Friday, September 28, 2012
They've Made Me A Goddess (The Left-Handed Hummingbird)
I'll Explain Later
We skipped the not-bad but not-terribly-interesting The Dimension Riders.
Kate Orman’s The Left-Handed Hummingbird is the first of an impressive five New Adventures by Kate Orman, who also co-wrote So Vile a Sin and helped plot Human Nature. It’s focused heavily on Aztec culture, and features two somewhat controversial sequences in which the Doctor takes hallucinogenic drugs to try to understand the psychic enemy he’s facing. It’s quite popular - Kate Orman’s highest-ranking novel on Sullivan’s list at twelfth place, with a 78.3% rating. Lars Pearson calls it “finely crafted” and “a great opening volley from the elegant Orman.” Craig Hinton goes with “the most adult New Adventures yet, and the most gripping.” DWRG summary. Whoniverse Discontinuity Guide entry.
In the news, the European Union properly formed. The Railways Act passed, beginning the privatization of the British rail system. The London Convention banned dumping radioactive waste in the ocean. In the US, NAFTA passed Congress. And the Observer established that a backchannel of communication exists between the IRA and the British government, contrary to the denials of said government. While this month the Space Shuttle Endeavour makes an effort to fix the Hubble Space Telescope, Colin Ferguson makes an effort to kill six people on a Long Island Railroad train, and the UK commits to making an effort to figure out a solution to the whole Ireland problem via the Downing Street Declaration. Also, Doom comes out. I confess, I care about one of these more than the others.
While in literature, The Left-Handed Hummingbird. Which deserves better than being shoved beneath a book launch post. Kate Orman is the first and only female writer of the New Adventures. She’s also the first and only Australian, and that’s probably significant too, but it’s also well outside of my wheelhouse, so you get the focus on “female writer” instead. But perhaps the more important point is that Kate Orman is the first writer to come out of feminist fandom. And that’s perhaps the more significant fact. After all, while it’s not true that scads of women have written for Doctor Who, there are at least a few. It’s not impossible to make a case that Enlightenment has a uniquely female perspective, and it’s downright easy to argue that Survival is overtly feminist.
But there’s something different about feminist fandom. There’s a lengthy body of literature I could cite here. The canonical texts, ethnographically speaking, are Henry Jenkins’s Textual Poachers, Camile Bacon-Smith’s Enterprising Women, and Constance Penley’s NASA/Trek. The former two are early nineties books, while Penley’s work came in the late nineties, so again, we’re in the general vicinity of topical. Something about the early nineties and female fandom pinged on the radar, so to speak.
Part of this is likely simply a matter of the media landscape. The expanding television landscape of the UK and the US (where Fox began expanding as a network and cable channels began launching things like the Sci-Fi channel) meant that there was a more concentrated understanding of and attempt to market to the “cult” demographic, especially after the shock success of The X-Files. The ensuing focus on science fiction fans, however, led to people noticing the longstanding groups of female fans.
The wave of early nineties ethnographies focused on the most immediately prurient aspect of these fans, which was, at least among the American fans that were mostly being studied, slash fiction. For those who don’t know, in its classic and pure slash fiction is a form of fanfiction in which male characters who are not explicitly coupled in the original text are sexually and romantically paired. Some is explicitly erotic or outright pornographic, while others take a more “romance novel” route. Typically slash fiction is written by heterosexual women, although there are certainly exceptions. The term “slash” comes from the typographic convention used to describe stories - a story that romantically paired the Doctor and Turlough would be described simply as “Doctor/Turlough.” These days the term is often used more broadly, but properly “slash” refers to male/male pairings.
Tat Wood, at least, claims that slash fiction simply wasn’t done in Britain prior to these ethnographies revealing its existence to people - I wouldn’t know. But certainly a result of the Internet is that the practice did spread far and wide. Orman has some slash fiction to her name, including at least one piece of Star Trek: The Next Generation slash I can find that post-dates The Left-Handed Hummingbird. And while it would be churlish to attempt to argue that the fact that Kate Orman has written pervy stories about Data and Geordi getting it on somehow affects everything else she’s written, it’s worth pausing to think about the nature of slash fiction and what it can tell us about the feminist fandom tradition from which Orman springs.
The easiest and most obvious thing to say about slash, at least in the general vocabulary and range of terms we use here, is that it is largely a form of détournement. Slash fiction is about forcibly eroticizing the male-gaze dominated hyper-masculinized aesthetic of action/adventure television, turning it into the exact inverse of what it is. It takes male-targeted action/adventure shows and makes them do things that the bulk of science fiction fans (depressingly still to this day) are going to find “icky.” It privileges an objectifying female gaze and female desire not merely in addition to the existing straight male desires implicit in action/adventure sci-fi, but instead of them. It’s cheeky and evil and, perhaps most importantly, a huge breath of fresh air.
On top of that, as one might expect from politically invested feminists who are actively subverting media tropes, feminist fandom became pretty solidly media literate pretty fast. This actually led to at least some tension, with proper “academic” media studies resisting fan scholarship. This is a mixed bag - on the one hand, and I say this with my academia hat on, there is a lot of crappy fan scholarship that has a few good insights but a badly inadequate sense of context. On the other hand, and I’m not changing hats here, there’s a lot of crappy academic pop culture scholarship that’s all context and no insight. The truth of the matter is that feminist fandom, at least these days, has swaths of people whose basic skill at literary criticism and interpretation would put them solidly on par with people in Masters programs. And there’s no shortage of people who actually do wear both hats: I know multiple people in my graduate program who were also active in slash communities, for instance.
The long and short of it is this: feminist fandom is an immensely savvy place. We’ve been talking about the critiques of Doctor Who that rightly existed in the period and the way in which the program grappled with them. And a major engine of identifying and responding to those critiques was feminist fandom. Many of these critiques focused specifically on feminist concerns - the way in which female perspectives are routinely marginalized in popular media. But the general case critical savviness of feminist fandom meant that they became adept at introducing concerns of other marginalized groups as well. Kate Orman, for instance, has done some thorough fan scholarship on the representations of Asians in Doctor Who (including getting to the realization that The Celestial Toymaker was racist years before I ever started blathering on).
Crucially, though, feminist fandom has never been particularly depressive about its critiques. It makes its skewering criticisms of the text, but it also plays gleefully with the text, whether in the form of slash fiction or just in the form of geeking out hard. It is, in other words, another form of the engagement Russell T Davies demonstrated via Dark Season and Century Falls - a model that can be aware of the series’ flaws but still love it.
And this is the perspective that Kate Orman brings to Doctor Who with The Left-Handed Hummingbird. And yet despite that, it’s not easy, at first glance, to turn that knowledge into a straightforward interpretation of the book. Certainly there are some obvious connections - the use of the Aztec-based setting and mythology demonstrates the same post-colonial interests that animated White Darkness, and is consistent with feminist fandom’s social justice interests. But although this book has some memorable female characters, it can hardly be called some sort of triumph for female roles in Doctor Who. Ace and Benny both have some good material, but it’s nothing out of the ordinary.
But there’s more subtle factors at play as well. The point of slash fiction, as we said, is in part to détourn the existing male-dominated structure of action-adventure stories by replacing it with a structure and approach that is more normally coded as feminine. So instead of bracing sci-fi action we get, effectively, an emotion-heavy romance plot. And although The Left-Handed Hummingbird lacks any exuberantly homoerotic Doctor/Group Captain Gilmore sequences (despite having Gilmore in a small cameo), that basic dynamic of shifting the storytelling away from rip-roaring action and towards something more emotional is very much central to what Orman is doing here.
To be clear, I’m not suggesting that it’s “womanly” to write a book about characters’ emotions or anything like that. Heck, Paul Cornell’s done two of them so far in the New Adventures. But compare this book to the last one we talked about. Blood Heat had substantial emotional content, but was at its heart a book about UNIT fighting lizard-men who rode dinosaurs. More broadly, it’s a book about action and thrills. The Left-Handed Hummingbird, on the other hand, is about the Doctor being genuinely terrified of the prospect of his own possession by a malevolent psychic force. It’s an extremely talky book full of interiority. Two of the most consequential (and controversial) sequences involve the Doctor taking psychedelic drugs.
It’s not that the stakes are low. The Doctor fighting a possession through an entire book is still a sweeping, bold premise. But there is a subversion of the usual epic sweep of things. The Doctor’s games and manipulations fail here, as does he in the end, requiring a supporting character to save him. He overconfidently assumes he can face down his enemy successfully, and gets himself in massive amounts of trouble as a result. It’s not a repudiation of the “manipulative chessmaster” Doctor of the Virgin era so much as an inversion. Instead of making the Doctor ever more powerful and scary (as all of the other New Adventures writers have) Orman goes inside him, asking what happens when the manipulative chessmaster gets beaten. This is recognizable as a technique drawn from the slash approach.
It’s not that Orman is the first writer to deal with interiority, or even with the Doctor’s interiority. Timewyrm: Revelation being, of course, the most obvious. But there’s a big difference between what Orman is doing here and what Cornell does. Cornell’s exploration of the Doctor’s mind is overtly about making the Doctor’s mind and interior experience epic. He treats interior experience as a new terrain for the epic. And it works wonderfully, and it’s a brilliant novel, but it’s not what Orman does. What Orman does is the deceptively simple trick of telling a story that, at its core, is about what the Doctor is feeling and how he’s reacting to things.
But equally interesting are the purposes towards which Orman turns these techniques. Although Orman isn’t one of the Virgin writers who made the jump to writing for the new series (nor should she have been - she’s a damn fine novelist, but the BBC’s policy of not using writers who don’t have television experience is completely sensible), it’s striking how many things that are a part of the new series make early appearances in The Left-Handed Hummingbird. It’s one of the earliest outright “timey-wimey” stories, with the Doctor and company meeting the supporting characters in non-chronological order. Even here, though, the focus is on interior experience. The Doctor meeting the supporting characters out of order it a tool by which Orman is able to bring out the way in which meeting the Doctor impacts characters. The Doctor lacks context for his interactions in this story, constantly encountering people in such a way as to present the wake of his actions before he gets to encounter his actions. Again, this isn’t used in the typically broody style of most “studies of the Doctor’s effect on people” - as in, for instance, Cat’s Cradle: Warhead. This isn’t an extended meditation on the horror that follows in the Doctor’s wake - although there’s lots of horror. It’s a story that focuses on the interior for its own sake, not to find some new form of the epic.
But there are other mirrors as well. The villain is explicitly described at one point as an image becoming real, and the underlying existential horror of him is almost dead-on what Moffat makes the Weeping Angels into in the Season Five two-parter. The Doctor’s horror at his own possession, similarly, is basically the premise of 42, though for the most part done more artfully here. There’s a lot here that proved to have a lasting impact on Doctor Who.
But perhaps the biggest thing that this book prefigures is the basic structure: the idea of doing Doctor Who that’s about emotional storytelling. Nowadays this is the default mode of Doctor Who, but at the end of 1993 it still was something unusual. The few books that had significant explorations of character’s interiority tended to treat it as a cool extra thing, as if telling a Doctor Who with characters who had emotions was terribly innovative. The emotional content was used to turn the volume up on an existing story, or in an irritatingly smug and self-satisfied way. Even Paul Cornell, the master thus far of this sort of thing, is outdone here.
It’s not quite justifiable to say that Orman has any direct responsibility for the turn towards this sort of storytelling in Doctor Who. Though it’s also clearly wrong to say she has none. If nothing else, she helped Cornell substantively with Human Nature, giving her distant authorship of a television story. Certainly her influence on Cornell is documentable, as is his on both Davies and Moffat. But even if the influence of Orman herself can’t be straightforwardly traced, the larger influence she represents, in which openly feminist segments of fandom began actively influencing what got made, is, as we continue through the 1989-2005 gap, going to prove massive.