Monday, 3 October 2016

Doctor Who: The Virgin Novels #10 – Transit by Ben Aaronovitch

Doctor Who: The New Adventures
By Ben Aaronovitch

Before reading any New Adventures, I tried to get a broad idea of which ones were well-liked and which weren't.  (That was when I was going to cherry-pick them.  Those were the days!)  Of course certain books were red flagged.  More-or-less everybody loves Love And War, Set Piece, The Also People.  Nobody much likes Timewyrm: Genesys or The Pit.  And then there's Transit Strong feelings on both sides, this one.

Transit is a bloody weird book.  It has plenty of stuff that's really good and plenty of... other stuff.  Is it good?  Er, what is it might be the more apt question.

Ben Aaronovitch's book concerns a futuristic parody of the London Underground: it's much bigger and nastier.  Perhaps inevitably it feels a little like Andrew Cartmel's worst-case-scenario in Warhead, though its denizens seem less upset about the ever-present grime.  Downbeat futurism has been all the rage since Alien (at least!), and Transit's mucky existence chimes with similar visions like Blade Runner and, in its satirical black humour, Red Dwarf.  There are some deliciously funny ideas stuffed into the background, such as a dedicated "Bad News Show" (with a fake holographic host), politician-fluffing Rent-A-Crowds and sleazy, post-wartime Ice Warrior cosplay.  It's almost a full-blown comedy at times, particularly as we follow the everyday miseries of the transit crew, with weirdo names like Credit Card, Lambada, Dogface, Blondie and their boss, Ming The Merciless.  The gradual build-up to a disaster on the line, as a new intergalactic tunnel to Acturus (sic) turns the President and assorted followers into blue smears, makes for a palpably exciting first act even with the Doctor nowhere in sight.

Then the Doctor turns up and, I'll confess, it's here I started to lose my way.  The novel divides into three(ish) threads: the Doctor and a new friend, Kadiatu, investigating the train disaster; Ming's crew doing much the same, dealing with the mutated horrors that are the result; and Benny, possessed by something-or-other, trying to start some sort of revolution with a couple of prostitutes.  The plots never mesh much, and when they do I tend to forget who's met whom.

Aaronovitch's prose is, if nothing else, deliberate.  There are enough unusual words to warrant a glossary at the back, and the dank, futuristic setting makes little concession for the slow-thinker.  You have a lot to get your head around, including technical processes, violent altercations and floridly dismal living conditions.  There are a lot of characters with weird names (see above) and everybody seems to be determined to do something.  I was never in any doubt that Aaronovitch knew what, and why things were happening.  Unfortunately I did not.

As the Doctor and Kadiatu globetrot, and Benny hurls bombs and leads her unwitting co-conspirators somewhere, and the horribly malformed "cake-monsters" of the transit system struggle against Ming and co., my eyes often rolled over prose only tenuously following it.  There was a constant feeling of "Any time you want to let me in on the joke, Ben."  Even the Doctor seems perplexed, as the intelligence behind whatever-is-going-on seems to regard him barely at all.  That isn't normally how he rolls.

Perhaps the most disconcerting element, from which a lot of the confusion spreads, is the-Doctor-and-Bernice, or the lack thereof.  You've only just met the new companion, you're dying to see her in action, and then she's kept apart from the Doctor as much as possible.  Huh?

It probably wasn't Aaronovitch's idea to follow Bernice's introductory story with one that totally side-lines her – more on this in the next paragraph – and to his credit, he makes considerable use of Love And War, referencing scenes and character habits with seasoned familiarity.  Nonetheless, I can't imagine anybody finishing Love And War and not wanting to see how the Doctor and Bernice get on, and that's the opposite of what you get here.  It makes no sense to spend an entire book post-Ace – the next one in particular – ignoring her replacement.

The reason for all of the above is simple: numerous authors (including Ben Aaronovitch) had the chance to come up with The New Companion, and several novels were submitted with them in.  Which seems like a really fun idea, until some bright spark decides that the winner will be the first one out of the gate.  This couldn't exactly be helped, since Paul Cornell helpfully wrote Ace's departure into the story that introduced Bernice Summerfield, but this inevitably meant several books had to hastily crowbar in Cornell's character whilst still making a redundant fuss about their own Design-A-Companion.  If Virgin were really serious about giving each one a chance, Bernice probably shouldn't have gone first.  If they'd already made up their minds before the books were even published, well, was there really much point in commissioning full novels for each character?

Hey ho: Cornell had Bernice, Ben Aaronovitch has Kadiatu.  Given the choice, I'd still pick Bernice.  Kadiatu isn't uninteresting per se; genetically modified and descended from the Lethbridge-Stewarts, there's definitely something fannishly exciting about her, including an ending that prefigures the otherwise (thankfully) irrelevant The Doctor's Daughter.  Despite her relatively broad trappings, she's a person of reasonable depth.  So much so that the Doctor can't help putting her though the motions to follow in Ace's foot-steps.  (Being super strong, she seems an obvious candidate after Miss Nitro-9.)  He's disappointed when she doesn't, and then he reluctantly returns to Miss Third Wheel.

What with The Rewriting Of Doom, the Doctor meets Kadiatu and seemingly forgets Benny exists.  She could be a blue smear on a wall for all he cares, until about halfway through when he bumps into her trying to kill him (due to mind control, which explains her acting like somebody else, because ugh, last minute rewrite!).  Since this whole mess leaves the Doctor looking like a capricious jerk, maybe there ought to have been a disclaimer at the start?

Still, benefit of the doubt: I could understand some disassociation on the Doctor's part, as he has just lost his closest friend.  You might as well pretend that's what's going on, actually: he even gets drunk at one point.  Elsewhere Ace's shadow looms, or at least peeks over the book.  Two Nitro-9 cans sit in an otherwise empty fridge in the Doctor's house/base of operations from Warhead.  (Incidentally, cool continuity.)  In the mental/technological realm that houses the finale (incidentally, oh dear; not my sort of thing, this), the Doctor is protected by a whole bunch of leather-jacket-wearing explosive experts.  The plural is an explosion of Aces.  She's clearly on his mind, as she should be.  By necessity, Benny isn't: even the epilogue skims over how any of this has affected her (she has killed dozens of people!), preferring to give Kadiatu her sequel-ready grace note.  The only truly Benny-centric plot strand is her attempt to give the Doctor a book, but I confess, I missed where that came to fruition, probably in the last-100-pages dash that only speeds up when I want it over with.

My favourite thing about Transit, besides all the squalid and funny background details, has to be the prologue.  A two-page cutaway that mirrors the story's theme of emergent life, and somewhat literally (towards the end) the life of Kadiatu, it's a perfect vignette, a short story.  That kind of elegance is rarely matched later on, and despite feeling interested in the story's theme – a transit system coming to life – I was too confused by its minutiae to really invest in it.  Ideas like the "cake-monsters", suffering hideous and random deformities but feeling quite chipper about their lot, don't seem to contribute in the end.  A computer system achieving sentience – a fun parallel – is practically thrown away in the aftermath.  And as for the mental realm where the fate of Transit is finally decided, I was so confusticated trying to tally it with the preceding story that any dramatic climax went off like a squib in a pond.  Again I find it difficult not to imagine Aaronovitch in front of his word processor, comprehending every word of this and seeing the connections like a rail map.  I envy him; I was lost.

It's not as incomprehensible as Time's Crucible.  For the most part it's simply a case of characters travelling and plotting and not letting the reader in on it.  Occasionally even they seem to be winging it.  But Aaronovitch's world is still rich enough to enjoy, with much the same lived-in quality that I admired in Warhead.  There's a stark and memorable foulness here, because of course, this is the New Adventure that pushed the boat out.  Sex and swearwords don't make me blush (in print, anyway), but I was still surprised how readily I accepted them here.  It somehow didn't feel like a major progression from what we've already had.  You'll find the odd "bitch" and "bastard" among the Timewyrms, and obviously in Warhead, while heated words (and heated other things) are exchanged in Love And War.  All in all, it suited the world of Transit, where meals are "made out of pet food" and "the one thing that was clear was that you never got out."  There are, quite frankly, more important things to worry about than sex and swearing, though I can understand a sense of controversy about what was (to the world at large) a book for kids.  The New Adventures were obviously moving away from that with a vengeance; any pre-conceived notions would go in time.

Transit is... interesting.  Though muddled, it's far from unreadable.  It's often colourful and hey, memorably unpleasant.  There is probably some rich food for thought concerning emergent life and the difference between us and it, but in my heart, not to mention my distant-but-undeniable headache, I don't feel like Transit really chewed on any of it.


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