Monday, November 19, 2012
Let Your Mind Wander When You're Handing It Over (SLEEPY)
I’ll Explain Later
Kate Orman’s SLEEPY is the book that actually kicks off the Psi-Powers series in any meaningful sense. Which is still not all that meaningful, as the Psi-Powers arc is infamous for its loose connections and lack of general coherence. SLEEPY tells the story of an Earth colony plagued by a mysterious outbreak of psychic powers and the various conspiracies that led to this state of affairs. These latter conspiracies dovetail out beyond the book and take us through almost to the end of the line. Being a Kate Orman book, everyone loves it. Dave Owen called it “one of the most memorable New Adventures to date.” Lars Pearson says it “has Orman at her prime, carving characters and sub-plots with the finesse of a sculptor.” And yet it’s the weak point in Orman’s oeuvre from the Shannon Sullivan poll, coming in at “only” 26th with a 71.8% rating. Of course, another way to put that is that Orman is one of four writers (Cornell, Lane, and Parkin are the others) to have put out multiple New Adventures and had them all in the top half of the charts. DWRG summary. Whoniverse Discontinuity Guide entry.
In news, John Howard wins election as Prime Minister in Australia. The Dunblane massacre takes place where you’d expect it to as Thomas Hamilton kills sixteen people, fifteen schoolchildren aged five to six. The mad cow disease furor properly breaks out as the British government admits that BSE has likely been transmitted to people, resulting in a ban on the export of British beef. And three British soldiers are sent to prison for life in Cyprus over the death of Louise Jensen.
While in books we get SLEEPY, which, as mentioned, properly kicks off the extremely loosely connected Psi-Powers arc. Perhaps the first question to ask is why there’s such a thing as a Psi-Powers arc in the New Adventures. They’d gone since 1994 without an arc, after all, and it was hardly like people were clamoring. On top of that, there seems like a bit of a letdown in the concept. I remember this being tangible at the time, although it’s difficult to disentangle that from the general sense of limbo that the New Adventures were, by early 1996, firmly in. They were pre-emptively superceded by the TV Movie, which, by the time SLEEPY came out, was only two months away. But there’s something more fundamental than just the fact that this was a plot arc that made its debut under a certain measure of erasure. Simply put, psychic powers feel like a dumb topic for an arc.
It is not clear to me that anybody actually likes psychic powers as a trope. It’s not that there’s anything wrong with them as a concept - it’s merely that there’s also not a lot inherently right about them. They just sort of are. Unlike a lot of sci-fi concepts there’s no real link from them to an interesting insight about human culture or relations. Psychic powers don’t really connect to any larger cultural concept - they don’t instinctively lend themselves as a metaphor for anything as such. And yet they’re remarkably popular. The last big explosion of them that we tracked was in the mid-1970s, when the revived popularity of The Uncanny X-Men and The Tomorrow People coincided across continents. There the image of psychics was linked, in the conscious and deliberate sense, to the fading embers of glam rock’s starchildren (The Tomorrow People, recall, explicitly quotes Bowie’s “Oh You Pretty Things” in its central premise), and unconsciously to homosexuality (The Tomorrow People, recall, explicitly quotes Bowie’s “Oh You Pretty Things in its central premise). But this is an incidental characteristic - the “future evolution of mankind” image, a few decades earlier, was most readily linked to the Nazis.
The connection between psychic powers and a vision of evolutionary teleology is perhaps oblique, but it is nevertheless there. We’ve talked about Doctor Who’s increasingly fraught relationship with the idea of teleology, both in the evolutionary sense and in the broader historical sense, but in this case this should be put in the broader context of the 1990s and the steady deflation of any sense of the future in the first place. We’re at least getting to the point where a new eschatology cropped up, but like the current wave of 2012 doom-mongering that suggests that Oh No It Isn’t will be the last thing I’ll be posting about, it’s really just a placeholder - an apocalypse penciled in like that doctor’s appointment you know you’ll cancel when the actual week of it rolls around. The odometer is ticking over, so we’d best wrap it all up and hastily make some excuse about Fortran.
So on the one hand, there was a flare-up of psychic powers in 1990s media: The X-Files did quite a bit with them, Millennium, and Chris Carter’s next show, played with them too. Babylon 5 had a huge plot about them, which we’ll get to in a few entries. There’s also things like Contact or Phenomenon, a sudden surge in the popularity of the X-Men, and the like. Psychics, in this milieu, were another source of paranoia and conspiracy. The instinctive link between psychic powers and surveillance is obvious enough, but it’s in the 1990s when this really began to emerge, converging inevitably with the rise of the Internet as an implement of paranoia and surveillance. The contemporary descendent of these ideas is the Singularity - the idea that the emergence of the future is a fundamentally eschatological event.
This, then, is the context of SLEEPY and the Psi-Powers arc. This is oddly fitting for the state of affairs in the context of Doctor Who, which was itself facing something of an eschatological future here, with the end of the New Adventures looming, but looming due to what at the time still appeared to be a viable future in the form of the Fox movie. The New Adventures, by and large, are ending with one last engagement with the prospect of the future and reiterating the basic themes of the 1990s.
But SLEEPY in specific adds a further wrinkle to this pile of iconography. The other place where psychics were big business was in the New Age community, where the mid-to-late nineties contained another wave of popular mysticism. And this time the most popular thing was to talk to the dead. And for that you needed a psychic medium. Notably, this is a very different sort of psychic than the psi-powers sense - they don’t read minds, but instead have a nebulously defined access to the afterlife and to spiritual beings. But there’s still the same sort of teleology. The role of psychics as an evolutionary teleology of the species is primarily based on an aggressively anti-materialist strain of thought. That’s why I included Contact on the list up above - because it posits empathic sorts of communication as a trait of the higher species that we’re ostensibly progressing towards. And so even though Contact, as a film adapted from a Carl Sagan book, has a basically skeptical worldview that is openly hostile towards mysticism, there’s still a tacit alliance between its interests and the interests of New Age sorts who want to talk to the dead. Both are discarding the straightforwardly material world in favor of a non-physical or quasi-physical one.
But there’s a big difference between the new age approach of the 1990s and the 60s/70s, and it’s one that goes beyond the specific bits of floofiness that come up. The new age movements of the late 60s and early 70s were largely focused on the pseudoscientific. Von Danniken’s appeal was in part that he had a completely crackpot new age theory that more or less sounded like science and could pretend to be argued that way. And while you’ll still get reams of fake science in mysticism: homeopathy is a particularly and deliciously egregious example, there’s a different relationship with existing science. Von Dannikenism believes that science, done right, can show the way towards the mystical. But 90s New Agers and their descendants tended to be actively hostile to science, viewing science as a poorly conducted process that makes mistakes and, as a social practice, is likely to be full of lies.
Another way to look at this is that sci-fi psychics and New Age psychics reach in different directions. Sci-fi psychics collapses the future towards the present, New Age psychics collapse the past into the present, making the dead immediate and concurrent with our day-to-day life. Sci-fi psychics augur the looming and emerging future, whereas New Age psychics highlight the unerasability of the past.
And SLEEPY firmly has its feet in both sets of iconography. On the one hand it’s got not just psychic powers, but psychic powers that are tied to artificial intelligences - a veritable cornucopia of nineties science fiction iconography. On the other, it’s also got a world in which an ancient religion with a bunch of pyramids and a “cycle of death and rebirth” built around a religious figure called the Turtle. And while for the most part the Turtle’s direct influence on events grows more and more minimal as the story goes on, proving to be a bit of a red herring, Orman still uses the title “Turtle and Phoenix” for the third and final section of the book, indicating that there is a significant weight to the central metaphor.
All of this is lashed to another exploration of the gun/frock distinction - something that becomes explicit late in the novel when Roz comments that “sometimes it’s hard to go from guns to frocks so quickly,” and Benny proclaims that “frocks are the purpose of life… frocks are what it is all about.” But the more important moment comes a few pages earlier when the Doctor confronts the closest thing the story has to a villain, Colonel White, and asks him how he became “so fascinated by ships and guns and orders that you forget about real life,” to which White responds by declaring “this is real life, Doctor. Real history. History is ships and guns and orders.”
The connection between this and the gun/frock debate is straightforward, but there’s a new wrinkle to it that was only alluded to in Set Piece or Human Nature, the last two novels to really get involved in the gun/frock debate. The wrinkle is simple enough: the gun/frock debate is here being tied to one of the more longstanding debates in Doctor Who, which is the nature of history. And Kate Orman, building off of her own approach in Set Piece and some of the inherent point of Human Nature, is finally coming out and saying it: that the material social progress that is the secret of alchemy is not, in fact, big clanging military history. It’s the small and everyday meanderings of life.
This begins to make sense of the otherwise disjointed and strange Psi-Powers arc. It is, as we noted, an arc framed within a series facing a defined terminus. Even if the license weren’t being taken back by the BBC imminently, the degree to which the novels could serve as an extension of and expansion on Cartmel’s version of Doctor Who and McCoy’s performance of the character was going to be dramatically reduced in the near future. The TV Movie was, for better or for worse, about to change what Doctor Who was. And so in the face of a collapsed future they began the Psi-Powers arc, exploring a specific metaphor for the future. But what’s crucial is that the Psi-Powers arc is itself a collapsed arc that does not hold together. Instead of giving a coherent vision of the future it meanders about oddly and awkwardly.
This is the one thing that explains why Cartmel’s novel is what kicks off the Psi-Powers trilogy. The central premise of Cartmel’s trilogy, and indeed his entire oeuvre, was that the important thing to focus on was the lives into which the Doctor intrudes. So to have the end of his contribution to the present of Doctor Who dovetail into the Psi-Powers arc makes perfect sense. Indeed, many of the authors of the Psi-Powers arc seem uncanny in hindsight: two representatives of the past from which this era extended (Aaronovitch and Cartmel), the writer who most defines the Wilderness Years as a whole (Orman), and the defining writers of two of the next phases of the series (Lawrence Miles and Russell T Davies). For an arc that begs to be read as a metaphor for the uncertain nature of Doctor Who’s future, this is almost as perfect a set of writers as could be imagined. All you really need is a book by Dicks or Robinson in there and you’ve got the perfect metaphor.
And so SLEEPY forms the opening salvo in this. On the one hand it presents a world that faces an uncertain or even collapsed future. And it does so within both of the metaphoric frames that Doctor Who has always hung itself: the science fiction frame and the fantasy frame. The story highlights both the uncertainty of an onrushing future and the fact that the past never quite goes anywhere. And then, crucially, having done both of these things it reveals its real point: that the celebration of the ordinary present, as opposed to the vast narratives of the past or of future, is the appropriate answer in the face of these visions of history. Let the history of the program advance. The Virgin era will always be a part of it now, and more to the point, will always be terribly, terribly fun.