Friday, November 25, 2011

Time Can Be Rewritten 15 (Eye of Heaven, BBC Books,

Apparently the RSS feed failed to pick up Wednesday's post about Mary Whitehouse. If you missed it, it's over here

Among the most stereotypically overdone debates in all of Doctor Who fandom is the debate that took place over the long interregnum between the so-called "rad" and "trad" schools of novels. This was a proper debate, and thus characterized by each side considering the other's position to be self-evidently silly and essentially unworthy of discussion. Proponents of the "trad" school - short for traditional - favored novels that closely hewed to the approach and aesthetics of televised Doctor Who. They tended to view the "rad" school, with their preference for more radical and experimental novels, as a strange sort of Doctor Who fan who was only fond of Doctor Who when it wasn't much like Doctor Who. The "rads" on the other hand largely viewed tent traditionalists as silly an unadventurous sticks in the mud who failed to appreciate that anything that is traditional Doctor Who now was, at one point or another, radical Doctor Who. (The other 99% of fandom just read books and enjoyed some while not enjoying others.)

As is usually the case with a divide like this, the truth of the matter is that both sides of the debate are rather silly. We've already seen how "trad" novels can be subversive and challenging to the aesthetics and approaches of their eras. And we've followed the progress of the series closely enough to know that the idea that all changes are radical shifts is nonsense. The series has often improved incrementally, with "normality" being established through small shifts. The Hinchcliffe era really only did a dramatic revolution of a story twice: once with Genesis of the Daleks, and even that is still 80% just "generic Terry Nation story done really well" and would probably have qualified as "trad" by the standards that characterized this deeply silly moment of debate because it had Daleks in it and felt like a Terry Nation script. And then, of course, once with The Deadly Assassin, which is unquestionably "rad." Still, one example does not change the fact that even in an era full of iconic stories, not much is actually "rad" in televised Doctor Who. And so in this regard we recognize that in fact the very act of writing a Doctor Who novel means that you're signing up to try to do radical and interesting things within a prescribed form - a tradition, if you will. And that criticizing "trad" novels while extolling the virtues of "rad" ones is the height of idiocy. Right? Good. Moving on.

Here we begin to see the other side. Jim Mortimore is one of the archetypal "rad" writers, which should surprise nobody who has been reading the Time Can Be Rewritten stuff from the beginning. In this novel he manages to avoid casually reconfiguring reality every chapter via an Aristotle-infused video game being played on the TARDIS. Instead he tells his story through two distinct sequences of alternating chapters in which even and odd-numbered chapters each tell a different part of the story. This is not, to be clear, just perspective jumping. The first half of the book is almost all written from Leela's perspective, but  alternates between telling one portion of the story in the odd numbered chapters and a second, chronologically earlier portion, in the even numbered. A similar structure is used in the back half. The result is akin to what would happen if you watched both Part 1 and Part 2 of a story, alternating between them every five minutes or so, and starting with Part 2. And yet despite the ostentatious structure, however, the book is by and large a solid fit with the tone of the show in this period, follows the basic structure of a Hinchcliffe-era story (at least once you put the bits in the right order), and is quite good to boot. So here's the obligatory celebration of going completely nuts in a Doctor Who novel.

First of all, let's put the kibosh on one of the central lines of critique that books like this get: unintelligibility. I admit that I, being an English teacher and all, am one of the least sympathetic ears imaginable when it comes to the complaint that something is hard to read or hard to follow. Sometimes books are hard. The usual complaint - "it didn't make sense" - is ludicrous, and in essentially every case where you're talking about something that is remotely widely read - let's draw the line at "professionally published" for the sake of argument - simply wrong. Books that don't make sense don't get published. But nobody wants to say "I was too thick to understand it," so they blame books and authors for their own intellectual shortcomings.

Let's also note that Eye of Heaven just isn't that hard a book. It only ever alternates between two points in its narrative timeline, and tells each individual part of the story in order. The chapters alternate back and forth. The prose is crisp and clear, with only its tendency to shift among viewpoints and occasionally leaving the reader spending two or three pages trying to figure out what's happening proving tricky or difficult. And if you, as a reader, are complaining that you sometimes have to go a few pages before the context of something starts to settle... jeez. I mean, that's one of the most basic tools of writing you're rejecting there - the idea of revealing key points of context as you go is as basic a literary technique as exists. If you have trouble with it on an inherent level... that's bad. And, I mean, this is more broadly true. I've read an awful lot of Doctor Who books in my life, and anyone who is complaining that they are difficult and hard to understand must break down into a gibbering mess when confronted with James Joyce or William Faulkner. Heck, they must be terrified by Alan Moore or Ian Sinclair. Or, like, this blog. I mean, I'm surely preaching to the choir here, having long since scared everyone else off.

But fine. Let's pare this attack on Eye of Heaven of its more unfortunately anti-intellectual aspects and try for an approach that doesn't lend itself to complete dismissal. Clearly treating the narrative complexity of Eye of Heaven as an inherently bad thing is ludicrous, and clearly you don't want to argue that the book is unintelligible. But like cleverness, complexity is merely something that can be used well, not something that is inherently good. There is such a thing as overkill. The question we should be asking isn't "is Eye of Heaven too complex" but rather "is its complexity appropriate for what it does?"

There are two aspects to this question. The first is whether the book's complexity contributes significantly to what the book has to say. Or, to put it another way, is there a point to all of this, or is it just Mortimore showing how clever he is? The second is whether its complexity is in line with the expectations of its genre. After all, even if we reject the idea that Eye of Heaven is particularly hard as books go, if there is a compelling reason why Doctor Who books shouldn't even be that hard, that's a valid criticism.

We'll start with the first. There are, of course, tons of reasons why one might pick a non-chronological narrative style. Most of them fall under the broad heading of breaking the equivalency between story and plot. The easiest way to explain the difference is in terms of a mystery story. The plot of a murder mystery begins with the murderer killing someone. But the story of a murder mystery ends with that. That is to say, the murder is something that happens early on, but in terms of the order things are revealed to the reader, the murder happens late. I use this example because it should make obvious the way in which it is often important to distinguish plot and story. Because the order in which the reader learns things is a separate narrative logic to the order in which they happen.

In the case of Eye of Heaven, what this lets Mortimore do is have key events - the ones that happen at the end of the even numbered sections - be simultaneously approached from both ends. For instance, at the point chronologically between the plots of the even and odd-numered chapters in the first portion of the book, a major new character is introduced. By interleaving the two sections Mortimore is able to simultaneously build to the character's arrival and show the consequences of her arrival, with the moment of her arrival and the ultimate explanation of who she is coming only when both of those have been explored sufficiently. (A near-identical narrative technique is used in the opening parts of "The Wedding of River Song," and Moffat uses the technique frequently in his pre-Doctor Who shows. Other adept practitioners include Aaron Sorkin.)

But there is a complexity to this book that exceeds what can be accounted for this way. When time-jumping techniques are used on television they're usually accompanied, at least at the start, with helpful captions saying something like "Four months earlier..." or some other clear signpost as to the relationship between the two timelines. Mortimore makes no such concession, jumping back and forth between his two timelines with no explanation as to how they relate or to who is narrating a given chapter.

But this makes sense for what he is doing as well. Eye of Heaven is thoroughly steeped in the intellectual tradition of the Hinchcliffe era that it is supposed to follow from. This is a book explicitly about the repetitions of history and the nature of memory, and so a structure in which one is forced to engage with the story via idiosyncratic chronology is wholly sensible. For a book that is about odd and impenetrable legacies of the past, having odd and inexplicable past events that are nevertheless hugely important to what is happening at any given moment adds obvious dimensions to the story.

All of this is also tied in with Mortimore's unusual decision to narrate the novel from various first person perspectives, the most common of which is Leela. (There are also two sections narrated from the Doctor's point of view that are widely criticized in reviews. These criticisms are wrong - Mortimore is clearly borrowing the narrative voice used on The Pescatons. It's a perfectly fair way to sidestep the question of how to narrate a story from the point of view of the Doctor - use the way it's already been done to nobody's particular alarm. It's also very funny.) The decision to use this particular era for this particular story is in no way incidental. This story fills a major thematic gap for Leela that the series itself was never going to (and really should never have given the limitations it would have faced doing so on its budget) by juxtaposing her with indigenous people of the sort that her character was based on. This book exploits the obvious question poised by a character who is a futuristic member of a "primitive" tribe - what happens if you put her opposite a "primitive" Earth culture.

So, who wants a quick primer on the crushing misery that is doing ethical criticism of art and literature on grounds related to cultural discrimination? Because if any of you do, I'll do it for all of you. What's that? You do in the back? Well, OK. But seriously, this is free on the Internet. Why are you all crowding around one screen. Go get your own laptop or something and read it. It'll hurt your eyes less. (Wow, that transition overran.)

I've been putting "primitive" in scare quotes here because there's a whole nexus of issues with Leela that I've been dancing around and should quickly flesh out. I've complained about the whole "civilizing Leela" tone of stories without really digging into what's wrong with this. At the most basic level, it's just a bit of good ol' commie pinko cultural relativism on my part. The implicit value judgment in saying that a civilization with less advanced technology than ours is inferior to ours is obscene. So when the show dips into creating a value judgment around Leela in which the reason she is less than the Doctor is that she's a primitive or a savage, it's problematic. And I use that word in its real sense instead of in the generic academic "I am hedging because I want to condemn something but opt out of the moral judgment" sense. It's an interpretive problem. Because there are, of course, ways in which the Sevateem or the Rapa Nui are inferior to the Doctor. They are less good at chemistry and yo-yos. It's not, in other words, that every time the Doctor makes a negative judgment of Leela it's bad. Nor is it that it's bad when the Doctor objects to how violent she is, because that's a moral judgment. (Correspondingly, it would not be bad if Leela objected to how cowardly the Doctor is because of his nonviolence.) But on the other hand, sometimes it is bad - the way in which the Doctor makes dismissive jokes about Leela being a savage while visibly liking her less than he liked his previous companion is... tough to get around the implications of, even if you do know that it's really Baker not covering his own dislike of the character/actress/fact that other people appear in his television show.

Then in Talons it managed to acquire a whole new level of problems because Holmes ported Leela-the-savage over to the Pygmalion/My Fair Lady set of tropes it acquired a whole set of prejudices about class (in which richer/more educated people are superior to poorer/less educated people) that, again, hit that difficult point in which there exist value judgments that can be made - the more educated person is, statistically speaking, far, far more likely to have a bitching cheesecake recipe - but where an absolute value judgment is horrific. And now the show had managed to tie those two together, which, of course, isn't that hard because of the fact that education, poverty, and race are correlated due to systemic biases and discrimination in human culture. So this is, basically, one of those really shitty situations that make literary critics want to crawl back into bed instead of writing decently nuanced analyses of.

And where all of this gets horribly nasty is that nothing I've said in the last two paragraphs is actually news to anybody. Which means that when we get our political correctness party going and ramp up the discussion of privilege-denial and negative tropes, what we encounter is usually not frothing lunatics who rail against the fundamental moral inferiority of other cultures or of poor people. Although you will find plenty of those. And I only picked Kipling over Herman Cain because I could find a good link faster.

But more often we find things where people, aware of how horrible it would be to treat another culture as inherently inferior to your own, throw a couple of bones to the "primitives." These bones may range from the horrifically meager (black people sure are good musicians though!) to the exceedingly complex (the subgenre of movies about brilliant minority kids overcoming the odds to succeed), but what they end up doing is creating a cultural norm that reinforces systemic bias. For instance, teaching minority kids that their lives are miserable and hopeless cesspools that only one or two exceptional geniuses will ever rise out of has a disastrous effect on every single minority kid who isn't an exceptional genius. Even though any given movie is in fact made out of a sincere desire to help inspire at-risk kids into doing what it takes to improve their lives, and is based out of a whole host of completely reasonable and understandable and sympathetic and, no, let's go all the way here, ethically good decisions about how minorities have lower graduation rates which trap them in lower-paying jobs that sustain the vicious cycle of poverty. It doesn't erase the fact that it's feeding a larger cultural stereotype that badly undermines everything that a given movie is trying to accomplish.

What I'm getting at in this somewhat torturous digression is that Leela is always a very difficult character to do anything with. Because on the one hand there are genuinely interesting things to be learned and said about how different cultures interact. And these things get very, very interesting and profound when you start running into things that imply some sort of cultural element that exists in some form in all human or even perhaps in all intelligent cultures. That's the sort of thing that science fiction and fantasy were made for as genres. So in that regard, Leela is a goldmine for the show - a vast trove of amazingly interesting stories.

Except that she's slap bang in the middle of a host of cultural stereotypes of the sort that have a few concessions to the ethical value of the "savage" while still declaring that they need rich white people to swoop in and save them. And so you're constantly walking this horrible line between brilliant science fiction about the nature of humanity and cratering race/class fail. And if you find a critic who says that they enjoy picking through the smoldering ethical rubble of crap like this, they are liars and you should not play for money with them. But it is important, and so we do it anyway as our service to you, our loyal public. By the way, and I'll make a bigger thing about this next week when everyone's back from the holidays, but the book's out in paperback now, so if you want to tip your neighborhood rambling Marxist localist monarchist, feel free.

So anyway, connecting Leela with some of the tribes whose culture she was based on is really interesting too. There's a really lovely idea in the heart of this book about how truly and horrifically oppressed cultures - ones that are oppressed into extinction or virtual extinction - survive and propagate. And framing it in terms of the Rapa Nui - a culture that was nearly driven completely extinct in the time period the book is set in - and in terms of Leela - whose culture was destroyed before her eyes by the Doctor, who had destroyed a previous culture to cause hers to be created, and who is a nexus of problems of oppression that are less dramatic than what the Rapa Nui suffered, but that are nevertheless truly harmful - is extremely powerful. And the narrative structure that distances the reader slightly from the action and forces them to feel like cultural outsiders to the story puts the reader in the exact right frame of mind to connect with this larger idea of how dying cultures cause their history to reiterate and survive, for better and for worse.

Which brings us at long last, and some day a copy editor will murder me in my bed for the amount of time I put between these rhetorical flags, the second aspect of our question about whether Eye of Heaven is appropriately complex - is this the correct level of complexity for Doctor Who?

The fun answer is "Well it sure as hell would go over Mary Whitehouse's head."

The larger and more serious answer is that of course it is. It's not one of the best Doctor Who novels of all times. Mortimore is better at coming up with narrative devices than he is at using them - a problem that anyone who generates a large number of clever narrative devices runs into eventually. There is a constant sense that he is hitting the exact wrong amount of trying the reader's patience - that if he'd lengthen his leash and really screw around he might have something really special, or if he reeled it back and tried to take a little bit of the edge off of the alienation of the reader, he might land what he has more effectively. But, look, if you're going to criticize Doctor Who novels for not being as adept at narrative experimentation as Alan Moore or William Faulkner, seriously, you're doing it wrong. The narrative faults of this novel are solidly in the range of what is acceptable for a Doctor Who novel, and frankly it's only because people like Paul Cornell, Gareth Roberts, Russell T Davies, and Lawrence Miles wrote Doctor Who novels that Mortimore's novel even looks imperfect in comparison.

Unless we want to attempt to stray into the much, much uglier question of whether there's something wrong with making Doctor Who too weird or too hard. Or too anything. I mean, let's just go with the broad "is Doctor Who an appropriate venue for aesthetic extremism." To some extent, I mean, I can't take anyone seriously who says no. That just seems to me a boring and intellectually uncurious position of the sort that I just don't have the life expectancy to deal with. But as with most arguments you disagree with you can knock together the best possible form of the argument and then shoot that down and let all the worse formulations go down with it, and that's always worth doing, so let's go ahead and defend the avant garde in Doctor Who. After all, what better time for it than right after the Mary Whitehouse entry, and before Doctor Who begins to meander towards a different type of aesthetic extremism in the Williams era.

The best possible argument I can find for this point of view is one of crass commercialism. That if you push the show too far to the avant grade you lose too much of the audience. Even when the show is a niche set of novels, you want the novels to do well enough that people consider bringing the show back. You don't want the novels to become so weird that the line goes out of print. And weird is harder. You lose readers to not getting it and then blaming the book. That's just life. And so you don't want to be too weird unless you're funded by a model that doesn't depend on having a lot of fans. Welcome to the life of a psychochronographer, by the way.

But there's a moral dimension that can be made here too. Doctor Who is amazing in part because it occupies magically a space between the cultural avant garde and the mainstream. It's a show that does an amazing job of making the unfamiliar familiar to people and of exposing people to new ideas in a way that works. Whether you go back to its original educational mandate, its current "let's have a nice big wholesome cultural event" mandate, or its alchemical mandate, this is very much what the show does. Alchemy through material social progress. This means that it actually can't go too far and still work. If it crosses the line into the completely avant garde, it stops doing one of the things it's there for.

On the other hand, it's a fine line between that observation and "if you act less smart, people will like you more." Which, incidentally, I was told in fourth grade, the year before I discovered Doctor Who. By my teacher. Just to keep that theme in the mix while we discuss this.

It comes down to the fact that Doctor Who is an anthology show. And to the fact that underlies why a bunch of well-meaning movies about smart minority kids become a harmful racist stereotype. Doctor Who novels would be bad if every novel were weird and experimental like Eye of Heaven. Just like movies about minorities are bad because every one is about smart minority kids triumphing over adversity. But notably, not every Doctor Who novel is like Eye of Heaven. Most of them aren't.

But crucially, the entire line would suffer if none of them were like Eye of Heaven. You can't mediate the space between the avant garde and the mainstream without pushing against the lines. (On both sides. Doctor Who would be poorer if it didn't try low-market uninspired crap like The Hand of Fear sometimes to see how far it can go in that direction.) Anthology shows triumph in part because they can pull back from any mistake immediately by just not doing that sort of story again. It's hard to do long-term damage with a poor aesthetic decision.

And one thing that we will eventually discover in the back portion of the classic series is that if you fail to push against the limits of experimentalism and ambition occasionally, the show as a whole will wither badly. And this is the real reason Whitehouse's crusade against Doctor Who and, more to the point, the BBC's utterly cowardly response to it (which is the real crime in all of this - the willingness of those in power to facilitate her bullying) is so bad. The show is, institutionally, going to be afraid of risking it for quite a while now. And that's very bad.

(But as Jim Mortimore demonstrates... it gets better?)

7 comments:

  1. Being unfamiliar with the Rapa Nui, I googled them.

    This was the first hit:

    Rapanui Clothing: "Rapanui is about making eco-fashion cool."

    Jesus wept.

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  2. "alternates between telling one portion of the story in the odd numbered chapters and a second, chronologically earlier portion, in the even numbered"

    Probably the most famous science-fiction novel to do this is Ursula LeGuin's The Dispossessed (a model more recently imitated by Ken MacLeod's anarcho-Trotskyist-Tuckerite Stone Canal).

    "framing it in terms of the Rapa Nui"

    I bet Mortimore doesn't even mention that the moai were inspired by the 11th Doctor.

    "it's just a bit of good ol' commie pinko cultural relativism on my part. The implicit value judgment in saying that a civilization with less advanced technology than ours is inferior to ours is obscene"

    You know this, but I'll say it anyway, because it's a pet peeve in my profession: that's not cultural relativism. Cultural relativism denies that cultures can be comparatively evaluated across any dimensions -- so that, say, we couldn't criticise a culture for practising slavery etc.

    "I only picked Kipling over Herman Cain because I could find a good link faster."

    Well, thank you, because I prefer my bigotry to be literate. :-)

    "Apparently the RSS feed failed to pick up Wednesday's post about Mary Whitehouse"

    Her censorious influence persists!

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  3. People seriously complain about a jumping narrative structure in a book about time travellers?

    Well good refutation with the point about murder mysteries. On that note, thank you for mentioning "The Simple Art of Murder" last post. I'm a Chandler fan, but hadn't been aware of that one before, and really enjoyed reading it.

    However (and it's a bit of a digression from the topic of this post, and even the blog) while it is an amazing piece of criticism, which I hadn't thought of as such an art form till reading this blog, I found his argument rather blinkered and self serving. He seems by the end especially to be saying: there is only one way to write about murder and its detection, and that is the way Hammet and I do it. Especially his description of how the hero must be composed.

    I read Chandler as a lad, and really was only introduced to Agatha Christie and the like by my wife, some seven or eight years ago, but despite that I find a well done parlour mystery to be just as rewarding as any hard-boiled tale of Marlow getting repeatedly koshed over the noggin'.

    Interested in your thoughts, if you don't mind digressing.

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  4. Ditto -- I love both the Christie type and the Hammet/Chandler type of mystery (as well as other kinds entirely, from G. K. Chesterton to Donna Leon). It would be a shame if they were all alike.

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  5. Hi there Philip,

    Just thought that I would post a comment in one of your current threads to make a connection.

    I have known about your blog for a while via Mary Ann's 'FlickFilosopher' and have only dipped in a little bit until now, when I have been gripped by your flow of ideas and writing, so am working my may consecutively through your archive.

    I am reading your blog through my function as a professional oral Storyteller. I have had my interest in the whole continuum of Doctor Who material reawakened in me through the effect of the new series in 2005. In the main, I feel passionate about Doctor Who as it feels like some great ongoing piece of storytelling. An ancient and new epic (once added all together!), a '1000 and One Nights', a 'Mahabarata'. A great and jumbled continuum of stories. Many fans of the show seem to obsess over the existence of a supposed 'canon' or continuity - I don't think that matters, not where the main character is a cosmic trickster figure, wibbling with non-linearity throughout time.

    All his tales make me think at this moment of collected stories and exploits of figures such as Maui in Maori mythology, Coyote in North America, and even Jack (of the Beanstalk) who has hundreds of tales about him throughout Europe (spread even to the Appalachian mountains).

    What matters, I feel are the STORIES.

    Like you said on your first blog entry:

    "A man comes into town, and everything changes. By this standard, every story is a Doctor Who story, as every Doctor Who story is exactly that - a man with a magical blue box comes into town, and everything changes."

    And:

    "And so as long as there are stories, there are Doctor Who stories. When the stars go out and the universe freezes, around the last fire on the last world, there will still be Doctor Who stories to tell. And when we are done telling them, at long and final last, in the distance will be a strange wheezing, groaning sound. And out will step an impossible man, and he will save the day.

    I believe this. I believe this because to disbelieve this is to disbelieve that stories have power"


    You know, I don't think that the stories of Doctor Who can actually run out. That for me is the charm. There are an infinite number of gaps between tales and individual moments that can never be divided down to zero.

    That for me is the charm - the constant possibility for stories.

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  6. So - thanks you for this blog and I look forwards to the journey of discovery with you!

    I see your new book - which I certainly will buy and help promote.

    Thanks again

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  7. I never did get around to reading "Eye of Heaven" because I was thoroughly turned off of Jim Mortimore's writing before it was ever released. My problem isn't his style: I've never had a problem understanding what he was trying to say, and his prose is certainly more interesting than, say, a Gary Russell novel. It's the subject matter that I've always had a problem with. He's far more bloodthirsty than I'm comfortable with. I can't speak to "Eye of Heaven," but between "Parasite," "Eternity Weeps," and "Beltempest" I think he's racked up the largest body count of any of the novel writers. It got to the point where I found reading Mortimore's works (or listening, as much of the same problems apply to "The Natural History of Fear" audio he did for Big Finish) was just such an uncomfortably numbing experience that I started to avoid them.

    Which, I hasten to add, isn't a defense of Whitehouse-style bullying. There's certainly a place for experimental writing, and I don't fault Jim Mortimore for writing stories that I don't like. But, at the same time, I just can't make myself like his work, no matter how I try. The best thing I can say is that a Jim Mortimore-penned novel remains far more interesting than, say, a by-the-numbers John Peel Dalek book, largely because he is clearly a far more skilled writer from a technical and stylistic perspective, even if his subject matter tends to turn me right off.

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