Review: Doctor Who: Scourge of the Cybermen by Simon Guerrier

In the annals of science fiction publishing, there are few subgenres as contested as the Doctor Who novel. With origins stretching back to 1964, barely a year after the show itself started, for much of the twentieth century these were largely straight novelisations of television stories. At the start of the 90s, however, with the TV show cancelled and a generation of talented fans champing at the bit to create, original prose narratives became the main vehicle for the series. These new adventures, published by Virgin Books and later BBC Books, defined much of what we now think of as standard Doctor Who. Contributors including Paul Cornell, Mark Gatiss, and Russell T Davies would go on to successfully revive the TV show in 2005, and other writers like Kate Orman, Ben Aaronovitch, Lawrence Miles, and Paul Magrs pushed the series in bold and fantastical new directions.

But with the television revival came a sea change in the Doctor Who novels. The increased scrutiny from an image-conscious BBC meant they were no longer a place for wild experimentation, nor a place where a sharp up-and-comer could publish their first book. Instead they became a space for rote reinforcement of The Brand, largely dominated by those 90s and early 2000s authors who hadn’t managed to break out more widely. While the post-2005 BBC Books has produced some interesting work by writers like Naomi Alderman, Juno Dawson, and David Solomons, the name of the game has mostly been stagnation. (At least in the original novels; the original short stories and revived novelisation series have been much livelier). These days, it seems even BBC Books isn’t into it; in 2020 it quietly abandoned its line of original novels featuring the Thirteenth Doctor, pivoting instead to the maze of impenetrable fanwank that was Time Lord Victorious.

Into this climate of apathy steps Big Finish Productions, with its new line, The Audio Novels. Big Finish, while equally dominated by 90s mediocrities as the book series, has a fairly good track record with its prose offerings. The Companion Chronicles and Short Trips lines have reliably provided compelling and well-produced Doctor Who stories, and have been marginally better at introducing fresh talent. Their formats lend themselves to unique and experimental takes on Doctor Who, sidestepping some of the awkwardness of Big Finish’s full-cast audio plays. Plus, they’ve been lucky enough to attract some of the best writing talent in the Doctor Who spin-off world, including Ian Atkins, Una McCormack, and the author of this newest offering, Simon Guerrier.

Guerrier is an interesting choice for this first audio novel. One of the last authors under the wire before Doctor Who books became a completely closed shop, he has a flexible and inventive style which has served him particularly well in the Companion Chronicles range. For Scourge of the Cybermen, that style is turned to a rather difficult question: how to launch a new series of Doctor Who novels from the fundamentally conservative position of modern spin-off media? The result is a solid and entertaining thriller, but one that feels just a bit too timid to launch this new format.

We open in medias res, with the Third Doctor and Sarah Jane helping out a deep sea base in the far future, a whole city of scientists working to mitigate the effects of pollution. Being a base in a classic-flavoured Doctor Who story, it’s not long before it finds itself under siege. The death of a crew member is put down a strange new radiation sickness, and the base’s internal politics exacerbate the situation. Meanwhile the Cybermen, rusted and dilapidated from years underwater, are stealing power from the base, waiting for their moment to strike.

OK, so it’s not the most original premise in Doctor Who history, but a story like this should be judged by what its premise allows it build. In this case, an example of the old-fashioned, nuts-and-bolts science fiction that the TV show did in the 70s. The opening scene is a conversation between the Doctor and a group of scientists, and Sarah Jane sets the story in motion by noticing a problem with the lights. That technically-minded, problem-solving spirit animates the rest of the story, which features numerous bits of exciting futuristic technology and plenty of cleverness involving computer screens and data processing.

But for all its old-fashioned vibes, this feels like a story informed by the present moment. Once the radiation sickness becomes public knowledge, the citizens begin wearing protective hoods, and a paranoid atmosphere pervades the base. After living through the 2020 coronavirus lockdowns, Sarah Jane’s feeling that “it was exhausting, being alert and yet nothing actually happening” hits all the harder. Her later indignance at a lack of protective suits (“Stealing protective gear in the middle of a crisis!”) distinctly echoes the issue of PPE availability at the height of the pandemic, and the government’s failure to provide adequate protection for healthcare workers.

This dread-filled atmosphere is aided by a crisp and adroit production. Steve Foxon’s score is spare but impactful where it counts, with some wonderfully crunchy, metallic sounds underscoring the Cybermen in action. Nicholas Briggs’s Cybermen voices are solid as ever, and his inhuman cries as the rusted monsters struggle to speak are particularly unsettling. But it is Jon Culshaw’s narration which truly impresses. Best known as an impressionist with the Dead Ringers troupe, Culshaw proves a strong dramatic narrator, able to sell the tension and claustrophobia of the novel’s corridor-creeping sequences even without help from the soundscape. All of this adds up to an effective showcase for Guerrier’s novel, which like much of classic Doctor Who is stronger at creating a chilly ambience than outright scares.

The strongest moments revolve around the base’s processing room. Depicted on Claudia Gironi’s striking cover, one of the lower levels is given over to “a vast field of sunflowers” steeped in oily water. These sunflowers process oxygen for the rest of the base, a striking hybrid of natural beauty and a grungy, industrial setting. This chamber proves to be the Cybermen’s base of operations, and there is some effective horror in the initial sequences of metal soldiers emerging from the depths. But the novel’s best scene comes later on, as the radiation sickness scares some members of the base into queuing up for cyber-conversion. There is a gorgeous bit of black comedy as Sarah Jane shows up to dissuade the new recruits, many of them less than keen on cyber-conversion, but more worried about losing their place in the queue. A very British apocalypse.

But for all these strengths, there are moments when the novel falters. Much noise is made in the early sections about ordinary civilian life on the base. There’s even a nicely cruel scene where cafe owner Denzil reflects on the lives of his customers, only for the narrator to intone: “He… felt sure they had a future. He was wrong. They didn’t. And neither did he.” Yet after a brief follow-up scene, this thread is simply dropped. We don’t find out if Denzil died in the Cybermen’s attack or was even converted himself. There’s a somewhat over-egged twist about the base’s security chief being part of an undercover unit of “Cyber Hunters,” and though the novel gives us a couple of flashback scenes we never really get a sense of who they are, or of what “The Code” they all pledge themselves to actually is.

The pacing also leaves something to be desired. It takes a solid hour and a half for the Doctor and Sarah Jane to actually meet a Cyberman, and the novel as a whole is oddly structured. Instead of chapters, the book is divided up into six “parts” of between 60 and 90 minutes. Not only is this unwieldy, with individual parts being too long to comfortably fit into one sitting, it results in some cliffhangers feeling arbitrary, as the narrative has to artificially stop every 10,000 words or so.

Scourge of the Cybermen is not a novel of bold new directions, but of well-executed traditionalism. As such, there is a lot to enjoy here, but it feels like a questionable choice to begin a whole new line of Doctor Who stories. The novel’s imperfections could be forgiven if it were willing to push the format a bit more; pieces of flawed genius are how the show progresses. But as it is, they just drag a decent story down to average, rather than keeping a great story from being transcendent. For all that it has going for it, Scourge of the Cybermen is a curiously tepid launch: a first instalment that gives the listener little reason to stick around for the next one.

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Review: Black Water Sister by Zen Cho

When unemployed university graduate Jess first hears the voice of her grandmother’s ghost, she doesn’t understand it. The child of Malaysian immigrants, Jess has lived in the US for most of her life, and so doesn’t know the Hokkien word for lesbian when Ah Ma demands “Does your mother know you’re a pengkid?” It’s a powerful opening, effectively introducing the novel’s central double act of Jess and her cantankerous ghost grandmother, and solidifying its themes of queer identity and cultural dislocation. Black Water Sister is a savvy and engaging novel, its achievements predicated on this tight control of narrative and theme. 

Jess and her parents are down on their luck. Her father is in remission from cancer and the family is heavily in debt. Seemingly out of options, the family has moved back to Malaysia to stay with Jess’s aunt while they look for a place of their own. This already uncertain situation is further complicated by the aforementioned ghost. Jess’s grandmother has unfinished business, and the two become embroiled in the fight between a local temple and the real estate developers who plan to build luxury condos on the land. The temple is home to the titular Black Water Sister, and Jess soon finds herself pursued by an even more formidable presence than her ornery grandmother. This is a novel with a lot going on, but Jess herself is a strong anchoring presence among the ghosts, gods, and gangsters that populate its pages.

Indeed, the character of Jess is perhaps the novel’s biggest strength. Her drifting, uncertain postgraduate life will be familiar to many readers, and her internal monologue is an endearing blend of the sardonic and the vulnerable. At one point she reflects on her family relationships; “It figured that she’d avoided getting nagged to go to law school, only to get nagged to become a vessel for the dead.” Yet while her parents don’t exert much pressure on her career choices, and are supportive of her photography, Jess has not yet been able to come out to them. This contributes to a general sense of Jess as an outsider, occupying a liminal position between America and Malaysia. Some of the novel’s most intriguing moments involve Jess deliberately swinging from one identity to the other, or her family reacting to her ignorance, such as when she asks her uncle something about the temple:

“The look Ah Ku gave her was familiar… It was a look of realization that here was an alien to whom even the most basic things, things everyone understood, would have to be explained.”

This sense of dislocation ironically brings Jess closer to her dead grandmother. In life Ah Ma herself was an outsider, a working-class woman alienated from her family and her abusive husband, and Cho herself has noted that the two are both “clever at being angry.” This kinship lends a compelling quality to the novel’s central relationship, even as Ah Ma’s tricks and elisions mean that Jess (and the reader) are never quite allowed to get comfortable. As for the titular deity, the reveal of her origins adds a further symbolic richness to the story, as she, Ah Ma, and Jess are bound up in histories of patriarchal violence, with Jess left to sort through and find some sort of closure for the suffering of previous generations.

If the novel has faults, they are partly in the area of pacing. Ah Ma is absent for much of the book’s mid-section; these chapters can sometimes feel a little slow, and her eventual return is somewhat contrived. A few supporting characters also feel underdeveloped. Other reviews have pointed out that Sharanya is something of a cipher. She and Jess break up partway through the novel, but even when they eventually get back together, there is a certain weightlessness, simply because we know so little about her. Similarly, Jess’s uneasy and ambiguous ally Sherng feels like his plotline is building to a dramatic dénouement that never quite arrives, leaving him awkwardly hanging around at the end of the story.

But while these quibbles may prevent Black Water Sister from reaching classic status, the end result is still an imaginative and thoughtfully-built novel. The ending manages to feel both tantalising and wholly fitting, a satisfying capstone to this sensitive and highly enjoyable book, which ought to secure Cho’s status as a major voice in contemporary fantasy fiction.

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Sherlock is Garbage and Here’s Why is Garbage and Here’s Why

This article first appeared on DoWntime in March 2018. It was originally part of a longer series, but this material was written independently, and is posted here as a record.

I. Accounting for Taste

About 14 minutes into his feature-length whinge that 90-minute television episodes from the 2010s are not, in fact, short prose stories from the 1890s, Hbomberguy addresses the changes made between the unaired 60-minute pilot of Sherlock and the 90-minute A Study in Pink. He asserts a number of problems with the story as eventually broadcast, but takes particular issue with the introduction of Mycroft Holmes:

“The pilot seems to demonstrate this [theory that art benefits from rigorous editing] happening in reverse, where the full show was given an extra half an hour, so they thought ‘oh great, that gives us time to insert the co-writer of the show’s character early, and have intrigue that doesn’t go anywhere because he turns out to be, like, just a normal guy who’s worried about his brother, and also connect a nice and simple first story to Moriarty for no reason!'”

Aside from showcasing the video’s irritating habit of creating maliciously incompetent caricatures of the people making Sherlock, this is a mind-blowingly sloppy piece of criticism, veering from a reasonably sensible premise to misleading half-truths followed by a deeply revealing statement of values, such that dissecting it will serve us well going forward. With that in mind, let’s crack open the mind palace.

The initial proposition, that Sherlock suffered from the shift to 90-minute episodes, is not, prima facie, unreasonable. I think it’s terribly unimaginative, and ignores later episodes such as The Sign of Three or The Abominable Bride, whose plot structures take advantage of the greater space devoted to them, but series one in particular can be fairly accused of resorting to delaying tactics. Stuff like the separate mini-adventures in The Great Game, or indeed the business with Mycroft in A Study in Pink, while fun, are clearly examples of the writers reacting to a late decision to extend the episode lengths. So when Hbomberguy accuses the Mycroft subplot in A Study of Pink of being, essentially, filler grafted onto a 60-minute story, he is still within the realm of moderate sense.

Where this argument starts to go wrong is in the details, or rather the lack thereof. Because Hbomberguy elides a crucial detail in his summary of the ‘extra bits’ added to A Study in Pink, and as such he spectacularly misses what the episode is doing with Mycroft. When Hbomberguy says (through his ventriloquised author), that “[we can] have intrigue that doesn’t go anywhere because [Mycroft] turns out to be, like, just a normal guy who’s worried about his brother, and also connect a nice and simple first story to Moriarty” he implies that these two events (the intrigue with Mycroft and the connection to Moriarty) are in some way separate, when the episode itself deliberately blends those two aspects of its plot.

When John is kidnapped partway through the episode, he is taken to a sinister-looking abandoned warehouse, where he meets an oily posh man in a suit who is apparently able to have people kidnapped on a whim, and who displays an apparent flair for the theatrical. (John objects that “You know, I’ve got a phone. Very clever, all that, but you could just phone me on my phone!”) The man, who neither John nor the audience actually knows is Mycroft yet, proceeds to archly refuse to confirm his identity, and suggests he bears some ill will towards Sherlock himself:

“JOHN: Who are you?

MYCROFT: An interested party.

JOHN: Interested in Sherlock? Why? I’m guessing you’re not friends.

MYCROFT: You’ve met him. How many friends do you imagine he has? I’m the closest thing Sherlock Holmes is capable of having to a friend.

JOHN: And what’s that?

MYCROFT: An enemy.

JOHN: (Almost laughs) An enemy?

MYCROFT: In his mind, certainly. If you asked him he’d probably say his arch enemy. He does love to be dramatic.

JOHN: Well thank God you’re above all that.”

A little self-indulgent, perhaps, but by no means subtle: the episode clearly expects its audience to assume that Mark Gatiss is playing Moriarty. Even the shooting script plays along, coyly referring to Gatiss’s character only as ‘M’. It’s an assumption which makes sense, given what we have seen so far. Mark Gatiss is an actor specialising in oily, besuited English villains, and kidnapping someone off the street reads far more intuitively as the action of a villain than that of a sympathetic supporting cast member. All of this helps set up the mystery around Mycroft, such that the revelation he is actually (albeit problematically) sympathetic comes as a surprise.

(The logic by which a man with the power to do such things with impunity is read as “an ordinary guy,” however, remains obscure, and Hbomberguy misrepresents this subplot in his phrasing and presentation. That the summary collapses multiple scenes into one sentence can be forgiven for the purposes of brevity, but by hanging on the abandoned warehouse scene for this section of narration, Hbomberguy implies that these revelations all happen in one scene. Germane to his argument that the subplot goes nowhere, but conveniently eliding the fact that the episode goes to several places, most notably an abandoned school and an ambulance, before this subplot is complete. By showcasing this subplot entirely with one of its initial setup scenes, Hbomberguy depicts as static and inessential what is a more elaborate and interesting bit of misdirection in the episode itself).

The Mycroft subplot in A Study in Pink also sets up one of the main things Sherlock as a show is interested in (and one of the aspects best served by feature-length episodes), namely its extensive play in the details of the Holmes canon. The implied viewer of A Study in Pink is one who knows Sherlock Holmes well enough that they will assume the Big Bad for Series One of a modern re-telling will be some version of Professor Moriarty, and is dimly aware, if at all, that in the Doyle version Sherlock had a brother named Mycroft Holmes. As this level of knowledge more-or-less corresponds to that of the average British TV viewer in 2010, the reveal works and feels terribly clever, while any diehard Doylists who happen to be in the audience get to feel rewarded for knowing who Mycroft is. It’s a trick that relies on the fact that the audience will be more familiar with Moriarty than with Mycroft, but the existence of Mycroft in the Doyle canon is the connection that allows the reveal of who Gatiss is playing to not feel like a cheat.

Whether you find any of this impressive is another matter, of course. Certainly the observation that it contributes essentially nothing to the main ‘catch the killer’ plot is fair enough. But it does indicate that Sherlock is a show interested in this kind of textual game, as well as (and increasingly instead of) catching killers or solving crimes as such.

Which brings us to the most telling part of the spiel quoted above, namely that the episode “connect[s] a nice and simple first story to Moriarty for no reason.” The second part of this quotation is the most ridiculous on its face; the reason to connect the first episode to Moriarty is pretty damn obvious. He’s the Series Big Bad. He will turn up for another connection in Episode Two, and then a Final Confrontation in the Finale. This is how a modern series of television works, and yet this appears to be precisely what Hbomberguy objects to. Which makes the first part of this quotation all the more revealing; the problem with these subplots and textual games, apparently, is that they detract from what is otherwise a “nice and simple” story.

That one could read Sherlock as setting out to be in any way nice or simple is so farcical as to be dismissed without comment. But it does reveal the crux of Hbomberguy’s objection to Sherlock. Sherlock, you see, does not give a shit about solving mysteries. Hbomberguy, on the other hand, sees this as its primary reason to exist. That he finds the resulting episodes disappointing is therefore sensible, but it does not make his view any less odd, or less detached from the content and aesthetic goals of the show. Throughout his video, Hbomberguy stresses that his main source of pleasure in Sherlock Holmes stories is the mechanics of mystery-solving. He praises the first episode of Elementary for some canny play with the possible, however improbable, and he repeatedly demands to know when Benedict Cumberbatch will solve a crime.

The pleasures of procedural mystery-solving are certainly present in multiple iterations of Sherlock Holmes, and the detective genre more generally, but it would be an extremely reductive view that stated that was all there was to it, or all it could possibly be. Raymond Chandler viewed the detective plot as principally a battle for one’s soul. Jimmy McGovern viewed it as means of angry polemic. More recently, Hannibal built an elaborate sitcom-cum-torture-porn-cum-Miltonian epic out of the stock elements of police procedurals, True Detective fooled everyone into thinking it was interesting by flirting with Weird Fiction, and Collateral built a sprawling State of the Nation drama out of a generic police investigation. The detective genre, as well as an end in itself, can also be a means to other things, and ‘metafictional examination of the legacy of Sherlock Holmes,’ ‘interrogation of masculinity,’ and ‘ostentatiously clever hyperreal romp’ are clearly among the things it can be now. Yet here Hbomberguy is, blithely demanding that instead of all that, Sherlock should simply recreate the genre as it stood in the late nineteenth century, absent more than a century of development, and indeed absent the idiosyncrasies (and, it must be admitted, the self-indulgences) of its authors.

I should stress, Hbomberguy’s reasons for disliking Sherlock are entirely understandable. If one’s primary pleasure in detective stories is the mechanics of Solving A Crime, then one is clearly not going to be satisfied by Sherlock. It is perfectly valid to enjoy the snap of a mystery coming into focus, just as it is perfectly valid to not find pleasure in something that does not offer that experience. Similarly, it is perfectly valid to enjoy the serialised, 25-minutes-a-week-with-a-cliffhanger structure of classic Doctor Who, and to be disappointed that this structure is absent in the new series. Different viewers will take pleasure from different aspects of a text, and sometimes those pleasures are taken from aspects unique to one particular version of a text, or to something that primarily existed to serve the needs of a given time or medium.

Where this becomes a problem, however, is in treating the pleasures one takes from a particular version of a text as intrinsic to any and all versions of that text, or of being blind to the differing goals of differing iterations. It is precisely this kind of chauvinism which leads the more blinkered among Doctor Who fandom to treat the new series’ sparing use of cliffhangers as a serious lack, and causes Hbomberguy to treat the lack of focus on logical deductions in Sherlock as a similar lack. This despite the show repeatedly telling us that this version of the character, and indeed show, is more about character and emotion, even as Sherlock himself insists otherwise. (Sean Dillon perfectly summarises the show as defined by “Sherlock’s repeated claims that he’s an emotionless being who is pure logic, typically done while shouting emotionally”).

This kind of chauvinism, as well as leading to pretty weak literary criticism, can cause one’s aesthetics to twist in odd ways (for instance, by declaring The Blind Banker to be ‘one of the good ones’). More broadly, the ways in which such chauvinistic readings go wrong is indicative of the larger failings of pop criticism in general, and a sobering reminder that, in the wake of the author’s death, the reader must be more attentive to their text than ever before. If you are going to make a hatchet job, then for God’s sake, do your research.

*

II. The Lying Detective

It’s all the more infuriating, because Sherlock has offered a much better self-critique than any of its YouTube detractors. Unsurprisingly, it comes in series four. Series four, of course, is the story of Sherlock tearing itself apart, beginning by killing off its best character, and meticulously unravelling everything that made the show unique, eventually collapsing into a nice and simple series of detective yarns too boring to ever broadcast, a hellish condemnation to single vision and Newton’s sleep.

In the midst of this comes The Lying Detective, which more than any other episode presents the moral case that this version of Sherlock Holmes has outlived his usefulness. Hbomberguy, of course, spectacularly misses this. In a stunning feat of superficial reading, he is apparently unaware that the villain of The Lying Detective is a Jimmy Savile analogue, asserting that

“The villain of episode two is Culverton Smith. There’s no evidence that he’s a criminal. But you begin the episode knowing he’s a bad guy, because his daughter says to Sherlock that he remembers him saying he’s a murderer. So we already have his confession. Then it twists and says ‘oh, she was fake.’ Then within about five minutes it untwists because he did do it. So… again what was the fucking point?”

Oh, I don’t know, perhaps that society is set up in such a way that obvious monsters can hide in plain sight, deploying obfuscating techniques to ensure that their crimes go unreported, while at the same time openly talking about those crimes? You know, like Jimmy Savile did? Hbomberguy goes on to assert that the episode would have been more interesting had Culverton turned out to be innocent, which, while perhaps an amusing enough structure for a mystery story, would be completely wrong for a story about Savile. Which The Lying Detective obviously is.

Even more telling is Hbomberguy’s complaint about Eurus’s involvement in the plot: “They never explain, of course, how Sherlock’s sister figured out that Culverton Smith was a villain.” Yeah, because it’s not like he admits to being a serial killer on television within the episode or anything. Again, Hbomberguy myopically focuses on deduction mechanics, and misses what the show is actually trying to do, namely tell a story about how a society can allow an obvious predator to thrive, and how such predators abuse and gaslight the vulnerable to maintain their positions. The tastefulness of doing ‘Sherlock Holmes versus Jimmy Savile’ can absolutely be questioned, but Hbomberguy isn’t even doing that. He’s still just arguing that Sherlock should function more like every other damn cop show, at the expense of criticising the actual episode.   

Because The Lying Detective is not just a story about how the British establishment enables people like Savile to survive and thrive. It’s a story that ruthlessly implicates Sherlock, and indeed Sherlock, in that same establishment. (Note that one of Culverton Smith’s mind-wiped accomplices “sits on the board of a prominent broadcaster”). The focal point of this is the much-discussed deduction/drug withdrawal sequence, covered in an irritatingly superficial video by the Nerd Writer (in five minutes of analysis, he manages to not once utter the names ‘Steven Moffat’ or ‘Nick Hurran’, and much of his analysis boils down to what Sam Keeper memorably calls “the one thing nerds love most of all to replace literary criticism with: Number crunching”).

Because the brilliant thing about this sequence is how thunderingly obvious Sherlock’s epiphany is. The Nerd Writer describes it as Sherlock “grappl[ing] with the thought of how many serial killers might be hiding behind wealth and fame like Culverton Smith.” This is almost, but not quite, accurate; the revelation is in fact much broader than that. Let’s have a look at the relevant dialogue:

“SHERLOCK: They’re always poor… and lonely, and strange. But those are only the ones we catch.
WIGGINS: Who do we catch?
SHERLOCK: Serial killers. What if you were rich and… powerful and necessary. What if… you had the compulsion to kill, and money? What then?”

The real brilliance of this sequence, past the (in practice) obvious reveal that Culverton Smith is the bad guy, is the spectacle of Sherlock having the most elaborate Nick Hurran trip in the show’s vivid history, only to realise something that should be blindingly obvious: that institutional abuses of power are a thing. This should not be a shocking revelation for anyone with half a brain, especially not to a mind as supposedly brilliant as Sherlock’s, and yet it clearly is. Hurran’s direction ramps up accordingly, diving into the almost self-parodic as Sherlock starts walking up the walls at the realisation that, holy shit, if you were rich, and wanted to kill people, no-one could stop you! That Sherlock could be so ostentatiously brilliant, and yet so utterly lacking in awareness of how the world works, is a pretty damning assessment, but it’s not more than a restatement of what we already know about the character. Sherlock Holmes is a bohemian aristocrat, so rich in leisure time that he gets involved in adventures from the comfort of his flat in central London (that he can hold such a place without an actual job is telling in itself). Sherlock is the ultimate oblivious posh boy. Of course he’s going to be blindsided by the idea that the rich and privileged could abuse their power. (Note the choice of Wiggins as Sherlock’s foil in this scene, the most unambiguously working class member of Sherlock’s supporting cast, whose reaction to Sherlock’s babbling is largely elided).

This, like the treatment of the Twelfth Doctor in his final series, is a pretty brave decision for Steven Moffat to take. The admission that your hero is fatally flawed and myopic does rather raise the question of why the audience should continue following their adventures. In Doctor Who, the answer is ‘because the hero can change, along with the entire creative team.’ For Sherlock, that answer is off the table. Once you have reached the fundamental limits of the character (and ‘he is a member of the same institutional hierarchy that enables and facilitates systematic abuse’ is a pretty fundamental limit) there is little more to do except abandon him in his stupid little crime-solving cul-de-sac. As Mary Watson says, we are done with having the world explained to us by a man. This, then, is the true brilliance of The Lying Detective. The story so good it killed off Sherlock forever. It’s a surprise Hbomberguy didn’t like it more, really.

Twelve Must Die

This article first appeared on DoWntime in November 2017.

Part One: The Doctor Fails

There is a leftist critique to be made of transhumanism, that its entire ideology/aesthetic boils down to a declaration that the operations of capitalism work so perfectly that they ought to be applied to the human body itself. That the human race’s perfect realisation is not as squishy bags of meat and hormones, but as machinery; as capital itself.

The political implications of this reading are, to say the least, horrifying. Not least because the idea of human beings as capital has some obvious parallels in the history of European and American race relations. The small but significant overlap between transhumanist thought and neoreactionism is chilling in its implications, to say nothing of reactionary internet subcultures’ love/hate relationship with the idea of female sex robots.

To put it bluntly, transhumanist visions of the future, or at least the most visible ones, are not built by or for people like Bill Potts. We’re already seeing the effects of this in the real world — concerns about algorithmically-generated redlining, facial recognition software that can’t handle black faces — systems built by and for the privileged, who are usually not actively malicious, but who create systems which crush people underfoot, almost incidentally.

All these conversations affect how we read Bill’s fate in World Enough and Time (surely the most gruesome thing to happen to any companion in the new series). Chris Farnell has written about the brilliance of making the Cybermen an ideology, and their applicability to the concerns of transhumanism makes them a very savvy pick for a story about a black woman being torn apart and reassembled by uncaring artificial intelligences. All told, it’s probably a more mature and thought-through deployment of the Cybermen than the pseudo-Cyberpunk of Dark Water/Death In Heaven, with its “Cybermen from Cyberspace.”

(The other famous Cybermen story to gesture at transhumanism, Grant Morrison and John Ridgway’s comic The World Shapers, is amusingly name-checked in The Doctor Falls, with reference to the Cybermen arising on both Planet 14 and Marinus, whose native Voord became what we now know as the Cybermen. I like to think David Banks is from there, personally).

But while the story is upfront about the horrors Bill is subjected to, it largely does not allow us to wallow in them. This is probably for the best, and the story displays a clever subtlety in its use of details. The ‘tears’ motif is genuinely moving, and Elizabeth Sandifer has already pointed out the political bite of the moment where a panicking white woman shoots Bill, unthinkingly, the othered body a source of instinctive fear.

All the same, there’s a degree of cynicism in killing off Bill this way. I joked at the time that the episode was a limit case for the Capaldi era as ‘Saward done right.’ Moffat gets the cynicism, the body horror, the political commentary note-perfect, but there’s a sense in which World Enough and Time amounts to an elaborate excuse to have Peter Capaldi exclaim “a Mondasian Cyberman!”

(Note the continuation of a key Moffat era theme — the inability of the Doctor to see his companions and vice versa. The Doctor doesn’t see his friend Bill, instead he sees “a Mondasian Cyberman!” More subtle, but altogether more heartbreaking, is his inability to make eye contact with Bill throughout The Doctor Falls.)

Indeed, there’s a degree of cynicism even in the episode’s means of getting there. Andrew Ellard points out the silly time-wasting of the Doctor’s explanation on the bridge when “they could be having this conversation in the lift.” This may look like slack plotting on Moffat’s part, and in fact the lack of anything substantial for the Doctor (or Bill for that matter) to do is one the episode’s main flaws.

But take a step back here. World Enough and Time is a story about the Doctor’s companion having her life torn apart by an uncaring ideology, propagated by a brilliant but malevolent systems engineer, and the Doctor fails to save her because he is too busy explaining how black holes work.

One way to read this is as a stinging critique of the demand for ‘hard SF’ Doctor Who. The need for the Doctor to deliver a science lecture literally destroys the show’s potential for human drama, converting the show’s one human character into an unfeeling machine.

But the more productive reading, I think, is as a critique of the Doctor himself. In the wake of recent casting decisions, there was some discussion of the Doctor as filling a needed space for an ‘alternative masculinity’ in children’s media. Some versions of this argument posited that the Doctor’s role as a knowledgeable explainer provided a positive vision of masculinity as studious and technically-minded rather than simply aggressive, and that this was an important quality for young boys to aspire to.

The problem with this argument (other than the by-now clichéd response of ‘why can’t they learn those qualities from a woman as well?’) is that the vision of masculinity as clever genius is already well-established, and, more to the point, just as potentially damaging a role model as the violent action man.

The hackneyed comparison here would probably be Rick from Rick and Morty, but the general image of the white man rationally explaining the universe to everyone around him is potentially toxic in itself, given its resemblance to, say, the privileged engineers and software developers who fail to think through the social implications of their world-altering technology. More broadly, being knowledgeable and technically-minded will only get you so far if you refuse to listen to perspectives other than your own.

This gets especially troubling when we consider how this vision of the Doctor interacts with his largely young and female companions. World Enough and Time is in many ways a reiteration of a basic Moffat-era plot. Bill is the girl so devoted to the Doctor that she tolerates a world of demons for his angelic sake. She waits for him, her femininity coinciding with, if not explicitly causing, her subordinate role in the story.

It’s a reiteration of that basic structure, but it also turns on that structure in its own resolution. Some might call it a narrative collapse; I prefer to think of it as narrative detonation, the final explosion of a bomb that the Doctor has, until now, largely been able to defuse. A final, most extreme iteration of a formula, which conclusively demonstrates it is time to move on.

Your friend Bill was just
Another girl who waited.
And you took too long.

And so, having gotten a young black woman killed, implicitly because of his own masculinity, we can finally turn to the Doctor himself. I say that in full knowledge that I’ve spent a lot of this piece on him already, but it’s here that I want to make my definitive statement for this mini-series of essays. Consider this your episode one cliffhanger, if you will.

This is not a story about the Genesis of the Cybermen. It’s not even, really, a story about Bill.

It is a story about why the Twelfth Doctor deserves to die.

*

Part Two: Sit Down and Talk

“MISSY: Exciting, isn’t it? Watching the Cybermen getting started.
DOCTOR: They always get started. They happen everywhere there’s people. Mondas, Telos, Earth, Planet 14, Marinus. Like sewage and smartphones and Donald Trump, some things are just inevitable.”

— Steven Moffat, The Doctor Falls

“Cyber is the future.”

— Donald Trump

I’ll say this up front, because I think it’s important: to argue that Donald Trump was somehow inevitable is very, very stupid.

Trump’s rise to power was not some inexorable process of nature. It was the result of conscious decisions, made by several people, over a number of years. To look at that sequence of events and see liberal democracy as Calvinistically predetermined towards fascism is politically naive and, more to the point, leaves an incalculable number of guilty fuckers off the hook.

Why, then, does the Doctor say it? Elsewhere in the same scene he demonstrates a genuine political savvy — “always read the comments, because one day they’ll be an army!” — yet it does not seem to have occurred to him to prevent said army from organising, or indeed to design a comments section such that genocidal armies cannot be fermented within it. 

A reasonable defence is that he’s panicking. Certainly Capaldi plays the scene with an arresting desperation. The Doctor is scared, angry, powerless, yet defiantly brilliant in the face of it. The scene itself is the Capaldi era in microcosm — three brilliant actors having discussions about continuity (Harold and Missy’s conversation amounts to a comparison of Lists of Regeneration Stories) which also manages to be a dark and effective confrontation with the weird.

This should also put paid to the tedious objection that I ‘hate’ Peter Capaldi, or his Doctor, or indeed Steven Moffat. This scene is strange, atmospheric, cathartic, and horrifying. Talalay’s direction is controlled yet nightmarish, and Capaldi conveys heartbreak like no other Doctor can.

What he can’t do, it seems, is save the day here. Harold makes explicit what was a (frankly too deep) subtext in part one — the Doctor was so busy “chatting” that he allowed the whole situation to go, almost literally, to hell. It’s hard not to see this as indicative of a wider problem. Put simply, the Twelfth Doctor is deeply politically naive, and in a way that his era has encouraged us to notice.

The Twelfth Doctor, almost always, is on the side of justice. He fights the suits, he humiliates testosterone Vikings, he punches the odd racist. He also galvanises other people to fight, and refuses to view anyone as irredeemable. This has mixed results with Missy and Davros, but one of his unquestioned moral victories is getting Lady Me to care about the people standing in front of her. He is, in some sense, an agent of empathy.

He believes, in other words, that all we really need to do is sit down and talk. That irrationalities, on all sides, can be set aside. That we just need to have a calm, grown-up conversation, and we can devise a solution that works for everyone.

The Twelfth Doctor is fully cognisant of the horrors caused by an unjust system. He is sincere, and even effective, in his efforts to fight them. But he is fundamentally committed to the system that allows them to happen in the first place. The Doctor’s insistence on viewing all people on an equal footing allows him to disregard, or overlook, the context of a given situation.

That’s why he screams at people to Sit Down And Talk with their oppressors. That’s why he withholds his services from three panicking women on a decision that could be catastrophic. That’s why he spends months collaborating with a fascist regime to ‘teach a lesson’ to his black female student. The Twelfth Doctor is committed to abstract principles — diplomacy, free will, rational action — good principles. But while those principles motivate his best interventions, they also allow him to ignore political realities. To ignore that one’s oppressors will not sit down and talk without a fight. To ignore that a fixation on personal responsibility means leaving others to suffer when it’s in your power to help. To ignore, ultimately, that the lives of others matter more than abstracted principles.

He looks at political crises, and he can’t see the people involved. More bluntly, he can’t see when he’s hurting them. This, then, is the most damning thing we can say about him. Forget the Hybrid; the Twelfth Doctor was a liberal all along.

This may not sound like a bad thing to be, and, in a real sense, it isn’t. Certainly it’s better than some of the alternatives. But it was a liberal system that enabled Donald Trump, and Brexit, and Le Pen, and Farage, and all the damage they have caused and continue to cause; a passive liberalism, so committed to abstract processes that it refused to intervene as they were visibly perverted. And then it pleaded innocence, or worse, ignorance, of how such a thing was even possible. We had plenty of opportunities to stop Donald Trump. But we didn’t. Because the process was more important. Or rather, the process was a kind of faith-object, self-evidently pure, without the need for active intervention. And here we are now, clinging to the hope that a brilliant white man might still fiddle with the system ever so slightly, and somehow save us from the metal men marching ever closer. The Twelfth Doctor is not a good man. He’s A Good Man In A Broken System. And that’s why he has to die.

*

Part Three: A Man Who Never Would

Not counting Colin Baker, there is only one other Doctor whose moral failing is flagged so explicitly in a way that suggests he has outlived his usefulness. That Doctor, of course, is David Tennant. Like Capaldi, he has a single moment which demonstrates his moral bankruptcy, after which the audience, on some level, is rooting for him to die.

For Tennant, it comes in The End of Time Part Two, in his conversation with Wilf on the deck of a silent starship, Wilf asks the Doctor a question, whose answer will determine the rest of the story:

“WILF: If the Master dies, what happens to all the people?”

At first, the Doctor is evasive:

“DOCTOR: I don’t know. 
WILF: Doctor, what happens?”

But finally, he answers:

“DOCTOR: The template snaps. 
WILF: What, they go back to being human? They’re alive, and human?”

We learn the Doctor has the power to save everyone on Earth, if he only has the strength to kill a genocidal monster. And it’s not like killing is a fresh evil for this Doctor – he has already (torturously) told us that “I’ve taken lives. I got worse, I got clever. Manipulated people into taking their own.” It is in the Tenth Doctor’s power to save the lives of everyone on Earth, and, presumably, his own. Wilf begs for the life of his species:

“Don’t you dare, sir. Don’t you dare put him before them. Now you take this. That’s an order, Doctor. Take the gun. You take the gun and save your life. And please don’t die. You’re the most wonderful man and I don’t want you to die.”

And the Doctor’s answer?

“Never.”

It is at this point, morally if not literally, that the Tenth Doctor’s fate is sealed. His arrogance and sanctimoniousness reaches its natural, awful conclusion, as he refuses to save the world at the cost of getting his own hands dirty. At this point the audience is entirely justified in saying ‘to hell with you,’ and the Master backs this up, throwing the Doctor’s most egregious saviour speech back in his face: “You never would, you coward.” If we understand the Doctor as Never Cruel or Cowardly, then this is not just the point where we realise Ten deserves to die; it’s the point where the Tenth Doctor, as a character, ceases to exist.

Whether this works as drama is debatable — certainly its impact is muted by the fact that we’ve seen the Tenth Doctor go too far at least twice before now, at one point even helpfully exclaiming “I’ve gone too far” in case we missed it. But Davies is emphatic in laying out the case that “a Time Lord lives too long” — that it is time for Tennant’s Doctor to go, whether he wants to or not.

Which makes it all the more remarkable that Capaldi’s equivalent scene is comparatively mild.

To skip the poetic mise-en-scène, Capaldi’s moment comes in Series 10, Episode 1 – the pilot of a series subsumed by the future a year before broadcast. The Doctor is trying to convince Bill that staying on Earth, in her mundane, exploitative little life, is preferable to all of time and space with Heather. And what does he say?

“You have to let go! She’s not human any more!”

To which the obvious answer is ‘So?’ Since when has humanity been a limit on the Doctor’s empathy, or love?

Except, for the Twelfth Doctor, it clearly is. This gestures at larger political questions, particularly pertinent to science fiction, about who does and doesn’t ‘get to be people,’ to quote N.K. Jemisin. Certainly it’s worth noting that the Twelfth Doctor’s most conspicuous failings involve being horribly patronising to women, people of colour, Zygons — the one language he conspicuously fails to speak is British Sign. This scene, then, constitutes an admission of something we have always known about the Twelfth Doctor — that his empathy, as bright and vital as it is, only goes so far. The Twelfth Doctor strong, passionate, sincere, and effective — and it’s not enough.

Which is why Heather’s appearance at the end of The Doctor Falls is so vital, as abrupt and jarring as it appears at first. This abruptness was a source of contention at the time, with many arguing that she ought to have appeared, or at least been mentioned, at some point in the eleven weeks between her first and second appearance.

But to argue this is to miss the point. There is no room, in Twelve’s worldview, for a figure like Heather — in a sense the Doctor has to die before she can be allowed to assert herself. Certainly an old man listing off Cyberman continuity before finally falling, with an admission of “time enough,” to make way for a time-travelling lesbian has some pleasant serendipity given the later announcement of his successor. I wrote at the time that Series 10 was a story about the Doctor showing us how to be more than human. In retrospect, I was wrong. Series 10 is a story about the Doctor desperately clinging to a vision of humanity that is flawed and past its prime, only to be saved by a better alternative.

In a wasteland created by patriarchal, industrialised monsters, the story’s ending is remarkably queer. Part of this is the usual libidinousness of Moffat’s writing — the appearance of Heather as soaking wet, despite her stated ability to appear however she likes, is surely the last great instance of Moffat hiding smuttiness in plain sight. But more broadly, for Moffat to send a second companion off to explore the universe with a new girlfriend cements an admirable pattern in his writing, of the association of sexual freedom with a more general freedom. ‘No freedom without sexual freedom’ is pretty good, as social justice messages go, and as Elizabeth Sandifer points out, Moffat is absolutely correct in identifying the aesthetic of Doctor Who in 2017 as “magical space lesbians.”

Except he doesn’t quite do that, does he? Like Clara and Ashildr before them, Bill and Heather are offered as a happy ending, with the implication of future adventures together. But we cannot actually see those adventures — instead we have to stay with the Doctor, even as Bill saves him through the healing power of unrepressed sexuality. This gets at a larger problem with the Capaldi era, and indeed the Smith era, which is the Imperfect Feminism of Steven Moffat.

Moffat can identify queerness as a source of redemption for the Doctor. He can identify ‘magic space lesbians’ as the correct aesthetic for Doctor Who (twice!). But he can’t actually give us a show about magic space lesbians. He can make the case for a female Doctor, aggressively and wittily, but he can’t actually follow through and cast one. He can only hope for an all-girl future; he never takes the final step in setting out to build one. The Moffat era offered genuine progress. But it was only ever incremental progress.

*

Part Four: Unlucky For Some

This argument, like so many others, is more than likely to run aground on the hard rocks of the future.

Looking at Chris Chibnall’s CV, his track record on the show, and the announcements both before and after the casting of Jodie Whittaker, it looks like Series 11 of Doctor Who is shaping up to be pretty mediocre television. Well-made mediocre television, to be sure, and with a promising set of actors in the leading roles, but mediocre all the same. I sincerely hope to be eating these words a year from now, but looking at Chibnall’s work, even as recently as Broadchurch Series 3, I just don’t see the potential for an exciting new vision of Doctor Who (not least because his stated ambition is to basically cross that with bloody Stranger Things).

But for all that Chibnall’s Doctor Who is likely to be less interesting than Moffat’s, there’s no denying that it’s made a decisive stride in the right direction, even before we’ve heard a line of dialogue. The casting of Jodie Whittaker alone is enough to make Chibnall a worthy successor, in that it clearly fulfils an ideological promise Moffat constantly made but never delivered.

In the absence of anything at all to go on about Chibnall’s Who, Broadchurch Series 3 must serve as our nearest test case for what Series 11 of Doctor Who might be like. It’s a deeply flawed piece in many, many ways. The pacing, particularly in the middle episodes, is glacial, with important plot beats more than once sidelined or communicated unclearly. The dialogue ranges from the competent to the wildly embarrassing, with the line “pull over before I smack you hard” sticking out in particular. For every well-handled, sensitive scene there is at least one that feels like an “Issues” episode of Grange Hill.

But while it occasionally flubs the Screenwriting 101 stuff, it’s hard not to see Broadchurch Series 3 as worthwhile, important television, in a way Moffat’s Doctor Who has never really managed to be. For those who don’t know, Broadchurch Series 3 is about rape. Episode 1 opens with Julie Hesmondhalgh reporting the crime to the police, specifically David Tennant and Olivia Colman, who then guide her through a visit to a SARC and the initial steps towards processing what has happened. It’s honest, brutal, and exactly what TV drama in 2017 should be.

Throughout the series, the characters grapple with toxic masculinity, stalking, and male entitlement — all themes Moffat has covered to some extent as well. But Chibnall is willing to take the gloves off in a way Moffat never quite does. To be fair, this is partly because he is writing for a post-watershed slot on ITV rather than a primetime family slot on BBC One. Nonetheless, there are differences beyond the superficial — Chibnall is far less indulgent of the ‘bumbling male’ stereotype that Moffat uses for both Eleven and Twelve, which in practice can serve as cover for abuse, and he never comes close to the ‘stalking as romance’ trope that plagued the Smith era in particular. He also makes a point of centring the experiences of Hesmondhalgh’s character, rather than focusing entirely on the detectives’ investigation.

The other notable thing about Broadchurch series 3 is, in hindsight, the most obvious; Jodie Whittaker is in it. Specifically, she is in it as a counsellor, helping Hesmondhalgh’s character to process her trauma. The series is open, and at times uncomfortable, about the relationship between their characters, with long scenes of Whittaker trying, failing, and trying again to talk to Hesmondhalgh’s character, doing the real and difficult work of helping a traumatised person to heal.

If you want evidence that Chibnall is, in some sense, committed to progressive drama, there is little better evidence than the fact he looked at Whittaker’s performance of this character, and decided she was Doctor material.

This, then, is our final point. No matter how middling the future might look, a female Doctor is material social progress. It matters that the most clever, wonderful, flawed person in the universe is now a woman. In the political context, a female Doctor means something that a brilliant white man shouting at the oppressed simply doesn’t. And certainly the presence of the rainbow motif (and the fact that she appears to have raided Bill’s wardrobe) is a good sign that the future is a little less straight than we might have feared. Chris Chibnall looks set to build on the work done by Moffat; I dearly hope he has learned Moffat’s most important lesson, flawed and muddled as its delivery may have been.

Whatever the Doctor is now, we can be sure she won’t be human.

My Immortal: A Case for the Defence

This article first appeared in The Quibbler fanzine in April 2017. It was written before J.K. Rowling’s transphobia had come to light, and suffice to say I would be a lot less reverent of the original text if I had written it today. My admiration for My Immortal, however, remains undimmed.

Some have called it the Worst Fanfic Ever. Some have called it “a constant millstone around the necks of fanfiction enthusiasts.” Some have called it the ultimate Mary Sue. Whatever the precise terms, My Immortal is generally agreed upon as one of the worst-written stories in human history.

All of these people are wrong. Because My Immortal is the best thing the Harry Potter universe has ever produced.

There are many defences to be made of Tara Gilesbie’s, AKA XXbloodyrists666XXX’s, misspelled, free-associative masterpiece. I could defend it as the touchstone of a million awkward kids who went through their emo phase at the time it came out. I could argue that it has generated some of the finest memes to come out of the fanfiction community. I could even steal a line from Mathilda Gregory, and point out its iconic status in Harry Potter fandom, especially in relation to the ‘Mary Sue’ label (tl;dr, it’s a load of sexist bullshit). But instead, I’m going to put my English degree to some use for once, and argue that it is the most textually complex, even erudite work to come from the Harry Potter universe, up to and including the original books. Sure, Alfred Tennyson and Charles Dickens turn up in Harry Potter with relative frequency, but My Immortal‘s frame of reference is broad enough to include Socrates, J.R.R. Tolkien, and Evanescence. Even if you don’t like the underlying work, it’s rare to find a Potter artefact of such semiotic thickness.

The first and most obvious defence of My Immortal is that it’s funny. And not funny in a post-ironic, so-bad-it’s-good, Sharknado sort of way, but in a way that demonstrates genuine skill and dexterity with words. Here are a random selection of lines from My Immortal — read them, and tell me with a straight face that they are not crafted by an author who knows exactly what they are doing:

“Why did you do such a thing, you mediocre dunces?”

“‘Hi Vampire.’ I said flirtily as I started to sob.”

“We went sexily to Potionz class. But Snap wasn’t there. Instead there was…………………………………………Cornelio Fuck!11111”

“‘Why couldn’t Satan have made me less beautiful?’ I shouted angrily.”

“‘STOP IT NOW YOU HORNY SIMPLETONS!’ shouted Professor McGoggle who was watching us and so was everyone else.”

These lines are not only quotable (perhaps I should say memeable), they demonstrate careful attention to detail. None of them would work if they were not so precisely cadenced, with ellipses and other punctuation enforcing a particular pace, and strategic use of misspellings and block capitals for comic effect. Any idiot can write badly and claim it’s bad enough to be good. But it takes real skill to write prose so good it’s mistaken for bad.

This gets at another important point about My Immortal; it’s way more literary than people give it credit for. It fits comfortably within multiple aesthetic traditions, most obviously the history of literary parody. Here’s a passage from Henry Fielding’s Shamela, a parody of Samuel Richardson’s immensely popular novel Pamela:

“Pamela, says he, (for so I am called here) you was a great Favourite of your late Mistress’s; yes, an’t please your Honour; says I; and I believe you deserved it, says he; thank your Honour for your good Opinion, says I; and then he took me by the Hand, and I pretended to be shy: Laud, says I, Sir, I hope you don’t intend to be rude; no, says he, my Dear, and then he kissed me, ’till he took away my breath——and I pretended to be Angry, and to get away, and then he kissed me again, and breathed very short, and looked very silly; and by Ill-Luck Mrs. Jervis came in, and had like to have spoiled Sport.——How troublesome is such Interruption!”

And here is a passage from My Immortal:

“And then…………… suddenly just as I Draco kissed me passionately. Draco climbed on top of me and we started to make out keenly against a tree. He took of my top and I took of his clothes. I even took of my bra. Then he put his thingie into my you-know-what and we did it for the first time.

‘Oh! Oh! Oh!’ I screamed. I was beginning to get an orgasm. We started to kiss everywhere and my pale body became all warm. And then….

‘WHAT THE HELL ARE YOU DOING YOU MOTHERFUKERS!’

It was…………………………………………………….Dumbledore!”

The similarities should be obvious. Here we see the same techniques being used about three hundred years apart, but Gilesbie’s effort is, if anything, better than Fielding’s, with more inventive typography and a much stronger punchline. Both are derivative works transforming the original for comedic intent. Both make use of stilted, unrealistic dialogue and deadpan narration. So why is one a landmark piece of satire and the other a laughing stock?

This is far from the only tradition drawn upon, of course. The time-loop shenanigans of the later chapters feel like nothing short of Finnegans Wake, and the appearance of Tom Bombodil offers the intriguing idea of a crossover between Harry Potter and The Lord of the Rings. But given the popularity of dramatic readings of My Immortal, the most sensible comparison is to the oral tradition. Tumblr user ta-ether has already made links between My Immortal and The Iliad. In both cases, “we only know a little about the author(s)” and “the originals are now lost.” Both feature “long and loving descriptions, especially of clothes,” a trait they share with old English epics like Beowulf.

But absent the English student stuff, My Immortal is best understood as an oral epic because it’s just really fun to read aloud with friends. The odd sentence structure, the enforced pauses, the coarseness of much of the language, all of these are flattered by the oral medium, while they can get a little too dense on the page. In that regard, My Immortal is the ideal text of Harry Potter fandom; a story which reinforces community as much as it parodies it, bringing joy and laughter to the basic act of sharing a ridiculous story about wizards with the people you care about. And that, frankly, is all the defence a Potter story needs.

Or, in the author’s words, OMG StOP flamin you fuckin prepzz!!111!!

A Family Failing: John Finnemore’s Souvenir Programme, Series 9

2.
In November 2020, John Finnemore became only the fourth person in history to solve the legendary puzzle-novel Cain’s Jawbone. Written by cryptic crossword designer Edward Powys Mathers and published in 1934, the book is a murder mystery whose 100 pages are presented out of order. The reader is tasked with putting the pages in the correct order and ‘solving’ the book. After falling into obscurity for over half a century, the novel was re-issued by the Laurence Sterne Trust in collaboration with Unbound, with Finnemore being the only one of the twelve entrants to solve its mystery. It must have been a splendid lockdown activity.

While autobiographical readings are largely a mug’s game, it is hard not to read the ninth series of Souvenir Programme in light of Cain’s Jawbone. It is, after all, a set of non-chronological scenes which invites the listener to connect the dots across space and time to assemble a coherent narrative. It also has its fair share of mysteries, albeit they are framed not around murder so much as an inextinguishable cosmic niceness. While the first listen has satisfying answers to questions like ‘who are Vanessa’s biological parents?’ and ‘why do they tear up the paper hats?’ subsequent listens are characterised by light showers of recognition. ‘Oh that’s why Russ said “half a glass” to the bully!’ ‘oh that’s why Uncle Newt said these old things are very resilient.’ But even here there are new surprises; ‘wait, is that dinner guest the actual M.R. James?’ And so the listener is pulled back in, the story reasserting itself like an old tune that sticks in the brain for generations.

But while the structural similarities are obvious (and it would be no surprise to learn Finnemore worked on both at the same time), the more fruitful detail may be the involvement of the Laurence Sterne Trust. There is a deep similarity between Finnemore and Sterne, and not just because they are both catnip to a certain kind of middle-class English student. Patrick Wildgust said of Cain’s Jawbone that “My hopes were that people who enjoyed Tristram Shandy might enjoy a game of glorious disorder, tortuous puns, and spoonerisms.” It would be hard to think of a more appropriate description of Finnemore’s usual style. Indeed, as a work of playful non-linearity, bathed in sentiment but shot through with unpredictability and occasional, brutal pathos, series nine of Souvenir Programme stands as a truly Shandean production.

4.
The scene of Jerry’s rejection by the record producer is worth returning to, as it encapsulates so many of the series’ themes. The most obvious of these is failure. Jerry is the classic wannabe creative; keen but amateurish, overconfident in his own originality. The record producer shoots down his “biting” satire of complacent elders with the phrase “Snag’s the war, of course,” pointing out that the people he’s attacking also defeated fascism.

This is one of two attempts by Jerry to ‘go professional’ over the course of the series, the second being an attempted advertising jingle which is rejected due to copyright issues. By this second rejection, Jerry has grown a thicker skin, writing off the experience with a shrug of “Oh well, I had fun.” The rest of his performances are for his family only; part of growing up, for Jerry, is living with the fact he can’t make a living at what he likes doing. This recalls a memorable scene from Cabin Pressure, in which Martin, an unpaid pilot, commiserates with an aspiring actor, both of them sharing the frustration that there is one thing they are good at and nobody will “let” them do it. Jerry is similarly a failure, but there is no bitterness to him. He is perfectly happy writing poems for family functions and entertaining his children. Failure hasn’t stopped him from enjoying his life or his creativity.

But the scene with the record producer is further enlivened by a delicious irony; the record producer is wrong. Perhaps not wrong to reject Jerry’s callow songwriting efforts, but wrong about Jerry himself. The producer admits that his war was mostly spent “sending forms to farmers,” whereas we know that the doggerel poems Jerry was writing for Uncle Newt were actually codes used by the Special Operations Executive. Jerry actually contributed more to the war effort than he did. What’s more, the amateurishness of his writing made him better, not worse, at it. The producer notes the predictability of Jerry’s rhyme of ‘lives’ with ‘wives,’ but the poems were required to be “highly memorable” for use in the field. The very skills which allowed Jerry to help the Allies win the war are now working against him in the peace. Who says he can’t connect with the older generation?

1.
In truth, it had been getting stale. The seventh and eighth series of John Finnemore’s Souvenir Programme were delightful streams of whimsy and imaginative gags… just like all the previous ones. The show was now a well-oiled machine, but the novelty had long since worn off. On top of the basic disappointment of ‘more of the same,’ Finnemore had developed a few noticeable crutches. Jokes about the cast’s desires to do other things, and Finnemore’s tendency to ‘go all meta,’ were wearing thin. The nadir came in the sixth episode of the seventh series, which featured a literal self-parody. “It’s John Finnemore’s cosy warm bath of gentle whimsy!” shouted Margaret Cabourn-Smith. Simon Kane wondered aloud, “Are you worried that by attempting to parody your own show you’re reaching depths of self-indulgence that could be actually fatal?” “No,” came the reply, but it was hard to disagree with the auto-critique. Something had to change.

And so, faced with the challenge of recording amid coronavirus and with no studio audience, on top of the basic difficulty of keeping any show compelling in its ninth series, Finnemore rose to the occasion. The ninth series of John Finnemore’s Souvenir Programme abandons the previous format in favour of an elaborate non-linear family saga, with most episodes following a single character’s life story in reverse, structured as a series of vignettes so the whole thing is still paced like a sketch show. This is a maddeningly ambitious conceit, of the type that would send many producers running screaming, and it is a testament to the sheer amount of goodwill Finnemore has built up that he was allowed to get away with it. In lesser hands this might have felt pretentious or ill-advised, and there are certainly moments in the finished product where its reach exceeds its grasp. But the bravery involved in trying it at all is to be commended, before we even get to the fact that the ninth series of John Finnemore’s Souvenir Programme is one of the most charming and inventive things Radio 4 has ever broadcast.

3.
Of course, that’s not the only literary inspiration on offer. Finnemore himself has cast the series as an attempt to prove Tolstoy wrong in his assertion that “All happy families are alike.” A more recent antecedent is Cloud Atlas, another epic told in six interlocking episodes, its various heroes and villains all played by the same handful of actors (in the movie version, at least). Like in that story, we hear culture mutate, evolve, and become unrecognisable. We understand the endless decay of our bodies and our work. And most importantly, we know of the failures before we encounter the attempts, the events bound up in a curious symmetry. Jerry is encouraged to write poems by his kindly uncle, and later rejected by a record producer; both are played by the same actor. But as in that extraordinary book, the failure in no way diminishes the attempt.

Although, in some ways this comparison highlights the programme’s shortcomings. To even attempt Cloud Atlas on film required a number of immensely skilled actors, as well as hair, make-up, and costume departments willing to completely go to town. Souvenir Programme has five actors who up to now have handled a fairly conventional sketch show. Five very good actors, to be clear, but there are times when one feels the strain. Scenes featuring child versions of the characters can get a bit cloying, and the profusion of accents these actors have elsewhere used for one-off stock characters can occasionally feel jarring. Still, Souvenir Programme doesn’t stoop to using yellowface, so we can probably call it a draw.

6.
But as fun as Finnemore’s elaborate structural games are, the show also has the power to sum up its entire modus operandi in a single, breathtaking line. My favourite of these comes when Gally, a closeted lesbian in 1915, tries to ascertain whether her brother Newt is also gay: “I thought perhaps we shared a family failing.” Those three words, ‘a family failing,’ might be the subtitle of the entire series. On one level, the whole narrative is a mystery about why Russ fails to remember the right words to ‘A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square.’ Failures of memory, of communication, of preservation reverberate through these six episodes, yet familial bonds remain intact, a solid shelter from the storm of history. A family, failing.

And Gally herself is mistaken in this scene, although once again there is a rightness hidden in a character’s wrongness. Newt is not gay, as she suspects, but asexual. He states that “I don’t have the least use for the whole silly business… Leaves me entirely cold.” He and Gally do share a familial queerness, just not the type she was expecting. And in the time and place they live, it certainly would have been viewed as a failing. But the ‘family’ part comes into play too; Gally is asking Newt to conceive a child with her partner, as the “closest possible thing” to the two having a biological child together. And Newt agrees. Not only is one of the show’s heroes an asexual man, rare enough in mainstream comedy, the show makes a point of depicting an LGBTQIA+ family at the start of the twentieth century as well as one at the start of the twenty-first. This alone would be an unambiguous good, but that the result is as moving and compelling as it is takes the whole thing into the realm of the transcendent.  

Well, since you ask me for a distillation of familial love…

5.
Even more noticeable, however, is how much the song sounds like ‘Shangri-La’ by The Kinks. The idea that Jerry is just a few years ahead of his time adds a further tragicomic note, albeit complicated by the fact ‘Shangri-La’ flopped as a single. More broadly, it opens up another work with which the series shares cultural DNA, namely the album Arthur (Or the Decline and Fall of the British Empire). Like that album, the series presents an anxious middle class view of roughly a century of British history, encompassing the World Wars and the upheavals of the 1950s and 60s. Like that album, the programme is characterised by a kind of wistful humour, albeit Finnemore is rather more sympathetic and his characters less neurotic.

But the greatest symmetry is in the two works’ closing moments; that sense of togetherness and validation. That all the sacrifice and hard work was worth it, not because it let us get comfortable, but because of the joy it created. And still creates. Somebody loves you, don’t you know it?

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Review: Absorbed by Kylie Whitehead

Content Warning: Discussion of mental health issues, misogyny, and gender dysphoria.

Absorbed is an unsettling book. More importantly, it is an unsettled book. Kylie Whitehead’s strange and memorable debut feints at many things; millennial ennui, ghost story, folk horror, even time travel. But at its core is a painful and richly detailed study of the anxieties of embodiment. The novel trades heavily on ambiguity and estrangement, capturing the feverish, self-reflexive energy of being in your 20s as the millennium reaches its own far more powerfully than the Rooneys and Waller-Bridges of the world. It’s an intriguing story which consumes and complicates all potential interpretations, subsuming them into a greater and more uncanny whole.

Allison and Owen have been together for ten years. She’s a council worker who gave up on her half-serious dreams of being a writer years ago. He’s a moderately successful freelance designer who’s on his way up in the world. Owen is the most important thing in Allison’s life, yet at the same time she resents him, disliking his colleagues and on some level wanting to be him. When the two attend a New Year’s Eve party at his hip workspace, Allison finds herself desperately thinking “Please don’t leave me.” And sure enough, he doesn’t. When the two return to their hotel room and start having sex, Allison absorbs him:

“I was grinding onto him, pressing my face into his, when I began to feel that I was sinking. It is finally happening, I remember thinking, we are becoming one. I wasn’t scared, but Owen was.”

This is the novel’s central conceit, and it remains pleasingly unexplained even as it perseverates over the rest of its length. Post-absorption, Allison finds herself taking on some of Owen’s characteristics, feeling kinder towards the people he liked, planning to leave the job he had always told her to quit. Yet while Owen is inside Allison, he is also outside her. Objects begin moving around their once-shared flat of their own accord, and Allison’s narration begins to hint at something more supernatural: “For the first time in my life, I possessed love. I was possessed by love.”

We also learn more about Allison’s own history, and her disturbing and occluded origins. Allison was adopted at the age of three, after her birth parents were arrested over allegations of satanic rituals and child abuse at the day-care centre they ran. Allison’s adopted mother assures her that “there was no evidence,” but Allison obsessively reads old tabloid coverage of the affair, simultaneously indulging and disavowing their lurid speculations. She wonders if she might really be cursed, if her birth parents’ fate has anything to do with her absorption of Owen. These suspicions develop with the intervention of her new flatmate Odile, an older woman who self-identifies as “essentially a Dianic Wiccan” and performs an occult ritual to release Owen. But the ritual goes wrong (or right?) as Allison begins absorbing more people in the build-up to the novel’s convulsive and ambiguous ending.

Absorbed is a lurchingly ambitious novel, simultaneously intimate and sprawling. But Allison’s inner monologue is Whitehead’s finest achievement. Parts of the book have the wry, self-reflexive coolness characteristic of much writing about The Millennial Experience, yet always with a tangible sense of desperation amid the apathy. While Allison notes that she “always tried to think of my life anecdotally” she points out that this “typically made me realise how little of my daily life was worth sharing.” The book’s early chapters are a distressing and skilful depiction of toxic co-dependence, as Allison self-harms in response to repeated break-ups with Owen. At one point the two visit an art gallery:

“I felt dizzy and my tears blurred the art. All around me sculptures leered, laughing at me. They too knew that I would lose Owen to something he found altogether more beautiful than me. How would he still be able to love me if he found out that I could not see beauty in anything but him?”

The book is a disturbing portrait of self-loathing, which many readers will recognise aspects of their own lives in. But it is never so banal as to be relatable. The central conceit points to many pressing issues facing today’s young (and not-so-young). The absorption (or, to use Allison’s more symbolically freighted term, “consumption”) of Owen points simultaneously to the parasitic nature of romantic love, the effects of gendered power imbalances on relationships, and the harms that can arise from internal narratives about the ones we love. Allison’s distrust and alienation from her own body also suggests a wider political alienation. Allison mentions that while working at the council, “I learned that there was a simple solution to homelessness, and that it just never happened.” It’s a feeling familiar to many young people faced with intractable social and economic problems, which regulate and control our bodies through equally occult if less squidgy processes.

More viscerally, Allison’s body horror connects with feminist discourses about inhabiting a female body in a misogynist society. As her number of absorbees increases, Allison begins to suspect she may be pregnant, and receives mixed and condescending messages from every male medical professional she interacts with. These scenes effectively dramatise the pain and frustration of navigating a sexist medical establishment, and are made all the more uncomfortable by the fact that the doctors clearly don’t trust Allison, and not entirely because she may be a literal demon.

On top of this, there is a definite queerness to Allison’s development. Her obsession with simultaneously having and being Owen invokes a kind of gender dysphoria, and her second victim, Owen’s colleague Helena, is perceived with an obsessive sexual awakening: “I didn’t know if I wanted her to fuck me or mother me; if I wanted to give her everything or take everything that she had.” When the absorption arrives, it is with a real tenderness, and a curious kind of eroticism:

“I absorbed Helena in one smooth movement. It wasn’t like sinking this time. It felt like my body was stepping into another soul. Unlike Owen, Helena was not afraid. She gave herself to me fully, as only a woman can, I suppose.”

That this process is later described as a “transition” adds to the appealingly messy nature of the metaphor. Whitehead allows the book to hover anxiously between all these potential readings, never tipping into rote allegory or easy categorisation, just as Allison never quite settles on an appropriate course of action or way of thinking about her situation, all certainties dissolving with the identities of her victims.

And this, at bottom, is the pleasure of Absorbed. It’s a novel as weird and disordered, as indecisive and beautiful as being a young person in the heart of the anthropocene. It deserves to become a classic of this moment in literature, and should be sought out by anyone seeking the darker unrealities behind the current craze for millennial dysfunction. A tour de force.

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Review: We Are Satellites by Sarah Pinsker

Sarah Pinsker is one of the most exciting writers in science fiction today. Her short fiction — including such titles as ‘Our Lady Of The Open Road,’ ‘Left The Century To Sit Unmoved,’ and ‘And Then There Were N-One’ — blends clever and often fantastical conceits with a deep humanity. Grounded without being cynical, clever without being smug, Pinsker has long since established herself as an important voice in the contemporary US scene. Having won her second Nebula Award for 2019’s accidental coronavirus novel A Song For A New Day, Pinsker’s second novel, We Are Satellites, comes with high expectations. Those expectations are largely met by this thoughtful and engaging book, even if doesn’t quite have the sparkle of some of Pinsker’s previous work.

The novel opens with high school teacher Val noticing a strange blue light on the heads of two students. Soon everyone seems to have the new Pilot device, an implant which allows users to “get more out of their brains,” with the power to concentrate on multiple tasks at once. Val is sceptical, but soon both her son David and her wife Julie have Pilots installed, leaving Val and their epileptic daughter Sophie, ineligible for medical reasons, without the device. The novel tracks the family over roughly a decade; David joins the military and then returns to become a PR rep for the Pilot’s manufacturer, Balkenhol Neural Labs, while Sophie finishes high school and becomes an activist agitating against the company. The narrative is split into three parts, with time jumps enabling Pinsker to show the development of the Pilots from modish fad to smartphone-esque ubiquity. The division of this family of four into those with and without Pilots effectively dramatises “the great divide” of the novel’s imagined future.

And divided it is. The Pilot, being a piece of productivity tech implanted directly into the user’s brain, is a way into multiple pressing subjects. The debate around medical devices, the modern workplace need to be constantly optimising, the accessibility of life-changing surgery, all are present and accounted for. Despite initially being adopted by the rich, the novel is less interested in the Pilots as markers of wealth inequality. We learn that: “There wasn’t even a rich-poor divide since the company covered them for kids unable to afford the procedure; the divide was between approved brains and unapproved brains and degrees of acceptable neurodiversity.” Among the many important questions raised by its subject matter, We Are Satellites is most interested in the dynamics of ableism, and how systems react to those who present an inconvenience.

When David’s Pilot is installed, his senses become swamped by overwhelming detail, described by David as “noise.” He struggles to articulate his sensory overload to his family or to doctors, and when he tries he isn’t taken seriously:

“‘Well, it’s… the best way I can describe it is noise. It’s, like, everything from outside is coming inside at once, but then it’s all fuzzy around the edges, too, like I’m supposed to be paying attention to certain things, but each of those things has sub-things that want attention. Like petting a dog and becoming aware you’re petting every single individual hair, and every flea. And also it’s snowing, so there’s snow on the dog, and every single snowflake is different and wants to show me how different it is.’

‘Whoa.’

‘“Whoa” isn’t a thing you want a doctor to say.'”

David’s experience mirrors that of some neurodivergent people, and is explicitly compared to sensory processing disorder. Pinsker’s prose recreates this sense of dislocation, with overwhelming run-on sentences which struggle into staccato impressions as David attempts to focus. But the doctor’s dismissal is the more pressing concern, both for David and for the book as a whole. As the Pilot makes David’s life harder and harder, his attempts to get it seen to and eventually removed are hindered at every turn, by disbelief and by medical gatekeeping. These are among the novel’s best scenes, as David meets with bad medical practice he nonetheless has no power to counteract. The novel is co-dedicated to “everyone who has ever been disbelieved about their own health,” and these sections resonate powerfully with that particular mixture of frustration, pain, and impotence.

But while the story effectively conveys the tensions thrown up by this new technology, there are some weaknesses in its overall construction. Our four viewpoint characters are all personable and compelling, but there are times where their perspectives start to blur together, particularly in group scenes. There’s a subplot about a spy at Sophie’s activist group that’s far too easy to guess, amounting to a whodunnit with only one suspect. And the book’s pacing suffers from a final third or so in which multiple dramatic events land awkwardly on top of one another.

More broadly, while the novel engages with a number of important social issues, there is an odd parochialism to it. Writing for Locus Magazine, Paul Di Filippo argues that We Are Satellites‘close focus on its central family means “the reader must be prepared for a more microcosmic portrayal of the themes… than might be given in a typical SF novel, where we could eavesdrop on corporate suites, scientists, generals, and other movers and shakers.” The novel’s status as a family saga may rule out a globetrotting conspiracy thriller, but even in that context there is a weird narrowness to its politics. Julie works for a Congressman, but beyond the fact that “She’d never lost any sleep over working for him” we never learn any of his policies or even what party he represents. David spends part of the book as a soldier in active combat, but we never learn where he is or anything about the war he’s fighting. He does notice an enemy combatant with a blue Pilot light, but the Pilots’ impact on countries outside the US is otherwise absent from the novel.

Even the book’s ending, in which David runs for office with the backing of his family to “get answers” from Balkenhol, feels just a little too neat. The novel is savvy enough to not present David’s candidacy as a final victory for the forces of progress. But its focus on electoral politics feels odd given the rightful distrust in institutions David grapples with elsewhere, and its disinterest in wider context is downright baffling for a story about political activism.

But for all its occasionally irritating liberalism, We Are Satellites is an effective and satisfying science fiction novel. Its characters are well-rounded, its scenarios crisply realised, and its moral quandaries compelling. Another draft or two may have smoothed out some of the book’s rougher edges, but the bottom line is that this is another solid win for Sarah Pinsker, which further cements her place as a major talent.

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Review: Victories Greater Than Death by Charlie Jane Anders

Charlie Jane Anders has always subverted expectations. Whether by showing a space revolution going off the rails, creating a genie who is also a theatre critic, or simply writing the sentence “Would Samuel Johnson have let himself feel trapped in a dead-end relationship?” Anders’ work has consistently managed to surprise. Until, that is, her latest novel. Victories Greater Than Death, the first in a new trilogy of young adult space operas, offers a fun and page-turning romp, but does little else with itself. Which, coming from Anders, is admittedly something of a surprise. And while it’s impossible to actively dislike, Victories Greater Than Death does not offer much beyond a serviceable space adventure.

Our protagonist is Tina Mains, a seemingly ordinary Earth girl with an extraordinary secret. She is the clone of intrepid space captain Thaoh Argentian, technologically reincarnated after a fatal battle with would-be dictator Marrant. Once she comes of age, the space beacon implanted in her body activates, and after a quick chase sequence with hostile aliens she is inducted into the Royal Fleet. But when the process to restore her previous self’s memories goes awry, she joins the fleet as a lowly cadet, and must forge her own path while fighting in the war against Marrant’s fascist gang, the Compassion. Joining her is her best friend from Earth, Rachael, and a gang of fellow gifted young human outcasts. Together they learn about the wonders of the universe, the power of good teamwork, and the importance of being yourself, as they search for a powerful artefact and try to stop the bad guys from carrying out a galactic genocide.

So yes, the plot is fairly conventional, but with some welcome updates on old standards. The core team of Earth kids is pointedly multiracial, and the universe they explore is decidedly LGBT-friendly. Everyone in the Royal Fleet introduces themselves along with their pronouns (apart from those aliens who don’t use pronouns at all). Tina herself is diligent about bodily autonomy, never hugging anyone without their consent, and Rachael has an entire subplot about how it feels to be neurodivergent in space. This inclusiveness is an unambiguous good, and many of the book’s positive reviews highlight how refreshing it is to see LGBT people as the heroes of this kind of frothy adventure story, rather than an afterthought.

But as a frothy adventure story, Victories Greater Than Death has its structural problems. There is an almost Chibnallesque profusion of bit players, few of whom are developed enough for their spectacular deaths to have much impact. Even the core Earth team feels underserved; while Tina, Rachael, and Tina’s love interest Elza feel warm and three-dimensional, the others are often reduced to gimmicks. Physics genius Keziah gets a subplot about his aversion to violence which is conveyed almost entirely in rote exposition before becoming a minor component of the final battle. Several other subplots feel underdeveloped, and the book has some overall pacing issues. The characters don’t leave Earth’s orbit until page 110, and once they are out in space the book feels curiously uninterested in its alien planets.

The most frustrating moment is chapter 23. Our heroes land on an alien planet, are captured by the locals, learn about their culture, are brought before their rulers, and propose a clever solution to the planet’s big social/engineering problem… only for chapter 24 to begin on another planet entirely. This elides the potentially interesting drama of the setting, subordinating the lively Star Trek-style exploration to a rather dull fetch quest. It’s a shame, as the alien society, “based on a dozen kinds of sharing,” in which “The more types of stuff you share, the closer your bond becomes” deserves far more than the five pages it ultimately gets.

But for all the book’s disappointments, there are some interesting things going on. The galaxy-wide civilisation has a clever backstory, which makes diegetic an uncomfortable subtext of much space opera. Every alien in the Royal Fleet is humanoid, with non-humanoid species less advanced and often openly resentful of the Fleet. We learn that this is the handiwork of an ancient species known as the Shapers, which perverted the course of evolution to benefit humanoids at the expense of non-humanoids.

“‘Sometimes, those ancient explorers found intelligent creatures who weren’t human-shaped — with too many limbs, or claws instead of hands, or slimy round bodies. And they did everything they could to hurt those creatures. They dropped a whole planetoid onto what appears to have been a lively civilization of creatures with nine tentacles. And they triggered an ice age, to destroy a species of giant worms who had constructed huge cities full of beautiful artworks.’

Vaap’s voice drips with disgust. ‘This… project went on for hundreds of thousands of years, and it shaped the galaxy we live in today. It’s the reason why so many of us humanoid species are so powerful. And why anyone who doesn’t have two arms and two legs is still struggling to catch up.'”

This allows Anders to play explicitly with something that is usually implicit in franchise science fiction, and lends a pseudo-mystical ‘justification’ to Marrant’s fascistic dreams of purity, in a thoughtful parallel with real-life fascist mythologies.

Marrant himself is a fairly generic villain, but he has one pleasantly sadistic trick up his sleeve. He kills his enemies with a device called the death touch, which not only liquidises his victims but causes the people who knew them in life to despise them. This psychic attack is cleverly conceived and vividly rendered:

“‘We have to get back to the orbital funnel,’ Uiuiuiui wheezes, clutching his side. ‘We’re lucky nobody was killed.’

‘Except for Vaap and Iyiiguol.’ Even saying their names makes me nauseous. I shouldn’t waste my breath.

‘Yeah. That was no loss,’ Uiuiuiui says. Then he hears what he’s saying, and stops. His face-tubes sag.

‘Damn,’ I say. ‘I can remember that I used to like Vaap and Iyiiguol. I thought of them as friends, even. But now? When I think of them, all I can think is that they were garbage.’

‘I told you before,’ Bildub says. ‘Marrant’s touch does that. You can’t mourn the dead, or celebrate their lives with the godparents. You can only despise them.’

‘He doesn’t just kill people,’ Uiuiuiui says. ‘He tarnishes them.'”

This ingenious device creates a delicious tension in scenes with Marrant, and elevates him above his dead-wife-and-dreams-of-conquest origin.

Beyond these enchantingly nasty details, Tina is a personable and charming narrator. At times her voice comes close to the culture-savvy whimsy of All The Birds In The Sky, such as when she recaps an English lesson about Chekhov’s gun and says “you can’t just use a gun as a paperweight. Why? I don’t know. Dude had a thing about guns,” or when she delivers an action movie one-liner and adds internally: “Yeah, I made a quip. Sue me.” But she also shows a degree of vulnerability, befitting her youth and inexperience. One of the novel’s best scenes comes when she starts singing ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ to cheer up her friends, only to start crying herself. Her romance with Elza is sweet and well-structured, with the two unsure of what they want for most of the novel before getting together towards the end, the penultimate chapter building to a delightfully weird detail about interspecies romance.

But by the final chapter, which ends on a sequel tease of the most banal sort, the story’s generic aspects still outweigh the fresh ones. Victories Greater Than Death is undeniably a fun novel, and it’s hard to begrudge a younger readership such a bright and agreeable introduction to literary science fiction. For everyone else though, Victories Greater Than Death is the first skippable Charlie Jane Anders novel. 

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Review: Alexei Sayle’s The Absence of Normal, Series 2

Few careers fascinate me as much as Alexei Sayle’s. While one should always be suspicious about showbiz CVs, I defy anyone to read the ‘About Me’ page on Alexei Sayle’s charmingly outdated website and not come away with their head spinning. The obvious things are all present and correct; The Comic Strip, The Young Ones, his stand-up work. But somewhere between his top 20 single and his appearance in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (described with the single word “Movie”), you begin to have a new appreciation of the breadth of his work. And somewhere between his appearance in the infamous disaster Carry On Columbus (“As long as I live I’ll never undestand [sic] why I agreed to be in this terrible movie”) and his part in the landmark lesbian drama Tipping The Velvet, you frankly begin to suspect he isn’t real. Sayle is that rare thing in the British media; an artist who pushes himself, tackling new genres, styles, and topics with a gleeful inventiveness.

But my own favourites among Sayle’s heterogeneous output are his two short story collections, 2000’s Barcelona Plates and 2001’s The Dog Catcher. By Sayle’s own admission, the first book was a response to his own uncertainty:

“I was feeling a little lost. I wanted to move on from comedy but didn’t know where to go. When Barcelona Plates was published to such critical acclaim… and wonderful sales figures I felt like I’d come home and fell in love with the book industry in a way I’d never done with light entertainment. Like a middle aged man going all gooey over his second wife.”

Both collections reflect Sayle’s dissatisfaction and hunger, in good and bad ways. Showbiz satires abound, most memorably in the story ‘My Life’s Work,’ about a comedy writer so ground down by industry bullshit that a life-threatening car crash comes as a relief:

“With skill, dedication and hard work the surgeons dragged me back from the edge of death.

The cunts.”

As good a punchline as that is, the sense of a writer taking out their frustrations with the idiot executives can wear a little thin. More interesting are Sayle’s blackly comic stories on wider political and cultural topics. ‘Lose Weight, Ask Me How’ is another dark monologue in which cannibalism is presented as a sort of fad diet; ‘A Cure For Death’ is a Marxist science fiction story whose twist ending sees some rich bastard ascend to heaven while everyone else is trapped in eternal banality.

But the crown jewels of Sayle’s short fiction are undoubtedly ‘The Last Woman Killed In The War’ and ‘The Only Man Stalin Was Afraid Of.’ The former is the story of a Liverpudlian exile returning to her parents’ estate after decades of estrangement, the latter a black comedy about the Soviet dictator’s psychiatrist. Both stories balance a global scale with a savage individuality, portraying the brutality of restrictive communities and perverse ideologies, and the ways they follow from wider historical events. They are also very, very funny. In the final scene of ‘The Last Woman Killed In The War,’ the protagonist runs into Stanley Park:

“She came to the boating lake, once it had bobbed with colourful rowing boats but when the Militant had been running Liverpool the genial old men who ran the lake had shown insufficient knowledge of Trotsky’s disagreements with Stalin over the theory of Socialism in one country so they’d drained the lake and made the old men care assistants in a halfway house for lesbian crack users. Now it was a muddy bowl.”

‘The Only Man Stalin Was Afraid Of,’ meanwhile, outlines its central conflict like this:

“It thus came to Novgerod Mandelstim that if he was somehow to cure Stalin then the murder would immediately begin again. Normally he knew that the patient’s wellbeing was supposed to be the only concern of the psychiatric practitioner, but he felt he was beyond hiding behind such spineless evasions. Nothing was normal in the Soviet Union. No, he concluded: every second that Stalin remained ill, others remained well; therefore it was his duty as a human being, though perhaps not as a psychiatrist, to actually strive to make his patient worse! God knows enough of his colleagues had managed to do this without trying.”

The dryness of the language, its deadpan descriptions of conflicts and atrocities, is akin to much British comic fiction. But the insistence on political context, clearly informed by Sayle’s Marxist background, gives the jokes a real potency, enhancing the personal nature of the characters’ dilemmas rather than distracting from them.

Both stories were shoo-ins for the first series of Alexei Sayle’s The Absence of Normal, a set of half-hour radio versions of his short stories, adapted by Graham Duff and broadcast by BBC Radio 4 in 2019. They were joined by ‘Banner Bright,’ about a group of students amid the ’68 protests, and ‘The Minister For Death,’ about a geriatric assassin working for communist militants. The first series was slick, confident, and uniformly well-acted (with Peter Capaldi as the neurotic Stalin a particular highlight). The general reception was positive, although little actual press coverage is easily findable, and Sayle joked at the time that “there will be subsequent series of The Absence of Normal, no matter how it goes down.” Yet the joke belies a fundamental issue for the second series of The Absence of Normal, which ran on Radio 4 from the 10th to the 31st of March 2021. Having burned through the obvious classics, what to adapt next?

Clive Hole
To which the first episode presents one rather distressing answer: the dregs. The original ‘Clive Hole’ is not one of Sayle’s better stories. The tale of a TV commissioner incapable of making a decision, and a pair of hapless TV writers trying to get their kitschy crime drama commissioned, it has a decent line in absurd humour, but the basic premise is very media-centric and painfully 2001. The joking reference to “the small and neglected part of TV centre where programmes were sometimes made” was probably a cutting reference then, but since publication the number of studios in use by the BBC there has more than halved, to the point where a media satire which treats Television Centre as an unassailable temple of British media feels out of step.

And sure enough, the 2021 play feels curiously anachronistic. A few details have changed — Clive Hole now pours ants and honey into his computer in a fit of procrastination, where in the story it’s a VHS player — but in 2021 it feels odd to portray a pair of TV writers so utterly at the beck and call of the BBC. (To say nothing of the fact that the show they are pitching, a detective show set in Lancashire in the 70s, with “all that great glam music for the soundtrack” is so obviously a rip-off of Life On Mars that it’s weird nobody mentions it. It’s the one part of the story that feels prescient, yet it gets in the adaptation’s way).

It’s not a complete write-off. Tim McInnerny gives an effectively dithering performance as Clive Hole, conveying a sense of humanity even through his very archly-narrated nervous breakdown. And the best gag from the story, in which TV writer Tatum assumes that a hospital’s signs about switching off mobile phones don’t apply to him because “I’m in television,” survives the adaptation intact. But it’s a weak start to the second series, and hints at a lack of strong source material for the episodes to come.

Barcelona Chairs
Fortunately, the second episode improves things, by leaning into the source material’s age rather than ignoring it. ‘Barcelona Chairs’ is a portrait of a psychopathic architect named rupert, who becomes a key adviser to Tony Blair due to his total disdain for democracy. The horrors of Blairism have become even more apparent in the years since the story’s publication; to actually hear rupert (a sharkily smooth Hugh Quarshie) fantasise about “starting major wars in minor countries” is even more chilling in 2021.

The radio version cannily builds on the original’s critique of Blairism, and shows some media savvy that the first episode lacked. The story is framed by a podcast interview with rupert’s wife Helen (bullied by rupert into starting her own flag-cleaning business, “Ensign of the Times”), who has retired with rupert to southern Spain. This acknowledges the adaptation’s status as a satire of Blairism in retrospect rather than contemporaneously, and allows for some strong new gags. A line about rupert and Tony being photographed drinking Prosecco with Noel Gallagher and Ben Elton is a sharp comment on Blair’s celebrity fixation, as well as a pot-shot at Sayle’s more cynical alternative comedy colleague. The original story’s lengthy skewering of think tanks and taskforces is distilled into a handful of lines such as “Blair loved think tanks: they meant he didn’t have to do all his own thinking.”

But the story’s best details spin out of the minimalist monstrosity of a house rupert builds for himself and his family, the maintenance of whose utter bareness drives everyone including him mad. Yes, it’s a very unsubtle metaphor for the neoliberal project, but it gives rise to several delicious images. The best of these is the secret bedsit Helen rents in Vauxhall, where she sneaks away to “sit in the rocking chair and stroke a ceramic clown.” ‘Barcelona Chairs’ makes for a far stronger piece of radio than ‘Clive Hole.’ While the play’s final beats are somewhat patronising, spelling out a twist ending that was perfectly clear on the page, the overall effect is a much stronger portrait of a mad executive, with much broader and more cutting things to say.

The Nameless Park
“You know, my wife Linda has always disliked this story,” says Sayle’s narrator halfway through the radio version of ‘The Nameless Park Between St Michaels Hamlet and Riverside Drive.’ “She thinks it’s too nasty, and also somewhat derivative. I shout at her, ‘What do you know? I won the BBC Audio Drama Award for Best Scripted Comedy in 2019!'” While taking this sort of fourth-wall break seriously is usually a fool’s errand, it’s hard not to take Linda’s side here.

The original story appeared in The Independent on New Year’s Day 2008, and is freely available online. It’s a curious choice to adapt, even setting its nasty derivativeness aside; the whole thing barely breaks 2,000 words, which doesn’t seem enough to fuel a half-hour play. On top of that, its best moment is the lengthy description of the eponymous park, which doesn’t feel well-suited to radio:

“Jade, though, secretly thought of herself as a little bit different to other girls her age superior, more spiritual: the proof of that was that she reserved her greatest enthusiasm for the nameless and neglected park that ran between her home in St Michaels Hamlet and Riverside Drive. She thought it had to be her most favourite place in all the world. As soon as she passed through the battered sandstone gateposts with the weird Celtic-looking cross carved into them, she felt like a young girl in a fairy tale, or possibly a television advert for expensive shampoo.”

And sure enough, hearing the actors spout dialogue like “I feel like I could be anywhere, I could be in a fairy tale or an expensive shampoo advert” is largely an exercise in frustration. Without enough plot to justify its thirty-minute runtime, the play resorts to gimmicks like the aforementioned fourth-wall break, and a spirited Charlie and the Chocolate Factory-style musical number. Again there are a handful of decent gags, but the overall piece drags, and the misogynist undertones of the original story are all the more noticeable here. Sayle writing that ‘Like most girls her age, Jade Suvari had many enthusiasms: pop music, stuffed toys, video games, horses, make-up and fashion,” might prompt an eye-roll, but radio!Jade proclaiming “I’ve literally got a tattoo that says ‘push yourself, because no-one else is gonna do it for you’ on my arse!” just feels crass, and not in a particularly clever way.

‘The Nameless Park’ is the worst episode of The Absence of Normal to date, a thin story padded to within an inch of its life. Sayle and Duff are clearly trying, but the episode feels misconceived at a fundamental level. They frankly needed to throw out the source material and adapt something else.

Locked Out
The final episode, on the other hand, is a triumph, taking another very short piece and expanding it in thoughtful yet intuitive ways. The original ‘Locked Out’ is an eight-page third-person mood piece about a high-flying lawyer locked out of her home, who has a nervous breakdown after watching the comings and goings of her own street on a typical weekday evening. The radio play reconfigures the story into a first-person monologue with Maxine Peake as the neurotic and reactionary Katherine, who talks us through her street observations and relates them to her personal history.

Straight away this is a compelling set of changes. The shift from third- to first-person gives Katherine’s emotional collapse an immediacy it never had on the page, and the play’s extended runtime allows for a richer, more intimate characterisation. Peake gives a typically astute and sensitive performance, even if she borders on the hammy towards the end. Sayle’s historical awareness asserts itself here, too. Katherine begins the play by recollecting her art teacher telling her class about the Situationists. The psychogeographic slogan “Beneath the pavement, the beach,” comes up early in the play, and Katherine relates it to contemporary psychogeographers Iain Sinclair, Will Self, and Peter Ackroyd, who she says wrote “some creepy books about London.” That sense of simultaneous fascination and revulsion at the city’s underbelly informs Katherine’s reaction to the uncouth teenagers and “swarthy” men who pass her by. “I didn’t think my street was like this!” Peake splutters, perfectly capturing a tone of middle class indignation as she realises the people she shares a space with.

Towards the end Katherine deliriously states that “I can’t think of anywhere I’d ever feel safe!” before the play delivers a sickening punchline that blows the pat ending of the original story completely out of the water. Compared to the previous episode’s piling on of gimmicks, ‘Locked Out’ is remarkable for its basic confidence in the material and its performer, which pays off in a rich, layered production. It is the clear highlight of the series, and a vindication of Sayle and Duff’s project in adapting these twenty-year-old stories for radio now. Done right, Sayle’s fiction can still surprise, challenge, and disturb with all the power it once did. And it is still very, very funny.

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