Monday, 12 May 2014

The Bookcase Of Fear #7: Douglas Adams's The Salmon Of Doubt

The Salmon Of Doubt
By Douglas Adams

I first read Douglas Adams in 2001.  I found myself in a library, saw a name I vaguely associated with Doctor Who and read a few chapters.  It was The Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy.  I was a Douglas Adams fan when I left the library.

I devoured more of his work soon after, so we're talking the Hitchhiker's radio series (dazzling), the TV series (er, mostly harmless), a comedic dictionary (The Meaning Of Liff), a serious look at endangered species (Last Chance To See), and two novels about Dirk Gently.  A "holistic detective", Dirk believes in the fundamental interconnectedness of all things – which means fairly random things happen and he just goes with it.  (This is not too different a concept from the Infinite Improbability Drive, which powers the plot in Hitchhiker's.)  I've always imagined him as Terry Jones.  Anyway, The Salmon Of Doubt is partly comprised of Douglas's third, unfinished Dirk Gently novel – not completed because, among other things, he died suddenly in 2001.  As it turns out, I picked a sad time to become a fan.

The Dirk Gently text, which is funny and imaginative and tantalisingly vague, fills all of 79 pages.  The plot elements are as disparate as Dirk's adventures ever got: they include a cat that's half-missing, a confused rhinoceros, a mysterious actor and the end of the human race.  You're left with really no idea what it was all about, and its sheer unfinishedness comes as a serendipitously literal way to express what we've lost.  For what it's worth, it's a delightful 79 pages.

The rest of the book (after an introduction by the editor and a foreword by Stephen Fry) is loose material by Douglas, including letters, essays, introductions, interviews and a short story.  I didn't care for some of the technological stuff (Douglas being a self-confessed and unabashed nerd, and me being an ignoramus), but the rest is a very effective cross-section of his ideas.  A few of them bounce from one piece to another, some ending up in The Salmon Of Doubt at the end.  Particular highlights include an argument for the non-existence of God from the point of view of a puddle, and an introduction to Sunset At Blandings, the sadly unfinished posthumous novel by P. G. Wodehouse.  The irony of this is apparent and bittersweet, but it's also notable for its rousing defence of comedy writing.  This is something that no doubt goes through the minds of all "funny" writers, and it's reassuring to see Douglas put it into words.  I love the bit about how Shakespeare couldn't make a joke to save his life.

The Salmon Of Doubt is very funny, a little all-over-the-place, and generally quite interesting.  It's just the right kind of tribute.

The Further Adventures Of Eddie Dickens
Book Three
Final Curtain
By Philip Ardagh

Speaking of authors I'm a fan of, I became a Philip Ardagh fan at university (roughly a million years ago) while I was studying children's literature.  Tasked with finding a decent kids' book, and apparently forgetting words such as "research", I picked one that looked good and hoped for the best.  The book was Awful End, and it's nearly 200 pages of hilarious, raving insanity.  Philip Ardagh lampoons Victorian story conventions, populates it with outlandish and anarchic characters, and often pokes his head through the fourth wall to say hello as well.  It was an eye-opening, I-didn't-know-they-had-it-this-good sort of book.

There were two more books in the Eddie Dickens Trilogy (about a hapless Victorian youngster with a deranged family), and another trilogy, The Further Adventures, came along after that.  This is the last book in that series, and one I've been meaning to get around to for ages.

It takes place at Awful End – that's Eddie's family home, where he must contend with his parents, his Mad Uncle Jack, his Even Madder Aunt Maud (and her stuffed stoat, Malcolm), a platoon of retired army men, various guests, doctors, criminals, and a parade of "wandering theatricals" who want to perform a play about Eddie's life.  The plot is actually a little low-key by Eddie Dickens standards, which is to say that while it does feature duplicitous robbers, elderly midgets and a surprise attack with a cabbage cannon, it doesn't stray very far from the house or its regular characters.

In all honesty, this isn't my favourite of the lot, but it is funny and clever, and while it does mention a lot of events from previous books, it's not necessary to know any of them inside-out.  Ardagh is generous with reminders and explanations, and while it's nice to look back on the series as a whole, it probably makes as much sense if you've never read any of them.

The Time Traveler's Wife
By Audrey Niffenegger

This is a popular one, or so I'm guessing from the number of "How far have you got?"s and "Are you confused yet?"s I received from colleagues while I was reading it.  The Time Traveler's Wife is also the (unofficial) basis for a fair chunk of Doctor Who episodes, so it seems like a good one for me to read.

It's about Henry, who time-travels at random, appearing naked at various times and places (mostly) in his own lifetime.  His life is intertwined with that of Clare, his wife-to-be, who met him when she was six.  He didn't meet her until he was twenty-eight, however; he filled in the blanks later.  Their relationship has simultaneously not happened yet, and happened already, depending who you ask, and when.

Told in first-person from both Clare and Henry's perspectives, The Time Traveler's Wife requires some concentration, but it's really not too difficult to piece it all together.  I enjoyed working it out, and the amount of detail Audrey Niffenegger lavished on her central idea.  Granted, we never really understand why Henry is time travelling – though it's apparently a genetic disorder and some science is used to explain it, it's still a pretty giant conceit and one you just have to go with.  But the everyday details are what's important, such as Henry's constant struggle to stay clothed and fed, matter-of-factly ignoring the law as he goes.  The concept is never taken for granted.

On the other hand, a few things go strangely unexplored.  There's the question of determinism, i.e. whether Henry and Clare ever independently fell in love with each other.  Since they both knew more about the other when they met, their relationship is a circle with no beginning.  (In case you're curious, old-Henry getting to know young-Clare isn't altogether creepy – he refrains from any kind of physical stuff, and it doesn't seem like it's his fault that he's such an influence on her life.  But then, is it?)  There's also the issue of changing history, which Henry generally believes to be impossible, and so doesn't bother trying – except one scene has him almost changing what's written on a piece of artwork, until Clare gets frightened and changes it back.  It's suggested they have avoided something terrible here, but what?

Some of the book is beautiful, particularly the pair's latter years, when comings-and-goings are few and far between.  (And some of it is horrifying: Clare's pregnancy might make Stephen King squirm, and some truly harrowing things happen to Henry towards the end.)  However, ultimately I just didn't like Henry or Clare very much.  While it's satisfying that Henry's character has an arc, being somewhat off-the-rails until he meets Clare, he's still not someone I could invest in, being rather aggressive and pretentious.  Clare is largely defined by Henry, but loves him mostly because the universe told her to; something, for me at least, seems to be missing.  They spend the majority of their time having sex, which ultimately felt a little trashy.  Besides them, there's an unwieldy cast of supporting characters, none of whom really stand out.  Juggling their names was harder than reconciling the timelines.

I enjoyed The Time Traveler's Wife mostly for its mechanics, and it's fair to say it kept me interested.  There are some affecting moments.  Overall, though, I didn't love it.  It's often too dark, and too much of it seems puzzlingly pre-ordained.

Doctor Who
The Infinity Doctors
By Lance Parkin

This has been on my shelf for 16 years, unread, like a lot of Doctor Who books.  (There's a bit of a backlog.)

Starring a non-specific Doctor and very few other familiar characters, The Infinity Doctors was meant to celebrate the show's 35th anniversary.  Besides being released in the same week as the big day, I'm not sure it's successful.

It's unclear where and when this is set, but I'm assuming a parallel universe, where the Doctor never left his home planet to have adventures in the TARDIS (though he has left occasionally, and he still quite likes Earth).  It's quite interesting seeing the Doctor as a figure of authority and respect among the Time Lords, and not (as we know him) a reluctantly-tolerated nuisance.  He's a placid, calm Doctor, similar (in appearance) to Christopher Eccleston.  That's how I imagined him.  Lance Parkin said he looks like Paul McGann, but oh well.

The Doctor is trying to make peace between the Sontarans (angry potato-people) and the Rutans (angry metamorphic squid-things), which goes surprisingly well until something happens to threaten the entire universe.  The Time Lords must stop someone at the end of time from using a rip in space-time to alter everything in the cosmos.  The threat is very big, but also very vague.  Naturally the Doctor is the only one up to the challenge.  This involves a startling amount of science and techno-babble.  If I had to pick an era of Doctor Who this actually celebrates, I'd pick 1981, when the plots were rather dry and complicated.  Back then, even Tom Baker looked confused.

Spoiler alert: the villain is Omega, a renegade Time Lord trapped in a black hole.  You may remember him from a story called The Three Doctors, where virtually the same plot happened.  Omega wants to escape the singularity, but this is impossible as his mind is projecting the world around him.  He needs a replacement, and the Doctor will do.  Meanwhile he wants to use the singularity to wreak havoc on our universe.  So far, that's The Three Doctors.  But instead of three Doctors bickering with one other, we've got one rather nondescript Doctor and a couple of love interests: a Time Lord called Larna, who also acts as a pseudo-companion, and the Doctor's dead wife.  (A surprising amount is revealed about the Doctor's past, but it's all just as vague as Omega's master-plan.)  I kept waiting for the story to go in a radical direction away from The Three Doctors, but apart from some plotty window-dressing, it never did.

Besides redressing a plot that wasn't very interesting the first time, and not putting a brand new Doctor to very good use, The Infinity Doctors has the problem of being set on Gallifrey.  This is a planet so stiflingly uninteresting that the Doctor's decision to leave formed the entire basis of Doctor Who.  Recast as a friendly academic on his home turf, this Doctor rarely lights up the story.  His fellow Time Lords are a less than fascinating bunch, including (presumably) a non-evil version of the Master, who is nice to the point of obsolescence.  I can't quite see any of this as a "celebration" of Doctor Who, unless your favourite bits involved abstract dream sequences, or characters hammering at controls and yelling instructions.

What's good about it?  Well, it's often nicely written, with some prodding at the fourth wall, presumably because it's an anniversary.  The Sontaran/Rutan peace talks are a highlight, particularly as they allow the Doctor to take centre stage.  (Twice, thanks to some time-trickery.)  Some of the Time Lord stuff is quite interesting, particularly the less-glamorous parts of their society, although these feel borrowed from Ankh-Morpork.  The front cover and title are both eye-catching; it's a pity there's no attempt to deliver "infinity" Doctors, with the title merely referring to the existence of parallel universes.  It's probably just as well.  When two Doctors do meet in this, they don't bicker.