Friday, 7 October 2016

Doctor Who: The Virgin Novels #14 – Lucifer Rising by Andy Lane and Jim Mortimore

Doctor Who: The New Adventures
Lucifer Rising
By Andy Lane and Jim Mortimore

A popular defence of New Adventures, or at least some of the ones I haven't enjoyed much, is that they're really good at world-building.  The play might not be the thing, but hey, check out the ideas!  And I respect that, sorta.  It's just that for me, unless it's got a coherent plot, or puts its characters on a coherent journey, or ideally both, then all the ideas in the cosmos are still for nought.  That stuff is great, but it's scenery to me.  Like the Doctor once said, angrily to a pirate, what's it for?

Reading Lucifer Rising, I begin to see why people get so excited about world-building.  Here is a world you could almost walk around in, steeped in technical detail and flavour.  Project Eden concerns a number of celestial bodies: Moloch and Belial are linked by a mysterious Bridge, while Lucifer, vast and unknown, blots out everything else.  There are Angels on it, or so they say.  There are only people on Moloch and Belial – they are (at least neurotically) rich, strange, frequently hurt.  Further afield, planets are falling to a mysterious enemy.  There is an atmosphere of growing, but still uncertain fear for the future. (If they only knew.)  It might be scenery, but it's the bloody engrossing kind.

In the course of the novel, I got to know Belial Base very well.  Also the Bridge: host to the book's most visceral and terrifying sequence, when the strand between two worlds up and snaps.  Lucifer remains elusive, to say nothing of the Angels; unless I missed something (and it does sadly happen!), I counted no descriptions of them.  The tumultuous Lucifer, on which we never exactly set foot, undergoes a transformation akin to Arthur C. Clarke's 2010: Odyssey Two.  Doesn't "a warning to all not to disturb the Angels at their worship" sound a little like "ALL THESE WORLDS ARE YOURS—EXCEPT EUROPA. ATTEMPT NO LANDING THERE"?  But I don't mean to point out a borrowed idea or trope.  Lucifer Rising is, at times, obscure in its meaning and imagery – those darn Angels! – but there's a sense of mystery there, of space being a great unknown, and it shares that with Clarke.  Not everything is described, explained or within reach, but it is human to look for it.  That's the way of all good science fiction.

And I think I could begrudgingly appreciate all of that even if the story was just as odd and ethereal.  However – drumroll – it isn't!  There is murder afoot, and perhaps a plot to overthrow Project Eden.  There's a box marked "coherent plot" here: tick!  And we've got Ace back, but we haven't really had time to examine that – we do, or at least we resoundingly begin the process. Oh hey, box marked "coherent journey": that’s tick number two!  Isn't it great to have a book actually get more than one core thing right?

And it's nowhere near as straightforward as I'm making it sound.  Lucifer Rising attacks its goals from some odd, rewarding angles.  We witness the TARDIS's arrival through the neat literary trick of security camera footage (tweaked and occasionally rewound!), but we skip the bit where the Doctor and co. ingratiate themselves.  This might seem an odd omission, but it has the effect of putting us in the crew's shoes, leaving the Doctor's involvement as tenuous and yet strangely convincing to us as it is to them:

"With dawning amazement, she realized that he wasn't part of the Belial Base complement, and even as she did so she knew that it wasn't the first time she had remembered that.  She tried to recall how he came to be there, but the memories were soft and fuzzy, and her mind didn't want to focus upon them.  She couldn't seem to look away from his eyes.  It was as if he and his friends had always been there.  Had always been there."

The Doctor's influence is a sore point for Ace, and for Bernice by proxy.  It's only natural for Lucifer Rising to be a novel where that comes out.

"'It's you, isn't it?' [Bernice] said with a sudden realisation.  'Wherever we land, people accept us. I've always wondered why ... And now you're out of the way, whatever spell you've put on them is fading.'
He just smiled sadly.
'And do you do the same to Ace and me?  Do you blind us to your faults?'"

Almost needless to say, the Doctor is blamed for the murders and his mysterious arrival is seen as evidence.  You’ve heard that one a hundred times.  But this time, it's really under the microscope.  And it's not your run of the mill murder plot, with the Doctor and the investigator eventually conspiring to flush out the real criminal.  It's an all the more satisfying hunt.

But, with all due respect, the novel's real strength isn't the plot.  It's character.  There is an enormous cast here and considerable effort is expended to make them real.  The first death, Paula, isn't just the (hugely evocative) opening scene – its effects are felt throughout, as grief rebounds off the various other crewmen for various reasons.  Everyone loses or has lost someone: Miles his daughter, Cheryl her lover, Piper her husband, Alex his whole family... the symbolism of Angels, and what they represent to the troubled individuals on Belial, often resounds.  These are not all nice or even good people, and they can do questionable things, but you're in there with them, as wrapped up as you are in the world.  One of my favourite bits is a montage of insomnia and dreams that covers seemingly everyone.  There are many insights including flashbacks, and all of them add organically to the story.

Okay, before I get carried away, it needs saying: there's isn't enough character development for everybody.  There are loads of people on Belial, which can necessitate sheer lists of names, jobs and nationalities.  We're still meeting people in the closing chapters, and some cannot hope to make an impression.  It can be, if not jumbled, at least a bit crowded at times.

And then there's IMC.  The book's antagonists are an unscrupulous group who'll stop at nothing to strip-mine Lucifer (which is sort of like what Project Eden is already doing, actually, except much more aggressive), and yeah, there's absolutely no question of who's doing the antagonising here.  One of the first IMC characters we meets counts their prior engagements in severed ears; later on, goons sit belligerently about watching porn (!), and one of them comes within a hair's breadth of sexual assault, because... evil, presumably.  It's easily the most disappointing thing about the novel, though to be fair, there is very little competition.  (And neither of the authors came up with IMC anyway.)

Still, IMC have an unfortunate knock-on effect.  Ace's loyalties are tested here – and if you've not read Lucifer Rising, you can go ahead and skip this paragraph.  Ace (all gone? We good?) is really working for (last chance...) IMC from the future, who are more morally ambiguous.  She has used the Doctor to manipulate Project Eden for later tactical advantage, which is a morally grey and, well, pretty bloody interesting modus operandi.

(Quick tangent: the blurb says it was Bernice's idea to investigate the suddenly-abandoned work on Lucifer.  I never picked up on that, and indeed the plot seems to pinpoint Ace as the catalyst.  Also, apropos of nothing, that's also the plot of The Pit.)

She's still angry at the Doctor for the events on Heaven (oh hey, running theme, Heaven, Hell... yeah I just noticed it, I'll get me coat), and it's an incredible twist to put her in the opposite position, manipulating him for a change.  She feels justified, not just because she's mad as hell but because IMC aren't cut-and-dried evil.  Well, in theory: the ones we meet in Lucifer Rising unequivocally, disappointingly are.  Even Legion, the unearthly captain of the IMC's flagship, cannot morally grey things up for long, as a bald, obese lady Adjudicator who is specifically more evil than the other Adjudicator turns up to steal its thunder.  Ace's story still works, but this particular aspect aims for grey and comes off oddly black and white.  But hey, I guess something had to tip her off that she'd bet on the wrong horse.

I don't want to undersell Ace's journey, so a few words on the rest of it: it ain't over.  And a few more: her discomfort and rivalry with Bernice, which seemed such an odd note in Deceit, becomes central here.  It pushes her away from the Doctor, then becomes a point of pride. ("Ace gazed levelly at the woman, savouring the taste of jealousy that Bernice had left behind her: a dark and bitter envy of the depth of the relationship that still existed between Ace and the Doctor.")  The Doctor gets a taste of his own meddling, and ultimately takes a life, unambiguously, gun in hand; in that moment, he sees little difference between manipulation and the real thing.  Which is refreshingly honest, and bloody dark, is it not?  Ace can trust him a little more in the wake of that, which helps explain why she's back with him.  Another reason is that she's calling the shots, or at least more so now.  And oh, all right, she begins to see the Doctor's point of view, and a few scales fall from her eyes over the Jan affair.  Which feels rather earned, because that relationship made sense contextually, but yeah, a lot of it was a reaction to the Doctor.  Jan was sort of a dick.

Bernice is less involved, or at least has less of a hook in the story (despite that blurb), but that's not to say she's poorly written.  File Lucifer Rising under "Good Benny writing", with the requisite confidence, modesty, sarcasm and booze.  There's not a lot to her yet, but it's good when all the ingredients show up.  She has that certain ease with the Doctor, the sense of two smart and witty people just getting on, which was such a gem in The Highest Science.  (There's too much to quote, but there's some zingy banter on pages 101-102.)  There's some decent character development for her, including a delightfully frank complaint about how time travel robs archaeology of its meaning, and of course there's a climactic glut of the stuff for all three regulars at the end.  I'm still not convinced it's a great idea to drive a wedge between Ace and Bernice, but I'll be keeping an eye on it.  I'll probably always wonder how she'd be progressing if Ace had planted roots by now, but at present, both hold my interest.

And the Doctor? Trickster and manipulator as per usual, he's nonetheless surprised and a little shaken by Ace, among other things.  And yet after all that, he still finds time to work a little influential magic on Earth's future, and his own past.  We get under his skin with all that hypnotic effect stuff, but there's plenty of whimsy too, including his extensive pin collection.  There's some downright lovely writing for the Doctor, among others. Here's an easy highlight:

"Perhaps it was the white Panama hat perched upon his head like a nesting bird; perhaps the fact that beneath its brim, like two large, round eggs, his eyes were bright and full of joyful intelligence.  Whatever it was, the sum of all the individual details added up to a personality shining with the conviction that, whatever the situation, whatever the galaxy, it could be grasped as firmly and immediately as the crooked handle of his umbrella."

Lucifer Rising was co-written, and due credit to its co-conspirators: it's seamless.  The only hint of a gestalt is the occasional leaning towards the evocatively visceral, and then to the wistful and beautiful, or the scientific and clever, or the ethereal and intangible... and actually, sod it, I can't tell who's who.  But it works, and a rich tapestry is the result.  It's a world-builder that leaves some things to the imagination, then describes others in bone-shattering detail.  Its people are driven and unhappy and real, apart from the few that aren't.  (D'oh.)  The Doctor, Ace and Bernice have all grown at the end of it, which is the mark of something substantial.  And as it happens, bloody good.



  1. 1. Ace is ridiculous in this. Boring, psychopathic, narrow-minded. She is completely disinterested in the cool stuff and only wants to shoot things up: she even joins the bad guys at one point because she is still sulking about Jan and the fact that the Doctor has some secrets from her. I seriously think some of the New Adventure authors never watched Sophie Aldred. And nowadays everyone can here how personable, humane and interesting she still is in Big Finish. Ace could disagree with the Doctor and run with the Cheetahs, but she was all about freedom: she would have despised the militaristic cruelty and institutional authority of the sort of army portrayed in these novels. Sure she was a violent maniac for bombs, but that is part of being a revolutionary anarchist, not a soldier for the human empire.

    2. Bernice gets all the good companion lines. She even gets to hide inside a food-dispensing robot. She is not as interesting as in Love and War or White Darkness however.

    3. The Doctor is all right in this one. Except for when he uses a gun at one point and contradicts everything said in both Classic Who and Nuwho. So much for "the man who never would."

    4. There is an entire chapter devoted to an almost incomprehensible description of Ace and a bunch of scientists descending a collapsing monofilament bridge-thingy between the moons. It just goes on and on and I lacked the patience to make any sense of it other than that there was a disaster movie scene and I had to get through it.

    5. Nonetheless the overall science fiction ideas are intriguing and wonderfully impossible. Then half-way through an equally impossible alien race, the Legion, is added into the mix: they dwell in multiple dimensions beyond ours.

    6. I liked the political and corporate intrigue and how the Doctor foiled everything. Of course, some weird aliens also fixed things in the end. The Indian mysticism was fit in well enough too.

    7. The inhabitants of the space base are completely unlikable and neurotic. At one early point there was a passing reference to some gaudy jewelry, ornate robes and puffy sleeves: I excitedly thought that perhaps these were references to the wonderful costumes of “Robots of Death,” but the author seems to hate clear and complete description, so I have no idea yet. (I hate the fact that nearly every novelist devotes paragraphs to painstakingly describing the Doctor and the Tardis: we know this already!! Describe your world and your new characters already!!)

  2. Ooh, I think we're going to disagree here! White flag of truce is all ready to go...

    1. I think it's fine to give Ace a bit of closure on her anger with the Doctor. Yes, we could say she'd got it sorted during her army downtime, but she's not usually one to get over things on the quick, is she? It is a bit outlandish that she out-plans the Doctor for some of this, and obviously the thing about switching sides, but I think that's a fair point in the ongoing who-controls-whom story of the Doctor and Ace. If this was the end of it, great; except oddly, it isn't. Her moaning will continue. (My own comment about her not getting over stuff is *already* coming back to bite me?!)

    2. She's fantastic. And I loved her self-rescue in White Darkness, but then I also loved her here.

    3. Obvious point of contention, this one. Again, as part of the saga of the Doctor and Ace, I think it's fair game. The whole point is to humble the Doctor to his Machiavellian bullshit, and a direct way to do that is to put him in her shoes. They're all on a more equal footing at the end; he can't keep pulling the same shit on Ace. But I fully understand that for many readers it just won't fly, period.

    4. Ohh, I don't know what to say here – I loved this chapter to bits. Absolutely visceral and terrifying. I didn't have trouble visualising it. Different strokes, I guess!

    5. Yep. It's cool.

    6. Yep!

    7. Hmm – another fork in the road. I'd agree there's not a lot of likeability on the base, but I just thought it made the people recognisably human. Alex, for example. Ostensibly a difficult prick, he's got reasons for being the way he is. I really liked the humanism buried in this one; mixed with so much sci-fi, it felt like a real novel. (Difficult to say things like that without accidentally implying "...unlike this bunch of lame-o fan fiction" about the rest!)

    I didn't notice the costume stuff. And I did rather like the early description of the Doctor (quoted above); I don't mind them giving it at least one go per book, because well, not every single reader is joining this show already in progress.