Monday, November 12, 2012
The Greatest Specialist in Time-Space Exploration (The Also People)
I’ll Explain Later
The Also People is Ben Aaronovitch’s second New Adventure, and features a murder mystery in a utopian technologically advanced society modeled on the works of Iain M. Banks. It also largely resolves the plotline of Kadiatu Lethbridge-Stewart, although she’ll make two more appearances in the books. It’s highly acclaimed. Dave Owen admitted at the time that he was “tempted to say that The Also People is flawless,” while Lars Pearson more recently enthuses that it’s “meaty and domestic” and “deserves every drop of the hype.” Good thing, as there’s quite a bit of it - The Also People is ranked third on Shannon Sullivan’s rankings, with an 86.7% rating. DWRG summary. Whoniverse Discontinuity Guide.
In news, the big one is Yitzhak Rabin’s assassination in Tel Aviv. Nine members of the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People are executed in Nigeria more or less on the behalf of Shell Oil. The US government shut down for a few days. Both Toy Story and GoldenEye come out in theaters. And Princess Diana gives her famed interview to Martin Bashir, scoring all-time record ratings for a current affairs program in the UK. Thrilling.
In books, The Also People. The last three novel entries have all, to varying degrees, dealt with a certain level of inadequacy in the quality of writing in the New Adventures line. This is, as I have said, probably the biggest barrier between them and bringing Doctor Who back in the long term. If you compare Head Games to its nearest new series equivalent, which would probably be The Stolen Earth/Journey’s End, the biggest thing that jumps out is that the latter is, like everything to come out of the Davies or Moffat systems, a well-oiled machine in terms of the tightness of its storytelling. Even when the new series coughs up a complete turkey of an episode the basic mechanics of its storytelling are largely impeccable. Its worst episodes still hum with a unity of approach such that every detail is turned carefully towards the questions of storytelling and every beat of the narrative supports a thematic or emotional payoff.
On their good days the New Adventures can match that handily. But their good days are, if not quite few and far between, at least sporadic. The Also People is, however, one of their good days. And more than that, it’s a breezily effortless good day. Unlike Human Nature, which is spectacularly high concept as well as a damn good book, The Also People is relatively modest as a concept: a more or less straightforward lift of Ian M. Banks’s series of novels about the Culture. But the book is absolutely fantastic. So let’s do basic narrative theory for a day and sort out what that means. What is good storytelling in Doctor Who and why does it matter?
The most basic thing about The Also People is that it has something for all of its main characters to do. With a four-person TARDIS crew this is harder than it sounds. Consider how often characters were sidelined for episodes at a time in the first two years of the Hartnell era. Or how often Susan twisted her ankle. Or, more recently, how much trouble Season Nineteen had in managing its four-person cast. For the most part the small cast of Doctor Who is a benefit, simply because every story already has to do a lot of work introducing a new setting, a new batch of supporting characters, and all the new plot information. You still need enough characters to have multiple story threads, but four is stretching the limits.
But The Also People doesn’t just find things for four characters to do, it finds things that are wholly appropriate for each character. Roz and Chris both get romantic plotlines, but there are huge differences between them: Chris gets one that plays off of his wide-eyed naiveté and innocence, while Roz gets one that goes straight to her wearied and betrayal-filled past. Benny, on the other hand, ends up having to decide the fate of Kadiatu Lethbridge-Stewart, while the Doctor spends most of his time trying to solve a murder, with Roz getting a major chunk of that plotline as well.
Notably, none of these stories could be swapped around. Only Benny could deal with the Kadiatu plot. She’s the only one who would actually dither on whether to destroy Kadiatu to save the potential victims she might have in the future or whether to give her a chance. And more to the point, she’s the one who has been with the Doctor for long enough that he would plausibly trust her with the decision. The exchange in which she challenges the Doctor and demands that he not kill her, and where he hands the decision off to her only works because of the specific and lengthy history of those two characters. Roz and Chris haven’t been around for long enough for the exchange to have impact (and besides, haven’t met Kadiatu), and more to the point, would be too willing to just whack Kadiatu and get on with it.
That Roz and Chris’s love plots can’t be swapped is more obvious, but it’s also significant that Roz has to be the main investigator on the murder as a result. Her plot has to be the one that ends with her having to turn her back on her lover, and that requires that she be the one to solve the crime and implicate him. Meanwhile, Chris ending up with a kid he doesn’t know about is a problem that’s peculiar to him and simply wouldn’t work for either Roz or Benny, both anatomically and character-wise. Chris has to be paired with the still child-like Dep just as much as Roz needs to fall in love with the person revealed to be behind the murder.
That the Doctor’s plot can’t be moved around is perhaps the most straightforward. It’s rare that the Doctor gets a generic plot, after all. Even still, Aaronovitch manages to give him a plot that works specifically for the Doctor, as opposed to a generic sci-fi adventure plot in which he happens to be the hero. The Also People depends on the fact that the Doctor is in his own way as technologically advanced and sophisticated as the People, and that he’s the figure who might conceivably be as smart as any of them, God included. And it requires that he be the sort of person who has Kadiatu Lethbridge-Stewart on ice in the People’s hands, but hasn’t actually told anybody. You certainly could crash other sci-fi worlds into Ian M. Banks if you wanted to, but you couldn’t do this specific collision with any set of characters other than the Doctor and this specific trio of companions. If this book had still featured Ace it would have needed a complete plot overhaul to work.
This may seem like an incredibly obvious observation, but pause for a moment and consider just how many books fail at it. Head Games had almost nothing for which Roz was required, and little enough that needed Chris. Sky Pirates! did quite a good job with Roz and Chris, given that it was their second book, but they still got a generic “you’ve been captured by aliens” plot that could have been done with any companions. Even Original Sin didn’t really have room for everyone, keeping Benny in a secondary role alongside the Doctor and, later, Roz and Chris. And Original Sin relied on Roz and Chris to be straightforward cop cliches, whereas Aaronovitch begins working through Roz’s family background and personal history in considerable detail, turning her into a unique character as opposed to a stock part. (And also visibly sets up his intended finish for her storyline in So Vile a Sin, although, obviously, there were some wrinkles with that book.)
On top of this, everything in The Also People is turned straightforwardly towards exploring its theme. The main concept of the Culture series that Aaronovich is shamelessly appropriating here (as he jokes in the introduction, “while talent borrows and genius steals, New Adventure writers get it off the back of a lorry, no questions asked.”) is the exploration of an extreme utopia in which standard western ideas of individual liberty are perfectly honored. So the People form a sort of idealized future evolution of humanity - an idea that picks up on the evolutionary themes that Aaronovitch was playing with in Transit. Kadiatu, you will recall, was originally positioned as Earth’s response to the Doctor’s interference. So running through this entire story is the basic question of what long-term progress for humanity means. The question of whether Kadiatu can be allowed to live is, in effect, a referendum on humanity’s future and whether some utopian ideal exists for us or whether we’re just kinda screwed. The People provide a concrete example of utopia, and Kadiatu (along with Benny, Roz, and Chris) get tested against them.
Equally, of course, the People get tested against the humans, and, inevitably, the Doctor. Aaronovitch, like Banks before him, does not treat his utopia as the end of all conflict since, you know, that would make for a really crappy book. Familiar human problems recur in the People: jealousy, anger, betrayal, and the proliferation of assholes. The existence of two romance plots goes a long way towards this, showing effectively the ways in which the People can still value ordinary humans. Benny’s plot similarly points towards this, with the resolution being that her musing over Kadiatu creates a psychic link that allows Kadiatu access to Benny’s mind and thus stabilizes her.
But while the book muses on the issue of what flaws and foibles will persist into utopia, it stops short of the polemical (and in this regard shows a writer who’s matured considerably since Remembrance of the Daleks). This isn’t a treatise about Ben Aaronovitch’s personal vision of utopia, nor is it a diagnosis of humanity’s immutable flaws. Instead it’s a story that sets up certain types of characters useful for exploring those issues in situations that will lead them to explore them, and that then simply lets them go about their business. It’s not a novel of “big ideas,” which is, I suspect, more or less what Lars Pearson means when he says talks about “how little The Also People tries to impress you - but how much it does.” If anything the plot is downright old-fashioned, a nice old mystery on an alien world of the sort that Doctor Who has been doing since about The Sensorites or so. It’s even a well-structured mystery, which is quite a challenge in a sci-fi world. The reader can keep just about even pace with the people solving the mystery, never getting far enough ahead that it seems obvious, and never getting so far behind that it seems cheap.
The other details are spot-on as well. The supporting characters are distinctive, which is a particularly impressive feat when you consider that they have names like saRa!qava and aM!xitsa. The minor characters are delightful: people who have dropped out of People society to become fish, and a parachute who designs apple trees to grow on asteroids, all of which show the deep texture of the setting. There’s a glorious sense of whimsy that’s a wonderful contrast to the seeming hard-SF setting of the place - a discussion of the sheer intelligence and scope of the intelligences among the People is based on the unit of storage of “a childhood,” that is, the sum total of every detail and sensory impression that makes up a human childhood.
This gets at the other clever thing Aaronovitch does. The People are clearly a science fiction concept, but he hedges the book actively against the idea that Doctor Who should be based primarily on science fiction. The Doctor is described as actively believing in magical thinking - in the belief that “thinking or talking about something has a direct effect on the result.” (We call it alchemy around these parts) He is, as Bernice puts it, “its greatest exponent.” The People aren’t presented as the be-all and end-all of Doctor Who, but as another setting that can be used for stories. We see repeatedly that humanity is at worst just as interesting as the People, and at best considerably more so. (There’s a lovely moment in which the hyper-intelligent machines of the People admit that they keep organic life around simply because it’s more fun.)
And that’s what makes it damn fine storytelling. It’s a book full of ideas that expresses all of them through an engaging and well-structured plot that extends thoroughly and completely out of the characters in it. Theme, characterization, and event are indistinguishable, there’s not a detail out of place, and there are repeated moments of joy and triumph (Kadiatu’s ecstatic dance in celebration of her freedom, which leads the People to simply decide to throw a party around her, is a particularly wonderful moment, as is Benny’s dream of arguing morality with a Dalek, a Cyberman, a Sontaran, and Kadiatu in a bar. [“‘Davros, Davros,’ moaned the Dalek. ‘Get into an argument with a human and they always bring up Davros. Look, do you think we like the misshapen little nonomaniac? We’ve tried to do away with him more times than the Doctor has.”]) It’s one of those New Adventures that actually is good enough to be television, even though it delights in the freedoms offered by prose. And it demonstrates the sort of tightness and unity that makes the difference between a fun book for the hardcore fans and a book worth shoving into someone’s hands and telling them to shut up, sit down, and read.
Even the cover art’s damned good.