...a blog by Richard Flowers

Saturday, June 08, 2013

Day 4542: FACTION PARADOX: Against Nature (Lawrence Burton, Obverse Books)


Short form: weird, poignant, brilliant, mind-expanding, read it.

Long form: Faction Paradox are, supposedly, all about rejecting the "stuffy" linear constraints imposed on History by their former kin the Great Houses. The enemy is usually described as "an alternate form of history". But what would that look like?

"Doctor Who" is often described as the most flexible story-telling format in history. Of course, it isn't. But the irony is that, to really express how far you can flex this universe, you have to edit the Doctor out of history from the very beginning. That's where Faction Paradox comes in.

AGAINST NATURE, Lawrence Burton, Obverse Books

There is a very well-regarded Doctor Who story called "The Aztecs" which, unfortunately, contains the Western, Christian, Euro-centric, liberal English misconception of the Mexica civilisation in its very title and, rooted there, it informs – or misinforms – the entire narrative. Since "The Aztecs" is a not a story about a genuine historic people, but actually about predestination and time travel, and a view – that you cannot change history, "not one line" – that the series ultimately chooses to reject, this particularly black-and-white misconception is curiously apt and doesn't undermine the story. I love "The Aztecs". But it's really not a story about "The Aztecs".

(And I notice that Microsoft spell checker accepts the word "Aztec" but not the word "Mexica" which tells you this is not a forgotten problem.)

In our comfort and our privilege, we tend to be very, very squeamish about the concept of "sacrifice". In particular, we tend to jump straight in at chopping people's hearts out as an automatic by-word for evil and end any discussion there. "Sacrifice" becomes synonymous with "Murder".

But it's worth referring to the entry on "Sacrifice" in "The Book of the War" (ed. Lawrence Miles), where it says, in simplified terms, sacrifice is something that you do, it isn't something you do or even can do to someone else; it's about "giving up", not "taking away".

(I should say up front, you absolutely don't need a grounding in the lore of Faction Paradox or Doctor Who, or a copy of "The Book of the War" to hand in order to enjoy and fully understand everything that goes on here. Having said that, "Against Nature" does explore and expand a great many concepts and conceits from other Faction Paradox related titles, be they amaranths – "Christmas on a Rational Planet" – arithmancy – "Interference" – or House Xianthellipse, Walking Dead or Waves of the House Military – various entries in "The Book of the War" – which is the mark of a good player in a shared-world sandpit.)

We have become so used to abundance that even the Wartime use of "making sacrifices" is becoming an almost alien concept to us, and even the comparatively slight slowing of growth is called "austerity" and "hardship" as if we can understand that. The idea that people who have very nearly next to nothing to give up might choose to do without things and especially people that they value highly totally dumbfounds us.

(And yet, how many "Doctor Who" stories finish with one character – usually a guest character, but every now and again the lead – dying "for the greater good", often to save someone else, usually lots of someones, but again every now and again just one other someone?)

What Lawrence Burton does here is take that paragraph and really run with it.

It helps that he really knows his stuff. Don't let the peculiarity of the Nahuatl names of people and places put you off; instead let yourself fall into their alternate poetry. Later in the book, as time unwinds, passages of the text start to be written in the form of Mexica history, and this really works as a way of conveying a universe whose rules are being rewritten, and in parallel demonstrating the Faction concept of "alter-time states".

The Mexica religion and philosophy is so different to the standard Western view of the universe – and yet with some curious parallels: for example, there are strong echoes of Plato in the understanding of the difference between what is and what really is – that this is the perfect place to examine what "alternate forms of history" could look like and what happens when their continuity clashes with ours.

But this isn't "enemy" action; rather the ultimate nihilism arising from within the ranks of the House Military, reflecting the damage that war does to the warrior, but also the dangers of forcing the highly conservative agents of the Great Houses, whose entire Universe literally begins and ends with them putting constraints on History, to fight a war on behalf of life in all its diversity.

Starting with five stories – representing the five cardinal directions of Mexica theosophy – that initially appear to echo one another as they revolve around their common axis before beginning to bleed into one another and finally colliding explosively. The conclusion is as satisfying as it is ingenious, an explanation that both makes sense and fully encompasses why the entire scheme to destroy the Universe – spoilers – fails, based as it is in the same misconception of the Mexica with which we began.

The book is full of striking and memorable characters, from Grandma Doña Ultima to a talking Chihuahua to the Gods of Death, by way of central characters Primo, Todd, Emiousha of House Meddhoran and Momacani, and a mysterious, almost-identifiable one time agent of Faction Paradox and/or demoness Yaotl, some of whom may be Time Lords and some of whom may be dead.

(I spent a lot of the novel idly speculating whether Yaotl was Compassion or Lolita, and therefore which "side" she might come down on. In fact, a solitary use of the word Immaculata is suggestive, and the ambivalence about which side she is on becomes an obvious clue. And the idea that there are "good" and "evil" sides is something the whole book is pitching against anyway.)

The landscapes of Mexico City; San Antonio, Texas; the recursive Netherweald where House Meddhoran finds itself lodged thanks to Faction-inspired arithmancy; historic Tenochtitlan and the cities of the Triple Alliance; and ultimately the Tlalocan underworld are all vividly drawn and gather you into their respective worlds, excepting maybe San Antonio – ironically in the light of events later in the book – which I felt was not as distinguishable from present-day Mexico as the other segments, its main character being that Todd's home town it was somehow less vivid than Primo's city. Though that does sort of make sense as well, he says cryptically.

It's also at times a funny book, including an (unobtrusive) nod to that Doctor Who story, and another to name-check Mr Miles "This Town Will Never Let You Go". And a climactic reveal that echoes another classic "Doctor Who" cliff-hanger (I really can't say which) raised to a whole new level. These are the sort of touches that, I have to admit, I do when I'm writing, and in so many ways it's the sort of book I would like to have written myself. If I had ten years to sit down and do the research.

Short of quaffing peyote-based alcohol, this is the best way to expand your mind Mexica style.

PS: "Scarface" in not quite an anagram of "Sacrifice", and it's not deliberate, but it's worth thinking about how coincidence creeps in even when you're not looking.

Thursday, June 06, 2013

Day 4535: DOCTOR WHO: Matt Finish


We are sad because Matt Smith has announced that he will be handing on the mantle of The Doctor.

It feels too soon.

It shouldn’t. By the time he goes, he’ll have appeared in thirty-nine stories over forty-four episodes, which is either slightly more or slightly fewer than David Tennant (who did thirty-four in forty-seven), and his three seasons will have covered four years, much as David’s three-years-plus-specials did.

But perhaps it’s the way the split seasons felt like cheating, maybe it’s that the Ponds stuck around so long, but something about the eleventh Doctor feels like unfulfilled potential.

Is the lifespan of a Doctor measured in numbers of companions rather than screen time? David went adventuring with three companions – Rose, Martha and Donna – and travelled alone after, giving a distinct sense of three or four “eras” of the tenth Doctor. Matt’s eleventh Doctor clung on to Amy for longer even than Rose, and River Song has hung on even longer. A second – and full – season with Clara would have felt more balanced. As it is, the eight episodes this year feel more tacked on than the start of a new era that they deserve to be.

Or do we measure Doctor’s by the number of “classics” that they appear in? Alex said he was still waiting for Matt to be given the string of great stories that his performance as the Doctor deserved, and he’s right.

Billy sets the bar high from the very first episode, “An Unearthly Child”, and has “The Daleks”, “Marco Polo”, “The Aztecs”, “The Dalek Invasion of Earth”, “The Crusade”, “The Daleks’ Master Plan” (and maybe “The Massacre” if only we could see it); Pat has two Daleks stories, “Tomb of the Cybermen”, “The Web of Fear”, “The Mind Robber”, “The Invasion” and “The War Games”; Jon can point to “...and the Silurians”, “Inferno”, “The Dæmons”, “The Curse of Peladon”, “Carnival of Monsters” and “The Green Death” among others; Tom has “Genesis of the Daleks”, “Pyramids of Mars”, “The Deadly Assassin”, “The Talons of Weng-Chiang”, “City of Death”, “Logopolis” and (as K-9 K-Tel would say) many, many more. Even Chris has “Dalek”, “The Empty Child” and “Parting of the Ways” on his list from one too short a season, while David can lay claim to “Human Nature” and “Blink”, and arguably “Doomsday” and “Last of the Time Lords”, with “Tooth and Claw”, “Gridlock”, “Turn Left,” “Midnight” and “The Waters of Mars” all bubbling under. These eras all feel “big”.

Conversely, Peter only feels like he’s getting into the swing of it with “The Caves of Androzani”, and although Sylv has “Remembrance of the Daleks” and “The Curse of Fenric”, Colin and Paul have to wait for the invention of Big Finish for any decent stories at all.

Judged on that scale, Matt has had stories that have been crying out to be magnificent that just kind of haven’t been. “The Time of Angels” is almost awesome, but then “Flesh and Stone” starts buggering around with the Angels unique shtick, and begins the confusion over what “erased from time” actually means; “The Pandorica Opens” is let down by the WTF reboot of the universe in “The Big Bang” (and the too-colourful presence of the Tellytubby Daleks); “The Impossible Astronaut”/”The Day of the Moon”... in fact the whole of 2011 yearns to be a grand epic, but it’s deeply undermined by Steven Moffat’s impenetrable, over-extended story arc and a touch of light genocide; by the time we get to “A Good Man Goes to War” and “The Wedding of River Song” the arc is collapsing under its own weight of expectations – largely set up by the Grand Moff’s teasing – and we’re showing off our set pieces, forgetting to tell actual stories in their own right.

So although there are some cracking stories along the way – “Amy’s Choice”, “Vincent and the Doctor”, “The God Complex” and “The Crimson Horror”, even Moffat’s own “Asylum of the Daleks” or “The Snowmen”, not to mention the fan-pleasuring “The Name of the Doctor” – their highs are muffled by the disappointment of story arcs that don’t pay off, seasons without the unity that Russell (or Cartmel, or Bidmead, or Holmes, or Dicks) used to bring, and let’s face it a few real duffer episodes along the way.

And, do you know, thinking about it, I do wonder if it doesn’t all come down to the total disaster that is the last fifteen minutes of “Victory of the Daleks”... just as everything seems to be going brilliantly... THEY appear and suddenly no one is taking this seriously any more.

(And defeating a planet busting bomb with the power of lurve is pretty unspeakable too, and a sign of the direction this series will be heading under Moffat, and unlike the Dalek design decision, that probably is Gatiss fault.)

Would we have been more forgiving of the eleventh Doctor’s first season if we hadn’t already seen the New Paradigm? Did the decision to redesign the series’ iconic villain – and how badly wrong they got it – burn up all of Moffat’s benefit of the doubt? Particularly the way that it was sold: “yeah, we’re changing everything else so we thought we’d redesign the Daleks too”, with hindsight perhaps the braggadocio of a desperate man who’s seen what they’ve made and is having doubts, but coming across as the arrogance of someone who thinks he knows better.

Well, no. It’s not just that.

The errors do compound. A reliance on magic thinking rather than plot logic; a habit of throwing in another “ingenious” idea or another set piece rather than developing the story; a juvenile approach to the sexuality of the lead character (that Amy might react to a trauma like “The Time of Angels” by wanting sex is quite sophisticated; the Doctor responding like a goosed John Inman is not); a conviction that you can bring anyone back from death (especially the endless deaths of Rory Pond)because “it’s science fiction”, when death should be the most serious thing – “nobody dies” was supposed to be “just this once”, not every damn week; a failure to explain in clear terms how major plot threads actually resolved – why the hell did the TARDIS blow up and crack the Universe? Is Madam Kovarian actually dead or did that timeline not really happen? Why were the Silence at “war” with the Doctor? How did he convince River she didn’t want to murder him in “Let’s Kill Hitler”? – and finally a lack of emotional awareness, of understanding that terrible events have consequences, more than anything that baffling decision to make the crucial follow-up to the emotionally charged revelations of “A Good Man Goes to War” an episode of comedy Nazis, indeed a farce, of all things...

Russell wrote a lot of stories that didn’t make a great deal of sense when you looked at them later, or where he pulled a solution out of his hat, but where you felt there was a solid reason why they played out the way they did.

Steven, on the other hand, writes intricate constructions from ideas, not always all his own, with dialogue either wittily clever or poetically moving, which are spectacular but hollow.

e.g. When Russell writes the stars going out, he ties it directly to the nihilistic insanity of Davros, this man who hates everything else so much that he’d rather annihilate it all than suffer it to continue to exist.

When Steven writes the stars going out, it’s the result of a convoluted series of events orchestrated by someone we don’t actually in order to blow up the TARDIS for reasons that we don’t understand and never get explained.

(The most likely candidates remain the Silence, who blow up the TARDIS to stop the Doctor reaching Trenzalore, and the entire Universe was destroyed only by accident. Which has to be embarrassing, even if the whole purpose of your cult wasn’t, apparently, to stop the Doctor reaching Trenzalore in order to, er, prevent the entire Universe being destroyed.)

More bluntly, Russell wrote some great stories with rubbish plots; Moffat has the reverse problem.

Except, he is getting better.

People seem to have wearied of Moffat’s bag of conjuring tricks recently, unfortunately just at the point where he seems to have been pulling out of his rut. The 2013 series seems to have come in for unwarranted heavy criticism, from the professional critics as well as the usual fan assassins, and I seem to be in a definite minority in thinking that the stories this year have shown a marked sense of improvement over the lacklustre 2010 and horrible mess of 2011. Whether it’s because Caro Skinner was good for him behind the scenes or because the (maybe I’m reading too much into it) apparent decision to theme an episode for each of the “classic” Doctors gave them some extra impetus to the “movie of the week” style he said he’d adopted for season seven, they’ve all felt much more like stories that had a reason for telling them, moreso even than the five episodes in 2012.

They’re still hamstrung by the shortness of the running time, and if I were producer I’d be pushing for more not fewer (or no!) two-part stories, or at least an extra quarter of an hour each episode (even if it meant only ten episodes in a series. You know, like “Game of Thrones”, which doesn’t do too badly, I understand). And Clara still seems to have no character (which is a shame because I’ve liked Jenna-Louise all along). But even when they’re getting it wrong – “Akhaten”, “Journey...” – at least they’re now getting it wrong for the right reasons: ambition of storytelling exceeding the running time or resources available.

And “The Name of the Doctor” is very nearly right. Sure, it’s still a bit stringing set-pieces together, but there’s a lot more science stuff injected into the fairytale: time travel on the astral plane and a conference call by telepathy, these feel like the sorts of things Doctor Who used to do; and the idea that the Doctor’s travels are a scar on the face of the Universe, that his death is a wound that allows access to all of history, specifically his history (which surely includes the dreaded Time War), these aren’t just conceptually intriguing, but they’re the sort of thing that used to allow us to have the Doctor’s good and bad angels (Clara and the Intelligence) fighting for his soul over the length of his lifetime. And it’s actually about something: “The Name of the Doctor” is about the name of the Doctor being “The Doctor”, that it’s a choice and how and why that is important, to him and to us.

It’s a tragedy that, at least until “The Name of the Doctor”, “The Eleventh Hour” was probably Matt’s best overall story. “The Eleventh Hour” promised so much, and Matt delivered, he’s been terrific every single week, but we are left still waiting for a story that is as great as he is.

Do you hear me, Mr Moffster? The fiftieth anniversary show had better be BLOODY good!

Matt Smith: saluté!

...and the other sad thing is that this will be the end of the eleventh Doctor’s theme tune. No, not the current tortuous reworking of Ron Grainer: Murray Gold’s lovely eleventh Doctor anthem “Every Star and Every Planet” (“I Am The Doctor”) which is as engrained in this era as “Dance of the Macra” (“All The Strange, Strange Creatures”) was in the tenth Doctor’s, possibly even more so.

Coming Soon...If I ever manage to find some time, I hope to be doing reviews of the two episodes of 2013 I didn’t get around to – “Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS” which I disliked and “The Crimson Horror” which I adored – and a couple of those classics I mentioned above: Tom Baker in “The Talons of Weng-Chiang” and Jon Pertwee in the beautiful new restoration of “The Mind of Evil”. Before that, one of the best bits of Doctor Who you’re likely to come across this year... it’s a book, and obviously the Doctor isn’t in it. Obverse Books’ new Faction Paradox novel: Lawrence Burton’s “Against Nature”. Seriously, go read it!