Thursday, October 05, 2006

 

Genius Loci: Ben and Benny

If you’re at all familiar with Doctor Who, you’ll know that the Doctor has had quite a few travelling companions over the years. Those I’ve been most drawn to tend to be the intelligent, mature, strong women: schoolteacher Barbara Wright, scientist Dr Liz Shaw, archaeologist Professor Bernice Summerfield… Now the latest novel featuring Professor Summerfield is just out, and it has quite a weight of expectations on it. Genius Loci not only relaunches Benny’s fictional career, but is the first Whoish novel for nine years by Ben Aaronovitch, who writes the most gorgeous prose of any Doctor Who author going. Of course, even if you’ve watched a lot of Doctor Who, you might not recognise Benny. She joined the Doctor in the novels, and though the first TV spin-off series is due to start this month, Professor Summerfield has starred in her own books and audio plays for nearly a decade. A hard-drinking, fast-quipping archaeologist from the 26th Century, Benny may not have been on the telly, but has earned a remarkable following among her viewer- and readership (with something over 300,000 novels sold), and of course archaeology is a way to travel in time without a TARDIS, a way in to intelligent storytelling about other cultures, and a passport to Indiana Jones-style thrills and spills…

Genius Loci

This latest book, though, is something special, and like many special things had the potential to go belly-up in a spectacular way. It’s the start of a relaunched, redesigned range from independent company Big Finish (yes, the ones doing Doctor Who on BBC7); it’s by an author whose previous works were so loved – and occasionally hated – that his ‘comeback’ has a crushing weight of expectations on it; and rather than fitting in with Benny’s ongoing adventures as we’ve come to know her, it goes back to the beginning of her archaeological career at the age of 21, long before she met the Doctor. Stories that pick a favourite character and make them younger, brasher, blander and less rounded aren’t uncommon in fictional ‘franchises’, but I can’t think of any off the top of my head that haven’t made me cringe. So, the Muppet Babies Benny was a brave decision. On top of all that, the new producer of Big Finish’s Bernice Summerfield range is my friend Simon Guerrier, who was kind enough to send me a review copy. And being such an instinctively genteel reviewer, I did worry that if I didn’t like it I’d offend him hugely because, naturally, while I don’t get personal, neither do I pull my punches, and I’ve managed to upset people I know in the past. So I anticipated making a start on all this a little nervously.

Fortunately, the book made things easy for me by being terribly good.

It makes the gradual uncovering of history, in a properly scientific way, as tense as any thriller… And then, of course, it turns into a gripping thriller. I don’t want to give away too much of the plot, as much of the pleasure in it lies in its twists and turns (though hurrah that the most obvious villains, or at least the ones I most suspected from early on, surprised me by turning out mostly nice). Like archaeology, new discoveries are made and assumptions overturned as you gently lift away another layer; or, like some of the archaeology in this book, occasionally there’ll be a plot development so huge it’s like you’ve dug down with a bomb instead of a trowel. Well before the end of the first chapter, though – which you can read here, as a free sample – I knew I was enjoying this immensely. Look out in particular there for the love story of the two giant robots, which is simply great.

The plot is rich, complex and satisfying; the characters are strongly drawn, especially our hero, who has yet to acquire even a fake Professorship; the prose is striking; but where the book really succeeds, and reminds me of just why Ben Aaronovitch is rated so highly, is in its ‘worldbuilding’. He has a huge gift for creating a believable world with words, both getting inside alien environments and thought processes and making them instantly comprehensible. Benny has been called to help unearth possible evidence of extinct alien civilisation on the planet Jaiwan, settled by humans hundreds of years ago. While one of Mr Aaronovitch’s two really gobsmackingly superb books infamously had to have the foreword Notes on the Pronunciation of Proper Nouns, here the world’s been colonised by humanity and things have been given straightforward names; you might not know exactly what sort of alien fauna potfish, spindly killerfish, helmet crabs, potfish spiders or wide-mouthed frogs are, but in each case you’ve already got an idea. Like the architecture he describes, they summon up vivid mental pictures, while at the same time personal names, invented slang and relationships make both his humans and his aliens ethnically and culturally diverse.

The story is also continually intertwined with ethical questions. Human archaeology is now very well-grounded; how do you start making assumptions about an alien civilisation, and on whose behalf? One of Doctor Who’s most memorable morality tales concerned reptile people who had evolved long before humanity, but took to shelters to sleep through a global catastrophe, only to find we’d usurped ‘their’ world while they hibernated; this book examines how that moral dilemma might influence the rules set for colonising new worlds. Pretty much Doctor Who’s founding moral is a hatred of fascism, but Mr Aaronovitch is one of the authors who makes that most explicit, both in his cultural and ethnic eclecticism and in his nakedly fascist and racist villains. His first Doctor Who script made for television mixed human racists with the series’ ultimate fascists, the Daleks, and while the New Adventures books of the 1990s that saw Benny travel with the Doctor technically never had a Dalek story, they cast a shadow across almost the whole range. It’s the same here, as the backdrop to it all remains that humanity has been threatened by an unnamed galactic superpower, reflected in at least two of the major plot elements. Richard drew to my attention that the alien civilisations discovered here have strong echoes of the Daleks’ own history, with what appears to be a rigidly righteous and genocidal culture set against more freewheeling groups, but while that’s a relatively subtle metaphor, it’s impossible to miss the heavy militarisation of so many people we meet.

Ben is a particularly good writer for Benny in part because so much of his writing displays a love-hate relationship with the military, with characters from the armed forces very much on our side but also people to be wary of, and Benny is almost the personification of that feeling – an Admiral’s daughter and now draft-dodger (another of the moral questions that comes up). She has many striking memories of her father, with one saying of his instantly springing to mind:
“The navy likes to be elegant, the army likes to be sneaky and the Marines like to SMASH IT WITH A HAMMER.”
I’m aware that some of my blog posts recently have been more grumpy than usual, and when Richard has gently pointed this out for a couple of them I have, of course, cried “Smash it with a hammer!” as my new catchphrase (sorry, Andy). I have to admit, I share some of that equivocation about the allure of the military, as in addition to those capable, intelligent women companions I’m deeply fond of Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart, who gets some of his finest moments in one of Mr Aaronovitch’s Doctor Who TV stories. So this, too, is a strange mix of individualistic and being impressed by regimentation, of sensitive and macho. If there’s a failing in the writing, it’s Ben’s predisposition for things to be solved not merely by intelligence and heroism, but by intelligence, heroism, and a tendency towards ‘might is right’ in handily having something – in this case several varieties of somethings – bigger and more powerful than the baddies to come in and sort it all out.

And, yes, I know I keep calling this Doctor Who, when it doesn’t have the Doctor in it and technically it’s not part of Big Finish’s Doctor Who franchise, but their ‘New Worlds’. Well, I’m not a writer, lawyer or publicist for Big Finish, so of course Bernice Summerfield is part of the Doctor Who universe, even with the serial numbers filed off. She was first introduced by meeting the Doctor in the New Adventures novels, her travels with the Doctor were a big part of Benny’s life, she was orphaned by the Daleks as a girl, she keeps encountering (individually licensed) aliens from Doctor Who in her spin-off adventures… So it’s easier just to call it all Doctor Who, even if the ‘brand’ you should look for happens to be called something else at times, OK?

In Genius Loci, of course, it’s nearly a decade before Benny meets the Doctor, so here we encounter her archaeological mentor Professor Ankola and her strangely convenient team. With Indiana Jones one of Benny’s most obvious influences, homage is paid by the 26th-Century archaeologists still watching the movies and their many remakes, and that’s not the only George Lucas reference in there (not least that, as well as Benny and Ben, there’s a startling ‘Ben Kenobi moment’). As you might expect with such antecedents, there’s plenty of action and excitement to ‘combat archaeology’, but deaths are sudden and affecting, and some of the near-death experiences owe more than a little to Alien; I’ve not been regularly scared by Doctor Who since 1977, so congratulations to Mr Aaronovitch for making me read the scary giant spider attacks right the way through because I didn’t want to have to put the book down and find myself imagining the worst.

I don’t want you to think it’s all moral seriousness and violent death, though. Some of the jokes are very funny. Appropriately, a lot of them – the one about Google springs to mind – are based on how people mix up their history; some are very stylish moments, like the person crawling out into a firefight who’s asked to bring a couple of bottles and the fruit basket; and it has a Teletubby joke almost as much fun as the one in Ghost Devices, another Benny novel. My favourite is probably what she thinks of the Earth colony ‘New Atlantis’, which calls to mind a famously hokey Doctor Who story in which inhabitants of a water world tempt fate by calling it ‘Aridius’. And, with telling yarns as if they’re old campfire stories another of Mr Aaronovitch’s specialities, watch out for the tale about a mermaid. Oh, and it’s the first Doctor Who book I’ve read that mentions blogging. Apparently this’ll last at least another 600 years. Hurrah!

With stories, as in politics, one of the most irritating feelings is the ‘I could do better’ factor. Richard and I occasionally write stories, less often these days for each of us but Richard in any case more prolifically and with more talent. None of them really got anywhere, though I can vividly remember the TV series where all the wheels came off the plot in its fourth year, at which point Richard sighed ‘I could do better,’ and came up with a much more interesting set of ideas; then there are the many stories we’ve read or seen over the years with an idea similar to one we’d once thought up, and we’ve grumbled, ‘It’s not that we mind them getting there first, so much as that they made such a mess of it.’ One of the pleasures of this book is ticking off two elements in common with one of our favourite stories we came up with together, and this time thinking, ‘Ooh, what he’s done with that is really good’ (I could, however, have done a lot better at the proofreading). There’s so much Doctor Who about today that it’s a struggle to watch, listen to or read it all just once, and there are plenty of offshoots where I’ve got behind. Despite that, if I’ve really enjoyed something, I still make time occasionally to read (or watch, or listen to) it again after a while, rather than let it join hundreds of others in the mulch that passes for my memory. At some point, I’ve no doubt I’ll read this again.

If I were to make a shortlist of the very, very best of Doctor Who novelisations, and the best original Doctor Who novels – a proper shortlist, mind, just a handful and not my usual shortlist of 73 – Ben would be the only author on both lists (here’s one I prepared earlier, down at the bottom). He also wrote the New Adventure I most hated on first reading, and the only TV story with Sylvester McCoy as the Doctor that I disliked intensely from first viewing (though polls frequently suggest it’s his most popular with other fans). You can see why I’m a bit wary when he does something new, can’t you? I’m either going to think it’s the greatest thing since sliced bread, or it’ll feel completely wrong. Well, Genius Loci is not the greatest thing since sliced bread, and it’s not going to knock his greatest books off the top spots. It’s much more straightforward, not as brilliantly inventive, eclectic and epic as he has been on a couple of outstanding occasions. But it’s still a terrific book, and louder, braver, drunker and more loving than most other new stories I’ve come across for a long while.

And there’s more on Ben and Benny to come later, but as Mr Strange is now using ‘Wilcockian’ in the sense that Mr Lovecraft used ‘Cyclopean’, just this once I’ll split the articles up and do something else in between…

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