Friday, December 21, 2012

Outside the Government 7 (Down)


I do not mean my criticism of Oh No It Isn’t! to suggest that Virgin’s Benny line simply misused the character. It didn’t. Oh No It Isn’t! is a fantastic Benny novel, and its flaws are almost entirely as an attempt to launch the line, instead of being what it would have been happier being, a particularly silly entry within the line. And there are other books that absolutely play on what Benny is specifically suited to. Lawrence Miles’s Down, for instance, although it falls just short of being a successful book in its own right, is a book that absolutely could not work with any other lead character.

The setup of the book is simple enough: Benny is fished out of the water on an alien planet and spends the majority of the book explaining what happened to her. This explanation is overtly structured as a pastiche of classic adventure fiction in the H. Rider Haggard mould, with chapter titles such as “Dirigibles of Death!” and “The Primordial Soup Dragon!” The exclamation points are, to be clear, part of almost all of the chapter titles. There’s a character called Mister Misnomer who is an overt parody of classic pulp action heroes. To be clear, the story is not merely a pastiche of adventure fiction, it’s a self-aware one. Mister Misnomer isn’t just a parody to the audience, the characters in the story recognize that he is, in reality, an old pulp action hero who shouldn’t even be real. What he’s doing there is one of the basic mysteries of the story.

That’s the superficial structure, at least. It being Lawrence Miles, it’s also a big, soaring book of ideas. Actually, soaring is almost the exact wrong word for this. The book, by the author’s description, is a psychological descent into hell where the frothy adventure story it appears to be gives way to abject psychological horror. The adventure story stuff is, in Miles’s account, window dressing. This actually makes the book come off as less interesting and intelligent than it is. First of all, the adventure stuff isn’t window-dressing, it’s part and parcel of the book’s theme. Second, the book doesn’t give way to psychological horror entirely: it almost gives way, and then gives Benny one of her greatest moments as she resolves the central tension of the book.

Here, at last, we have to talk about the twist. There are two big plot actions Mister Misnomer takes - he begins gunning down a bunch of ape creatures that Benny believes are likely sentient, and he sacrifices himself to save everybody towards the end. Then, at the very end of the book, we find out that Benny has actually edited her own memories to insert Mister Misnomer: in truth she gunned down the ape creatures in a moment of panic, and it was a mildly reformed futuristic Nazi that sacrificed himself to save everybody, which Benny was unable to square away with her own torture at the hands of the Nazis in Just War. Mister Misnomer, in fact, never existed in the story at all.

But this is not simply a moment where the adventure story gives way to psychological torment. What’s key here is not merely that Benny edited her memories to remove some horrible stuff, but the way in which she did, inserting a stereotypical adventure character into the narrative. And, more to the point, what’s key is that the adventure character fits. The end nature of the planet turns out to be that the archetype of dystopia took root inside the planet and turned it into the purest expression of hell imaginable. And then, when people arrived on the planet, it began expressing this idea in terms of human adventure stories. Specifically, it took on the iconography of the hollow earth and the prehistoric creatures that might live within it. The story spends most of its time acting as though its origins are in things like Journey to the Center of the Earth and The Lost World - stories that feature eccentric spaces. (Actually, the most amusing reference in the book is the fact that several character names are drawn from Krazy Kat, itself a celebration of eccentric spaces.) But the real inspiration is one that isn’t so directly alluded to: H.P. Lovecraft’s short novel At the Mountains of Madness.

What’s key about At the Mountains of Madness is that it explicitly ties the eccentric space of primordial creatures as a source of unfathomable horror. The Lovecraftian horror, recall, is the fear that the universe might be completely irrational and terrifying, and that human reason is not a tool to understand it but a flickering bulwark against the tide of utter horror lurking in the darkness. Where At the Mountains of Madness simply framed this in terms of the pulp tradition of eccentric spaces (and recall that Lovecraft was first and foremost a pulp writer - his work appeared alongside Robert E. Howard’s Conan stories and other such classics), Miles pushes it further, arguing for the inherent connection between this sort of adventure fiction and the idea of hell.

Mister Misnomer, in other words, isn’t just interesting for the fact that he doesn’t exist. He’s interesting for the fact that he largely does belong in the world of Down despite the fact that he’s not “real” within it. There’s a point about halfway through when Benny writes in her diary: “‘Archetypal. Not just the idea of the Hollow Earth. This place is full of archetypal encounters. Absolute values. Predator/prey conflicts. Kill-or-be-killed struggles. Good guys and bad guys.’ And then in even larger letters: ‘Mr Misnomer fits in here perfectly.’ Finally, taking up the whole of the opposing page: ‘This place has no subtlety.’”

Miles, in other words, isn’t just going from adventure fiction to hell, he’s offering a critique of adventure fiction and the way in which its simplistic ethics lead to outright horror when paired with even remotely psychologically real characters. In this regard the most telling section may be the one in which one of the supporting characters, Lucretia, turns out to have an existential terror of teleporters based on the fact that they in fact do not transport you but instead murder you and then create a clone of you in a different location. This is, of course, one of the classic objections to Star Trek, along with the fact that the real application of this technology is not, in fact, teleportation but the fact that all objects regardless of value are now trivially reproducible out of thin air and thus a post-scarcity economy can be achieved straightforwardly. But the real point is that it’s a very human anxiety of the sort that is actively pushed out of standard issue genre fiction.

Miles is not, of course, the first person to do this. Sci-fi fans have been harping on that exact problem with Star Trek transporters since they debuted. Heck, Star Trek itself has dealt with it a few times. But normally it’s dealt with in one of two ways: poking at the issue without actually acknowledging its full impact (as the Star Trek episodes do - for instance, one posits a transporter accident that creates a clone of Riker, who actually ends up surviving the episode, but doesn’t bother to deal with the fact that this means every other use of a transport has murdered someone with their own viable life. Another episode, “Realm of Fear,” confirms explicitly that this is how transporters work, then keeps using them anyway.), or doing a postmodern bit in which the horrific aspect of the transporters derails the whole narrative. (The Prestige is a prime example of the latter, albeit one about Victorian magic and not Star Trek.)

But Miles picks the otherwise largely unexplored option of simply adopting the psychological horror of the transporter into the narrative and carrying on. The narrative continues cheerily along its standard adventure story lines, just in a world where people are routinely murdered and cloned without much thought about it except from the margins of society.

The real sting, however, comes when you realize that the basic plot of Down is largely a mirror of Underworld, only with the People substituting for the Time Lords - a connection that The Also People made it exceedingly easy to make. Underworld, it should be noted, is the story Miles proclaims to be the worst story of the 1970s in a large part because of its banal sci-fi cliches. In that regard Down is, unlike Oh No It Isn’t!, firmly engaged with Doctor Who. That’s nowhere near the same as it being Doctor Who, but it’s commenting on Doctor Who. And specifically, it’s making a critique that is central to most of Miles’s work, because Miles has little patience with or regard for most of science fiction as a genre. So he takes what he sees as a particularly science fictiony bit of Doctor Who and redoes it to his own aesthetic. So instead of a sci-fi cliche like a mad computer at the center of the planet we have an idea made incarnate - a concept he doesn’t even bother trying to explain as anything other than the mad and fantastic idea that it is.

And this, in turn, becomes a way of playing with the idea of the People. Miles introduces a murderous and psychopathic member of the People, !X, who is used by God to bring the dystopic idea back to the Worldsphere as part of a hazily defined plot by God to speed the development of the universe. This is all very sharp, and contains some of the most thematically interesting implications, containing as it does an implicit critique of the idea of utopia as something history might aspire to. It’s nothing hugely original - indeed, it’s basically a warmed over version of Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. But given that the People are a part of the Benny mythology and that The Also People was so praised, it’s a sensible complication of the idea.

There are flaws, to be sure. Underworld is a pathetically easy target, and it’s fair to ask why Miles didn’t line up a critique of something that isn’t, you know, widely reviled when it’s even remembered. On top of that, he never quite manages to sell the innate connection between genre-centric adventure fiction and dystopian hell. This is not for lack of trying, and the argument he makes strikes me as at least an interesting one. He claims that the genre “is based on the supposition that the male-aggressive participant will lead the way, regardless of qualification,” a viewpoint that leads towards the kill-or-be-killed absolutism that Miles equates with dystopian hell. All the steps of this basically work, but with all the postmodern posturing of the story you’d think Miles might have found space to provide the connective tissue.

In the absence of this it becomes easy to miss the signal for the noise. Miles has admitted that the book flopped a bit and was widely misread, and it’s fairly easy to see why. The funny bits are just too numerous and too good for the psychological descent into hell to land. It gets completely outshone, which blunts the impact considerably. The book needs to push its hell a little further. There’s a constant and nagging sense that Miles is parrotting back cliched critiques of sci-fi/adventure stories instead of really breaking new ground. There’s nothing here that’s quite surprising enough to make the radical and clever point Miles thinks he’s making. It’s not that the book isn’t clever. It’s terribly clever. But it’s clever in a knowing, in-joke way that reflects a well-drilled knowledge of genre fiction. In this regard the taking on of Underworld is ironic. Miles tries to come up with the antithesis of that story and ends up with something that feels for all the world like a family-unfriendly version of the Graham Williams era. Which is surely not what he was going for, given his known antipathy to it.

Still, it’s a compelling book that reads like the book of someone who’s about to produce Alien Bodies. And it’s a book that could only work with Benny, since its ultimate resolution is perfectly suited to her, and, perhaps more to the point, would never in a million years work with the Doctor. !X confronts Benny, pulls a gun on her, and puts her in a kill-or-be-killed position, trying to force her into the dualistic logic of dystopia and force her to become a vector for its spread. Benny realizes that he’ll let her disarm him and kill him, but that if she doesn’t he’s going to kill her. And so, faced with a kill or be killed choice with the fundamental teleology of the universe on the line, Benny does exactly what you’d expect her to, and in doing so triumphantly resolves the central tensions of the book.

She takes the gun from !X and shoves it up his ass.

18 comments:

  1. I've said before that there's only one Lawrence Miles book I've read that I actually liked (Alien Bodies). This is the only Lawrence Miles book I *haven't* read that I've always sort of wished I had.

    Incidentally, the Star Trek novel "Federation" claims that because transporters work at the quantum, rather than atomic, level, the people who are transported really are the same people moved from one place to another, and not identical copies with all their memories.

    It's not made clear how they tested this...

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    1. The tech manuals claim that the transporters actually move the original atoms as part of the "matter stream". This can be reconciled with "Realm of Fear", but not with "Second Chances" or "The Enemy Within".

      Ultimately Star Trek wasn't very interested in introspection, worldbuilding, or figuring out the social consequences of its technology. So it was never going to address that.

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    2. Which is the heart of MIles's criticism, really.

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    3. My recollection, though it might be a bit dim at this point, is that when they introduced Spare Riker, they were 100% explicit that transporters do not normally make a copy of someone and kill the original. But they very jarringly failed to give any sort of explanation for how that was, not even a pile of goofy technobabble -- they just sort of asserted it by fiat and gave the audience a dirty look for even suggesting as much. (Though they were very clear that neither one was the 'unbeamed original'; if you interpret transporters as making a copy and destroying the original, both of them were still from the "copy" side of the process)

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    4. "the real application of this technology is not, in fact, teleportation but the fact that all objects regardless of value are now trivially reproducible out of thin air and thus a post-scarcity economy can be achieved straightforwardly"

      Isn't taking the original series's teleporters and extrapolating that from it the entire basis of TNG?

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    5. This is an issue that is addressed very directly (and with consequences crucial to the plot) in Algis Budrys' rather good novel "Rogue Moon". As I recall they even have a bin full of rocks next to each "receiver" as raw material to make transported people out of.

      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rogue_Moon

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  2. As you describe it here, Miles' work is part of a wave that seems to have transformed how science fiction works. In good sci-fi, the characters implicitly (and sometimes explicitly, as in Down or Whedon's Cabin in the Woods) understand their nature as fictional objects obeying the laws of a genre instead of the laws of the actual world. Or rather, they are written as having implicit knowledge of their nature as genre. And most of the time in sci-fi, this meta-textual awareness can work much better than how it's often played out in the genre were it gets the most press, postmodern literary fiction.

    Unless you're working at the sophistication and talent level of a Pynchon or Pirandello, most attempts at genre awareness inside literary fiction are insufferably pretentious and seem to exist for no other point than to brag about how clever their genre-awareness is. The style of sci-fi to tend toward action or at least exciting plots lets the genre-awareness recede into the background, but sometimes even before more powerful in shaping how the story unfolds just for that.

    If anything, sci-fi written without this kind of implicit genre-awareness looks hopelessly naive, like revisiting one of the Golden Age pulps or films. The characters in those kinds of stories are completely serious, and often one-dimensional in how functional they are for the plot. In Doctor Who terms, the base under siege plot proceeded with a dulling repetition when the characters just appeared and walked through their paces, taking it all seriously. The War Games started the backpedal against those days by having been written with their authors aware of the problems of bases under siege and crafting a story that, in part, turned it upside down. That's why the Saward era felt so retrograde: all the characters were one-dimensionally serious about filling their plot functions. Nyssa and Tegan never had any emotional payoff in their interactions with the Master because those payoffs were tangential to the immediate plot of each story where the Master appeared.

    The sci-fi genre awareness has developed as a sense of humour about the characters' own existence. Not in terms of quipping or anything as superficial as that, but a tongue-in-cheek attitude about the events of the story. That was all over Buffy as well. Not being able to take the plot too seriously keeps the characters involved, but with a slight remove, giving them space to develop as individuals beyond their functional plot roles. That space gives them space to develop more emotional drama story to story as well. Come to think of it, that was all over Buffy too. And it's pretty much the entire method and madness to post-2005 Doctor Who.

    Buffy is going to be damn important, isn't it?

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    1. One of the big problems of genre-awareness is there's a reason why these cliches and tropes exist in the first place, and that's to facilitate plot.

      The Star Trek teleporters exist to get the Enterprise from Point A to Point B with a minimum of time and special effects. It's a sonic screwdriver, where it does exactly what it's supposed to do unless there's a good dramatic reason for it not to.

      If you start poking at the logic of these conventions, then you're going to need to replace it with something else as you're dealing with formulaic adventure fiction. Not only that, you need to replace it with something easily reproduced in other stories.

      And this is where so much post-modernism fails in adventure fiction. They dismantle something which works and fail to create a viable alternative. Cabin in the Woods is quite clever, but it's really a one-shot trick because it never really rises above being a commentary on over-used horror cliches.

      Whereas his Buffy works because he uses genre-awareness to create new situations and resolutions. He alternates between uses the standard cliches and subverting them, creating a world with more possibilities.

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    2. I'm not sure I see being a one-trick pony as a flaw in a movie, though.

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    3. In a self-contained story, no. But it's not the sort of thing which can be built upon beyond "come up with something original, guys". Franchises need formulas and tropes.

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    4. Back on my desktop to expand on my phone post.

      When I say one-shot, I don't mean one-trick pony. I just mean something which can only work once. Watchmen is a one-shot concept and it's an amazing, multifaceted deconstruction of the super-hero genre. Lots of tricks being utilized, but there's no logical follow-up to it.

      In interviews since then, Moore has said it was pretty much a throwing down of the gauntlet to inspire other writers to attempt works as complex as it (not necessarily super-hero works)... and those other writers responded with weak echos of his work instead.

      I don't think he ever intended people to write Superman and Batman like that and seems quite horrified that many tried to do just that.

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    5. "In good sci-fi, the characters implicitly (and sometimes explicitly, as in Down or Whedon's Cabin in the Woods) understand their nature as fictional objects obeying the laws of a genre instead of the laws of the actual world."

      I disagree that any kind of metafictional awareness is a requisite for good science fiction. (To make good science fiction, you need to make good fiction, and have some part of it be an extrapolation of current scientific knowledge!)

      But I think one thing you really do need, if you're doing something that extends out from the present in any way, are characters who are aware that science fiction is a thing that exists; that these ideas exist in the culture and that there are certain expectations that come with them. Knowing about and commenting on cliches has, at this point, passed from metafiction into realism.

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    6. And I agree! Taking things apart is pointless by itself; it needs to be a step towards putting them back together in a better, more useful, more beautiful way.

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    7. Wash: Psychic, though? That sounds like something out of science fiction.

      Zoe: You live on a spaceship, dear.

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  3. No reference to "Think Like a Dinosaur"?

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  4. Indeed, "Think Like a Dinosaur" is a great short story addressing the topic of transporters killing and copying people. And if I recall correctly, it was adapted into a decent (New) Outer Limits episode.

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  5. "Miles has little patience with or regard for most of science fiction as a genre."

    Maybe that's why Lawrence Miles writes such bad Doctor Who most of the time. Doctor Who is, still, science fiction -- and he's bad at writing it because he doesn't actually like it.

    Down is one of his best, for the textual reasons you describe. Alien Bodies was fun, though mainly because of the Kroton switch-up. Adventuress of Henrietta Street was fun, but I can't actually call it *good*. The other books he wrote were mostly just mean, layered with incoherent. Especially "Interference", which probably should have stayed in the slushpile where it sat for a year.

    The worst, though, is "Christmas on a Rational Planet", which lays out Miles's hatred of science fiction in a particularly strikingly sexist fashion which I've never forgiven him for. I also don't know why the sexism wasn't caught by the editor and nixed -- was it still Bex Levene or was it Simon Winstone by then?

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    1. If you're doing an archive binge and writing hate comments for Miles I don't think you're going to agree with Doctor Sandifer's take.

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