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Old 05-02-2010, 11:18 PM   #337
Darth InSidious
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Dead Romance by Lawrence Miles - set in a universe inside a bottle, this book comes from a run written featuring incidental characters from the Virgin Doctor Who novels that got their own novels after Virgin's license to do Doctor Who stuff expired. Generally revolving around Bernice Summerfield, this one... focusses on Christine Summerfield (from inside the bottle), Chris Cwej (from outside), and the end of the world on October 12th 1970. The book was republished in 2004 by Mad Norwegian Press, who publish (most of) the Faction Paradox run.

The book is in the form of a diary, detailing Christine's memories of London before the end of the world, and it works quite well, though the way in which Christine contnually forgets bits and skips back can get a little wearying at times. I actually read this over Easter, and can't remember a great deal about the style; it's mostly pretty unambiguous prose, and it's the structure which is interesting, making ample use of an unreliable narrator, it makes for an interesting, quite easy read. As usual with Miles, mind-bending concepts are thrown about almost casually, and the plot, as usual, twists and turns like a twisty-turny thing.

Down by Lawrence Miles - Absurd space nazis, a psychopath and his social worker, and an archaeologist and two undergraduates on ridiculous degrees journey toward the centre of the Earth... or at least, of Tyler's Folly, an earthquake-wracked water-world and extremist republic.

Very different stylistically from, well, anything else that Miles has done, really. In fact, the style changes over the course of the book, reflecting things going on in the book. Naturally, at the centre of the planet, they find dinosaurs, though the book is very much aware of its own premise and the absurdities therein, and naturally, there's more to it than just dinosaurs, nazis, and mocking the more absurd end of the academic humanities.

Light, amusing, but also has something to say for itself. This makes for an interesting contrast with Dead Romance since a lot of the information in this book is also narrated. It also has some fantastic chapter titles. The plot, too, is far from simple and it gets curiouser and curiouser the further in you get. Apparently it's part of an arc of sorts, but I've not read the related books and I didn't feel I was missing any information, really.

The Taking of Planet 5 by Simon Bucher-Jones and Mark Clapham - By contrast, this is a book that makes no sense at all unless you have some awareness of what came before it. Even if that's only that there are Time Lords, and an Enemy, and a Fendahl, and things with far too many eyes and tendrils that live in the Mountains of Madness (and, in a rather bold move, are unceremoniously wiped-out and replaced toward the beginning of the book).

"Ambitious" would be a word for this book. "Ambitious", to the point of redefining large chunks of mythos and throwing HP Lovecraft into the mix for good measure, but unfortunately not necessarily much of a novel. A leads to B in an engaging manner, but the whole just doesn't really hang together as a novel should.

There's a feeling that things are just... happening, one after another. It's also, somewhat unfortunately, very much a scientist's novel, in that it's often written more from the perspective of the mechanics of the occurrences than from a perspective of the interest of the narrative. It is telling that the book has at the end a speculative essay on the nature of the universe which I'm sure is very interesting, for physicists. For me, it might as well have been an extract from a gnostic gospel, for all I could make of it, but it does highlight the issue with the book at times.

Overall, the plot is inventive, clever and interesting, but it's let down by haphazard implementation - some descriptions of the events are brilliant, while other segments consist of little more than someone vomiting up plot point after plot point in dialogue. So perhaps "uneven" would be another good word.

The Castle of Otranto by Horace Walpole - The first of the gothic novels, this rather slim book was first published by Walpole under the pseudonym of "William Marshal" and was claimed to be a translation of a text first published in Naples in 1529, the text of which had been found in the library of a prominent Catholic family in the North of England recent to the book's publication. This is a claim rather let down by the book's sheer absurdity as well as the repeated references to the works of Shakespeare.

This may be the first of the gothic novels, but it is also quite possibly the silliest book in the English canon, relying almost entirely on ludicrously credulous servants, irritatingly pietistic women, and unbelievably convoluted backplots reliant on characters unwittingly being the son of a count, recognised by their birthmark, etc., ancient prophecies, and other such silliness. It was, Walpole claimed, an attempt to marry the medieval romance to the modern novel. What comes out seems to have the worst aspects of both.

The book is irritating as much in style as it is in content - all dialogue is in plain text, without quotation marks and only marked by "X said" in the (unparagraphed) text of the page. This and the six mentions per page of so-and-so's "oncoming doom", or somesuch, make for an irritating read. I'm inclined to agree with Lovecraft, who opined that the book's only value is in its invention of the gothic novel. This also appears to be the emergence-point for faux-mediaeval speech. Forsooth, 'tis no better than its modern successors in this. Verily. And possibly zounds, too. The constant flitting between "thee" and "thou" in otherwise modernised speech is infuriating, to say the least. Overall, one to skip unless you're determined to discover for yourself the origins of the gothic novel. It didn't actually take very long to read, but I found it drained my patience remarkably quickly.

Timewyrm: Genesys by John Peel - Published in 1991, this is the first (semi-)official continuation of the Doctor Who franchise following the TV show's cancellation in 1989. The book begins a four-novel 'arc' concerning the Timewyrm, an enemy which is made out to be far more terrible than it in fact seems to be, once the arc gets going.

This one is set in around 2700 BC, apparently, and in Mesopotamia. Naturally, this means the same banal "explain away myths" treatment that every two-bit sci-fi hack since Wells has used applied to Gilgamesh - with Enkidu, inexplicably, a neanderthal. I say inexplicably, because the book highlights the incongruity and then does nothing about it except make a reference to the (far-better-worked-in) appearance of a neanderthal in the 1989 season of Doctor Who. Which seems a bit stupid, really.

There's nothing wrong with setting a story in the past, of course; it can turn out gloriously well. There's nothing wrong with taking liberties with a historical setting, even - as Alan Moore has shown, among others. But when the level of anthropological discourse in your interpolation of a myth is "ancient peoples were stupid and X was the god of Y", what you end up with is a flat and uninteresting collection of stock clichés wandering about a soulless and generic world also formed of stock clichés. Which is a pity, because Mesopotamian myth can be vibrant and fascinating.

In all, I'm left wondering how it got published. Typographical and grammatical errors abound, for starters. The characters are dull, cardboard cut-outs, and Peel appears to think that Gilgamesh should be played by Brian Blessed, c. 1980.

He also, inexplicably, decides that Kish in c.2700 BC would have had twenty-foot high walls of stone, wide enough for men to march along the top at four men abreast, and that ziggurats had people swarming all over them. Apparently that the ziggurat was designed to keep people out did not occur to Peel, but it's only a minor indictment of a book so chock full of shoddy ahistorical details that you're left wondering why he bothered setting it in ancient Mesopotamia at all, except to be able to nickname his villainess "Ishtar" in another poor attempt to link his narrative into the Babylonian literature..

I'd love to be able to claim that either Ace or the Doctor were, say, infuriating. Or wonderful. Or anything. But they're not any of these - they come across as soulless cyphers, like the rest of the characters, while the villain is apparently suffering from the curse of hammy lines - it's all "I will destroy you all, MWAHAHAHHA!" sort of stuff, and it comes across poorly in print, you'll be shocked to hear.

Meanwhile, the Fanwank device is in full overload, with cameos from two previous Doctors for somewhat dubious reasons and meaningless technobabble abundant.

It's also abundantly clear that (a) this book was written in 1991, and (b) that this book was written free of the restraints of being a "family show". Much is made of the gore and sex of ancient Mesopotamia, with one of the characters a sacred prostitute who spends most of the book topless, and much is also made of Gilgamesh's womanising.

I did smirk, though, when the abundantly obviously homosexual relationship in the Epic of Gilgamesh between Gilgamesh and Enkidu was very firmly quashed in place of them being "good friends". Evidently, things were liberal but not that liberal. It's funny, the things which date bad writing.

The plot is moderately clever, I'll grant the author, though it's not that much of a step above a TV episode, and the way in which it is written and executed is truly awful. I wish I could say this was a good, but it just isn't, by any stretch of the imagination. It's a really, really lazy piece of writing.

Timewyrm: Exodus by Terrance Dicks - A step above Peel's effort, but not by much, this time we go from comic-book Mesopotamia to comic-book Nazis, who this time win the war. The Doctor begins to show signs of being the manipulative genius he turns out to be when this series of books heats up, but at present is still far from there. The characters do, this time, have a definible character, to Dicks' credit. He also presents the Nazis, a little oddly, as somewhat sympathetic characters. This book is also far less desperate to prove its adulthood, but it's a pretty thin action romp, with little meaning or depth to it, much like its predecessor.

Its commentary on Hitler is rather clichéd, and that his powers are given by aliens is perhaps unsurprising and once again a bit too easy an "explanation" of an historical phenomenon. Once again, there's canon-overload,this time on the part of the villains, at least one party of whom last appeared in 1989. Though at least this time, the book is written in halfway-decent fashion. It won't set worlds alight, but the book is competent and fun.

Warlords of Utopia by Lance Parkin - This book seems to have one - quite simple - question at its heart: What if every parallel universe in which Rome never fell went to war with every parallel universe in which the Nazis never lost? The book takes the form of the memoirs of Marcus Americanus Scriptor, a 'Roman' (in this case, a Roman born somewhere in what we consider the US) of some status looking back on the events of this war. I'm about 16/180 pages in, and so far the style is a good mimic of a translation from Latin, while still being actually eminently readable. Good stuff so far, though it's early days yet.

The Book of the War, ed. Lawrence Miles - A compilation and encyclopaedia covering the first 50 years of the "War in Heaven", between the Great Houses who laid down the order of the universe and history as it is generally understood, and the "Enemy", of whom very little seems to be known by anyone except the Houses themselves. It sounds quite dry, but it's actually rather compelling reading, particularly since it's easily picked up, put down again, and picked up again. This is nothing less than the foundations of a mythology, and it does a pretty good job of this. As an encyclopaedia, it's in alphabetical order, although some skipping around might be best for some things, as, despite the aforementioned structure, this book does have more than a few plot strands running through it. Still less than halfway through, but it's nevertheless highly entertaining and inventive stuff.
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