapidly although the sudden sight of an enraged Dalek can’t have helped her to cope with her unexpected situation.

Susan displays no surprise at the existence of other version of the Doctor, as if a meeting with his later iterations was something she always knew might happen. Her meeting with the fifth Doctor, a version of her grandfather played by an actor almost twenty years her junior, is disappointingly skirted over with little comment; indeed, none of the other Doctor’s seem in the slightest bit interested in talking to their one known relative. Susan and the Doctor both recognise the Dark Tower and the Death Zone, confirming that they are aware of the history of Gallifrey, but this is in itself a major digression from the series’ past. In bringing the original Doctor and his companion up to date, their concepts have been massively altered. They are now Gallifreyans, the Doctor, at least, is a Time Lord, and they are now part of this large, intertwined universe that Doctor Who has become.

Hurndall’s Doctor is what we might call, nowadays, an “unbound” Doctor, a sidestep from the original version. We’ve learnt too much about the Doctor’s youth by now for Hurndall’s version to be the same as Hartnell’s sometimes sinister figure of mystery. We’ve heard all about his tech courses with Drax, his doctorate (in whatever discipline it may have been), his time at the Prydonian Academy and his mentorship under the guru who became K’anpo. Interestingly, he doesn’t recognise the Master, although the third Doctor does, even in his new guise. The Master’s reply – “Believe it or not, we were at the Academy together,” – suggests that perhaps the two of them didn’t know each other all that well during that part of their lives. Alternatively, perhaps the Master, in this distant, post-regenerative state, is simply too far removed from the earlier Doctor’s timeline to be recognised.

Also curious is the origin point of this Doctor. As in The Three Doctors, he is picked up from a garden, (in the former story this was actually William Hartnell’s own garden). This “rose garden” has become part of first Doctor mythos now, but where it is and at what point in his life the Doctor found the opportunity to spend time there is unknown. It’s all very mysterious, as is the first Doctor’s greater sagacity compared to his later selves. He’s sees through Rassilon’s tricks when the others are taken in. It does seem that each incarnation much relearn a certain amount of wisdom and prudence. He certainly seems more restrained than his later lives; no wonder he lived so much longer than the others.

At the end of these events, this quizzical, crotchety versions of the Doctor leaves with Susan, his iteration of the TARDIS, like the second and third Doctors’, splitting off as it dematerialises. Rassilon says that everyone present will be returned to their correct place in space and time, but we never see this. Do the Doctor and Susan part company immediately? This seems to be a strangely unexplored point in the Doctor’s long existence, even now when virtually every possible point of continuity has been expanded on in the expanded universe fiction. Who’s to say they don’t have more adventures together?

Richard Hurndall died mere months after the broadcast of The Five Doctors. Perhaps, if he had lived longer, he would have returned to the role, cementing his place as a bona fide Doctor. Alas, his quirky take on the character is confined to this one television special. He may not have been the first Doctor, but he was a new First Doctor, and his part in the series’ history should not be forgotten.

On sex, sexism, and science fiction

There has been some debate recently regarding the treatment of women in the field of science fiction authorship and production. Naturally, this has caught my attention due to my ongoing interest in sci-fi, but it is part of a much larger debate on the rights of women in modern western society and the way they are perceived. This rambling post is my attempt to express my opinions on the matter, and I'm aware I will probably offend someone in the process.

It was Stuart Douglas who first drew my attention to the appalling treatment many women are experiencing in the sci-fi community, via his sharing of articles by S L Huang and Ann Aguirre. The links are there; you should click them and read.

Now, I'm not totally naive; I'm fully aware of the unending shit that women put up with in the workplace every day. Any woman who has not been exposed to sexist or chauvinistic comments or behaviour is very fortunate. But somehow, I thought that maybe the sci-fi community was past most of that. If there is any group of people who should be open-minded and inclusive, it's sci-fi fans. I had foolishly thought that the chauvism of the fifties and sixties was behind us in this area at least. I was clearly very wrong. Fundamentally, the issue is the Science Fiction Writers of America has been accused, quite rightly so, of showing a lack of respect for its female writers and editors. It is, however, the backlash against those who have complained about these attitudes that is most disgusting. Death and rape threats sent to female writers who dare to express the opinion that perhaps their work should be judged on merit and not on their sex.

Ann Aguirre's post shows how difficult is it for women writing sci-fi today. There is a huge, violently misogynistic sector of fanhood that despises her and women like her for writing and publishing female-oriented sci-fi with - gasp! - sex in it. Now, we know there are some mentals in the fan world, but there are publishers and authors coming to light who clearly share this warped viewpoint.

And so it goes, right out into the wider world of fandom. There are old school Doctor Who fans who hate the new series because it features strong, sexually active women, or simply because in its modern guise it's equally beloved by little girls as little boys. The Doctor experiences romance? Urgh, they're writing it for girls now! Amy Pond comes onto the Doctor? She's such a slut, get her out of the TARDIS! (As an aside, there has also been a sudden surge of homophobic comments on the GallifreyBase forum, something that genuienly surprised me since Who has long been an especially gay-friendly fandom).

I know sci-fi comes from a very masculine, Boys' Own type of background. I'm just saying we should have moved on by now. I need to talk about Star Trek in this too. The original series, for all its supposed far-thinking, glorious looking to the future, was hopelessly sexist, and I plan to post on this topic in more detail. For now, I would suggest that you read through the works of Josh Marsfelder at his blog Vaka Rangi. His blog, a Trekkie take on Phillip Sandifer's TARDIS Eruditorum, is unusual in that he actively dislikes the original series but is starting his rundown the franchise with it anyway. This leads to some articles that reveal opinions notably different to the usual Trekkie received wisdom. His big bugbear is the sexism in the show, though, and it is true that there is an unpleasantly misogynistic streak to many episodes. There's the rapey banter in 'The Enemy Within,' or the abusive relationship of Khan and Marla MaGivers in 'Space Seed.'

Still, this was the sixties. That's not suggesting in any way that this makes it acceptable, but in regards to American culture at the time it was made it is not surprising. It has some context, and we can view it with such, comfortable in the knowledge that we've moved on. Except that we haven't. Most of the female crewmembers in TOS were there because Gene Roddenberry wanted to bone them and at the very least wanted to show them off in a series of very short minidresses. Yet Star Trek Into Darkness has revived this same issue, in its gratuitous display of Alice Eve's bare flesh. Eve's character is supposed to be a scientist with a personal stake in the mission; but more importantly, she looks great in her underwear.

There was, of course, a similarly gratuitous scene in which Benedict Cumberbatch, as Khan, showers. This was removed, no doubt because it was unnecessary and entirely extraneous to the plot. So was Eve's nuddy moment, but this was kept in. The point is not that we got a flash of female flesh, but that it was gratuitous and was harmful to the character, and that views on female and male nudity in film are clearly biased against women.

There's a caveat, of course. I like looking at attractive women with no clothes on. I make no pretense that I don't. (I like looking at attractive men with no clothes on, too, but that is somewhat beside the point to this argument.) For instance, I am a member of Suicide Girls, a site that is devoted to images of pretty girls in various states of undress. It is also, however, a thriving community, and one that I am very proud to now be part of. I have become good friends with several members, including a handful of the models. Though there are plenty of creeps on the site, the majority of the male members are respectful of the models and female members. Sometimes it strays into uncomfortable territory - this is a risk of a sex-oriented site - but for the most part, people are decent to each other and those that aren't are made aware that they are not welcome.

So, yes. I like looking at tits. Yet I also like talking about science fiction. One model, Iso Suicide, has become a very close friend of mine. There is something slightly odd in becoming friends with someone who I saw naked before I ever spoke to her, but that doesn't denigrate the friendship at all. We first met via the Doctor Who group (of which I have no been made group owner, oddly enough), and it was our shared enthusiasm for Who and Trek that got us chatting. There's no clash here. I love the pictures of her, and I love talking to her. Those facts are not mutually exclusive.

The thing to remember is this: it's not just about the sex. It is possible to enjoy looking at tits, and still respect women. Equally, it is possible to be a woman who enjoys showing her tits, and still expect respect. Women do not exist solely for the purposes of male gratification, but nor are they to be attacked for providing it. Our culture has an inbuilt streak of misogyny, in that it simultaneously expects women to be demure, asexual creatures and to be sexual playthings for men, and judges them as both. It seems beyond comprehension for many men that women are people, who enjoy sex and may express their sexuality, but are not defined by it.

Yet this attitude pervades male culture in general, and the still predominantly male sci-fi fan culture in particular. Men go to conventions and cannot grasp that because a woman has chosen to wear revealing cosplay, it does not mean it is acceptable to grab her, verbally abuse her or take pictures of her without permission. Men respond with abuse to female authors who encroach on their sacred male territory of sci-fi and geekdom, especially when they dare to bring their own sexuality to the table, rather than simply responding to male desire.. Men continue to treat women appallingly throughout all walks of life, but it offends me most when it is part of a group to which I feel I belong.  

RIP Richard Matheson 1926-2013

It seems like this year is determined to take all my heroes and inspirations away from me. Richard Matheson was one of the greats of science fiction and fantasy, a true giant of the genre and one of those writers whose work you will have encountered far more often than you realise.

His most famous work is, of course, I Am Legend, a seminal work in the sf-horror genre that influenced no end of later material. Seriously, if it features vampires, zombies or rampaging ghouls, then Matheson's 1954 novella is its ultimate source. This truly powerful work was adapted for film in 1964 as The Last Man on Earth, then as The Omega Man in 1971 and under its original title for the 2007 Will Smith vehicle (plus the inevitable Asylum rip-off, I Am Omega). Romero's Night of the Living Dead was also inspired by the book, inspiring a plethora of later walking dead films itself. The Last Man on Earth  was the only adaptation with which Matheson was involved; the later versions were only very loosely based on the novella, with the 2007 blockbuster being a particularly good example of a good, fun film that spectacularly misses the point of its source material. I Am Legend is an astonishing examination of the nature of monstrousness, and a must-read for any genre fan (and happens to be my flatmate's favourite book ever).

While I Am Legend will rightfully be the work for which Matheson is most remembered, he was the author of various other works for prose, film and television. The Shrinking Man, an examination of man's place in the world and the plight of the little man against greater powers, was adapted by Matheson himself into a screenplay for Universal Pictures, filmed as the true sci-fi classic The Incredible Shrinking Man. He also adapted his own novel Hell House to become the movie The Legend of Hell House, an acclaimed horror. Another novel, A Stir of Echoes, was adapted for film in 1999 (I'm afraid I've neither seen nor read this one, so I cannot comment on it).

Not all of his work was gruesome or horror-based. Matheson also wrote the lengthy examination of life after death What Dreams May Come. Having developed from his own Christian Scientist background his own faith that incorporated elements of spiritualism, astrology and Theosophy, What Dreams May Come was Matheson's opportunity to explore his own feelings on the nature of life, death and love. The novel is sometimes described as part of the Bangsian genre of fantasy, and  it can also be considered an update of Dante's The Divine Comedy, shorn of its Christian bias. It was adapted for film in 1998 and starred Robin Williams; this version of the story is overly sentimental but, I feel, unfairly maligned.

Another Matheson prose work adapted for film is Bid Time Return, which became the sappy but frankly beautiful Somewhere in Time, starring the late Christopher Reeve and Jane Seymour. I am unashamed to call myself a fan of this film, credibility be damned. Bid Time Return, which was also printed under the film's title, was Matheson's favourite of his own novels, and can be considered a companion piece to What Dreams May Come, the two novels depicting love persisting through death and time. Matheson's grimly pessimistic I Am Legend and reputation as a horror writer have overshadowed this far more hopeful side to his work.

Matheson is also remembered for The Beardless Warriors, his fictionalised memorial of his time in the armed forces, which was very loosely adapted as The Young Warriors; for the short story and screenplay Duel, which was filmed by Stephen Spielberg and is considered one of the greatest feature length TV productions; and for numerous other short stories, novels and scripts, many, but not all of which were of the horror genre.

As well as these standalone works, Matheson contributed to several TV series during the twentieth century, sometimes under the pen name Logan Swanson. He wrote no fewer than fourteen episodes of The Twilight Zone, including such seminal stories as 'Button, Button,' and the Shatner acting masterclass that is 'Nightmare at 20,000 Feet,' itself adapted for a later update and parodied so memorably by The Simpsons and many others. He also wrote the short story 'First Anniversary,' which was adapted as a peculiar episode of the nineties revival of The Outer Limits. He was responsible for the hugely influential The Night Stalker, the supernatural thriller that spawned a sequel and a spin-off series and was the primary inspiration for The X-Files. He even wrote for the original Star Trek, responsible for yet more Shatner histrionics with the classic episode 'The Enemy Within.'

May you enjoy afterlife, Mr Matheson. You are legend.

Under the break - Matheson's first short story sale, 'Born on Man and Woman,' written when he was 22 years old.

Thursday 20 June 2013

WHO REVIEW: The Mind of Evil - DVD release

The Mind of Evil was, for many years, effectively the last of the black and white serials. The remaining victims of junking in the Pertwee years had been recolourised, to some degree or another, some time ago. The Mind of Evil remained, i its VHS form, resolutely black and white.

The thing is, I rather liked it in monochrome. Perhaps the least Who-y of all Doctor Whos, The Mind of Evil revelled in the extra touch of filmic grittiness that the monochrome footage bestowed. As such, I greeted the news of a new recolourisation with mixed interest. Naturally, I wanted to see the serial as it was meant to be shown, but would it really be better?

Well, yes and no. The use of colour adds a vividness that the black and white tones lack, reminding the viewer that this was still a part of the glam rock era of Who. On the other hand, the grim prison scenes lose a certain something in colour. But that really emphasises the wonderful clash of styles in this story. It's the whole Pertwee era in microcosm: glam rock vs. gritty action.

The actual effectiveness of the colourisation depends on the episode. The bulk of the serial has been recolourised using the standard method of chroma-dot recovery by the Beeb's regular Recovery Team. It works as well as on their other efforts: perfectly enjoyable, albeit with a certain fuzziness and vagueness of outline that reminds you that this is a recoloured work. It's perfectly fine to watch, but pales in comparison to the work of Stuart 'Babelcolour' Humphryes on Episode One. Lacking the chroma-dot data, this opening episode had to be recoloured by a more straightforward, and significantly  more labour intensive method. The results speak for themselves. Babel's work is astonishing, and stands head and shoulders above the remaining episodes. Even incredibly tricky elements such as hair are recreated perfectly. It's an impressive achievement.

The story itself is one of my personal favourites of the Pertwee era. It's, as I mentioned, very un-Who-like, dealing as much with the cons of Stangmoor Prison as with the mind-absorbing creature that threatens them. Add to this an international peace conference, a politically uncomfortable missile in need of decommissioning, and, of course, the Master, and there's a great deal going on here. The best moments belong to the Master, be it in his most Bond-villain moment ever, issuing orders from a limo, clad in a fur-colared coat and puffing on a fat cigar; or in his weakened, cowering stance against the spectre of an overwhelming phantom of the Doctor - the mind parasite's attack on him using his greatest fear.

UNIT are oddly used here, never further from their original remit as investigators of "the odd... the unexplained," instead utilised as a regular peacekeeping force. Nonetheless, the disparate plot elements are tied together well, and the only major criticism is in the rather repetitive nature of the prison riot plot. Of course, watched an episode a week with no option for re-viewing, this would not have seemed nearly such an issue.

The DVD release itself is one of the sparser of the BBC's classic series output, in spite of the double disc treatment. The lack of a documentary on the colurisation process is a pity. There is, however, a charming and informative making of that revisits the locations used in the story with a number of the original cast members. This, along with the commentary, was recorded some time ago, and the presence of both Nicholas Courtney and Barry Letts, both sorely missed, adds an extra poignancy.

The usual DVD-ROM material includes the standard, but always welcome, Radio Times excerpts, but it's the 'Sugar Snaps' cereal promotion that will stick in the memory, with its frankly terrifying version of Jon Pertwee. The apparition that haunts the Master has nothing on this freakish creation. Still, I'd pay decent money for a UNIT pin badge.

Saturday 15 June 2013

WHO REVIEW: Harvest of Time by Alastair Reynolds

BBC Books continue their occasional series of Doctor Who novels by big-name authors with this third Doctor story by respected, bestselling hard-sf author Alastair Reynolds.  There seems to be a distinct subset of science fiction authors who work in their own universes and would never deign to enter a shared world or tie-in… unless it’s Doctor Who.

Reynolds is a fantastic author, gifted with the ability to create vast, mind-boggling universes that nonetheless embrace the human element. I’ve read a number of his books, and have several more waiting to be read (causing an inevitable filing issue – do I shelve Harvest of Time with my Reynolds book s or my Who books?) On the whole, I am less keen on his expansive ‘Revelation Space’ sequence than his more eccentric, one-off novels like the sf-noir Century Rain and the steampunk-ish Terminal World. It’s unsurprising, then, that his take on the Pertwee years of Doctor Who is a winner for me.

Like Stephen Baxter with The Wheel of Ice, Reynolds here delivers a heartfelt love letter to his favourite period of Doctor Who. He has stated that he considers the Master to be the greatest villain ever created, and while I love the old bastard, I can’t say I’ve ever thought he was as good as all that… until reading Harvest of Time. While the novel is a brilliant evocation of the Pertwee era as a whole, where it triumphs is in its presentation and deconstruction of the Master. Reynolds nails the love/hate relationship between the Master and the Doctor, stemming back to their friendship and rivalry at the Time Lord Academy (something we even get a flashback to, and a period that was more important to the future of the universe than we ever realised).  While for much of the novel the Master is confined to an oppressive prison, submerged and irradiated to keep others from reaching him and falling under his influence, he nonetheless dominates proceedings, even more so after his inevitable escape.

The evil genius’s plan in this story is both brilliant and arrogant even by his own insane standards. Knowing that his incarceration will end one day, he co-opts his enforced involvement in a secret communications project (using neutrinos, a good example of former ESA scientist Reynold’s use of cutting edge physics in his work) to send a distress call to his own future self. While the Ainley or Jacobi Master turning up to rescue Delgado’s incarnation is a wonderful image, this isn’t what we get here (not to say that there are no other Masters on offer during the course of the novel). Instead, the message in intercepted by the Sild, an invasive species of alien life so dangerous and morally corrupt that the Time Lords imprisoned them in a vast spaceship of horrors, the Consolidator (presumably used for the villains too nasty to even get into Shada).

The result is a work that spans history from the familiar “five minutes into the future” of the Pertwee era to the deep future. For the most part, Reynolds creates a perfect evocation of the best of the Pertwee era, combining the grungy, industrial feel of much of his earliest serials with the cosiness of the UNIT family setup. A good deal of the action takes place on an oil rig far out in the North Sea, under the management of one Eddie Macrimmon (no relation), a dirty workplace peopled by resilient Scots and usurped by slimy government sorts with few charms and even fewer scruples. Eddie is herself a finely drawn character, and while her eventual twist of fate is well signposted, it works well in the context of the story.

Meanwhile, the UNIT team is well-drawn, with only Benton missing out on a decent share of the action. Yates is recognisable without being the prig he sometimes was on TV, while both the Brigadier and Jo are perfectly recreated. We see how difficult life is for the Brigadier, forced to make decisions of a life-or-death nature concerning his friends when the fate of the world hangs in the balance. The gradual erasure of the Master from time, a symptom of the Sild’s attempts to abduct him for their own purposes, leads to memory loss, with the Brigadier worst affected. Cleverly, this allows Reynolds to play with the more buffoonish, easily confuse Brig of the later serials without damaging his credibility as a soldier. Jo is equally well-served. On television it was sometimes hard to see how she ever got a job in UNIT, influential uncle or no, but here Reynolds makes clear how resourceful the young woman is, and how well she can use her cuteness and youth to get the big men around her to do things her way and get away with bending the rules.

The Doctor, of course, is the centre of attention much of the time, and Reynolds succeeds in evoking Pertwee’s patrician charm, and occasional boorishness, very well. We’re afforded glimpses into his thoughts, but never enough to spoil the mystique of the character. The essential actions scenes are handled very well too, often a tricky thing to pull off. However, the best moments for the Doctor occur when he is paired with the Master, either at loggerheads or as uneasy allies. Indeed, in the novel’s final third, when events move billions of years into the future, the Doctor/Master pairing becomes a sparring double act that it would have been a joy to watch on TV with Pertwee and Delgado. There’s the inescapable feeling that, however much they distrust one another, the Doctor and Master need each other. The one is incomplete without the other. There’s also the fundamental tragedy of the Master’s existence, highlighted in an astonishing sequence in which the Master, distant from his own native era, feels his escape from the influence of his scattered other incarnations. There is the suggestion that each version of the Master is part of a larger, gestalt being, driven to acts of evil by its very nature. It’s a fascinating exploration of the character that adds him depth.

Reynolds is also clearly having fun writing for the huge, busy Whoniverse. While alien life exists in his other works, it is generally rare, inscrutable and distant. Here, though, he creates a busy and bustling cosmos, full of varied creatures, from the body-snatching shrimplike Sild to the peaceful Praxilions, far-future caterpillar people. He throws in references to beings such as the Blind Watchmakers, whose “clocks made pulsars look slipshod,” and aqueous creatures whose organs float visibly in their watery bodies. We learn that the familiar universe of humans and Time Lords is part of the Era of Mass Time Travel, and that the deep future is altogether more dangerous and malleable. It’s an altogether more fun style of world building to his usual meticulous approach.

At the end of the day, though, it’s all about the Master, a man of many, many parts. Reynolds acknowledges the existence of other Masters (there are numerous cheeky references to the revived series), but his love of the original, and best, version of the character shines through. This is a triumphant novel, a treat for any Pertwee fan and a must for any follower of Delgado. Masterful.

Placement: Somewhere between The Daemons and The Sea Devils.

Monday 10 June 2013

RIP Iain Banks 1954-2013

We've known this day was coming, of course, since Banks made his statement regarding his diagnosis of terminal cancer, declaring that he was "officially Very Poorly." Yet, it still comes as a shock. That statement was made only two months ago. To come to terms with the fact that your life is going to end so soon, and to be unable to do anything about it... I'm not sure I can imagine what that was like.

Iain optional-M Banks was truly one of the greats of modern English literature. A proud Scotsman, a lover of fine scotch whisky (and what right-thinking man isn't?) and a highly intelligent, eloquent, occasionally belligerent and frequently hilarious author. Not long before the diagnosis of his illness, he had discussed his future writing plans with periodicals such as SFX. There was so much more to come from him.

That's what stings for me, of course. I never knew the man; I can't appreciate a fraction of how his wife and family must feel. My sympathies go out to them, of course, but I wasn't his friend, I was a fan and a follower. It's the missed opportunities that hurt me the most. The books left unwritten.

I first discovered Banks about fifteen years ago, I think. I'm a sci-fi nut (what, you haven't noticed?), so his 'M' works have always been my main interest. The Player of Games was my first Banks novel, and I'd certainly agree with the majority view that it is the best introduction to the Culture universe, rather than the first in the sequence, Consider Phlebas. My favourites remain the mind-blowing Excession and the gripping Use of Weapons. The vast galactic backdrop of the supremely powerful Culture and its alien peers always impressed me, the imagination on display matched only by the craft of the prose. Nonetheless, the stories, in spite of often dealing with Galaxy-shaking events, were often small scale, focusing tightly on the personal dramas of the near-human protagonists. The first that springs to mind is Diziet Sma, the proud interventionist who starred in Use of Weapons, and the wonderful Culture-meets-Earth novella The State of the Art. Then there's Zakalwe, her contact and ward in Weapons, who, it is hinted, appears in the more recent novel Surface Detail.

Then there are the Minds, the sardonically superior hyper-intelligent handlers of pan-humanity in the Culture, and specifically the Ships, with their endlessly inventive, and frequently ingeniously funny, names. Size Isn't Everything, Frank Exchange of Views, You'll Clean That Up Before You Leave, and the gloriously amoral Grey Area, aka 'Meatfucker.' The Ships aren't everything; this is a universe in which everything from orbital habitats to weaponry to sex toys can be sentient.

Banks retired from the Culture for a few years in the early part of this century, before coming back with such fine works as Surface Detail, Matter and The Hydrogen Sonata, which expanded the Culture universe and delved into its background. There's the unremitting sense that there was so much more left to learn. The next novel was, supposedly, going to deal with the von Neumann-like 'smatter' outbreaks, an oft-mentioned element of the Culture universe. It wasn't always the Culture, of course; Banks's vast imagination created such works as the challenging Feersum Endjinn, the hugely fun The Algebraist, and the secretly-Culture Inversions, one of his more underrated works.

So, that's the science M. fiction. However, Banks was best known for his first novel, the brutal, powerful, controversial The Wasp Factory. I wonder if Banks ever felt put out by the fact that he was almost certainly never going to top his first novel. I read The Wasp Factory when I was fourteen or fifteen, and my god, that has stuck with me. Certain scenes still surface unwarranted to my conscious mind. I'm too nervous to go back and read it again, for fear of disrupting the memory of that affecting first reading.

Banks was that rare thing: an author who was equally known and loved for his mainstream and genre fiction. It is to my shame that I have red only one other of his non-SF works, The Bridge, which I don't think I appreciated fully at the time and must return to. I have a lot of reading to do now - not only my long-planned reread of the Culture sequence, but discovering all of those novels I have yet to try. His final novel, The Quarry, will be published posthumously later this month. So, for me at least, there is still plenty more to go before Banks is truly gone.

I was going to end with a quote from one of Banks's books, but instead, I have decided to quote my friend Miles, who I think captured something of the writer and his sense of humour here.

"Maybe if we're lucky, Iain M. Banks' personality gets uploade to a Mind in the far-far-future and he gets to control a superpowerful Spaceship called 'Lover of Fine Dram.'"

Thursday 6 June 2013

Who Book-Quest #5: The Crystal Bucephalus by Craig Hinton

Ah, Craig Hinton, the late, great master of continuity porn. Forever to be remembered as the originator of the word fanwank, a charmingly enthusiastic presence on the old Continuity Cops mailing group, and as an author of some of the most enjoyable Doctor Who fiction of the long wilderness. That was the great thing about Craig: he loved continuity, live and breathed it, but he still knew how to create a rollicking good story. Continuity fetishism is usually stifling to creativity, but Craig had the imagination necessary to avoid this trap.

The Crystal Bucephalus was Craig’s first novel, published in 1994. It doesn’t have the sheer continuity overload of some of his later works like the sixth Doctor PDA The Quantum Archangel, so it’s a little more accessible to the more casual fan. But then, how many casual fans were picking up Virgin’s Missing Adventures line in the mid-nineties? I’m against continuity in place of creativity, but when it comes attached to a story like this, it’s the icing on a delicious cake.

The Crystal Bucephalus is a time-travelling restaurant built on an abandoned planet. Shades of The Restaurant at the End of the Universe in there, of course, with the great, the good and the rich of the Galaxy meeting to dine at this most exclusive of locales. However, rather than serving food itself, the Crystal Bucket (as it has affectionately become known) instead sends it patrons to the greatest eateries throughout history, where they can interact with the locals, disguised and unable to alter the flow of time. Which is all well and good, of course, until things go wrong.

The Doctor, along with Tegan and Turlough, had been happily enjoying a meal in 18th century France until accidentally being drawn into the Bucephalus’ time fields due to the presence of two of its patrons, one of whom is none other than Maximillian Arrestis, the head of the Elective, the greatest crime syndicate in galactic history and a man of unparalleled personal vision. His murder raises a few problems, with the Doctor, as usual, being accused. Two things get him off the hook here: firstly, he owns the Bucephalus (something he isn’t proud of) and secondly, Arrestis’s murder doesn’t stick. What follows is an adventure that revolves around the Bucephalus but impacts on locations throughout time and space.

The novel is based primarily in the eleventh millennium, a period of history that Craig chose due its being barely explored in the original series. It’s a period of delicate peace between the remains of the Federation, the criminal Elective, and the Lazarus Intent, a vast religious organisation that numbers its followers in the quadrillions. The Intent is at the heart of the events of the novel, with many decisions revolving around characters’ faith in its teachings or their abuse of its power. At first, it seems that Craig is attacking religion, particularly the Christian Church (the Intent is basically a galactic Holy See), but in time it becomes clear that he is supportive of faith and the good that organised religion can do, but wary of the harm that it can be used for if perverted.

That’s not to say this is a deep, philosophical novel. First and foremost, it’s a soap opera, with much of the drama coming from the tortured relationships of the Bucephalus’ creator, Alexhendri Lassiter, and his ex-wives and fellow temporal physicists, Monroe and Matisse. This triangle, which extends to include Arrestis, is the catalyst for events throughout the tale. Add to the heartache and backstabbing plenty of violence, murder and temporal anomalies and you have a cracking, if occasionally contrived, adventure.

Craig nails the central TARDIS trio. His fifth Doctor – who experiences a lengthy side trip in which he sets up his own restaurant and is adopted by a furry alien couple in the 63rd century – is particularly well captured, his grit and resolution coming through despite his recognisable soft exterior. Tegan’s characterisation strikes the right balance between her frequent bolshiness and her often forgotten softer side, and she strikes up a strong, believable friendship with Tornqvist, an important figure within the Lazarus Intent. Turlough gets less time to shine, but nonetheless hits the right notes between the self-centred scoundrel he begins as and the slightly less self-centred near-hero he ends up as. Craig also makes a point of getting the TARDIS crew out of their uniform-like costumes and into some fancy clothes, although both Turlough and the Doctor are back in their usual togs by the end of events.

The continuity points are ever-present, but not intrusive. Rather, they’ll bring a smile to the face of anyone who has followed Doctor Who both on television and during the early years of the Virgin novel line. The Bucephalus’ time projection is maintained by Legions, the multidimensional beings that appeared in the New Adventure Lucifer Rising, while other species such as the Alpha Centaurians, Chelonians and Silurians appear in cameos. There are plenty of cheeky hints along the way too; not only is it insinuated that Turlough’s world of Trion was colonised by the Gallifreyans, it is also strongly implied that New Alexandria, the planet on which the Bucephalus is based, is in fact the long-dead corpse of Gallifrey. Then there are the numerous Star Trek references for fans to spot, and Lazarus knows what else I’ve missed…

The novel builds to one hell of a climax, in which the author not only manages to bring the various temporally separated protagonists together but even finds a decent and believable use for shapeshifting pseudo-companion Kamelion. Much of the climactic finale takes place within the belly of the TARDIS, building a far more evocative picture of the death knells of a timeship than the recent TV episode Journey to the Centre… and even leading into the brand new shiny console room that debuted in The Five Doctors.

The Crystal Bucephalus is a grand read for any died-in-the-wool Who-head. Arguably, Craig Hinton never really managed to craft a story as well as he did here, often slipping a little too far into the excesses of continuity fetishism. Nonetheless, I’d love to see what he would made of the mass of mythology that has built up in the years since his death in 2006. The marvellous geek.

Tuesday 4 June 2013

Twelfth Doctor speculation begins in earnest

Sigh. OK, so Matt Smith's leaving. It's a shame, but not a surprise. I'd hoped for maybe one more season from him, and his earlier comments made it sound like that was what we were getting. However, there were already rumours afoot that we'd be seeing a regeneration in the Christmas special, and considering that David Tennant is appearing in the anniversary special, I had already built in a stagger to my 'Doctor by Doctor' posts. (The fact that the last two have been up late is purely coincidental.) So, Tennant will get a post in late November, after the first special, and Smith right at the end of the year, after his farewell. I've also upped the count by adding three more sidesteps into the mix, so that'll be fun.

Of course, this means a new Doctor is imminent, and that is exciting. However, this also means we will have to wade through thousands of posts in which various idiots make their own suggestions/predictions for the next lead. I think I can sum up my feelings on this matter thus: two days ago, some wag mocked up a fake BBC News page which revealed that Zac Efron had been cast as the Doctor. This was blatantly fake and was pretty funny (especially the links to other 'top stories,' my favourite being 'Will the Myrka return at last?'). What makes me despair is how many fangirls and fanboys believed it. These are the sorts of people who keep suggesting Daniel Radcliffe for the role. (Please, no. Please, please, no.)

More enjoyable threads have started along the lines of 'Which actor's casting would stop you watching the show?' (Russell Brand would do it for me, although Daniel Radcliffe would push it close.) On the other hand, every bloody cult site and tabloid is full of the latest odds from the UK bookmakers. I work for William Hill, so I have some easy access to their odds, but frankly, I had to call up the raceroom for them, and they went online. People are not queuing at the counter to place bets on Russell Tovey. The fact that the major bookies all have completely different odds for completely different lists of people show how arbitrary the whole thing is. I'm also confused as to how we can be accepting bets on something that is clearly already known by a number of people at the BBC.

Oh, come on, you don't seriously believe Moffat's claim that 'somewhere out there, someone is going about their business etc etc...' Of course it's known. The Christmas special starts filming in a month or two, and with contracts being what they are, the new Doctor must have been cast months ago.

Still, here are my thoughts on some of the various names cropping up, primarily so that when people ask me what I think of such-and-such I can just direct them here. To be honest, I doubt the new Doctor is on any list. He, or she, is more likely to be someone less well known.