Friday, October 19, 2012

Roundsomely Layered on the Bone (Warlock)

I’ll Explain Later

We have skipped St. Anthony’s Fire, Falls the Shadow, and Parasite, all of which are in the bottom third of New Adventures in Sullivan’s rankings.

Warlock is the second part of Andrew Cartmel’s War Trilogy, and abandons the Cyberpunk of the first volume in favor for a thriller about drug culture and animal experimentation. Which sounds like it should piss a lot of people off, but it actually comes in at a cheerily average twenty-ninth place in Sullivan’s rankings, and does extremely well with the critics. Craig Hinton sums it up as “Warlock is nasty, Warlock is unpleasant, Warlock is sick. And Warlock is a triumph for Andrew Cartmel.” Lars Pearson takes a similar tack, saying that “Warlock strikes your chest dead-center, warming you up and making you angry.” DWRG Summary. Whoniverse Discontinuity Guide entry.

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It’s January of 1995. East 17 are at number one with their holdover Christmas #1 “Stay Another Day.” It’s unseated a week later by “Cotton Eye Joe” by Rednex, who round out the month. Celine Dion, Oasis, Boyzone, Mariah Carey,  R Kelly, and Green Day all also chart, the latter with an actually-successful-this-time rerelease of last year’s single “Basket Case.” So clearly we’re in that part of the nineties. More cheerily, Portishead makes it to number three in the albums chart with Dummy.

In news, the World Trade Organization is established. Star Trek: Voyager premieres, to nobody’s particular joy. The Russians briefly panic and think Norway is trying to bomb them. And the first MORI poll of 1995 shows that the Conservative Party is only trailing Labour by about thirty points, a significant improvement of their previous forty points. They still don’t have to actually go get slaughtered at the polls for two more years, however.

And in books it’s Andrew Cartmel’s Warlock. It was easy, with Warhead, to miss what was going on with Andrew Cartmel. Doctor Who itself was straining hard in the face of unexpectedly becoming a series of novels. Whereas Cartmel was actually making his Doctor Who writing debut, having been the first regular script editor since Terrance Dicks not to self-commission, and the only one since Peter Bryant to have never actually written an episode of Doctor Who. So to try to figure out how Cartmel’s writing was evolving in Warhead is to peer through a glass darkly at what isn’t even close to the most interesting thing in view. But now we come to Warlock, the second part of his War trilogy, and it raises some interesting insights both about Cartmel as a writer and about the shifting role of Doctor Who in relation to the larger body of science fiction.

While it is not quite accurate to say that Cartmel is the last Doctor Who writer to decide that the point of Doctor Who is to do “serious” science fiction, with its premise meaning that it can jump around from idea to idea rapidly, it is accurate to say that at the time of Warlock this is something of a dying idea. It would enjoy a brief resurgence of a sort in the latter days of the BBC Books range, but given that this period was as much concerned with the overt jettisoning of all of the obvious markers of Doctor Who continuity as it was with actually telling “serious” science fiction stories. These days, however, there’s no pretense that Doctor Who should be an anthology series of science fiction stories with consistent characters.

And it’s important to recognize that this is a real change. When Doctor Who started this was what it was for. The Hartnell era is an anthology mixing various sorts of science fiction with a variety of historical settings. There were some hiccups almost immediately, of course - the fact that the first two straightforwardly science fiction stories of the series were Terry Nation stories that went not for any sort of literary seriousness but for a sort of jaunty Dan Dare space adventure, for instance, did the long-term ambitions of the series for serious-minded science fiction irreparable damage. More interesting are the non-Terry Nation stories that followed: The Sensorites, with its monster-free attempt at alien cultures, Planet of the Giants with its ecological parable, The Rescue with its elaborate play on the viewer’s default assumptions about what “monsters” were, The Web Planet with its absolutely everything about it, and The Space Museum with its existential meditation on free will. Doctor Who spent its first few years moving through different visions for science fiction. Even the third series, when things began to settle down into a more “standard” sort of approach features ambiences as wildly different as The Celestial Toymaker and The Ark. And what’s telling about most of these is that they aren’t trying to be Doctor Who versions of those types of stories, they’re just trying to tell a variety of different science fiction stories.

And even after that there are several points in which Doctor Who is clearly trying to mimic the approaches of literary-minded science fiction. In the Robert Holmes era, even as Holmes comes to rely on his “powerful foe returning from the dead” formula, you’ve got people like Louis Marks and Chris Boucher doing stories that are obviously attempts to just do good, solid pieces of science fiction within the Doctor Who paradigm. This isn’t just the attempt to do the Doctor Who version of a mummy story as in, say, Pyramids of Mars, but attempts to do real and serious pieces of science fiction that use Doctor Who as their vehicle. Christopher Bidmead’s approach to the series demonstrates a similar approach. But over time there’s a shift away from Doctor Who being a premise that lets you do Out of The Unknown with a regular cast and towards Doctor Who having an identity of its own that’s based on doing Doctor Who versions of a bunch of different things.

For the most part the New Adventures fit firmly into that latter camp. Even something like Lucifer Rising, which owes a clear and massive debt to a huge tradition of literary science fiction, is ultimately a Doctor Who version of that sort of story, which is where its vague embarrassment over being Doctor Who comes from. Whereas in Warlock there’s a very different tone. And it requires us to sort out two distinct aspects of the New Adventures. On the one hand the New Adventures are somewhat infamous for often not having very much of the Doctor in them, and Cartmel’s books are particularly prone to this. But this is distinct from the occasional sense that they’re a bit sheepish about being Doctor Who books that are ostensibly for adults. Warlock has very little of the Doctor in it, but there’s never a sense that it’s because Cartmel doesn’t find the character interesting. Cartmel writes a ton of terribly Doctorish moments, and several of the book’s biggest dramatic turns, most particularly when Vincent and Justine take off running at the sight of the Doctor, depend on the strength of the character. Cartmel clearly adores the Doctor but thinks that a little goes a long way.

Yes, Cartmel is extremely interested in things beyond the TARDIS crew. He spends a lot of time on his world-building, and perhaps more to the point, he luxuriates in it to a degree. This is the longest New Adventure, and it’s far less padded than, say, First Frontier. Cartmel spends time building up his characters, and doing it memorably at that. Every character who spends a substantial amount of time in the book is well-fleshed out. Even villainous characters who exist primarily to do something bad and get killed for it get a good few pages of attention and development, and we get a real sense of who they are from it. Sometimes they’re sympathetic, other times they’re horrifying, but they’re always understandable. The effect is much like that of the much-lauded issue of Grant Morrison’s The Invisibles that goes back and traces the life history of a random guard who was casually gunned down several issues earlier. Which would be another example of Cartmel casually nicking techniques from comic books, except for one thing: that issue came out several months after Warlock.

And that’s the key thing that really happens with Warlock and Andrew Cartmel. Cartmel always had the ambition that Doctor Who could be “serious” science fiction, but with Warlock his technique finally gets to the point where he can actually do it. He’s no longer dependent on copying the tropes of more acclaimed stories. Instead he’s got the confidence and skill to just go out and do a piece of successful science fiction. And here we get to the interesting thing about this book. The Hugo Awards for 1996, covering books released in 1995, gave their Best Novel award to Neal Stephenson’s The Diamond Age. The Diamond Age, as it happens, is a phenomenal book - one of Stephenson’s best. But let’s be puckish and ask - is it a better book than Warlock?

The question itself is tricky in some ways. The books are, despite some obvious similarities (most notably that they are both working to move on from Cyberpunk), very different pieces of work. Neal Stephenson is a bombastic writer of big ideas, and The Diamond Age is a towering achievement of concepts and explorations of the interactions between imagined technology and people. Cartmel is, as ever, an angry moral crusader, and his book is not so much about the ideas as it is about a seething, righteous anger about animal rights. I’ll admit a preference for Stephenson’s approach, but it’s exactly that - a preference. I’m certainly not going to suggest any sort of definitive judgment of one or the other. Certainly I think a solid argument can be made that Cartmel comes out ahead in a comparison between the two on the basis of characterization. Stephenson, though certainly good at characterization, is prone to equating a character’s intellectual positions with characterization, which isn’t a horrible decision, but seems in many ways more limited than Cartmel, who weaves a generally more intricate portrait. Cartmel uses this to great effect, wringing some absolutely gut-wrenching and excruciating segments out of the subjective experiences of animals, including an absolutely heartbreaking section in which the Doctor’s cat is casually euthanized. And perhaps most crucially, both novels share some flaws, most obviously the fact that their endings are rushed. When push comes to shove I’m largely inclined towards The Diamond Age as the better novel, simply because I think its heady mixture of big ideas is more stimulating. But I think it’s an uphill argument to say that the books are somehow in different leagues.

Not, of course, that you’d know it by looking at the books’ acclaim. Warlock got nominated for no substantial awards ever. Of course it didn’t. Not a single one of the nominees for Best Novel in the entire history of the Hugos has ever been for a licensed property. It’s clearly not that the major franchises of science fiction are unworthy of acclaim - after all, Doctor Who, The Twilight Zone, Star Trek, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and Battlestar Galactica have all been nominated and won Hugo Awards for Best Dramatic Presentation. But when it comes to books there is an unwavering snobbery against licensed properties. To the point, in fact, where the prize for Best Related Work, in which non-fiction about television series is eligible, has gone to a book about a single existent property exactly once, in 2011, when Mad Norwegian Press’s Chicks Dig Time Lords won it. This is almost amusing, especially given the vehemence with which science fiction fans are usually willing to defend the marginalization of science fiction. But within science fiction fandom there’s a visible marginalization of licensed properties as “less worthy” than “proper” literary science fiction.

I’m certainly not going so far as to claim that it’s some grave injustice that Warlock didn’t get a Hugo nomination. For one thing, Warlock isn’t even the best Doctor Who novel of 1995. But it’s striking that the idea that it ever would is completely laughable, and in a way that has almost nothing to do with the book’s quality. The fact is that there’s no level of quality any of the New Adventures could ever have had that would have gotten them a Hugo nomination for Best Novel. In some ways it’s even more worth pointing this out with relation to Human Nature, a story that got a Hugo nomination when it was remade for television (where franchises do win Hugos), but was never, in a million years, going to see a nomination as a novel. And there’s something a little strange about this. Especially because the Hugo Awards are about the only place where that bias actually exists anymore. We talked in the wake of Star Wars about how science fiction as a genre in the golden age sense was an incredibly narrow era that didn’t port much outside of a few decades. And this is an important point - the sort of literary science fiction that Warlock aspires to just isn’t that significant a factor anymore.

The light of hindsight gives us some context for this, though. Because these days there’s barely such a thing as non-franchise science fiction that makes much of a splash. And what does exist is so overtly focused on playing with the tropes of existing stories that it’s almost impossible to separate it from franchise science fiction. We have, at this point, all but finished the transition to a mode where science fiction plays with its own iconography. And that’s a mode that fundamentally changes how Doctor Who interacts with other science fiction. It very much pushes Doctor Who towards the default approach of “Doctor Who does X,” where X is a known quantity and away from just trying to be another venue for science fiction in general.

As I said, it’s not that Warlock is inattentive to this. Cartmel has a clear passion for the Doctor Who-ish aspects of his story. But Cartmel is, in many ways, providing a last flicker of a dying trend in Doctor Who. This is, in many ways, the most Hartnell-esque story of the New Adventures era simply inasmuch as, had Verity Lambert, David Whitaker, and Dennis Spooner been overseeing Doctor Who as a line of books in the mid-90s, this is the sort of book they’d have commissioned. And while it’s a triumph, that is in many ways less interesting than the fact that it exists at all. We’re now just a decade away from Doctor Who’s return, and when it does come back it does so in a form that simply doesn’t do stories like this anymore. Nowadays a story only makes it to screen if it has something to say about Doctor Who itself. Take the most straightforwardly “literary sci-fi” story of the Eccleston season, The Long Game, where the media commentary angle of the story is cut with a lengthy exploration of the role of the companion. This is inevitable - Doctor Who in the 21st century has to be trope aware and meta simply because that’s where the culture is. And with Cartmel’s New Adventures we get the last great moments of the alternative.

24 comments:

  1. This reflects very much how I feel, about Warlock, about Cartmel, about Science Fiction, about SF awards and about modern media Science Fiction. Excellent piece.

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  2. Not the Hugos I know, but didn't one of Kate Orman and Jon Blum's DW books win an award for best Australian science fiction novel?

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    1. Yep, Fallen Gods won the Aurealis Award in 2003, with Blue Box also on the shortlist. In previous years Set Piece, Walking To Babylon, and Unnatural History were also shortlisted.

      Fallen Gods and Year of the Intelligent Tigers were also shortlisted for the Ditmars.

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  3. It's a shame you're not covering Parasite. I've been waiting almost 20 years now for someone to come along and tell me what in the world that was all about.

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    1. Parasite is about a weird alien ecosystem that can do horrible things to your body.

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    2. I should clarify (I being the unknown poster above due to having forgotten to reset my profile name years ago) that I didn't mean "what that was all about" in the sense of "I didn't understand the plot" so much as in the sense of "After I finished it, much-younger-me just sat in the corner for a bit rocking back and forth and muttering 'Why? Just why?' over and over."

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  4. I've got to admit I was disappointed that Parasite wasn't covered either, as I was looking forward to Phil wading through how little fun that book is. Remember that scene where they cut open Benny's stomach to remove an alien in it? No? It's not even the most gruesome part of the book!

    However, I wasn't aware it was that hard to figure out. Mortimore's doing his own version of a sci fi trope of showing off an incredibly brutal, but incredibly alien world. Basically, the Parasite is a solar system sized living alien creature, and the TARDIS crew lands in it. After 300 pages of having fun torturing each of them is excruciating detail, the book then informs us that they don't belong inside this creature, and it has a right to live, and then they leave. Oh, and the Doctor stops it from destroying a solar system. But that's all.

    Fall's the Shadow, Parasite, and Warlock never should have been commissioned all together. Each one of them is just so mercilessly focused on doing horrible things to the characters we like. Warlock is definitely a good book, but all three together was just...too much.

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    1. I'm with you on that - and don't forget what the Ship does to the Doctor in the next one along...

      My other half and I used to group the NAs into four-to-six-story 'seasons' and give them titles for fun. I can't remember most of them, but for these stories the season title was definitely "The Horrible Agonies".

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  5. "And this is an important point - the sort of literary science fiction that Warlock aspires to just isn’t that significant a factor anymore."

    But... isn't The Diamond Age exactly that kind of science fiction? I don't really get where the idea that it isn't a significant thing anymore comes from. No, it's no longer the only kind of science fiction, or even the primary kind, but I'd say "Take a piece of speculative technology and tell a story about its implications" is still an enormous, vibrant strand of what SF/sci-fi/SyFy is.

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    1. Yes. My point was more that The Diamond Age is already at the dying end of that. It's telling that of the six books Stephenson has written since then, only one is a traditional piece of science fiction. Two are techno-thrillers, and three are historical fiction.

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    2. I don't know - I've read a number of excellent SF novels which have come out between now and then which fit firmly into that strain. I don't think it's something that had an end, just something that's been on the lower levels of fluctuating popularity.

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    3. I've read a number of excellent SF novels which have come out between now and then which fit firmly into that strain.

      The difference today, I think, is that while there are many novels like this, they're very different and diverse; there's little consensus in the genre about what's important, about where we're heading socially and technologically. 40/50/60s SF agreed that space was the future, and so there were many novels about planetary colonisation and galactic empires; in the 80/90s was united behind computers, and so we had cyberspace, artificial intelligence and the singularity; today's writers are all pointing in different directions, and that lack of unity results in the genre seeming less important and substantial than it did in the past.

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    4. That's a good point. Also, it tends to blend with other genres more. For instance, Charles Stross's Accelerando is all about the concept of the Singularity, but it's also a multigenerational family drama.

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    5. It's telling that of the six books Stephenson has written since then, only one is a traditional piece of science fiction. Two are techno-thrillers, and three are historical fiction.

      What's fascinating about Stephenson's historical fiction is the way in which it reads like science fiction. Partly that's because the books share SF's interests - they're about the ways in which scientific and technological change lead to changes in society. And partly that's because they use SF techniques in the writing - the bizarre society of 17th century Europe in 'Quicksilver' is explored in much the same way that the bizarre society of the planet Arbre is explored in 'Anathem'.

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  6. I dunno...one of the things that always stood out to me about 'Warlock' was just how empty his characterization of the animal scientists was. It was frankly as if Cartmel had made no room for the possibility in his head that people could have a reason for conducting experiments on animals; every single person at the lab was either a merciless money-grubber who viewed the deaths of animals with callous indifference, or an active monster who tortured animals for fun.

    Which isn't to say that the book should have been more pro-animal experimentation; but the characters who are doing it should have been. When everyone, even the experimenters, are parroting your point of view, only the "bad guys" are saying, "I don't even know why I'd do this; I suppose I must be evil!"...then you probably need to do a bit more work on your characterization. :)

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  7. I'm so glad you skipped Falls the Shadow's, I can't express how much I hate that novel. I've only managed to struggle through it once and it stumps me every time I try again.

    I have a theory about tie in novel. They only seem to get good once they don't have to compete with the show there written about. Well once they realize that they don't have to conserve the show continuity.

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  8. One thing I've noticed is that the SPAG in the New Adventures is appallingly poor. The paragraph I copied below is a particularly bad example of the overuse of the full stop. So whilst I can see that these stories are sometimes definitely up for an award of some kind, the editing is shockingly bad, which goes against them in many ways.

    "The Doctor was examining the small pill Ace had given him. He took a clean handkerchief out of one pocket and spread it carefully on the dusty, paintspattered newspaper. The handkerchief was made of some strange, lustrous red material. The small white pill seemed to glow against its folds. The Doctor reached into another pocket and took something out. Ace saw that it was the bag of dried mushrooms from the refrigerator."

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  9. Surely that's just Cartmel's writing style, though? Yes, another writer might use semi-colons or dashes or whatever, but I don't think you could describe either approach as (objectively) 'wrong', or evidence of "bad editing".

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    1. I don't find Cartmel's somewhat terse style to be a problem as such, although it is fair to comment that Stephenson's skill as a prose-stylist is well beyond that of almost any of the NA writers.

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    2. Wasn't there one NA author who was criticised for using full stops to add. Emphasis. To the end. Of almost. Every. Paragraph?

      Does use of punctuation count as writing style? Philip you are kind to use the word 'terse', but to me it comes across as clunky, making it harder to read, and ergo less likely for an award. That's not necessarily to say that Warlock (the current example) is a bad book, I like it, but the punctuation seems somewhat unimaginative. With the paragraph I quoted, the excessive full stops don't add anything to the texture of the prose, it just seems like no-one bothered to say 'Andrew, this would be better as a semi-colon'.

      Oh, and I am assuming that SPAG is a acronym, so therefore doesn't require full stops after each letter. That's a stylistic choice I prefer to employ because it helps the flow of the text - how annoying would it be if Cartmel also wrote T.A.R.D.I.S. instead of TARDIS! :)

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  10. Slightly disappointed that you skipped over Falls the Shadow as it's one of my favorites, but I can understand that you might have more to say about other books. If you had to pick only one of O'Mahony's books to cover, I think you made the right choice.

    On more of a tangent, I've never looked at Sullivan's rankings before and it's a little depressing to see some personal highlights in the bottom third you mention. Falls the Shadow, Sky Pirates! and Time's Crucible are all in my personal NA top 10. The Death of Art and Strange England are admittedly uneven and not quite successful at what they set out to achieve, but are a lot more interesting than some of the better remembered or more polished works. I can see why Jim Mortimore's books can evoke a strong negative reaction, but think they deserve to be rated more highly.

    My personal quibbles aside, I can't deny that the top third of the rankings are generally worthy of note. I just felt the need to give Falls the Shadow some love :)

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  11. "Even villainous characters who exist primarily to do something bad and get killed for it get a good few pages of attention and development, and we get a real sense of who they are from it."

    Although this deserves to be noted within the context of the New Adventures, there's a level on which it seems odd to me that this technique should be considered as particularly innovative. This is because I first encountered it in my teens when I went through a phase of reading lots of James Herbert horror novels. You could always tell when a new character existed purely to be killed off - anybody who developed several pages of back story immediately after being introduced was bound to be killed off a couple of pages later.

    This isn't a criticism of the technique itself of course - Cartmel uses it to good effect - just an unfortunate side effect of my personal reading history.

    I've just now remembered that Cartmel wrote a Judge Dredd novel about genetically modified pigs. I might need to track that down and see how it compares to Warlock...

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